The Points Interview: Eric Schneider

This week’s Points Interview is number fifteen in the series, and features Eric Schneider talking smack about Smack: Heroin and the American City.  Eric’s book has just appeared in a paperback edition, so this interview is a timely revisiting of this important study of heroin in postwar urban America.  Eric Schneider is Assistant Dean and Associate Director for Academic Affairs and an Adjunct Associate Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania.  Readers of Points may also be interested in one of Eric’s earlier books, Vampires, Dragons, and Egyptian Kings: Youth Gangs in Postwar New York (Princeton University Press, 2001).

1. Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-street) could understand
Smack is about two things:  markets and the social environments in which people Cover of Eric Schneider's Smackconsumed heroin.  New York City dominated a centralized national market from the 1920s until the 1970s because a handful of mostly Italian and Jewish illegal entrepreneurs controlled access to the European sources of heroin.   Over time, new groups and new points of entry challenged New York’s supremacy, with African Americans, Cubans and Mexicans importing heroin from Southeast Asia, Latin America and Mexico through a variety of places.  Ties to Latin America were particularly important, as increasingly large amounts of cocaine traveled along the same routes and set the stage for the emergence of crack cocaine as a new mass market product in the 1980s.

What did not change much was the location of retail marketplaces.  Primary marketplaces located in poor African American and Latino communities, where unemployment was high and the underground economy, including drug selling, provided jobs in what was essentially the free market’s answer to deindustrialization.  In addition, police sheltered some sellers while arresting others, thus waging an ostensible ‘war on drugs’ while taking advantage of opportunities for graft.  The persistence of retail marketplaces in a neighborhood also encouraged the recruitment of the next generation of users and sellers as adolescents acquired the ‘drug knowledge’ needed to negotiate the market.  As heroin use expanded, secondary heroin markets opened up in the suburbs closest to traditional heroin-using center cities.  (Basically, venturesome users would make larger purchases in the primary marketplace and then return home and support their habits through sales to less-venturesome peers.)

Heroin consumption began among the socially and economically marginal, those most alienated from mainstream American life.  The drug opened up an alternative way of organizing a life—dominated by the daily need to get money and score heroin.  It also provided a means of identifying with particular subcultures, such as jazz musicians and neighborhood cool cats and hustlers in the 1940s and 1950s, counter culture drop outs in the 1960s, and punks and hipsters in later decades.  These subcultures were both social and spatial entities and anchored heroin use in sets of institutions—bars, hangouts, vacant buildings—and specific neighborhoods.

2. What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?
I am first and foremost a social ecologist.  I tell my students that people make space, but space also makes people; this is why understanding the social and spatial settings of heroin use is so important.  Everything about heroin from the acquisition of drug knowledge, to the rituals and practices of using, to the process of recovering is organized spatially and is encoded, frequently quite visibly, in the urban landscape.  Other drugs have different etiologies and patterns of use, and I would be interested to see how a drug such as methamphetamine, for example—usually thought of as a rural, white drug—is located in the social and spatial life of rural America.  Drug and alcohol historians might want to explore the historical social ecology of the substances they write about.

3. Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?
Lee Robbins’ Vietnam Era Study convinced me of the importance of social setting.  If Vietnam veterans were exposed to the most potent heroin available, even if only for the length of their tours of duty, and approximately ninety percent were able to desist from heroin use upon returning to the US, what does that say about the plasticity of human beings and the “brain disease” model of addiction?

I also became convinced of the futility of a drug war aimed at containing supply and incarcerating users.  Poppy production has shifted many times from one part of the globe to another as states have attempted to curtail it.  There will always be marginal areas and weak states, where poppy cultivation will take root.  So it seems to me that public policy has to focus on reducing demand, on changing the social settings that produce drug users, and on ending the social and economic marginality that induces individuals to enter the marketplace as users and sellers.

4. Every research project leaves some stones unturned.  What stone from Smack are you most curious to see turned over soon?
I used comic books and popular fiction from the 1950s to analyze the distance between the fictional heroin user, usually a white, middle-class adolescent, and the one found on the streets.  I would have liked to have done more with fiction and with film—the National Archives has a host of ‘drug movies’—and for other periods than just the immediate postwar era, but I thought this would take me too far from the urban/social themes of the book.

5. BONUS QUESTION: In a Ken Burns film version of this book, who should provide the narration?
I would go with a gravelly-voiced ex-heroin-using jazz musician.  Or David Courtwright (my children used to do a great imitation of David’s voice as he interviewed elderly methadone patients on the ‘Addicts Who Survived’ tapes, which I listened to in my kitchen.)