The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood by David Simon and Edward Burns is one of the most saddening and inspiring books I’ve ever read. The book follows the lives of residents near the corner of West Fayette and Monroe Streets in West Baltimore over the course of a year in the early 90’s. The authors lay bare how a history of poverty, crime, and drug addiction tore apart the neighborhood, families, and individuals.
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At the center of The Corner is DeAndre McCullough, a man-child faced with major life decisions for which he is ill-prepared. He can get his act together or head down a path that is common in his neighborhood but rife with unhappiness if not destruction.
The other main subjects are his parents, Gary McCullough and Fran Boyd, two addicted but somewhat functioning drug addicts. Ella Thompson, balances out the despair as a beacon of hope whose personal tragic loss became a motivation for doing good.
DeAndre is a smart but floundering young man in dire need of guidance. But, his parent’s struggle with addiction occupies much of their time and has left him to fend for himself.
Gary came from a stable home and was an ambitious and hardworking man before he became addicted. He is the best person to help guide DeAndre through adolescence but is undependable because his main priority is getting high.
Fran and her siblings are continuing the cycle of addiction and instability that they learned from their parents. She is present in DeAndre’s life and makes attempts to instill some structure and guidance. Yet, she rarely follows through and sends mixed messages by sometimes excusing his behavior when it’s beneficial to her.
Ella operates the local community center at which DeAndre and other kids in the neighborhood spend their free time. She is one of the few stable adults in the neighborhood and takes a deep interest in the children.
Within the confines of the center, Ella requires the kids to leave their rough language and behavior on the street. In exchange, they are able to play basketball, work on arts and crafts, and socialize. Requiring the kids to act like children enables them to leave some of their posturing behind and relax.
The center organizes a basketball team to allow the kids to compete in a league against other teams around the city. DeAndre and his friends are passionate about playing but lack discipline. They’re unable to put in the necessary work during practice or to follow the rules of conduct during games. It’s jarring for some of the kids to have any kind of structure so they rebel.
As the kids get older, they spend less time in the safety of the community center. They drift towards hanging out on the street away from responsible adult supervision. The kids mask their insecurities with arrogance which lures many of them in dangerous lifestyles.
The young men who feel neglected at home begin selling drugs as a preteen pastime. It gives them a sense of achievement and opportunity to showcase their toughness. Their pocket money enables them to attract the attention of neighborhood girls.
The young women who are also neglected at home relish in the attention from the neighborhood boys. Feeling that they don’t have much else to offer, they use their bodies to get and keep the boys’ attention.
There’s an emptiness that these kids are trying to fill. Feeling ignored for much of their lives, they desire to matter to someone for even the shortest length of time. This yearning leads these youths to have unprotected sex resulting in unplanned teen pregnancies. The kids fantasize about parenthood but lack the maturity think about long-term consequences. They fail to consider the possible result of adding children to an already precarious social and financial situation.
The boys are fatalists who deep down inside have little hope that they’ll amount to much or live for very long. As a result, they view children as living proof that they existed and confirmation of their manhood.
The girls see children as a way to remain connected to their boyfriends and someone for them to love who in time would need and love them. Once the kids are born many of the fathers drift away. The girls either mature and step up to their responsibilities or hand off the child to relatives as they continue to search for love in the streets.
The unfortunate cycle of children growing up as orphans with living parents continues.
At times there were moments where characters seemed to be on the verge of getting it together. They would make the push to suffer through the hell of withdrawal and regain some faith in the possibility of climbing out of their despair. But then something would happen or someone would come along and they’d fall back into their old habits. I felt disappointment reading about those moments and even anger at times. Then the subjects would offer a glimpse into the disappointment they felt in themselves. They wanted to change but couldn’t make the leap for various reasons. I’d end up feeling uncomfortable about my judgments.
Drug addiction and its impact on communities is a big hairy problem to solve. People are imperfect (and in some cases frustratingly so) but we rise and fall as a society. Labeling individuals with addiction issues as degenerates to be cast aside is not a viable solution. There is a dire need for an improved and thorough understanding of addiction grounded in facts. There is also a need for a method of eradication focused on treatment and prevention rather than punishment.
The Corner doesn’t offer any clear-cut solutions but it might make you revisit and question some of your ideas about addicts and drug use. It made me revisit mine.
The Corner was adapted into a television miniseries for HBO. I watched the series before reading the book and it was actually very good. I’d recommend checking out the series. But, also consider reading the book for more background on the characters. The book also includes detailed explanations of the neighborhood and Baltimore’s history.
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