Around the mid-1990s, the US government decided that the best thing for poor people was that they did not live together and were mixed with middle-class people by either vouchers or housing developments. The thinking behind all of this? The problem with poverty wasn't that people were poor but that they were living with other poor people. The result being, the thinking went, that the poor learned only from the poor, learned from people whose values were no better than their values: food stamps were good, work was too hard, crime could solve some problems, having lots of kids that you can't afford is just fine. If you exposed poor people to the solid values of the middle class (save money, live by a strong work ethic, get married and stick with your partner), their lives would improve.
You realize how wrong this kind of thinking was and still is if you watch the powerful and short (57 minutes) documentary Los Sures about a very poor Puerto Rican community in the mid-1980s. The key scene is this: A community worker, Evelyn, shows up at the scene of an apartment fire. Exhausted-looking firefighters are inspecting the damage. A family is sitting outside and has no idea what to do next. This is the second fire that has happened in their apartment. They have no money. Where are they to go? As the camera (16 mm) roams around the apartment's burned rooms and hallway, we hear the mother of the family tell Evelyn that before even the police showed up, her neighbors and strangers helped her and her family get their lives and few belongings out of the fire. That's all they had: neighbors, strangers, and the street. And she thanks God for that. Yes, the hood is tough, has a bad reputation, and is caught in the middle of the crack epidemic and the economic devastation of Ronald Reagan's anti-labor and anti-welfare revolution, but at least there is the community, people who will help and not judge. This is much more useful to her and her family, which is not small, than exposure to the values of the middle class.
The neighborhood, by the way, is Williamsburg in Brooklyn. There is broken glass everywhere, people pissing in the alleys, junkies in the backyard, and no white people who are not cops. This is Williamsburg before it became the Williamsburg of today—a place that has been cleaned up by the borrowed capital of developers and transformed by forms of consumption that define middle- and upper-class white Americans. In 1984, gentrification has hit only Manhattan, and Brooklyn is still its own planet, still a place populated by poor people of color. We see them stealing cars, running chop shops, smoking dope, dancing in the street to Latin grooves, shopping with food stamps, eating Wonder Bread, worrying about their teenage daughters, looking for work, going to church and watching spiritual possessions.
We also see them breakdancing on the sidewalks and listening to Run-D.M.C. on boom boxes. Hiphop is young at this moment and mostly ignored by the mainstream. For many of the teenagers in this neighborhood, it is the only hope, the only chance they have to make something out of their lives. We see the young men have only two choices: hiphop or a life of crime. Los Sures reminds us that hiphop in its youth was for many not just about pleasure, but a matter of life-and-death. It also reminds us that the poor need each other more than they need instructions and examples from those in the classes above them.