The Hole Truth: Hands-on Anthropology with Professor Ric Curtis
By Sam Anderson
On Christmas day in 2016, anthropology Professor Ric Curtis led a group of John Jay students to a place in the Bronx he calls “The Hole.” They exited the train at Grand Concourse and walked to an abandoned, fenced-off lot near St. Ann’s Avenue, a decrepit
site with a graffiti-spattered concrete ledge set into a hillside that leads down to a train tunnel. The ground was littered with trash and hypodermic needles, but the occasional tent or makeshift table suggested that this place might not be abandoned after all. It is a place where local addicts come together to inject heroin and use other drugs.
Curtis, a seasoned urban anthropologist and ethnographer, feels at home in such environs. He set up a makeshift needle exchange, installed a portable toilet on the corner, and, along with his students, began the Sisyphean task of collecting the thousands of used needles and depositing them into an orange biohazard bucket. He was eager to meet and speak with the locals who frequent the spot, and so were the students. Upon arrival, local drug users were surprised to be greeted by college students with notebooks, intent on interviewing them and recording their stories.
Irini Zenuni, a sophomore who visited The Hole last August, recalled: “In the beginning they were intimidated. But now they are used to our presence, they talk to us and they’re very friendly. They ask when are we coming back again with more needles. They say, ‘Thank you so much for doing this, we really appreciate it.’”
Zenuni took two classes with Curtis during her first year and was struck by his direct, unabashed teaching style. During the class, Curtis displayed a video that he recorded in Bushwick many years ago, of a woman injecting heroin into her arm.
Zenuni said that several students were shocked and covered their eyes. “But to me, it was something I needed to learn because not everything in this world is pretty. There are people who experience this and I want know more about them,” she said. “Why do they do it? What is the outcome? How do they feel after they use drugs? How does it impact their lives?”
For Curtis, these are the right questions to ask. While subjects like criminality and drug use are popular fields of study, he says: “No one wants to get their hands dirty. No one wants to collect the data. But I like to collect the data.”Curtis, who has been conducting ethnographic fieldwork since the 1970’s, has a boyish grin and warm glint in his eye that suggest a man with a youthful heart. He typically speaks in street vernacular and often seems on the verge of cracking a joke.
Curtis’s methods involve conducting lengthy, in-depth interviews in which he asks about criminals’ backgrounds, their upbringing, education, family life, the types of crimes they commit and why, and other personal questions. He listens carefully to his subjects with empathy in place of judgment. He usually doesn’t offer advice because he believes in self-determination. This philosophy has rubbed off on his students.“
It was curiosity that drove me to participate,” said Karen Argueta, a junior who learned about Curtis’s field excursions through anthropology Professor Anjelica Camacho, a participant in the needle-exchange project at The Hole. “Some of the preconceptions I had were that these places are super dangerous. Then you go there and realize that these are people. When you humanize a person, you make them into all they can possibly be,” she said.
For the students, one of the biggest takeaways of engaging with local users at The Hole is the process of humanizing a demographic that is typically ignored by society.
Zenuni, who is originally from Albania, observed: “New York is such a beautiful place, with all of these skyscrapers and people moving around. But there is also a hidden part of the city that not everyone can see. It consists of the homeless population, drug users, and other people we take for granted every day. We’re too blind focusing on ourselves and our future and we avoid everything else going on around us.”
In addition to The Hole, Curtis has brought students to Atlantic City to interview sex workers, and to the Red Hook section of Brooklyn to evaluate the impact of a community court. His students have journeyed from Brownsville to Sunset Park to Greenpoint. Rather than having students observe from a distance, he arms them with background knowledge of the local community and interviewing techniques, allowing the students to conduct the interviews themselves.“
You get the sense that he finds everything very fascinating and important,” Argueta said. “There are times when you look around and you can’t find him because he’s exploring or looking around. He taught me about humanity in a way that others didn’t.”
“I think that many students who aspire to be in a field like this don’t really know if this is the field for them until they have the experience of doing it,” said Curtis.