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Drug Culture In Boston: The Corner

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Major Takeaways from Simon and Burns’ The Corner

What’s so special about a few city blocks in West Baltimore? David Simon and Edward Burns did a year’s worth of investigative journalism on the open-air drug market on that corner and the lives of the people it impacted. The Corner is not a book for the faint of heart, but it takes a deeper examination into our drug war crisis, and explores what it means to be human on one of the hundreds of thousands of drug corners in America today.

The Existential Crisis of the Corner

When we think drug trafficking we think highly organized rings, territories, and rich and mysterious gangsters like Al Capone. That’s an outdated perception. Today’s drug dealers are adolescent high school dropouts, and there’s none of that highly secretive distribution either– the drugs are in the open. In the 1960s, dealers didn’t take their own product– now, drug dealers are also drug users. Violence, too, is up– the highly planned assassinations of the past are replaced with impulsive teenagers shooting at whoever made them angry and whatever bystanders are on the street. Why the change? The spread of cocaine in the mid-1980s opened up a new level of addiction. It was a powerful drug. When before only the men were hardcore users, now there were outsiders– women and suburban folk. Dealers started hiring children to spread their product– they could take jail time in a juvenile detention center better than an adult’s permanent record; the drug market spread, out of the back alleys and into the streets, the schools, and homes. When people started mixing heroin and cocaine for the ultimate high, the drug complex was here to stay.

Now, the drug market has grown beyond the economic transaction of buying and selling. It has become a culture in and of itself. For many people on the urban street corner, the drug trade has become their life. It has become much more than just the feeling of chemical bliss, but a kind of belonging, a kind of spirituality. The drug culture envelops a person, offering to them a place and a purpose when the rest of society has little use for the multitude of lowly-skilled workers in that community. That, argues Simon and Burns, is the ultimate reason why it is so hard to turn away.

The War on Drugs and Police Work

On the side of the police, this is total, unavoidable war. Simon and Burns gives the example of the paper bag for liquor– in most cities, public consumption of alcohol is not permitted, but in each community there are dozens of people doing it. For a policeman, there’s a dilemma: spend all your time tracking down drinkers on the street and throwing them in jail (missing the cases that really matter, like rape or murder), or ignore this petty crime– leading to people thinking they can get away with all kinds of illegal activities. When drinkers started widespread use of the paper bag in the 1960s, however, it provided a solution. A bottle of liquor, hidden in a paper bag, showed a policeman some respect. Unspoken rules dictated that drinking without it would insult the police, and policemen left the paper bags alone to work on more important police business.

There is nothing like the paper bag for drugs. Anyone seen selling drugs gets arrested. Anyone seen buying drugs gets arrested. Anyone seen taking drugs gets arrested. In fact, the lack of something like a paper bag has produced a social divide between addicts and the rest of the community– “dope fiends” are people to be vilified and put in jail. Instead of focusing on armed robberies and shootings, police on the corner are stretched thin by mass arrest. Prisons overfill with people convicted of drug sales or possession, but with every addict you take off the street and put in jail, another steps into his place. There is a financial drain– building more prisons, staffing, feeding and clothing the prisoners, and medical care– but with all the money that goes into the system, not much happens to win the drug war. With the cocaine epidemic, more men and women enter the drug market every day, and the numbers alone will overwhelm any government efforts to crack down on drug use.

The social impact is this– addicts and dealers, and by extension, anyone who associates with them (their family and neighbors) are not to be trusted. It’s futile to police a community with an economy founded on breaking the law, and rather than serving the neighborhoods they patrol, policemen fill their quota of daily arrests (there is profitable overtime money to be had in bringing a drug addict to court). They develop a disconnect with the residents of these neighborhoods, and become cynical and sometimes brutal. It’s not only about race, either– sometimes black officers can be even more brutal than white officers, illustrating the class-consciousness the drug war brings forward. Worse, while police are busy with arrests, crime rates soar.


Teenage pregnancy rates in the most impoverished areas of the cities far exceed the rest of the country. Democrats have chalked it up to the lack of sex ed, shortage of contraceptives, and low  access to abortion clinics. Republicans push for welfare reform, saying we can’t incentivize low-income families to have lots of children for the government money. They’re not getting to the root of the issue, and that, according to Simon and Burns, is expectations– or the lack of expectations. For previous generations before the invasion of the drug trade, low-income black families still tried to achieve the goal of marriage and a functioning nuclear family. Coming to work in the factories of the North, societal structure like black churches, community groups, and secure marriages kept teenagers under the guardianship of the community and their parents. As the structure of the black American family fragmented under the influence of heroin and cocaine, however, normal expectations was stripped away until teenagers were left with only their desires and the societal expectations of the corner.

Those expectations look like this: what makes a boy popular on the corner is how tough he is and how much he can make from slinging drugs. The same skills makes the boy popular with the girls, and once a girlfriend is found, dating becomes an exchange. For a boy, it’s measurable proof of personal worth how much you can afford to buy expensive clothes and jewelry for your girlfriend. For a girl, you’re expected to reciprocate with giving your affections and your body. As for pregnancy, babies are very much wanted by both parties. Teenage boys lead a dangerous life of crime, always under the threat of death or imprisonment– a child would carry his name and his legacy. Teenage girls get a sense of personal validation and all the love a child would give to its mother. For these teenage parents, it is an initiation into manhood or womanhood. On some level, these boys and girls still have  ideals and hold responsibilities to be a good, caring father or mother, to finish high school and get a job, to quit breaking the law. But as weeks pass, they go back to the corner, leaving the child in the care of a grandparent. And as the drugs lure them further and further away from their kids as they grow into adulthood, they ignore them to pursue their addiction. The end result is that these mothers and fathers never fully become responsible for their children, and the cost is the endless cycle of poverty and harm.


Simon and Burns argue that for the children of the corner, better education will not work. Better books and more funding to the school system may help a few more, but for the vast majority of the corner children, the lack of education isn’t the problem. You simply cannot educate a child who’s unwilling to learn. By middle school, they already know that the subjects they are covering in school– math, science, history, and even experimental classes focused on job training and interview skills– simply do not apply to the rules of the corner. You do not need soft skills, or the ability to read, or whatever the classroom teaches you, to distribute a package of dope or to know when the cops are coming. For these kids, the corner life is the reality and whatever education leads to is the fantasy. From their environment, they know that the adults with a high school diploma are in the same welfare lines as the ones who dropped out a little early, they’re buying the same drugs and living the same addict life. What’s the point?

The few kids who actually try to stay ahead of their studies are shut down and ostracised by their peers, and the result is low participation from everyone and failing grades. Combine that with social promotion– moving kids up to a higher grade level, not based on passing or achieving, but based on age and behavior. With kids who have given up, teachers need to pass a class year after year even when they show no signs of improvement. Otherwise, the kids coming up from a grade lower will have no chance to learn– with all the older kids who were held back terrorizing them, fighting for the control of the classroom, or refusing to learn. But passing everyone makes graduating almost meaningless– graduates still lack the skills to succeed in the workforce and are consigned to the corner.


There are two truths to welfare. One is the truth that it does lift some families out of slumps– that some find it in themselves to save their couple hundred dollars a month from the government and use it little by little to get themselves out of poverty and into a steady job. But the other truth is, once check day comes, the majority is spent on drugs and is gone before half the month is over. Even food stamps can be traded in the corner for drug money. Instead, where welfare money is the most effective is crime prevention. When addicts can pay for their heroin or cocaine, they will not rob, steal, or shoplift to get the money to pay. For the first couple weeks after government checks are handed out, there are less burglaries as addictions are fueled. It’s a delicate balance– any less welfare money would mean more crime, more robberies and violence, requiring more police and jails and hospitals– and any more welfare money would mean an increase in drug trafficking as people can afford some extra coke or dope.

As for work requirements– mandating that to qualify, you have to look for a job and find one within a certain amount of time– they fail to take into account how unemployable the people in the poorest urban corners are. Black families moved to cities in the 1950s to work in northern factories and neighborhoods sprung up– gentrified and segregated, yes, but teeming with a sense of community. As they got entangled in the drug culture of the ‘70s and ‘80s, the factories closed or downsized, replacing their workforce with machines, and the neighborhoods were left behind to decay. The families that could leave, left to pursue other opportunities and those who stayed behind were caught in the culture of the corner. Minimum-wage jobs are few, and it’s easier for a high school dropout to make money by selling heroin than to compete for work with the others. People with a drug habit or a criminal record are continually being turned down by employers in favor of someone else. The sad truth is: there are no longer any meaningful, permanent jobs for these people.


After decades of mass arrests and zero-tolerance policies, police and politicians have finally realized that building more jails and pumping more money into the prison system won’t do anything. Instead, what we find authorities advocating today is treatment and recovery. Law enforcement marries medical care in this arrangement– we arrest the addicts and instead of sending them to jail, we order them to a detox center to get cleaned up. It’s called a court-ordered rehab sentence, and the idea is to meet the problem demand-side beginning with the addiction. This all sounds good, but it doesn’t work. For many drug addicts, mandatory detox is just something to undergo to give their heroin-laden cells a rest. Then it’s back to heavy use. Sure, there are success stories where someone with a court-ordered rehab sentence picked their lives back together and got clean, but the vast majority of those who permanently benefitted from detox programs willed it themselves, with or without the court order.

For those addicts, the road looks like this: after years of free-fall, of denying your family and cheating your friends, of shame for yourself, you have reached a turning point where you realize that you are helpless and there is no longer a choice. After purging the drugs from your body, you vow to never go back there again. You go to one Narcotics Anonymous meeting after another, always struggling with the idea of picking your habit back up. Through sheer force of will, you’ve made it. You’re in recovery. But what then? It might have been in high school when you first went to the corner and started using. At thirty-five or forty years old, you look around and realize that life has to be picked back up from where you’ve left off. You know what you shouldn’t do: start taking or selling drugs again, steal, or rob. But besides that, what should you do? Society doesn’t have much of an answer.

The War On Drugs Goes On

The Corner is a deep, thought-provoking book that asks all of the questions and gives none of the answers. It offers no advice on how to solve the problem of America’s corners. We understand the heart of the issue to be a spiritual one– how can Americans living in the culture of the corner find meaning and fulfillment outside of what the corner provides? It is much more than the arrests of drug dealers or constant rehab, it is much more than pouring money into welfare or the education system. This has to do with some of society’s weakest, most needy individuals struggling with their purpose in an existence where their purpose has been phased out of use.

Can we ever find a solution? I do not think a complete one is possible. Law enforcement, judges, teachers, and medical professionals in the most drug-infested areas of America are up against the most basic human desire. The odds are enough to make one give up and avoid the issue altogether. We won’t have to deal with them if we just keep moving away to the better neighborhoods and to the suburbs where it’s safe. But if the corner is ignored, what then? We have spent decades– arguably centuries– alienating the people who populate these street corners. There exists an emotional disconnect between the people of the corner and ordinary taxpayers, a chasm that grows wider every year. And if the gulf expands to a point where we cannot see eye-to-eye with the other as a human being, that is the point where unspeakable horrors are committed.

Whatever we do, we cannot lose sight of the fact that the drug culture of the corner is our culture and the Americans who are victims of it are our people. As much as overcoming addiction is a personal act, the fight against the destructive effects of the corner is a collective act. Instead of separating ourselves from them, the forces should combine. If the people of the corner are called to struggle on and hold firm in faith, so should we.

What’s so special about a few city blocks in West Baltimore? David Simon and Edward Burns did a year’s worth of investigative journalism on the open-air drug market on that corner and the lives of the people it impacted. The Corner is not a book for the faint of heart, but it takes a deeper examination into our drug war crisis, and explores what it means to be human on one of the hundreds of thousands of drug corners in America today.

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