Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Chicago Trending Brown: Black-Latino Relations, 1990-2010

A promise from the [Chicago Housing Authority] . . . if they promise you something you better look at your other hand to make sure it’s still there.
-- Beauty Turner of the Residents’ Journal (1)

Obviously the Chicago Housing Authority and Chicago’s African American community have not enjoyed a particularly healthy relationship. The CHA’s legendary mismanagement and its role in establishing Chicago’s housing patterns have not endeared it to the hearts of many in the Black community. Though as sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh illustrated in American Project some of the housing projects in their initial decade accomplished the goal to which they were created: quality housing was supplied and the residents enjoyed a relatively safe community. However, the 1960s disinvestment, civil unrest, and a shifting economy began the decline in housing standards. By the 1980s conditions had collapsed to the extent that even when the CHA had resources they failed to reach residents. In one famous incident, literally 2000 appliances, never used, were found rotting in a basement in the Henry Horner homes – appliances many of the residents desperately needed. (2)

If the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) has a troubled history in regards to Black Chicago, their experience with the city’s bursting Latino population reveals a studied negligence. Few episodes reveal its struggles more clearly than the 1994 lawsuit brought by Latinos United. Well before 1994 CHA residents were nearly uniformly black. Mexicans and Mexican Americans had been a small but significant population for decades, by the 1980s, Pilsen and Little Village emerged as hubs of Chicago’s Mexican community. While the Mexican population grew steadily in the 1980s, it exploded in the 1990s with some observers estimating that their numbers exceeded one million persons during the decade. By 2000, Latinos constituted 26% (753,644) of the city’s total population with the vast majority of those hailing from Puerto Rico or Mexico. [Author's note: Like other cities Chicago's undocumented population is probably quite large leading to higher estimates than reported census figures] Despite this demographic growth, by 1994 they made up roughly only 2.25% of the CHA population .(3) Some officials, such as chief operating officer Robert Whitefield, argued that far fewer Latinos applied for vacancies. As Whitefield claimed, “It’s one thing if 45 percent are applying and only 2 percent are accepted . . . But a small number are applying and a slightly smaller number actually participate.” (4) In a later interview, Whitefield ironically blamed past CHA policies for the paucity of Latinos in its housing, saying “the reason so few Latinos apply or live in CHA development is because HUD and CHA years ago engaged in racial site selection by locating most of the family public housing in all black, poor neighborhoods.” (5) However five years prior in 1989, several leading Latino advocacy groups, including Latinos United, pressured the CHA to sign an agreement in which the CHA would attempt to raise Latino occupation in its units to 25 percent. (6)

It did not work. Despite estimates placing nearly 25 percent of the city’s Latinos at the poverty level, their presence in CHA housing remained a paltry 2.25%. (7) As further evidence of CHA indifference, critics pointed to the CHA’s workforce where Latinos made up fewer than 2% of employees. (This reflects a well known trend. Studies show Latinos do better in private sector employment but that African Americans attain much higher rates of government employment). Thus when several advocacy groups brought a 1994 lawsuit against the CHA and HUD for housing discrimination, few observers should have been surprised.

Settling the suit a year later, HUD promised to set “aside 500 section 8 vouchers, worth about 19 million and provide more than one million in counseling to help Latinos use the vouchers.” (8) While the suit did bring increased numbers of Latinos into its “scattered site” programs, boosting participation in the section 8 program from 3% to 12%, the rise coincided with an increase in the number of Latinos eligible for housing, which, in 2005, rose from 25% in 1994 to 33% (9). Moreover, the settlement’s provisions had been undoubtedly influenced by a HUD report that described the CHA’s section 8 plan as “in disarray and riddled with corruption.” (10) The city’s housing authority reported a 15 year waiting list for section 8 applicants. Unsurprisingly, one CHA insider noted “people were being moved around on waiting lists. If you knew someone or paid someone off, you may only have to wait two months to get a certificate; if you didn’t, you may die before you get to the top.” (11) In addition, the same report suggested some landlords had paid off “CHA inspectors to overlook maintenance violations.” (12)

Within the city’s two largest Latino communities, Mexican and Puerto Rican residents expressed skepticism toward public housing. At a 1993 public meeting, Pilsen and Humbolt Park (a community long recognized as the center of the Puerto Rican community, though there is some debate about how many Puerto Rican Chicagoans have been displaced due to gentrification) residents voiced their doubts regarding CHA public housing plans. Few wished to occupy vacancies in the high rises. Some harbored clear prejudices regarding public housing residents; as one factory worker from predominantly Mexican Pilsen remarked, “If the CHA were to open apartments in ABLA [a public housing project near the Pilsen community] to Latinos ‘I’d wake up dead’.” (13) Still, many at the same meeting said that rent subsidies or scattered site units appealed to them.

However, even this proved to be contentious in moments. One year prior to the lawsuit, the CHA hoped to build 130 scattered site units in noted the previously mentioned Puerto Rican neighborhood Humbolt Park. Residents and members of the West Humbolt Park Fair Housing Coalition (WHPFHC) opposed the idea since “dumping 130 scattered site units in a small seven by two block area is contrary to the federal mandate and will create a racially segregated and economic ghetto,” noted a WHPFHC spokesman. (14) Echoing the complaints of blacks in the 1960s and especially during the Gautreaux lawsuits, residents demanded to know why scattered site units were not being placed in more affluent white communities.. (15)

The CHA continued to illustrate an inability to construct scattered site housing in white communities, leading it to place such residences in predominantly Latino and black communities. “Most scattered site housing has gone into Uptown, South Shore, South Chicago, and three predominantly Latino areas on the Northwest Side,” the Sun Times reported in 1994. “Meanwhile, upscale, predominantly white communities such as Lincoln Park and Beverly have none because it’s hard to stay under the spending limit . . . in those white communities.” Lamented one resident, “It’s always minority neighborhoods they put it in . . . why can’t they make white neighborhoods take them too?” (16)

How did this debate affect relations between the Latino and Black community? The media chose to portray it in terms of conflict. One headline in the Chicago Sun-Times read “Latinos, Blacks Draw CHA Battle Lines” . (17) Such articles quoted activists and leaders from both communities highlighting conflict. Hipolito Ramirez of the Humbolt Park community group Block Club Federation remarked, “This is not about wanting to live together . . . This is about getting our fair share,” while Francine Washington, a long time resident of public housing countered “I’ve been waiting a long time for one of those scattered site units myself . .. I don’t hear them talking about moving into Stateway, Robert Taylor, or Rockwell. Stateway’s got vacancies. They’re welcome to move into my building any day.” (18) Black elected officials also voiced concern as US House Democrat Charles Hayes cautioned in 1989, five years prior to the suit, “I don’t agree with circumventing and jumping over people who have been on the waiting list, regardless of their nationality. Dividing up scarcity is not the answer.” (19)

The city viewed the conflict as serious enough to devote its Human Relations Commission to mediating aspects of the division. Of course, some of this intervention was done to avoid the lawsuit itself, but once that failed, it moved to reduce tensions between the two communities. Its commissioner Clarence Wood encouraged the two groups to “redirect resentments toward failed public housing rather than each other.” (20) Gentrification of city communities and a scarcity of affordable quality housing drove such tensions, but long term resentments harbored by some Blacks toward the Latino community contributed in some respects. As several sociologists noted, a perception among some in the African American community suggested some blacks believed Latinos had leapfrogged their position in society without having to face the same levels of discrimination and racism.

A 1992 “survey” conducted by the Metro Chicago Information Center “found Latinos less likely to favor integration than either African Americans or whites.” (21) In 2006, Duke released “Racial Distancing in a Southern City: Latino Immigrants Views of Black Americans”. The study found that Latinos identified more closely with whites than they did African Americans. One of the more disturbing aspects of the report suggested that even when Latinos lived within the same community as blacks, prejudices or preconceived notions regarding African Americans hardened with increased interaction. (22) Thus increased interaction, a strategy frequently promoted as a tool to bridge gaps in understanding between communities failed to reduce bias, rather such interaction worsened stereotypes. Sun Times journalist Monroe Anderson commented on the article’s findings, recalling an old African American folk saying, “'If you're white, you're right. If you're brown, stick around. But if you're black, get back.'' (23)

This tension between the two communities is not new. Nicolas Vaca’s Presumed Allaince: The Unspoken Conflict Between Latinos and Blacks and What It Means for America explored this conflict locating several examples of contention between the two groups throughout the latter half of the 20th century. Similar to Chicago whites’ increased racism in response to the sudden influx of African Americans during the Great Migrations, blacks mirrored this attitude to some extent as the tide of Mexican immigration washed over the city. Vaca points to prejudices held by both groups toward the other as evidence of biases in each community. However, unlike the Great Migration in which Blacks were long citizens, a significant portion of the Latino community in Chicago is not, thus, adding a dynamic that had been previously absent. The CHA housing conflict in 1994 illustrates well the undercurrent of ethnic/racial tension between the two communities. Limited housing resources due in part to historical housing patterns that had been established by institutional and government sponsored segregation, squeezed two communities both with significant populations living below the poverty line. Economic development driven by market forces and public policy but manifested in white gentrification of previously “ethnic” neighborhoods applied further pressure.

Several forces drive tensions. The perception among some blacks, that Latinos undercut African American wage earners by working for less, dominates one strain of thought in the community. Second, African Americans view the private sector’s favoritism toward Latino labor as an insult, implying that blacks somehow are lazy. As one interviewee complained, “Mexicans are doing the jobs Americans don’t want to do. Well what jobs are they doing? The [worst] jobs around. The implication is that blacks are too lazy to do the job.” (24)

Activists in Chicago such as Bronzeville’s Beauty Turner argue that the “system [favors] immigrants over people who were born here.” Community leader and long time Bronzeville resident, Harold Lucas recalled as a youth, he could find work at Chicago’s famous Palmer House but that today such jobs are dominated by Hispanics. Underscoring this dynamic Mr. Lucas remarked “there is not a good relationship in Chicago between blacks and [Latinos].” (25) Loyola University sociologist Philip Nyden suggested that when studying economic indicators, Latinos seemed to be “leapfrogging” blacks and that the rising immigration, especially in the Chicago region, has begun to concern blacks. Chicago’s black population remained relatively flat in 2000, declining by slightly less than 2%, whereas the Latino population has boomed. With this increase, Latinos, most notably the Mexican community has become more active, demanding more electoral representation. Initially, these seats in the city council came at the expense of the black community, but University of Illinois-Chicago political scientist Dick Simpson noted that upcoming aldermanic races would begin to whittle away at white seats. According to Simpson, based on the percentage of the population, Latinos are underrepresented. As for the usual argument that prescribes the deficiency in elected representation to a lack of citizenship, youthful population, and political apathy, Simpson disagreed: “I don’t buy that . . . [Proportional] political representation for every other group” is based on population figures so why would it be “any different for Latinos?” (26) Daley’s creation of the Hispanic Democratic Organization in 1993, a precinct organization that fundamentally acts as a patronage machine, won converts support from the Latino community. Corruption scandals in the mid 2000s involving HDO furthered the black community’s concerns. A decline in the number of black city contractors reached its lowest level in years, which coincided with a rise in Latino firms receiving municipal work. So without even bridging the discussion of race and perceptions of race three factors already can be seen as influencing relations between the two communities: available housing, employment, and political representations.

Racial issues remain a salient factor in the discussion. When discussing Chicago Latinos, one must distinguish between the Puerto Rican and Mexican communities. Issues of citizenship divide the two communities. Moreover, Puerto Ricans have a longer and more diverse relationship with the city. Politically, the Puerto Rican community awakened during the 1966 Humbolt Park uprising creating a visible presence in the city’s public sphere. Following these early steps, they entered the electoral arena. Thus, they have participated in the city’s political world for some time whereas Mexicans are newer to the city’s political life. For example, the city’s most powerful Latino politician, Congressman Luis Guiterrez, is a Puerto Rican. Spatially, the Puerto Rican population remains dispersed across the city enabling it to interact more with blacks and other ethnic groups. Though Humbolt Park remains a symbol of the Chicago Puerto Rican identity, it contains a level ethnic/racial absent in many of the city’s Mexican American neighborhoods most notably Pilsen.

Columbia Anthropologist Nick De Genova documented aspects of this community in Working the Boundaries: Race, Space and “Illegality” in Mexican Chicago. De Genova argues that Mexican immigrants locate themselves somewhere between “whiteness and blackness and produc[e] collective understandings of themselves and their own “Mexican”-ness that were preeminently racialized.” (27) He goes on to explain that some Mexican migrants view African Americans as “lazy”. The idea of welfare “was typically equated in both Mexican/migrant as well as hegemonic public discourse with “dependency” and was routinely invoked by Mexican migrants as a supposedly self-evident manifestation of laziness.” (28)

If one concedes that American society remains to some extent institutionally racist, the question then is how much do Mexican immigrants inherit upon immigration into the U.S. and how much of it do they bring with them? The Duke Study pointed out that researchers found a correlation between the reduction of racism and the presence of an established Latin American community. This suggests that Mexican immigrants bring with them certain preconceptions about race that are somehow blunted by longer established Mexican/Mexican American migrants and citizens.

Of course, segments of African American community exhibit their own prejudices. Some African Americans view Mexicans as transient interlopers. Though a large portion of the Latino community in the Chicago region recently immigrated (47%), an even larger portion has resided in or around the windy city for decades. Second, the assumption that all Latinos immigrated ignores the fact that Puerto Ricans have citizenship and are not immigrants. Former Mayor Jane Byrne’s proclamation that Chicago’s main problem was “all the illegal Puerto Ricans” illustrates ignorance surrounding these issues. Undoubtedly, some African Americans, notably those lacking high school degrees, do compete with many Latinos for employment. Despite this, according to the same Duke study, unlike Latinos, blacks share a sense of ”linked fate” meaning they identify more with Latinos than whites and see the future of the black – Latino community as traveling on a related course.

However, public policies, the city’s long established pattern of segregation, and organization of gangs along racial/ethnic lines have increased tensions in recent years. The recent housing debacle only made matters worse. In the late summer of 2008, the Chicago Lawn community organized a “weekend of ‘unity’ events” meant to bridge interaction between Latino and Black young people. Spats of gun violence terrorized the community, as residents reported armed 12 and 13 year olds. HOPE VI redevelopment had displaced many former public housing residents into the Chicago Lawn neighborhood while Latino immigrants also began to move into the area. The housing crisis contributed to this decline as the Chicago Tribune reporter Antonio Olivio described Chicago Lawn as a once stable area where “homeowners fight against foreclosure and drugs creep on to schoolyards.” (29)

The 2008 Presidential Democratic Primary between Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton provides at least the suggestion that in addition to the social distance between the groups they differ politically. Chicago’s Latino voters clearly preferred Clinton as Juan Rangel, chief executive officer of the powerful Latino organization, United Neighborhood Organization (UNO) noted, “Not only did Obama lose Chicago's more progressive Latino 22nd and 25th Wards, but he also lost the majority of U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez's 4th Congressional District. Latinos, heavily Mexican, also denied Obama a win in the former white ethnic enclaves of the 10th, 12th, 13th and 14th Wards.” (30) Rangel went on to declare the assumption of a black brown alliance as little more than “myth.” According to Rangel, even the most famous example of such interracial unity withered under scrutiny. The 1983 multiracial coalition constructed by Harold Washington, the city’s first and only elected black mayor, actually featured far less support from Latino voters. Rangel argued that Chicago’s first black mayor had “lost the Latino vote in the earlier primary,” he continued, “in fact, Latinos in that primary race were split between Mayor Jane Byrne and Cook County State's Atty. Richard M. Daley.” In the end, Rangel argued the two communities “share very little in common. They face different challenges, are products of different histories and experiences, yet they're lumped together in public debate without much thought.” (32)

All this is not to say conflict is inevitable. The role of Chicago’s entrenched municipal government certainly deserves a great deal of blame. Undoubtedly racist, Richard J. Daley treated the black population at best poorly and at worst criminally. One need only to point to the spatial lay out of the Robert Taylor homes, bordered by a highway that prevented expansion or connection to any white areas, for evidence. Martin Luther King’s civil rights attempt another.

Daley did not have to be overtly racist or obviously corrupt to achieve such negative results. If many argue that the current Mayor Daley (Richard M. Daley) has restructured the machine along lines of regional and transnational corporate businesses while privatizing parking lots and freeways, his father had shown him the way. In 1989, the Chicago Reader’s David Morbert described the machine as one not of “pinky rings and tavern owners, but one of alligator briefcases and law-firm partners.” Moberg acknowledged the connections between this new machine and the municipal government would be “less direct but more lucrative.” Dick Simpson, political scientist and former alderman, concurred. “By the late 60s, if you had a multimillion-dollar contract, it was more of an alliance between institutions and political leaders,” Simpson said. “It wasn't paying $500 and getting a vote. It was a knitting together of institutions, but businesses made sure Daley knew they had contributed to the party and to the mayor." (33) It is not too hard to guess which groups were not part of the institutions and businesses favored by Mayor Daley. Unlike his father, the current Mayor Daley has established strong connections to Latino voters, and though his support in Black communities has risen, voter participation in city elections frequently dip into the low 30s. During the 1990s, voter participation in some of the city’s poorer black wards dropped below 30%. Moreover, though his father sometimes struggled to put out ethnic uprisings, such as Polish American insurgent Benjamin Adamowski, he never faced the delicate balancing act of his son as Chicago’s 2000 census illustrated its majority minority status: 41.7% White, 26% Latino (any race), and 36.77 Black [Author's note -see here for Bill Rankin's map on the city's racial spatialization]. Racial complexities aside, the political mix such demographics produce run the gamut ranging from inspirational unity to tragic division to coma like stasis.

However, the recent announcement that Daley will step down at the end of current term, suggests changes are in the works. Recently, The New York Times spoke to democratic strategist Kitty Kurth who pointed out Daley’s support among business donors was based on familiarity (“they knew him”) and intimidation, “quite honestly because they were threatened a little bit. But trying to get them to invest in a new mayoral product is going to be pretty tough.” Rahm Emmanuel and the aforementioned Luis Gutierrez have been mentioned as likely front runners. With the city’s demographics and first open mayoral contest since 1989, the victorious candidate might require cooperation between its Black-Brown residents, an alliance that in Chicago, has seemed ethereal.


Monday, September 27, 2010

The Enigma of Capital: Quote of the Day

Something ominous began to happen in the United States in 2006. The rate of foreclosures on housing in low income areas of older cities like Cleveland and Detroit suddenly leapt upwards. But officialdom and the media took no notice because the people affected were low income, mainly African-American, immigrant (Hispanics) or women single-headed households. African-Americans in particular had actually been experiencing difficulties with housing finance from the late 1990s onward. Between 1998 and 2006, before the foreclosure crisis struck in earnest, they were estimated to have lost somewhere between $71 billion and $93 billion in asset values from engaging with so-called subprime loans on their housing. But nothing was done. Once again, as happened during the HIV/AIDS pandemic that surged during the Reagan administration, the ultimate human and financial cost to society of not heeding clear warning signs because of collective lack of concern for, and prejudice against, those first in the firing line was to be incalculable. It was only in mid-2007, when the foreclosure wave hit the white middle class in hitherto booming and significantly Republican urban and suburban areas in the US south (particularly Florida) and west (California, Arizona and Nevada), that officialdom started to take note and the mainstream press began to comment.

-- David Harvey, from his new book, The Enigma of Capital

More on this later.....

Monday, September 20, 2010

Hoping for Housing: HOPE VI’s Ambivalent Legacy

Chicago's Henry Horner Homes before HOPE VI

Chicago's Henry Horner Homes after HOPE VI

A brief news summary in a June 2001 edition of the satirical newspaper the Onion delivered the story of a fictional 34 year old Accenture finance manager who decried the gentrification of his once “authentic” neighborhood, “See that big Barnes and Nobles on the corner? You better believe that wasn’t there back in 1998 . . . This whole place is turning into Yuppieville. You can't throw a rock without hitting a couple in matching Ralph Lauren baseball caps walking a black lab." The blurb concluded noting that the same financial worker, Mr. Smales, then continued taking his “golden lab for a walk.” (1)

Though played for laughs by the Onion, gentrification has become an issue surrounded by debate and contention. It has both detractors and supporters. Across the nation, since the early 1990s cities have witnessed a revitalization of their urban cores, however, this influx of development has created complex problems affecting various markets and actors. Often portrayed as an almost reverse form of “white flight”, gentrification exists as a far more complex process, but one that seems to afflict minority neighborhoods perhaps more than any other. Moreover, federal housing policies of the past three decades have facilitated increased commercial development of urban areas in what are often termed transitional neighborhoods. Perhaps the most prominent housing innovation of the past two decades remains the HOPE VI (Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere) legislation passed in 1992.

The emergence of HOPE VI as a viable federal housing policy resulted from the neoliberal economic shift of the past thirty years. In The Neoliberal City: Governance, Ideology, and Development in American Urbanism (2007), Jason Hackworth summarizes the effect on municipalities, “For city leaders, good government came to mean how well they “function like the corporate community.” (2) Thus, this tendency toward neoliberal ideals results in fewer public subsidies and regulation. Public services become privatized, while business/real estate development interests are promoted. Public housing and other “artifacts” of Keynesian economics experience marginalization, as the local state becomes a facilitator of business and real estate, rather than an active player.

Take Chicago for example. In 1989, the National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing was created by Congress. It found that nearly 86,000 units of the 1.3 millions public housing units were “severely distressed” (3). Chicago accounted for somewhere between 12000 -15000 of the 86,000. Even worse, it was determined that 50 per cent of Chicago’s public housing fell under the distressed category. (4) Many Chicagoans viewed the Chicago Housing Authority dimly. Residents of the Henry Horner homes on the city’s West Side sued the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) arguing the housing agency had allowed properties to purposely decay in order to drive out residents making its removal and redevelopment easier. The federal government shared this perspective as it took over management of agency in 1996.

Though HOPE VI evolved every year of its existence, from the beginning it hoped to demolish the most intractable public housing while deconcentrating poor populations that had been clustered in urban areas (often due to segregationist housing policies). Under HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros it went from “an initiative focused on reconstruction and resident improvement to one animated by broader goals of economic integration and poverty de-concentration.” (5) HOPE VI aimed to build mixed income developments while promoting design and planning schemes associated with “new urbanism”.

HOPE VI (along with the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA, 1977), the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC, 1986), and Local Initiatives Corporation (LISC, 1981)) represented the continuing shift toward public-private partnerships and the belief in market forces. Funding was provided for the both construction of “hard units” and “relocation services” for displaced residents. LISC, LITHC, and CRA all factored into funding for HOPE VI projects. In addition, HOPE VI granted housing authorities greater authority in choosing residents and managing their redevelopment. In an attempt to avoid the concentration of the poor, housing authorities no longer had to give preferences to the lowest income tenants. Such provisions were included also to encourage mixed income communities, making the affordable housing more attractive to private market residents. Additionally, the passage of the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act (QHWRA) in 1998, “mandated” community service requirements on residents, implemented stricter “screening processes” of tenants, and enabled public housing authorities to evict residents for “a wide variety of reasons”. Public housing authorities, placed the power and responsibility of enforcing the new mandates with the “newly installed” private managers. Combined with increased competition with higher income families, the chances of public housing residents returning to the newly constructed mixed income units appeared unlikely. (6)

Still, even if a public housing tenant passes the above criteria, the wait between the demolition of the standing units and construction of new mixed income developments often takes years. This raises the negative possibility of resident displacement. Unfortunately, on a national level, this scenario dominates reports. Nearly half of all displaced tenants will never return to their former neighborhoods. In New York, The Daily Gotham documented similar problems in Brownsville, Brooklyn noting that for nearly a decade, the HOPE VI Brownsville redevelopment endured long delays and bureaucratic snafus that prevented the re-housing of many former residents:
So now, it’s almost ten years later. Many of the tenants are scattered over all the five boroughs of New York City. Others have left for parts unknown, and others still, have gone far off to cities and towns we know. A few have even gone on to the world beyond; where gravesites keep the open secrets of their anger towards the city for not expediting this project sooner.
In Chicago, many of those who received housing vouchers or section 8 funding for housing on the private market reported difficulty in accessing services. Moreover, those individuals and families who had spent their lives in public housing struggled with attaining and retaining housing in the private sector. A 2002 report found that “poor African Americans using federal housing vouchers to rent apartments are getting doors slammed in their faces.” (7) These results only confirm similar conclusions drawn several years earlier by Alexander Von Hoffman. Von Hoffman noted that efforts to relocate section 8 and former public housing residents in middle income suburbs proved ineffective. Attempts to place residents in these suburbs under the Gautreaux ruling (Chicago) and later the Moving to Opportunity program (national), failed to improve income or job opportunities for the “new suburbanites”. 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. (8)

One of the more striking aspects of Hoffman’s conclusions remains the persistent privileging of suburban environments as inherently better. More generally the continued emphasis on environmental factors in determining human development served as central reason given for redevelopment efforts. For example, Gwendolyn Wright’s classic Building the Dream: A Social History of Housing in America (1981) discusses how reformers and others repeatedly associated social ills with housing architecture ignoring the wider, more complex problems that caused such difficulties. This tendency stretches from the late nineteenth century to the late twentieth, most frequently seen in discourses around public housing and “inhumane” apartment towers. Not until the 1960s with the publication of various works by Jane Jacobs, David Riesman, Lewis Mumford and others do cities begin to experience some positive associations with urban housing.

Instead, housing reformers of the late 20th century continued to believe much like nineteenth century social workers and others, that the middle class could and should model the proper behaviors for their lower income counterparts. Paul Boyer’s Urban Masses and Moral Order in America, 1820-1920 (1978) illustrates this dynamic. From the Sunday schools of the early nineteenth century, where the middle and upper classes organized and educated their economic inferiors, to the 1890s and early 1900s, where “home visits” and settlement homes were expected to inculcate middle class values into the masses, the importance of modeling and interclass interaction remained essential aspects to correcting the “urban moral order”. Proponents of HOPE VI housing repeatedly invoked similar ideas, suggesting that mixed income housing, would not only deconcentrate poverty, but also enable cross class connections that would improve the lives of the working poor and lower middle classes.

Many continue to question the idea of creating mixed income communities. As noted, one traditional argument for mixed income developments has been that it creates relationships across income levels, providing role modeling for lower income residents. A more pragmatic argument is that often middle and upper income communities have access to better city services from education to transportation than do poor or economically distressed areas. In response to the former argument, research has shown that any relationships that develop between lower and upper income residents are often superficial. (9) A 2008 Atlantic article demonstrated this very difficulty as reporter Hannah Rosin accompanied HOPE VI evaluator Laura Harris to a housing cook off at one of the local mixed income developments outside Memphis. Harris, who was conducting a survey, struggled with the obvious lack of tenant interaction. Rosin described an uncomfortable bbq scene, where black residents, mostly single mothers stood “awkwardly on the edges” away from the white residents, many of whom were young couples with children. Survey questions such as “Do you lack health insurance? Have you ever not had enough money to buy medication,” resulted in bewildered white responses as one attendee commented, “This is so sad. Does anyone ever answer ‘yes’ to these questions?” The cross race/cross class connections appear rather thin. Of course, builders seemed pleased as the article related, “One of the developers was there that day surveying the ideal community he’d built, and he was beaming. “Isn’t this great?” he asked Harris, and she remembers thinking, Are you kidding me? They’re all sitting 20 feet away from each other!.”

In a 2004 editorial, Columbia sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh (American Project) pointed out that the HOPE VI strategy has been failing on three counts. First, according to Venkatesh, “private market residents” wanted out because schools had not improved “fast enough”. Nor had the city “fulfilled its promise to tear down remaining project high-rises” or solved the “public safety” issue. (10) The Urban Institute noted that even by 2004 demolitions had proceeded at a rate slower than expected. Second, too much had been expected of developers. Developers build housing. They are not as one Vice-President at NYC’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC) noted in an interview, “in the business of social engineering.” Venkatesh agreed “Both developers and housing authorities should be charged only with building and managing housing. Let established supportive service agencies deal with the human issues. If we confuse the roles, we may end up alienating developers from affordable housing construction altogether.” Third, since federal funding has diminished, many developers have specific agreements within the existing contracts that should times “turn tough” they may convert units to market rates, “This is unfair to the poor families who supported the CHA's transformation plan,” Venkatesh lamented. “Public housing reform shouldn't be an easy way to give private developers public lands.” (11)

Since the plan depends so deeply on private developers and housing agencies, local conditions vary. The Chicago Housing Agency’s (CHA) institutional history could be charitably described as checkered. Placed under HUD management in 1996, expectations regarding the CHA’s success in relocation efforts probably should have been measured. In its defense, many residents have moved into communities that feature lower rates of poverty. Of course, poverty rates in distressed public housing ran so high that achieving an improvement is not necessarily a sign of great progress. (12) The Urban Institute noted that the CHA spent more on relocation services than any other housing agency, yet CHA efforts “have been troubled because of organizational challenges and relocation outcomes have been mixed.” (13) Relocation in Chicago, under the CHA’s Plan of Transformation has been bedeviled by problems. While HOPE VI funding appropriations are “highly political” notes Michael Skrebutenas, a Columbia professor and former Connecticut and New York housing official, it did eliminate some of the most “intractable” housing problems that laid beyond the reach of housing authorities. He cautioned however, “you can’t use it as a sledgehammer to blow everything up.” (14) With no one-to-one replacement, HOPE VI develops affordable housing at the expense of public housing. [Authors note: initially, HOPE VI did require one to one replacement but later eliminated this requirement.]

Historically, relocation is not something Chicago development has done well. In the mid-1940s, two Chicago businessmen floated a plan to develop the Loop business district. At the time, business leaders feared a collapsing financial district as they “envisaged a postwar building boom on the city’s periphery, the flight of the middle class, and the insulation of State Street from its ‘normal market’” (15) They devised a plan through a “private reform group” known as the Metropolitan Housing and Planning Council (MHPC) that reestablished development “based on private profit and public power.” (16) Their model became widely observed and formed the basis for the federal Housing Act of 1949. Like the above policies, the MHPC convinced the legislature to create a public agency called the Chicago Land Clearance Commission for the specific purpose of “[obtaining] the land (through purchase or condemnation), [clearing] the land at its own expense, and [making] it available to developers at a fraction of its original costs.” Interestingly, since the below market sale was justified as a “one time subsidy”, the idea of selling the land cheaply was seen as better than giving recurring tax exemption (which is exactly what today’s LIHTC does).

Arnold Hirsch in his Making of the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago 1940-1960, notes that the lack of concern for relocation of the residents around the redevelopment area became apparent when the Chicago Land Clearance Commission kept “no records of its relocation efforts”, an issue that later threatened to prevent future federal housing appropriations. It changed the mission of “Chicago’s public housing program [to little more than an] appendage to the redevelopment program.” (17) Public housing became dominated by redevelopment plans, since such plans utilized public housing as a relocation tool for unwanted populations. It remains unclear whether or not HOPE VI policies result in similar ends, but in some cities only 5% of the original public housing population has been able to move into the newly constructed mixed house units.

Perhaps even more troubling is the fact that researchers have found that the apparent liabilities of HOPE VI legislation are not confined to Chicago. The aforementioned Atlantic article “American Murder Mystery” documented the unintended consequences of HOPE VI. While crime in many cities declined as projects were demolished, the inner ring suburbs and those slightly further out experienced the opposite. 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 outlying suburbs in Maryland and Virginia.

Such results stand in stark contrast to the promises of HOPE VI supporters. The discourse assigned to HOPE VI and to a lesser extent QHWRA established a narrative that such innovations were unavoidable but yet “progressive” since they suggested the legislation acted to empower residents. The wide scale displacement that unfolded in many of the HOPE VI projects were disguised by this narrative, a narrative that found proponents in the media, among housing officials, planners, and even “housing scholars.” Only one year after the publication of Hackworth’s book, the Atlantic’s Rosin came to similar conclusions, “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.” Additionally, though most scholars agree that the urban renewal efforts of the 1950s and 1960s penalized many urban populations, Hackworth suggests that current developments may be even worse. For Hackworth, gentrification is not “politically neutral” but rather a conscious expression of neoliberal forces. Simiarly, Peter Marcuse and Ronald van Kempen (Globalizing Cities: A New Spatial Order? and Of States and Cities among others) have pointed out, the inner city proved a key sight for such interventions as manifestations of Keynesian planning could be replaced enthusiastically with mixed income units or business friendly empowerment zones.

If gentrification previously featured individuals with a real stake in local communities (Hackworth calls them “risk taking owner occupiers” who hoped to rehabilitate brownstones for their own use as well), today these processes unfold under the supervision of “globally linked corporate brokerage firms.” (19) Consolidation of real estate firms, trusts, mortgage brokers and similar actors result in a narrower industry. In the past, owner occupiers began the process of gentrification on a small scale individual basis, today corporate leadership has replaced these individuals. As Hackworth argues, this has meant “firms are increasingly the first to invest and redevelop property for more affluent users.” (20) Local resistance evaporated as unions shrunk, activism grew more fragmented, and federal redistribution withered away. National urban policy further encouraged these developments as did the belief in municipal entreprenuerialism. Organizations that observers might expect to serve local activists like Community Development Corporations (CDC’s) found themselves in the odd position of both representing neighborhood concerns while remaining dependent on state based aid and approval. More militant forms of activism found themselves forced out by rising prices or co-opted in some way.

The real tragedy to all this remains the fact that nearly two decades into what many thought the most innovative public housing plan, its results prove elusive. A recent issue of Housing Study Debate featured nothing but articles on HOPE VI housing efforts in Chicago. Aforementioned housing expert Susan Popkin reflected on HOPE VI’s success for those able to receive vouchers. Popkin noted research suggests these famiies now live in better housing and safer neighborhoods, experience improved mental health, while children exhibit fewer behavioral problems.. However, Popkin also expressed real concern, as many of these same families endured “economic hardship” that threatened their gains. Moreover, “troubled families” appeared to be no better off than before HOPE VI’s enactment. (Popkin, Susan, A Glass Half Empty? New Evidence from a HOPE VI Panel Study, Housing Policy Debates, Volume 20 Issue 1, 2010) Ultimately, few experts from Rhonda Williams (The Politics of Public Housing) to Popkin would claim HOPE VI a success, yet no one seems sure if it has failed either.


Thursday, September 16, 2010

Brother, Can You Spare a Social Capital?

Is there a way to measure the social resources of individuals and groups – and does the effort to do so distract us from the real causes of poverty and inequality?

"If only we were more connected..."

Not long ago, liberals found a new lodestar in their endless search for some kind of political direction. This was in the 1990s, when the Reagan-Gingrich consensus was in full force and the left seemed to be lost in the wilderness of political irrelevance. Bill Clinton and other politicians seized on the theme of community (most prominently championed by the sociologist Amitai Etzioni) as a salve for the problems of crime, broken homes, failing schools, widening inequality, and diminished economic opportunity. If American society seemed to be going to the dogs, then it was a declining sense of community that was to blame.

How these problems were supposed to be solved with Community™ was never exactly clear. It had something to do with family values, the V-chip, school uniforms, and locking up every pot dealer from Santa Barbara to Sheboygan. Like most political shibboleths, it was better used as a banner and a cudgel in campaigns than as a hard-nosed policy prescription. But like the most successful clichés, there was also something about the rhetoric that resonated with the public, which seemed to comport with lived experience in a way.

Then came Robert Putnam. The sociologist’s 2000 book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community was a smash success, drawing as it did on an impressive array of empirical data to make a simple point: Americans were less involved with their communities than in the past. Whether it was membership in the Elks or the Rotary Club, or simply having your neighbors over for dinner, Putnam argued that Americans were doing much less of it. Like the Greatest Generation mania of recent years, Putnam’s thesis tapped into a deep well of feeling that society used to be healthier, more wholesome, and just plain nicer back in the old days.

For scholars, the key part of Putnam’s analysis has to do with social capital – “that is, social networks and the norms of reciprocity in contemporary postindustrial societies,” as he put it. He has elsewhere described it as “the very fabric of our connections with each other.” The novelty of this idea (though Putnam certainly did not claim to have invented it) was that there was some elusive quality in people and communities that had a genuine value, albeit one that did not directly register in terms of dollars and cents.

In other words, looking at tax returns or home values for a community would not necessarily tell you everything you need to know about the wealth of the people who lived there. As Putnam and Kristin Goss argue, “The single most common finding from a half century’s research on the correlates of life satisfaction in countries around the globe is that happiness is best predicted by the breadth and depth of one’s social connections.” This can have a narrowly material meaning, in the sense that “who you know” has a hard economic value when you’re looking for a job and you have great connections. But it can also refer to an individual, family, or community’s ability to cope with stress and solve problems by relying on reciprocal bonds.

Certainly, it seems reasonable enough that communities where people know their neighbors and can turn to them for help would be happier and more successful than those where people live in isolation from each other – alone as they fret over bills and the evils of the world on the 11 o’clock news. Individuals who can reach out to friends and relatives for advice on how to deal with a broken down car, a financial problem, or how to get their kids into college would seem likely to fare better.

Things get trickier when you consider the real world implications of this idea. Are poor people poor because they lack social capital – that is, they do not have a sufficient network of friends, neighbors, and family to support them? We have heard this argument before in a different guise – the pathology of poverty, particularly among African Americans who migrated to the cities of the North in the mid-twentieth century. According to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Nick Lemann and others, the breakdown of the traditional family and community networks led to the poverty and violence of Pruitt-Igoe and Cabrini-Green.

Many scholars challenged this interpretation, pointing to devastating job losses in the course of deindustrialization, the racist war on drugs, and the inadequacies of public housing and other services as cause for the despair of inner-city life, particularly in the North. In a broader sense, it is not clear at all that low-income communities have an inferior web of social connections when compared to upper-income nuclear families who live in gated suburbs and send their kids to private schools. If anything, social networks are part of what makes it possible for families to survive in the face of economic and legal conditions that are heavily stacked against them. (The work of Sudhir Venkatesh on networks in poor urban communities is worth considering in this respect.)

The problem may lie in Putnam’s understanding of social capital as a public good. He has treated it as a measurable quantity, an asset that an individual or community can have more or less of – more connectedness, or less. And although Putnam acknowledges that social capital can have negative “externalities” like any other capital, it mostly seems to be a good thing. The more social capital, the better.

One wonders if the same people who joined the Elks lodge in 1920 were bolstering their social capital when they attended Klan meetings. Is racist violence a negative externality of Klan capital? When a Yale grad has his pick of cushy jobs in Los Angeles because his dad knows the head of UCLA Law School, is his enjoyment of social capital hurting other job seekers? His competitors also know people, but the capital they have just isn’t worth as much.

In other words, not all social connections are created equal. The work of Pierre Bourdieu comes in handy here, as the French sociologist saw social capital as not just “more of a good thing.” He emphasized that social capital, just like financial wealth, is accumulated over time, and he recognized that one person’s gain in social capital could disadvantage another – as when a wealthy family passes on the benefits of its own web of connections to its progeny, while a person who is a first-generation college student may struggle to negotiate the terrain of schooling and the job market. For Bourdieu, social capital is “the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition… which provides each of its members with the backing of collectively-owned capital.” This capital defines the group but also “reaffirms the limits of the group.”

It is through social connections – the ability to live in certain neighborhoods, belong to certain cultural organizations (like churches), and gain access to certain schools and jobs – that people acquire cultural capital. This kind of capital encompasses the assets that privileged people can deploy to navigate the system, the savoir-faire that includes how to dress, how to speak, how to fill out a college application. As Bourdieu has shown, the acquisition of skills, knowledge, and good taste makes it possible for middle and upper class people to perpetuate their own privilege. In this view, inequality results not from a lack of connection to others but from a lack of access to the networks through which privilege and distinction emanate.

Of all institutions, schools are probably the most important factories of cultural capital. In a post-industrial society where earning a decent living seems impossible without an education – and sometimes very difficult with one – schools are the engines of both opportunity and inequality. Hence, today’s twin obsessions with gaining access to the upper end of the educational system (for the elite and wannabe elite) and fixing the public schools (for the poor and middle class).

Ironically, many in the professional class devote their tireless energies to providing “the best” for their children – the best private schools, the best shot at an Ivy League education – by working 60-70 hours a week and becoming less connected to their families and neighbors. In the process, they impoverish the social connections that Putnam holds dear. On the other end of the spectrum, working-class parents take on two or three jobs just to keep body and soul together, unable to participate in school and community in ways that would give their own children a better chance at success. Either way, the chasm between those who can provide entrée to social privilege and economic opportunity and those who cannot continues to broaden.

Why does this happen? Is it because prestigious colleges and universities can ensure their cultural capital remains much desired (and expensive) by keeping it scarce? This certainly benefits the proud parents of Harvard grads, since the prestige that cost them so dearly continues to pay dividends on the job market. Is it because economic policies (like tax cuts and deregulation) have enriched the wealthy and privileged, who can afford to pay more and more for an elite education – leading to an escalating sort of educational arms race?

Perhaps we would do better to consider structural economic factors that exacerbate inequality and make family life difficult if we want to understand why Americans are more stressed and pine for better days. The risk in Robert Putnam’s work on social capital is that it diverts our attention from causes to effects. Is it not more comfortable to talk about why people don’t belong to the Elk Lodge any more, instead of tackling the much thornier problems of Americans working more for less, lacking the time to be parents, and sending their children to broadly unequal schools? Putnam rues the fact that “having friends over” has dropped 35% in the last twenty five years; this change certainly has something to do with the narcotic of television and the divisions imposed by cars and suburbia, but it also has a whole lot to do with the daily struggle of the poor and the middle class to survive in today’s economy. Why do we not have people over anymore? Are we just a bunch of jerks?

Critics such as Barbara Arneil (in her excellent book Diverse Communities: The Problem with Social Capital) have called Putnam out for his nostalgia, arguing that the rosy past of civic participation was not so great for women and people of color. Certainly, the narrative of declining social capital seems to run parallel to the increasing entrance of women into the workforce since the 1960s, as well as the emergence of civil rights and multiculturalism. Homilies about “togetherness” and “community” seem to mask some kind of yearning for a more harmonious, homogeneous past – and, if this is so, they seem to imply that the inequality and despair of recent decades is somehow tied to the changing politics of gender and race. Conservatives have often decried the hyperindividualism of the generation that demanded all kinds of rights and self-fulfillment, and the social capital thesis provides them with a sophisticated intellectual defense of their views.

In my view, focusing on social connectedness is the wrong approach. Although Putnam found a wide variety of measures to quantify a drop in social capital, it remains possible that people have simply changed their ways of being connected. The rise of online social networking since Bowling Alone was published provides one possible example. More importantly, this analysis shifts the blame for society’s woes from the economic and political changes that have made people’s lives more difficult and toward their own failure to connect with each other. Deindustrialization left those without white-collar skills and education with few prospects of decent pay, creating a widening gap between low-paid service jobs and professional work; policies such as the drug war and mandatory minimum sentencing have ensnared millions in a losing battle with the criminal justice system; perceptions of failure have gutted public institutions, as those who can flee to charter schools and private education.

All of these factors mean that people from various walks of life struggle harder to keep their heads above the water, and have less time for the good things in life, which Robert Putnam and his followers wish we would pursue. Perhaps it is a lack of access to cultural capital – education and other markers of class – that most disadvantages many Americans today, rather than a functional measure of how connected or disconnected we are from each other. Or maybe it is human capital, human potential that is most wasted in a country with the world's highest incarceration rate, where the intelligence and skills of millions are lost on the unemployment line or behind a cash register. In the dynamics of a competitive capitalist society, where one missed paycheck or one arrest can send you down the road to ruin, who has time for the Knights of Columbus?

Monday, September 6, 2010

Dorothy Gale, American Pragmatist?

In an odd twist of the now frighteningly conservative label “un-American,” William Carlos Williams, in a 1929 essay entitled "A Point for American Criticism," rips to shreds what he calls an un-American piece of literary criticism of Joyce written by the Brit Rebecca West. Why should it take an American to criticize an Irishman? Williams’ argument is that Joyce’s enormous departure in Ulysses from the classic English literary model is one that the model simply cannot accommodate. Only the new vision of American literature, he boasts with a virginal patriotism (unsullied by today’s political climate), is capable of appreciating Joyce for his nonconformities rather than his occasional capitulations to the time-honored British literary critique. Only America shares Joyce’s new literary paradigm.

Now, in the twenty-first century, America has quite the oeuvre to back up Williams’ claims that its literary canon rests upon a newer foundation than its European ancestors. But what essentially separates the two traditions, we might ask? And in the question we have our answer, for what has been most clear in the development of America’s singular literature is its abandonment of essentialist thinking. We might say this is true for postcolonial literature in general, but through American literature also runs the vein of pragmatism – an anti-essentialism that tries to reach beyond the fragmentation of postmodern thought to be a philosophy workable in the world.

To illuminate the difference between America’s new paradigm and that of its predecessors, we might look to the children’s story, which is generally the first step of a reader’s initiation into the literary world. Differences between the American fairytale and its European counterparts may be many, but differences between American and European ideals as seen through the fairytale might provide the most insight into what makes the American fairytale (and ultimately the American paradigm) distinctly American. American pragmatism, perhaps our most developed and native philosophy (that is, sprung from American soil), is at the heart of America’s ideals on all sides of party lines.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, written by L. Frank Baum and first published in 1900, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, written by Lewis Carroll and first published just a few decades earlier in 1865, work as two easy examples of the contrast between a uniquely American influence and European philosophical influences. I’ll start by giving a very simplified explanation of American pragmatism for those who may not be familiar with it.

What is American Pragmatism?

Early American immigrants confronted a physical and moral wilderness. Some underwent the transition from European rule to self-government, and it was many generations before the dust of revolutionary sentiment settled and American life became more established. The world these people coped with was much different from old Europe with its land deeds extending back for centuries and monarchies that only ever seemed to get replaced with new monarchies. The new world called for new ways of interacting and new ideas about good and bad, right and wrong. No philosophy captures the new epistemology and ethics better than American pragmatism, which caught the attention of academics in the United States around 1870 with the theories of Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, and whose expression reached its democratic fruition in the work of John Dewey from the late 1800s up through the mid-20th Century (that is, in my opinion, as a Dewey fan).

Dewey created a picture of an American pragmatism that originated not with him or his scholarly predecessors, but with the American people. This pragmatism subverted a philosophical tradition that for centuries had struggled with a search for objective Truth (even post-Cartesian philosophy sought to account for subjectivity in order to get past the subjective) to replace it with a new, instrumentalist understanding of experience. According to Dewey, there is nothing in experience to suggest an ultimate end or final cause, so any assertion that these exist in the form of a teleology comes from a preconceived notion of what experience will yield. Dewey saw rationalism (the idea that truth is independent of the senses, arising from reason alone) as detrimental to a proper, instrumental, understanding of experience. This view contrasted even empiricist anti-Cartesian thinkers like David Hume, who thought that Truth is discovered in the material world but is nonetheless immutable. Dewey, reflecting the spirit of American industriousness, wanted to get past traditional philosophy’s preoccupation with constantly reworking solutions to its own inner contradictions.

Pragmatism in the Land of Oz, Rationalism in Wonderland

I’m going to assume we all have a basic knowledge of the stories in question, but Wikipedia provides quick-and-dirty synopses if not. The books’ two central figures, the American child Dorothy and the British child Alice, are fine representatives of their respective literary and philosophical traditions.

When Dorothy makes her tornado-borne journey to Oz, she never for a moment questions the reality of her situation. Though the rational mind, even of a child, might never anticipate suddenly encountering a world so fantastical, when Dorothy’s immediate experience doesn’t play out the anticipations of her rational mind she allows her reason to instead be determined by her interaction and direct experience, unmediated by expectations of what experience should be and independent of her rational constructions.

The description of Dorothy’s ride in the cyclone says, “she stopped worrying and resolved to wait calmly and see what the future would bring." Eventually, she falls asleep. Alice, on the other hand, rationalizes her fall down the rabbit hole:
'I wonder how many miles I've fallen by this time?' she said aloud. 'I must be getting somewhere near the centre of the earth. Let me see: that would be four thousand miles down, I think--'

When Alice runs out of calculations, deciding she must eventually land in either Australia or New Zealand, she begins to talk aloud to herself. Alice simply cannot contend with the world without the interference of rationality. When she encounters characters and situations that don’t meet her rational expectations, she rejects them, even trying to bully characters into meeting her criteria for rationality – like when the Mad Hatter gives Alice an explanation she doesn’t like and she responds, "Nobody asked your opinion." When she is asked questions her reason cannot grasp, she thinks of them as silly and pointless, even if they are important to the people around her, as when she says “I think you might do something better with the time…than wasting it in asking riddles that have no answers."

Alice encounters different characters in different parts of the land just as Dorothy does, but where Dorothy meets the figures of Oz with a mind open to new experience, Alice subjects everyone and everything to judgments of right and wrong based only on formal rules, such as when she leaves the mad tea party proclaiming, “At any rate I’ll never go there again. It’s the stupidest tea-party I ever was at in my life!" Her rationalism prevents her from assimilating new experiences into her understanding of the world.

Unlike Alice, Dorothy acknowledges her ability to impact the world around her experientially, and thus also acknowledges its ability to impact her. Instead of insisting on judging all situations, she throws herself into them, participates, and creates mutual bonds between herself and those she meets. She helps the scarecrow and the tin man, and while she judges the Lion’s frightful reaction to her dog Toto, her judgment is instrumental, serving the purpose of diffusing tension instead of being merely quizzical and self-righteous as Alice’s judgments are. This brings us to the two different ways in which Alice and Dorothy reason (for, although Dorothy is not a rationalist, naturally she uses reason to make decisions).

Dorothy’s emotional logic vs. Alice’s formal logic

We can’t accuse the whole of the European philosophical tradition of being bound up in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but Carroll, as a mathematician and logician, instills the story with a rationalist outlook that grows directly out of foundational metaphysics and Platonic epistemology, in which reason always prevails. The problem with this tradition, according to Dewey, is that if we commit our reasoning to working within the confines of the mind we inevitably encounter impassible contradictions that we can bandy about ad infinitum. And although we also encounter contradiction in the material world, solving a problem of experience is instrumental whereas solving a problem of reason’s constructs serves reason alone. So when Alice and the Hatter go back and forth about the formal fallacy in saying that “I breathe when I sleep” is the same as “I sleep when I breathe," Dorothy would probably realize she could argue about language and logic all day and it wouldn’t help a bit in her practical goal of getting home to Kansas.

Dorothy applies formal logic when it is practical (e.g. her conclusion that if she finds the Wizard she can ask him how to get home), but she interacts with the world as the world demands. When she meets the Scarecrow, she doesn’t hesitate to interfere in his situation to help him. While Alice cries foul at characters’ mistakes in formal reasoning, Dorothy only cries foul when a character commits an error in emotional logic – that is, an error in effectively interacting with the world for the good of all, as Dewey asks us to do. She is bound by loyalty to people, promises, and decency, which aren’t a matter of rules to her but a matter of goodness. Alice, on the other hand, is bound by the rules of etiquette (though her efforts to uphold these usually fail) and argumentation.


The pragmatist’s approach to the world is more outward-looking than inward-looking. While the pragmatist wishes to make the best use of her powers of reasoning as much as anybody, she thinks these are best used by putting them into practice rather than by playing word games. Like a pragmatist, Dorothy doesn’t spend time wondering who she is or what she must accomplish. She is defined by her interactions with the world and with others, and doesn’t waste a moment looking for an essential self.

When Alice is asked again and again who she is, she never seems to know and always turns to thinking about it. “It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then,” she says. This problem of personal identity in a changing world is one of the old metaphysical conundrums. But it’s a question of first philosophy, or origin: Alice always wants to know why things are the way they are (she asks “Why?” throughout the entire book), and she seems to think that by discovering why they are she can understand exactly what they are. But Dorothy’s question is always “How?” Dewey asks us to throw metaphysical questions aside and replace them with questions of application. Alice’s questions about first causes don’t pertain to her immediate situation. Dorothy, however, asks questions that are answerable. When the Witch of the North calls Dorothy a sorceress, the little girl wastes no time correcting the woman, but listens for critical information instead. Again, we see that she readies herself for the situation at hand.

Perhaps one might think that Alice seems the more adult character because of her appeals to reason. When the Scarecrow asks Dorothy why she wants water, she responds, “To wash my face clean after the dust of the road, and to drink, so the dry bread will not stick in my throat," whereas Alice “always [takes] a great interest in questions of eating and drinking” in terms of sustenance. But, seeing as Alice’s over-active reasoning faculties constantly prevent her from adapting to her environment, we might look at Dorothy’s simplicity as sensibility. After all, Dorothy’s life in a laboring-class family up until the story opens has been one in which thought arises out of necessity. Alice’s thoughts, however, arise out of idleness. The plot of Alice’s adventure, a dream, begins because she is bored. Maybe it is her aristocratic lifestyle that allows Alice to view logic as a fine pursuit, while Dorothy’s life teaches her a different set of priorities. It’s difficult to survive alone in the wilderness, and American pragmatism called for the sort of unity Dorothy achieves with her companions. She knows she wants to get home, but, as we see in the story, this is because

Aunt Em will surely think something dreadful has happened to me, and that will make her put on mourning; and unless the crops are better this year than they were last I am sure Uncle Henry cannot afford it.

So Dorothy’s self-conception (of her wants and goals) comes out of her interaction with others, who in turn mutate their goals to fit her presence in their lives. This is Dewey’s sense of community. When Dorothy is captured by the Wicked Witch of the West, the story says,
Dorothy went to work meekly, with her mind made up to work as hard as she could; for she was glad the Wicked Witch had not decided to kill her.
Dorothy does what she must to survive. When her long-term goals are not attainable, she turns to goals that are (in this case preserving her life).


Certainly there are instances in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland where Alice acts pragmatically, such as when she continues eating cakes until she finds she is the right size. But to act pragmatically isn’t necessarily to act as a pragmatist. Dorothy is at all times pragmatic. The gatekeeper to the Emerald City locks green-tinted glasses onto her face but claims that the city she is about to enter is itself green. Yet when Dorothy emerges from the city, removes the glasses, and discovers that her dress, which appeared green in the city, is now white, she never questions the strange trick of the green glasses, because it just isn’t a useful thing for her to question. But when she meets a girl made of China who asks not to be chased for fear of being broken, Dorothy needs a reason to behave contrarily to her desire to run. The answers she seeks are not the semantic and mathematical truths Alice seeks, but are instrumental truths.

I make no claims that Baum intended to create a pragmatist hero. But his American heritage and circumstances made it inevitable that Dorothy should embody American ideals. Recognition that America’s literary culture is distinct is no new idea (beginning well before Williams’ observations about stilted British critiques, e.g. in the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson), and its uniqueness is documentable far beyond the differences between such easy marks as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. But in an age when patriotism has become so sinisterly interlaced with imperialistic nationalism and ethnocentrism, the optimistic sort of patriotism in American literature reveals a struggle for autonomy from the perspective of the underdog in the margins. That is, Williams’ harsh treatment of British literary criticism responded to that tradition’s tendency to exclude American literary innovation from its picture of literature. It was patriotic from a submissive position attempting to equalize, unlike today’s war-mongering patriotism that derives its pride from domination. American literature in its distinctness, then, may be a place to look to reformulate a concept of American identity not reliant on established power and dominance.

Cherie Braden

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Gravity of a Dream: Making Fifty Million

Finally, finally, finally I had found the thing: film school. I would be a filmmaker. It would be the thing that would make me. I thought this when I was in eleventh grade. That was 1989. See, I was to be thinking about where I would and wanted to go to college. That was what we (the people that I knew in Richmond, Va.) did: go to college. It was ‘big’ in my family. My father had gotten a full ride scholarship for college. He was an A student who would become very upset if he got a B. I never even got a B. I got C’s at best. I did get A’s in Art class and photography. But I didn’t care about that shit. I wanted to do what would make me stand out and what would make me look cool. So I did things: vandalized, lifted weights, played football, did photography, acted out full movies like “Full Metal Jacket” and “The Shining” and “Vacation” and “Fletch” for my friends and family. I never did my homework. I would sit at my home desk and read “Fangoria” magazine. So when I mentioned to my mother that I wanted to go to NYU film school so I could not only live in New York, my dream town, but I could be like my hero: Martin Scorsese. I had seen his film,” Taxi Driver” (which today is the all time champion John Miller favorite movie) about a year previous. My mother listened to me and she took me seriously. She also knew the price of NYU film school. So she kind of chuckled and said, “no.” So when I miraculously was accepted into a good state school, Mary Washington College, she said I was going there. Damn! Oh well. So there I became an actor, an obsessive actor. Now I had to be like me new heroes: Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando.

I moved to New York after college and dove in to the acting life: submissions, auditions, off- off-off-off Broadway plays, showcases, student films, digital shorts, a few full-length feature films, a couple commercials. I had it made man. I was caught up in a long whirlwind of convincing myself that I was on the right track to success. People around me had me convinced as well. Fellow actors would compliment me all the time by telling me how awesome I was, how I had this incredible energy, blah blah blah, yet every once in a while I hear little jabs (I thought) like I wasn’t “dedicated enough” or I wasn’t clear about “what I wanted.” Fuck you! Something was off. I knew one thing: I hated actors. I hated talking about acting. I believed acting was not an art form. It was just you on-stage or in front of a camera doing what you should do to tell the story and make it compelling. That’s not art. You’re not creating anything. The writer has already created it. So I floated in this acting whirlwind in a mental conflict. I just wanted to score a job so I could rise above the mundane world of being an actor. I wanted to be in the stories that I thought were awesome. Easy, right?

I think I’m also an opportunist. If I see something that I can latch onto and take advantage of, I do it. So when my new friends at my then current restaurant job brought a script to me, it became mine. They wanted me to be a part of this, so I felt I had some power. I could criticize it, bat around which roles I could play, bat around whether of not I could re-write it, whatever. So one week in the winter I was typing away a re-write of this script. For the first time, I had a screenplay in front of me, that I was shaping my own way. I felt I was now a screenwriter. But I was the only one who really felt this way. Since I’m an only-child, I have a way of believing the world revolves around me, and everyone thinks as I do. Yes, I’m wrong. So my re-write didn’t mean much. My friend, Pete, said that we had to make something small and comedic now. My other friend, Vinny, also believed this. Fine. Their idea was to capitalize on his uncanny impersonation of Al Pacino in “Scarface.” I think I can do a mean Pacino in “Heat.” The story would be two Al Pacino characters fighting over a script. I thought it was brilliant. I could see it already.

We got to work in our own separate ways. Quickly, we felt our dynamics of opinion, choice, objective, goals, etc. Are all filmmakers such selfish assholes, as we seemed right away? Is that even the case? No, we were just experiencing the difficult decisions that are part of film production. Should we form a company? Do we need insurance? Who’s going to get the union contract? Do we even need it? Where are we going to shoot it? How well should we impersonate Al Pacino? We were constantly telling each other how it should be. Of us three, I was the most passive. I would sit back and let Vinny and Pete argue because I felt I was more talented and intelligent than both of them and whatever they were bickering about, I didn’t need to be involved. Ultimately, my attitude would get me into my own sense of trouble but for then, it was right.

I wrote the script after Vinny gave me an initial script/outline. It was my script and my story. I wanted that control. But I just couldn’t admit that they were responsible for it. I was no longer playing Al Pacino. Christopher Walken became my character. “Great”, I thought, “Christopher Walken again. Everyone’s seen me do this. Big deal.” So I didn’t need to rehearse. As I’m writing this I’m realizing how quickly I tend to indulge myself and that is what I’m hoping to demonstrate by this piece.

On the shooting day, I got my wife, Ellen, to join us. I know she likes to help out and be a part of things like productions. She made food and also videotaped us as we shot. I thought she could be like Eleanor Coppola who shot her husband, Francis Coppola, when he made one of my other top three favorite movies, “Apocalypse Now.” Her footage was made into the documentary, “Hearts of Darkness.” And thank God I got Ellen to do this. The shoot was a wonderful mess. With our level of disorganization and Peter and Vinny’s different work ethics and production ideas, the one simple day of shooting a simple, silly story that should’ve been very easy to shoot became very chaotic and stressful. Ellen (and my friend, Ronnie, and I) captured this on video. At the end of the day, I didn’t think too much about that footage. I wanted to make the movie we shot. It was time to watch the one daily and put it together.

At the time, I didn’t know how to use the editing program, Final Cut Pro, but one of my friends got me the program. It looked like airplane controls on my computer screen. So Pete took the footage to someone else for editing. I had made a rough assemblage of how it should be timed on imovie, which is a very limited editing program. The cut that the Pete’s editor made was unsatisfactory. He didn’t get it, I thought. I wrote this thing, so I knew how it should be told. So I taught myself the program and after several months, I had the final version that I could show the world. I uploaded it to youtube and funnyordie.com and people could watch and vote if it was funny or not. People liked it. Excellent. Okay guys, time to move on and get back to real filmmaking.

We were unfocused and disagreeable with each other. We had a company that we had dropped hundreds of dollars into for nothing. We all wanted different things. Vinny and Pete started to fight and not like each other to a high degree. I started doing separate projects with each of them and I made sure and felt like I was clearly the ‘real’ filmmaker of the group. I loved feeling like I could lasso them into my ideas. They gave me the confidence and ambition that I needed. I needed them in order to work. I love working by myself but I know I need encouragement from others to make it happen.

Pete wanted to do “high concept” projects. I’m not positive what that meant, but he knew incorporating the mania of our little company into projects would be great. I agreed. Vinny did too, but not with the same belief. Pete had said much earlier that we should use the behind the scenes footage for the website that we made. That seemed all right, but why not take that and make a documentary with it? There was gold on that tape, and on the tapes of the movie footage. Pete had told our cameraman to keep the tape rolling between most of the takes and we caught Vinny’s true nature. Vinny is an incredible person. He exists on a level of being that he believes will generate artistic success. He can be an impossible person to deal with but he’s amazing to watch. And we had it on tape. Pete and I decided that we should make a documentary that focused purely on Vinny but was rooted in the making of our short film. I had the all the equipment at this point, so I decided I was to direct. I was also going to shoot. And edit. I made this my project. This was going to be my first feature length film. I had made one short film with Pete that last fall but this would be the big one. I would sell this and make a million dollars. I could then finance (and own, therefore being the director and star of) our original script, “Only Children.” I had the gold. All I had to do was present it right. My thought was to construct it like “Hearts of Darkness” and another documentary, “American Movie: The Making of Northwestern,” which I also adored. We were like the failed filmmaker in “American Movie.” We were delusional like him. Pete and I felt if we had the courage “to expose” ourselves, that would make us stand out and silently, I thought as I assumed he did, we would become stars and our lives would be set. I also thought we should act as if our film was a famous, successful movie and we were now stars who were reflecting back on the experience of the real footage.

So again, we got to work; or I did. I started setting up interviews with everyone that was there on that shooting day. I also shot myself. And just like this piece, I easily fell into a mode of self-indulgent ranting about how great and talented I am. I knew this would be funny because people had always laughed (comfortably or not) when I do this. I also used that personal interview to speak my mind about my difficulties with Vinny and Peter. My idea of imposing the successful circumstances on us as filmmakers failed. No one was believable. I did not direct them well. I had just assumed everyone could act this circumstance. I was wrong and it was my fault, completely. I scrapped that idea and went ahead and shot everyone for real. I just let them talk.

For the next nine months I edited and shot and showed the footage assembled together and had to endure the excitement and pain of other people’s opinions and reactions. But I loved it. I had the project in front of me. I controlled it. Through editing I could manipulate what people were meaning to say and I could make them appear great or stupid or horrible. But I also had to tell a single story. That was the most difficult part. Everyone kept telling me how to tell the story, so I felt I must have been doing something wrong. “Why don’t they get it?” I thought. I didn’t understand why they didn’t think it was completely brilliant. So I kept changing things, cutting clips, adding clips, adding text, and music. My living room had become an editing suite. My wife was forced to live in an obstacle course. I’m writing this the day after it showed at a film festival to which she did not attend. The rest of her family was there and I joked with them that the whole experience was too painful for her to relive. She says that’s not true. I’d like to believe it is because it sounds dramatic.

Ultimately, I think the movie failed. It’s not brilliant. The story is not compelling. It’s entertaining at times but overall, it didn’t work. I assumed that an audience would get the joke that this movie was a feature length making of an non-famous, cheap, poorly made short. As subtle as I thought I was, I think it’s too obvious, so the joke fails. Maybe I should’ve just made a straight forward making of documentary without imposing anything on it. But then maybe the story still isn’t that interesting. Pete and I wanted it to be interesting. We assumed it was. Vinny didn’t know or care. He just liked that we were making an unusual feature length movie. That pleased him. What he didn’t like was that we make him look bad, or so he thought. Almost everyone believes he is the most interesting character in the film. I guess the most interesting is least aware why.

It’s twenty-one years after that I said I wanted to be a filmmaker. I haven’t been to even one class on filmmaking, and that probably a major fault of mine. I always think to myself that I know what I’m doing but around other filmmakers who have been to film school and have actually shot something on film, I’m completely intimidated and scared. I do realize there are certain steps I must take to achieve my goals and hopefully I will take them. But I look at this project as the story of my life. I don’t really show my life story, but it’s a huge timeline of a journey to be a movie star. That’s an embarrassing thing for me to admit, but “Making Fifty Million” is a summation of what I’ve achieved in my acting and filmmaking career. Right and wrong steps led me to this point. All I think I can do is move forward and continue learning and making what I want. I could be wrong, but I don’t want to be.

John Miller

John Miller, born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, moved to New York after studying theater at North Carolina School of the Arts and Mary Washington College. Acted in Off-Broadway theater (including playing Dr. Robert in America's Most Wanted, Peter Braunstein's play, "Andie and Edie"), film, and commercials and after forming Hossboss Productions with two friends, he is now obsessed with directing his own projects. "Making Fifty Million" is his feature debut which he also produced, shot, and edited while recovering from an injury he sustained at Buddakan Restaurant. His next production, "Afterlife Law," is to be released next year.