Now the professor is hoping The Cosmopolitan Canopy will shed some light on how Philadelphia's unique public spaces encourage us all to just get along.
That day at Reading Terminal, as Anderson sipped oyster soup and read the paper, he noticed an elderly black woman with a walker struggling with the heavy double doors at the market's entrance.
Anderson writes that before he could offer assistance, "a young man with strawberry blond hair dressed in construction clothes . . . sprang to his feet and offered the old woman a hand, helping her through the large doors."
As quickly as the incident began, Anderson writes, it was over. "But for a moment, it reinforced the public definition of affairs in this space: kindness and civility were the order of the day, regardless of color, gender, or age."
Cosmopolitan canopies such as the Reading Terminal Market, the Gallery, and 30th Street Station serve as points of cultural convergence that urge people of all ages, races, and ethnicities to drop their defenses and engage in a sort of autonomous intimacy.
"It's a beautiful thing," Anderson says. "The canopy is humanizing. You're encouraged to practice and present yourself" respectfully.
But lest we think these canopies have ushered us into some kind of a postracial nirvana, well, think again, Anderson says.
There are a fair share of racial fault lines that can tear at the cover of the canopy.
Anderson has a name for a burst of incivility that tears through such a fault line: "The Nigger Moment."
"You and I had one," Anderson reminds me.
Excuse me, Professor?
As he runs through his definition of the moment - a show of acute disrespect based on race - it dawns on me.
Our moment happened during lunch at a University City restaurant about five years ago.
We were seated in a drafty spot near the kitchen. Our server ignored us. When she finally took our order, we complained - and she became rudely indignant, as if we didn't deserve decent treatment.
There we were, the internationally acclaimed sociologist and the veteran journalist, sharing a you-know-what moment.
But it doesn't matter who you are, Anderson writes. Race almost always trumps profession or class, lending you only provisional status that makes you vulnerable to such moments. Even though we lunched in a canopy as diverse as University City, negative assumptions about African Americans still raise doubts in some people's minds, he says.
We chuckle about it now. Truth is, I don't know too many black people who haven't been subjected to such indignities.
No slight slight
Of course, our slight doesn't compare to the humiliation suffered by a black male law student Anderson writes about in The Cosmopolitan Canopy
. In a moment that's become all too familiar, the student, waiting for the bus in a white Washington neighborhood, was forced to lay spread-eagle at gunpoint because he fit the profile of a perpetrator - who was later apprehended.
Racial profiling is no laughing matter. But Anderson hopes the desires of diverse people will prevail; that we all find pleasure in one another's company, and we'll interact in canopy spaces, again and again.
That's something we can all smile about.
Elijah Anderson will speak at the Central Library of the Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine St., at 7:30 p.m. Thursday. Free. Information: 215-567-4341, www.freelibrary.org.
Contact me at 215-854-4986 or Ajohnhall@phillynews.com.