The truthfulness of Down These Mean Streets goes beyond autobiographical integrity to illuminate not only that dubious concept, "the culture of poverty," but more importantly, the culture of Americans. (p. 4)
The book is punctuated with violence, and with fitful sex and the anesthetics of heroin as well. They end by engulfing the youth that Thomas writes about, but not his book. For these things are not perceived by him as "problems" or as a social outrage, but as elements of a rite de passage that he recalls now with an easy, even a proud, familiarity. Besides, his life was far more complicated and rich than sensational…. The really serious aspects of life were not drugs, but the unremitting and unavoidable struggle for status; not police brutality, but the terrible possibility that his father did not love him; not American racism, but the devastating thought that, being a dark-skinned Puerto Rican, he must choose what he would only appear to be.
As history, the important thing about Thomas's book may be that it presents a life differing little from that of hundreds of thousands of boys who grew up and continue to grow up under similar conditions. It is definitely unimportant to history that Thomas is now a "constructive member of society." But Down These Mean Streets is not a Puerto Rican sequel to Claude Brown's Manchild in the Promised Land, for it demands to be read as literature, not as raw data for social research. Thomas knows himself; his recollection of his youth is completely honest, and his writing—though occasionally flawed by self-conscious barbaric yawps—is wonderfully powerful. His achievement is to have so thoroughly taken the measure of his individuality that he adds significantly to our sense of the richness and shame of being an American. (p. 17)
Nelson Aldrich, "Inside the Skin," in Book Week—World Journal Tribune (© 1967, World Journal Tribune, Inc.), May 21, 1967, pp. 4, 17.∗