Detroit: urban renewal or hipster experiment?

If there’s one city that should be the poster child for post-industrial collapse, it’s Detroit, the decline of the car industry there followed by a corresponding decline in population which in turn meant that huge parts of the city haven fallen into disuse, its suburbs returning to wilderness. Pictures of the city shows an urban core that looks like a set from Mad Max, combined with suburbs that are slowly returning to prairie. Things have gotten so bad you can get houses for $100 or less even, but even then rarely find buyers. The city is broke, industry has moved away and new employers are wary to move in. It’s not an unique story, plenty of industrial cities in Europe and America both suffered the same fate from the sixties onward, as their industries lost the competition with emerging industrialising nations in Asia, but Detroit was hit much harder than any other city, had further to fall. The current recession hasn’t helped either.

But as Aaron M. Renn shows in an excellent overview post on New Geography, this collapse offers opportunities as well:

But as with Youngstown, one thing this massive failure has made possible is ability to come up with radical ideas for the city, and potentially to even implement some of them. Places like Flint and Youngstown might be attracting new ideas and moving forward, but it is big cities that inspire the big, audacious dreams. And that is Detroit. Its size, scale, and powerful brand image are attracting not just the region’s but the world’s attention. It may just be that some of the most important urban innovations in 21st century America end up coming not from Portland or New York, but places like Youngstown and, yes, Detroit.

Disasters, whether slow moving ones like Detroit or much faster ones, like in New Orleans, always offer opportunities for radical change, either positive or negative. They provide an empty canvas on which a sufficiently determined government or visionaire could imprint their vision. In his post Renn contrasts two conflicting ideas for the redevelopment of this empty space. One is a topdown vision still largely vapourware because neither government nor business is strong enough and interested enough to contemplate implementing it:

One natural response is the “shrinking cities” movement. While this has gotten traction in Youngstown and Flint, as well as in places like Germany, it is Detroit that provides the most large scale canvas on which to see this play out, as well as the place where some of the most comprehensive and radical thinking is taking place. For example, the American Institute of Architects produced a study that called for Detroit to shrink back to its urban core and a selection of urban villages, surrounded by greenbelts and banked land.

The other is an already existing, bottom-up movement as people, both local and newcomers, adapt to the possibilities of all the empty spaces and realise that the city government can’t stop them. It’s a typically American vision, individualistic and libertarian:

In most cities, municipal government can’t stop drug dealing and violence, but it can keep people with creative ideas out. Not in Detroit. In Detroit, if you want to do something, you just go do it. Maybe someone will eventually get around to shutting you down, or maybe not. It’s a sort of anarchy in a good way as well as a bad one. Perhaps that overstates the case. You can’t do anything, but it is certainly easier to make things happen there than in most places because the hand of government weighs less heavily.


As the focus on agriculture and even hunting show, in Detroit people are almost literally hearkening back to the formative days of the Midwest frontier, when pioneer settlers faced horrible conditions, tough odds, and often severe deprivation, but nevertheless built the foundation of the Midwest we know, and the culture that powered the industrial age.

Neither vision really appeals to me, I must say. Both deny Detroit its identity as an industrial city, as a Black city, both ignore the actual inhabitants of the city in favour of utopian dreaming. Detroit deserves better than to be a hipster experiment or some sort of centrally planned monstrosity. True renewal needs to come from the people who actually live in the city, with their input and consideration for their wishes.

There is of course a certain libertarian appeal to d.i.y. urban renewal, but the question how much the people involved help create a true community and how much it’s just trustafarians dicking around.

Starving the beasts

The Republicans want to pass a new farm bill without food stamps, the only way millions of poor Americans can get enough food to, well, not starve:

“So, that brings me to the Farm Bill. Which the fucking Republicans want to pass without Food Stamps. A lot of very intelligent commentary has been written on how the Farm Bill has always been a compromise bill, wherein Food Stamps are traded for support for agribusiness, and how this compromise is breaking down. But you know, I don’t feel intelligent or reasoned or informative on the topic. What I feel is fury and betrayal. I know, first hand, real live personal, how utterly and vastly important being able to eat can be.

As Charles Dickens put it, over a hundred and fifty years ago

“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”

“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.

“Both very busy, sir.”

“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”

“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”

“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.

“You wish to be anonymous?”

“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned—they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.

What’s the German for schadenfreude?

On the eve of the presidential election, Der Spiegel reported on the state of the American nation

This realization became only too apparent during and after Hurricane Sandy, the monster storm that ravaged America’s East Coast last week, its effects made all the more devastating by the fact that its winds were whipping across an already weakened country. The infrastructure in New York, New Jersey and New England was already in trouble long before the storm made landfall near Atlantic City. The power lines in Brooklyn and Queens, on Long Island and in New Jersey, in one of the world’s largest metropolitan areas, are not underground, but are still installed along a fragile and confusing above-ground network supported by utility poles, the way they are in developing countries.


Complete article does feature cameos by Tom Friedman and Aaron Sorkin, so take with a grain of salt.

Ten months on

Vice president Joe Biden lost his first wife and daughter in a car accident in 1972, shortly after he was first elected as an US senator. Here he talks about the grief and anger and pain he felt, at the 18th Annual TAPS National Military Survivor Seminar, which is held each year on the Memorial Day weekend. It’s honest and moving and entirely apolitical.

Ten years of Eschaton and all I got were these lousy wankers

Time flies when you’re having fun: Eschaton is ten years old today. I must’ve been one of the first people to put Atrios on the blogroll back then, having barely been blogging for a month myself; no idea how I even found him — probably via Avedon? Back then the closest thing to a liberal (let alone leftwing) voice in the American blogosphere was Andy Sullivan, he who accused the “liberal elites in their coastal enclaves” of treason while the bodies were still falling out of the WTC. The only real progressive bloggers were people like Avedon and other science fiction fans, small voices lost in a wilderness of howling rightwing insanity.

And then came Atrios and he quickly became a focal point for all those people disgusted with these wingnuts and warbloggers, inspiring quite a few others to start blogging while, certainly in these first critical years, he himself was also very good at promoting new, interesting bloggers. For better or worse, he was crucial in the establishment of the liberal blogosphere, in providing pushback against the insanity of both the warbloggers and the wankers in the socalled professional press.

To celebrate, he has put together a list of the Ten Greatest Wankers of the Decade, a veritable treasure trove of assholes and douchecopters:

Some are more active these days than other, many other worthwhile candidates were skipped (where are Glenn Reynolds or Anne Coulter?), but this parade of horrors is still a sadly accurate view of a decade that’s been more bad than good.


Right, so the popular image of the American South in the fifties and sixties had been of rednecks, klansmen and big white cops beating up and shooting at peaceful Black civil rights activists. If you came from the south and were white, you were ignorant at best, stone cold racist at worst. Politically you had that old rotten to the core southern Democratic Party as the flag bearer of that image of the old south, corrupt, segregationist and resist to all change while the country was changed around it. In short, not a nice time to be white, from the south and not a stick in the mud bigot.

And then the seventies came and things changed. The south got less racist, you got a new generation less redneck, more hippie, less racist but not ashamed of being southern either. The south seemed to move away from its past, experience somewhat of a boom as cities like Atlanta attracted new businesses and inhabitants alike as the region got richer and less yokel. Meanwhile Nixon’s great southern strategy –as thought up by Lee Atwater[1]– by which he appealed to that core of racist old Democratic voters by well, stoking their racism, has started to work, which means that the Democratic party in turn can be cleansed of its racist past, become more like it is in the rest of the country.

And so you have this vision of a New South in the mid seventies: young, optimistic, integrated, liberal, proud of its heritage but no longer mired in its past. With the culmination of that vision being Jimmy Carter’s election as president in 1976. Here you have the first true southern president since the Civil War, somebody both a liberal and from what rightwingers like to believe is their heartland, a Southern Baptist even, but liberal, who had southern rock bands like the Allman Brothers Band campaigning for him.

Is it any wonder that Republicans hate Carter, even now hate him even more than they hate Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, two other Democrats who “stole” their presidency from them? He represented a vision of the south, of their American heartland in direct opposition to what they wanted it to be, a south in which racist dogwhistles would no longer get their core voters worked up. He was a direct threath to their power and they would go to any length to make him lose the election, even going so far as to make deals with what they themselves would call an evil country, Iran, to make sure that the release of American hostages would not take place before the election so that Carter couldn’t profit from it.

The problems facing America today — educational, social, environmental, economic — are problems that should have been tackled the the Seventies, but were instead allowed to compound and fester over thirty-five years of neglect, denial, and bullshit short-term fixes with grotty long-term consequences. Even worse, the few areas in which meaningful progress had been made have become the preferred whipping boys of dimwitted ideologues seeking to restore a status quo that never fucking existed in the first place.

that’s Andrew Weiss’ judgement of the seventies and while he may be bitter, he is sadly more right than wrong. The seventies is when the Republicans got their pretty hate machine really going, first used it to kill off Carter and the New South, then just kept dragging the whole of America ever more rightward into the mire, in the process replacing the real south with their Disneyfied, Nashvilled simulacrum of what they wanted the south to be.

[1] Lee Atwater in 1981: You start out in 1954 by saying, “N*gger, n*gger, n*gger.” By 1968 you can’t say “n*gger” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.

The Captain America of rock

I can’t wait for Bruce Springsteen’s new album:

Indeed, it is as angry a cry from the belly of a wounded America as has been heard since the dustbowl and Woody Guthrie, a thundering blow of New Jersey pig iron down on the heads of Wall Street and all who have sold his country down the swanny. Springsteen has gone to the great American canon for ammunition, borrowing from folk, civil war anthems, Irish rebel songs and gospel. The result is a howl of pain and disbelief as visceral as anything he has ever produced, that segues into a search for redemption: “Hold tight to your anger/ And don’t fall to your fears … Bring on your wrecking ball.”

“I have spent my life judging the distance between American reality and the American dream,” Springsteen told the conference, where the album was aired for the first time. It was written, he claimed, not just out of fury but out of patriotism, a patriotism traduced.

“What was done to our country was wrong and unpatriotic and un-American and nobody has been held to account,” he later told the Guardian. “There is a real patriotism underneath the best of my music but it is a critical, questioning and often angry patriotism.”

A large portion of Springsteen’s appeal for me is the same as Captain America’s: they’re both symbols of the American Dream who aren’t blind for the American Reality. Despite his multimillionaire status, Springsteen never has lost sight of his roots, never forgotten what it’s like to be a working stiff. He still has his heart in the right place.

Joe Sacco: too controversial for the middlebrow Atlantic

Here’s what The Atlantic gave me as a birthday gift last week, an utterly dull and middlebrow list of “10 Masterpieces of Graphic Nonfiction”. The complete list:

  • The Beats – Harvey Pekar et all: a history/biography of the Beats writers
  • Edible Secrets – Mia Partlow, Michael Hoerger and Nate Powell: food based extracts from the CIA files
  • A.D.: New Orleans after the Deluge – Josh Neufeld: Hurricane Katrina
  • The 14th Dalai Lama – Tetsu Saiwai: the authorised manga biography of the Dalai Lama
  • The Stuff of Life – Mark Schultz, Zander Cannon, Kevin Cannon: a biology textbook
  • Smarter Comics Business Books – no idea: all the same sort of tedious business books now in comics format
  • The Influencing Machine – Brooke Gladstone & Josh Neufeld: why we mistrust news media, written by an NPR commentator
  • The Photographer – Didier Lefèvre & Emmanuel Guibert: a photographer’s journey through war torn Afghanistan, set in 1986
  • Burma Chronicles – Guy Delisle: potted history of Burma and its dictatorship
  • The Elements of Style Illustrated – Strunk and White, adapted by Maira Kalman: that pernicious old style guide illustrated

So these are the finest examples of “comic books as journalism” The Atlantic can think off: adaptations of prose books, some treatments of not too controversial current affairs/political/historical issues, pop science and biographies of people everybody knows. Nothing too outre stylistically speaking either, all these books can be picked up and read easily by people not familiar with comics with no problems. It’s all safely middlebrow in both subject matter and execution, kinda dull.

The worst thing about this list is that this insipidness is a feature, not a bug. As the writer herself acknowledges in a comment, she has deliberately left out certain authors and books for fear of being controversial:

You guys are right–I almost included Footnotes in Gaza but chickened out at the last moment because the topic is so polarizing. I was already expecting heat from rank-and-file fanboys/girls about the overall list and didn’t want to brave the Palestine question as well.

That’s what you call self censorship. It’s not just that Joe Sacco is one of the best and most influential non-fiction cartoonists around, somebody who should not be left off any such top ten list, but as opposed to the majority of people on The Atlantic‘s list, he has actually done comics journalism. He went to the West Bank, Gaza, Bosnia, talked to people there, tried and confirm their stories, then distilled them into a coherent narrative, just as a prose journalist would do. Nobody mentioned above comes close to doing this. He’s not the only high profile creator missing: there’s no trace either of Larry Gonick, who with Jaxon, another missing giant, pioneered the idea of doing long form comics history. Also missing: Ted Rall’s account of his journey to Afghanistan, which happened not when it was the Soviets bombing the shit out of that country, but Uncle Sam. I would like to think its omission on this list was just ignorance, but I suspect it was political…

So yeah, that’s The Atlantic in a nutshell: bland, boring, politically constrained, trying to be “hip” but failing miserably.

Carefully not using the i-word

Henry Farrell’s impassionate attack on Matty Yglesias’ bloodless technocracy sure does read like, erm, bloodless technocracy:

But equally obviously, they are not the whole of politics nor anywhere near it. Policy is not made, in the US or anywhere else, through value-neutral debate among technocrats about the relative efficiency of different proposed schemes. Hence, the need for a theory of politics – that is, a theory of how policy proposals can be guided through the political process, and implemented without being completely undermined. And this is all the more important, because (on most plausible theories of politics) there are interaction effects between policy choices at time a and politics at time a+1. The policy choices you make now may have broad political consequences in the future. Obvious examples include policies on campaign spending, or union organization, which directly affect the ability of political actors to mobilize in the future.

This remains a debate on policy implementation taking place within a narrow band of acceptable political opinion, with the difference between Yglesias and Farrell being that the first is a policy wonk, the latter more of a politics wonk, but neither seems comfortable contronting the more fundamental question of ideology, nor are the commenters.