Dead End Fremont

David Zimet


The book Dead End Kids is a collection of observations and data gathered by an ethnographic researcher studying gang youths in the context of Fremont, an inner-city neighborhood in Kansas City, Missouri. The kids in the book are poor, and make their living by selling drugs, a risky occupation which leads to imprisonment for many of them. This makes one wonder why these kids choose this risky, criminal lifestyle. An explanation for this choice can be found in the field of sociological research. The one that best applies to the Fremont neighborhood is the theory of Social Disorganization. According to Sampson, Social Disorganization is "The inability of a community structure to realize the common values of its residents and maintain effective social controls." Social Disorganization originates with the research of Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay whose work while at Chicago's Institute for Juvenile Research was of key importance in the development of the theory. They were interested in Park and Burgess's conception of the "natural urban area" of Chicago and used their Concentric Zone model to investigate the relationship between crime rates, especially delinquency, throughout the various zones of the city.

From these data Shaw and McKay observed several patterns. They found that crimes occurred unevenly throughout the city, with delinquency occurring most in the areas nearest to the business district. They also saw that some areas suffered from high consistent delinquency rates no matter the makeup of the population. These high delinquency areas were characterized by high percentages of immigrants, non-whites, and lower income families.

Social Disorganization theory tries to explain why patterns of high crime and juvenile delinquency are found in these low-income areas. The theory claims that delinquency rates are tied to a neighborhood's "structural" characteristics. The theory associates poverty, high levels of resident turnover and racial/ethnic homogeneity with poor structure. Family disruption is also associated as a characteristic detrimental to the social control present in a neighborhood. The theory of Social Disorganization attempts to make a connection between these different observations, and reason out why they have a consistent effect. Shaw and McKay decided these factors caused a lack of social organization. This theory emphasized that society was organized when people are presumed to have developed agreement about fundamental values and norms, with behavioral regularity. Social organization, or social order, exists when there is a high degree of internal bonding to individuals and institutions in a conventional society. This cohesion consists largely of agreement about goals that are worth striving for and how to behave and how to not behave.

In Chicago, during the time of Shaw and McKay's research, the flow of immigrants into inner city zones led to the creation of concentrated neighborhoods with poor social organization. These zones, according to a later student of Social Disorganization, were unable keep the institutions of authority from their home countries, including that of the family, and as a result conflict was common between these immigrants and their children. While the immigrant context is unrelated to the situation on Fremont, this conflict and poor presentation of authority from the parents is something that can be found in Dead End Kids. The following is an excerpt from one of the author's interviews with the father of a gang girl, "We don't hate the kid. But at the same time, I basically don't really want her around me as long as she's affiliated with this. It's caused problems in the family - her gang affiliation and the babies and stuff like that. It's caused problems between me and my wife." This attitude of indifference is the way that this parent has chosen to explain his lack of involvement in his child's upbringing and discipline.

In his work evaluating the Chicago Area Project and Social Disorganization, Solomon Kobrin describes factors contributing to delinquency in high rate neighborhoods. He claims that a local environment in which adult residents do not organize together to benefit the youth of the area contributes to delinquency in these areas. Data from Fleisher's observations in Fremont data show that neglectful parents, like those of Carmen, Poodle, and Cheri, don't provide a healthy environment for their kids, but instead push their kids away . Certainly drug-addicted teens like Steele Bill, Janet, and Angie are ill qualified as parents. Parent cooperation and resource sharing is discouraged by the high level of anonymity throughout the Fremont neighborhood. High turnover in inner city neighborhoods makes it hard for a social network to arise between parents. Since the Fremont kids' parents aren't connected, it is hard for them to cooperate to provide socialization for their kids.

Kobrin also calls to blame the isolation of the youths in the adolescent age group, which at its extreme becomes total isolation, which results in a total loss of adult control. The presence of this aspect of Social Disorganization is evident in Fremont. Because these kids don't have any supervision, they have lived a great deal of their lives doing as they please. This means that instead of learning social norms from a structured environment, they have their own, far more lax norms. As Mark Fleisher says, "On Fremont kids come and go as they please without judgment and criticism. No one on Fremont cares about grade-point averages. No one cares if or how many times a kid has been to juvenile detention. No one cares if he or she has been hospitalized for emotional disorders, as Cara and Wendy have been, or if he or she has punched his or her mother in the face, as Angie has. No one cares if a kid uses words like motherfucka outloud in public. But these kids also live without the guidance necessary to find a path into mainstream life." It is clear that he has seen an absence of adult control cause deviance in the Fremont youths.

This is basically the essential statement of how what Fleisher writes ties in with the theory of Social Disorganization. Since the kids on Fremont do not have any sort of structure within which they would learn about these goals, and come to conform to them, they are instead very prone to deviance.

This follows the other side of Social Disorganization theory, which under which disorganized local areas, such as slums or inner-city neighborhoods, are places where higher rates of crime, prostitution, suicide and other deviant forms of behavior are found. Thus, in their theoretical framework, the social patterns of the Fremont environment produce social disorganization, which led to crime and deviance.

Social Disorganization theory claims that in the absence of normal social structure and traditions, criminal traditions will spring up in the place. Because of the absence of a strong traditional parental presence on Fremont to provide social organization, the kids created gangs of their own to provide some kind of structure in their lives. Fleisher relates, "Wendy and Cara and Cheri told me how the Fremont Hustlers had started one day in August 1992. While sitting on Wendy's front porch one afternoon, [several youths from Fremont] decided to become a 'gang,' Wendy told me." Wendy formalized this new tradition of being a gang by picking arbitrary customs and symbols, such as a gang color (green) and a nationwide gang affiliation, with the Folks. This artificial culture is an example of the kind the criminal traditions that springs up in the absence of parentally created social organization.

In his book Dead End Kids, author Mark Fleisher has put together a collection of data gathered during his first hand experiences as a researcher studying the Fremont Hustlers gang. These kids come from a very poor, unfriendly neighborhood, and are very rarely under competent parental supervision. Because they must make their own way through life, and have no one to guide them to a socially acceptable lifestyle, many of them sell drugs, an occupation common enough in their environment to seem normal. In order to provide the structure that a family would normally provide, the youths create their own traditions in their gang culture. The theory of Social Disorganization well describes the situation of these delinquents, and is helpful in understanding what motivations lie behind their behaviors.