If I had known that The Street by Ann Petry was so bleak, would I have ever read it, let alone have chosen it as February’s pick for the NYC Nerds Book Club? Probably not. But now that I’ve read it, I don’t regret choosing it. Instead, I’m wondering how I never heard about this book sooner. You would think the story of an ambitious mid-twentieth century black woman whose struggle to escape her Harlem block leads her to question the viability of the American dream would be at the top of the reading list of any high school American literature class. Or maybe The Street is one of those books teachers avoid because it has the potential to break the spirits of students, just like the streets of Harlem broke Lutie Johnson’s spirit. I won’t lie to you: after reading The Street, even I am feeling a bit more cynical about life in New York City and the odds of a poor black person achieving the American dream. Here are some of the quotes from The Street by Ann Petry that I found to be the most thought-provoking, although they do capture the worst side of life in NYC. Hopefully, this will spark some conversation about the book and its messages instead of just depressing you.
“Remembering bits of the conversation she had heard in the rest room, she knew they had husbands and children and sick mothers and unemployed fathers and young sisters and brothers, so that going to an occasional movie was the only entertainment they could afford. They went home and listened to the radio and read part of a newspaper, mostly the funnies and the latest murders; and then they cleaned their apartments and washed clothes and cooked food, and then it was time to go to bed because they had to get up early the next morning.
There ought to be more than that to living, she thought, resentfully. Perhaps living in a city the size of New York wasn’t good for people, because you had to spend all your time working to pay for the place where you lived and it took all the rest of the hours in the day to keep the place clean and fix food, and there was never any money left over. Certainly it wasn’t a good place for children.”
This excerpt of The Street resonates with me because the fear of becoming trapped in the never-ending cycle of work, chores, and sleep is partly what inspired me to start this blog. But it’s difficult to break this routine when you constantly have to worry about making ends meet, especially in NYC where the cost of living is always increasing. But can you really call that routine living? I agree with Lutie: shouldn’t there be more to life in NYC than survival?
“A man came suddenly out of a hallway just ahead of her—a furtive, darting figure that disappeared rapidly in the darkness of the street. As she reached the doorway from which he had emerged, a woman lurched out, screaming, ‘Got my pocketbook! The bastard’s got my pocketbook!’
Windows were flung open all up and down the street. Heads appeared at the windows—silent, watching heads that formed dark blobs against the dark spaces that were the windows. The woman remained in the middle of the street, bellowing at the top of her voice….
Ribald advice issued from the windows:
‘Aw, shut up! Folks got to sleep.’
‘What the hell’d you have in it, your rent money?’
‘Go on home, old woman, ’fore I throw somp’n special down on your rusty head.’
As the woman’s voice died away to a mumble and a mutter, the heads withdrew and the windows were slammed shut. The street was quiet again. And Lutie thought, No one could live on a street like this and stay decent. It would get them sooner or later, for it sucked the humanity out of people—slowly, surely, inevitably.”
I have witnessed indifference in NYC but I’ve never seen the straight up cruelty to someone’s suffering as portrayed in this scene from The Street, but my experience is limited. Maybe the reaction of the neighbors is more common than I think it is, but from what I’ve observed, New Yorkers oscillate between indifference to the human suffering around them and being readily willing to jump in to assist strangers. It’s inconsistent, but understandable: in a city where so much ish happens on a daily basis, you’d go mad if you paid attention to everyone in need. It’s harsh, but it’s how you keep yourself sane here.
“She held the paper in her hand for a long time, trying to follow the reasoning by which that thin ragged boy had become in the eyes of a reporter a ‘burly Negro.’ And she decided that it all depended on where you sat how these things looked. If you looked at them from inside the framework of a fat weekly salary, and you thought of colored people as naturally criminal, then you didn’t really see what any Negro looked like. You couldn’t, because the Negro was never an individual. He was a threat, or an animal, or a curse, or a blight, or a joke.”
There isn’t much to add here that hasn’t already been said by Ann Petry and by countless other people who beg for the humanity of black people in NYC and the country at large to be recognized. It’s shameful that Ann Petry’s words were true in 1946 and are still true today.
“Yet she could feel a hard, tight knot of anger and hate forming within her as she walked along. She decided to walk home, hoping that the anger would evaporate on the way. She moved in long, swift strides. There was a hard sound to her heels clicking against the sidewalk and she tried to make it louder. Hard, hard, hard. That was the only way to be—so hard that nothing, the street, the house, the people—nothing would ever be able to touch her.”
I see the necessity of becoming “hard” so that the hardships of life in NYC don’t break you. (It’s not a good look to be the person who breaks down after missing the train by a second, no matter how annoying it gets.) But there is also a risk of becoming too hard and losing your humanity. How do you balance between this? Is there an ideal hardness?
“He [Jones] ain’t really responsible,’ Mrs. Hedges continued. ‘He’s lived in cellars so long he’s kind of cellar crazy.’
‘Other people have lived in cellars and it didn’t set them crazy.’
‘Folks differs, dearie. They differs a lot. Some can stand things that others can’t. There’s never no way of knowin’ how much they can stand.’”
First, let me say that what Jones did to Lutie was despicable and inexcusable. But Mrs. Hedges does have a point: when faced with harsh conditions, people react differently. The situation that could break one person may cause another person to thrive, and it’s hard to tell who will have what reaction. But removing all personal responsibility for your actions and your situation goes too far. I think that in the case of Jones, and in the book overall, Ann Petry makes the world too black and white. While she makes valid points, her conclusions are too extreme about race and about upward mobility. But then again, maybe I’m a naive millennial clinging to optimism about the achievability of the American dream because the alternative seems miserable. I have no choice but to force myself to believe that Lutie Johnson, with all the odds stacked against her, could have still found a way to succeed if she hadn’t picked up that candlestick.
Are there other quotes from The Street by Ann Petry that struck you? Share them and your thoughts on the book in the comment section. Hopefully, March’s pick for the NYC Nerds Book Club, The Women Who Made New York by Julie Scelfo, isn’t nearly as dark. You should be able to get The Women Who Made New York anywhere books are sold, but I do get a small commission at no extra cost to you if you purchase the book using this affiliate link.
Before you go, if you like what I do here at Shiloh in the City and want to continue getting to know New York’s things to do, history, and culture with me, sign up for my email list and follow me on social media. Thanks for reading!
One thought on “5 Quotes from The Street by Ann Petry That Capture the Worst Side of Life in NYC”
Based on the comments and statements mentioned in this blog about the book. I would definitely want to read this book.