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Bridging Racial Divides In 'Cosmopolitan Canopies'

Apr 4, 2011 (Talk of the Nation)

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Cosmopolitan Canopy book cover In The Cosmopolitan Canopy, Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson takes readers on a tour of Philadelphia's Center City, where he says locals interact across racial lines.

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In diverse cities across the nation many Americans have adopted a "pervasive wariness" of one another, says sociologist Elijah Anderson. In his book, The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Every Day Life, Anderson writes that too often, people "divert their gazes, looking up, looking down, or looking away, and feign ignorance of the diverse mix of strangers they encounter."

But in Philadelphia's Center City, Anderson, a professor of sociology at Yale University, has found a place that offers a respite from that well-ingrained wariness. The city's Reading Terminal, with its bustling multi-ethnic market and busy lunch counters, offers a neutral space where all kinds of people feel comfortable enough to drop their usual defenses and interact with total strangers.

Which is exactly what happened to Anderson one afternoon at Reading Terminal's Down Home Diner, where a man visiting from Sacramento "gets a pancake or two, sits down next to me, and we chat." In a very short time, the man, who was white, told Anderson, who is African-American, that he "has friends who are white supremacists ... And he's amazed at the civility, the diversity, the wide range of different kinds of people he sees, and the civility that is palpable at the Terminal."

Anderson calls these spaces "cosmopolitan canopies," places where diverse people gather, and feel comfortable striking up sometimes surprisingly intimate conversations. "It's really a point of cultural convergence," Anderson tells NPR's Neal Conan, "where all different kinds of people ... call 'time out' on the segregated and sometimes quite contentious areas" outside of those melting pots.

Rittenhouse Square is another Philadelphia location where Anderson says locals transcend the racial divides apparent in other areas of the city. "You have older people gathering together. You have mothers with kids in tow, you have nannies, you have business people, you have black homeboys, you have the homeless," says Anderson. "It's a mixed bag, but the one thing that characterizes this space is civility. Civility across racial lines."

Too often, says Anderson, when Americans discuss urban life, they tend to overemphasize their differences, particularly in segregated cities. Seeing people interact so comfortably in these canopies, says Anderson, can remind us that "blacks and whites and other kinds of people get along more so than we would imagine.

"This is not a panacea for race relations," Anderson acknowledges. "But it ... really is an ethnographic study of how we, as people, as American citizens, get along. And it may well foreshadow the kinds of things that we'll have to do to build a more inclusive and diverse society."

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