Sunday, October 31, 2010

Recreation Revolution: Working Class Youth and the Creation of Skate Culture

Children took the ruins of the 20th century and made art out of them.
– Skip Engblom – Zephyr Skate Team co - founder

Southern California often endures widespread malign for its “live and let live” sensibilities. Whether deserved or not, this critical eye regarding Southern California culture and its built environment has found expression in numerous works of the past 25 years from Mike Davis’s City of Quartz to more recent tomes like Lisa McGirr’s Suburban Warriors. Importantly, the suburban nature of its culture symbolized by Walt Disney’s societal landmark Disneyland has also been explored for its importance in projecting a new metropolitan form that privileged traditional domesticities and social hierarchies thereby influencing ideas about suburban expansion nation wide. In Magic Lands: Western Cityscapes and American Culture after 1940, John Findlay discusses how Western spaces like Disneyland, Sun City, Arizona, Stanford Industrial Park and Seattle’s Space Needle contributed to the formation of a distinct urban western identity both for cities and their inhabitants. Moreover, the development of each suggested critiques of Eastern cities as Findlay points out, “This place of the mind was defined in large part by the efforts of Westerners to contrast their region to a pervasive but rather ill-defined perception of the East … The West’s reputation for virgin cities depended heavily upon negative images of cities elsewhere.” (11) Critics of this increasingly privatized suburban existence argued it promoted materialism, conformity, and a dearth of public spaces.

The built environment of Disneyland opposed the heterogeneity of its antithesis, Coney Island. However, around the same moment as Disneyland’s opening (1955), another prominent amusement park in the region fell on hard times. A testament to the decaying fortunes of the Coney Island archetype, Pacific Ocean Amusement Park (POP) stood teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, shuttering its doors in 1967. As one local citizen remarked, “it was kinda like the circus had left town.” What once had been a highly profitable resort area stretching from Santa Monica to Venice, now stood a vacant, corroding reminder of deindustrialization, a symbol of the very degradation plaguing the nation’s inner cities. Increasingly , the former amusement park attracted four general subcultures: pyromaniacs, artists, surfers, and drug addicts. A fetid mix for sure or as one observer noted, they all live in “symbiotic disharmony.”

2001’s Dogtown and Z Boys, directed by former Z Boy and prominent skater Stacy Peralta, begins in the wreckage of POP culture. Appropriating the limited surfing space available, local surfers comprising the Zephyr surf team sponsored by local Surf Board designer Jeff Ho and his partners photojournalist/artist Craig Stecyk and Skip Engblom, Dogtown locals claimed the collapsing built environment for themselves. Crafting a tenacious local place based identity and despite the unattractiveness of the location (both for the wreckage of the amusement park and the physical dangers in the water including exposed rebar and broken piers), the Zephyr surf team aggressively policed their cove, dismissing all newcomers as Wentzyle Ruml, member of the soon to be formed Zephyr skate team, remarked “You weren’t just going to pull up the car, look left and go ‘hey look at the tease on that’ and go out and surf . . . . you had to earn your way into that.”

Deriving its membership from the local communities known collectively as Dogtown, a multi racial, multiethnic, working class skate culture grew directly out of the surf lifestyle of local residents. Their exploits set the trajectory for skate as a sport and its integration into mainstream American culture. The vertical style emerging in the late 1970s and exploding through the talents of Tony Hawk, Steve Cabellero and others, all served as extensions of earlier Z Boy accomplishments.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of team Zephyr, lay not in the eventual commercializaiton of the sport, but in the way Dogtown skaters crafted a completely new skate technique, fashion, and lifestyle. Henry Rollins, Jeff Ament, and Ian MacKaye all acknowledge their own obsessions with the Zephyr image, as Rollins effuses, “Everybody was into the Dogtown thing.” The growth of skateboarding out of surf culture serves as one example of geographic influence, but perhaps more fascinating was the appropriation of public and private spaces by Dogtown skaters in crafting what more than one observer labels the Skateboard Revolution.

The importance of schools in Sunbelt culture, notably schools as a site for political mobilization, has been explored to great effect by Matthew Lassiter and Lisa McGirr. Dogtown and Z Boys expands on this argument, perhaps even suggesting we look at the physical space not just the abstract ideal that so often fuels education controversies. In the mid 1970s, Dogtown skaters utilized the sloped asphalt of five local elementary schools (Paul Revere, Brentwood, Kenter Canyon, Bellagio, and Mar Vista) to develop the low center, surf inspired technique and aesthetic. Here, working class kids road "waves of black asphalt, in their own way, appropriating sites that had traditionally been the battleground for the New Right.

Occupying public spaces like elementary schools serves as a great example of working class appropriations, but Dogtown skaters soon performed a more impressive act of resistance that encapsulates the complexities of post war Sunbelt expansion. As numerous authors have discussed, post war military and federal government expenditures fueled western and Sunbelt growth. The manifestation of this public capital emerged as an increasingly privatized suburban built environment that privileged traditional domesticities (white nuclear families), projecting the image of a Los Angeles “white spot”. Eric Avila and numerous others have noted proliferation of a racialized city, increasingly in opposition to its white suburbs. California soaked in the post war prosperity, consuming federal dollars at levels that exceeded all other rivals or as Findlay summarized, “no state pilfered more from World War II than did California … California demonstrated how military spending could prime the pump for civilian markets and manufactures." (19)

When a devastating drought hit California in the mid-1970s, one of the state’s symbols of personal success, the elegant oval shaped backyard pool, found itself drained and unused. Though perhaps unconscious of their intentions in the moment, Zephyr skaters traversed their local communities for empty pools to skate. This appropriation of privatized surburban space cemented the sport’s new aesthetic while embedding an oppositional nature to the lifestyle itself. Critically, the aforementioned Stecyk documented these developments through photo essays and journalistic pieces in various skate magazines. Stecyk pointed out that Zephyr skaters saw inspiration in the staid built environment of Southern California,
Skaters by their very nature are urban guerillas: they make everyday use of the useless artifacts of the technological burden, and employ the handiwork of the government/corporate structure in a thousand ways that the original architects could never dream of.

Stecyk, 1975

Stecyk’s role in crafting the images, attitude, and look of Dogtown skaters serves as a central aspect to skating’s development. Jeff Ho, Skip Emgblom, and Stecyk infused their surfboards with the look of Dogtown, a multicultural working class area abounding with gang graffiti and SoCal car culture. Developing on the heels of the Chicano movement (not to mention incidents like the 1970 Vietnam Moratorium March), Chicano culture bled into the Z Boy look as Rollins described it as “vato wild style.” This promotion (appropriation?) of Latino culture pushed back against the L.A. white spot image, placing Mexican culture at the center of the Zephyr style. If Avila and others are correct in pointing out SoCal attempts at Latino erasure, Z Boy culture attempted to reverse this process, even if unwittingly. Furthermore, the dysfunctional nature of many of the Zephyr team’s families highlights the ironic nature of working class multiethnic kids from “broken homes” riding the empty pools of Los Angeles’ better off families.

Now admittedly, the efficacy of the film must be questioned. First, Director/Producer Stacy Peralta brings the story to audiences, but fails to fully explain his central role in both Team Zephyr and the documentary itself. Certainly, Peralta’s membership in the Dogtown skate crew and his future exploits in constructing the legendary “Bones Brigade” (a travelling skate circus that featured the most talented and forward thinking practioners of the day including the previously mentioned Tony Hawk) deserve greater mention. Peralta’s collaboration with Stecyk produced numerous skate tapes that shaped the growing subculture. Yet, when interviewed, Peralta stares innocently toward the interviewer announcing that ““I don’t feel I came into my own until I was behind the scenes… that’s when I flourished” Um, yeah. New York Times Reviewer Stephen Holden drew attention to these problematics while admitting that the shear visual beauty of the film sometimes overwhelmed such weaknesses, "Dogtown and Z-Boys, which has won audience awards at the Sundance and AFI film festivals, could be described as a shrewd entrepreneurial exercise in self-mythologizing. But as this taut, viscerally propulsive insider's history of the sport in its early years skids and leaps forward with a jaunty visual panache, it is impossible not to be seduced by its hard-edged vision of an endless teenage summer.”

Undoubtedly, Peralta’s skating, management, and cultural production (skate tapes/clothes/documentaries) along with Stecyk’s work/influence clearly sculpted large aspects of the movement. What this means about its validity is hard to say. Essentially, Stecyk and Peralta have broadcast their vision of Team Zephyr’s meaning through skate mags, photography (Glen E. Friedman’s Fuck You Heroes and Stecyk’s Dogtown probably represent the most prominent examples), and this documentary (there is also a fictional account starring Emile Hirsch, Heath Ledger, and Johnny Knoxville titled the Lords of Dogtown). That two individuals appear largely responsible for skate culture itself should suggest some pause? Yes, the movie emphasizes the importance of Ho and Engblom’s pseudo parenting in corralling the numerous skaters from dysfunctional homes (some might even accuse the documentary of fetishizing this dysfunction) and the collective role all Zephyr skaters played in developing the new subculture, yet the importance of publicity raises questions such as what if someone else in a different part of the U.S. had beaten Stecyk to the punch in documenting this youth culture innovation. Observers would not be crazy to see a sort of Svengali influence in Stecyk’s art/photography/mentoring. One could draw the conclusion that Stecyk crafted it all, imbuing his vision into the very subjects he documented.

Gender serves as a second troubling aspect of Dogtown and Z Boys. Though no one ever formerly declares the skate team a manifestation of youth masculinity, instead describing the team’s intensity as a product of a culture of competitiveness in which each skater pushed the other, it’s hard not to see overtly male overtones. Though the film accords team member Pegi Oki significant space, she serves as the ONLY female voice in the entire movie. When former Z Boy Nathan Pratt describes the atmosphere at Zephyr surf shop as “low brow and wild and screw you”, again one wonders where or how exactly women fit into the scene, other than the usual stereotypes. Pegi Oki emerged as a talented skater, winning the 1975 Del Mar national skateboard contest, but she sometimes seems like a token representation. One would like to know if more women participated in the construction of the Z Boy discourse (though the term Z Boy itself basically gives it away doesn’t it?), if so how did they impact it?

Nor does the movie adequately explore the multicultural nature of Team Zephyr. Clearly, Asian, Latino, and working class whites (many of whom carried ethnic last names like Ruml) participated, but Peralta never clearly delineates how this cultural stew interacted or manifested itself. Some reviewers proved of little help in this task. Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman described the movie’s actors as Los Angles “teenage surf punks.” Even worse, Gleiberman erases any ethnic or racial diversity at which the documentary clumsily alludes, by relating to reader’s that super 8 videos portray the Zephyr Team as “Hanson in the urban wasteland.” At no point does Peralta explore the importance of Tony Alva’s Mexican American upbringing or Shogu Kubo’s Pacific Island. Instead, Peralta and many of his interviewees focus intensively on class, perhaps hoping to elide the more controversial issue of race. When the movie does attempt to relate the influence of Latino culture on its look, Skip Engblom does so awkwardly “our history is based on low riders, hot rods and Latinas … little blonde girls named Buffy just weren’t my scene.” Edward Said would have had a field day. Finally, does it mean anything, that white participants Peralta and Stecyk took the reins of bringing notoriety to this multicultural movement? Of course, considering the youth of nearly all the scene’s participants, one probably should not expect existential wisdom to flow. For example, the movie shows Alva speaking to an ABC reporter in the late 1970s on the potential of “older” skaters in the sport pointing out that there was no limit to a boarder’s “oldness.” Yes, “oldness,” so it remains unlikely that many of these skaters theorized or reflected on these aspects, nonetheless they deserve consideration.

Still, with the above caveats pointed out, one cannot help but see similarities between the innovations of working class women of the turn of the century who through their own appropriation of dancehalls, amusement parks, theaters, and arcades reshaped sexuality and public spaces. Joanne Meyerowitz’s Women Adrift, Alice Clement’s Love for Sale, and Kathy Peiss’s Cheap Amusements all illustrate the importance of working class youth culture in the construction of modern sexuality. Formerly homosocial spaces became heterosocial environments; though circumscribed by gender discrimination, working women drove fashion, lifestyles and eventually dating behavior and protocol. In a similar way, the working class members of Team Zephyr, first took the wreckage of the Pacific Ocean Park Pier turning it into a place based identity amid what Skip Engblom labeled “a dead wonderland”. Out of this milieu emerged the very skate culture that drove fashion of the 1980s and 1990s, as Senate, Vans, and Quicksilver among others commercialized the subculture, commoditizing the movement for a broader national audience. The aesthetic captured by Stecyk and Friedmen, both of whom documented those critical backyard pool sessions, collapsed easily into half pipes in the 1980s. Cultural figures like Ian MacKaye, Jeff Amet, Henry Rollins, and Fishbone to name a few further publicized the lifestyle in performances, recordings, and memoirs.

If historians like Eric Avila and John Findley look to situate Disneyland as emblematic of Southern California culture and influence, the creation of a skate culture that morphed into the multimillion dollar industry represented by Quicksilver clothing and X-Games competitions deserves academic attention. Nearly, all of the interviewees describe the activities of Zephyr less in terms of sport and more in terms of “art.” What Dogtown boarders created was physical art, and like any good art a bit of manipulation took place along the way (i.e. Stecyk, didn’t the Sex Pistols need Malcolm McLaren and the Clash their manager Bernie Rhodes?). To this day, skateboarding and its cousins (snowboarding) revel less in scores or point totals and more in spectacle, a direct corollary to the Dogtown dogma.

Current historians like H. Gelfand of James Madison University have begun to excavate the political roles played by recreational identities such as surfers. Over the last third of the 20th century, Gelfand found the formation of the Surfrider organization as a key player in the burgeoning land use battles of Southern California. One wonders what a detailed analysis of Dogtown might bring. While stars like Tony Alva lack the political sophistication of Surfrider’s founders, they nonetheless exerted a profound influence on the identities of hundreds of thousands of American boarders. New York Times critic Stephen Holden’s positive review of the film closed with the somewhat dismissive conclusion that the film, though pointing the way toward “valuable cultural history,” remained “at heart a promotional film.” Certainly, the documentary proved too celebratory. Many critics pointed out it would have benefited from some critical voices. Despite this acknowledged weakness, one might suggest Mr. Holden’s insight remains too harsh. After all, regardless of what adults at the time may have said, Craig Stecyk believes the children of the 1970s saw something their elders could or would not: “Two hundred years of American technology has unwittingly created a massive cement playground of unlimited potential, but it was the minds of 11 year olds that could see that potential."

Ryan Reft

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Boy Named Sue, on the Moon

 Photo by Clement Lime
Las Vegas looks like Myrtle Beach if the sandblasted and tacky South Carolina vacation town were relocated to the surface of the moon. You half-expect to see space junk or a broken down Mars rover lying among the cinderblocks and desert flora of the city's numerous abandoned lots. A major part of this effect owes to the exuberant 1950s atomic age kitsch that defines much of the strip and downtown LV; the stylized and flamboyant signage and jagged architectural lines of hotels and casinos rise up to slash the big western sky, with the sleekness and bold geometry of a Miro painting or Bauhaus chair but without the tendency toward sparseness and severity in much modernism. The city also has strains of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, the twin tourist traps that draw millions to gift shops, amusement parks, and gaudy stage shows in the mountains of east Tennessee. Like Myrtle Beach and Gatlinburg, Las Vegas serves as a major center of live entertainment that caters to a variety of impulses: bawdy and unembarrassed sex appeal (in an age where Internet porn seems to make a lot of onstage titilation seem stilted and corny), outmoded and unfashionable tastes (show tunes), nostalgia (worship of 70s dinosaurs like Queen, Alice Cooper, KISS), and celebrity infatuation in the form of impersonators (of course). These cities are major centers of live performance, much like more celebrated hubs like Nashville, Los Angeles, or New York, but without any interest in highbrow sophistication or even praise from middlebrow critics.  It's a long way from Lincoln Center or even the Grand Ole Opry to Circus Circus.

As an entrepôt where people are air dropped in, drink, eat, play and leave, it evokes scenes of seedy pit stops in sci-fi space operas like Star Wars, where bums, bartenders and men on the make try their luck before moving on to the next moon or planet. One can imagine a grizzled and toothless alien mumbling through the streets of Vegas in the aftermath of unfortunate events involving alcohol and gambling - another casualty of freedom in a glitzy outpost of the galactic market.  It might be said that the movies evoke Las Vegas, not the other way around, as the exemplar of capitalism freed from the constraints of morality or social context; a world defined by transience and anonymity, where humans and spiky plants cling to the surface of a hostile environment and turn themselves over to fate, i.e. the market (much like the increasingly popular multiplayer game EVE Online, where corporations vie for dominance in a stateless and lawless cosmos). Gene Roddenberry famously pitched Star Trek as "Wagon Train to the Stars," and the influence of the American westerns is clear on Joss Whedon's Firefly, which unambiguously portrays an age of space travel as a "wild west." Vegas's landscape of chance and survival, its flamboyant modernism and grimy sensuality seem to have seeped into our perceptions of what society might look like when divorced from everything but sand, money, color, and light.

It is hard to look at the ethereal colors that crackle over the strip at night without thinking of William Leach's study of early 20th century consumer culture, Land of Desire, which discusses the discovery by merchants that colored light (in electric signs and shop windows, for instance) could be used to enchant skeptical consumers by creating an image of a secular, materialist paradise that could replace more traditional notions of the good life based on self-denial and frugality. Las Vegas has taken this lesson to heart and spared no expense where the electric bill is concerned. (In this respect, tiny McAdenville, NC, aka Christmastown USA, comes to mind; the unlikely tourist destination regularly draws traffic stretching a half mile down I-85 with visitors who wish to see the hamlet dressed up in lights for the holidays, an electrical indulgence that Pharr Yarns subsidizes for the townspeople.) Certainly, the work of John Findlay, Eric Avila and others on the creation of "magic lands" like Disneyland in postwar America also bears profoundly on the evolution of an urban landscape in Nevada devoted almost entirely to service, entertainment, and recreation; the city also shares with the new theme parks and private residential communities (Sun City in Arizona, Celebration in Florida) the pervasive presence of security and surveillance by mostly private entities, in 'partnership,' as always, with the police and other public agencies.

Photo by Clement Lime

Of course, there is also the seminal text Learning from Las Vegas (1972), which encouraged scholars, planners and architects to look at the kitsch and jumble of the commercial strip as a legitimate way of organizing space in an age of automotive transit. Previously derided as a vulgarian miscarriage by serious experts (who were busy at the time bulldozing the 'blighted' homes of the poor in the name of urban renewal and building boxy modernist boondoggles in their place), the highway world of strip malls and gas stations began to receive new attention for its humor, functionality, and vernacular charm. In fact, JB Jackson anticipated this sympathetic approach to the commercial landscape of the new southwest in the 1950s and 1960s, with essays such as "The Abstract World of the Hot Rodder," "Other Directed Houses," "Places for Fun and Games," and so forth. The other-directed house was a structure that announced itself to the world, that was oriented toward the passerby on the new interstates and highways, cajoling them to come on in with busy signage and bright colors - quite unlike the traditional home or office building that was inwardly focused, at least to some extent. We at T of M would be interested to know what the anarchic romantic Jackson would have to say about the increasingly monumental, imposing, and fiercely privatized landscape of the contemporary Vegas strip - a far cry from the strip malls and roadside pit stops that he so eloquently memorialized decades ago.

In thinking about the gaudy moon colony that is Las Vegas, one might turn to a suitably glam star of the 1970s who knew a thing or two about the value of spectacle: is there life on Mars?

Alex Cummings

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Leaving Las Vegas: Bringing the Urban History Association to Sin City

Ahhh … the smell of weak coffee, the brightly advertised "free continental breakfast," and the indignity of pocketing more fruit than reasonable considering the "free" part... it can only be time for the Urban History Association’s biennial conference. This year’s gathering (under the theme of “Sustainable Cities?”) took place in Elvis’s home away from home, Las Vegas. The onslaught of ravenous bespectacled academics struck fear in the hearts of even the most depraved Las Vegan (though one cannot be sure if that refers to full time residents or the millions of tourists who visit the desert city).  Who knows how much historians lost at the tables or at the sports book? (“So would it be possible to get a prop bet on the over/under use of the term “built environment”?) 

Betting losses aside, numerous conference participants provided great insights into issues across the urban spectrum. Below are several particularly strong presentations. Keep in mind T of M has limited staffing, meaning two guys with backpacks, so many quality papers were missed. (Page numbers for the UHA program are provided at the end of each summary, click here for the link to the conference program…)

Migrating to Mexico: A Material History of Remittance in Sur de Jalisco, Mexico

Sarah Lynn Lopez, University of California, Berkeley

A great look at how remittances have shaped one village in Mexico, redefining public space, altering ideas of community, while reifying hierarchies. Sarah Lynn Lopez adds complexity to both the modern Mexican identity but also those of remitting Norteamericanos. Remittances contribute to the construction of identities and places. Lopez’s insights into the manner in which transnational capital flows manifest themselves spatially and socially provide welcome additions to research on transnational social geographies. (7)

Burning Down the House: Devil’s Night and the Politics of Abandoned Space in Postwar Detroit

Lindsey Helfman, Temple University

Several Philadelphia related historians (in terms of the study of or living in) presented at the UHA giving the metropolitan area evidence of really exciting work. Helfman’s “Buring Down the House” proved one of the best, exploring the evolution of Detroit’s “Devil’s Night” (held over the course of three days prior to Halloween) from petty vandalism to felonious arson. At its peak, the city annually endured hundreds of illicit fires over the three-day period. Detroit emerged as the urban American “boogey man”, playing on ideas of black criminality that collapsed victim (since most of the arsons occurred in black communities) and criminal into one. Somewhere Thomas Sugrue should be proud. (8)

The Soundtrack of Blight: Hardcore Punk and the Promise of Deindustialization in Postwar Detroit

Michael Carriere, Milwaukee School of Engineering

If historians have looked at punk, rap, reggae, and other musical forms as drivers and representations of society, Michael Carriere adds hardcore to the list. A fascinating account of how Detroit’s punk community, led by the legendary Necros, moved into Detroit’s largely black deindustrialized neighborhoods, celebrating the grittiness of the city while rejecting the plasticity of suburbia. “The Soundtrack of Blight” bristles with the “politics of authenticity” while hinting at future insights regarding gender and race that promise to resituate the role of hardcore in urban history and its wider political and social meanings. (12)

Coastal Environment Consciousness in California’s Culture, 1969 – Present

H. Gelfand, James Madison University

H. Gelfand tracks the place of Surfrider and the broader surfing movement in bringing environmental consciousness to the forefront of California’s identity. Gelfand pushes back against the dominant Jeff Spicoli image of surfers revealing a recreational group/lifestyle that became a political force in Southern California land use battles. Gelfand’s presentation pointed to future work on the role of skateboarding and snowboarding in American culture. Gelfand’s previous work Sea Change at Annapolis: The United States Naval Academy 1949 – 2000 explored the history of the Navy’s training grounds. American Historical Review described the work as displaying a “mastery not only of the Academy's history . . . but also of the evolution of its bureaucracy and curriculum. . . . Politically explosive." (14)

California’s Fantasy Pasts: Social Studies Politics in Orange County

Elaine Lewinnek, California State University, Fullerton

Building on the work of Lisa McGirr (Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New Right) and providing a useful contrast with East Coast focused education histories such as Diane Ravitch’s exemplary The Great School Wars: A History of New York Public Schools, Elaine Lewinnek constructed an insightful, lucid account of textbook controversy in mid 1960’s LA and Orange Counties. Such controversies illustrated the crucial role public schools played in Southern California social imaginaries and political mobilization. Projecting the possibility of numerous intellectual avenues, Lewinnek’s work suggests new insights regarding the burgeoning home school movement and the role of gender in New Right political movements. Lewinnek’s previous research centered on turn of the century Chicago -- "Better than a Bank for a Poor Man? Home Financing Strategies in Early Chicago," Journal of Urban History 2006 32(2): 274-301. (22)

Public Private Sector Relationships in Suburban Downtown Development

Ann Skartvedt, University of Colorado Denver

Ann Skartvedt’s work investigates the trajectory of public private partnerships providing a valuable historical arc that conceptualizes the changing tensions and power dynamics existing between suburban municipal governments, local businesses, and Denver’s metropolitan communities. Importantly, Skartvedt’s exploration of the Colorado metropolis adds necessary documentation of economic development in the American mountain region. Additionally, Skartvedt coins the term “festival superblocks” in identifying a particular type of economic development in the mountain metropolis. Point of note, Skartvedt’s panel combined to offer historians a terrific snapshot of urban public private partnerships. Timothy White, Irene Holliman, and Michael Adamson created windows into developments in New York, Portland, Atlanta, and the aforementioned Denver. (23)

Unpacking the Packing House: Agricultural Heritage, Development, and Erasure in the California Inland Empire

Genevieve Carpio, University of Southern California

Reminiscent of William Deverell's Whitewash Adobe and in some ways, Eric Avila’s Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles, USC Ford Fellow Genevieve Carpio uncovers the process of erasure by Inland California townships in their imaginings of their agricultural past. Employing images of ethnic white agricultural workers, local suburbs (notably Rancho Cucamonga) have marketed themselves ahistorically, erasing the presence of Mexican agricultural workers from public memory and spaces.

There’s Always a Tomorrow Land: Visions of the Future at the Dawn of the Jet Age

Vanessa Schwartz, University of Southern California

Vanessa Schwartz had interesting things to say about the democratization of air travel and the reconceptualizing of airport design in the 1950s and 1960s, looking at changes in the way people thought about space, speed, and mobility in the 'jet age.' Schwartz suggested that the increasing velocity of travel in this period led planners and architects to design airports that demphasized the building itself, 'erasing monumentality' and focusing almost exclusively on moving passengers as smoothly and rapidly as possible through space. Critic Reyner Banham described the new kind of airports a sort of "demented amoeba," which was turned inside out to disguise its external shell from view. While intriguing in its own right, the paper provoked further questions about how this jet age perception of speed related to an older trope of space and time compression that dated back to the telegraph (essentially, everything is getting faster all the time and space matters less), as well as how the ideas of this period relate to the contemporary age of the airport as mall/prison. Schwartz’s previous publications include It's So French! Hollywood, Paris and the Making of Cosmopolitan Film Culture (27)

Ryan Reft

Thursday, October 21, 2010

"True Grit" before the Duke: A Look at Charles Portis's 1968 Novel

Being a devoted Coen brothers fan is easy. I’ve been enjoying their work since Blood Simple and Miller’s Crossing. However, I greeted the news that the next project would be a remake of the 1969 John Wayne film True Grit with a momentary sense of dismay and disapproval. Why would the Coens waste time remaking a god-awful John Wayne movie and, moreover, ruin my present hoarding by releasing it around my favorite commercial holiday? Was Christmas going to be this bad?

Now, I know the original is revered as a classic and the Duke won an Oscar for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn. But I consider that award to be of the “lifetime achievement” variety, as the Duke’s version of Rooster Cogburn is simply John Wayne with an eye-patch. John Wayne’s acting has all the appeal of a middle-aged employee at Wal-mart bragging about his “swagger years.” However, while the studio is no doubt hustling for those sweet, sweet remake nostalgia dollars, the Coens have, in fact, based their True Grit on the source material, the Charles Portis novel of the same name. 

As it turns out, Portis is a hell of a writer. He is one of these subversive mid-twentieth century authors whose work has fallen out of print for years, only to be occasionally dusted off and rediscovered by hungry young fans -- fans who used to think great books in the Sixties began and ended with Catch 22. The narrator, 14-year-old Mattie Ross, sets off in the post-Civil War west to find her father’s murderer. She hires the meanest federal marshal available, Rooster Cogburn, a man of “true grit.” And, while Mattie spends a bulk of the novel pointing out this "grit" in Cogburn, the title isn’t about the marshal at all. The federal agent Cogburn, the Texas Ranger LeBeouf, and the outlaw they seek, are merely pieces of a story surrounding the wholly unique and sometimes hilarious Mattie Ross. In many ways, she inherits a mantle of truth and clarity unencumbered by prejudices of experience only seen before in that of Mark Twain’s Huck Finn. Mattie’s narration is stilted and formal as it is unsentimental. Truths pass through Mattie unfiltered, and while we can “never know what is in man’s heart,” we can rest assure that “there is nothing free except the grace of God. You cannot earn that or deserve it.” The sprat’s tough courage (and tough love) is the characteristically American romantic, underscored by her absolute lack of romantic notions (she dismisses a morose depiction of Shakespeare’s Ophelia with a humorous “she must have been silly”).

The plot is tightly constructed; its exhilarating moments echo Mattie’s own misadventures. While she and cohorts descend upon her father’s killer, there is a reevaluation of morality codes. By reevaluation, I mean lack of; the black and white of good and evil that plagues many westerns isn’t here. Marshall Cogburn is an admitted thief and war criminal and Mattie’s pure notions of justice are clearly at odds with her obsession with revenge. Her own motives of justice are offset by the political and financial motivations of Cogburn and LeBeouf. The “larger issues” brought into play, particularly by the Texan Lebeouf, periodically trample Mattie’s universal goals of justice. Those interested in current political discourse will be fascinated by Mattie’s own ruminations on political parties of the day, “Thad Stevens and the Republican gang would have starved us all out if they could.” If the Mattie isn’t enough to entice a read, the banter between Cogburn and LaBeouf is just enough to bristle your arm hair and yet keep one amused, lest “you will push that saucy line too far.”

It’s worth mentioning that True Grit was published in 1968, when the lines between culture and counterculture began to blur. The novel certainly is a product of that time. It subverts the western prototype of the previous two decades; the protagonist is a young female child and is wiser, tougher, and more honest than the surrounding men. In some ways, Rooster Cogburn is an iconic western hero. I nearly leapt out of my chair as he charged bank robbers, guns in hand, shouting, “fill your hands you son of a bitch!” However, despite such “western heroic” qualities, Rooster is a compromised figure. He served on the losing side of the civil war, engaged in several robberies, and was saved from imprisonment only by the intervention of a close comrade. There is a cynicism to the novel, as Cogburn and LeBeouf attempt to eliminate Mattie from the excursion, particularly once it is made clear the outlaw (Tom Chaney) is worth a great deal of money. This cynicism is offset by Mattie’s moral clarity and fortitude. It is in Mattie that Portis undermines the genre; Mattie possesses as much Edwardian “inner light” as Huck Finn or Natty Bumppo (Last of the Mohicans). These early iconic American characters were defined by the rejection of old world European morals. In much the same way, Mattie serves as a rejection of decaying American values in a post-civil war landscape.

Why are the Coens doing another western? Are they piggybacking off the success of No Country for Old Men?  A cursory study of their history allows for some speculation. They often jump from genre to genre, and have danced between mainstream appeal and esoteric Indy creed. The massively popular Fargo was followed by a bizarre film called The Big Lebowski, which was initially considered a failure. Critics and audiences didn’t get the odd tribute to Raymond Chandler. The popular O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Homer’s Ulysses re-told) came before the slow and contemplative The Man Who Wasn’t There, a black and white study of malaise in the 1950s. In this sense, True Grit fits right in. As a genre tale, Portis is unconventional in employing a female protagonist and narrator, just as much as finding a burned out hippie in the middle of a Raymond Chandler detective tale is unsuspected. The Coens love genre tales, but loathe convention. Portis’s novel seems a perfect fit. We shall see. Whether the Coens can offer up a good re-make this December is no longer issue. I am only glad to have found an underappreciated gem in True Grit. Forget about John Wayne or Jeff Bridges, and let Charles Portis introduce you to Mattie, Rooster, and LaBeouf. He’s earned his props.

Four stars, and not five, because I am still a literary snob.

Amy Heishman teaches English at Durham Tech Community College in Durham, North Carolina.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Cruel Economy of Soccernomics: Capital, Players, and Football in the 21st Century

In 2000’s The Many Headed Hydra, historians Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker explored the transnational revolutionary Atlantic world’s collection of working and enslaved peoples’ of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Linebaugh and Rediker present numerous examples of this burgeoning Atlantic world proletariat as it struggled against the crushing dominance of a nascent capitalism shedding its mercantilist restraints. The commoditization of labor and peoples, left sailors, slaves, and commoners as physical representations of opposition, providing tangible fervor and ideological depth to various uprisings, revolts, and revolutions from England to the West Indies to the United States. Acting as “nodes of revolution," sailors and slaves carried ideas, plots, and oppositional violence against “the dictates of mercantile and imperial authority” targeting the property of the growing merchant class. (156) In the face of state sponsored violence of the period ranging from slavery to penal colonies to military intervention, revolution through piracy, slave revolt, and riot served as resistance to the formation of new capitalist order.

Strangely, 2009’s Soccernomics represents an interesting correlation to The Many Headed Hydra’s oncoming tsunami of free trade and “open markets.”  No, footballers are not, never have been, and are highly unlikely ever to be “nodes of revolution."  Anyone who has followed recent sex scandals involving prominent players like England’s John Terry (likes 18 year girls and sleeping with his best friend’s former fiancée) or Wayne Rooney (allegedly cried after “performing” with an escort while his wife was in labor with their first child which makes him simultaneously ridiculous and despicable) knows that even getting them to be “nodes of decency” proves challenging. Yet, throughout Soccernomics the three themes seem central to authors Simon Kuper (soccer journalist/writer) and Stefan Szymanski (economist) economically deterministic approach to football:

• the rising dominance of European style/tactics over the past 30 – 40 years (the authors even argue that Brazil has diminished aspects of its “beautiful game” to adopt much of the European approach)

• the role of capital flows in altering the modern game

• Players themselves, most from working class populations (in the rich and developing world (though differences between poverty in France and South Africa remain stark), serving as nodes of both developments.

The best soccer today is Champions League Soccer, western European Soccer. It’s a rapid passing game played by athletes. Rarely does anyone dribble, or keep the ball for a second. You pass instantly. It’s not the beautiful game – dribbles are prettier – but it works best. All good teams everywhere in the world now play this way. Even the Brazilians adopted the Champions League style in the 1990s. They still have more skill than the Europeans, but they now try to play at a European pace. (27)

As the above excerpt illustrates, Europe’s dominance extends from several factors. First, “The Continent” contains the worlds’ top leagues: The English Premiership, Spain’s La Liga, and Italy’s Seria A. Second, FIFA’s headquarters sit squarely in Western Europe dictating international rules and regulations while organizing the world’s most popular soccer tourney, The World Cup. Third, the financial resources of Europe and opening labor markets of the past 20 years have enabled the continent to import labor from Africa, Asia, South America, Australia and North America. Finally, the world’s most prestigious tournament The Champions League and its NIT-like cousin the UEFA League are fundamentally European entities. More recent evidence can be found extracted from the World Cup this past summer. Oft maligned Spain joined the ranks of Brazil with its victory in South Africa becoming only the second national side to have won a World Cup outside their hemisphere. Furthermore, four of the last six world cups were won by European sides.

Now there are many who might take issue with the assertion of European superiority. After all Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina hold multiple cups while South America has consistently produced football giants. Moreover, today Carlos Tevez, Lionel Messi, and Roque Santa Cruz serve as only three examples of dominant South American footballers, though each plays in Europe (which obviously furthers Soccernomics’ European argument). Still, I can think back to a series of soccer documentaries on PBS that covered the rise of international soccer from the 1950s to the current day in which several of the early South American stars, many of whom hailed from this year’s semi-finalist Uruguay commented on the rise of European footballing prominence. One former star in particular seemed incredulous arguing (and I am most certainly paraphrasing here since I can’t remember the player’s name or the documentary’s title) that these clumsy Europeans came and were able to use organization and passing to overcome their lack of individual skill or flair. The speaker’s disregard for this state of affairs came through clearly when he seemed to snarl indignantly through the word organization. Even Soccernomics acknowledges this discrepancy when it describes Brazil’s place within this football nexus above admiring the artistry of the Brazilian approach but privileging the stark replicable system and results of the European style.

If one suggests Soccernomics provides an essentialist view of football one would have to disagree, in short, accusations of Eurocentrism fall flat. Szymanski and Kuper have few Europhile interests to promote as they spend plenty of pages outlining racism and discrimination that course through aspects of the game, examining the role of poverty on national sides (guess what, being a poor country with a low GPD makes it real hard) and devote an entire chapter to England’s “mediocrity” as a football power (for all its “disappointments”, the authors suggest the island nation didn’t underperform but when placed in the proper historical and demographic context rather over performed over the past three decades– more on this in another post). However, they also point out that football’s growth owed some of its expansion to economies of scale, industrialization, and transnational capital/labor flows from imperial reach. Football’s spread correlated not with British official colonization, but instead its “informal empire, the noncolonies: most of Europe, Latin America, and parts of Asia. Here [Brazil], it probably benefited from not being seen as a colonial ruler’s game. Brits in the informal empire were supposedly just businesspeople, even if in practice their commercial clout gave the British prime minister vast influence over many unlikely countries.” (159) In India and Australia official colonization brought administrators emphasizing cricket and rugby.

In contrast, America’s own “informal empire” failed to inculcate a love of American football or baseball in the same way soccer expanded. For the authors, despite receiving the keys to the imperialist car in 1947, “the American empire was much less ambitious. It barely spread Americanism. Football the American empire’s most popular sport, still hardly exists.” (158) Though one might argue basketball and baseball have gained adherents abroad, American football has served as the national past time for many years now. American football has not enjoyed much international popularity. Though one might take pause at the conclusions drawn by the authors namely that “Victorian Britons were instinctive colonists where today’s Americans are not”, the fact of the matter remains soccer’s reach occurred in large part to the existence of informal empire. The importance of economics on who dominated soccer proved equally instructive when looking at the various cups and tournaments won in the 1970 to 2000 period note the authors, “the six founding members [Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg, West Germany, Netherlands, and France] of the European Economic Community dominated soccer thinking and won almost all the game’s prizes.” (292)

If sailors, slaves, and commoners of the eighteenth century nurtured ideas of opposition and freedom throughout the Atlantic world, acting as nodes of revolution, modern day players like Didier Drogba accomplish similar feats in spreading European football superiority. Absorbing the game initially as an unforeseen after effect of the capital flows of informal empire, Drogba, Tevez, and countless others absorb the tactics, style, and underlying logic of the European method. Playing within the professional leagues of Western Europe further facilitates this process. Coaches like the wandering Guus Hiddink contribute to this development as Szymanski/Kuper argue “he has been the world’s leading exporter of soccer know how from Western Europe to the margins of the Earth.” (292 – to be sure some readers might take issue with the metropole/periphery paradigm that the writers have employed, but for our purposes we’ll simply acknowledge this lens as potentially problematic). According to Soccernomics, Hiddink and other European coaches have brought the fast, physical, collective style of European sides to Korea, Japan, Greece, Turkey, and Australia, essentially slitting the throat of powers like Holland and England who the authors argue will no longer be able to compete with these new developing national sides.

Some might argue that the spread of Euro styles and tactics have flattened the game to reflect the same kind of social/political/economic leveling of globalization where once distinct cultural and regional identities are reshaped to fit into more cookie cutter like models. The authors express this clearly when discussing Turkey’s recent international successes, “in short, globalization saved Turkish soccer. Turks came to the realization that every marginal county needs: there is only one way to play good soccer – you combine Italian defending with German work ethic and Dutch passing into the European style. (‘Industrial soccer’ some Turks sulkily call it.)” (299) The football playing world of Soccernomics places little to no faith in the power of culture in terms of successful football sides, “national styles don’t work … in soccer ‘culture’ doesn’t matter much.” (299) Instead, the “industrial” approach provides the most tangible successes. For Szymanski and Kuper, the strength of Turkey, Greece, and Portugal was their ability to “jettison [their] traditional soccer culture,” which Soccernomics described as “dysfunctional indigenous styles.” (299)

One might suppose the question that remains involves the teleology of the argument that Symanski and Kuper promote. Granted, one should not feign surprise when a book title Soccernomics adopts an economically deterministic viewpoint. Yet, the book treats soccer style/tactics as complete, no new developments in the works, European dominance secured. Moreover, considering the clear influence of capital flows, imperialism (whether formal or informal), and globalizing entities like the EC or EU, the authors might have tempered some of their somewhat positivistic logic. While the European leagues draw talent from the world’s “four corners” (wherever they may be), it fails to give much agency to international players like Drogba. They appear to be empty vessels whose indigenous styles are to be corrected and filled with starry ideas of European organization and attack. No negotiation occurs, no Hegelian tropes of dominance/resistance. If these largely working class footballers operate as nodes of anything, its capitalism. National styles have been carved down to an archetype that is perfected, reducing redundancies and inefficiencies, while finding export through grizzled European coaches who carry this new “industrial style” to Korea, China, and elsewhere. Sound familiar? One of the questions that emerges regarding “industrial football”is this: is it truly more efficient or simply benefiting from institutional and financial advantages that make it seem more successful?

Soccernomics is a great read. Informative, well written and thought provoking, but for all its focus on Europe, powers like Brazil and Argentina often seem secondary. How would they explain Argentine successes? As one fellow writer related in a recent email, “Perhaps Argentina is the most European of Latin American nations?” Second, writes like Arjun Appadurai (Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization) have cautioned academics and others about how they view progress in the non European world imploring anthropologists, sociologists and historians to avoid imposing western historical models of capital development or democracy, noting that these new developments require more flexible and insightful analysis, since the growth of such concepts need not occur identically to European or American examples. Furthermore, Appadurai’s discussion of labor flows sounds eerily reminiscent of European footballs magnetism for players in the developing world as Appadurai argues globalization brings laboring populations into the lower-class sectors and spaces of relatively wealthy societies, while sometimes creating exaggerated and intensified senses of criticism or attachment to politics in the home state.” This generates alienation (in Marx's sense) twice intensified, for its social sense is now compounded by a complicated spatial dynamic that is increasingly global.” (42) Certainly, Drogba and others, once ascending to the professional ranks probably don’t seclude themselves in low income communities of their fellow immigrants, yet, as Szymanski and Kuper detail, most clubs spend very little on relocation services for non Europeans leading to culture shock and sometimes poor play from imported footballers. The authors argue the dearth of Brazilian players in the English Premiership or the failure of temperamental Nicolus Anelka at Real Madrid were due in large part to failed relocation efforts by Europe’s top clubs, “The challenge of moving from Rio de Janeiro to Manchester involves cultural adjustments that just don’t compare with moving from Springfield, Missouri to Springfield, Ohio. Yet, European clubs that pay millions of dollars for foreign players are often unwilling to spend a few thousand more to help the players settle in their new homes.” (59)

In the end, there can be no doubt that the logic of capital influences global football, how its played, who plays it, and what it means for the future of the game. Soccernomics provides a valuable service in exploring this dynamic, but readers should reserve some skepticism when thinking about how specific styles and methods come to dominate. It remains a frighteningly complex transnational process, one mitigated in large part by burgeoning globalization and Western capital flows, but a process that will certainly change in ways that observers cannot always predict. Sometimes past performances on the pitch and in the markets are just that past performances, ones that fail to necessarily dictate the future.


[Editor's Note: For those of you interested in football more generally check out

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Economist Folly

As recent T of M posts reveal, a favorite publication of several contributors is the English periodical the Economist. Though liberal on many social issues -- the magazine promotes gay marriage, increased aid to developing nations, and even endorsed Barack Obama in 2008 -- for some the magazine exudes a business-friendly, pro-development ethos that strikes them as Pollyannaish. Generally the magazine views unions as part of the problem rather than the solution.

In its October 2, 2010 leader “Is it a bird? Is it a plane?”, the Economist summarized the recent documentary Waiting for Superman – a movie that essentially chronicles the work of former D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee.  The magazine questioned the role of unions in education reform, promoted charter schools, and advocated for new measures to determine student progress and teacher effectiveness.  Despite Waiting for Superman’s depressing ending and the “bleakness of its title,” the Economist says, the movie also suggests that good schools and good teachers do exist.  The key is to adopt their methods and pedagogy:
That truth, recognized by anyone who has spent even a few hours in say, a KIPP charter school, is an inconvenient one to the teachers’ unions, which the film rightly identifies as a big chunk of kryptonite standing in the way of a dramatic rescue for the children of America.
The teachers’ unions have resolutely opposed efforts to pay good teachers more than mediocre ones, to fire the worst performers, and to shut down schools that consistently fail to deliver a decent education. This, coupled with underfunding in poor areas, has resulted in a shortage of good schools; so the few that are worth getting into are hugely oversubscribed with places allocated by the public lotteries which provide the grim climax to the movie... the fact is teachers’ unions are the primary obstacle to reform…
T of M contributor Shane Updike took issue with some of the Economist’s arguments. Mr. Updike’s protestations were published in this week’s issue in its letters to the editor section. His letter is reprinted below. T of M didn't check with anyone from the magazine but we’re pretty sure the Economist couldn’t care less about us.


Schooling in America

SIR – It is true that teachers’ unions protect bad teachers from being fired and that reform is needed (“Is it a bird? Is it a plane?”, October 2nd). However, unions also protect effective teachers from arbitrary punishment by school administrators who may be opposed to innovative ideas that come from the teaching staff. Furthermore charter schools are not the panacea that you and some school reformers claim. Charter schools such as KIPP and the Harlem Children’s Zone do a wonderful job of educating poor children in rough areas, but the vast majority are no more effective than a typical public school. And one of the best charter-school companies, Green Dot, which runs schools in Los Angeles and New York City, has a teaching staff that is fully unionised. American schools are in desperate need of improvement, but the assertion that unions are uniformly bad and non-unionized charter schools are always good is too simplistic.

Shane Updike

Currently working for the Highline School District near Seattle doing data analysis and administering the district's Title 1 program, Mr. Updike completed eight years of distinguished teaching in the New York City High Schools and holds MA degrees in Social Studies Education (NYU) and Public Administration (University of Washington).

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Persistence of the Donkey

Polls show a surprising resilience for Democrats in an incredibly adverse environment, not a catastrophic collapse. But are the polls right?

This is not exactly dancing in the end zone, but things should be going much worse for the Democratic Party. With spineless leadership, paralysis in Congress, a terrible economy, and an onslaught of increasingly vile and racist attacks from the Right, Obama’s approval rating should be about 15%, and a Republican takeover of Congress ought to be a sure thing. That the election is even in contention is a surprise to me.

First, consider that a party almost always loses seats in the first midterm election after its own president takes office. Bill Clinton famously endured catastrophic losses in 1994, ending decades of Democratic dominance in the legislative branch; voters punished Ronald Reagan in 1982, as a grinding recession much like today’s continued to afflict the country. (Ronaldus Magnus went on to enjoy one of the most crushing reelection victories in US history two years later.) George W. Bush was only able to interrupt this pattern by goading the country into a patriotic and paranoid fervor over “weapons of mass destruction” in the 2002 run-up to the Iraq War.

On top of this, the Democrats enjoyed so many improbable political upsets in the last two elections – for example, a Senate seat in Alaska, and a House seat in upstate New York that hadn’t gone Democratic since the Civil War – that Republicans were bound to make up some ground that they had lost. Almost regardless of what is going on in the country, the pendulum was going to swing back at least a little.

So history suggests that the Dems would lose seats in 2010 no matter what. Then you add in a brutal employment rate that has only been muted by Obama’s best efforts – the stimulus and a smattering of tax breaks for small business that Republicans allowed to be voted on in the Senate. People are in a foul mood, and rightly so. Things are not good. When voters ask why more has not been done about jobs, Democratic leaders mumble something about the filibuster and the motion to recommit. This is not inspiring leadership.

That 30% of the electorate is energized and ready to vote is not surprising – conservative white voters no longer have the millstone of George Bush hanging around their necks, and they don’t care for Obama for one bit. The dispirited GOP of 2008 is no more.  We've seen this show when Democrats have taken power before, with the right-wing hysteria that followed Bill Clinton's election, and the John Birch Society's conspiracy theories about John F. Kennedy.  With Obama in office, conservatives have once again rediscovered the beauty of dissent. And Republicans have been more than happy to cater to this paranoid and self-pitying constituency with plenty of red meat – scary illegal immigrants! Muslim takeover! Viagra for sex offenders!

To top it all off, the Supreme Court’s awful Citizens United decision has lifted many restrictions on how corporations and rich people can spend to influence elections. 2010 will be the first election in which we get to see what happens when companies like Target and Exxon have free rein to drop massive amounts of negative advertising on Democrats, in their tireless pursuit of low wages, low taxes, and no regulation.

If this shitstorm is really happening, why is Obama’s approval rating stubbornly close to 50%? Although polls show a consistent lead for Congressional Republicans, the Dems are running close and have pulled even in a few surveys. Although there are some very depressing pieces of news – liberal stalwart Russ Feingold is in deep trouble in Wisconsin, and the popular governor of West Virginia might actually lose Robert Byrd’s old seat to a no-name Republican – Democrats have still clung on much more tenaciously than anyone might reasonably have expected.

I can only think of a few reasons for this endurance. One is obvious from the polls. The Republican Party has done nothing to distinguish itself and is actually less popular than the Democrats. The GOP had not controlled Congress for years when they took over in 1994, and they enjoyed a 52% approval rating before the election. Now only 24% approve of Congressional Republicans, while 33% view Congressional Dems favorably. Public sentiment may be for “Throw the bums out,” but Republicans have not given much reason for voters to believe they are any better.

Voters may vaguely remember that the Republicans were running the country right before things fell apart, and the shameless fear-mongering that candidates like Sharron Angle have indulged in has not endeared them to voters. Indeed, Muslims and Latinos may recall for years to come that they were television stars in a hate rally staged by Republicans in 2010.

Second, the liberal base that got organized and involved between 2004 and 2008 has not completely tuned out. Organizational and media structures remain in place, whether it is ActBlue fundraising and Obama’s Organizing for America or DailyKos and Rachel Maddow. This infrastructure has helped Dems hold on to several special elections in the last two years that they could easily have lost. A counter-narrative persists, despite the gloom and doom from the mainstream media. Liberal voters may be depressed but they have not disappeared.

Last, there is a more speculative possibility. Perhaps support for the policies that people thought they were voting for in 2008 has not collapsed. The Democratic Congress has actually done stuff – things that are far more important than they have been portrayed as in a media culture that focuses on horse races and name-calling. Bill Clinton was severely punished for coming into office and squandering a Democratic majority, as healthcare reform died and the president folded on gay rights and many other issues. Obama, in contrast, has pushed ahead on reforming student loans, insurance (no more “pre-existing conditions”), equal pay for equal work, clean energy, and many other issues.

The Democrats will probably get their asses kicked in November, and we will probably see two years of scorched-earth partisan warfare leading up to the 2012 election. Both parties have nothing to gain by working together, and everything to lose. But I doubt the Dems will lose everything. Catastrophic Democratic losses this year appear to be what historians like to call “over-determined,” and the fact that Dems are still in the fight (and may hold on to the Senate) is a testament to the resilience of a progressive base in the electorate.


Sunday, October 10, 2010

Ghost in the Machine: The Invisibility of Richard M. Daley's New Political Base

The announcement that Richard M. Daley would not seek reelection as Chicago’s mayor surprised few people. A Midwestern institution, a Daley has occupied the top seat in city hall for over 50 years, yet the current Daley, not unlike his father Richard J., had begun to look thread worn. The late great Chicago columnist Mike Royko savaged the elder Daley in Boss but also acknowledged that there was something uniquely Chicago about the old man, “Maybe he couldn’t have been a father figure in Berkeley, California; Princeton, New Jersey; or even Skokie Illinois. But in Chicago there was nothing unusual about a father who worked long hours, meant shut up when he said shut up, and backed it up with a jolt to the head. Daley was as believable a father figure as anybody’s old man.” (1) If Richard J. Daley’s better qualities such as hard work, physical and mental strength, and big “Texas boastful” ambitions reflected many aspects of Chicago (remember Daniel Burnham’s famous proclamation “make no small plans”), he also clearly represented its negatives as well as the aforementioned Royko noted, “in other ways he was this city at its worst – arrogant, crude, conniving, ruthless , suspicious, intolerant.” (2)

In significant ways, the current Daley incarnation differs from his father. Blacks and Latinos (who under the first Daley lacked the demographic and electoral presence to influence elections) have made gains ,though as University of Illinois-Chicago political scientist and former alderman Dick Simpson has noted Latinos have enjoyed a gradual increase in terms of contracts and city employment while African Americans have watched their gains remain static, even diminishing in recent years. (3) Additionally, his embrace of the city's gay community certainly distinguishes him from his father. While Richard M. lacks the same precinct and ward level organization that his father enjoyed, the current Chicago mayor has crafted a new neoliberal alliance that exerts nearly just as much influence as his father’s old ethnic palm greasing. Chicago’s rise as a “global city” has helped Daley secure financing and power, as the city’s public/private partnerships celebrate neoliberal economic policies while obscuring the beneficiaries and policy implications implicit from such an arrangement.

Not Your Father’s Machine

Throughout the aughts, Dick Simpson produced several studies on the new Daley machine and its economic and political results. Like his father, Richard M. Daley constructed an economic base among unions, construction interests, and the broader regional business community. 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.” (4) None of this would be out of place with his father, yet new economies, globalization, and the influence of neoliberal public/private partnerships have enabled the younger Daley to craft a new “pinstripe patronage” club.

If one buys Saskia Sassen’s arguments regarding the development of global cities as sites of producer service (accounting, business law services, law firms, finance, etc) agglomerations, (who in turn wield increasing economic, political, and social influence on municipal governments), Daley’s regime recognized early on the power of these economic actors. The “New Daley Machine” depends in part on traditional economic sectors long incorporated under Daley’s father, but in addition, banking, legal, and transnational manufacturers have increasingly joined the party. Moreover, as Dick Simpson argues tourism, conventions, and “major public works … have been taken out of the usual political process and turned over to the private sector and special independent quasi-governmental agencies appointed by the mayor and the governor. Taken together, these trends have meant a lessening of democracy and the centralizing of power in a new machine, which while continuing the old machine perfected under Mayor Richard J. Daley, differs in a number of specific ways.” (5) Simpson further suggested that Chicago’s shift possibly represented developments that were not unique to Chicago by pointing to studies by Timothy Krebs which suggested that “the ‘new economy’ associated with globalization . . . figured heavily in campaign contributions to Mayor James Hahn and city council candidates in the 2001 Los Angeles election.” Krebs claimed that “68% of all itemized contributions” to Hahn came from campaigns, individuals, and corporations associated with the above “new economy” sectors. Simpson points to New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg's financing of his 2001 campaign as another prominent example. (6)

Neoliberalism Neoliberalism Neoliberalism

Writing only three years after Simpson, Jason Hackworth drew similar conclusions to that of Professor Simpson and his co-authors. Hackworth’s book The Neoliberal City: Governance, Ideology, and Development in American Urbanism details many of the developments Simpson points out. For Hackworth and others city governance has been deeply affected by shifts away from more managerial economic systems like Keynesianism toward the deregulated privatization of neoliberal regimes. Urban municipalities bent to such influences to the extent neoliberalim became “naturalized”. For city leaders, good government came to mean how well they “function like the corporate community.” (7) This shift toward neoliberal ideals results in fewer public subsidies and regulation. Public services become privatized, business/real estate development interests promoted. Hackworth suggests that this economic development has not emerged as a response to capital flight so much as a “result of an institutionally regulated (and policed) disciplining of localities”. Finance capital operates under a set of “ideological constraints.” (8)

If the IMF and World Bank police international institutions, determining which countries and their metropolitan regions receive their financial attention, in first world cities, bond rating agencies exert the most direct influence, “localities can be summarily redlined from credit if bond rating agencies judge them fiscally or economically separate from the governments they evaluate and thus more immune than, say, the IMF to state based political pressure.” (9) The ever present fear of capital flight, whether it be popular discourse or institutionally, find reinforcement internally and externally to the extent that urban governments fail to function autonomously. Increasingly cities took on non-referendum approved debt through revenue bonds . In recent years, these bonds have outnumbered general obligation bonds, which in contrast require approval of local voters. Nationally, this has meant as cities have received fewer federal dollars, dependence on municipal lending increased. However, lending in the neoliberal era fails to resemble that of the past. Changing demographics and the ascendency of wealth generation through finance capital, pension funds, money market funds, and insurance firms account for larger segments of the securities industry. Moreover, if commercial banks provided stable and secure lending/investment in previous decades, direct lending illustrates greater volatility. This leaves “remaining investors (households and funds)” more dependent on “professional assessments” (like bond agencies) whereas commercial banks exerted greater independence. The senior Daley passed away just as these shifts began to develop. His son however, quickly positioned himself to take advantage of the new “corporatist” governing structures. As Simpson points out, Daley adapted well to Chicago’s place as “global city” situated squarely in the center of transnational capital flows. One might even argue, as Professor Simpson does, Daley’s regime has attempted to provide the urban accoutrements that international white collar workers and tourists demand, “The expansion of McCormick Place; the rehabilitation of Navy Pier; the long-awaited opening of Millennium Park; the reconstruction of Soldier Field; the continuation of cultural amenities like the Museum Campus, the Chicago Symphony, Lyric Opera, and art galleries; flower planters and trees along boulevards; and the razing of ugly public housing projects – all of which have occurred under Mayor Daley’s regime – fit the needs and desires of his global economic contributors.”(10) That these improvements also please Chicago’s middle class residents only serves as icing on Daley’s proverbial cake.

The Deification of the New Daley Machine

The September 16, 2010 Economist briefly reviewed the Daley regime. A center left business oriented publication, the Economist often promotes deregulation, public/private partnerships, and lower government expenditures. With this focus in mind, Mayor Daley receives generally positive reviews. Acknowledging his various accomplishments including taking over the city schools (something his father would have NEVER done), beautifying the city through the creation of various green spaces and the monumental Millenium Park, and his metropolitan approach to governance, the British publication chose a rather different aspect of his rule to champion, “His most interesting legacy, however, may be not what he gave to Chicago, but what he sold off. Mr. Daley’s city has become an exemplar of a new strategy: where appropriate, privatize. The mayor hopes to save money by privatizing services, but also has a more lucrative plan: the lease of huge public assets.” (11) The inability of many urban areas to raise taxes have left cities more dependent on revenue streams that arise from user fees, “About 40% of [Chicago’s] revenue now comes from user fees, an area in which the private sector is expert. Leasing an asset such as a toll road allows a private entity to charge market rates and invest in improvements over time. The government, meanwhile, gets a large sum to invest in other infrastructure or to build reserves.” (12) In 2005 Daley completed a deal that established a 99 year lease for the Chicago Skyway that placed over 1.8 billion in city coffers. Similar deals were struck regarding the city’s parking garages (99 year lease at 563 million, 2006) and parking meters (99 years for 1.15 billion, 2008).

To be fair, the Economist also acknowledged problems. The parking meter agreement drew derision from Chicagoans who resented higher rates. Many meters around the city found themselves inundated with glue from angry residents. Moreover, critics claimed that the deal never endured the proper debate for such an arrangement resulting in the city getting shortchanged by 1 billion dollars. Even worse, Daley dipped into the funds from the parking meter fiasco to pay for operation costs which the Economist noted meant less for future rainy days, “But by 2011 Chicago will have gobbled up nearly 75% of the proceeds from the 75-year lease. Last month Fitch, a ratings agency, downgraded Chicago’s bond rating, in part because the city had used money from the meter-lease to pay for operations.” (13) However, these developments represent only one aspect of Daley’s neoliberal embrace. A more local and tangible example can be found in many of the cities aldermanic wards.

TIF for Tat

Tax incremental financing (TIF) has been an economic tool of development in Illinois for decades. TIFs are created by the City Council. When a TIF is created taxes are capped on the property for a number of years usually between 10 and 20, sometimes more. The revenue that normally would have been created by taxes to fund schools, local infrastructure and the like go into a “district fund controlled by the city, for a specific purpose.” (14) Essentially, a tax revenue limit is set for 10-20 years. All revenue collected from property taxes that exceed this limit are then placed into a TIF fund. The fund’s purposes range from “community infrastructure enhancement, building improvements, residential or business construction, or other public benefits such as parks.” (15) Theoretically, TIFs enable municipalities to channel funding for public works in lower income or struggling communities. However, in Chicago they often seem to fuel real estate speculation and housing that some local communities cannot afford. Alderman and Mayor Daley love TIFs because they provide each with an accessible supply of money.

Supporters argue TIFs ignite economic development which “in turn increases the property tax revenue that feed them.” (16) Chicago’s dependence on TIF financing has only grown under Richard M. By 2006, nearly one third of the city fell under TIF designation, accounting for one third of the entire city’s property tax income, equaling $329.5 million in 2005. (17) Critics contend that lack of oversight plagues TIFs. Residents wanting to see how their local TIF money is spent must go to city hall to request the document. Depaul Professor of Urban Geography Winifred Curran remarked that even when one gains access to TIF reports, the accounting is often “arbitrary”. (18)

Chicago is divided into fifty wards. Each one is overseen by an elected alderman. Alderman essentially create TIFs. Within the Chicago City Council approval is more or less automatic. Many aldermen owe their political careers to Mayor Daley, thus, alderman promote TIFs, both to curry favor with Mr. Daley and to create a pool of money with which they have discretion. A tacit understanding exists between aldermen regarding the passage of TIF zoning in the City Council This understanding amounts to a “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” attitude. Community groups around the city accuse developers of making campaign contributions to alderman, then soon after, are awarded TIF zoning. Daley’s promotion of TIFs stem from a need to gain control over a tax base previously off limits and a desire to develop the city into a middle class paradise. The need or desire to accumulate a “pot of public money” has led the city to fully embrace TIFs along with the sale of public property like the previously discussed Chicago Skyway, a one time lump sum payment that produces city wealth immediately but may cost the city future revenues that have would have been produced from the properties.

Loopholes allow for TIF monies to be spent in contiguous areas not specifically TIF designated, meaning one community TIF district can fund improvements in adjacent neighborhoods. Moreover, though Mayor Daley frequently touts the city’s fairly stable property taxes, in recent years the proliferation of TIFs have driven property taxes assessments up blanketing the city with higher levels of fees and taxation. Such increases began on the city’s north side as one homeowner lamented, “My taxes were at $4000 when I bought my home nine years ago . . . that’s what, a $16000 increase in ten years? This isn’t some abstract . . . debate. This is real.” (19) Andersonville, a trendy North Side neighborhood reported property tax increases of 70%. Local entrepreneurs bemoaned that TIFs were going to destroy their businesses. (20) According to Chicago Reader journalist Ben Jovarsky, TIFs have eaten up $1 billion in property taxes from 2003-6. (21) Additionally, the assessments that have plagued mostly white middle and upper middle class neighborhoods are now set to affect communities like Pilsen (Mexican/Mexican-American) and Bronzeville (African American). Professor Curran concurred, “absolutely . . . that is an urban issue that has to do not just with gentrification . . . in terms of all the TIFs . . . all this money is being siphoned off from the city and you have got to remake it somehow.” (22)

Now there’s an argument that says the Daley way works. Chicago survived deindustrialization as the Daley’s helped remake the city into a transnational node in the heart of America. Of course, this view ignores the crucial role Harold Washington played in his brief tenure. Washington’s reforms regarding minority contracting, ethics and dampening the racial unrest plaguing the city, enabled Richard M. Daley to institutionalize his predecessor’s reforms while pursuing his own agenda However, the neoliberal shift that Hackworth describes and Daley embodies, obscures the disproportionate influence exerted by real estate and development interests. Perhaps if Chicago’s municipal government had a reputation for probity, diminishing the public’s roll might make sense, but it doesn’t. Even the elder Daley suffered bond referendum defeats, yet, his son need not resort to such measures. Financial innovations like revenue bonds and TIFs, allow governments to bypass even the slightest measure of oversight. Since 1971, 21 aldermen have served jail time as result of corruption convictions. This fails to account for numerous others guilty of conflict of interest and ethics violations. Do these conditions merit less supervision? TIFS inevitably drive gentrification which may be a boon to some but a problem for others. Parts of Chicago’s traditionally Mexican neighborhoods endured rapid gentrification due to TIF funded housing. Similar developments unfolded in many of the city’s black communities. Cities need economic development, but municipalities need to control this growth rather than profit from it. With an upcoming mayoral election that appears, for the first time in a long time, to be an open race, it remains doubtful that the new mayor will abandon the same moneyed networks Daley so carefully exploited.