Shaping a neighborhood from strangers; Urban Danger: Life in a Neighborhood of Strangers, by Sally Engle Merry. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. $18.95
"Neighbors" and "strangers" are opposites, according to the dictionary, but in modern urban life they are often the same ting. Sally Engle Merry, a professor of sociology at Wellesley College, explores that paradox in this useful study. She bases her findings on the dangers perceived by residents of a housing project in the northeastern United States.To ensure their privacy, she has changed the names of the city, the complex, and the people.
The residents are roughly 50 percent Chinese, 25 percent black, 10 percent white, and 10 percent Hispanic, with the rest composed of other ethnic groups. They voice concern about all kinds of "danger," from noise and litter to loss of a sense of community, but crime is their (and the book's) uppermost concern.
Not suprisingly, the residents are most afraid of youths they don't recognize and racial or ethnic groups with whom they have least contact. Ignorance of other cultures exacerbates tensions, the author finds. The Chinese, for instancE, believe that "confrontation is to be avoided at all costs, even when someone else is clearly in the wrong." Black consciousness, on the other hand, encourages assertiveness to help redress grievances and to gain the respect of others.
Integration of housing projects is not enough to remedy that problem, the author concludes. A true neighborhood requires more than friendship between isolated individuals. Full-scale cooperation among entire ethnic communities is the key.
While some of the book's statistics need further explanation, and while the observations occasionally hover dangerously close to stereotypes ("Hispanic families have simpler furnishings, with overstuffed chairs sheathed in protective plastic"), Merry offers what is, on balance, an engaging and informative book. She shows us that our perceptions have more bearing than we might think on the security of urban life.