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 need to turn to the short glossary in the back of the book.
In 1941, when Piri was thirteen, his father, known as “Poppa” in the book, lost his job and went to work with the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a Depression-era government program to create jobs. The work was hard manual labor, and Poppa became distant and cool toward his son, who desperately wanted paternal...
(The entire section is 760 words.)