Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Clipse: Spending Your Holiday Trill with Virginia Beach's Most Notorious Rap Duo

All that get over shit, all that super stupid shit, that shit is done .. we’ve been consistent from day one whether its Clipse or Re-Up Gang you always know what you’re getting, it is what it is. For example, some Tree huggin ass bitch the other day came up the on some “yo, you all nice and stuff but how come you always rhyming about street shit.” I was like, "Tree huggin’ ass bitch please. I rhyme for my niggas on the corner all 20,000 of them. Twenty thousand money making brothers on the corner."

-- Re-Up Gang, "20 K Intro," We Got it For Cheap Vol. 3, 2008

When brothers Pusha T and Malice (legally known as Terrance and Gene Thorton, respectively), waited out a bitter label dispute with Jive Records, they used the four year hiatus to perfect their vision of the drug trade and modern music industry. Their effort culminated in the late November pre-Christmas 2006 release of the now seminal Hell Hath No Fury. Through HHNF and a trilogy of mixtapes (We Got it For Cheap Vols 1, 2, and 3), Clipse reshaped rap. Rather than sit motionless for nearly a half decade, the Clipse formed the Re-Up Gang with Philly based rappers Sandman and Ab-liva, releasing the aforementioned We Got it For Cheap series. Certainly, mix tapes were not new, as Pusha T admitted in an interview. “These days I’m getting mix tapes with a whole bunch of records, but ain’t nobody really saying anything,” lamented one half of the Clipse. “There’s a whole lot of quantity, but I mean there’s no language on it.” Clipse didn’t invent the mixtape so much as perfect it.

In some ways, Clipse’s experience reflects that of Chicago alt country band Wilco. During Wilco’s major label debacle around the same period the Jeff Tweedy led outfit streamed its now classic Yankee Hotel Foxtrot online, building anticipation and embedding the album within its fan base. When it finally did see the light of day, the album proved to be the band’s biggest seller. Likewise, the Clipse saw mixtapes as the best means to promote themselves and maintain their mental health. “We just knew we weren't getting anywhere fast," Malice admitted in a 2006 Virginian Pilot article, "so we decided to put out the mixtapes to stay relevant." Added Pusha, "they helped us keep our sanity . . . Mixtapes will be dropped up until the album comes out.” When Pittsburgh rapper Mac Miller debuted his album Blue Slide Park in October 2011, it shot to number one immediately on the back of Miller’s own series of mixtapes.

"Ride Around Shining" - Miller follows the Clipse model to #1

[Editor's note: Scoring a number #1 album today does not mean nearly as much in terms of sales as it did ten years ago largely due to changes in the industry and the way listeners now consume music.]

Unlike, floppy haired NPR favorites, Wilco, from 2002 to 2008, the Clipse inhabited a universe constructed on images of Wire-like violence and drug sales replayed on the shores of Virginia Beach and Norfolk, VA. Or as they point out in “Virginia,” off their Neptunes-produced 2002 album Lord Willin’:
I'm from Virginia, where ain't shit to do but cook (Talk about, what?)
Pack it up, sell it triple-price, fuck the books (Talk about, what?)
Where we re-up, re-locate, re-off them brooks (Talk about, what?)
So when we pull up, it ain't shit to do but look

It Ain’t Miami Vice
Open the Frigidaire, 25 to life in here
So much white you might think ya Holy Christ is near
Throw on your Louis V millionaires to kill the glare
Ice trays? Nada! All you see is pigeons paired

-- Clipse, “Keys Open Doors,” Hell Hath No Fury

Have we talked drugs yet? That's what they do here; talk the art of the deal and their mastery of such. It sounds simplistic, but Clipse have been the premier drug-dealing soliloquists for some time. Unflinching and unforgiving, Re-Up re-imagine hustler as hero with lyrical ingenuity and deft wordplay. Some may struggle with the joy these boys get from moving weight; it's an indefensible stance-- we all have our faults, and we all have to eat-- but the revelry is also what makes it enjoyable. Otherwise, Clipse could just move West and write for scripts for Michael Mann.

-- Sean Fennessay, Pitchfork, October 10, 2005

Sure, the analogy between the music industry and the drug game has been played out countless times. Still, the reality of twenty first century economic life continues to be increasing specialization. Cable channels devoted to narrower and narrower interests, a fractured viewing public that increasingly pursues its own idiosyncratic favorites, and the rise of a highly segmented internet marketplace all mean that specialization provides the key for success. One must hone the one thing they do well, and do it magnificently. As Sean Fennessay acknowledges in his 2002 review of We Got if 4 Cheap Vol. 1, no rapper or group rivaled the drug flows of the Clipse.

While one can never be sure the extent of their involvement or knowledge, the 2009 arrest of former manager Anthony “Geezy” Gonzalez for the operation of a 10 million dollar plus drug ring suggests Clipse knew something about “the game.” In fact, from 2001 to 2011, law enforcement authorities busted “at least nine drug rings in Hampton Roads worth $20 million or more,” reported a recent Virginian Pilot article. “A 10th was worth almost $10 million,” noted journalist Tim McGlone (Tim McGlone, Virginian Pilot, “20 Million Drug Rings," October 2, 2011). Granted the Clipse may be overly fascinated with the drug trade, but, as DEA officials admitted this fall, during this past decade Mid-Atlantic urban areas have been inundated with narcotics. Thus, the Clipse simply found itself within a narrative that essentially wrote itself. Moreover, they represented a burgeoning set of urban circumstances as drug trafficking concentrated itself in the cities of Baltimore, Hampton Roads, and D.C. among others.

Inspiring the Clipse

Now it needs to be noted that in terms of drug epidemics, crack (or as the Clipse opine, “The News call it crack, I call it diet Coke”) and cocaine really haven’t been the point of focus in recent years. As evidenced by cultural productions like television’s Breaking Bad or the critically acclaimed novel American Rust, meth addiction and the pervasive reach of prescription drugs serve as the new American drug threat. Rural and suburban areas now occupy top spots among drug interdiction and law enforcement agencies. Predictably, poverty remains a primary factor as 90% of the counties with “persistent poverty” are rural. In April of 2011, the Obama administration announced a new initiative to fight prescription drug addiction, pointing out that deaths from this more recent affliction and crystal meth exceeded that of crack in the 1980s and heroin in the 1970s combined.” Though rural locales differ greatly from inner city neighborhoods, the New York Times described the dysfunction caused by prescription drug addiction squarely within the urban paradigm: 

The pattern playing out here bears an eerie resemblance to some blighted cities of the 1980s: a generation of young people who were raised by their grandparents because their parents were addicts, and now they are addicts themselves.
Politicians have confronted this epidemic much differently than in the 1980s and 1990s, when the prison system exploded or, as one commentator noted, “we couldn't lock crack dealers and users up fast enough and keep them locked up long enough.” Drug legislation passed during the same period and the sentences doled out to offenders have taken decades to unwind. Moreover, the argument could be made that this legislation and enforcement caused more problems than it solved. Instead, in response to prescription drugs and meth, politicians in several states have created drug courts (Georgia for example) in an effort to bring users to treatment rather than incarceration. In general, the tenor has been of criminal justice reform (even among some conservatives) not wholesale imprisonment.

The new crack

Certainly, race must play some role here, right? Suburban white voters from the 1970s on viewed the inner city as a darkened space, a dystopia inhabited by drug users and angry minorities. When crack exploded in the 1980s, legislating over the top anti-drug laws that disproportionately affected blacks and Latinos seemed painfully predictable. Yet, writers like senior Atlantic editor Ta-Nehisi Coates suggest that this response isn’t only racial in nature. “The problems of big inner-cities are visible in a way that the problems of the suburbs, exurbs, and rurals are not,” Coates pointed out. “Moreover, big media tends to make its home in cities like Washington and New York where large numbers of African-Americans live.” Others, like the Economist blog on American politics conceded Coates’ points regarding media attention but differ on the issue of race:

I wonder, if we were in the midst of a second crack epidemic affecting poor blacks and Latinos in inner cities rather than a meth and prescription-drug problem in white, rural America, whether quite so many politicians would be lining up to keep users and small-time dealers out of jail. And of course, it's an American tradition to see the rural heartland and its residents as "real America," and cities as dens of iniquity.

One does wonder. After all, though the effects of meth have been devastating, the moral panic that accompanied 1980s crack use seems at best muted. While county Sheriff’s and police forces like those in American Rust struggle to address these concerns, the media as Coates noted, seems asleep at the wheel. Did violent urban crack episodes of the 1980s fit media stereotypes in ways that the crank epidemic doesn’t? Is the idea of freshly scrubbed white teens binging on prescription drugs too boring or insidious for network news? If these were Black and Latino kids, wouldn’t unscrupulous “civic” and political leaders be banging on about decency and the need to “clean up our streets”?

Do albums like Hell Hath No Fury obscure this more complex reality? Perhaps, but the fact of the matter seems to be that while rural and suburban areas have struggled with crystal meth and prescription drugs, smaller mid-size cities like Virginia Beach have served as hubs in a crack/cocaine that has shifted its distribution. For each the results prove brutal, but so far, no one has come forward with an album depicting the life of a rural meth dealer. In contrast, the Clipse represent the finest bottle of a fairly large wine collection of drug rap.

Making Adam Smith Proud
“When you see millions, there are many chamillions
You’re not a gunna, for real, you’re just a runna
Haters I spot you from a far, and I'm the deer hunter
They be thinking nice car, nice crib
I be thinking, how long will these niggaz let me live
I understand, cause people need things
And they will take it from you, and take you from your seedlings”

-- Clipse, “Nightmares," Hell Hath No Fury

Let me tell you about chicken McNuggets kids

In season two of The Wire, Stringer Bell, right hand man of incarcerated Baltimore drug kingpin Avon Barksdale, attempts to impart shards of economic wisdom culled from his business class at the local community college. In an attempt to disguise a long inferior product, Bell employs branding, changing the product’s name in hopes of renewing “market” interest. He even goes so far as to explain the economic theory supporting his new initiative to his cohort of street soldiers. Needless to say, the lecture provides mixed results. Still, few businesses appear to be as friendly to neoliberal corporate governance as the drug trade. Sudhir Venkatesh and others have documented the increasingly corporate structure of street gangs. Of course, this does not mean all the workers are happy. When D'Angelo Barksdale, nephew of the aforementioned Avon, overhears his underlings debating who invented chicken McNuggets and how rich he must be, Barksdale unleashes a bitter sermon on labor relations in a corporate structure:
Now you think Ronald McDonald gonna go down to the basement and say, "Hey Mr. Nugget - you the bomb. We sellin' chicken faster than you can tear the bone out. So I'm gonna write my clowney ass name on this fat-ass check for you." Shit. Man, the nigga who invented them things? Still working in the basement for regular wage, thinking of some shit to make the fries taste better or some shit like that. Believe.

Likewise, in Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner illustrate how the drug business depends heavily on a lumpen proletariat of lower income employees, mostly male, who live with their mothers and make what amounts to minimum wage—the very workers DeAngelo Barksdale and Stringer Bell attempt to educate on the nuances of capitalist economics. The Economist in recent years has reiterated these findings. Peter Moskos, a sociologist who also served one year as a Baltimore police officer in its notorious Eastern District concurs but also notes it continues to draw new employees. “Apart from the low pay and the high risk of getting murdered, drug-dealing is not a bad job,” notes Moskos. “You hang out with your friends. People ‘respect’ (ie, fear) you. You project glamour. You get laid.” Unfortunately, as Moskos also points out, it tends to make drug dealers unemployable. “To survive on the street, you learn to react violently and pre-emptively to the slightest challenge,” argues the Economist. “This is a useful trait for a drug-dealer, but, oddly, managers at Starbucks do not value it.”

The Clipse, at least on album, never lament their profession. Instead they flash its accoutrements. Songs like “Ride Around Shining” and “Hello New World” serve as only two prominent examples. The above quoted “Nightmares” and “Momma I’m So Sorry” are the only songs with any real remorse and even in “Nightmares,” Clipse clearly understands the human desire for stuff: “I understand, people need things.” Sure, on “We Got if for Cheap” (off of Hell, not the mixtapes) Malice raps to his brother “If ever I had millions, never would you push blow, never.” Still, that may simply mean Pusha would get a job in management but not necessarily sever from the trade itself.

When the subject turns to gender, one can imagine where Clipse land. Predictably, the role of women on Hell Hath No Fury proves anemic. Even when Pusha does apologize to his mother for “airing family business” and failing to fully respect the mother of his child, his contributions to their lives remains purely economic:
Even my baby mama, I can't look you in the face
'Cause I can't do enough, you a symbol of God's grace
So I place you in the flower bed, porcelain shower heads
Throughout the house and keep the younguns' mouths fed
And when I'm gone, I hope it is said
I gave structure to the youth by the example I lead

-- “Momma I’m So Sorry,” Hell Hath No Fury
Pusha and Malice’s misogynistic rhymes spill into nearly every track, but in moments Clipse also admits in some ways everyone is in on the game, especially the ladies:

The glitter chill got ya mind seein’ milli mill’s
I’m seven figga, the bigger you thought the little real
See I don’t blame ya, cashmere’s what you feel
Picturing the fortune, you just tryna spin the wheel

-- “Dirty Money,” Hell Hath No Fury
Nonetheless, one might argue expecting a drug rap album to feature nuanced female characters capable of displaying agency is akin to being upset over racist jokes in Pulp Fiction: these people are criminals, expecting them to be moral paragons is foolish. None of this excuses the Clipse for their sexism, but if one plays the part, one plays the part.

Today, though certainly regrettable, misogyny must still not be all that offensive. Clipse’s fan base or at least that identified by media sources and the band itself, consists of a diverse set of sub culture archetypes. A Hampton Roads entertainment writer described a 2006 Clipse crowd as “quirky” and “diverse” pointing out every sub groups present, “one saw teenage skaters, buppie girls in chic baby doll dresses, emo-band types, model-worthy blondes and hip-hop youths in expensive sneakers and chains.” (Malcolm Venable, Virginian Pilot, “VA Beach’s Clipse Hypes Crowd at NorVa after a Late Start”, December 24, 2006) They were even asked to play the Playboy Mansion’s 2010 NYE party, which even seemed to take Pusha by surprise. “When I heard about it,” he said, “I was like, ‘Wow, what do the people at the Playboy Mansion know about the Clipse?’” Yet, he also acknowledged their wide appeal: “But I’m never shocked by how vast and diverse our audience is.” (Malcolm Venable, Virginian Pilot, “Duo Leaves Controversy in Rear View,” Dec 8, 2009) Wilco probably couldn’t say the same.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. In 2010, the Clipse broke up (at the very least put themselves on a long hiatus as Pusha pursued solo plans). Sales of their third album Till the Casket Drops (2009) failed to capture the same level of Clipse that Lord Willin’ hinted at, and Hell Hath No Fury enthusiastically confirmed. Unlike their previous efforts, the Clipse failed to employ the Neptunes production squad.

I remember getting Hell Hath No Fury for Christmas in 2006 from my dad who still bought CD’s. The first time I listened to it, I knew it was socially irredeemable, but also really really great. The record emerged simultaneously with real shifts in drug use and trafficking. It tells us nothing about the Walter Whites and Jesse Pinkmans of the meth world, but it does capture a different if well travelled milieu, one familiar enough to draw a diverse fan base. Unlike Biggie and Tupac, Clipse expressed little remorse for their actions; they knew karmically they were screwed but that was part of the game. Is it great holiday music? Only in the sense that every faith would denounce it. Happy Holidays to your and yours—put a little Clipse in your cheer, but only after the kids are in bed.

Ryan Reft

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Gizmo: The Model Minority

Gremlins is not often thought of as a Christmas movie, even though it takes place in a snowy small town that could double as the set of It's a Wonderful Life, and the entire plot revolves around the unintended consequences of holiday gift-giving. It is funny to think back and remember that unscrupulous advertisers led the public to believe that Gremlins was a family picture about cute, fuzzy creatures. After parents marched out of theaters with children traumatized by the blood-spattered, if cartoonish horror-film aspects of the film, the ensuing controversy led to the creation of the first-ever PG-13 rating. (The old system skipped directly from PG to R.)

In Gremlins, then, we not only have one of the most popular examples of a Christmas film that dares to deviate from Christmas cliches; we also have a case study of a classic moral panic from the 1980s, the decade of satanic ritual abuse and razorblades in Halloween candy. Gremlins was one of the top films of 1984, along with venerable hits Beverly Hills Cop and Ghostbusters, and its box office far surpassed other Christmas films with a dark streak, like Bad Santa.

In the 1980s, a new breed of filmmakers (Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, John Landis) raided a storehouse of genres and cliches to give a grateful public popcorn entertainment of the first order. In the previous decade, a film industry long afflicted by the rise of television let a handful of eccentrics like Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Altman make dark, difficult films that eschewed happy endings and challenged American mores, but Steven Spielberg and George Lucas soon paved the way for a new era of crowd-pleasing kitsch by reviving monster movies (Jaws), Westerns (Star Wars), and adventure films (Raiders of the Lost Ark). Legend has it that filmmakers like Spielberg learned the vocabulary of genre film by watching reruns of old Hollywood schlock on TV as kids. This experience led them to regurgitate the tales of vampires, zombies and adventurers on the big screen. (Interestingly enough, more or less the same story has been told of Quentin Tarantino and his ilk in the 1990s, as a generation who stitched together their supposedly postmodern pastiche from the videos they watched in the 1970s and 1980s. When have artists not been reconstituting the last generation's culture in the new?)

 I, for one, welcome our Asian overlords

But Gremlins is more than a genre redo like Raiders of the Lost Ark or forerunner of postmodern kitsch. It is also a film that captures some genuine anxieties about race, immigration and globalization that appear in more recognizable form in other Eighties hits, like Gung Ho (1986). It is also keyed into a longing for innocence that is characteristic of the Reagan Era, a period of venality and class war and family values and Fifties nostalgia. Critic Noël Carroll sees a narrative arc in Gremlins and other Eighties films that tracks the experience of adolescence:

This kind of plot seems to appeal to young audiences because it is a kind of parable about growing up. It highlights the discovery of hidden knowledge, while also dramatizing a moment when adults are finally forced to listen seriously to the young. And many horror films stress biological deformity and Otherness, thus broaching adolescent anxieties about the body.

Gremlins mostly follows this storyline, most baldly when the hero, Billy, has to explain to the local authorities that the mischievous critters are real. ("I know it sounds crazy!") And the gremlins certainly express fears about changing bodies and reproduction in gooey, graphic detail.

But the small, furry/reptilian little monsters must symbolize something else. As Carroll notes, Eighties films were also filled with zombies, vampires, aliens, and so forth. Each classic monster exemplifies one abiding fear or another. Crudely speaking, zombies symbolize mindless conformity and a ravenous mass consumerism; vampires, doubts about sexual boundaries. Some critics have alleged that gremlins portray a grotesque caricature of African Americans, which would not be surprising in the viciously racist era of the “welfare queen” and the crack epidemic, which was beginning to capture the nation’s attention in 1984. In Ceramic Uncles and Celluloid Mammies, Patricia Turner has criticized the film for imbuing the riotous ne’er-do-wells with the equivalent of blackface, as they feast on fried chicken and breakdance while wreaking havoc.

Turner’s theory is plausible enough—in a racist society, there’s a good chance that any tale of an impish, troublemaking Other may very well stand in for a racial minority in the minds of filmmakers and viewers. Coming at a time when politicians increasingly demonized the black poor as violent and irresponsible, the gremlins exhibited familiar qualities: poor impulse control, insatiable appetites, loud and reckless behavior. They are pure id, driven by desires not unlike the desperate drug addict, whose only pursuit is more pleasure.

However, one salient difference distinguishes the gremlins from the disparaged African American deviant: their foreign (indeed, Asian) origin. Mr. Peltzer buys the mogwai as a pet for his son Billy on a business trip. The film opens in Chinatown, where the traveling inventor and salesman purchases the peculiar species from a mysterious old Chinese man of the most stereotypical kind. The pet comes with several odd rules: do not get the animal wet (do not even give it water to drink), and never feed it after midnight. What will happen if one does of any of these things is not clear, though the instructions carry the implicit logic of the fairy tale, which telegraphs to viewers that the forbidden thing will, of course, be done later in the story.

Do you promise to not feed it and not walk it?

Despite its foreignness, the little creature (named “Gizmo”) appears good-natured. An animal that cannot even come into contact with water makes him even stranger, but his cuteness quickly wins the family over. When things do go wrong, though, Gizmo becomes the unwilling vehicle of uncontrollable forces: a splash of water causes him to enter a spasm of crazed reproduction, with little hairball babies sprouting out of his back. Even more disturbing is the metamorphosis that the little mogwais undergo when fed after midnight—they turn into slimy, scaly monsters, marked by gluttony and a desire to harm and torment the local townspeople. Liquid may connote sexuality, since Gizmo’s exposure to water results in his helpless virgin birth.

However innocent or well-meaning Gizmo may be, he still embodies a racist stereotype: that of the immigrant minority coming to this country and having too many kids, immortalized in liberal form by The Simpsons’ Apu and his eight children. The gremlins are a foreign menace that invades the Norman Rockwell-esque town and wantonly consumes its resources. They are also from Asia, home of the Japanese industrial juggernaut that threatened to sap American strength in films such as Gung Ho (1986) and Back to the Future II (1989). The gremlins foolishly try to imitate the ways of white, middle-class America (such as caroling) in their own inescapably demented fashion, like minorities who are ridiculed for failing to adopt American mannerisms or speak English perfectly. More to the point, Japan and other Asian countries were often accused of copying/stealing American art, science, and technology to get ahead in the race for economic advantage during this period. (For example, in the early 1980s Jack Valenti, the notorious Hollywood spokesman, decried Sony’s videocassette recorder as a violent foreign parasite that would destroy American industry by allowing consumers to copy movies: “We are going to bleed and bleed and hemorrhage, unless this Congress at least protects one industry that is able to retrieve a surplus balance of trade and whose total future depends on its protection from the savagery and the ravages of this machine. ... I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.”)

Although Gremlins has been viewed as an anti-technology film, it tentatively suggests that technological ingenuity is the key to saving America from its decline. Since the 1920s, when British pilots blamed mythical critters for mechanical failure, a gremlin has been understood to be a small, mysterious being that causes some piece of machinery to fail. The monsters in this film attempt to use technology (like a tennis ball machine) against the human characters, or at least fiddle with it so it does not work correctly. (One hilarious example includes miserly Mrs. Deagle's chairlift, which the gremlins hotwire to send her sailing up the stairs and flying out the second floor window.)


Ultimately, though, humans are not threatened by technology per se. The furry hero, after all, is named Gizmo. Mrs. Peltzer fights off the invading gremlins in her kitchen with several modern appliances, including the microwave. And, early in the film, Billy's sweet duet with Gizmo, who trills along with a tiny electronic keyboard, suggests a potential for rapprochement and harmony with the East, through the medium of cheap consumer electronics.

Indeed, Gizmo may be a foreign Other, but he is ultimately trustworthy and responsible—a model minority. He resists the urge to eat after midnight, unlike his rapacious brethren. In the end, he helps to save the day. If the transformation of the small, furry mogwai into the scary, scaly gremlins is meant to represent the horrors of adolescence (which seems likely enough), then Gizmo remains pure because he is in a state of perpetual innocence. He is not that threatening because he is still a child. In this way, he resembles other infantilized minorities of the 1980s—notably, the cliché of the black child taken in by white, upper class paternalists. In both Webster and Diff’rent Strokes, black characters are played by actors whose growth is stunted, keeping them in a state of nonthreatening childhood.

  The must have accessory of the 1980s

This safe, childlike condition may seem to apply only to Gizmo, as a symbol of an Asian outsider stripped of any dangerous power, but it also says something about the politics of the film’s small-town Americana. Main character Billy is also a man-child—even though he has a “nice job” at the local bank, according to the film trailer, he still lives with his parents and gets a cute little pet from his dad, as if he were an eight year old getting a puppy. Like Gizmo, he is noble and pure, immune to the adult hedonism that consumes the amoral gremlins. These heroic moppets makes a perfect pair for the age of Nancy Reagan and “Just Say to No to Drugs,” globalization and foreign competition. If we can simply go back to the small town virtue of an earlier age (like a later man-child, Forrest Gump), we can beat back the cancerous growth of greed, immorality and irresponsibility and meet the challenge of a changing world with enough strength to save the nation. In the sequel, when Gizmo has to fight off yet another batch of gremlin hooligans, he mimics a great icon of the Eighties in adorable-hilarious fashion: Rambo, the avatar of American revivalism who avenges the country’s hurt ego after Vietnam. “They pushed him too far,” Billy deadpans in the second film, noting a more aggressive Gizmo. Middle America, too, felt like it was pushed too far, but fortunately it could count on a foreign friend to help it through.

Alex Sayf Cummings

Monday, December 12, 2011

Our Day of Social Engineering: A Middle Class Experiment Arrives in Reynoldstown

On Saturday, several friends and I got to witness the birth of a new community amid the fanfare of what was basically a very expensive raffle. The Lofts at Reynoldstown Crossing were making their units available to pre-qualified buyers, offering $60,000 of downpayment assistance to Atlantans who made less than $68,000/year. The idea was to rehabilitate a failed condo project in the Reynoldstown neighborhood, an old industrial, working-class community, as an anchor for the ambitious new Beltline project, which ultimately aims to encircle Atlanta’s in-town neighborhoods in a network of light rail, parks, and bike and walking trails.

My friend Jeena applied to get this subsidy from the Atlanta Beltline Partnership and bid on one of the condos. Each person who qualified would have his or her card pulled at an official drawing on December 10th, with the opportunity to pick among whatever units remained available. The first pulled got the best of the units, and a small number were set aside for teachers and first responders, such as police officers, EMT and firefighters. The lucky winners bawled and their friends cheered, and dozens of new neighbors were created in the matter of an hour and a half. We came along to provide moral support for Jeena—and, to a lesser extent, to observe the festive atmosphere that accompanied the execution of this strange model of public-private, government-corporate, affordable-housing-cum-public-transit development. (Also, to get free food—they were giving away delicious sliders the first time we visited.)

As a historian, one of my favorite things to study is the way that people consciously create new environments for themselves, with particular goals in mind. Whether it is European settlers setting the ground rules for a new society in North America, or modernist planners laying out the self-image of a nation in the streets of “invented” cities like Islamabad or Brasilia, it is always intriguing to see a people’s values explicitly articulated in the landscape.

All landscapes, of course, are invented. All are artificial, no matter how much we are told that the suburbs or shopping malls are the result of the “natural,” spontaneous, unplanned workings of the market. Historically, American tax policies helped businesses write off the depreciation of their assets at an accelerated rate, incentivizing the production of cheap, disposable architecture; meanwhile, government plowed money into roads and sewer lines, pushing the outer limits of sprawl, while the Federal Housing Administration subsidizes homeownership for working class and middle class people who might not otherwise afford it. Nothing about suburbia is natural, but the inner workings of this style of urban planning are largely concealed from view. As a result, those benefiting from it don’t feel like they are getting a handout or participating in some grand project of social engineering. (For more in this vein, see Ira Katznelson’s When Affirmative Action Was White, or Elizabeth Blackmar’s “Of REITs and Rights.”)

Some projects, though, announce their goals much more clearly. I am personally interested in North Carolina’s Research Triangle as a model of how academics, businesspeople, planners and politicians deliberately created a new kind of economy and a new social mix in Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, designed with certain people and a particular (post-industrial, high-tech) vision of the future in mind. These kinds of efforts continue to emerge across the United States, as various government, commercial, and public-private projects try to promote denser development in America’s cities. Oregon’s urban growth boundary system has, since the early 1970s, attempted to promote infill and high-density development by setting a limit beyond which suburban sprawl cannot extend. Advocates of New Urbanism have seen their message at least partly embraced by developers who pursue “live-work-play” projects with condos, shopping, dining and office space in one mixed-use package. Atlanta’s Atlantic Station project appears to pursue such goals in a creepy, corporate, Stepford version of New Urbanism, rehabilitating a brownfield site in midtown where a defunct steel mill once stood as a consumer destination and yuppie living space.

The Beltline, thus, provides an opportunity to see how a Southern city, riven by the politics of suburbs vs. the city, the Republican hinterland vs. the diverse, Democratic core, the middle class vs. the poor, tries to remedy the problems of sprawl and build a walkable urban landscape. The old cures of urban renewal and public housing have been tried and mostly failed. “Slum clearance” in the 1960s wiped out African American and working class white neighborhoods to make way for freeways; purely state-supported interventions into the housing market have also faltered and suffered lasting stigma. The Beltline is a public-private hybrid that draws money from the City of Atlanta and the federal government along with Bank of America, which is not bashful about trumpeting its commitment to affordable housing and “neighborhood revitalization” (not to mention confronting the “foreclosure crisis” that it played a huge part in creating and sustains every single day). The Beltline relies on the idealism of volunteers who believe in its goals of greater density, better public transit, and affordable housing, as well as corporate and political patronage.

The usual debates come up with the Beltline, of course—is this going to gentrify traditionally poor and working class, largely African American neighborhoods, bringing in a horde of new yuppies who raise property values and rents, with Whole Foods and Citarella not far behind? The libertarian wants to know if it is a boondoggle that will benefit a precious few at a disproportionate cost to the whole. The advocate for the working poor wonders what exactly affordable housing means in this context—how will it work and how much “affordable housing” will be offered?

Painful experience has shown that developers may make big promises about affordable housing to sell their projects to local communities, but the actual outcome might end up having less low-priced housing than expected. (See the ongoing struggle over Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn.) Indeed, what counts as affordable? The truly poor are unlikely to have the resources to purchase a home even under the most favorable terms, and such projects are likeliest to benefit the lower-middle class whose weekly or monthly income could support a mortgage but who cannot afford to break into neighborhoods where housing costs make it impossible for the likes of police officers and firefighters to live. Such prospective buyers may also not be able to raise the funds for a down payment that could make the monthly cost of a mortgage manageable, since they lack the inherited advantage of parents or other relatives who have the capital to help subsidize a home purchase.

For those aspiring homeowners of modest means, Atlanta’s Reynoldstown offers a combination of high crime and failing schools matched with high home prices and a moderate degree of gentrification. It has a coffeeshop with its very own dog park—an indelible signal of gentrifying success—but it does not yet have its own bars, restaurants, or grocery stores. The Beltline project has to sell Atlantans on the idea of living in this rundown neighborhood of old factories and warehouses, which has neither the upper middle-class amenities of nearby Candler Park nor the hipster vibe of Cabbagetown and East Atlanta, while also making a move to the area financially feasible for potential buyers. To sustain interest in the Beltline and make its vision of dense in-town living a reality, the organization needs residents who are committed to the project’s future. In the early twentieth century, streetcar companies laid out in-town neighborhoods such as East Atlanta just to have customers to patronize their transit lines. The Beltline finds itself in a similar kind of Field of Dreams situation; if you build it (the housing) they will come. And if they come (to buy a loft), you can build it (ultimately, the light rail that will connect the Beltline’s many parks, walking/bike trails, and residences).

At the day of the drawing, everyone from the Beltline worked double time to sustain a sense of infectious enthusiasm. Buyers showed up eager to wait their turn and have their number called. The heavy feeling that typically accompanies making a major life choice like buying a home had been deftly displaced by a carnival-like mood of being a part of a zesty group project. Potential buyers were invited to revisit the different units one last time, to see the thoroughly redone interiors of the condos and imagine what their view would be like looking at the skyline of downtown Atlanta—or, alternatively, looking out the back window at H. Harper Station, a railway depot located along the tracks of the old rail line that would serve as the backbone of the new Beltline, now rejuvented as an upscale cocktail/dining establishment.

When the time came for the drawing, various local pols made brief speeches. A city councilwoman praised the idea of “attractive lovely affordable housing for teachers and policemen.” “This is a grassroots project,” the Beltline’s Chief Operating Officer, Lisa Gordon, declared. “As most of you know, we are putting parks, greenspace, and trails in the abandoned freight rail just behind us to reinvest and connect neighborhoods in the city of Atlanta. And it’s important because the community came up with the idea, and was instrumental in some of the projects we are doing. And one of them was affordable housing, so people who are here can enjoy this project and the amenities and the investments that are being made.” Her goal was “permanent affordability on the beltline for the longterm”—making sure that the project, in essence, did not only benefit the privileged or well-heeled who could afford to buy a pricey property in an up-and-coming in-town location (one that could become even more valuable if light rail is eventually built in the the lofts’ literal backyard).

An executive from the diversity department at Bank of America was also on hand. She noted that she herself lived on the Beltline, and she used the opportunity to burnish the bank’s image by talking about all the wonderful things it was doing to prevent foreclosures. “Our first responders, our teachers, who better than that to stabilize a community?” she said. “And we know how important it is to have role models in the community, and when our police officers are in our community, it gives us a feeling of being safe, and it’s just not a feeling, you do help promote safety, so thank you so much for that.”

The marketing director who was responsible for publicizing and ultimately moving the units was the master of ceremonies. He was like a mutant cross between a televangelist, an airport lounge lizard, and the futuristically bald, coldly efficient Governor of Florida, Rick Scott. He kept the momentum going in tent-revival fashion as names were called from the raffle, and he praised Bank of America for their stalwart support of the project. He had lived along the Beltline for ten years, he said, and he had been in the real estate business for a while. Never had bankers been easier to deal with. “We’re not going to occupy Bank of America,” he pointedly said. “We’re going to love Bank of America.”

And the atmosphere was, indeed, a general love-fest. Even as home prices plummet and we have a so-called overabundance of housing with more and more families becoming homeless, Bank of America’s subsidy of the Beltline helps improve its PR while also moving cops, teachers and other lower-to-middle middle class Atlantans into their own homes, thanks to a sizable chunk of financial assistance. The technicalities of the deal ensure that buyers will be compelled to stay in their homes for as long as fifteen years, as a sort of New Urbanist-gentrification era version of the Homestead Act; if one sells or tries to rent the unit as an “investment property” in the next decade or so, he or she will have to give back the $60,000 down payment assistance. It is not free money, but it is an advantage to anyone who wants a shot at buying a decent place in an interesting neighborhood and plans on staying put for a while.

The most striking thing about the experience was that, in the circus/raffle/revival climate of the drawing, almost everyone whose name was called chose a place, even if it was likely not their third, or fourth, or fifth choice. Most seemed enthused to have a chance to buy any place at all, and once they picked a unit—there are a variety of floor plans on three floors, and they were called to the front to make a decision in front of everyone in attendance—they were escorted off into another room to fill out paperwork binding them to their choice. Most people, when making an epic decision about a home and a thirty-year mortgage, may be picky and dawdle and agonize over little details. That was not an option today, as everything in the process was designed to convey a sense of urgency and inevitability to participants. The vast majority of buyers seemed content to pick whatever was left, happy, apparently, to be getting such a deal on any condo in the development—this, in an environment when home prices in the Atlanta metro area continue their seemingly inexorable slide, while the values of condos and townhomes have cratered in particularly devastating fashion.

Our friend Jeena, however, saw the three units she favored get snapped up in the first couple rounds of selection, and she opted to get on the waitlist for one she really wanted. The enthusiastic bandwagon feeling that came long with downpayment assistance and the dream of joining the Beltline did not necessarily sweep all along its path, no matter how tantalizing the prospect of “free money” (i.e. government and corporate largesse) and urban revitalization might have been for many others. Even in the midst of a continuing real estate meltdown, the Beltline folks achieved the enviable accomplishment of getting almost every unit in a condo development filled in about two hours. The project’s effort to engineer a new middle class enclave along its future light rail managed to turn almost everyone into a willing partner—almost, but not quite.

What does it all mean, though, in the big picture? The fact is that many of these buyers likely could have found another affordable property somewhere else. Plenty of homes are going unsold in Atlanta, and desperate sellers shave another $5,000 here, $10,000 there for each month that their property remains on the market. This is especially true for the glut of condos in the metro area. Bank of America can claim to be doing something about “the foreclosure crisis” by giving (in effect) an interest-free loan of $60,000 to a handful of buyers in Reynoldstown, but this gesture is not actually stopping any foreclosures or keeping anyone in their homes.

As for the Beltline and its agenda, the organization has accomplished something good by laying the foundation of a middle class community of homeowners who will likely be committed to the neighborhood—they are all starting there together, at the same time, and they are all tied to it for the foreseeable future. The two police officers and one teacher who had the first three slots reserved for them benefit (though there was certainly a weird sort of tokenism to the special status and attention they received in the process). The Beltline shows that public-private partnerships that unite local, national, corporate, nonprofit, and volunteer energies can do good things for housing and transit.

I do not want to be the kind of nitpicking naysayer who belittles modest achievements just because they do not solve all the world’s problems, but I do think we should regard such projects with caution—or, at least, we should not let our enthusiasm for them become distracting. Public-private partnerships can do some things well, like getting lower-middle income people into a stylish two bedroom, two bathroom condo in a gentifying community. But they are still people, like my friend, who can keep a roof over their heads one way or another. Like a small number of charter schools that can boast great results with the help of lavish corporate funding, their achievements are difficult to “scale up” because the money is simply not there for anything but a small pilot program that benefits a few people.

Affordable housing does not just mean homeownership. As far as I know, real public housing is not on the Beltline’s agenda, because finding both the financial and the political support for it is probably all too hard. So the people who are most affected by unemployment, foreclosure, and homelessness are not part of the picture, and they will not benefit from the Beltline’s vision (except in a very indirect, long-term sense of benefiting from public transit, oh so many years from now). Again, this is not to detract from the good that the Beltline can and will do. Least of all do I want to belittle the opportunity for working families to gain access to property and build their own assets. But we should also remember that corporate benevolence and “affordable housing” are not going to make shelter a reality for very many people.

Alex Sayf Cummings

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Killing in the Suburbs: The New Suburban Menace

You always seemed so sure
That one day we'd be fighting
A suburban war
your part of town against mine
I saw you standing on the opposite shore

But by the time the first bombs fell
We were already bored
We were already, already bored

--- Arcade Fire, “The Suburbs”

In the Spike Jonze directed video for the Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs,” a group of white adolescent teens bike around their local planned suburban community engaging in the kind of teenage horseplay so commonly associated with bored middle class kids. Despite the stereotypical banality of this suburban existence, Jonze imbues a sense of menace; military units conduct sweeps of various houses placing the suburb’s residents under the watchful eye of government authorities.  Shrouded in bright lights and shadows, a tension between two of the boys emerges, ending in one brutally assaulting the other while locked inside a closed fast food restaurant.  No one dies, but the spectacle of their three mutual friends watching the beating from outside the glass encased restaurant remains troubling and discomforting.

The odd discomfort of suburban life, as epitomized by the aforementioned Arcade Fire’s 2010 album (The Suburbs), seems to dominate cultural productions.  Movies like Donnie Darko (perhaps more existentialist than most and with a catchy ’80s soundtrack) and American Beauty assailed the suburbs for their conformity and underlying hypocrisy.  Better Luck Tomorrow explored the lives of middle class Asian Americans in Southern California, several of whom describe their rather comfortable lives as “hell.”  In each, the culmination of the character’s actions results in acts of lethal violence.  If movies about inner city life like Menace to Society, Boyz N the Hood, and Juice portray Black working class existence as a constant maneuvering of potentially life threatening circumstances, suburban dramas like those already mentioned lull viewers to sleep, shocking them to attention with sudden unexpected bursts of white hot violence.

There's violence in them there pages young Donnie

Yet, the stereotype of suburban life as the economic “good life”; an ultimately safe if boring homogeneous existence no longer rings true. These examples and others point to a growing unease about suburban existence much different from previous decades. Writers like David Riesman (The Lonely Crowd) and William Whyte (The Organization Man) feared the growth of the suburbs not for flashpoints of violence but because of social alienation and the further privatization of American life.  Instead today, middle class economic pressures, ranging from steady unemployment to rising health costs to increased college tuition – pervade suburban life.  The fall from middle class respectability to a harder scrabble working class reality feels all too real for many suburbanites.  Economic insecurities form only part of the broad anxiety afflicting suburbs.  Fears over gunplay and like violence – driven by media images like the Columbine Massacre and federal government policies like HOPE VI housing reforms --appear to be rather new considerations that when juxtaposed with traditional conceits about suburbia provide a striking contrast. 

High School Ain’t High School Anymore

Walter: I have made a series of very bad decisions and I cannot make another one.
Gus: Why did you make these decisions?
Walter: For the good of my family.
Gus: Then they weren't bad decisions. What does a man do, Walter? A man provides for his family.
Walter: This cost me my family.
Gus: When you have children, you always have family. They will always be your priority, your responsibility. And a man, a man provides. And he does it even when he's not appreciated or respected or even loved. He simply bears up and he does it. Because he's a man.

In a recent piece for Grantland, writer Chuck Klosterman argued that the A&E drama Breaking Bad outpaced rivals Mad Men, The Sopranos, and The Wire for best television show of the last twenty years. For Klosterman, the evolution of the show’s main character Walter White --  from an unassuming and decent but frustrated science teacher to an aggressive and corrupt violent meth cooking prodigy -- stemmed from White’s own decisions. “Breaking Bad is not a situation in which the characters' morality is static or contradictory or colored by the time frame,” writes Klosterman. “Instead, it suggests that morality is continually a personal choice.” Sure, initially White believed he was dying of cancer so in order to provide for his family, he turned to cooking. However, with the cancer in remission, White never really retreated, instead continuing haltingly, crossing one moral hazard after another.  White’s moral corruption, buried beneath the placidness of suburban Albuquerque, proves invisible in this context.  His employer Gus, a man as efficiently brutal as he is fastidious, cuts an even more innocuous figure: the proprietor of a chain of fast food chicken restaurants and local philanthropist. Hannah Arendt’s observation regarding the “banality of evil” may not be totally analogous here, but it sounds right.   Yet, White’s action and those of his boss, in part, stem from the spine of traditional suburban life: the patriarchal household. That White turns to more violent means than observers have grown accustomed to suggests that perhaps the context of suburbia for an increasingly pressured middle class has changed. 

Inside beats the heart of a killer

White’s meth production serves as the new boogeyman for more than suburbanites.  Authors like Philipp Meyer in American Rust, noted the proliferation of meth production and use in small town America and the economic and social consequences cascading from crank. Still, among the decay of steel mill PA, meth seems almost appropriate.  Scattered within planned New Mexico suburbs, well that seems less likely. Obviously, the sharp lack of congruity between the image of the suburbs as a boring but safe haven from drugs and violence serves as the main reason that these kinds of stories draw our gaze.  However, in recent years, one wonders if suburban realities have changed.  To be fair, Breaking Bad’s White embodies the very pressures afflicting middle class families.  If not for profits from his meth production, White never gets the cancer treatment he desperately needed and his family would have been bankrupt as he careened toward death.  Moreover, White repeats the need for building upon his ill gotten gains to pay for his children’s college tuition.

Unfortunately, Breaking Bad, as far as television goes, remains rather exceptional. It finds ways to address these issues with nuance and style, avoiding pedantics, while still provoking real thought. However, one event in particular, prior to all of the movies, television shows, and songs mentioned here, seems to have impacted how we see suburban life and how it’s conveyed to us.

Colorado Tragedy

In his 1992 work, Magic Lands: Western Cityscapes and American Culture after 1940, ( John Findlay attempts to unpack the design, layout, and meaning of postwar Western metropolises.  Findlay focuses on “magic lands” like Disneyland, Stanford Industrial Park, and the Space Needle, employing them as windows into the larger working of Western suburbanized urbanization. “Magic lands,” like Disneyland or the Seattle Center, provided residents and cities with identifiable landmarks and personalities. Since Western cityscapes often lacked a central business district, residents had to form their own personal social world and cognitive maps “in terms of individual’s particular orbits rather than in terms of fixed places or a single political entity.” (283)  As one can imagine, outside of these “magic lands,” this left fewer sites of overlap for fellow residents, meaning how one envisioned their city and the people within it often depended on their particular use of the city.   Few spaces provided a common site from which all residents would have a relationship, meaning institutions like schools gained greater social and political currency.  In the case of one high school near Littleton, Colorado, its significance ballooned to national proportions.

In 1973, Jeffco county Colorado constructed three high schools.  Though few people lived there at the time, officials and local developers expected an influx of newcomers, largely a result of integration policies which led to what journalist Dave Cullen labels an “avalanche of white flight out of Denver.”   To be fair, for some the suburbs association with segregation undermined its moral foundation.  In Edge Cities: Life on the New Frontier, Joel Garreau addresses this very issue noting that environmentally and racially suburban growth proved problematic, “cars were inherently Evil and our attachment to them Inexplicable; that suburbia was morally wrong – primarily a product of White Flight.”

Outside of Denver, Subdivisions popped up everywhere. The area known as Littleton, a nebulous title applied to a tract of land of 700 square miles, filled up quickly, topping 100,000 by 1995.  Fearing government regulation and interference, the 100,000 residents refused incorporation.  While the suburb of Littleton sat several miles away “across the South Platte River, in a different county with separate schools and law enforcement,” this new development to the West lacked any real designation or identifying characteristics.  “The 100,000 new arrivals filled one continuous suburb with no town center,” writes Cullen, “no main street, no town hall, town library, or town name.   No one knew what to call it.” (21) The post office may have slapped Littleton on mailing addresses but few residents identified their town this way.  Instead, people tended to gravitate toward the “hub of suburban school life,” high school.  This meant that newly refurbished Columbine High School served as the de facto identity and namesake for the 30,000 residents living near it.

Columbine’s emergence and the growth of these related neighboring communities also proves illustrative of processes of urbanization that the aforementioned Garreau argues encapsulates America’s late 20th century. Garreau dubs places like Irvine, CA and Tyson Corners, VA “Edge Cities”.  Multinodal, car oriented, white collar, and decentralized, “Edge Cities”, according to Garreau, serve as the new reality: both suburban and urban.  However, despite their technological sophistication, upper income employment, and impenetrable optimism these places lacked history and in turn struggled to build community.  Often in places like Irvine, CA, local institutions such as evangelical churches and schools provided a means to create belonging.  Though not technically an edge city, Columbine shared many of these characteristics, perhaps increasing its symbolic value in the eyes of horrified observers.

Though for some, the events that unfolded on April 20, 1999 at Columbine High School may have receded in personal memory or been overshadowed by the trauma of 9/11, the Columbine Massacre reshaped suburban narratives.  Yet, even our public understanding of events there fail to match up to reality. According to media reports, two members of a persecuted goth clique referred to as “the Trench Coat” mafia, tired of being bullied and perhaps ashamed over their closeted homosexuality, targeted jocks, homosexuals (one can assume this motivation was chalked up to self loathing had the two boys been gay), and minorities in a ruthless shooting spree. 


In his 2008 work, Columbine, David Cullen blows up this media crafted story, arguing that Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were anything but bullied homosexual outcasts.  According to Cullen, the two boys enjoyed reasonable popularity, frequently bullied others, and gave no signs of homosexuality.   Instead, Cullen found a psychopath (Harris) and depressive (Klebold).  The two boys formed what researchers refer to as a dyad, defined as “murderous pairs who feed off one another.” (244) Far from targeting specific groups, Harris and Klebold had hoped to emulate the domestic terrorism of Timothy McVeigh.  Fortunately, most of the bombs they had planted failed to ignite, thus, what had originally been designed as a mop up job following detonation, turned in to Harris and Klebold’s sole act of violence: firing on unarmed, terrified high school students. Even when detectives connected the dots and ditched the “targeting theory,” the media refused to let go.  “[The Media] saw what happened at Columbine as a shooting and the killers as outcasts targeting jocks,” argued Cullen. “They filtered every new development through that lens.” (124) In fact, generally, when it comes to school shooters, there is no typical attacker. They hail from all “ethnic, economic, and social classes,” notes Cullen.  Very few had criminal records or any documented history of violence. What about family dysfunction? Most came from reliable two parent households.   The idea of loners suddenly snapping due to emotional instability also proves a myth. “A staggering 93 percent planned their attack in advance,” argues Cullen, who cites a FBI report that suggests “the move toward violence is an evolutionary one with signposts along the way.” (323)

To be fair, other institutions besides the media failed. Cullen notes the ineptitude of Jeffco Sheriff John Stone who continually made inaccurate pronouncements that media reports magnified, increasing the ignorance and misinformation surrounding the massacre.   With this in mind, one might forgive famed filmmaker Gus Van Zant for his 2003 movie Elephant.  The film served as Van Zant’s interpretation of Columbine in a leafy Portland setting. Bordering on cinema verite, Elephant eschews professional actors or any real script.   The interior lives of characters remain blank slates, though through brief flashbacks, the movie suggests the shooters – Eric and Alex – were bullied by the school’s jocks, enjoyed watching Nazi movies, played violent video games and practiced their marksmanship in the garage.  Moreover, just before embarking on their massacre, the two boys shower together, sharing a kiss before dying if you will.   When they do execute their Columbine like strike, the shooting itself serves as their main activity, here Van Zant lifts dialogue straight from news reports and the writings of the Columbine pair as Alex instructs Eric “to remember to have fun.”  When Eric corners school administrator John Lewis in a hallway, letting him go only to execute Lewis moments later, he leaves the administrator with the following warning, “You know there are others out there like us too, and they will get you if you fuck with them like you did with me and Alex.”  An odd warning given to a man that Eric murders in the moment.

Van Zant deserves credit for attempting to deconstruct the events of Columbine.  Yet though Elephant displays an elegiac beauty and won critical acclaim, the movie gets many of the facts wrong. Eric and Dylan did not purchase their guns over the internet; rather, they convinced a third party, a young girl interested in Dylan to purchase the weapons at a gun show.  What about the affect of bullying on the two boys? Hard to say, since neither suffered from it.  If anything, the two boys bullied other kids.  Moreover, in their private diaries and writings, both expressed sexualities typical of heterosexual teenage boys with few if any signs or even interest in experimentation.   For Eric, whom Cullen labels a sociopath, relationships appear to me more about power than actual sex anyway, while Dylan, the depressive, constantly prattled on about girls and “true love.”   Perhaps most crucially, as Cullen notes, the shooters never intended Columbine to be a targeted shooting gallery as portrayed in the film, but as noted previously, a terrorist act inspired by Timothy McVeigh and OKC. The broader public’s ignorance of this fact, facilitated by media distortions and misinformation from local law enforcement officials, distorts the meanings attached to the tragedy and established a fundamental misunderstanding of the “new suburban menace.”

Some Suburbs do Struggle

While crime rates in large cities stayed flat, homicide rates in many midsize cities (with populations of between 500,000 and 1 million) began increasing, sometimes by as much as 20 percent a year. In 2006, the Police Executive Research Forum, a national police group surveying cities from coast to coast, concluded in a report called “A Gathering Storm” that this might represent “the front end … of an epidemic of violence not seen for years.” The leaders of the group, which is made up of police chiefs and sheriffs, theorized about what might be spurring the latest crime wave: the spread of gangs, the masses of offenders coming out of prison, methamphetamines. But mostly they puzzled over the bleak new landscape. According to FBI data, America’s most dangerous spots are now places where Martin Scorsese would never think of staging a shoot-out—Florence, South Carolina; Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina; Kansas City, Missouri; Reading, Pennsylvania; Orlando, Florida; Memphis, Tennessee.

-- Hanna Rosin, “American Murder Mystery,” The Atlantic, July/August 2008

In the July/August 2008 issue of the Atlantic, Hanna Rosin explored the disturbing dynamic of inner ring suburban violence that had emerged in mid-sized metropolitan regions like Memphis, Tennessee, Orlando, Florida, and Reading, Pennsylvania.  Increasingly, inner ring suburbs and the mid-sized cities they orbit, reported increasing crime rates and social dysfunction. However, unlike the image of Columbine or the violence offered in movies like Donnie Darko, crime in these places emerged from the pressures of poverty, new public housing policies, and overwhelmed municipalities.  Violent outbursts occurred not because of bullying but the stress of demographics.

North Memphis Troubles

As has been widely documented by now, federal HOPE VI public housing policies have simply shifted the very crime and poverty that had savaged many inner city communities to “inner ring suburbs.” In cities like Memphis and other mid-size metropolises, poverty reconcentrated itself in these outlying suburbs, resulting in spiking crime rates and unprepared police forces. This proves especially true in urban areas with tight housing markets such as Washington D.C., where crime has bulged into adjacent suburbs in Maryland and Virginia.  While HOPE VI succeeded in deconcentrating poverty in many of these inner city neighborhoods, it failed to account for new developments in surrounding suburbs.  Now smaller municipalities, never designed or funded to meet the needs of most public housing residents found themselves overwhelmed by their new obligations. Rosin summarized these effects succinctly, “What began as an ‘I Have a Dream’ social crusade has turned into an urban-redevelopment project. Cities fell so hard for the idea of a new, spiffed-up, gentrified downtown that this vision came to crowd out other goals.”  Much like Alexander Von Hoffman’s observations several years earlier, (“High Ambitions: The Past and Future of Low Income Housing”, 1996 – it can be googled and downloaded) deconcentrating these pockets of agglomerated poverty sounded good but even under earlier less ambitious programs like Section 8 or the Moving to Opportunity Program, the results proved less convincing.  Alienation, lack of transportation, and competition with more qualified suburban workers meant many of these new suburbanites suffered economically, socially, and emotionally. Moreover, for all the evils of inner city public housing, residents formed support networks for child-care, transportation, and sociability; their suburban environs lacked these very necessities. Employment proved no easier as transportation issues, low wages, and even competition with higher income, better educated suburban workers combined to limit opportunity.

How does this relate to Columbine and the cultural productions that followed in its wake?  Columbine continues to overshadow very real developments in America’s suburbs that demand the attention of local and national governments alike.   Focusing on Columbine, especially through the myopic lens provided by the media and others, leads observers to think of suburban violence in a very racialized and almost uncontrollable manner.  Sure, campaigns against bullying remain noteworthy and undoubtedly deserve to be promoted, but they fail to get at the actual cause of either Columbine or the struggles of inner ring metropolitan suburbs.

The realization that suburban existence by itself will not solve poverty, crime, or violence, regardless of income levels, serves as a useful reminder of the limits of planning.  Even in “law abiding” places like Columbine, violence can emerge from the most unlikeliest of sources.  The privileging of suburbia for suburbia’s sake no doubt has absorbed some hits. Additionally, as the riots in the French suburbs illustrated, American ideas of suburban life and the growing untidy reality seem to have more in common with European metropolitan regions.  

In his 2003 work Empire Falls, acclaimed writer of New Hampshire mill town life, Richard Russo employed the very Columbine like trope discussed here in his novel’s conclusion. The daughter of main character Miles Roby, finds herself amidst a violent high school outburst by an emotionally disturbed student she had attempted to befriend.  Of course, Russo frames the violence much in the vein of Columbine, a twisted deranged white kid from a dysfunctional family snaps, plunging into a school-shooting spree. In this way, Russo suggests that the kind of suburban violence of bullying and alienation proves pervasive, oozing into the lives of more rural populations.  Though school shootings had long been in decline, including at the time of the Columbine Massacre, the violent, mentally ill adolescent male shooter remains the primary avatar of suburban violence.   This kind of dominant image does very little to solve the very issues that drive real and increasing violence and social dysfunction in inner ring suburbs.  Instead, we focus on the neurosis of white male angry suburbanites, thus marginalizing communities that have found themselves actual victims of the new suburban menace. It also obscures very real economic and social pressures buffeting middle class suburbanites of all colors and ethnicities.  Sure, the Columbine Tragedy, much like 9/11, led to significant changes in how we monitor or police high schools and their students.  This has been on the whole positive, but one day we all graduate and whose to say where these social and economic pressures take us then.

Ryan Reft