Category Archives: Pillars of Capitalism

Speck on Walkable Cities — But Who Will Walk Them?

13538794Jeff Speck opens Walkable Cities with this:

This is not the next great book on American cities. That book is not needed… We’ve known for three decades how to make livable cities — after forgetting for four — yet we’ve somehow not been able to pull it off. (3)

He’s talking about Jane Jacobs there, The Death and Life of American Cities. This made me want to like this book, as did the following two sentences.

What works in the best cities is walkability.

Walkability is both an end and a means, as well as a measure. (4)

But really, there are three main points here: (1) walkability is good, primarily in the ways that it supports the real goal of planners — (2) to increase property values, while also (3) improving quality of life for those who are moving back to the city or currently live in the suburbs and are driving too much, i.e. white middle-class people.

There are two broad currents in planning, the first is planning for justice and equity, the second is planning for property values and quality of life for those who can afford it. This is in the second strand, which I rather hate with every fiber of my being

This is the kind of book that in its erasure of issues of equality and lack of any acknowledgment of the results of past patterns of unjust development, disinvestment, exploitation and discrimination becomes a manual for extending the privileges of one (white, middle-to-upper-class) group while erasing everyone else  (the poor and people of colour) from the city neighbourhoods they currently inhabit.

I walk cities, walkability is the most important city characteristic to me. Yet to make anything in this book useful to those who care about making neighbourhoods better for those who currently live there, to ensure that planning interventions do not increase displacement and segregation, an awful lot of the framing needs to be discarded. Every time Speck talks about the ways in which interventions to make a city more walkable improve property values, it is clear that issues of gentrification and displacement must be grappled with for those who do care about equity.

When it keeps to analysis of the actual physical streetscapes and built environment, much of this is useful:

Outdated zoning and building codes, often imported from the suburbs, have matched the uninviting streetscapes with equally antisocial private buildings, completing a public realm that is unsafe, uncomfortable, and just plain boring. (4)

Or looking at the four main conditions of walkability:

Each of these qualities is essential and none alone is sufficient. Useful means that most aspects of daily life are located close at hand and organized in a way that walking serves them well. Safe means that the street has been designed to give pedestrians a fighting chance against being hit by automobiles; they must not only be safe but feel safe… Comfortable means that buildings and landscape shape urban street into “outdoor living rooms,” in contrast to wide-open spaces… Interesting means that sidewalks are lined by unique buildings with friendly faces and that signs of humanity abound. (11)

It is in parsing out what these mean that the trouble lies — especially around ideas of safety and comfort as they are shaped by historic patterns of racism, sexism and discrimination. You won’t find any of those complexities here.

But guess what you will find? For Speck, walkability is marketable. He quotes Joe Cortwright’s ‘Walking the Walk: How Walkability Raises Home Values in U.S. Cities’, which I suppose would be useful to look at. Likewise William Frey, whom he quotes:

A new image of urban America is in the making. What used to be white flight to the suburbs is turning into ‘bright flight’ to cities that have become magnets for aspiring young adults who see access to knowledge-based jobs, public transportation and a new city ambiance as an attraction. (35)

Bright fucking Flight. This is the planning whose entire goal is to attract people back to the cities from the suburbs without a thought to issues of community participation, equity, social justice, eradicating poverty, improving people’s lives through improving the city they live in or even a thought to all the talent languishing in the city deprived of quality education and jobs and hope — all the things that brought me to planning in the first place. This is the planning that fills me with nausea. I am ignoring it to focus on what is useful.

As an outline, the steps to a walkable city are useful and it is definitely a good list — the white devil is in the details.

The 10 Steps to a Walkable City:

THE USEFUL WALK

1. Put cars in their place.

This was full of useful evidence to prove that cities have been built for cars, and that wide lanes, multi-lanes, enormous left-hand turn lanes and cutting down all the street trees actually make people drive faster and more dangerously. Speck also lays out the evidence for ‘induced demand’, if you build it, the cars will come and traffic will not improve. Common sense, or research pioneered over 30 years by Donald Appleyard among others, has yet to hit the Department of Transportation. If Speck’s book can help that process of realisation in such departments and city governments, I might be glad he wrote it.

I do love this quote of Bernard-Henry Lévy on our autocentric lifestyle:

a global, total obesity that spares no realm of life, public or private. An entire society that, from the top down, from one end to the other, seems prey to this obscure derangement that slowly causes an organism to swell, overflow, explode. (102, from American Vertigo)

2. Mix the uses.

I like mixed uses. But then Speck makes comments about how

city properties often come burdened with a whole range of utility issues, easements and access challenges, not to mention pesky neighbors. Local banks, until recently all too willing to finance condo clusters on the periphery, shy away from investing in new apartments downtown.

‘pesky neighbors’ has been code for poor people, immigrants and people of colour since the 1930s and 40s with the federal governments’ Home Owners Loan Corporation and Real Estate industry guidelines that gave rise to redlining back when deeding your house to be for Caucasians only was widespread and encouraged. Speck continues:

This contemporary version of redlining is a significant reason that downtown housing often cannot be built without municipal support. (107)

and then

…most American cities do not need more affordable housing in their downtowns. Most American cities have too much affordable housing downtown. Or, more accurately, too much of their downtown housing is affordable, since everyone but the poor was able to join the suburban exodus. (109)

He doesn’t mention that despite this ‘fact’, many cities are in an affordable housing crisis where affordable housing is needed by a majority of city residents including teachers and firefighters, that he conflates the poor with people of colour long discriminated against in any attempt to join the suburban exodus, that such redlining might have contributed greatly to generations of poverty, or that affordable housing is now being erased from all downtowns and nothing built to replace it. Millions of people currently homeless and with not even a fraction of the shelter in existence necessary to house them even for a night also go unmentioned.

Some of his biases can be seen in an uncritical passage on resistance to granny flats:

They are typically opposed by neighbors who are worried about property values. An old college friend of mine from Los Angeles put it succinctly: “We are afraid that nine illegals will move in.” (111)

Nothing could make more clear where Speck is coming from. In response Speck notes they will rather

introduce affordability in a dispersed rather than a concentrated way, avoiding the pathologies that sometimes arise from the latter. (111)

As if the pathologies lie in poor people rather than the forces which maintain their concentrated poverty. I suppose he simply joins a long tradition of blaming poor people for poverty here.

3. Get the parking right.

Ah, Donald Shoup from UCLA, stop subsidising things, raise the cost of everything. It makes some sense, until you start thinking about how this will impact people differently. Then questions of equity come to the fore and it is harder for me to support without a lot more thought on how equity will be addressed in a city so car-dependent as LA. I’ve sat through Shoup’s classes, so I know that he failed to impress me on that. Still, better transit, less parking.

4. Let transit work.

I agree. If only he had stopped there, but instead he waxes poetic on improving public transit:

In some of these locations, the bus is destined remain the “loser cruiser,” the mode of choice for those who have no choice: the elderly, the poor, and infirm. As such, it will always be underfunded and struggling for survival, like any social service.

If it is to become widely used, transit has to be ruthlessly reconceptualized as a convenience, not just a rescue vehicle. Or, more accurately, while certain rescue routes must remain — from the old-age home to the health center, for example — the system needs to focus on those rare opportunities where it can offer a superior experience to driving. Those few line should be earmarked for a higher level of service… (155)

The loser-cruiser? Yet this is in fact the current approach of transit experts, it’s why courts have found LA transit, for example, to be racist and discriminatory and put them under a decades long injunction to improve bus routes serving South Central.

In Europe public transit is seen as a right, as an essential part of a city for ALL of its residents. I think it might be better to start there. There is also, of course, a long tradition of work around environmental justice in the US around improving cities that begins there as well.

We return to planning for property value rather than public good. On Bus Rapid Transit versus trains:

… the biggest criticism of bus systems, that they lack rail’s permanence: how can you drive real estate investment around transit if transit might leave? (157)

I don’t even have words for that sentence, and the pathologies of development it describes.

THE SAFE WALK

5. Protect the pedestrian.

6. Welcome bikes.

I’m all for protecting pedestrians and welcoming bikes, but yet again, we see planning for profit:

In contrast to widened roads and other highway “improvements,” new bikeways actually increase the value of nearby real estate. (194)

THE COMFORTABLE WALK

7. Shape the spaces.

I did like this:

Traditional, walkable urbanism is grounded in figural space. It believes that the shape of the spaces between buildings is what matters, because this is the public realm — the place where civic life plays out. (216)

8. Plant trees.

THE INTERESTING WALK

9. Make friendly and unique faces.

Not faces of diversity and enjoyment of space, faces of buildings and parking structures. Again, back to profits, though I have no objection at all to less parking, and what parking exists to be hidden:

Enlightened developers…know that hidden parking boosts retail sales and property values. (238)

10. Pick your winners.

I like this list. My critique is really a critique of an entire point of view that makes improving property values the goal of planning. In that sense, this book did manage to give an outline of how to create a walkable city, but also highlighted very different ideas of who the city is for, and where the interventions will do most to push out and displace current residents without a larger vision and planning process around justice and equity.

For more on building social spaces and better cities…

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Georg Simmel: The Metropolis and Mental Life

georg_simmelI am finally getting around to reading Georg Simmel’s (1858-1918) sociological and urban classic ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ (download here) on the relationship between the city and the people within it. As per usual in reading the classic, most of what you thought you knew you didn’t know at all, and it manages to surprise you. This short essay packs quite an intellectual punch as well, connecting space and population density with economics with human striving and human behaviour in ways that many others never manage, even with the benefit of building on such work that does.

The deepest problems of modern life flow from the attempt of the individual to maintain the independence and individuality of his existence against the sovereign powers of society, against the weight of the historical heritage and the external culture and technique of life. (11)

I keep turning these things over in my mind, especially in relation to the things I have been thinking and reading that celebrate our connections to land, to culture, to community. Simmel’s celebration of individuality emerges from such a specific European, male, steeped-in-a-certain-tradition kind of place. This place:

The eighteenth century may have called for liberation from all the ties which grew up historically in politics, in religion, in morality and in economics in order to permit the original natural virtue of man, which is equal in everyone, to develop without inhibition; the nineteenth century may have sought to promote, in addition to man’s freedom, his individuality (which is connected with the division of labour) and his achievements which make him unique and indispensable but which at the same time make him so much the more dependent on the complementary activity of others … in each of these the same fundamental motive was at work, namely the resistance of the individual to being levelled, swallowed up in the social-technological mechanism. (11)

This  comparison makes even more salient Simmel’s focus on the difference between the city and the countryside, even more interesting that he should make newness and change the foundation of intellect as opposed to tradition and emotion:

The psychological foundation, upon which the metropolitan individuality is erected, is the intensification of emotional life due to the swift and continuous shift of external and internal stimuli. … To the extent that the metropolis creates these psychological conditions — with every crossing of the street, with the tempo and multiplicity of economic, occupational and social life — it creates in the sensory foundations of mental life, and in the degree of awareness necessitated by our organization as creatures dependent on differences, a deep contrast with the slower, more habitual, more smoothly flowing rhythm of the sensory-mental phase of small town and rural existence. Thereby the essentially intellectualistic character of the mental life of the metropolis becomes intelligible as over against that of the small town which rests more on feelings and emotional relationships. These latter are rooted in the unconscious levels of the mind and develop most readily in the steady equilibrium of unbroken customs. The locus of reason, on the other hand, is in the lucid, conscious upper strata of the mind and it is the most adaptable of our inner forces (11-12)

Fascinating, too, that this translates for Simmel into pure intellectuality, and thus an instrumentality that facilitates a money economy and capitalism itself.

This intellectualistic quality which is thus recognized as a protection of the inner life against the domination of the metropolis, becomes ramified into numerous specific phenomena…. money economy and the domination of the intellect stand in the closest relationship to one another. They have in common a purely matter-of-fact attitude in the treatment of persons and things in which a formal justice is often combined with an unrelenting hardness. The purely intellectualistic person is indifferent to all things personal…

There are at least two things going on here, I think. The first is the way that the form and crowdedness of the city is both ’cause and effect’ of a certain abstraction and the impersonal relationships of the money economy:

In certain apparently insignificant characters or traits of the most external aspects of life are to be found a number of characteristic mental tendencies. The modern mind has become more and more a calculating one. The calculating exactness of practical life which has resulted from a money economy corresponds to the ideal of natural science, namely that of transforming the world into an arithmetical problem and of fixing every one of its parts in a mathematical formula. It has been money economy which has thus filled the daily life of so many people with weighing, calculating, enumerating and the reduction of qualitative values to quantitative terms. … It is, however, the conditions of the metropolis which are cause as well as effect for this essential characteristic. The relationships and concerns of the typical metropolitan resident are so manifold and complex that, especially as a result of the agglomeration of so many persons with such differentiated interests, their relationships and activities intertwine with one another into a many-membered organism.

This organism, by reason of the crowded and always-changing nature of its spatiality, requires an ever greater temporal organisation:

For this reason the technique of metropolitan life in general is not conceivable without all of its activities and reciprocal relationships being organized and coordinated in the most punctual way into a firmly fixed framework of time which transcends all subjective elements … every event, however restricted to this superficial level it may appear, comes immediately into contact with the depths of the soul, and that the most banal externalities are, in the last analysis, bound up with the final decisions concerning the meaning and the style of life. Punctuality, calculability and exactness, which are required by the complications and extensiveness of metropolitan life, are not only most intimately connected with its capitalistic and intellectualistic character but also colour the content of life and are conductive to the exclusion of those irrational, instinctive, sovereign human traits and impulses which originally seek to determine the form of life from within instead of receiving it from the outside in a general, schematically precise form. (13)

Separate from this, yet connected, is the manner in which the city’s inhabitants protect their own psyche and space. Simmel writes:

There is perhaps no psychic phenomenon which is so unconditionally reserved to the city as the blasé outlook. (14)

What does that mean exactly? It’s something I recognise as a city dweller, though I am not sure I agree with this description or analysis:

the blasé attitude — in which the nerves reveal their final possibility of adjusting themselves to the content and the form of metropolitan life by renouncing the response to them. We see that the self preservation of certain types of personalities is obtained at the cost of devaluing the entire objective world, ending inevitably in dragging the personality downward into a feeling of its own valuelessness. Whereas the subject of this form of existence must come to terms with it for himself, his self-preservation in the face of the great city requires of him a no less negative type of social conduct. The mental attitude of the people of the metropolis to one another may be designated formally as one of reserve. If the unceasing external contact of numbers of persons in the city should be met by the same number of inner reactions as in the small town, in which one knows almost every person he meets and to each of whom he has a positive relationship, one would be completely atomized internally and would fall into an unthinkable mental condition. (14-15)

That last sentence is interesting. With so much stimuli you are forced to shut down a little bit, forced to create some kind of shell of indifference. There is a resonance to this that perhaps I am not quite ready to grant to the rest, but it has me thinking in ways I find particularly fruitful:

Combined with this physiological source of the blasé metropolitan attitude there is another, which derives from a money economy. The essence of the blasé attitude is an indifference toward the distinctions between things. … the meaning and the value of the distinctions between things, and therewith of the things themselves, are experienced as meaningless. They appear to the blasé person in a homogeneous, flat and grey colour with no one of them worthy of being preferred to another… the correct subjective reflection of a complete money economy to the extent that money takes the place of all the manifoldness of things and expresses all qualitative distinctions between them in the distinction of how much. To the extent that money, with its colourlessness and its indifferent quality, can become a common denominator of all values, it becomes the frightful leveller — it hollows out the core of things, their peculiarities, their specific values and their uniqueness and incomparability in a way which is beyond repair. (14)

These two in combination, argues Simmel, leads to the particularities of the city resident as the blasé person — though he pushes it further:

Indeed, if I am not mistaken, the inner side of this external reserve is not only indifference but more frequently than we believe, it is a slight aversion, a mutual strangeness and repulsion which, in a close contact which has arisen any way whatever, can break out into hatred and conflict. The entire inner organization of such a type of extended commercial life rests on an extremely varied structure of sympathies, indifferences and aversions of the briefest as well as of the most enduring sort. (15)

It is from this aversion, this purposeful ignoring of others that leads us to move, to look away that creates what many love most about the city:

This reserve with its overtone of concealed aversion appears once more, however, as the form or the wrappings of a much more general psychic trait of the metropolis. It assures the individual of a type and degree of personal freedom to which there is no analogy in other circumstances. (15)

This is in distinction for other kinds of communities, Simmel sees an evolution from small cohesive circles to whom everyone outside is a foreigner to cities. These small, traditional communities he describes as having:

a rigorous setting of boundaries and a centripetal unity and for that reason it cannot give room to freedom and the peculiarities of inner and external development of the individual. (15)

In contrast to such communities, cities provide the needed room for both perception and development of the intellect — though there is a darker side to such freedom:

The mutual reserve and indifference, and the intellectual conditions of life in large social units are never more sharply appreciated in their significance for the independence of the individual than in the dense crowds of the metropolis, because the bodily closeness and lack of space make intellectual distance really perceivable for the first time. It is obviously only the obverse of this freedom that, under certain circumstances, one never feels as lonely and as deserted as in this metropolitan crush of persons. For here, as elsewhere, it is by no means necessary that the freedom of man reflect itself in his emotional life only as a pleasant experience. (16)

This, for Simmel, is the meaning of cosmopolitanism. I term I didn’t know he used, one thrown about a great deal these days.

It is rather in transcending this purely tangible extensiveness that the metropolis also becomes the seat of cosmopolitanism. Comparable with the form of the development of wealth … the individual’s horizon is enlarged.

It is curious the way that Simmel ties this back into the economy — not into its discourses or the way it shapes the mindset and commonsense of everyday life as before, but in its materiality. First, through rent, which he does not explore which frustrates me. Maybe in that massive tome he has written about money there is more:

This may be illustrated by the fact that within the city the `unearned increment’ of ground rent, through a mere increase in traffic, brings to the owner profits which are self-generating. At this point the quantitative aspects of life are transformed qualitatively. (17)

There is something in this, I think, about the freedom that this particular kind of profit gives. But he does not forget nature or labour:

Cities are above all the seat of the most advanced economic division of labour. … The decisive fact here is that in the life of a city, struggle with nature for the means of life is transformed into a conflict with human beings, and the gain which is fought for is granted, not by nature, but by man. (17)

All of this grayness, crowdedness, freedom combines so that:

one seizes on qualitative distinctions, so that … the attention of the social world can, in some way, be won for oneself. This leads ultimately to the strangest eccentricities, to specifically metropolitan extravagances of self-distantiation, of caprice, of fastidiousness, the meaning of which is no longer to be found in the content of such activity itself but rather in its being a form of `being different’ — of making oneself noticeable. For many types of persons these are still the only means of saving for oneself, through the attention gained from others, some sort of self-esteem and the sense of filling a position.

And you have such a brief time to make this impression. This seems only an interesting aside, making me think of all the characters I have known, walked past in their colourful bids for attention and differentiation. Making me think of fashion, our increasing aim to be distinctive and unique within given limits. But Simmel takes it further than that, makes it more interesting when thinking about concrete city spaces.

Here in buildings and in educational institutions, in the wonders and comforts of space-conquering technique, in the formations of social life and in the concrete institutions of the State is to be found such a tremendous richness of crystalizing, de-personalized cultural accomplishments that the personality can, so to speak, scarcely maintain itself in the fact of it. (19)

The idea that human beings are actually in competition somehow with the built environment, and the cultural panoply of modern life. This leads to particular kind of person:

When both of these forms of individualism which are nourished by the quantitative relationships of the metropolis, i.e. individual independence and the elaboration of personal peculiarities, are examined with reference to their historical position, the metropolis attains an entirely new value and meaning in the world history of the spirit.

No longer was it the`general human quality’ in every individual but rather his qualitative uniqueness and irreplaceability that now became the criteria of his value. In the conflict and shifting interpretations of these two ways of defining the position of the individual within the totality is to be found the external as well as the internal history of our time. It is the function of the metropolis to make a place for the conflict and for the attempts at unification of both of these in the sense that its own peculiar conditions have been revealed to us as the occasion and the stimulus for the development of both. Thereby they attain a quite unique place, fruitful with an inexhaustible richness of meaning in the development of the mental life. They reveal themselves as one of those great historical structures in which conflicting life-embracing currents find themselves with equal legitimacy. (19)

There is so much packed into this brief essay — only 9 pages. I look forward to coming back to it, and it is definitely the sort of piece brilliant for teaching, as I am sure students would read it in very different ways depending on their experience. This makes me want to return to Weber, Durkheim, the Frankfurt School — there is too little time in life to do everything.

Just two other asides, one on Ruskin and Nietzsche and anti-urban sentiment:

It is in the light of this that we can explain the passionate hatred of personalities like Ruskin and Nietzsche for the metropolis — personalities who found the value of life only in unschematized individual expressions which cannot be reduced to exact equivalents and in whom, on that account, there flowed from the same source as did that hatred, the hatred of the money economy and of the intellectualism of existence.

The second, a delightful commentary on London…

a point which I shall attempt to demonstrate only with the statement of the most outstanding English constitutional historian to the effect that through the entire course of English history London has never acted as the heart of England but often as its intellect and always as its money bag.

[Simmel, Georg (1903) ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ in
Gary Bridge and Sophie Watson, eds. The Blackwell City
Reader. Oxford and Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002.]

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Israel Joshua Singer, Podgórze Ghetto, Płaszów Camp

Israel Joshua Singer is Isaac Baschevis’s older brother. His book The Brothers Ashkenazi (1936) blew me away. Written in Yiddish about the Jews of Łódź, Poland, it reads to me like a working out of demons — a deep and knowledgeable, very Marxist examination of capitalism and justice, yet the most chilling of conclusions about the power of hate.

All of these things find an equally chilling physical manifestion in the ghetto of Podgórze and the remains of Płaszów Camp.

The Brothers Ashkenazi begins, of course, in the Łódź ghetto, and contains the first of many things that struck me like blows, the similarities of segregation in Poland and that of African-Americans in the US:

At first, the Jews confined themselves to their own quarter. Seemingly overnight the houses already standing sprouted additional stories, annexes, wings, extensions, ells, attics, and garrets to accommodate the flow of newcomers converging upon Lodz from the surrounding areas…

Gradually the Jews began to spill out of their congested area in Wilki, which was officially closed to them. The first to stick a toe inside the restricted area were the more affluent, audacious Jews; presently the more timorous followed.

Then, like a torrent overflowing its banks, the Jews smashed down all barriers set up to include them.

Here too is an examination of real estate, and strategies for overcoming racial and religious restrictions as seen through the wheelings and dealings over building a new residential suburb. A savvy character named Preiss sees the potential, and buys land from a heavily indebted noble family, pretending it is for a factory.

Forgetting the fact that a Polish nobleman was obliged to address a Jew by his first name only, the Kanarskis abjured protocol and were almost civil to their visitor.

They are furious when they find out it is to become a residential area for Jews rather than an industrial one, but too late — the new municipality of Baluty is built, swallowing up peasant huts and transforming the lives of the gentiles within them in a new cultural melding.

This is also a story of the lived experience of Hasidic Judaism, of the unique battles between tradition and modernity faced by those raised in such traditional households. It explores the many contradictions of religion and capitalism, as well as the complicated relationships between family through the complex relationship between the twin brothers Ashkenazi, Simha Meir (Max) and Jacob. Both become successful, though in very different ways, both leave Hasidic Judaism for the most part behind them. Both love the same woman. There are a host of characters that seem drawn directly from life in all of their quirks and hypocrisies. My favourite is perhaps Feival, who works to recruit young men away from the Hasidim and into the intellectual heresy of their choice.

In his large house, strewn with daughters, papers, promissory notes, and bedding, stood bookcases filled with books for which he had paid fortunes.

His wife and daughters hate him…I was impressed by how Singer exposes quite relentlessly the oppression of women, their limited possibilities, the ways that it twists and distorts their lives and dreams. Not so impressed at the consistently shallow figures of haridans running around the novel (with one exception), but no one in this is whole.

What most fascinated me, however, is how with all of this emotional complexity of life and religion as they are lived, this also manages to be a story of the industrial revolution. A story of the rise of capitalism. It describes the practice of Jews buying factories through gentile front men, and hiring only gentiles so their factories can run through the Sabbath ‘with impunity and a clean conscience.’ Simha Meir becomes Max in his quest to become the ‘King of Łódź’.

More than ever he spent sleepless nights, scheming how to squeeze even more profits out of the factory.

He cuts out middle men, reduces quality of the materials used, reduces the amount of material, improves technology from hand looms to steam, reduces wages, increases hours. It explains the whole process of piecework and subcontracting. It describes in detail manufacturing at the beginning of the 1900s, here is just  a sample:

A giant cloud of steam, moisture, and stench hovered over the dyeing rooms. the directors grimaced at the half-naked workers clattering in wooden clogs over the slippery stone floors. they laundered the goods, rinsed and dried them before huge ovens, steamed them, threw them into bins, and passed them through the press.

By now the visitors had had enough, but Ashkenazi wouldn’t let them go.

There are ongoing strikes and the organizers are complex and sympathetic characters appearing throughout the book. The strikes are mostly broken — it is Simha Meir who reports its organizers to the police. Thus the workers come to study Marx:

Ironically, there was no place in tsarist Russia that offered such splendid opportunity to study Marxism as prisons.

As the strike falls apart, religious violence is unleashed as Catholics rampage through Jewish streets. The fragile solidarity built between workers is nowhere near enough to contain the fury and violence.

As the Jewish community mourns its dead and rebuilds what has been destroyed, industry and business push forward into a new time of prosperity for the few and increased misery for the workers.

The contradictions of capitalism emerge, as the huge bubble of credit spurring prosperity eventually bursts. Fires break out across the city as factories, warehouses, spinneries burn for the insurance. Simha Meir stays ahead. Rebuilds.

More violence is unleashed as the Austrian army occupying Poland unravels, and war breaks out. Singer writes:

The only ones with no homeland to return to were the Jews. Hooligans of all persuasions daubed their homes and shops with obscene and threatening slogans. the sounds of nationalistic and religious songs were accompanied by the tinkle of shattered Jewish windowpanes.

This is eerie. Just as is the descriptions of the 1918 massacre/pogrom of Lviv (Ukrainian)–Lwów (Polish)–Lemberg (Austrian).

When the Crocuses arrived and drove off the Ukrainians, the Jewish quarter was offered to them as a prize. A mob of priests, clerks, streetwalkers, nuns, housewives, criminals, teachers, monks, nurses, and assorted civilians gathered to egg on the conquerors. “Get the sheenies!” they howled. “Hang them by their beards! Smoke them out like rats!”

The mob is everyone, it unites the city across all other barriers because who does not appear in this list? Legionnaires disarm the Jews, hang the leaders. The next morning they set up machine guns at all the strategic corners and open fire. Then they go from house to house stripping them of valuables, raping women and killing at whim babies and grandmothers and anyone who resists.

“Let no Jewish seed remain in Christian Poland!” the officers cried.

On the second night they do their best to burn the quarter down to the ground.

Singer’s despair weighs on you like a stone. This insanely violent and destructive anti-Jewish sentiment makes a mockery of Marx — not in terms of the functioning of capitalism and industry and the resulting desperation and misery of the workers, but in the hopes for the unity of the working class to overturn it. You arrive at this conclusion with Singer, and it fucking hurts.  Because he understands the plight of the workers all too well, and his sympathies are always with the agitators fighting for change:

Like flies caught in spider webs, the men, women, and children of Balut sat glued to their looms, working until they dropped. But all the millions they earned weren’t enough to prepare for the Sabbath.

Yet in a world where capitalism has intertwined with gentile power and hate, capitalism is impossible to overturn and attempts to do so will only bring another wave of Christian violence crashing down on the Jewish community. Another strategy is required.

Had Jews adopted the gentile’s ways, they would have already long since vanished from the face of the earth. But the Jews perceived that theirs had to be a different course, and it was this perception that had lent them the moral strength to endure and accumulate the only kind of force the gentiles respected — intellectual and economic power.

You can read this book perhaps as a commentary of the emptiness, the unhappiness of In Max Ashkenzai’s life, where he only finds a measure of fulfillment in reconciling with his family through mutual tragedy. Yet I don’t think Singer lets us off that easily. In the face of hatred he shows how Max’s life — despite its ruthless exploitation of his fellow Jews along with gentiles, its emptiness  and unhappiness — is perhaps the best Jews can achieve. It is a victory and a revenge against Polish society that needs celebration. Thus, at his funeral, Max is acknowledged the King of Lodz, and beloved of his people:

Piotrkow Street was black with people, droshkies, carriages, and cars. Wild-bearded Hasisdim walked next to top-hatted bankers, grimy vendors, clerks, brokers, herder students, beggars, thieves, workers. In Max Ashkenazi’s passing they say the demise of Lodz itself. His funeral was its funeral.

It was hard reading this to remember that it was published during the Nazi’s rise to power, that these conclusions were reached with such desperate sadness before anyone knew the unthinkable thing the Nazis planned. These conclusions seem even more apt in grappling with the meaning of the holocaust, and I have found a little more insight I think, into today’s politics and all the ugliness of Israel’s actions. I still hate them, and watch, with heart breaking, oppression beget oppression.

“Let no Palestinian seed remain in Jewish Israel!” the officers cried.

While Krakow’s museums and plaques and self-descriptions rightly celebrate the stories of those who stood against the Nazis — among them Tadeusz Pankiewicz, the Catholic owner of the Eagle Pharmacy in Podgórze who continued operation and helped the resistance, or Schindler (with all his complications) whose factory also sits in Podgórze — they fail signally to engage with this longer history.

We did not visit Auschwitz-Birkenau — the thought of visiting a place of such horror as an attraction, with a guided tour for tourists as you must, filled us with dread. Instead we spent a day exploring the remnants of the ghetto on our own.

Between 1941 and 1943, Nazis carried out mass murders of Jews here in Plac Bohaterów Getta/ Plac Zgody — the staging point for their deportation to other camps from the ghetto. The Nazis ordered all Jews to leave Krakow in 1940; 17,000 remained and all were forced into the ghetto. In 1942, the Nazis carried out a mass deportation of people to Bełżec death camp. Those remaining they divided into sections “A” and “B”, employed and unemployed, useful and not useful. I think it is this kind of organizational detail that I find most terrifying. Those in group “A” were later marched to Płaszów Camp just down the road, while the people of “B” were murdered on the spot or sent to Auschwitz.

This is also the square on which the Eagle Pharmacy sits.

Podgórze

A later picture I found: the plac in 1958, with an advertisement in the background for Nova Huta…the past invisible here, and only a looking forward to the future.

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We hunted down the remnants of Podgórze’s walls, built to contain and cage:

Ghet Krakow 2

Today, here is a view of the old ghetto framed by the remaining section of wall on the left:

Podgórze

Podgórze

A terrifying picture of the clearing out of the ghetto, pieces of the wall in the background, ‘normal’ life beyond them:

Ghetto

From Podgórze, we crossed the highway to climb a prehistoric  mound, mythologised as the resting place of King Krakus, Kraków’s founder. It is the oldest human-made structure in Krakow, and normally I would have been much more excited about that. Alongside it, as you can see, sits a huge quarry. Used by Spielberg in filming Schindler’s list, it was also a site of work for groups from Płaszów Camp:

Podgórze

bigplaszow2

 

We continued on along a fairly overgrown and narrow track alongside the quarry and with a Catholic cemetery on the other side. Finally we reached Płaszów Camp:

Podgórze

It was dusk, and I know some of the ruins still exist at the other end, where the main entrance sat. We did not go and find them. But we looked out over the site from above, eerie and empty. You want to be alone with your thoughts in such places, don’t you.

Podgórze

This is what sat here once:

PlaszowCampWe wandered back through Podgórze, and into Kazimierz, the older Jewish neighbourhood sitting just south of Wawel castle.

This history of violence and contradiction lingered. It is not something that should be, or even could be, reconciled, contained, fully understood, capped off, or put behind us. This issue of how not just to bridge what divides us — and there is the whole grab-bag to choose from such as race, religion, gender, sexuality and any other difference we choose to invest with such meanings — but to find strength and beauty in our diversity, remains the key challenge for liberatory praxis I think.

Kazimierz & Podgórze

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Paulo Freire on Violence

Paolo Freire - Pedagogy of the OppressedThis is, I think, the third or fourth time I have read Pedagogy of the Oppressed, I found it difficult the first time but so worthwhile. I find it much less difficult these days, after having plunged myself into the depths of theory where few can write worth a damn, but it is more rich and full of wisdom than most things I have read. This first post focuses on just a very tiny piece of it — capitalism’s relationships of violence.

I have been thinking a lot about the nature of violence, the various ways it is inflicted on personal and structural levels, and the various ways it must be resisted. I have just finish Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, which I will also be blogging slowly. I rather like starting things here, though, because like Freire I think it is worth grounding theory in the broader idea that the point of it all is for every human being to have the space and ability to realise themselves and the fullness of their humanity. He writes:

But while both humanization and dehumanization are real alternatives, only the first is the people’s vocation. This vocation is constantly negated, yet it is affirmed by that very negation. It is thwarted by injustice, exploitation, oppression, and the violence of the oppressors; it is affirmed by the yearning of the oppressed for freedom and justice, and by their struggle to recover their lost humanity.

The struggle for humanization, for the emancipation of labor, for the overcoming of alienation, for the affirmation of men and women as persons … is possible only because dehumanization, although a concrete historical fact, is not a given destiny but the result of an unjust order that engenders violence in the oppressors, which in turn dehumanizes the oppressed. (44)

I love both insights — that this is a fact, but one that we can change. Given the relationship of oppression, it cannot be the oppressors who shift it as their way of life and thought is founded on oppression and the violence this requires, it must be shifted through a struggle by the oppressed to regain humanity:

This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well. (44)

I always thought that seemed a bit unfair, but what he means is that it is the oppressed who can fully understand the nature of exploitation and violence and through struggle work to create a world without these relations. I don’t mind that everyone will benefit from such a thing.

To return to violence, he establishes clearly the direction in which it flows:

Any situation in which “A” objectively exploits “B” or hinders his self-affirmation as a responsible person is one of oppression. Such a situation in itself constitutes violence, even when sweetened by false generosity, because it interferes with the individual’s ontological and historical vocation to be more fully human. With the establishment of a relationship of oppression, violence has already begun. Never in history has violence been initiated by the oppressed. How could they be the initiators, if they themselves are the result of violence? How could they be the sponsors of something objective whose objective inauguration called forth their existence as oppressed? There would be no oppressed had there been no prior of violence to establish their subjugation. (55)

Yet as you can see over and over again through history and into the present discourses around people of colour and the poor, there is a projection of violence onto the oppressed:

For the oppressors, however, it is always the oppressed (whom they obviously never call “the oppressed” but — depending on whether they are fellow countrymen or not –“those people” or “the blind and envious masses” or “savages” or “natives” or “subversives”) who are disaffected, who are “violent,” “barbaric,” “wicked,” or “ferocious” when they react to the violence of the oppressors. (56)

In my research I found this over and over again as well — and you can hear it up and down the US at the moment in reaction to #blacklivesmatter just as you heard in relation to the civil rights movement:

For the oppressors, exists only one right: their right to live in peace, over against the right not always even recognized, but simply conceded, of the oppressed to survival. And they make this concession only because the existence of the oppressed is necessary to their own existence. (57)

What they refuse to recognise is how their position is rooted in a violent historical process that continues to inflict violence:

Once a situation of violence and oppression has been established, it engenders an entire way of life and behavior for those caught up in it — oppressors and oppressed alike. Both are submerged in this situation, and both bear the marks of oppression. Analysis of existential situations of oppression reveals that their inception lay in an act of violence — initiated by those with power. This violence, as a process, is perpetuated from generation to generation of oppressors, who become its heirs and are shaped in its climate. This climate creates in the oppressor a strongly possessive consciousness — possessive of the world and of men and women. Apart from direct, concrete, material possession of the world and of people, the oppressor consciousness could not understand itself — could not even exist. Fromm said of this consciousness that without such possession, “it would lose contact with the world.” The oppressor consciousness tends to transform everything surrounding it into an object of its domination. The earth, property, production, the creations of people, people themselves, time — everything is reduced to the status of objects at its disposal.

In their unrestrained eagerness to possess, the oppressors develop the conviction that it is possible for them to transform everything into objects of their purchasing power; hence their strictly materialistic concept of existence. Money is the measure of all things, and profit the primary goal. For the oppressors, what is worthwhile is to have more — always more — even at the cost of the oppressed having less or having nothing. For them, to be is to have and to be the class of the “haves.” (58)

Here Freire signposts how this is driven by capitalist desire for profit and control, the ways it is patriarchal and bound up in multiple oppressions — you can extrapolate how this desire for control and domination of nature have brought us to where we are today.

It also results in their own suffocation, along with a great blindness, rationalising ideologies, a blaming of the victim, fear — all things far too prevalent now as then:

The oppressors do not perceive their monopoly on having more as a privilege which dehumanizes others and themselves. They cannot see that, in the egoistic pursuit of having as a possessing class, they suffocate in their own possessions and no longer are; they merely have. For them, having more is an inalienable right, a right they acquired through their own “effort” with their “courage to take risks.” If others do not have more, it is because they are incompetent and lazy, and worst of all is their unjustifiable ingratitude towards the “generous gestures” of the dominant class. Precisely because are “ungrateful” and “envious,” the oppressed are regarded as enemies who must be watched.

It could not be otherwise. If the humanization of the oppressed signifies subversion, so also does their freedom; hence the necessity for constant control. And the more the oppressors control the oppressed the more they change them into apparently inanimate “things.” This tendency of the oppressor consciousness to “in-animate” everything and everyone it encounters, in its eagerness to possess, unquestionably corresponds with a tendency to sadism. (59)

I want to think more about the connections between control, possession and the reduction of people to the in-animate, to things. But this relation of violence is a key one I think, to be explored further.

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Disappointing Boat Tours of European Cities 2: Stockholm

I am sure you all remember the pain and disappointment of a Hamburg boat tour in January, with a tour entirely in German and only a numbered sheet with serious, unintentionally hilarious translations of sights to be seen.  With our sleeves we removed condensation from the windows as we stared through lashings of rain and vast expanses of containers and industrial shipping — I would have enjoyed those in the sun.

Yesterday was sunny, we had a few hours before the train whisked us off to Linköping. Stockholm is a city built on islands, and I dearly love boats and the ability to enjoy sitting on a boat and get wonderful views of a new city you can obtain in no other way — what could go wrong?

Real estate development, that’s fucking what.

But I shall start with what we enjoyed.

Views of the old city

Stockholm day 1

Stockholm day 1

Stockholm day 1

Stockholm day 1

Splendid, even if viewed somewhat at a distance.

The below were described as allotments set aside for Stockholm’s poor to grow vegetables and enjoy fresh air — I am not at all sure that they continue to have this function, it seems doubtful from how picturesque they are and the lack of needful gardener’s messiness, but I liked them nonetheless

Stockholm day 1

Stockholm’s floating swimming pool — BAD — and bad (ass) it certainly is. An attempt was made to shut it down, but people came together to preserve it.

Stockholm day 1

There was not a mention of social housing in the commentary, but I rather liked these brutalist buildings in their great arcs to provide residents with the best possible views across Lake Mälaren, and I imagine they are (or were) social housing set in great green parks along the waterfront (including playgrounds, which you can see in the foreground) and full of life:

Stockholm day 1

Wonderful. This is Stockholm, a city like no other I have seen.

The weird and wonderful

Stockholm day 1

Stockholm day 1

This grill hidden away, for some precarious baltic-sea adjacent BBQ:

Stockholm day 1

This doesn’t really count, except the bro signal is pretty hilarious for English speakers:

Stockholm day 1

The interesting and industrial

Stockholm day 1

Stockholm day 1

I loved so much this wonderful building:

Stockholm day 1

The long periods of just-the-same-crappy-‘luxury’-flats-built-through-‘regeneration’-on-every-fucking-stretch-of-water-in-the-whole-world

This, in fact, comprised most of the tour. The tour guide had little to say about any of it, so apart from some facts about the Social Democrats, the life expectancy of men being 75 and women 81, that time the bubonic plague hit Stockholm with 1200 people dying a day in a city of 50,000 people and yet it went on for months, that time they tried to win the Olympics to the city and failed (Athens bankrupted themselves to win it instead, but that’s my own commentary) but it meant they did built some interesting housing with solar and using gas from the local sewage treatment plants…a bunch of fun facts and lots of musical intervals (they provided headphones with an array of six languages to choose from).

Occasionally they would get to point out the interesting things that used to be there connected to the docks, before they were all rebuilt with this ‘quality’ and ‘luxury’ housing. Not a mention of an architect, an urban plan, a social vision, just some basic advertising jargon. Heres is one reminder left of the docks that were once here

Stockholm day 1

An array of soul-crushing developments that I am sure I have seen before in Chelsea, in Limehouse, in Chicago, in LA, in Glasgow, in Hamburg…and every god damn city with any history of industry along the waterfront.

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Far be it from me to complain like a middle-class consumer would, but the very expensive ‘Under-the-Bridges’ tour (we went under a few bridges, that was cool) was advertised as being 2 hours 15 minutes, when in fact it was under two hours. That was because we skipped what the materials encouraging you to buy the tour showed as included, but when actually on board were described as the ‘alternative’ loop which would have brought us back into the interesting older part of the city to see it from the other side. Which I would have loved. Of course, going twice past the horrors of modern development meant I was still pretty happy to get off that damn boat. If only it had been late enough in the day to have bought some overpriced alcohol.

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The Newcomen Engine of Brislington Engine House

In our long-ago epic quest to wander the path of Brislington brook, we walked past a most wonderful narrow house. A stone carved in the wall calls it the Engine House, dated 1790:

Brislington Brook

I was recounting this — I can’t quite remember why — to the folks on the farm where I was working, and oh the happiness in finding they actually knew much more about it. Along with the sheep and the orchards, they also work on mining reports for Bristol, telling homebuyers just what old shafts and workings and mineral deposits might lie beneath their homes. In their possession was a masters thesis on this precise house, though I am ashamed to say I did not note the author.

Very highly ashamed.

I shall continue nonetheless. The Old Fire Engine House! Not built in 1790 after all, but to house one of the first Newcomen Atmospheric Engines, and almost certainly built before 1741.

From a google search, this drawing gives a good idea of what the engine house once looked like.
From a google search, this drawing gives a good idea of what the engine house once looked like.

He argues this based on a ‘report of a visit by representatives of Chelsea Water Works’ come to Bristol to look at water pumps (they call them fire engines) for Hyde Park. They visited an engine house, almost certainly this engine house in Brislington used to pump water from coal pits, on 29 October 1741. There is an amazing document from the London Metropolitan Archives detailing their mission and findings…they said it was too complicated to make ‘an exact Plan of the Construction and Building of the Engines (a Work of great Time…)’ This particular engine was made by Mr John Wise of Coventry, and they describe its workings as follows:

The Fire heats the Water in a Boiler, which Water makes Steam, the Steam rises into a Cylinder of Cast Iron, that Steam is instantly condensed by letting in of Cold Water, whereby a Vacuum is made, which (according to the known Maxim in Philosophy) Nature abhorring, that End of the Beam which works into the Cylindar with a piston, hastens, by the Pressure of the Atmosphere, to fill up the vacuum and thereby the other End of the Beam raises the Water.

Newcomen_Figuier

Amazing. It uses an immense amount of coal. Bushels and bushels. It was invented in 1712 by Thomas Newcomen (wikipedia has a lovely animated schematic of the engine here), and James Watt’s more famous steam engine was a refinement and improvement upon its workings.

There are also some wonderful pictures from Bristol, which I did not copy, but some of Thomas Rowbotham’s (1782–1853) drawings of the view of the engine house are online, already stripped of the engine by the late 1820s:

Brislington Engine House - Rowbothamthumbnail-by-url.jsonAnd another view, from people after my own heart.

brislington engine houseWalking here now, you could hardly imagine the existence of a coal field…

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Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley: Luddites and Early Industrialisation

Charlotte Bronte - ShirleyI loved the opening line of Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley (1849):

Of late years, an abundant shower of curates has fallen upon the north of England: they lie very thick on the hills… (1)

But it was all downhill from there for over a hundred pages. That’s a long way to wade through a book, but my interest was piqued enough to keep going and in the end I was glad. Mostly because of the soppy romantic bits, which I got quite caught up in,  in spite of my better judgment.

You can tell this is a bit of tribute to Charlotte Bronte’s family, Branwell, Emily and Anne all died as she was writing this — I can’t even imagine how terrible that must have been. Shirley’s character and romance reminded me of Wuthering Heights, though I confess it is forever and a day since I read — and quite disliked — that book. So I suppose Caroline is more Anne’s style, and I am sad I haven’t read her yet. I will amend it.

It was a curious read, curious to feel an affinity in most things with the heroines and the narration (after that first dragging 100 pages and despite all the colons). They are lively and strong and say what they think and think deeply, though in very different styles. They love woods and wilds and hidden places and poetry and are kind and hate polite company without taste or understanding. But over and over again I stumbled over the ways that the hierarchies of their time’s beliefs around gender and class had deformed them. Charlotte Bronte does more in this novel than the others to explore the broader contours of society, the conflicts of the times, it sets her characters against their context, and that makes it harder for me to bear them.

There is such a gulf between us, it is the clear gulf between rich and poor, between rulers and ruled. I am afraid I have mostly pulled out the quotes that illustrate this — and the casual attitudes of Empire. It is a fascinating glimpse into those who celebrated the early heroism of capitalism — if only it were tinged with the paternal care that characterised (possibly, I myself am dubious) aristocracy at its best — but that’s what women are for in this novel.

Moore ever wanted to push on: ‘Forward’ was the device stamped upon his soul; but poverty curbed him: sometimes (figuratively) he foamed at the mouth when the reins were drawn very tight.

In this state of feeling, it is not to be expected that he would deliberate much as to whether his advance was or was not prejudicial to others. Not being a native, nor for any length of time a resident in the neighborhood, he did not sufficiently care when the new inventions threw the old work-people out of employ: he never asked himself where those to whom he no longer paid weekly wags found daily bread…(27)

I think the most revealing sentence is this one describing a conversation between the heiress Shirley Keeldar and Caroline about Shirley’s project of charity amongst the workers. Her goal is to reduce the danger to mill-owner Robert Moore through relieving the poverty of the unemployed enough to relieve their desperation. They have been shooting mill-owners, burning things down, destroying things. The novel is set in 1811-1812, the height of the Luddite rebellion against the new machines being introduced into Yorkshire mills, making employment even harder to come by though almost everyone is out of work. The war against Napoleon and a ban on exportation of cloth to the continent meant that cloth is piling up, and mass unemployment had brought starvation. Shirley is happy to do good works, but let the beneficiaries once challenge her and she will remind them of their place — this despite the fact that in the novel their plea is always work enough for them to feed their families honorably. Such demands and violence against machinery hardly seems such a terrible thing when people’s children are starving.

Yet here we have Shirley, as is right and proper, declaiming:

‘For, after all, if political incendiaries come here to kindle conflagration in the neighbourhood and my property is attacked, I shall defend it like a tigress—I know I shall. Let me listen to Mercy as long as she is near me: her voice once drowned by the shout of ruffian defiance, and I shall be full of impulse to resist and quell. If once the poor gather and rise in the form of a mob, I shall turn against them as an aristocrat: if they bully me, I must defy; if they attack, I must resist,– and I will …. If once they they violently wrong me or mine, and then presume to dictate to us, I shall quite forget pity for their wretchedness and respect for their poverty, in scorn of their ignorance and wrath at their insolence. (271-272)

Thus, while Caroline and Shirley converse kindly and happily with the best of the workers, they must know to yield to their privilege. Workers must accept their lower position, be grateful for friendships and petition for charity rather than demand respect or work or food for their starving children.

If they come together in groups of more than one or two, they become the mob.

Yet even this seems a relatively liberal attitude in comparison with some of the novel’s beloved characters:

Mrs Pryor, walking near, wondered how her daughter could be so much at ease with a ‘man of the people.’ … She felt as if a great gulf lay between her caste and his; and that to cross it, or meet him half-way, would be to degrade herself. She gently asked Caroline—‘Are you not afraid, my dear, to converse with that person so unreservedly? He may presume, and become troublesomely garrulous.’ (453)

God forbid.

I found the references to class so revealing, the fear of working men’s rioting so deep and combined with such anger at their presumption. This is the birth of capitalism we are watching, of industrialisation as well as the early resistance against it.  Like now, the risings are also always blamed on outsiders, rabble-rousers leading good men who know their place astray. The connection with religion is telling here too, for they are all dissenters — which also somehow connects to their ranting and their alcoholism. There is an amazing scene where the procession of schoolchildren from the Church of England charity school meets with a procession of dissenters and immediately there is a fight — the battle of Royd-lane. The Church of England sends them running, and all is well with the world.

A few other curiosities. This interesting aside explaining the strange presence of a thing called the ‘Jew-basket’:

willow repositories, of the capacity of a good-sized family clothes-basket, dedicated to the purpose of conveying from house to house a monster collection of pincushions, needles, books, card-racks, work-bags, articles of infant wear, &c. &c. &c., made by the willing or reluctant hands of the Christian ladies of a parish, and sold perforce to the heathenish gentlemen thereof, at prices unblushingly exorbitant. The proceeds of such compulsory sales as applied to the conversion of the Jews, the seeking out of the ten missing tribes, or to the regeneration of the interesting coloured population of the globe. (114)

What better things for decent folk to spend their money on.

Another aside on the Irish (never a good thing in these novels)

That British love of decency will work miracles: the poverty which reduces an Irish girl to rags is impotent to rob the English girl of the neat wardrobe she knows necessary to her self-respect. (303)

One aside that actually called me on my own love of tudor wood paneling and my sadness that it has been stripped from so many old buildings, because while it seems beautiful and mellow, it is actually:

very execrable and inhuman. Whoever, having the bowels of humanity, has seen servants scrubbing at these polished wooden walls with bees-waxed clothes on warm May day must allow that they are ‘tolerable and not to be endured;’ (201)

Finally there is the bizarre romance between Shirley and Louis Moore, pupil and student, all about how Shirley needs to find a master, but it has to be someone she can respect as truly above her. The only good thing about this ‘need’ is that it is not based on rank (though obviously a certain breeding has to come into it) and there is Louis, a tutor only but in himself a masterful man. There are an equally bizarre few chapters containing all this stuff he has written down in a notebook about how he treasures all of her moods and her wildness and wants her to tease him so his taming of her is more sweet and blah blah. Then they play all these weird word games. He tells her of he and Robert’s plans to emigrate should Robert lose his gamble on the war ending in time to save the mill. They talk of his finding a wife among the Indians, she says:

‘…The savage is sordid” I think,–that is, I hope—you would neither of you share your hearth with that to which you could not give your heart.’ (631)

Ugh. There is more of course. Indians are beneath even Yorkshire workmen and dissenters. But here we have emigration as escape for failed mill owners. Romantic ideas of frontier and new lands to conquer.

And for all this I enjoyed the novel, and parts of it were most touching. It particularly struck me how terrible the lot of women was during these times, when marriage was all there was. There is a long section where Caroline almost dies, essentially of a broken heart and depression at a future empty of love or usefulness. As part of her trying to pick herself up out of this, she visits two known ‘old maids’ mocked and disliked for their ugliness and solitary state. She finds unknown depths to them… The tragedy of intelligent and bright women facing an uncertain future given a lack of dowry.

I picked this up off a shelf at the farm in an attempt to move beyond my usual reading just as I was doing with farming — though possibly I should have read Lee Child instead. Completed in all its length amidst the delights of Gloucestershire rather than Yorkshire,  it was still a good companion read.

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Controlling Worlds

Street Value — Fulton Street Mall, Brooklyn

Street Value - Rosten Woo & Meredith TenHoorStreet Value is a brilliant little book from Rosten Woo and Meredith TenHoor. It is beautifully illustrated and innovative in form, with copious drawings, photographs, maps and plans that charts the history of Fulton Street Mall in Brooklyn decade by decade. It brings together quotes from business owners and customers, memories, narratives and photo essays to try and understand the history of this single street in a way that I love.

At the same time, it evokes a history of many such streets across the country by unpacking the narratives of abandonment, racial change, redevelopment and above all, highlighting the ways that racism has shaped urban spaces through some of the most honest and revealing interviews I have ever read. This street continued to make money through thick and thin where almost all other malls failed. Yet from the moment white flight really took hold and it became a shopping destination of choice for communities of colour, it has been seen as a ‘problem’ by the city and planning agencies who have continuously worked to ‘redevelop’ and ‘revitalise’ a space that needed neither redevelopment nor revitalisation in order to bring the white folks back. But let the book speak for itself.

By 1960, most of the larger department stores that had come of age with A&S, such as Loeser’s and Namm’s, were already finding it hard to compete with a new generation of discount retailers. …

The owners of Fulton Street’s largest stores perceived the problem differently. To them, the clearest indicator and proximate cause for worry was this: white people were making up a smaller and smaller percentage of the street’s shoppers. (55)

You have the influential Chicago School: Park & Burgess’s basic theory held that racial succession was, if not a cause, then a very accurate indicator that depressed property values, and abandonment would soon follow.

The concept of blight proved a powerful, though unsubstantiated, explanatory mechanism. The declaration of blight on Fulton Street was unique because the objective indicators of economic health so clearly contradicted the theory of blight. The shoppers may have come from Bed-Stuy, but business was good. Foot traffic was brisk and retail rents could compete with the best in the city. (59)

‘Preventative renewal imagined two rivals: Manhattan on the one hand, and the suburbs on the other’ (60). They simply couldn’t imagine a street that succeeded and yet was neither. So they unsuccessfully tried to become one or the other.

The Fulton Arcade was a preemptive strike against the perceived decline of the Central Business District. Designed to compete with the charms of the suburban strip, it would attract would-be suburban shoppers by constructing a proxy of a regional shopping mall… (62)

The pedestrian was to rescue the commercial life of the street; the planners only had to remove this figure’s natural enemies: the elements and the automobile. But an important contradiction haunted the scheme: the street was already a commercial success. Pedestrians already thronged Fulton street. Why was preventive renewal so necessary? … By their logic [planners], black shoppers were poor and poor shoppers had no place in the Central Business District of Brooklyn. (63)

They still kept trying. So no one with any experience of downtown revitalisation efforts will be surprised at their next steps:

Urban design could make the street look like a mall, but it couldn’t make it act like a mall. To create the impression of safety, cleanliness and order…had to invent a new form of government: the Business Improvement District. (73)

By the 1990s:

Pedestrianization had failed to bring white middle-class shoppers back to the area. Instead, it helped the mall flourish as a nationally significant locus of consumer culture. The culture’s significance, however, continued to remain invisible to the mainstream, no matter how many hit singles mentioned the mall or how many dollars were spent on the street.
Planners continued to view the street as a problem to be solved rather than as a resource to draw from (89).

The following quotes are from an interview with Richard Rosen, then a member of the Urban Design Group working on the Fulton Mall, before becoming Chief Executive Officer of the Urban Land Institute. They studied the street in 1968 and found that the number shopping there

was always around 400,000 a day. We did find it was the fourth biggest shopping center in the United States, and that the retail sales were hugely dramatic, in spite of the fact that Max Schulman, the president of J.W. Mays Department Stores, wasn’t very comfortable with who his customers were. (127)

He continues

You guys can’t imagine this because you’re younger, but this was a white America not used to multicultural activity. They wanted to be sire that they covered their white base so they went to Kings Plaza and Roosevelt Field. A&S moved further and further out.

Thus is wasn’t the lack of sales or of people that caused stores to leave, but the prejudices of the owners, their identification with a white base. ‘A cultural thing’ as Rosen says. He is astonishingly open in this interview:

well, yeah, we probably were sort of racist in our thinking at that time to think blacks were synonymous with poor. When I started to work at the Urban Land Institute in 1992 we used to tongue-in-cheek say to staff, the worst word you can use is ‘urban.’ Urban was such a bad word. It was a code word for poor and minority. And now urban is a hot word. Urban Outfitters. Urban this, urban that. I mean it’s just changed (131)

And then so revealing for the work of planners and those working on downtown ‘revitalisation’:

I think that Downtown Brooklyn happened in spite of what we did at Fulton Mall. It’s all about safety, and the perception of safety and the reality of safety. And in the 60s, one of the things that was happening with the perception of safety was that it wasn’t. Department store owners were saying that they’d rather be in a mall because in a mall you can control it, and how are you going to control Fulton Mall?

Part of the idea was to make it clean. We had people dressed up in uniforms, and it was all to create a perception of safety. But I don’t think we saw it in those days quite like you might in retrospect. I never conceptualized that the reasons that people liked malls was because they were safe and they didn’t like Fulton Street because they didn’t know if it was safe, and there’s a lot of people walking along that don’t look like you do and you’re afraid and you don’t want to be there.

You heard from Jonathan Barnett who had the perception that the economy in Brooklyn was going down. He was wrong, it was going up. We had a perception that we had to save the economy by renovating the mall, and that’s because the department store owners were saying they were going to move out. And why were they going to move out? They weren’t moving out because they weren’t selling things. They were making lots of money. They were moving out because they perceived it wasn’t safe and their clientele was not who they wanted it to be (132).

Always always always the use of the word ‘people’ in these quotes assumes white people. It’s so extraordinary and yet explains so much about American society. In an interview with Mike Weiss, former executive director of the Fulton Mall Improvement Association and the MetroTech Business Improvement District from 2003 to 2007, he says of the mall—already a vibrant and profitable mall for people of colour:

The vision would be to assist in managing change, which is always inevitable, and try to build the district into more of a kind of vibrant 24-hour diverse, multi-use district. There are constituencies that don’t yet shop on the mall that we believe could, including the college community that exists in Downtown Brooklyn (154).

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Sherwood Anderson on the Romance of Industry

Sherwood Anderson - Poor WhiteSherwood Anderson published Poor White in 1920, but it feels as though it is from an earlier era (and describes one sure enough). I haven’t read anything else by him, haven’t read Winesburg, Ohio though it is the one on all the lists of American classics…It centers on this guy:

Hugh McVey was born in a little hole of a town stuck on a mud bank on the western shore of the Mississippi River in the State of Missouri. It was a miserable place in which to be born.

But then

In his fourteenth year and when the boy was on the point of sinking into the sort of animal-like stupor in which his father had lived, something happened to him.

It’s all too easy sinking into animal-like stupor, lying on a riverbank. He gets a job at a railroad station, stays with the station master there and falls under the influence of the station master’s wife, who has grand ideas:

When Sarah grew into young womanhood and went about among the young people in the new country, she heard much talk of mortgages and of the difficulty of making ends meet, but every one spoke of the hard conditions as temporary. In every mind the future was bright with promise. Throughout the whole Mid-American country, in Ohio, Northern Indiana and Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa a hopeful spirit prevailed. In every breast hope fought a successful war with poverty and discouragement. Optimism got into the blood of the children and later led to the same kind of hopeful courageous development of the whole western country. The sons and daughters of these hardy people no doubt had their minds too steadily fixed on the problem of the paying off of mortgages and getting on in the world, but there was courage in them. If they, with the frugal and sometimes niggardly New Englanders from whom they were sprung, have given modern American life a too material flavor, they have at least created a land in which a less determinedly materialistic people may in their turn live in comfort.

This is a book of broad generalisations, of sweeping statements, of attempts to plumb the broad changes in the white American psyche during the rise of the industrial age. We learned about it in school as the gilded age, the time of the robber barons and railroad giants. It describes a man who I struggle to imagine now, though I’d never deny the possibility of his existence. Someone so isolated from his fellow men he doesn’t know how to talk to them, doesn’t know the birds and the bees, doesn’t know anything we might read in books or papers, doesn’t understand relationships of any kind. He wanders in a sad isolation, wondering at the strange human beings around him.

This was part of my Chicago reading, what the city meant for this great metropolis, how it connected to the people of the countryside and the towns that filled it. Here is what this simple lad up from riverbank animal-like stupor thought of his few hours in the big city:

In the spring of the first year of his wandering he passed through the city of Chicago and spent two hours there, going in and out at the same railroad station.

He was not tempted to become a city man. The huge commercial city at the foot of Lake Michigan, because of its commanding position in the very center of a vast farming empire, had already become gigantic. He never forgot the two hours he spent standing in the station in the heart of the city and walking in the street adjoining the station. It was evening when he came into the roaring, clanging place. On the long wide plains west of the city he saw farmers at work with their spring plowing as the train went flying along. Presently the farms grew small and the whole prairie dotted with towns. In these the train did not stop but ran into a crowded network of streets filled with multitudes of people. When he got into the big dark station Hugh saw thousands of people rushing about like disturbed insects. Unnumbered thousands of people were going out of the city at the end of their day of work and trains waited to take them to towns on the prairies. They came in droves, hurrying along like distraught cattle, over a bridge and into the station. The in-bound crowds that had alighted from through trains coming from cities of the East and West climbed up a stairway to the street, and those that were out-bound tried to descend by the same stairway and at the same time. The result was a whirling churning mass of humanity. Every one pushed and crowded his way along. Men swore, women grew angry, and children cried. Near the doorway that opened into the street a long line of cab drivers shouted and roared.

Hugh looked at the people who were whirled along past him, and shivered with the nameless fear of multitudes, common to country boys in the city…. They came in waves as water washes along a beach during a storm. Hugh had a feeling that if he were by some chance to get caught in the crowd he would be swept away into some unknown and terrible place.

Hugh doesn’t understand it, flees it.  But this is a time when small towns have their hopes and dreams of greatness too. This book is as much a biography of their change as it of the inventor Hugh, who builds machines, helps create the new age, makes a fortune. This is what they were for a while, before the industrial age:

In even the smallest of the towns, inhabited only by farm laborers, a quaint interesting civilization was being developed. Men worked hard but were much in the open air and had time to think. Their minds reached out toward the solution of the mystery of existence. The schoolmaster and the country lawyer read Tom Paine’s “Age of Reason” and Bellamy’s “Looking Backward.” They discussed these books with their fellows. There was a feeling, ill expressed, that America had something real and spiritual to offer to the rest of the world. Workmen talked to each other of the new tricks of their trades, and after hours of discussion of some new way to cultivate corn, shape a horseshoe or build a barn, spoke of God and his intent concerning man. Long drawn out discussions of religious beliefs and the political destiny of America were carried on.

Genocide is half way completed, swathes of land are clear and ripe for development.

In all the towns of mid-western America it was a time of waiting. The country having been cleared and the Indians driven away into a vast distant place spoken of vaguely as the West, the Civil War having been fought and won, and there being no great national problems that touched closely their lives, the minds of men were turned in upon themselves. The soul and its destiny was spoken of openly on the streets… Every one had something to say. Even Charley Mook, who dug ditches, who stuttered so that not a half dozen people in town could understand him, expressed his opinion.

There is such a curious commentary on the need for homogeneity, for safety, for sameness and security so that people can open up and become philosophers:

Within the invisible circle and under the great roof every one knew his neighbor and was known to him. Strangers did not come and go swiftly and mysteriously and there was no constant and confusing roar of machinery and of new projects afoot. For the moment mankind seemed about to take time to try to understand itself.

There is a similar prejudice against foreigners, who are just even more strange strangers I suppose:

Like the other people of Bidwell, Hugh did not like to see foreigners about. He did not understand them and when he saw them going about the streets in groups, was a little afraid. It was a man’s duty, he thought, to look as much as possible like all his fellow men, to lose himself in the crowds, and these fellows did not look like other men. They loved color, and as they talked they made rapid gestures with their hands.

And in this white utopia still aware of hard work and just how hard life can be tied to the soil and struggle, still moving on rural time not city time, still not convinced in the universal belief that profit is the only thing that matters — in this brief time, philosophy begins to flourish:

The judge, an ex-politician from the city of New York who had been involved in some affair that made it uncomfortable for him to return to live in that city, grew prophetic and philosophic after he came to live in Bidwell. In spite of the doubt every one felt concerning his past, he was something of a scholar and a reader of books, and won respect by his apparent wisdom. “Well, there’s going to be a new war here,” he said. “It won’t be like the Civil War, just shooting off guns and killing peoples’ bodies. At first it’s going to be a war between individuals to see to what class a man must belong; then it is going to be a long, silent war between classes, between those who have and those who can’t get. It’ll be the worst war of all.”

This is just one of the men, some of the thoughts burgeoning. But it is already doomed to a short life by progress itself. I haven’t read such sweeping statements as this book contains since Victor Hugo, but the action sections aren’t nearly as good.

I still find myself fascinated by this very particular casting of myth:

A new force that was being born into American life and into life everywhere all over the world was feeding on the old dying individualistic life. The new force stirred and aroused the people. It met a need that was universal. It was meant to seal men together, to wipe out national lines, to walk under seas and fly through the air, to change the entire face of the world in which men lived. Already the giant that was to be king in the place of old kings was calling his servants and his armies to serve him. He used the methods of old kings and promised his followers booty and gain. Everywhere he went unchallenged, surveying the land, raising a new class of men to positions of power. Railroads had already been pushed out across the plains; great coal fields from which was to be taken food to warm the blood in the body of the giant were being opened up; iron fields were being discovered; the roar and clatter of the breathing of the terrible new thing, half hideous, half beautiful in its possibilities, that was for so long to drown the voices and confuse the thinking of men, was heard not only in the towns but even in lonely farm houses, where its willing servants, the newspapers and magazines, had begun to circulate in ever increasing numbers. At the town of Gibsonville, near Bidwell, Ohio, and at Lima and Finley, Ohio, oil and gas fields were discovered. At Cleveland, Ohio, a precise, definite-minded man named Rockefeller bought and sold oil. From the first he served the new thing well and he soon found others to serve with him. The Morgans, Fricks, Goulds, Carnegies, Vanderbilts, servants of the new king, princes of the new faith, merchants all, a new kind of rulers of men, defied the world-old law of class that puts the merchant below the craftsman, and added to the confusion of men by taking on the air of creators. They were merchants glorified and dealt in giant things, in the lives of men and in mines, forests, oil and gas fields, factories, and railroads.

And all over the country, in the towns, the farm houses, and the growing cities of the new country, people stirred and awakened. Thought and poetry died or passed as a heritage to feeble fawning men who also became servants of the new order.

Ah, the passing of poetry. The passing of men of true greatness, rather than men made by their publicists and their ability to make money. It didn’t have to be like this, for there is the special kind of man like Hugh, the inventor who does not care for money:

All men lead their lives behind a wall of misunderstanding they themselves have built, and most men die in silence and unnoticed behind the walls. Now and then a man, cut off from his fellows by the peculiarities of his nature, becomes absorbed in doing something that is impersonal, useful, and beautiful. Word of his activities is carried over the walls. His name is shouted and is carried by the wind into the tiny inclosure in which other men live and in which they are for the most part absorbed in doing some petty task for the furtherance of their own comfort. Men and women stop their complaining about the unfairness and inequality of life and wonder about the man whose name they have heard.

There is everything such men achieve  — Anderson signals a moment when the invention of new machinery lightens the terrible burden of toil and allows men to philosophise:

Hugh’s machine took all of the heavier part of the work away. It cut the corn near the ground and bound it into bundles that fell upon a platform. Two men followed the machine, one to drive the horses and the other to place the bundles of stalks against the shocks and to bind the completed shocks. The men went along smoking their pipes and talking. The horses stopped and the driver stared out over the prairies. His arms did not ache with weariness and he had time to think. The wonder and mystery of the wide open places got a little into his blood. At night when the work was done and the cattle fed and made comfortable in the barns, he did not go at once to bed but sometimes went out of his house and stood for a moment under the stars.

This is the moment we perhaps could have clung to. Instead money rather than dreams and the stars became what mattered. This is the fuel for the move of America’s centre from the countryside to the city, a new breed of mice rather than men:

Modern men and women who live in industrial cities are like mice that have come out of the fields to live in houses that do not belong to them. They live within the dark walls of the houses where only a dim light penetrates, and so many have come that they grow thin and haggard with the constant toil of getting food and warmth. Behind the walls the mice scamper about in droves, and there is much squealing and chattering. Now and then a bold mouse stands upon his hind legs and addresses the others. He declares he will force his way through the walls and conquer the gods who have built the house. “I will kill them,” he declares. “The mice shall rule. You shall live in the light and the warmth. There shall be food for all and no one shall go hungry.”

The little mice, gathered in the darkness out of sight in the great houses, squeal with delight. After a time when nothing happens they become sad and depressed. Their minds go back to the time when they lived in the fields, but they do not go out of the walls of the houses, because long living in droves has made them afraid of the silence of long nights and the emptiness of skies. In the houses giant children are being reared. When the children fight and scream in the houses and in the streets, the dark spaces between the walls rumble with strange and appalling noises.

It is the passing of the craftsman, content to do his work well, to earn enough to live on. This is embodied by Joe the old harness maker, mocked and eventually pushed into the corner by his young apprentice Jim, who tells him:

“Can’t you understand what you’re up against? The factories are bound to win. For why? Look here, there can’t any one but some old moss-back who has worked around horses all his life tell the difference between hand- and machine-sewed harness. The machine-made can be sold cheaper. It looks all right and the factories are able to put on a lot of do-dads. That catches the young fellows. It’s good business. Quick sales and profits, that’s the story.”

The arrival of the heavy-handed metaphor of Joe killing Jim in a frenzy without making any change in the system or with the remotest change for the better in his own system doesn’t come as much surprise.

There is not much depth in any of the men, just a whole lot of confusion and isolation, with a dash of poetry perhaps. There are some truly egregious imaginings of women, especially in an attempt to enter the interior emotions of Clara:

There was something back of her desire for a man. She wanted something more than caresses. There was a creative impulse in her that could not function until she had been made love to by a man. The man she wanted was but an instrument she sought in order that she might fulfill herself. Several times during those evenings in the presence of the two men, who talked only of making money out of the products of another man’s mind, she almost forced her mind out into a concrete thought concerning women, and then it became again befogged.

She has a deep friendship with a woman in the big city before returning to her hometown — and it’s curious this friendship with Kate Chancellor who is clearly a lesbian, encouraging Clara to think herself equal of any man, to face life without one. Clearly, she failed, though it doesn’t seem to be for lack of trying. The descriptions of Clara are confusing, in that she doesn’t seem at all worth the effort.

Clara grew tired of thinking, and listened to the talk. The name of Hugh McVey played through the persistent conversation like a refrain. It became fixed in her mind. The inventor was not married. By the social system under which she lived that and that only made him a possibility for her purposes.

Ah, you can see this is trying to be a critique of the social system. It notes that:

She was very hungry for love, but might have got that from another woman. Kate Chancellor would have loved her.

This all reaffirms the ‘natural’ need for a man, for children. How this is strangely tied in to the changing times (I don’t think this means anything more, but maybe it does)

The woman at the window, like every one else in her town and in all the towns of the mid-western country, became touched with the idea of the romance of industry.

That and procreation. The romance of industry and the myth of the great man, not interest in his actual ideas or any sense of who he actually is, or the benefits that could come to others through his work. It is all very sad.

Her father was a schemer; he had even schemed to get her married, perhaps to further his own plans. In reality his schemes were so ineffective that she did not need to be angry with him. There was but one man of them all who was not a schemer. Hugh was what she wanted to be. He was a creative force. In his hands dead inanimate things became creative forces. He was what she wanted not herself but perhaps a son, to be. The thought, at last definitely expressed, startled Clara, and she arose from the chair by the window and prepared to go to bed. Something within her body ached, but she did not allow herself to pursue further the thoughts she had been having.

See?  All about procreation. No wonder poor Kate had no chance, with just an ability to talk and think and laugh. To fight. She is a curious figure and I begin to wonder if this post shouldn’t have been all about her instead. But she is too much a caricature, even if a surprising one to find here.

I found the myths rather fascinating, however, all in all. And there are moments I liked. So I will end with one of them:

He looked at the towns and wanted light and color to play over them as they played over the stones, and when that did not happen, his mind, filled with strange new hungers engendered by the disease of thinking, made up words over which lights played. “The gods have scattered towns over the flat lands,” his mind had said, as he sat in the smoking car of the train, and the phrase came back to him later, as he sat in the darkness on the log with his head held in his hands. It was a good phrase and lights could play over it as they played over the colored stones…

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