Book by Martin Sanchez-Jankowski, 2008

Reviewed by Cheryl Melney in April 2009 Research Update

Martin Sanchez-Jankowski, the author of Cracks in the Pavement, took a very serious approach in his research of poor neighborhoods. He spent nine years immersed in fieldwork, where he studied five different poor neighborhoods, three in New York (the Bronx and Brooklyn, not NYC), and two in Los Angeles. He stayed with families who live in crowded social housing, and he spent his days interacting with people in a number of different social settings. 

In Cracks in the Pavement, Sanchez-Jankowski focuses specifically on five different social institutions in poor neighborhoods, these being:

  • Social housing complexes;
  • ‘Mom and Pop’ grocery stores;
  • Barber shops and Hair Salons;
  • Gangs; and
  • Schools

Sanchez-Jankowski’s work clarifies many misconceptions about the poor that previous researchers have made, such as the assumption that poor neighborhoods are naturally disorganized. He points out that many poor neighborhoods are in fact quite organized and have social rules and accepted behaviors that are generally understood within the neighborhood. He also points out how adaptable poor neighborhoods are to the many outside forces that affect them.
What is most interesting about this book is that Sanchez- Jankowski is able to immerse the reader into the neighborhoods he studies. There are many anecdotes and quotes from the residents, which help you “get to know” the people in this book, and give a sliver of understanding about their lives. This book is also very respectfully written. Sanchez-Jankowski himself grew up in a poor neighborhood, so he is better able to understand how to interact with people appropriately. 

This book also explores power relations amongst social institutions and in the neighborhoods. For example, in one community, the housing board who runs the social housing sometimes allow people into the housing complex that do not actually qualify, such as new immigrants, because they are considered likely to pay their rents. This choice not only excludes people who actually do qualify for housing, in one neighborhood it also created conflict between recent Mexican immigrants and Mexican families who were born in the United States.

Cracks in the Pavement is interesting from a social policy perspective in that it helps us better understand how various policies can affect the delicate makeup of poor neighborhoods. This book is written about American neighborhoods, so of course some the issues are not applicable in Canada. However, the characteristics of resilience and creativity cross over to all people who have had to survive in economic hardship and deprivation, and this book really gave me a sense of admiration for the people whose lives it depicts.


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