Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Dirty South

Baltimore -- I am training out of the city now, past block after block of boarded up row houses without a soul on the streets. The “City From Below” conference has folded its tents. (A detailed account of relevant sessions will be posted here soon...) It was a titanic effort of grassroots organization undertaken by a bunch of freedom-loving anarchistas clustered around a bookstore called Red Emma’s. Baltimore is one of this country’s shrinking cities. Since deindustrialization, the city on the Chesapeake Bay has lost a third of its inhabitants. (Now, 15 minutes out of town, the train passes high-tech factories and a military air base, signs of the “rimming” of business -- moving out to the suburbs – that has affected many U.S. cities.) The eminent geographer David Harvey gave a talk on Friday from the top of Federal Hill. This unique promontory overlooks downtown Baltimore and the Inner Harbor. From this hill Lincoln’s zouave army trained cannon on the city below to keep the state of Maryland from seceding from the Union during the Civil War.
This day Harvey pointed with his fingers and fired only his analysis. A score of undistinguished or plain ugly high rises and office towers litter the landscape, the results of decades of “public-private partnerships.” While these heavily subsidized and now doubtless largely vacant buildings were constructed, the city’s neighborhoods, especially its schools, were systematically starved of funds.
So where, I asked my hosts, was the bronze statue of John Waters, the filmmaker whose early work celebrates the quirky denizens of Baltimore in the 1970s? Or better yet Divine, his earthy drag queen hero(ine)? Those movies made Baltimore seem like an east coast New Orleans, brimming with fun craziness. I’m afraid Divine, should she appear, would be hustled out of the “new” Amtrak station -- a beautifully preserved turn of the last century Beaux Arts building now marked by signs, loud regular announcements, and roving squads of police with dogs. They’re on the lookout for Arab terrorists, of course. It's plainly absurd. We should better be protected from rogue ice blocks and polar bears. But repression makes jobs. On these streets large black signs with white letters proclaim: “BELIEVE.” Blue flashing lights mark surveillance cameras, and across from the tiny nightclub and bar strip a large set of klieg lights prepares to blast nighttime crowds with a military daytime. Closing time fun. Inner Baltimore, the depopulated city of the bourgeois, is like much of the urban United States clearly a police state. Running it seems to be the only growth industry in town. This is George W. Bush’s lasting legacy, the production (for both domestic and foreign consumption) of an overwhelming paranoiac fear in his constituency.
The last day of the conference was a sorry one for me. Through an hour’s inattention, my coat with my camera in it was taken. This happened in an adjunct building of the conference, a beautifully restored public library run by community volunteers. (The city defunded many neighborhood libraries years ago – to educate the workforce in the futility of aspiring, one supposes.) During the session, the library was of course open, and local people were coming in and out. It was a reminder of the desperation of many Baltimoreans. Thieves haunt open situations, where people are relaxed and trusting. When we started work at ABC No Rio in 1980, we had to warn every woman who entered not to let her purse out of her sight. The charming children who ran about the place were thieves. Teaching two hour classes in the Bronx in 1998, I had to tell my students to take their textbooks with them when they took their break. A ring of thieves was picking up the expensive books while their owners went to the bathroom, later to resell them. Places where people come to learn – art centers, schools, libraries – are places where people let their guard down. Those people are easy prey.
The incident was profoundly upsetting to me -- not for the camera, which was aging, nor the jacket, although it was a good one and I’m wearing three shirts in the springtime chill air. I lost dozens of photos I had made of European social centers -- made and not yet downloaded. Plain stupidity… I paid for it with a sleepless night of remorse. Lessons learned: in the field, tech stays on your body. Data gets duplicated immediately, as soon as it is practical to do so. (Think of it as corroding the recording device.) And always know where is the nearest used clothing store!
But back to Amtrak: What is this loony social model costing us? What is it preventinig us from doing? In the clean, overly-patrolled security zones of the under-used Amtrak rail station is the potential for small scale enterprise -- mobile food and beverage carts, which can go where the customers are and don’t require as high a level of patronage as a fixed establishment. I paid $5 for a roll and coffee, a very unsatisfying breakfast at a silly price. So I’ll never do that again, and they lost a customer. That place can only sell to the unwary. This kind of retail strategy in the station runs counter to any professed ideology of market competition – you funnel customers into a zone where there are no other options, then overcharge them for shoddy goods. Amtrak in Baltimore does what airports used to do (and many still do). The egregiously overplayed security scenario -- (only in Baltimore, not in New York, where there is certainly more risk) might be some kind of way to make air travelers feel more comfortable. It’s not a grungy old antiquated rail station, really, it’s just like an airport! The “tarting up” of this lovely rail station in airport drag is carried forward by a gleaming white plastic bench with a luggage measuring guide, just like the airport, and two plastic plants placed atop this glaringly ugly piece of furniture, like bangles on a brassiere....

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