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Delinquent and Criminal Subcultures - The Staging Area

people social street city

The combination of concentrated urban poverty, social isolation, and historical circumstances has contributed to a unique kind of area frequented by the poor and alienated. Young people in particular fill the vacuum left by societal neglect by congregating in places that allow them to act out roles that give them esteem and status among their peers. It is here, in staging areas, that street-oriented groups thrive and their members look for identity (Anderson, 1999).

The staging area, or as described by participants, a "hangout," is a public place where activities occur that set the stage for other activities, which may be played out either on the spot in front of all who have congregated there or (depending on the circumstances) in less conspicuous locations. A thought of burglary or robbery might materialize into a plan. A verbal altercation in a park may be settled with a fight, for example, down a side street. People gather here at all times of the night and day, "profiling" and "representing" the image of themselves by which they wish to be known: they try to present the most valued notion of who they are and how they stand in relation to others. Competition can be fierce, and consequential. Hence, boys and girls, and some "grown" people too, stand around, taking the measure of one another, "looking things over," as they say. In this hangout, "watch your back" takes on literal meaning. Friends bond and reassure one another ("I got your back"), for there are always people in the vicinity looking for opportunities to violate others or simply "to get away with something." In such settings public displays of decency get little respect, and "looking hard" or being taken as meaner than the next person becomes the dominant issue.

Apart from the school, which is in a category by itself (as will be discussed below), three types of staging areas can be distinguished. One is quite local, revolving around neighborhood establishments such as carry-outs, liquor stores, and bars. The staging area may be inside, on a street corner outside, or at a house party with little or no adult supervision (Short and Strodtbeck). Alcohol and drugs are available. A second type consists of business strips where stores cater to street-oriented working-class and poor people. Buzzing with activity, people are drawn from a larger area. The third type—multiplex theaters, sporting events, and concerts—brings together large crowds from throughout the city. These are the most volatile, especially at places such as roller-skating rinks or dances where music, alcohol, and drugs combine with rough crowds of young people inclined to "act out" what they have seen or heard others do, either in films, on recordings, or in person. Some young people are highly suggestive. People from other neighborhoods, outsiders, who come to a staging area and present themselves are said to be "representing" both who they are and the "world" or "hood" from which they hail.

To actively represent, one may be required to fight in public, in an effort that inevitably reflects on one's "name" or the reputation one is building. Moreover, to represent is to place one's area of the city on the line, to say to outsiders, "Hey, this is what's to me [what I am made of] and my neighborhood," compared with other neighborhoods of the city. At sporting events, a school's prestige may be on the line. It is at the staging area that the subculture of the street germinates and grows, nurtured by the tough conditions of this space, including the audiences that live by it, and thus are required to support it. For the boldest young people, it is sometimes necessary to in effect put a chip on one's shoulder and dare others to knock it off, to wage a campaign for respect, but with the added elements of dare and challenge. There are often enough young people in the staging area to provide an audience as well as the critical mass of negative energy necessary to spark violence, not just against people like themselves but also against others present in the staging area, at times creating a critical flash-point for violence.

In staging areas around streetcorners and carryouts, where many drug dealers and corner boys hang out, because of the array of status symbols and their meanings, would-be aggressors are generally inclined to know who is who, who "can fight" and who cannot, who has nerve and heart and who is a chump. Around these settings, in various social arenas, and on the streets more generally, the chump gets little or no respect, and those who resemble this model most often get pushed around, picked on, tried or tested, and ultimately most often become frequent victims of robbery and gratuitous violence, serving a purpose for those who would campaign to stand superior.

Material things serve as profound symbols, playing an important and complicated role in establishing self-image while representing. Youths typically place a high premium on eyewear, leather jackets, expensive sneakers, and other items that take on significance as status symbols. An impoverished inner-city youth who can acquire these material things is able to feel big and impress others, who may then attempt to relieve him of his property in order to feel big themselves and to impress still others. The wise youths of the neighborhood understand that it is better not to opt for the more expensive items, because they realize that by doing so they make themselves into targets for theft and robbery. Not only must the young person display something of value, but he must also be able to hold on to it. Hence, simply visiting the staging area can be both satisfying and risky. One goes to the "block," the strip, or the concert to see the latest trends, what is happening, who is doing what with whom, who did what to whom, and when.

Further, the staging area is also a densely populated place where young people hang out and look to meet members of the opposite sex. Here young men and women out to be "with it" or "hip" smoke cigarettes or drink "forties" or other alcoholic beverages, or perhaps they are there to get high on "blunts" (drug-laced cigars). Young men may taunt others by joking with them, saying directly, "Now, start something!" as though they are ready for anything. At an event with large crowds from all over the city, heterogeneous groups vie for social position. People can become touchy, and a fight can start over seemingly minor incidents; but what may happen is hardly minor: an injury or death may result, the social order of groups may be altered, and the stage may be set for payback-inspired feuds. With so much at stake a person can easily feel disrespected by another who looks at him or her for "too long," or by simply being cut off in the concession line. Such a "cut," which might also be viewed as an advance at someone's girl-or boyfriend, may be taken as a "statement." Challenging the statement creates a "beef," and a confrontation can erupt. As the situation deteriorates, it may be very difficult for either party to back down, particularly if members of the audience have, or are understood to have, a significant social investment in who and what each participant pretends to be.

Staging area matters often involve retribution, or "payback," and to be prepared for anything, some people carry "equalizers" or "shit"—firearms or other weapons—to staging areas. Because of formal security, most will leave their shit elsewhere, hidden in accessible places to be retrieved when the need arises. A young man with a publicly known beef will feel there is a chance that he will have to go get his shit. His life does not have to be in immediate danger; pride, how he feels about his homies, low feelings, or having gotten the bad end of an altercation may be enough for him to prepare to settle things in order to avenge an earlier beating, or answer a perceived threat.

Although staging areas are often the places where beefs develop and fights to settle them occur, the code of the street germinates, emerges, and grows on the streets, in the alleys, and on the playgrounds of the inner-city neighborhood, where in the interests of social survival small children begin early in life their campaign for respect (Anderson, 1999).

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