Tag Archives: politics

Why editing Gary Phillips’ Underbelly is such a god damn pleasure!

I’m not usually one to bring certain aspects of life to the blog realm, as you can tell. But who else could write dialogue like this? Politics, comics and old school rap all in the same few paragraphs? My job is so often a joy…

“Who you supposed to be, old school?” Savoirfaire taunted, flexing his shoulders and shifting his weight onto his back foot. “Captain America don’t live here no more.”

“I’m telling you it’s through,” Magrady repeated calmly, eyes moving from the man’s hands to his face, locking onto the faux designer shades the discount desperado wore.

“You and Floyd are done.”

“You his older brother, cousin, somethin’ like that?”

“You’re missing the point, Flavor Flav,” Magrady said. “My message is what you should be focusing on. Floyd Chambers is no longer on your loan list. No more vig off his SSI checks.”

The two men stood on Wall, smack in the womb of L.A.’s Skid Row. Unlike the street’s more famous incarnation in Manhattan, the west coast version didn’t boast of edifices as testament to giddy capitalism. Trickle-down had long ago trickled out down here.

“Oh, uh-huh.” The bottom-feeder nodded his head. “You lookin’ to take over some of my territory, that it? Don’t seem to me like you got enough weight between your legs to be doin’ that, nephew. Don’t appear to me you got enough left to run this block.”

It will be available in June at PM Press, just click on the cover for more…

Zero Tolerance Policing (in the Dominican Republic?)

It sends chills down my spine really, to know Bratton’s out there making mad money as a consultant and spreading this everywhere. I know it’s considered a controversial issue but I stand pretty squarely on the side saying fuck the (U.S.) police. You add the proven corruption and racism to a larger political program and developer and business dollars? You get Giuliani and Bratton’s policies to clean up neighborhoods not by stopping crime but by criminalizing all of its inhabitants (of color) and getting them the hell out of there so the new wealthy (white) people moving in can feel safe, that’s what zero tolerance policing means to me. Just to be clear.

Funny though, Bratton’s plan is not exactly what’s going on in the Dominican Republic according to professor David Howard, nor has he been involved. They’ve just taken the prestigious name as proof of their ‘modern’ and ‘Western’ method, and have applied a particularly nationalistic twist. Of course, throwing 16,000 armed policemen into a small area (approximately 1 for every 13 people), instituting a curfew and 24 hour surveillance, and randomly arresting anyone looking at a cop wrong…well, that sounds about right. Though the scale is a bit mind boggling.

And of course,  approximately 3,000 of those police have been trained in New York and Miami. (I was going to throw in the possible effects of America’s military occupation of the Dominican Republic from 1917-21 and 1965-66 as well, but realized it’s maybe a tiny stretch to connect these facts. Or not.)

The placas have the jargon down as well, they are sanitizing these neighborhoods, cleansing them. But generally speaking they’re not criminalizing the entire population, nor is it parallel to the gentrification and displacement sweeping New York or L.A. Essentially they’re reinventing the image of the police, making a show of dealing with crime in a media friendly way, and hunting down Haitians. I’m not quite sure if this has slowed down since the earthquake, but I’m doubtful.

So. If you haven’t read Junot Diaz, either Drown or the Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, do not even finish this, proceed directly to buy these books and read them. He writes like a razor blade about the dark absurdity that seems to lie at the heart of Dominican politics (not that they’re alone in that). But here are some choice new facts.

First the Haitian thing. (Read Edwidge Danticat too, she’s amazing.) Dominicans, very generally speaking, hate Haitians. Particularly the ones who want to move to the Dominican Republic. The law says anyone born on Dominican soil who is not in transit (ie in the airport etc) is Dominican if they have a birth certificate to prove it. Trouble is, you often can’t get a certificate if either of your parents doesn’t have one, so you have some cases of 4th generation kids (dunno if you could even call them Haitian at that point), who don’t have birth certificates. And without a birth certificate you cannot get an ID. And without an ID you can be immediately arrested, and shortly thereafter deported.

But it gets better, because they’ve legally broadened the definition of ‘in transit’ to include all migrants. It’s called fun with words. And it means a lot of people in these neighborhoods have suddenly found themselves heading back to their ‘home’ country.

So the second thing. As part of re-branding themselves the police have seen technology as a major factor. So as part of this zero tolerance thing they have bought all these new jeeps equipped with the latest and greatest in tech. First, they all have laptops. Of course, they have no computerized data on crime or criminals to bring up on those laptops, but I suppose it’s the theoretical ability that counts.

Their other new gadgets? GPS units. Of course they are policing informal settlements with no paved roads and regular flooding. You can give coordinates but that will never help anyone actually get to you. And as for using it to get anywhere, forget about it.

And still I sat through the lecture with my stomach disappearing into itself and its fear of power combined with a legacy of immense violence and corruption embodied in 16,000 officers and neighborhoods essentially on lock down.

Battle for a Living Wage, UK and US

I saw Jane Wills of Queen Mary University of London speak last night on the battle for a living wage in the UK, a great talk and fascinating in its comparisons to the US…though the comparisons are all my own!

I think graphs always speak so much louder than words, so just a quick snapshot in the most comparable format I could find of growing inequalities in the two countries.

On inequality in the UK from The Guardian:

UKtop1%

On inequality in the US from Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez (via The New York Times)

US Inequality

The US retains its role as a world leader… as of 2005, the top 1% in the US held 21.8% of the wealth, and it is perhaps more frightening to look at the other lines. But many of us aren’t so happy about this, as it means we’re generally fighting each other for the little that is left. So what is being done?

In the UK, as in the US, there has been a growing movement for a living wage. It is only a very small step towards the truly just world that I believe possible on alternate Wednesdays, but I will never say that such small steps do not require a most inhuman amount of work by an admirable and massive number of people.

Essentially the minimum wage (only introduced in the UK in 1999, upon which 2.1 million people received a raise averaging 10%!) is the maximum salary that the market says it can afford to pay people. The living wage is the minimum salary that people actually need to live. A bit simplified I know, but they reduce nicely to moral foundations.

The UK living wage campaign (inspired by the US living wage campaign, begun in Baltimore in 1994) is spearheaded by a non-profit called London Citizens, a group closely based on the organizing model of the Industrial Areas Foundation, working to create a broad and powerful coalition of those already involved in churches, mosques, schools, unions and community groups.

The victories have primarily been won in London. One of the main problems has been identified as the widespread, almost ubiquitous, practice of employers outsourcing every job possible (see the brilliant new book co-authored by Jane, Global Cities at Work). This forces contractors to compete amongst themselves and underbid each other in a mad rush to the bottom. So a huge push of the campaign has been to negotiate with large employers (hospitals, office buildings, the Olympic contractors) to only outsource to businesses providing a living wage.

This reminded me a great deal of SEIU 1877’s strategy in the Justice for Janitors campaign. So I asked, and indeed! They were here at the beginning, working with one of the unions involved in the struggle. Governmental authority works a bit differently here in London and so there hasn’t been a push for anything like a city-wide ordinance, but there are talks of a campaign to get any organization receiving Government funding to ensure the living wage.

It’s a small world, and hopeful to know that some of the lessons of struggle are crossing the Atlantic (and Pacific). May that continue and grow.

So to end not on a cliche, but on John Cleese (because I’m smitten with him), here is a final graphic from The Guardian. Of course, it’s a load of doom in pretty colors really. The only bright light is the success of civil partnerships. I haven’t anything as pretty from the US, I just know (in my gut) everything is worse…

GuardianBig

[Also posted on www.drpop.net]

Nicholas Dreystadt, Cadillacs & African-Americans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ford, and confusion in right wing rhetoric

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baudelaire, Benjamin, Gramsci

Who among us has not dreamt, in his ambitious days, of the miracle of a poetic prose? It would have to be musical enough to adapt itself to the lyrical stirrings of the soul, the wave motions of dreaming, the shocks of consciousness. This ideal, which can turn into an idee fixe, will grip especially those who are at home in the giant cities and the web of their numberless interconneting relationships.
–Baudelaire, quoted in Walter Benjamin “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire”

I’ve been thinking about dreams, prose, cities…

Benjamin collected quotations, in the sense of the ‘true’ collector, which is just one of the reasons I love him.

He was also haunted by “The Little Hunchback”

When I come into my room,
My little bed to make,
A little hunchback is in there,
With laughter does he shake.

And I wonder at the coincidence of myself reading Gramsci at the same time, himself a little hunchback, a man of action not reflection (though prison changed that), a man who would never have yearned for a kept life where he could wander aimlessly, collect books he valued more for never wanting to read, but who instead starved and sacrificed himself remorselessly to finish his studies and change Italy…both variations of Marxist, and both dearly loved by me. I was originally struck by how they were opposite, but as I think about it, they approach one another…

Daily dose

of tears over coffee, Haiti, I am entirely sadness and rage. Thinking about the way suffering on this scale is always political…the utter inability to deal with famine, flood, earthquakes is always a failure of government. Thinking about Katrina. This insane racism and fear of black people that in both cases has demanded blockade, occupation and armed soldiers rather than the provision of food, water. medicine, shelter…and thus they fulfill their own prophecies of hate and desperation. People know that the mobilization of 12,000 warm to bodies to guard and secure could more easily have provided for their actual needs. I watch soldiers stand around with huge semi-automatics filling their hands when there are bodies and medicines to be dug out of rubble, shelter to be built…as a human I find this utterly inconceivable. As a cynic, I find it all too believable. There is no middle ground between these two sides, which I find to be just another cost of the world we live in.

http://www.democracynow.org/2010/1/20/stream

Where LA’s stolen water comes from, the wonder of Owens Valley

The Coso Mountain range to the east of Owens Valley is a line of volcanoes that erupted again and again, spewing out massive flows of black basalt. The whole area was a center of volcanic activity, creating a landscape of wonder framed against the Eastern Sierra Nevadas

To the north is an incredible cinder cone of deep red, gases and minerals forced violently up from the earth’s core through the hole they blasted in its crust. It reminds you that we mindlessly bang around atop a layer of earth floating above a seething bubbling mass of magma and gas. And only 500,000 years ago it swelled from below, shot upwards, rebuilt the landscape. And here I stand simply marveling at it.

There used to be a lake here, and a river. The river ran down the valley, and when a new lava flow sent it coursing across the black basalt, it sought out weaknesses and devoured them, it polished hard surfaces smooth, it carved amazing forms as it fell forty feet down a basalt shelf, and created one of the more amazing things I have ever seen

I tried, and admit I mostly failed, to capture its beauty and the strange fascination of it. Heat radiates from the rocks, flows about them in eddies and swirls as water once did. This place burns your palms with a deep tingling life as you climb into it, it cuts your skin with its razored lines of grace. And from every angle you discover new shadows and curves, a dark unfurling of stone.

There is no water here now, it was stolen, and the land lies arid and dry as you see it, though abounding with life in gorgeous color.

The land itself was stolen from the Paiutes, they irrigated small farms here from a fast running river, and collected obsidian. When first soldiers and then the homesteading act opened up the land to white settlers, small farmers and prospectors moved here, side by side with land speculators.

Frederick Eaton became mayor of Los Angeles in 1898, and appointed his friend William Mulholland as head of the new Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Together they started what are now fondly known as the California Water Wars. Especially to those who have forgotten that they are ongoing.

LA required water to become the sprawling sucking metropolis that it is today, and the two saw that the Owens Valley had water in abundance. Remember Chinatown? Eaton was a close friend of the agent working for the Bureau of Land Reclamation, who was there to build a network of irigation canals to help small farmers. He bought up much of the land (it all ended up belonging to LA), and Eaton got Teddy Roosevelt to cancel the irrigation project. By 1905 the city of LA had enough land to build the aqueduct through tactics that were varied, creative, and often nefarious. As icing on the cake of venality, the initial run of water went to the San Fernando Valley to water the fields of another close friend, and turn worthless real estate into an agricultural gold mine overnight.

By 1913 the aqueduct was built (it now carries 315 million gallons a day to LA). By 1924 the lake was dry. And in the despair of 1924, 40 men united to dynamite the aqueduct

OwensVly1924

6 moths later residents seized the Alabama Gates spillway and released the water back into the lake. But that was the end of even small victories until the 1990s. The uprising failed as US uprisings always seem to do.

In 1972 LADWP built a second aqueduct, draining surface water. The original vegetation died, and even now the alkali meadows continue to expand. There are salt beds where water used to be, and the wind picks up their dust of carcinogenic nickel, cadmium and arsenic to fling it across the valley. The EPA stated that when the wind blows across the lake bed, this valley becomes the single largest source of particulate matter pollution. In the 1990s and again in 2003, local activists, the Sierra Club and Inyo County won an agreement that a tiny percentage of the water must be diverted back into the valley, but it is tiny…for more on what is being down today take a look at the valiant Owens River Committee.

And read Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner for the whole story, this is obviously a most horrific simplification.

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The streets and strikes of Clifton

Apart from being the final resting place of Santa Teresita, and an old nesting place of white vigilantism as shown by the case of the kidnapped Catholic orphans, Clifton is a photographer’s delight and full of ever more stories. Here is Chase Creek Street, with my folks wandering romantically hand in hand

They escaped the heat over ice cream while I reveled in it, down one of the more amazing Arizonan streets I have encountered, with buildings well loved (where boarding rooms and banana splits and guns are available) side by side with buildings now derelict. And I have so much love for the derelict

Here there is an opulence of decay I’ve seldom found, as the buildings of old mining towns are usually ruins or rigorously and shinily preserved for the tourists. This place is just itself instead, still standing in spite of everything and even ready to make a come back.

Though there are ruins here too…

And I wondered very sadly when exactly it was that the bar shut down, El Rey, here I am in spirit…

With all the attitude a bar tan cabron requires, I am sure que sigue siendo el rey (aunque no mas adentro, because outside? Oh no)…

I would have a given a great deal to have gotten in though! Even more for a cold bohemia.

I lost all of my attitude in the jail. It was blasted out of solid rock long ago, and sits by the side of the main road with an iron gate swinging open. It is wired for light, but there are no light bulbs, so you go down about 10 steep stairs into a cave of absolute blackness…there is a small room off of which there are three cells with horrible iron doors. Using the flash of my camera I got this picture

Of course, I never saw it like this, just the quickest of glimpses in the camera light, and the fear growing and growing every second. You can see nothing in the darkness, but you know the cells are there, and there is no way to know if they are empty. There is one window in the rock that lights up the cell on the right and I crept over to it, but the fear of what lay behind my back, maybe just the fear filling the whole place up like a well, kept me out…and I fought it and lost and scampered back up the stairs as fast as I could possible go.

The story goes that the man who blasted it into being was the first man locked inside of it, he started shooting his gun into the air at the opening celebration after the townsfolk refused to toast him for his good work. Anyone who could think such a place was a good idea definitely deserved to spend some quality time there.

The employment in Clifton all comes from the earth, from copper and gold, and the huge pit mine in Morenci only a couple of miles away. It belongs to Phelps-Dodge…funny to think that I did a great deal of work for them in the old family business of Orbis Geographics…they even now hold maps I hand colored, and never paid on time if memory serves me correctly!

But here is one of the well-kept buildings along Chase Creek St.

There is a long history of strikes, and a history just as long of atrocities committed by mining companies and local government against striking miners in Arizona…not that we ever learned any of it in school. One of the best resources on this is Copper Crucible: How the Arizona Miner’s Strike of 1983 Recast Labor Management Relations in America by Jonathan Rosenblum, which contains a great general history of labor and copper. There was a strike in Clifton, Morenci and Metcalf in 1915-16 led by the Western Federation of Miners.

Then Jerome and Bisbee, 1917: The IWW organized and called a strike, a very successful strike. President Wilson had refused to send in federal troops at local request, and appointed the Arizona governor to mediate instead, just imagine… In Jerome, where the IWW was striking against PD, over 100 men were kidnapped by vigilantes and held in the county jail, before being moved by train and dumped in Needles, CA. In Bisbee the strike was against the owners of the Copper Queen mine. 1,186 men (some of whom were neither miners nor on strike) were rounded up at gun point by vigilantes and put in cattle cars still full of manure and trucked into New Mexico. Many then continued to be held there by the federal government for months. An IWW organizer, Jim Brew, was shot when he resisted the round up, after shooting one of the ‘deputies’. It is believed that Walter Douglas, president of Phelps Dodge and son of the owner of Bisbee’s Copper Queen mine, orchestrated the actions as a way to break organized labor in the state, which he did. The cattle cars belonged to him, and he probably supplied the guns…he was indicted, but charges were dropped. And armed guards were stationed at the entrances of Bisbee and Douglas, to pass them required a passport signed by Sheriff Wheeler…so almost none of the men ever returned. You can read more here.

Back in Clifton, Morenci, and Metcalf a union was again organized in the early 1940s. Mexicans were still not allowed to hold any of the more skilled jobs. When David Velasquez began helping the Bulldozers shovel what he had once shoveled by hand he became eligible to join the Operating Engineers under the AFL. He tried to join, but they old him that Mexican ‘boys’ would be better in their own union, called the Federated Labor Union. There was no possibility of rising into the better jobs. So he and Andres Padilla organized a branch of the CIO, meeting secretly along the river. After two years they won certification, Morenci Miners local 616 of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter workers. Originally they represented all miners, but racism divided the union and crafts split from it; Mine Mill became known as the Mexican union. In 1946 Mexican American veterans returning home from the war gave the impetus for a strike, seeking health benefits and equal wages for all races. Mine Mill won its first contract. And then followed a long period of strength and broad activist unionism (if only all unions could say the same) in spite of  the witch-hunt for communists, where union leadership was put on trial by the CIO itself. It suffered constant attack from the federal government, as well as hostility from other unions who all looked to appropriate its membership. In 1967 it merged with the steelworkers.

In 1982 PD announced it was laying off 3400 workers in Arizona and Texas. Negotiations began, and in July of 1983 a strike was called, and a picket line formed at the Morenci pit. Morenci is entirely a company town…workers were evicted, harassed, arrested, put under surveillance by the Arizona Criminal Intelligence Systems Agency. Very creepy, but Arizona likes to know what dissidents are up to, particularly when they dare to stop mining. Local government was entirely on the side of PD, putting injunctions on pickets and protests. PD announced it was hiring replacement workers, and 1,000 people gathered at the gate to the mine to prevent it. PD shut down production.

And on August 19th, 1983, the National Guard and state troopers were called in to break the strike. They arrived with military vehicles, helicopters, tanks. They forced entry for the scabs. 10 days later they arrested 10 miners in Ajo for ‘rioting’. And that was really the end, though the strike dragged on slowly until February of 86 when the NLRB rejected the unions appeal to stop decertification.

It is often seen as the great symbol of defeat for American Unions. And here is what the pit looks like now:

It has engulfed the towns of Morenci and Metcalf, swallowed them up and lost them forever in the search for more copper. And I suppose you could say, for a moment, it swallowed the labor movement as well. But just for the moment.

[also posted at www.pmpress.org]

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Thoughts on the Chicago Skyline

Downtown Chicago is all planes and angles, contrasts in brick and stone, glass and steel. It is full of amazing reflections in glass.

You see it at one level from the street, and another entirely from the El train, and from both it is visually spectacular. Your fingers itch for your camera, every step brings a shift in the lines, and changes the seen and the unseen.

I had half a day on Monday after a morning meeting, so I thought I’d do the Architectural Boat Tour, 90 minutes along the river and almost all the pictures a lustful heart could ask for…as the river goes round the loop and not through it.

But I confess my extreme love for these great buildings piled one on top of the other sits miserably with my love of social and environmental justice. They are contradictions impossible to overcome. I wonder if perhaps I love them (and hate them) for their colossal and unbelievable arrogance, because it is combined with such extraordinary technical and engineering skill. I love the fact that we have figured out how to build such things, hurling metal and glass up to the sky. I suppose we never stopped to ask whether we should. And the wealth required to build such buildings…where does it come from? Chicago is as much a city of immense poverty as it is a city of beauty. And that is where you find the answer. My question is whether we could build such things without exploitation, and in a way that sits happily on the earth.

On the tour, the guide was full of information on architectural styles and the men who created them, the requirements of building something like the Sears tower, the Trump tower, and towers x, y, and z. Everything was entirely divorced from the city or the people who live in it with the exception of a single architect, Bertrand Goldberg. He designed Marina City, which I love.

I have always loved round buildings. But the guide explained that he also tried to design buildings to create community, to encourage contact between neighbors, to provide immediate access to life’s amenities. Another of his buildings is River City

These buildings are all mixed use, with stores, child care, and access to a marina beneath. The balconies  are close together to bring neighbors together. They have beautiful public spaces. He believed density was a good thing, for community, for creativity, for life.

And so I looked him up. And I’m not sure what I think of him, I certainly disagree with much of what he says, but he makes me think. He wrote this of Marina City:

More importantly, in the Marina City forms. I made it possible for people to participate in community formation. Both in the use of space and in the form of space I discovered that behavior can be influenced by the shape of space. The faceless anonymity of the corporate box which we had used for the buildings for our government, our health, our education, our business and our living, I discovered could be replaced more effectively by a new development of architectural structure and forms that supported its use by people. We could have both architecture and humanism just as we had begun to do 200 years before in the social revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries.

I love this recognition of the influence of space on the individual and community, and the revolutionary idea that architecture should be for the people and how they will live within it. That it affects how our society lives and grows. He’s not the only one of course, but one of the few. Yet it is a typical liberalism, looking backward to some better time, and only as worthy as it can be without questioning a terribly unjust world. He wrote another speech that offers an interesting reflection on the thoughts above called Rich is Right…exposing all of the contradictions involved in his thinking.

America is rich, America is right. Architects have always worked for the rich. We are now also working for the right.

Ah, if only that were true. Are the rich ever right? I don’t really think so. Our homeless population and slum housing certainly proves otherwise. But it is true that architects have always worked for the rich. I do like such frank admissions. But that leads to the conclusion that the 90% of Americans who are not rich just have to hope that those 10% of quixotic and self-absorbed rich people at some point get it right, no? That seems to require a lot of faith that history has never ever justified.

He goes on, extraordinarily enough, to quote Albert Speer, architect of Hitler. I read Speer’s autobiography some years ago and found it fascinating. He did not just build buildings, he created drama and spectacle, he cemented the image of ultimate power in the minds of the observer. Whenever you see Hitler speaking on a stage with the colossal architecture, the huge backdrops of red banners and striking black swastikas, the eagles, the torches… Speer designed all of that.

Albert Speer- Hitler’s state architect said: “We must learn to master technology and its potential by political means.” In contrast, modern architects of the 19th century all saw architecture as a reform mechanism for politics: that is, for helping solve social problems rooted in urban life and community needs, and for devising improved ways for people to work and learn and grow together.

It seems to me that my Chicago  boat tour proved Speer’s point, that architecture reflects the landscape of political power, and it has been mastered by the Trumps of the world. It is a skyline of corporations, not of government, ideals, or community spaces. Bertrand was alone there in thinking about these things, his buildings stand out because of it.

The tour takes you down the river again almost to the mouth of Lake Michigan. On your left is an urban renewal area. The words urban renewal hurt my soul, always. They usually mean the wholesale clearance of earlier communities, older buildings, of people of color and immigrants and all those who did not master power, who lived lives of poverty and hard work. My people. Urban renewal has been translated into a coastline full of high rise condos. On your right is another urban renewal area. It is also full of high rise condos. You can see down the coastline, more and more and more high rise condos. I didn’t particularly care to hear about the architects.

And they are busy building luxury residences for people who don’t exist. Home sales in Chicago’s metropolitan area are down 27.5% from April 2008, and unemployment is up to 10.1% according to the Illinois Association of Realtors. And they have somehow decided that these condos count as affordable housing and are asking for help:

David Hanna, president of the Chicago Association of REALTORS®. “The city of Chicago condominium sales numbers continue to reflect a critical need for governmental agencies to review the growing disparity in the ability to finance a condominium purchase in the city. This affordable housing will become unaffordable and unattainable to many qualified first-time homebuyers in the city of Chicago unless existing federal guidelines, which do not take into account nuances of the local market, are modified.”

If they did build affordable condos, I’m sure they wouldn’t be having quite so much trouble…I like to imagine what our cities would look like if they were built for all of the city’s people. Because, I do agree with this final quote from Bertrand Goldberg:

Are cities in our blood?

Are cities the natural forms of shelter which men build for themselves? Like the spider his web, or the oyster his shell? The answer to this is uncertain, but I believe it to be – yea.

I love the city.

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