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Piri Thomas, Harlem-Born Author of 'Down These Mean Streets,' Dies at 83

By Jeff Mays | October 20, 2011 6:38am
Piri Thomas and his wife Suzie Dod Thomas with young poets at McAteer High School in San Francisco in 1996.
Piri Thomas and his wife Suzie Dod Thomas with young poets at McAteer High School in San Francisco in 1996.
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HARLEM—Piri Thomas, the Harlem-born author of the classic autobiography "Down These Mean Streets," died Monday from pneumonia at his home in El Cerrito, CA. He was 83.

Thomas was born in Harlem Hospital in 1928 to a Puerto Rican mother and Cuban father. In 1967, Thomas chronicled the early years of his life growing up in East Harlem in "Down These Mean Streets," his most popular work.

"We all read "Down These Mean Streets" growing up. If you speak to any Puerto Rican or Latino writer or journalist they'll say he inspired them," said Marina Ortiz, the founder of East Harlem Preservation who is also a journalist.

"He taught an entire generation of people from East Harlem to make moves in their lives and to document their history."

"Down These Mean Streets" tracks Thomas' coming of age in El Barrio. The book chronicles his life of poverty, involvement in gangs, heroin addiction and eventual imprisonment for shooting a police officer, in intimate detail.

The autobiography also examines themes of race and class in America but is ultimately a tale of redemption.

Thomas also published two novels — "Savior Savior Hold My Hand" and "Seven Long Times"— several plays, short stories and poems. He recorded two CDs of poetry and music and was the subject of three movies.

"Growing up in East Harlem, the things he wrote about were absolutely true. It wasn't an easy time," said Ortiz. "But he showed that you can be honest about your life and you don't have to hide what you've experienced.

"He showed that those things can make you stronger and you could use those experiences to teach people."

Thomas worked on many social justice campaigns while "encouraging a whole generation of young people to be socially responsible in their career choices, and to write and perform poetry, which subsequently birthed the new wave of "spoken word" that has appeared throughout the country," according to a statement on the National Institute for Latino Policy's website.

Ortiz said she had the opportunity to interview Thomas for radio station WBAI in the early 1990s and he was extremely generous with his time, sitting down with her for two hours to talk about his life and work.

"I'm completely grateful for the work he has done to motivate Latino and Black youth and bring more understanding about what life is like for poor people and people of color," said Ortiz. "He will always be in our hearts in East Harlem."

Thomas is survived by his wife Suzie Dod Thomas of El Cerrito, CA., six children and seven grandchildren. Memorials are planned for New York, the Bay area and Orlando, Fl.

Dates for the services have yet to be announced.