Piri Thomas James B. Lane - Essay

James B. Lane

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Down These Mean Streets dramatically captured and transmitted the reality of growing up in the Puerto Rican "Barrio" district of New York during the 1940s and 1950s. Graphically the author etched the panorama of East Harlem, the color and noises and passions and moods that coalesced among its teeming tenements….

A testimony of almost total recall, Down These Mean Streets captured the inner conflict facing a youth who hoped to achieve self-esteem and respect in this environment without succumbing to violence, drugs, cynicism, or other alluring but debilitating antidotes to soothe his rage or allay his sense of nobodyness. (p. 814)

Ironic, unapologetic, and realistic, Piri Thomas' book contains the confusions and subtleties and ambiguities that are the stuff of human life and at times defy categorization. (p. 815)

Recreating the past and making understandable Puerto Rican-American culture, the book was an historical contribution that demonstrated the continuity of New York's unique heritage of the omnipresence of strangers in its midst. The book's subtlety transcended the dichotomy of viewing the Barrio in moralistic terms of good or evil, womb or inferno. (p. 822)

James B. Lane, "Beating the Barrio: Piri Thomas and 'Down These Mean Streets'," in English Journal (copyright © 1972 by the National Council of Teachers of English; reprinted by permission of the publisher and the author), Vol. 61, No. 6, September, 1972, pp. 814-23.