This paper investigates urban marginality as a product of the strategies political elites in Ethiopia have historically used to ground their power at the bottom of urban society. With a focus on inner city Addis Ababa, I first trace how the political history of contemporary Ethiopia has played out on the streets and affected streetlife as terrain of economic and political practice in the city. I then explore the transformations of the street economy in the aftermath of post-election riots and demonstrations in 2005, during which 200 people were killed and 30,000 detained in Addis Ababa and other major towns. Finally, I will show how the more recent concern of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front with developing the street economy has entailed an expansion of the state’s apparatus of control and reinforced conditions of social exclusion. By combining ethnography with a historical analysis of streetlife, this paper explores how enduring marginality and political subjugation have defined the terms of poor people’s integration in wider society.