LOS ANGELES -- When Lewis Yablonsky was growing up in New Jersey in the 1930s, he was beaten by poor whites for being Jewish and by black gangs for being white. He committed petty thefts, ran crooked card games and carried a switchblade for protection. Some of his closest friends wound up behind bars.
"I wasn't sure where I belonged," he told the Los Angeles Times years later. "But when my best friend went to prison for hijacking a fur truck I realized I had to get on one side of the law or the other."
Yablonsky chose the straight path, using his rough-and-tumble youth as a springboard to a distinguished career. He became the "Sociologist With Street Smarts," as one headline described him, an authority on youth gangs, hippies and drug addicts whose personal experiences gave him insights other scholars lacked.
A longtime professor of sociology at California State University, Northridge, Yablonsky, who gained national prominence as a sociologist, criminologist and author, died Jan. 29 of natural causes at his home in Santa Monica, said his son, Mitch. He was 89.
A leading figure in sociology in the 1960s and '70s, Yablonsky was known for his practical approach. He worked with members of New York street gangs in the tense "West Side Story" era of the 1950s, producing a socio-psychological study of "losers trying to be winners" in his first book, "The Violent Gang" (1962).
His work treating drug addicts in Santa Monica with reformed alcoholic Charles Dederich resulted in "The Tunnel Back: Synanon" (1965), a provocative early study of the rehabilitation program before it took on cult overtones and became associated with violence.