My irregular musings on city life, politics, baseball, roller derby, and whatever happens to be getting my goat today.

Monday, November 28, 2005

a theory of actual reality part 1

Talk about coming late to the party. Over the weekend, I saw the film adaptation of the Broadway musical Rent, a phenomenon which I managed to completely miss when it came out back in 1996. Not only did I not catch the musical, I'd never even heard the soundtrack until after I'd seen the first time (for the rest of you who were as out of the loop as I was - it's really good. Go see the movie).

It's really not surprising that I've never seen the stage production, since at the time it came out, I was living in a co-op in Columbus, OH, 22 of us camped out in a crumbling, glorious ruin of a mansion just east of Ohio State University. The mix of perennial grad students, wannabe writers, artists, and musicians, and party people with fluid sexualities would be familiar to the characters from "Rent." But we didn't go to see Broadway shows that much (I got the impression neither would the "Rent" crew. What else was out then, anyway? Cats?)

Seeing the musical at such a remove from that time and place raises a lot of questions for me. Was I a "bohemian?" What am I now? Have I betrayed my ideals? Did I have any ideals worth clinging to? And so on.

Before we go there, some more obvious observations:

The AIDS epidemic probably hurt New York a lot more than 9/11 did. It killed more people, and in the process gutted the creative community that had been the energetic beating heart of Downtown communities like the East VIllage and Alphabet City. Also, while 9/11 caused the country to (briefly) rally behind New York (remember "it's your patriotic duty to go to a Broadway show?"), the AIDS epidemic caused Middle America (and there was such a beast back then) to recoil.

A lot of reviewers have complained that Rent is now a "period piece" - the community depicted no longer exists in the same way. It seems a strange criticism. Did critics feel that was a negative thing in the case of "Chicago," or "Capote," or "Dances With Wolves," to name a few movies set in times that are not now? Every Western ever made, for example? The truth is, "Rent" was already a period piece when it premiered on stage - the Alphabet City bohemia depicted was already vanishing, for the very reasons discussed in the play - AIDS for one, as well as rising rents in the neighborhood (hence the name).

In fact, pronouncements that "those days are gone" are a bit premature. It's true that the East Village is now filled with multimillion dollar condos (one of which is owned by Rent star Anthony Rapp!), but Bohemia has simply left Manhattan for grimier pastures in Dumbo, Williamsburg, and other points east. But if Brooklyn doesn't exist to these people, there's just no point in bringing up Yellow Springs, Ohio, is there?

"Relevance" isn't exactly the point, anyway. "Bohemians" (so named after the centuries-old hipster scene in Prague, still going strong last I heard) are out of the mainstream by definition. Most critics of the movie (and Broadway show) quickly devolve into personal attacks on the relevance and worth of the type of people depicted in the show.

The best review so far:
"Get a job for God's sake, people, and bring back some better songs while you're out."
-- Jeffrey Bruner, DES MOINES REGISTER

This one goes into more detail:
I’m shocked that a musical about AIDS, heroin, and squatters could become the eighth longest running musical in Broadway history with over 4,000 performances. It has grossed more than $210 million in New York alone. After seeing the movie, I’m glad I didn’t go to the Las Vegas performances of this acknowledged worldwide phenomenon.

I understand that the musical has a huge following, but the movie RENT will not. Why hail the lives of a group of people who do nothing, engage in sexually risky behavior, get terminally ill, and refuse to pay their rent? Because they feel that it is only important to love and let someone else pay the Con Ed bill? To find this “truth,” these misfits have traversed a lifestyle of anonymous, multiple sex partners and needle drugs. Larson ignores what made this group of sweet kids damaged souls of hopelessness.

Who are these boring, uncreative friends? Roger (Adam Pascal) is a songwriter who hasn’t written a song in a year. He just kicked heroin. His tenement roommate is Mark (Anthony Rapp), an out-of-work filmmaker who keeps filming his friends sitting around. Surprisingly, since Mark appears gay, he was unceremoniously dumped by sultry performance artist Maureen (Idina Menzel), who is now in love with a successful lawyer, jealous Joanne (Tracie Thoms). Downstairs lives Mimi (Rosario Dawson), a fully-dressed exotic dancer who does not make enough money to pay her rent either. She is a heroin addict. She likes sullen Roger. It is so sweet when they admit to each other they are both taking AZT and are HIV-positive!

WEST SIDE STORY’S Maria and Tony look like whining babies now!

Roger and Mark’s buddy Tom (Jesse L. Martin) turns up. He is homeless, jobless, and has just been mugged. But he has a really good attitude! He meets the Soul of RENT, precious Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), a drag queen. They are HIV-positive. That makes four sick people in one movie. They go to AIDS meetings. Everyone gets up and sings a We Shall Overcome song.

Trying to promote reality into these happy-go-lucky freeloaders is Benjamin Coffin III (Taye Diggs). He married their tenement owner's daughter and, even though he long ago promised his friends their valuable loft rent-free, he now needs the space for a business enterprise. What an ***! Where is the love in New York City real estate?
. . .
I didn’t like the music. I know it is sacrilegious to write anything negative about RENT (as the show-stopping song goes, “but I am who I am”). And, like the SERENITY and PHANTOM OF THE OPERA fans, I am sure I will hear from everyone who ever brought a ticket to RENT and cried. After all, it is a musical about HIV-positive young people who haven’t a care in the world. The creator died at 36 years old of an aortic aneurysm before enjoying the perks of creating the first Gay AIDS musical.
-Victoria Alexander,

Feel the love, people.

And then there's this gem:
His songs, with their somber despair and contrasting seize-the-day attitudes, slice to the heart of a disillusionment that has been forgotten since Sept. 11, 2001, even though the problems of AIDS, drugs, urban isolation and self-serving relationships still infect a generation.
- Mark Collette Tyler Morning Telegraph

Huh? There are people out there who are less disillusioned after 9/11? Apparently there are, in Texas.

For me, dropping out of mainstream society was a rejection of the hypocrisy and greed I saw in mainstream, materialistic society. I wanted an entirely different kind of existence, rooted in creativity and spirituality, in community, relationships and people. Which is sort of funny, because I'm bad at relationships, irreligious, and lack the follow-through to really write the Great American Novel. But I never said I was the model for a new society, I just said I wanted one.

Which brings us to the philosophical underpinning for the whole project, Tom Collins' intriguingly hinted-at "Theory of Actual Reality" that got him kicked out of trendier institutions like MIT (He reprogrammed a virtual reality demonstration to say Actual Reality! ACT UP! Fight AIDS!).

What would such a theory be like? I can see it's something I'm going to be chewing on for the next few weeks. But here's an outline: wherever humanism and postmodernism are incompatible, postmodernism should be dumped like a high school girlfriend. This approach will allow us to excape from the solipsistic trap that has pretty much short circuited critical though in this country for the past couple decades.

AIDS is a great place to start. It isn't socially constructed, it's real. It's a retrovirus, a renegade strand of RNA that will kill you regardless of what social meaning you ascribe to it or how you attempt to integrate it into your understanding of reality. Or another example. People often say that race relations are "so much better than they used to be." Again, you may feel that way, but there are actual facts, and the facts say different. Segregation is worse than ever - the average white person and average black person live further apart than ever before, and are less likely to have a member of a different race living within a mile of them. African American infant mortality rates are worse than some Third World nations (Cuba's is much lower, for example).

In postmodernia, we are expected to give equal weight to all "perspectives." Hence the news media, intent on showcasing both "sides" of an issue even when one side is lying. But nobody calls it a "lie," now it's called a "conservative perspective." How many times have I heard a talking head or some guy on NPR say that same sex marriages will "undermine marriage" or "threaten American families." Why? How would that work? What does that even mean? If these questions can't be answered, then this "perspective" doesn't belong on the air. Perspecives with evidence to back their claims should be - what's the word - privileged over other perspectives. Yes, I'm saying that some people's views are more important and better because they are well informed, while other people's views deserve to be devalued and ignored because they are ignorant. Obviously people have different values and opinions about a great many subjects, and that's all to the good. But we don't need to show good natured tolerance and respect for self-serving blather based on assumptions that can be proved false with a few minutes of effort.

Look at these so-called critics. "Get a job?" Do you know how hard it is to make a movie or write a novel while working a full time job? If people don't drop out of the mainstream work force to create art, where is it supposed to come from? Or are people actually satisfied with the empty-headed "cultural products" peddled by Disney and Viacom? Even if they are, they should realize that most of those guys also started out in an unheated loft somewhere. And if neighborhood after neighborhood is converted into housing for the wealthy, where the hell are the other 90% of people supposed to live?

These are not rhetorical questions, I actually want answers. That's another thing that separates Actual Reality from the Blatherverse. The irony here, of course, is that right now it's me who's just ranting. But I plan to return. Soon! With Actual Examples! And then maybe I'll Make Sense!

Till then, just go see the movie.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

in the mean time . . .

sorry it's taking so long for me to get the latest update out. In the meantime, I have a post up here, about some depressing stuff which nevertheless is probably the most important thing going on in this country. Be a good citizen and check out some of the articles I linked to, I'll see you back here tomorrow.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Wish I'd Said That . . .

Facemonkey forwarded this gem to me:
The rise of Idiot America is essentially a war on expertise. It's not so much antimodernism or the distrust of intellectual elites that Richard Hofstadter deftly teased out of the national DNA forty years ago. Both of those things are part of it. However, the rise of Idiot America today represents—for profit mainly, but also, and more cynically, for political advantage and in the pursuit of power—the breakdown of a consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good. It also represents the ascendancy of the notion that the people whom we should trust the least are the people who best know what they're talking about. In the new media age, everybody is a historian, or a preacher, or a scientist, or a sage. And if everyone is an expert, then nobody is, and the worst thing you can be in a society where everybody is an expert is, well, an actual expert.

In the place of expertise, we have elevated the Gut, and the Gut is a moron, as anyone who has ever tossed a golf club, punched a wall, or kicked an errant lawn mower knows. We occasionally dress up the Gut by calling it "common sense." The president's former advisor on medical ethics regularly refers to the "yuck factor." The Gut is common. It is democratic. It is the roiling repository of dark and ancient fears.

Thanks, man. That brightened my day.

Ranting into the Void

There's been a lot of talk about blogs being the subversive new media, with a new breed of citizen-journalist daring to tell the truth in the face of the corporate media juggernaut. This kind of talk strikes me as mostly bullshit. If you should take anything you read in the paper with a grain of salt, you should take anything you read on the internet with a whole cube, followed by two tylenol and good night's sleep to mull it over. For one thing, people like me don't have time to do much research, we have actual jobs to do. So what you get is mostly uninformed, unreflective ranting, not to say gibberish.

You can't just read this blog, for example, and think you have some idea what's going on in Chicago. In this space I have been recording, intermittantly, the destruction of neighborhood buildings which I felt were beatiful and good and contributed to the city's unique character and personality, to be replaced by a blank, featureless autoscape somewhat resembling a huge suburban apartment complex but louder, and with more traffic. The other week, however, when I was late for an appointment on the South Side and took what I remembered as a short cut, I discovered that I have missed what should have been the story of the last year.

Downtown Englewood is gone.

The area around 63rd and Halsted was once the downtown of one of the first suburbs of Chicago, a working class immigrant community south of the Union Stockyards, where many of its residents worked. By the end of the 19th century Englewood had been annexed to the city proper, and in the first half of the 20th Century its old downtown served as an important commercial strip for the central South Side, which at the time was pretty much the residential and industrial heart of the city. In addition to shopping, the area was home to several theaters where locals could catch both live jazz and "talkies."

After World War II, as discrimitory "housing compacts" were held to be illegal, Chicago's growing African American population began moving west across Cottage Grove and towards Englewood. The idea of racial integration was not viewed in a positive light by the local white community, and in the early 50s a riot famously broke out in the area after the rumor spread that a local man planned to sell his house to a black family (actually, a nosy neighbor had merely observed a black man attending a labor meeting at the house. Rioters burned the house down anyway, or maybe they didn't - we bloggers are not so big on fact checking, remember).

Long story short - as African Americans began to move into the area, virtually every white resident left the community in the course of perhaps years, pretty much one block at a time moving east to west. At first there were enough new residents from the crowded Bronzeville area to buy or rent whatever space opened up, but soon there were more sellers than buyers, property values tanked, and new residents became poorer and poorer (during the period of urban "white flight" the first black families to move into a neighborhood generally had higher incomes than the previous white residents - they could afford to escape the ghetto, but their choices were limited by rampant discrimination by lenders as well as sellers). Soon, the original middle class black settlers, realizing they had been joined in Englewood by the very same ex-neighbors they themselves had been trying to get away from, moved again, this time to the south, leaving Englewood as a segregated community with increasing poverty and a rapidly declining population. Today the neighborhood has less than half the population it did in 1960.

Soon all the businesses around 63rd and Halsted were closed and boarded up with the exception of a liquor store and a drug store, if I remember right. By the time I arrived here a few years ago the abandoned downtown was an honest to God ghost town, with boarded up 19th Century wooden and brick storefronts lining an eerily quiet street, with an impressive and abandoned old bank building and a few other gems. Ironically, the city had hastened the commercial strip's demise by demolishing part of the area to put in parking and routing traffic through a detour to create a "pedestrian mall" - those things almost never work. For years the boarded up district was flanked by taunting signs with arrowd for "Through Traffic" and "Shopping" - hence my old short cut through the ghost town. I used to find reasons to take out of town visitors through the area, just so they could see firsthand exactly what's happening to America's cities. As Juan Cole recently noted in a blog post about the riots in the French banlieu:
(Americans who code themselves as "white" are often surprised to discover that "white people" created the inner cities here by zoning them for settlement by racial "minorities," excluding the minorities from the nicer parts of the cities and from suburbs. As late as the 1960s, many European-Americans were willing to sign a "covenant" not to sell their houses to an African-American, Chinese-American or a Jewish American. In fact, in the US, the suburbs were built, most often with de facto government subsidies in the form of highways and other perquisites, as an explicit means of racial segregation. Spatial segregation protected "white" businesses from competition from minority entrepreneurs, who couldn't open shops outside their ghettos. In France, government inputs were used to create "outer cities," but many of the same forces were at work.)

Couldn't have said it better myself, so I won't try. Anyway, apart from the bank building and a few neighboring structures, the entire 19th Century downtown has been demolished. It's one big, flat construction site today.

Urban historian Max Grinnell tells me the corner of 63rd and Halsted is going to be the location for the new campus of Kennedy-King College. Which brings us to one of the things you haven't heard much about if you're getting your news about what's been called "gentrification" just from bloggers and alterna-rags (you haven't heard me use the dreaded G-word, but people read it into my posts anyway): some neighorhood changes are good, and even necessary. While it pains me that unimaginitive bureaucrats could not find a way to preserve and re-use more of the charming old facades that lined the street, it's hard to argue with the kind of development that will bring students and their spending money, as well as a libraty, bookstore, and swimming pool all open to the public, to a neighborhood that had none of these things. If it's done right, it should create an actual functioning commercial district in an area where for the past 25 years a ghost town has stood.

It's true, based on the execrable design of the other City Colleges I'm scared of what monstrosity may rise there - another cold, uninviting bunker separated from the street by fences, hedges, and expensive, useless little patches of grass will certainly not enourage anyone to stay around and have lunch. But the bones of the old neighborhood - Englewood is very nicely laid out, with above average access to parks and civilized, tree-lined streets, and would be walkable if there were any businesses left to walk to, plus it has it's own El stop, unlike most of the transit-deprived South Side - make me hopeful that the area will recover.

Apartheid was bad for South Africa and it's bad for America today. A little "gentrification" in Englewood would be a very, very good thing.