Terrell walks home from school on dirt-covered streets past boarded-up homes and empty lots full of trash. The sound of gunshots is common, especially at night. While he doesn’t cause trouble, just being a resident of his Boston neighborhood can prove dangerous.

At the age of 16, Terrell was with a friend at a grocery store when, “some people asked me where I was from, so I told them. And then they pulled out a handgun on us.”

Terrell was able to walk away, but as he told LSA Sociology Professor David Harding, “you gotta watch your back.”  

Terrell’s neighborhood has a strong social identity, says Harding. He lives in Franklin, and that defines his friends, his enemies, where he can safely travel, and what fights he’s expected to join. Harding studied Terrell’s neighborhood and two others for his book Living the Drama: Community, Conflict, and Culture Among Inner-City Boys (University of Chicago Press, 2010).

Harding found that the social structure in Franklin allows these rivalries to be passed down generation after generation. The older boys who understand the dangers of the streets serve as role models for the younger ones. The men and boys provide protection, but they also pass along the conflicts and the expectation that the young boys will help seek revenge and defend their turf. In addition, the advice from the older boys, about how to treat girls and how to succeed in life, often contradicts what teachers, parents, and pastors say.

“The constant threat of violence undermines the messages from adults,” Harding says. Safety is continually on the minds of the boys Harding interviewed, and yet how they protect themselves—forming neighborhood alliances and traveling in groups, for example—actually perpetuates the violence. The cycle appears difficult to break.

A map of Boston's Franklin neighborhood.

This social dynamic was present in both the poor neighborhoods Harding studied, Franklin and Roxbury Crossing. He also interviewed adolescent boys from an inner-city working-class black neighborhood, Lower Mills. The statistics show that the boys from Lower Mills are less likely than the boys from Franklin or Roxbury Crossing to drop out of school, become teen fathers, or become involved in the area’s violence.

One of the reasons, Harding explained, is that the boys living in Lower Mills don’t have the same fear of violence. They don’t have to depend on others for safety or be prepared to stand up for their friends if a fight breaks out. They can concentrate on academics and after-school programs. They’re free to travel around Boston and obtain part-time jobs in other areas of the city.

Despite which zip code the boys live in, they all have similar goals for the future. Many hope to go to college. Most desire a steady job, marriage, and a family. Inner-city boys like Terrell can achieve those ambitions, but, “it’s a lot harder when your focus is on staying safe,” Harding says.

“We have to think seriously about doing something more about the violence, not just for its own sake but because of the spillover effects on the lives of the boys,” Harding says.

Though changing the social structure in these neighborhoods is not easy, Harding suggests concerned communities could extend the hours of middle and high schools, or consider starting and ending the school day later. This could help cut down on the afternoon exposure of younger boys to the older instigators roaming their neighborhood streets.

Read more about life in inner-city Boston in this excerpt from Living the Drama

Read more about David Harding's research in the ISR Sampler