Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Down These Mean Streets is an autobiographical novel that tells of the author’s experiences growing up as a dark-skinned Puerto Rican in New York, becoming involved in drugs and crime, and going to prison. It is only fiction insofar as the author attempts to reconstruct the scenes of his youth in a more detailed and lifelike manner than would be possible by recounting memories alone.
The book’s thirty-five chapters are divided into eight sections, with each of the sections devoted to an important place and time in the author’s life. The first section, consisting of eight chapters and entitled “Harlem,” deals with Piri’s childhood in and around New York’s Spanish Harlem. The two chapters of the second section, “Suburbia,” deal with life in the suburbs of Long Island, where the family moves after Piri’s father gets a wartime job at an airplane factory. The third, fifth, and final chapters all concern Harlem, the site of the “mean streets” of the book’s title and a place that keeps drawing Piri Thomas back.
Piri Thomas himself is the narrator of the book, telling his story in the first person. The style draws heavily on the speech of New York’s Puerto Rican and black populations, evoking the feel of the urban environment. The author scatters Spanish phrases and Puerto Rican slang throughout the narrative, although the meanings of these are usually clear enough that readers with no knowledge of Spanish do not...
(The entire section is 760 words.)
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Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Down These Mean Streets, Piri Thomas’ confessional autobiography, documents the brutal growing-up experiences of a young man of African and Puerto Rican descent in New York City. This testimonial depicts the Depression of the 1930’s in Spanish Harlem and the struggle to achieve an identity in a society where inequality prevails.
The dark-skinned Piri, known as Johnny Gringo, encounters racial and social prejudice beginning in childhood. The son of Hispanic immigrants, he becomes aware of his parents’ poverty at an early age. His father often submits the family to the humiliation of welfare, while the mother escapes reality by daydreaming about Puerto Rico. Piri, the oldest of five children, yearns for the love of his father, who favors the siblings with lighter skin. When the family moves to an Italian neighborhood, Piri is a victim of racial remarks and physical abuse. As an outsider, in his need to belong, he joins street gangs that walk down the streets “tall and tough,” and becomes a burglar.
In 1944, the family moves to a suburb in Long Island; Piri’s attempts to make friends fail because of discrimination. He moves back to Harlem on his own; unable to get a job, he starts dealing drugs. He achieves recognition and prestige among junkies and hoodlums.
Confused about his identity, Piri joins the merchant marine with his black friend Brew. Prejudice becomes intolerable after seven months around the world. He...
(The entire section is 383 words.)