Street Politics (03.18.2009)

A view from DC's Chinatown. Photo courtesy of LoadedAaron via Flickr

Watching “the street” for signs of economic life  


We’ve heard a lot about Wall Street the last few months. But what’s happening “out on the street”?  

The same things as on Wall Street and everywhere: some people break the rules, some are pulling in their horns, some are getting desperate, and some are watching to see what creative new thing happens next.  

Wall Street’s miscreants and mismanagers have held the media spotlight recently. But there have also been stories about garden-variety theft – crimes of personal enrichment – on the rise.  

These stories are neither uniform nor universal, and it’s too early to say with certainty which way national trends are going. Experts also say the connection to the economy is complex and sometimes indirect.  

But the impact of high unemployment is always a concern, and will be watched closely in the coming months.  

Some lighter-side relief from all the bad news has come from stories about thrift-store shopping, creative pennypinching, and thrifty recipes from the Great Depression. And there have been stories about professionals reinventing careers and lives that once seemed predictable and secure.  

Stress, limits and creativity  


For those with less education and fewer skills, the scope for self-reinvention is not so expansive.  

One longtime observer of life in the District says “you’ve got people taking jobs now they’re overqualified for, just to feed their families. That means someone who’s qualified for that job won’t get it. It will be a chain reaction – and where does that leave the person who has a lack of education?”  

So, he said, “some people are gonna start hustling.” And “people who have the smarts not to do illegal … things … are gonna go into a gray area like selling socks, hats, or T-shirts.”  

“It’s the small signs you look for,” he said. “Like if you get a lot of kids out on the streets here this summer – there might not be enough summer jobs for these kids. … It’s gonna be a rough one.”  

Another local says that along with signs of stress, he sees reason to expect creativity of every kind to climb if the recession continues.  

“Money’s getting tight,” he said. “And everyone has a mission when they leave the house – to find food, or work. We’re gonna see two types of people: those who are willing to panhandle, and those who aren’t, and will use their bare hands.”  

“Street beefs are getting worse,” he said. As for the summer ahead, “we’re gonna see people begging, but there’s gonna be a horde of entrepreneurs. African-Americans, and Latinos, even if they don’t have any capital. It will be at the lower level, in all-cash businesses.”  

He sees more street vendors of every kind, including people with an armful of new T-shirts or a sack of used DVDs. “And I’m seeing more flower people” selling cut flowers at major intersections, he said. It’s a popular line of work among Latino immigrants but, he said, “I even saw a white guy doing it.”  

So while national institutions try to regroup, look for many other people to do the same – with economic activity that takes them in new and unexpected directions. 

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