This guest post by writer, photographer, and Friend of the Snark Quinn Norton is part of Border Town Online, a digital complement to the Border Town Design Studio which will be on display in Detroit starting on September 21st. You can find the rest of the posts at dividedcities.com.
(Let’s just get the silly literary allusion stuff out of the way. Yes, in this Bordertown essay I’m talking about Gerlach and Burning Man, but they’re standing in for the interstitials of modern life and the internet, because we all live in that bordertown now, and frankly, we’re still kind of crap at dealing with it. But Gerlach/Burning Man and IRL/the intartubes are also sometimes synecdoches for the tension between physical need vs the life of the mind. You get deconstructionist bonus points for spotting when, but don’t ask me, because I probably don’t know that much better than you, and intend to lie anyway. HTH, HAND.)
Sometime in the 1970s either Leslie Nielsen, or someone that sounded remarkably like him, did the voiceover of a video about the tiny and worn-down mining town of Gerlach, Nevada. It began, intoned with the solemnity of biblical tragedy or spaghetti westerns, “The town of Gerlach, Nevada endures alone in the vast alkali flats of the Black Rock Desert.” The residents were poor, but hardy and proud. Even then it was already fighting impending death, sitting at the edge of a desert with none of the resources that make modern human lives possible, its little train station on the transcontinental cargo arterial rendered obsolete by the growth of the world around it and by technology. “It’s second best, if you like a rough life,” said one of the residents, the woman who ran the hotel. The video is grainy, low-res, and degraded, in a way that feels true to the subject.
But Gerlach survived, meeting the needs of its dusty people in the coming decades, with gypsum mining, dribbles of tourism, and fixed income retirees. Then, somewhere in the 1990s, Gerlach became a transit town, the last outpost before the edge of this world. Gerlach gave up its position as the last stop before the Black Rock Desert to an intruding municipality seven miles further down the road: Black Rock City.
The line between Gerlach and its neighbor isn’t merely one of land management. It’s one of the most tightly controlled borders in the world, with 24/7 monitoring of ground radar that can pick up a coke can bouncing in the wind, and interstitial agents can be dispatched to check it out within minutes. Access is tightly controlled, vehicles entering are searched. It is actively patrolled by three, sometime four agencies of the law, and even more agents and actors of the city itself. This is what happens at the edge of Black Rock City, home for one week a year to Burning Man. The perimeter of Burning Man is not just a border, it’s a kind of magical frame for the city, what modern man needs to hold the contours of inverted custom, a wellspring of creative madness. It keeps the bodies inside safe, and the minds outside sane.
What is custom in BRC is madness in Gerlach, and vice versa. But they must get along, or it’s likely both municipalities will die. There is animosity, interdependence, the need to be so close they can almost touch, but never risk mingling identities, because Gerlach and Black Rock City are meant to be dichotomous. One is permanent, the other ephemeral. One is an expression of mighty infrastructure, a daughter of commerce; the other, self-generated and money is against custom. The two are trapped in the high energy state of tense borders, conflicted and needful. If you are used to the Gerlachian world, nothing but going can really explain Black Rock City. But Burning Man becomes natural so quickly, because it’s a place of imagination, directly linked to our internal worlds. It is city and deep playa, man and temple, music, sex, and places to cry. Old naked men you’ve never met welcome you home. It is sparkly and glows at night, it has plenty of pain and meanness, and people fight. It is full of actual, non-metaphorical fire, and if you’re used to the safety rail culture of modern life, it dawns on you slowly that no one out here will stop you from stupidly killing yourself.
In the run up to Burning Man and the week you are there, you may, for the first time, put a value on your own life. Burning Man will look for ways to push you. It is full of secret gardens: some sublime, some comfortingly dull, some downright Boschian. You are responsible for your own moral development on the playa; you have no one to blame for your experience. Barring the occasional violence of all cities, you always had the option of walking away, going out from the city, into the darkness and safety of the deep playa. You didn’t have to take that pill, no one made you kiss that boy, and no one can ever take it away. If Gerlach is a place where the work of survival requires the books be balanced, the outer world placated in exchange for support, Black Rock City pushes its citizens into a state mental agility that exceeds their native frame of mind. Burners learn to cultivate serendipity; they come to harness it, and ride it towards the next distant light.
Somewhere, sometimes, in the deep playa you can find a place called the Dust City Diner. It is best found in a mild dust storm, by following the clinking of thick cheap china, and the sound of greasy spoon waitresses calls of “Order up!” Surrounded by nothing but the sterile, basic playa, you will find a small diner bar with red pleather stools. If you sit down on the stools a woman, sometimes chewing gum, will say, “What can I getcha?” All around is the corpse of a sea that died before the first human made a linguistic mark on a piece of bark, or clay, or in charcoal on a stone cave, before the first time imagination was snatched from ephemerality. Now this dream sits on it, ephemeral still but captured, mediated, contained for the outer world.
You can order coffee at the Dust City Diner. You can get a very good grilled cheese sandwich. You can talk to the man seated next to you about the things you’ve done so far today. He might be naked, or if it’s a Tuesday, he might be wearing only a tutu. The sandwich will really be much better then it has any right to be, but everything will taste a bit of dust. You may hear dance music in the distance, but getting louder. Eventually you will work out this is a three masted wooden sailing ship, running so low on an old car it looks to be floating across the fine white playa. Dozens of people, sparkling and many in tutus, are on the deck, dancing. This is also normal.
Beyond the diner and the ship is the trash fence, the border of Black Rock City. Outside the fence is the perimeter, and beyond that, nothing. playa the stretches for a 100 miles, soundless and barren, a landscape of pure physical need, and without the trappings of civilization, absolute danger. In the other direction is Gerlach, Empire, Reno, and all of real life. This is the psychogeography of Black Rock City: trapped between mortality and reality.
Wednesday night we biked along Birthday, near 4, looking for something we never found. A man in a trench coat ran nearly in front of my bike, screaming in exasperation that we were both late. We glanced at each other in trepidation for a moment, and pulled off into his camp. “Wardrobe!” he yelled, in between admonishing out tardiness and expressing an extreme relief that we were there at all, “WARDROBE! Get them into costume!” Moments later we were both wearing fedoras, and I another trench coat. They pulled us into the set of a 1930s private detective’s office. I was seated behind the desk, surrounded by incandescent lights, scattered typed pages, books, cigarettes, matchboxes, and a full crew. I heard theme music, a lonely sax, which may not have been real. Everything was dusty, but it wasn’t playa anymore, now it was the dust of troubled neglect. The playa was ten feet away, but it could have been miles. A crew member ran in front of me with a giant pad of cue cards with our lines on them. Turned out I had pictures of my friend’s wife, cheating on him.
She’s just no good.
What can I tell you, Kid?
You’re right. When you’re
right, you’re right, and
I was Jack Nicholson at the beginning of Chinatown. Our scene continued only a couple of minutes, and the crew broke into applause and pats on the back. “You were great, you were perfect!” our director effused, still full of Hollywood. The matchbooks had the password to their speakeasy on the back. We returned later, to a dimly lit bar with more sax and piano, this time definitely real. They gave us excellent Manhattans, and we sat at a round cafe table, legs tucked under a floral tablecloth, munching at mixed nuts and watching the detectives wander by and chat.
Both BRC and Gerlach testify to a common quality; they are both expressions of human effort. These worlds are a lot of work. Gerlach and Burning Man share another tragedy; you will never really know either of them. Gerlach is hidden by your disinterest. You are trying to get through it, either to or from Burning Man. You suspect the locals hate burners. (You’re right.) Some sense of social propriety makes you think maybe trying to get to know Gerlach is impolite, because you’re a freak, and getting to know them is also thrusting yourself upon them. You can’t easily get the things you need most as you’re passing through, which are gas, and an Indian taco. You can’t even say “Indian taco” without feeling a little guilty, especially this close to the res. But by god, you do want one. You’re driving through the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Reservation, and you won’t know it, either. Thousands of years of history that make this country what it is, likely formed your character — the story of the genocide that made the world is here, but there’s no chance you’ll find it, because it’s underneath normal life and you need to get somewhere, either back to your life or out to BRC.
You will never see all of Burning Man. If you had a year, you’d never see all of it, and you only have a week. You can’t go to all the parties you’d enjoy the hell out of. Your soul mate is likely out there this year, and you almost certainly won’t run into them. You probably won’t fly in an airplane over the event, even if you know it’s not hard to get a ride at the airport. You not only won’t have all the experiences you could, you won’t even have all the ones you planned on. You will not find the friends you planned to see, and will miss even more friends than that. You will not see a fight at Thunderdome, despite promising yourself that this is the year, damn it. You will run over to climb up inside the Man too late, and it will already be blocked off as people are hauling explosives and accelerants into it. You will miss the artwork your friends made, and you will regret this. but when you tell them this, you will sound like a disingenuous asshole because you’re simply too overwhelmed by that point to sound like you care. You will miss events you really wanted to make, because you were at camp exclaiming that you were bored. You will fall in and out of love several times. You will do things you never imagined yourself doing, and miss other things because of that fact, while extricating yourself from a shade structure converted to a pleasure palace. You will not be able to bring yourself to regret it. You will miss precious things. You will cuss at the weather, and the fucking hippies, and the fucking sparkle ponies. You will know, finally, totally, that the best things and perfect moments are beyond the reach of your time, dribbling into the oblivion of the past, possibly while you were hunting around for your spork. There’s a term for this anxiety at Burning Man, this unease that arises from that which is unseen, from the ghosts of the future missed rather then the past dead. It’s FOMS — fear of missing something. The trick, and this is a very important trick indeed, is to learn that this is OK. This is how you make a life. You miss things, you reach into the river, grab what you can carry, and let the rest go. Instead of finding the best in the infinite out there, you craft an experience one moment chained to the next, made of choices, and appreciated as your own masterpiece, singular in all the world. You feel it all out there, in its tremendous bounty and wonder, and you trust your fellow burners to drink in what you can’t.
It is not easy to leave Black Rock City. The process is called Exodus, and it can involve a whole work day’s worth of waiting, ass in car seat, in the line to get back to the paved earth, back on the narrow two lane highway that took you here. People run out of gas, water, patience. You have to work Burning Man, and you’re working right up to the moment you make the left turn onto the highway. Once you’re back on that highway, you will find a plethora of shabby temporary stands have popped up along the side of the road to offer you everything from Indian tacos to trash dumping ($5 per bag, less for sorted recycling), drinks, bicycle rental returns for your dust covered bikes, and even blessed showers. All of it yours, now exchangeable for precious money. You’ll see trash dumped on the side of the road, something exceedingly rare at Burning Man, because of the banal indifference foreigners always have to the little towns, like Gerlach, they pass through. You will feel bad about this, or at least know you should.
The process of coming back out through Gerlach, Empire, and Reno and coming back to the “default world” has a name among burners: decompression. It can be rather like the bends in some ways. The customs are different out here, and you’ll have to remember them. You must remember to stay dressed, and in mostly normal clothes. There’s no dust; you’ll shower more, pick your nose less, and not start every meal with whisky. The next week will be hard. You won’t get enough done. The default world is not about how you feel, or even what you can build; it’s about where you are and what you’re supposed to be doing. There’s a kind of a relief in this; radical self-reliance and radical self-expression have a lot of self in them, and it’s good to not have the whole world you’re called upon to inhabit be about what you and you friends like. It is deeply unhealthy to have your main responsibility be making an experience that is only for you. Back in the real world, you’ll need to have something required of you by others. It’s good to not care so much about what’s in your own head. But nevertheless, you try to carry the mind of Black Rock City home with you. To be a full person this day and age, you have to live in both places at once, alternating, meshed, and distinct.
This is another quote that’s too good to be true. Joel Kotkin on the problem with the liveability index:
We need to ask, what makes a city great? If your idea of a great city is restful, orderly, clean, then that’s fine. You can go live in a gated community. These kinds of cities are what is called ‘productive resorts’. Descartes, writing about 17th-century Amsterdam, said that a great city should be ‘an inventory of the possible’. I like that description. [emphasis mine]
I like that description, too! Kotkin liked it so much, he put it in his book. I like it so much, I wanted to find out where it came from.
And it turns out Descartes didn’t say that. And the phrase doesn’t mean what Kotkin thinks it does. But there’s a reason both the philosopher and the new meaning got mixed into it.
Get the genealogical-detective lowdown in a Storify by my Twitter-co-archeologist Wilko von Hardenberg after the jump. (I really like his idea that this would make for a great game/exercise in the classroom.)
Also, if you missed it, see why Martin Luther King and Mark Twain didn’t say what you might think they did either. Similar psychology at work here, too. And it shows that it isn’t just the cut-and-pasters on the interwebs who make these mistakes.
As a follow-up to my earlier compilation, “The Two Mayors,” here is the stunning conclusion to the story of @MayorEmanuel. He won the election and as predicted by Mayor Daley, vanished into a time vortex in order to save the multiverse.
I’ve also been boning up on my @MayorEmanuel backstory, and man, it is totally batshit in the best possible way. There are layers and layers to this thing that I couldn’t even guess at, and a few I’m probably still missing. In short, the anonymous author(s) of the thread have been building towards this science-fiction/comic-book resolution of the story for a while now, first planting the seeds months ago, then grinding them up like fine celery salt.
You can read a quick-and-dirty PDF of all of @MayorEmanuel’s tweets here, assembled by @najuu (h/t Carla Casilli). I’m not Storifying the whole thing, because 1) Twitter’s archives have a hard time going back that far in the Storify interface and 2) even if they did, I’m not stupid. But I would like to do my small part to gather the limbs of Osiris just here at the end. Enjoy.
Today, the city of Chicago elects its mayor. In other cities, there would be a primary vote, then another at the time of the general election in November. But given the scarcity of Chicago Republicans — it’s like 25 guys, and they’re all professors in three departments at U of C — the Democratic primary would effectively determine who will be mayor of the city anyways.
So, Chicago’s mayoral race is nonpartisan. And it’s at the end of February — which in Chicago, is even more masochistic than it would be in cities with a more temperate climate.
Since Chicago’s longstanding Mayor Richard M Daley announced he would not seek re-election for another, Rahm Emanuel, former Chicago-area Congressman, Democratic Party powerhouse, and (until recently) Chief of Staff for President Obama, has sought to sew this thing up. There were some brief problems establishing his residency and right to run for office, but now it looks like he’s off to the races.
Since Emanuel announced he was running for office, he’s been joined by a delightfully funny and foul-mouthed shadow on Twitter calling himself @MayorEmanuel. Like Fake Steve Jobs before him, @MayorEmanuel combines a kind of exaggeration of the known qualities of the real Rahm Emanuel — profanity, intelligence, hyper-competitiveness — with a fully-realized, totally internal world of characters and events that has little to do with the real world and everything to do with the comic parallel universe @MayorEmanuel inhabits.
For instance, @MayorEmanuel’s “about” section on Twitter reads: “Your next motherfucking mayor. Get used to it, assholes.” The idea is that if we strip back the secrecy and public image to something so impolitic, so unlikely, we might arrive at something approximating the truth. But, despite my status as a one-time — and actually, I still hope future — Chicagoan, I haven’t been a regular reader of @MayorEmanuel. My friends retweet his funniest one-liners, and that’s good enough for me.
Yesterday, however, @MayorEmanuel outdid himself. He wrote an extended, meandering narrative of the day before the primary that took the whole parallel Rahm Emanuel thing to a different emotional, comic, cultural place entirely. It even features a great cameo by friend of the Snark Alexis Madrigal. The story is twisting, densely referential, far-ranging — and surprisingly, rather beautiful.
And so, once more using the magic of Storify, I’d like to share that story with you. I’ve added some annotations that I hope help explain what’s happening and aren’t too distracting.
In its original form, it has no title. I call it “The Two Mayors.” Read it after the jump.
Henry Jenkins interviews Jorn Ahrens, talking about comics and the city:
Are there specific ideas about the city which originate with comics or do you see comics as primarily replicating ideas which are in broader circulation?… What have comics added to our understanding of what it means to live in the city?
I see primarily the coincidence of the historical emergance of an environment of mass society, most clearly accentuated in modern urbanity with its implementation of the modern self, speed, a stone-born-nature, etc. and new types of mass media of which the comic is one. This coincidence, in my view, feeds a very particular and reflexive relation between the comic and the city. The film, too, is involved in this development. However, I see the comic being special here when its frozen sequentiality also corresponds with the frozen architecture of the sublime that the modern city contunally tries to realize…
Comics made the city readable. The city as social realm strongly refers to communication via images. Comics help turning these images into cultural narratives and aesthetics and to create outstanding icons of modern identity, landmarks of our self-understanding that are, by definition, not bound to specific cities or nations.
Anne Trubek looks at Superman’s original hometown (his first one on Earth, that is):
In 1933, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster dreamed up the comic strip hero with superpowers. Both boys were from immigrant Jewish families and lived down the street from each other in Glenville, then a booming, overwhelmingly Jewish, middle-class neighborhood, with kosher markets selling Yiddish newspapers on nearly every street corner. At the time, Cleveland was the fifth most populous American city, and a forward-thinking one at that, being the first to install public electricity and trolleys.
Siegel’s father first arrived in Cleveland as a sign painter, but he soon left that profession to open a haberdashery in a less prosperous part of town, only to die from a heart attack when robbers entered his store. According to Gerard Jones’ indispensible book Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book, the Siegel family was told that he had been shot in the chest. (Whether this incident was the inspiration for a bullet-proof superhero is unknown but seems plausible.)…
Judi Feniger, executive director of the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage, notes that Siegel and Shuster both exemplify the Cleveland immigrant story, as children of parents who may not have spoken English. They had a “working-class ethic that is particularly Cleveland, and particularly Glenville,” she says. In 2008, the museum hosted the exhibit “Zap! Bow! Bam!” about the creation by Jewish immigrants of Superman and other comic book heroes.
Yeah. I’m probably just going to blog about comic books and sports for a while.
I like old Law & Order episodes — there’s a reason why I put the show smack in the middle of my Showroulette pitch — but wasn’t heartbroken when I’d heard that the flagship series was cancelled. (The quirkier, more salacious spinoffs, like “Law & Order: Freaky Sex Crimes Unit,” remain.) The show had been losing its edge for a while, in writing, acting, and even casting. I mean, how are going to cast the judge from The Wire as … a judge on Law & Order? That’s just lazy. At least the guys from The Sopranos didn’t always play mobsters.
A couple of things I’ve seen lately, though, in the wake of the show’s cancellation, suggest that Law & Order wasn’t quite as sharp because the city itself had lost its edge — in a good way, at least for New York (if not procedural dramas). This New York Times article notes how the show helped improve New York’s image to tourists and parvenues (“This Crime Spree Made New York Feel Safe”):
In 1990, when the show made its debut, 2,245 people were murdered in New York (a high-water mark), and several of those victims became emblematic of the haphazard, senseless violence that gripped the city…
[But] as [the detectives] pulled on the threads of the case, a pattern and motive always emerged. Unlike in the real New York, there is almost no pure street crime in “Law & Order.” In a show obsessed with the city’s class structure, you were far more likely to be murdered by your financial adviser than by a drug dealer. Crime has no single cause, the show seemed to argue, but crimes do, and they can be solved one at a time…
Mr. Wolf portrayed a city in which there were no senseless crimes, only crimes that hadn’t yet been made sense of. He took the conventions of the English country murder mystery and tucked them inside the ungovernable city. In so doing, for a national audience, he de-randomized New York violence.
The plunging murder rate has to help too — just 466 homicides in all of New York City in 2009, an all-time low. For a city of almost 9 million people, it’s pretty impressive that fewer people were killed in New York last year than follow me on Twitter. Let’s put it this way — Philadelphia and Baltimore, which also had record-low homicide numbers, together easily beat New York even though the two cities combined have something like half the population of Brooklyn. New York went from one of the most dangerous cities in the country to one of the safest.
The Wire’s David Simon, though, argues that the rising wealth and lowered danger of New York skews New York’s sense of what’s happening in American cities nationwide — and because New York dominates America’s media imagination, that has a disproportionate effect on how we understand what’s happening elsewhere. (Make sure you watch this video to the end, where he gives Law & Order a pop):
Some of this is familiar anti-NYC stuff, particularly from people who 1) live/grew up elsewhere and 2) work in/adjacent to media and publishing. But I think Simon’s bigger point, that the “urban experience” in America has become much more heterogeneous, both within and between cities, is 1) true and 2) has consequences, is really worth paying closer attention to.
Geoff Manaugh at Bldgblog argues that Die Hard is “one of the best architectural films of the past 25 years.” After a short but revealing look at the urban tactics of Israeli soldiers, he lays out his case:
Die Hard asks naive but powerful questions: If you have to get from A to B—that is, from the 31st floor to the lobby, or from the 26th floor to the roof—why not blast, carve, shoot, lockpick, and climb your way there, hitchhiking rides atop elevator cars and meandering through the labyrinthine, previously unexposed back-corridors of the built environment?
Why not personally infest the spaces around you?
The only problem, Manaugh notes, is that Die Hard’s sequels didn’t live up to the promise of the original — not just as a well-played action movie, but in continuing this exploration of urban space. “An alternative-history plot for a much better Die Hard 2 could thus perhaps include a scene in which the rescuing squad of John McClane-led police officers does not even know what building they are in, a suitably bewildering encapsulation of this method of moving undetected through the city… ‘Walking through walls’ thus becomes a kind of militarized parkour.”
I think Manaugh (like most fans) is a little too hard on the Die Hard franchise here, particularly Die Hard: With A Vengeance, which actually did try to make the McClane magic work across NYC. What’s motoring across Central Park (sending picnicers scrambling) or driving along the NYC aqueduct other than extending this “move at at all costs” to the city? That movie’s fine; people just didn’t like the title.
Manaugh points out a number of other action films — say, The Bourne Ultimatum — pick up this challenge. But in a way, the real sequel to Die Hard was The Fugitive. I caught The Fugitive on cable recently, and was surprised how enjoyable it is. Watch that movie again, and watch how Harrison Ford as Dr Richard Kimble pulls every McClane trick and uses the entire city of Chicago in the second half of the film — hospitals, jails, underpasses, elevated trains, parades — impersonating one character after another at the margins of the city’s infrastructure, simultaneously fleeing capture and performing his own investigation. It’s even more impressive, in some ways, because Kimble almost never has a gun, and can’t pull off the same physical acrobatics as an NYC cop who’s probably 10–15 years younger.
It’s actually really good. And Chicago looks great in that movie; totally like itself.
Andrew points me to a Richard Rodriguez essay in Harper’s on the newspaper and the city. Andrew’s pull is a great line: “When a newspaper dies in America, it is not simply that a commercial enterprise has failed; a sense of place has failed.”
For me, this is the truest line in the essay: “We no longer imagine the newspaper as a city or the city as a newspaper.” And this is the most false or misleading: “If the San Francisco Chronicle is near death… it is because San Francisco’s sense of itself as a city is perishing.”
The gap between these two statements is huge. It can be true — and I believe it is true — that the relationship between newspapers and their host cities has shifted, and that in very many cases the daily newspaper no longer reflects citizens’ sense of their place. Rodriguez lovingly describes the 19th-century newspaper and the San Francisco Chronicle of his youth; what he describes seems vastly different from the functions served by the daily newspaper today. We’ve experienced a profound change in the relationship between a newspaper and its readers’ geographic identities.
However, one cannot and ought not to conclude that the absence of this reflection implies that our sense of place has simply vanished. Yet that’s what Rodriguez does:
The truth is we no longer want to live in Seattle or Denver or Ann Arbor. Our inclination has led us to invent a digital cosmopolitanism that begins and ends with “I.” Careening down Geary Boulevard on the 38 bus, I can talk to my my dear Auntie in Delhi or I can view snapshots of my cousin’s wedding in Recife or I can listen to girl punk from Glasgow. The cost of my cyber-urban experience is disconnection from body, from presence, from city…
We will end up with one and a half cities in America—Washington, D.C., and American Idol. We will all live in Washington, D.C., where the conversation is a droning, never advancing, debate between “conservatives” and “liberals.” We will not read about newlyweds. We will not read about the death of salesmen… We already live in the America of USA Today, which appears, unsolicited, in a plastic chrysalis suspended from your doorknob at a Nebraska Holiday Inn or a Maine Marriott. We check the airport weather. We fly from one CNN Headline News monitor to another. We end up where we started.
There are several ironies in this. First, the daily omnibus paper that Rodriguez praises in his hymn to the local itself already obliterated locality. The citywide daily asks readers to identify beyond their own neighborhoods, thinking of themselves as part of an imagined community called San Francisco. The death of neighborhood and foreign-language and political newspapers likewise pushed towards a cosmopolitanism within the polis.
Second, it’s more likely that a range of other media have taken over this identity-mirroring function from the newspaper — local identity has simply been displaced, not imploded. Here’s a candidate: the alt-weekly. As high-circulation dailies increasingly target suburban readers — those Silicon Valley upstarts Rodriguez is so anxious about — they become, again, less rooted in the daily life of a city than the smaller, more targeted local papers. Our identities didn’t simply drift away from the big dailies; they were pried away by hungry upstarts who offered a different, more useful, perhaps more compelling vision of the city.
The internet, too, offers us a sense of the local as well as the cosmopolitan. Rodriguez hints at this with an anecdote about Craigslist (a San Francisco institution if ever there was one):
The colleague I am meeting for coffee tells me (occasioned by my puzzlement at the wi-fi séance) that more and more often he is finding sex on Craigslist. As you know better than I do, one goes to Craigslist to sell or to buy an old couch or a concert ticket or to look for a job. But also to arrange for sexual Lego with a body as free of narrative as possible. (Im bored 26-Oakland-east.)
This might not be a sense of locality Rodriguez wishes to endorse, but you can’t tell me, after long paragraphs about Rolling Stone and the 60s sexual revolution, that you blame Craigslist for turning San Francisco into a place where people seek anonymous sex. That, too, is part of the texture of a place.
The final irony is that the mobile internet, which for Rodriguez suggests only the possibility of transcending the long ride on the Geary St bus, offers the greatest promise of restoring the local. I’m thinking of sites like Yelp, that augment the yellow pages with reviews and commentary from our actual neighbors. What’s more, with GPS, we can access this information as a function of our physical proximity to these places. We become more than just obituaries and directory listings; we become living people, navigating through live, dynamic space.
So on the one hand, Rodriguez is right. Most of us probably don’t think of the newspaper as a city anymore, or vice versa. What we’ve replaced it with, though, is no less rooted in the physical or the local as what came before; if anything, it’s simply easier for us to balance our cosmopolitanism (which was always an outstanding possibility in the world of print) with our locality — like the body, like pain, that most persistent of actualities. Wherever you go, there you are.
There are a few ways in which the future of bookstores will resemble the past. Here’s one you might not know about: The money in bookstores has never been in selling books.
Don’t believe me? Read The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was a printer, a publisher, a newspaperman, a bookseller, and of course an author, scientist, inventor, and über-citizen. Do you know where he made his money? His stationery shop. He sold bookplates, printed invitations, letterhead, and plain writing paper. This was always the high-margin AND high-volume end of his business. Franklin’s newspapers, pamphlets, and books were a labor of love, patriotism, and intellectual overflow, but functionally, they were loss leaders.
And really, this is still the way bookstores work. Yes, we go in to browse, be comforted by, and perhaps even purchase books — but really, the big-ticket items are greeting cards, blank books, calendars, wrapping paper, college sweatshirts, candy, coffee. That, at least, is where the money is. Booksellers are still primarily dealers in 1) paper and 2) social goods — books are merely the low-profit-but-high-prestige emblem of that intersection.
Of course, now big-box retailers are using books as loss leaders in a very different way — selling hot books below WHOLESALE in the hope of getting you in the store to buy a big-screen TV. It’s not just books and media, but also groceries, tube socks, and prescription drugs. The Targets, Wal-Marts, and Best Buys of the world arguably have just taken the stationers’ model to parodic heights. And since there wasn’t exactly an independent tube-sock market before, the people who stand the most to lose from this are booksellers. Booksellers who, again, are already selling books as loss leaders to get people into the store to buy their high-margin items. You can be more charitable and say that the sale of the high-margin items subsidizes the sale of the books, which is what sellers and readers REALLY care about. But functionally, it’s the same model. It’s just that when it comes to high-margin goods, a photo album simply can’t beat a Blu-Ray player — so Wal-Mart can “subsidize” their book sales a lot more than the booksellers can.
This is the economic substrate of the American Booksellers’ Association’s open letter to the Justice Department. Here’s the ideological payload:
For our members-locally owned, independent bookstores-the effect will be devastating. There is simply no way for ABA members to compete. The net result will be the closing of many independent bookstores, and a concentration of power in the book industry in very few hands. Bill Petrocelli, owner of Book Passage in Corte Madera, California, an ABA member, was also quoted in the New York Times:
“You have a choke point where millions of writers are trying to reach millions of readers. But if it all has to go through a narrow funnel where there are only four or five buyers deciding what’s going to get published, the business is in trouble.”
We would find these practices questionable were they taking place in the market for widgets. That they are taking place in the market for books is catastrophic. If left unchecked, these predatory pricing policies will devastate not only the book industry, but our collective ability to maintain a society where the widest range of ideas are always made available to the public, and will allow the few remaining mega booksellers to raise prices to consumers unchecked.
Okay. So let’s just grant all of that stuff about independent booksellers — or hell, even chains like B&N or Borders, so long as they primarily sell books — being essential to the functioning of a free society. I’ve got my doubts about how or why that might be true, and way too much (bookstores, newspapers, the American auto industry) seems essential to the functioning of a free society these days — but screw it. In the case of bookstores, I want to believe it.
At the very least, let’s grant that bookstores are awesome, and add a lot of value to their communities. Let’s also grant that even if the DoJ tries to keep big-boxers from selling below wholesale, they’re still going to exert a lot of price pressure on bookstores so long as they’re selling books cheaply. We can also assume that online bookstores, too, are going to continue to chip away at brick-and-mortars by offering greater selection at a lower price. And let’s assume — or pray — that the ABA’s request that “the loss-leader pricing of digital content also bears scrutiny” by the DoJ doesn’t lead to crushingly high price-fixing on that end. Then we need to figure out a new business model that can keep local brick-and-mortar booksellers alive.
Reservable space for book clubs, writers rooms, or study carrels; membership with buy-back options for a second-hand book market run out of the same space; certain shopping hours reserved for members or donors; use of volunteer labor, like a food coop; sponsorships from the people or businesses in the neighborhood most interested in the social value of the store and most interested in being known as local machers.
The core idea is to appeal to that small subset of customers who think of bookstores as their “third place”, alongside home and work. These people care about the store’s existence in physical (and therefore social) space; the goal would be to generate enough revenue from them to make the difference between red and black ink, and to make the new bargain not just acceptable but desirable for all parties. A small collection of patron saints who helped keep a local bookstore open could be cheaply smothered in appreciation by the culture they help support.
There are already existing models for this, like the mighty Seminary Co-Op bookstore in Chicago. Barnes & Noble offers paid memberships that translate into free shipping and discounted books, well worth it for high-volume purchasers. It seems to keep the Sem Co-Op running, and probably nets a significant profit for B&N, so there are good reasons to think that this program has got a shot — especially if bookstores are inventive in how they come up with member benefits. For instance, it would be fascinating to see a bookstore run as a real co-op, with members actively driving the direction of the store. The Sem Co-Op certainly gets a lot of feedback and advice from its members (especially the U of C profs), but it’s pretty far from direct democracy.
Cory Doctorow offers a different way for customers to contribute to the stores’ future — and it’s not unlike what Franklin offered in his stationers’ shop:
At the Harvard Bookstore, they have someone who spends the day mousing around on Google Book Search, looking for weird and cool titles in the public domain to print and shelve around the store, as suggestions for the sort of thing you might have printed for yourself. This is a purely curatorial role, the classic thing that a great retailer does, and it’s one of the most exciting bookstore sections I’ve browsed in years. And even so, there’s lots of room for improvement: Google Books produces the blandest, most boring covers for its PD books, and there’s plenty of room for stores to add value with their own covers, with customer-supplied covers (the gift possibilities are bottomless), and so on. I can even imagine the profs across the street producing annotated versions — say, a treatise on Alice in Wonderland with reproductions of ten different editions’ illustrations and selling them through the store’s printer and shelf-space, restoring the ancient bookseller/book-publisher role.
Of course, most of the mass-produced catalog will probably end up in the print-on-demand catalog some day, and stores will be able to fill those orders, too. But if you already know what book you want, why bother going to a store? (Unless you’re in too much of a hurry to wait for the mail).
On the other hand, there’s plenty of ways that a physical store could offer added value on mass-market titles: localized covers, signed books, high production-value gift editions, a point-of-sale “donate to our neighborhood schools” kiosk that lets you print a book on the spot for a classroom that’s requested it…
The key point seems to be that bookstore patrons today are kind of like the Republican Party — almost everyone who hasn’t given up on the project altogether is a zealot. To stay alive, bookstores need to foster their communities and harness that zealotry, making sure that they don’t lose a generation of future zealots simply because they didn’t show up.
I like Doctorow’s formulation: “In that world, booksellers become a lot more like bloggers who specialize in all things bookish — wunderkammerers who stock exactly the right book for the right people in the right neighborhood.”
Now this actually loses bookstores the pure democracy argument. It will no longer be the case that bookstores are the only places offering salvatio — er, I mean, books. Bookstores might not be our Catholic churches, where everyone is welcome — but they could be our hard, thrifty Puritan churches, whose members go out into the world and demonstrate their salvation through their worldly works.
At New Geography, Aaron Renn takes a Kotkinesque shot at the darlings of urban planners and bike-toting social climbers everywhere:
If you take away the dominant Tier One cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles you will find that the “progressive” cities [e.g. Portland, Seattle, Austin, Minneapolis, and Denver] aren’t red or blue, but another color entirely: white.
In fact, not one of these “progressive” cities even reaches the national average for African American percentage population in its core county. Perhaps not progressiveness but whiteness is the defining characteristic of the group…
As the college educated flock to these progressive El Dorados, many factors are cited as reasons: transit systems, density, bike lanes, walkable communities, robust art and cultural scenes. But another way to look at it is simply as White Flight writ large. Why move to the suburbs of your stodgy Midwest city to escape African Americans and get criticized for it when you can move to Portland and actually be praised as progressive, urban and hip? Many of the policies of Portland are not that dissimilar from those of upscale suburbs in their effects. Urban growth boundaries and other mechanisms raise land prices and render housing less affordable exactly the same as large lot zoning and building codes that mandate brick and other expensive materials do. They both contribute to reducing housing affordability for historically disadvantaged communities. Just like the most exclusive suburbs.
It’s worth reading the whole thing, but I want to propose an alternate hypothesis.
This is something I think about a lot, not least because I’m an aspiring college professor married to an urban planning student who is also a black lady. Who doesn’t drive. And we have kids.
How can we find someplace to live that’s 1) safe, 2) planning-progressive, 3) politically progressive, 4) with good schools, 5) with some good jobs — and where my wife and our children won’t be the only middle-class African-Americans most people in our neighborhoods ever see?
It’s a harder nut to crack than you’d think, not least because my wife is probably keener on places like Portland than I am. I grew up in Detroit, and like big cities that are sometimes a little seedy: Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, San Francisco, Boston. My wife grew up in D.C., but then moved to semi-rural Georgia (where her family WERE the only middle-class blacks her neighbors had ever seen).
We both love cities. But she doesn’t drive a car, and I don’t ride a bike. There we are.
Now here’s the thing. Why do these little model cities not have very many black people?
It’s worth asking: why do some places have relatively high concentrations of African-Americans? The answer, historically, has been: 1) they are in the South, or 2) they are large, industrial cities that attracted lots of black men and women during the industrial migrations of the first half of this century.
Now, if a city didn’t have a big industrial base forty years ago, it probably didn’t (and don’t) have a big African-American population.
And — if it didn’t commit head-over-heels to industry, it’s probably in better shape now than most of the cities that did.
Hence Renn’s correlation is a classic example of what the statisticians call a missing variable problem. That missing variable is relative industrialization, which drives both the size of the Af-Am population and whether a city is a small-town, new-urbanist model or a post-industrial hellhole. (Sorry, Detroit.)
Let me add too: if a city is a really, really desirable place to live, then it will be expensive. If a city is expensive, then it will largely attract either wealthy adults or young people, students, etc. who are willing to live in small apartments on the cheap. You don’t get a lot of families with four or more kids, and — given the relative income and wealth distribution in this country — you don’t get a lot of black people.
NOW. This doesn’t account for cities like San Francisco, where a once-substantial black population has essentially been driven (and then priced) out.
It doesn’t explain why young black professionals are way, way more likely to move to New York or Atlanta than Portland.
It also doesn’t negate Renn’s observation that one of the things that may attract wealthy and high-climbing whites to cities like Portland is their low black population and relative lack of “urban problems.” It may be a kind of socially-acceptable white flight for greenie liberals. But that’s not anything you can blame on the cities. If it’s true, it’s in the psychology of their residents.