Greg lives in inner-city Harlem. His is a working-class neighborhood where good families struggle to get by in an atmosphere filled with challenges.
Gang activity is a fact of life in Greg's neighborhood. His brother Derek is unable to go to the store to get some cold cuts because "they had a drive-by on 141st Street" in which "a little girl got nicked". Crack cocaine is easily accessible and drunks sit around Garvey Park drinking from bottles in paper bags. At night, mixed in with the sounds of "car doors and people talking and boom boxes spilling out the latest tunes", Greg hears bottles breaking, people fighting, and sirens "bringing their bad news from far off and making you hold your breath until they pass so you know it ain't any of your people who's getting arrested or being taken to the hospital".
Despite the crime and the threat of violence, however, Greg's neighborhood is characterized by good citizens trying to make a living and get by day by day. In the morning the sirens are gone; "it's like all the shooting and chasing is over for the night and the neighborhood is getting ready for a new day...people who got work are starting off downtown to their jobs...you hear mamas yelling for their kids who go to school to wake up". Greg's home reflects how unemployment and lack of socioeconomic opportunity affects the family structure and contributes to alcoholism and crime. His father is always struggling to find steady work - when he is employed, things are good, but when he is out of a job, he is sullen and angry, and turns to the bottle.
There is a sense of community in Greg's neighborhood. People sit out on their stoops when it is warm, and over at the park guys play dominoes and basketball. In December, "the block (is) jumping", with peddlers selling their wares from pushcarts, and "everybody...trying to get some money together...with Christmas coming" (Chapter 1).