All posts by Andrea Gibbons

Nicholas Dreystadt, Cadillacs & African-Americans

So. I have always vaguely wondered about the rather unique love-affair between African-Americans and the Cadillac. I stumbled across this story of Nicholas Dreystadt in a book called The Chrome Colossus by Ed Cray, while doing some research for my dissertation…

It is 1932, and GM is actually at the point of abandoning the Cadillac forever…what was on the cutting board? This beauty of an automobile:

Nicholas Dreystadt, head of the Cadillac division, breaks into the meeting

As Cadillac service manager, Dreystadt had earlier discovered that the car was very popular with the small black bourgeoisie of successful entertainers, doctors and ghetto businessmen. A surprising number brought Cadillacs in for service–surprising because corporate policy was not to sell Cadillacs to blacks at all; the Cadillac was reserved for the white prestige market. “But the wealthy Negro,” business critic Peter F. Drucker recalled, “wanted a Cadillac so badly that he paid a substantial premium to a white man to front for him in buying one. Dreystadt had investigated this unexpected phenomenon and found that a Cadillac was the only success symbol the affluent black could buy; he had no access to good housing, to luxury resorts, or to any other of the outward signs of worldly success.”

Overwhelmed by Dreystadt’s audacity and bemused by his proposal, the committee gave him eighteen months in which to develop the Negro market. By the end of 1934, Derystadt had the Cadillac division breaking even, and by 1940 had multplied sales tenfold… (Cray 279)

It is one side of the story to be sure, a comfortable retelling of an atrocious racism prevalent in this most American of institutions. And all of America. There must be so much more to it of course, but what a fascinating glimpse from a very corporate angle. Turned around, in spite of the fury it inspires, it seems to say that African-Americans saved the Cadillac from extinction. What did they save again?

God damn. I know it’s conspicuous consumption, but I continue utterly smitten with the craftsmanship and beauty of something such as this.

But there is more. I continue reading and 50 pages later I find this story from the WWII years:

Dreystadt had accepted a contract to produce delicate aircraft gyroscopes. despite mutterings on the fourteenth floor that the job was a killer and needed skilled hands unavailable. The dissent turned to outrage when Dreystadt and his personnel manager, Jim Roche, hired 2,000 overage black prostitutes from Paradise Valley–uneducated, untrained, but willing workers. Dreystadt hired the madams too, blithely explaining, “They know how to manage the women.”

Dreystadt himself machined a dozen gyroscopes, then produced a training film detailing the step-by-step assembly process. Within weeks the women were surpassing quotas, and the outrage turned to chagrin on West Grand Boulevard. Jokes about Cadillac’s “red-light district” angered Dreystadt. “These women are my fellow workers, and yours,” he insisted. “They do a good job and respect their work. Whatever their past, they are entitled to the same respect as any one of our associates.”

Dreystadt knew he would have to replace these women at war’s end–returning veterans had job preference, and the United Auto Workers, heavily white male with a southern-states orientation, wanted the women out of the plant. “Nigger-lover” and “whore-monger” Dreystadt fought to keep some, pleading, “For the first time in their lives, these poor wretches are paid decently, work in decent conditions, and have some rights. And for the first time they have some dignity and self-respect. It’s our duty to save them from being again rejected and despised.” The union stood adamant.

When the women were laid off, a number committed suicide  rather than return to the streets. Nick Dreystadt grieved, “God forgive me. I have failed these poor souls.” (Cray 318-319)

Again, only one side and a highly problematic retelling of what is truly a remarkable story by any measure. And again, racism in bucketfuls. But who was this Nick Dreystadt really? And where are the other sides of this story to be found? I shall be looking, no fear…

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Ford, and confusion in right wing rhetoric

Even among the many books on economics and transnational corporations that I do not agree with, there are some among them that are at least rationally argued and relatively factual. But I rather enjoy when they are not, it allows me to stay awake through the boredom, mumbling angrily at the page and marking exclamation points and question marks in the margins. And their own contradictions and prejudices always come to the fore…a few choice quotes from my recent favourite:

Ford also expanded mechanical parts manufacturing in the United Kingdom (such activities are less sensitive to labor disruptions) and body and assembly in Germany, where the work force was more efficient.

Ah, racial…er…national profiling? Grand generalizations? You have to love them, especially when they’re tossed into the argument like olives of unknown provenance into a greek salad.

Increasingly, these disagreements within the US Big Three made it difficult for the US government to intervene effectively in their bargaining with the Mexican government.

Long live free trade! I wonder who was more vexed, the big three or the US government?

The UAW’s failure to negotiate better with the auto makers that had recently established in the United States also accounted for the disadvantage that the US Big Three face vis-a-vis their foreign rivals…

Is this the present or the past, who can tell? One thing I know is that it’s those damn unions again, always letting the home country’s corporations down…but I suppose if you can’t blame the workers for not kicking some Japanese ass, who can you blame for the American corporation’s failure?

The maquiladoras became the most visible symbols of the threats that low-wage countries could pose to jobs…

Again, if you can’t blame those greedy low-wage countries for the threats against jobs, who can you blame? Oh wait…

US government policies that fostered automotive production in maquiladora plants also altered the negotiating dynamic between the Mexican government and the US vehicle producers. The US auto makers learned about the low costs and the high quality of automotive production in Mexico, and the Mexican government learned about the benefits of rationalizing Mexican automotive production on a North American basis.

This is an extraordinary thing to say by any standard (unless you’re a patriotic elementary school teacher reading directly from a company brochure). It is especially extraordinary if you’re aware of the fact, as the author states earlier in the book, that Ford opened its first Mexican factory in 1925 and GM and Chrysler in 1935. And all of them had been operating there continuously for decades.

Sadly enough, the ongoing silliness of this right-wing hodgepodge of contradictory imperialist and free-trade theories  kept me entranced until the very end! So I have now read a book in its entirety that I can never use as a source in good conscience, though I shall certainly find some of the original sources useful. I could have just read the bibliography…I suppose I know who has had the last laugh.

Clones

In the 10 minute walk between Oxford Street Station and Bond Street Station, you will pass three Zara clothing stores.

Terrifying.

Far more terrifying still:

Identical mannequins. The high-fashion ideal woman, no? Standardized in her slim form, perfect skin, perfect makeup, perfect hair (in a form possible only on a mannequin or briefly on a runway). Identical except in her outfit, it is only her clothes that set her apart (the presence or absence of accessories, the amount of leg she is willing to show). But of course even these differences must fit within the season and the latest style.

The most terrifying thing of all? That this should inspire anyone to buy these clothes.

Southwark Cathedral Contradictions

I can’t quite grasp the relationship between the glorious monsters on the outside and the glorious light and space and soaring of the inside

And I still cannot quite comprehend how stone can take this character of massive weightlessness, how anything so heavy and solid can delicately soar and continually unfold into mystery

This narrow Norman arch has stood here here supporting the roof for 800 years. Of course, it was once a wood roof, probably very similar to that of Westminster Hall  with its capitals of strange creatures and frightening angels…perhaps resolving some of the contradictions, but raising others. I want to know their stories, but fear them to be long gone. And while I love stumbling across the green man, I do not buy much of the crap written about him. So it is all wonder and mystery, this combination of such immense human skill, love, and imagination

Southwark Cathedral stands at the lowest point of the Thames, the old ford and today’s Tower Bridge, for long the only entrance to the City of London. You can see the remains of the Roman road alongside the cathedral, along with a statue of an ancient hunter god. There has been a church here since at least 606 AD…

[And the priests and staff inside are incredibly friendly and informative without being overwhelmingly so. And the incredible Burough Market is immediately next door.]

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The Monsters of Southwark Cathedral

They crouch beneath the eaves, bright proud glances and power full grown

Southwark Cathedral

They claw their way out through cracks in the flint and the stone of the walls. Emerge slowly, heavy lidded and weary as from a womb, their taloned limbs still to grow into the promise of their massive heads.

Southwark Cathedral

They mourn their sunlit exile from the river’s dark waters, their reduction to mere channels and spouts and perches for pigeons

Southwark Cathedral

And there is madness, tucked into cornered arrays of angles and planes and nothing means anything but the torrent of water that rushes through its vessel paying no mind to the vacant staring eyes

Southwark Cathedral

Endlessly, violently relieved of the weight of memory and ages by the mighty rushing of waters, relieved even of the precise crags of their own face.

The pigeons remain unafraid.

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A meditation on bridges

Bridges.I love them.

I heard a fascinating lecture by David Gilbert (London Holloway University of London) the other day, on London’s Hungerford Bridge. Also known as the Charing Cross bridge…it was a look at the symbolic significance of the prosaic, not the splashy and fanciful architectural feat. In fact, Hungerford was long considered the eyesore of London, there’s an amazing little illustration from Punch magazine showing a devil staring at the bridge titled ‘The Spirit of Ugliness’. The name of the talk in fact, but I don’t want to steal the thunder. Here is an image of it as it is today, the prosaic and ugly metal railway bridge now hidden by the pedestrian walkways:

It is beautiful. And even its ugliness was painted many times, its metal disappearing into the mist of the Thames…

What I loved most about the lecture was how it made me think. Bridges are fundamental elements to the city, but often unsung (with the exception of those towering examples of technical steel and beauty, or history). They are spaces of connections, flows, and movement, as opposed to walls which contain. They are a kind of unique public space, a meeting place of difference, they have constantly changing rhythms depending on the time of day, and they open up vistas of the city in ways nothing else does. And I’ve always loved bridges, so I went to my flickr page to pull photos and meditate on this love.

Apparently I primarily love what is found under bridges. How extraordinary.

Perhaps it’s the years in LA where bridges are somehow none of these things, but have been distorted and twisted into something entirely different. Here many of them are built so that you can never cross them on foot. It is true that you can cross one or two of the bridges that span the river, but that is the division between East and West, one of the hardest LA divisions to step across in every sense. For most bridges, their function is to move as many cars as possible as quickly as possible through a landscape controlled and despised by its occupants.

Here poverty and resistance send people under the bridges. Into spaces that fill you with rage at what can be done to a city, spaces that give you that undeniably pleasant feeling of mixed tragedy, beauty and danger, that thrill of the photographer that I always try to keep a close watch on…

These bridges built over the pulverized skeletons of a destroyed community, and supporting freeways that divide L.A. into its terrifying sections of racial segregation and despair, it is underneath them that new communities grow, communities that break your heart

And the beauty?

Where everyday resistance has taken them back, reclaimed them, like Chicano Park in San Diego

And this

And so even when I lived in Glasgow I seemed to keep my eyes down, though the view was untouched by pain

Maybe I shall think about trying to photograph what is on top of bridges, and what can be seen looking outwards…without ceasing to spend time underneath.

Bruno Schulz & Literary Pub Gossip

Reading The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz, also known as Cinnamon Shops. It moves easily between one title and the other in my mind, whatever my book cover might say. Moves easily between putrid terror and the warmth and fragrance of home. And I rode the tube furious that anyone who could fling my heart up and down and side to side with his glorious words, should write of a mad girl ‘s libidinous passion and hideous unnatural fertility, of an aunt of

almost self propagating fertility, a femininity without rein, morbidly expansive.

it’s not the fury of blame, just the impotent tragedy of this ancient war of sexes that I cannot find myself in. You see, I can fling words too. And all men must surely cower before me, as Schulz illustrates over and over again.

As a woman I find horror in this. And irony. One Gestapo agent spared Schulz’s life because he liked his pictures…it was another Nazi who shot him dead in the street.

It is a used book I found in Kensington on Saturday, and between two of the pages I found a small pressed flower, translucent, ancient, fragile. Beautiful. I love finding such things. And I love entire pages of this book, the lyrical madness of it. The way its edges don’t quite fit though the center holds. Mervyn Peake must also have loved him, the father crouched on the pelmet (impossible!), flapping his wings sends me reeling Gormenghast way…

And I went to write in the Seven Stars, one of my favourite pubs, small, mostly silent, I sat in a hard wooden chair by the fake coal fire, stared at the Inns of Court. Wrote reams. But is it true as one pub stalwart claimed, that Dylan Thomas made an international reputation at the expense of the local people? Must I hold it against him that he did not actually speak Welsh? And it’s Burns night…must I despise Burns and Chaucer for working for Her Majesty’s Inland Revenue Service? Ruining peoples’ lives? I am undecided. My brother texted me “Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie,” in honor, but I prefer this.

Let every kind, their pleasure find
The savage, and the tender
Some social join, for some leagues combine
Some solitary wander.
–Robbie Burns

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Wheech

wheech

A scottish word, wheech means to remove quickly or rapidly.

  • If you don’t gie me a puff oan that joint ah’ll just wheech it right aff yi.
  • The mugger just wheeched the old ladies pension book from her and ran away.
  • That guy is a real ladies man and loves nothing better than wheeching the knickers right off them.

Where Three Dreams Cross

Where Three Dreams Cross — 150 Years of Photography From India, Pakistan and Bangledesh…you can see it now at the Whitechapel Gallery.  I loved the website without reservation (and apparently, I am far from alone).

I just got home from the exhibition itself, had to make myself some tea. The photographs were stunning, and I am not quite sure why I find myself unsettled, perhaps this feeling would be better known to me if I went to more such exhibitions. As it is, I just love to take photos. I put them up on flickr, I share them with friends. And I’ve always thought I loved to look at photographs. I don’t think that’s changed, but this has definitely made me think.

I suppose  what is bothering me is the existence of two fine lines I’ve often felt but never really put into words.

Every life has beauty in it. Those moments of deep feeling (not even necessarily happiness) found by everyone, even those living the most anguished back-breaking poverty. Here is another picture (cropped like the first!) from the website…best I can do!

Photos like this seem to be able to capture pure moment, motion, joy. But photography also carries what might be an almost unique ability to make poverty itself beautiful. And I found a kind of creeping horror in suffering itself made picturesque, striking, aesthetic. Of an outsider turning a daily and commonplace struggle for survival into their own art. I wondered how many of these human beings turned subjects ever saw these pictures of themselves? I could not even pinpoint which photographs made me feel so, it came upon me slowly and I am certain it was a minority. I wondered if it could be the exhalation of the photographer’s own feeling towards those within the view finder.

The other fine line is similar, every life has its privacy…what I love about photographs are their ability to capture moments in time, spontaneity, the brilliance of chance. And yet I feel there are some moments that should not be captured, displayed. There were a couple of pieces where it felt an intensely private space, where consent could not have been granted (though I could be wrong, I tell myself).

I suppose crossing either line is my definition of exploitation, I think it is something remarkably easy to do with photography as art, photography for display to strangers. And myself, as a stranger, complicit in it by staring at it on a gallery wall.

And yet, I am glad I went. There were many photographs with stories to tell, lives too often hidden and demanding visibility, beauty and struggle and an incredible hand-colored gelatin-printed history in abundance. And in spite of the above. I think the curators did a very good job of pulling it together. I particularly appreciated that there is an explicit stance on colonialism, and that all of the photographers are Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi. So as levels of exploitation in photography exhibitions go, this one has made the effort to consciously reduce them…

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