Tuesday, May 12, 2015

suburbia, segregation machine?

suburbs are machines for segregation in two ways: one narrow sense, a racial and class sense which could potentially be overcome with enough political will, and one wider sense, built into the structure of the suburban form itself.

growing up in Madison, CT, i was well aware that the poor and colored were excluded from our grassy, shaded suburban world. a token few urbanites were selected from New York City to attend our high school, a charitable gesture which salved some guilty white consciences, i suppose. but i never linked this obvious residential exclusion with the triumphal narrative we had learned in school, that the civil rights struggle of the 50s and 60s had broken down color lines and brought an end to Jim Crow.

it is only some book-learning of the last few years that has made me conscious of the fact that as society was desegregating its lunch counters, hospitals, and schools, it was re-segregating residentially. and as towns segregated -- suburbs, i should say -- using seemingly race-neutral tools like local zoning authority -- schools followed, resegregating in fact even if legally, whites-only schools had been prohibited.

sometimes it takes a book or two to see one's own experience in a new light of understanding. our segregated lifestyle was so evident in the attitudes of me and my classmates. i will never forget bussing down to NYC to watch Cats (the musical) in 6th grade, driving through Harlem, and the snickering from some boys over the black woman standing on a sidewalk, in mini skirt and high heels. 'hooker,' one said. one word, two snickers, three knowing looks -- not much, maybe, but kids are not dumb. even if i didn't quite know what 'hooker' meant, a kid could tell there was a world of contempt behind that simple word, and a world of history behind that contempt. so what if it took me 30 years to begin to comprehend?

'consumer's republic' but lizabeth cohen, about new jersey's suburbanization, really opened my eyes to how the country was re-segregated in ways even worse than jim crow. for one thing, suburbs found legally safe ways to exclude. they didn't need covenants that said, 'no blacks, no jews.' they just said no apartments, minimum lot size of one acre, and voila, no blacks need intrude. all perfectly legal. older cities had been unequal, with rich and poor, black and white neighborhoods -- but at least they were under the umbrella of one city hall, so negotiation could take place between factions and groups, and rich neighborhoods couldn't utterly segregate themselves off from the rest of the city.

it is clear that from the start, suburbs were meant to keep out black folks, and other undesireables. it wasn't just the william levitts and other developers. it was real estate agents and the federal government itself, whose agencies steered mortgage money and guarantees to white suburbs and steered them away from cities. if the house became ordinary people's most valuable consumer item, and as housing prices appreciated from the 50s all the way to 2008, then clearly for most americans, owning a suburban house was like an escalator riding up floor after floor with each passing decade, making their owners wealthier and wealthier. if one is kept off the escalator on the first floor and trapped in poor neighborhoods as renters, then guess what? 50 years later, one's family and descendants are going to be far poorer than those who were allowed onto the escalator.

or you could ignore this history and simply say that black people are innately lazy and inferior, always looking for a handout -- ignoring the ways white people benefited from government largesse, the largesse that built white-only suburbs back in the 50s and 60s. so blacks gained the right to be served lunch at woolworths. at the same time they were kept out of suburbs. which one matters more? woolworths may be important symbolically, but the suburban house matters more economically.

suburbs don't have to be racially and class-exclusive. they could be more fair. it would be difficult, since the underlying premise of home values is that proximity to poor or colored peoples hurts the value of one's home. this twisted sense of value would have to be overcome for suburbs to be more fair. but it is possible.

but even if we overcome this racial and class segregation, i believe suburbs as an urban form are still deeply segregationist.

suburbs in general put a premium on spatial separation. the further we are from our neighbors and from cities, the higher the value. distance is the highest value.

but most of the world does not work that way. in most of the world various classes, tribes, sects, and races negotiate resources through contact. this contact may be troublesome and even violent, but at least there is contact. suburbs represent a sort of retreat from contact.

how can people ensconced in this sort of retreating mentality be expected to understand people who are different, much less embrace difference? it is not impossible. i don't want to say an urban form totally determines individual thinking. i grew up in the suburbs, and i enjoy contact with different sorts of people and cultures. but i had to break out of the suburbs to do so. the whole form, unfortunately, is premised on separation, control, exclusion. it is an apartheid system that does not announce its apartheid logic. code words like 'small-town character' and 'lot size' are used instead.

actually, small towns used to have people of various classes living in one place. postwar suburbs were not so accepting of different classes.

suburbs indeed became machines for segregation. and they still are.

it was overwhelmingly people living in suburbs who bought into the national security state, who bought into the lie that we could invade iraq, destroy its state, and produce not chaos but freedom and harmony. only suburbanites nurtured by reaganite fantasies could believe removal of goverment could result in utopia. only people totally removed from social reality -- whether at home, in troubled cities locked out of progress, or abroad, in places like south africa and iraq and palestine -- could believe that military or police force could magically solve social conflict.

maybe i am pessemistic. but i am not pessemistic about people. only certain institutions and systems. people can overcome the bad legacy of bad systems. but it takes effort.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

dark morning blooms

it  is something else the way a day born in tense darkness, when one lies awake not wanting to wake, can bloom into something bright and rich. 6 hours of sleep seems to be my destined limit, between me going to bed too late and the kids waking who knows when. i brought them downstairs reluctantly after 9. then a 6-year-old girl just back from England with her parents and little brother, appeared and treating pax like her same-aged brother, took charge of play. she comandeered him, placing him in front of her on the peanut-shaped 'niu-niu che' (wiggle cars, roughly translated), and zoomed about. one of his feet dragged. he was ecstatic. toby, on his own niu-niu che, was quickly drawn in. i egged him on, telling him to chase her, go faster, catch up to her!

i said they were taxis. toby tried taking on pax as passenger. toby and carrie (her english name) raced here and there, colliding, veering, swerving.

no, i remember how it happened. carrie started by bringing out a beanbag, which she gave to pax. who threw it in a puddle. she began putting it on his head, which he quickly threw away. soon he was laughing each time the beanbag appeared from behind, and we were laughing. then she actually spoke some english to me for the first time. i had kept using it with her sometimes, figuring she had to be understanding me, in england for 2 years. then toby began grabbing the beanbag from her, and she threw it at him, and he at her, and oh how perfect it was, toby laughing and running and pretty soon, racing the wiggle bike after carrie. grabbing things from other kids is a skill they have been teaching toby at an an, the school for autistic kids he attends half-day five days a week. he literally did not know that this could be a form of communication or play.

this is the second time in 2 or 3 weeks that toby has really played with another child in the yard. i could put it another way: this is maybe the fourth time in 2 and a half years that toby has played with another child here. at one point during their play, maybe when carrie picked up pax for another ride, toby turned to me and said, 'this is a little game!'

then in the afternoon, when we came back from the park, carrie appeared again, and more racing of the niu niu bikes, which roar their solid plastic wheels on the pavement. he was so happy.

i had wondered this morning whether the wiggle bike makers would export to the US. except for that thunderous noise. then a couple of hours later, at the park, i saw a kid rolling by on a niu niu che with soft-rubber-rimmed wheels. purring by. look at that, i said to sara.

i don't know if it was the wiggle bike racing, but when i brought the boys to the photo shop for residence permit photos (once a year), toby was relatively calm. i had been dreading it. last year was awful. he couldn't stand still. the photos show him nearly in tears. luckily the embassy rejected them (the wrong size), and they didn't end up as his passport photo. today he still fidgeted, constantly scratching his head or ear, but at least he was not losing it. pulling toby's wiggle bike across the street in a break in the traffic while pushing pax's stroller with the other hand, i was in a beautiful mood. 'let's go get a scallion pancake,' i said as we negotiated the awful sidewalk, an obstacle course of parked cars, missing paving stones, and odd inclines. toby had begun saying 'wanna eat something?' while in the studio, and even though it is something he says when he wants to avoid something, it is also true that sometimes he is in fact hungry. he just begins shouting it when there is something else he doesn't like.

we made our way home, toby munching the greasy thing in one hand and me feeding pax little bits. the crowded, badly planned streets felt comfortable, woven and interwoven complexly with people and vehicles of all sort, and i was happy, far from the predawn tenseness.