Ruins, Trauma, and Time

The magazine showed a scarred, abandoned street. The sort of ruin porn that surfaces from Pripyat, Centralia, or some other orphaned collection of concrete and steel that once constituted “a city,” or at least something human. Shifting earth had torn ditches into the blacktop, like broken bread. Softwoods studded cracks with prickly, anemic limbs. Rubble and rocks piled outside stripped, sagging walls. Cloud-dimmed gray permeated the cityscape.

Empty Building by Joseph Novak, via creative commons.

“18 WAYS TO SURVIVE THE APOCALYPSE” the headline said, in bold, sans-serif font.

The magazine was on a K-Mart rack, like a bruised piece of skin in an otherwise Willy-Wonka-bright palette of check-out line candies, play dough containers, and glossed up celebrities. The rest of the store was pretty quiet beyond the usual ambience of carts, footsteps, distant telephones, and distant arguments.

I think my dad an I were there to buy a couch cover.

A few minutes before, my dad and I were driving through what Paul Jargowsky would have likely called a “high-poverty neighborhood.” They’re all over Syracuse, the rust-belt city where I live, as Jargowsky points out, and Syracuse is not alone. As Jargowsky writes, “since the 2000 low, the number of persons living in neighborhoods where the poverty rate is 40 percent or more has grown by 91 percent.” Most of this growth has been in cities like Syracuse, not huge urban landscapes, but moderate cities below three million, especially in the Midwest.

City stats
Image via Jargowsky’s article.

Seeing that end-of-the world cover on display at K-Mart, with all its bombastic bleakness, I couldn’t help but connect to other ruined ‘scapes. The neighborhoods I drove by earlier seared off and neglected by I-81 in Syracuse, dilapidated houses in Detroit, neglected streets and homes out in Appalachia my old school, images filtered in on the news from some “distant” war-ravaged locale, some impoverished neighborhoods in Egypt, the underfunded CUNY system, parts of the “Badlands” in Philadelphia.

Near the Badlands in Philadelphia [Photo by Author]
Screen Shot 2016-08-21 at 5.33.47 PM
Detroit Google streetview, via the GooBing Detroit Project.

Cairo Neighborhood [Image by Author]
I suppose this observation is a sort of voyeurism and remains tinged with my standpoint looking at (and judging) these locations and not living in them. I have the privilege and ignorance of an onlooker, in other words, with the tendency to generalize or misjudge.

But this qualifying comes with retrospect. At the moment, all I felt was the connection between that magazine cover and the streets cycling through my mind. All I thought was, The apocalypse is already here.

I know that is a bit hyperbolic, and if Egypt taught me that people carry on amid ruins, despite ruins. But sometimes they don’t, as I saw in Karanis.

Karanis, Egypt [Photo by Author]
I guess the deeper thing is a different thought, which Anne Anmesia gets at in a post about the “Unnecessariat,” those left behind by shifting technology and infrastructure:

Here’s the thing: from where I live, the world has drifted away. We aren’t precarious, we’re unnecessary. The money has gone to the top. The wages have gone to the top. The recovery has gone to the top. And what’s worst of all, everybody who matters seems basically pretty okay with that. The new bright sparks, cheerfully referred to as “Young Gods” believe themselves to be the honest winners in a new invent-or-die economy, and are busily planning to escape into space or acquire superpowers, and instead of worrying about this, the talking heads on TV tell you its all a good thing- don’t worry, the recession’s over and everything’s better now, and technology is TOTES AMAZEBALLS!”

While the picture is more complicated–it always is–I feel a palpable pathos for these words and the “precarious” world they sketch. I feel a palpable pathos for the underprivileged white Americans described in one Atlantic piece. I feel a palpable pathos for people of color and others systemically marginalized by red line districts, racism, hate and de facto segregation. I feel a palpable pathos for those living in war zones or for those described in Chirtra Divakaruni’s Live Free and Starve,” wage-slaves who depend on their meager income to survive.

And I think the final blow has come from Trump’s past rhetoric, though he has begun his “pivot” and awkward pandering for African American voters. Writer George Saunders hits this well in an essay for the New Yorker:

The tragedy of the Trump movement is that one set of struggling people has been pitted against other groups of struggling people by someone who has known little struggle, at least in the material sense, and hence seems to have little empathy for anyone struggling, and even to consider struggling a symptom of weakness.

As I write this, I come back to the image of that “apocalypse” street and countless streets around the country and the world, as well as the neighborhoods, the buildings, and the communities that those streets compose. I come back to the struggling people that Saunders highlights. I come back to the “unessesariate.” I come back to minorities shouldering decades (or centuries) of oppression.

Infrastructure is an important, concrete thing. Roads and buildings need work. John Oliver did a great analysis a few months back for this. But something lies deeper to that infrastructure, some shift in being. I’m not quite sure what that something is, or if I have a particular articulation about it at this point. It is more pathos driven, and I’m still trying to think these ideas through, but I feel oddly drawn to perspectives of ruin and decline, some slow eschatological drawing down of blinds. Or to actual ruins, those created by time or the actions of some event, like the many ruined religious buildings left stranded by Henry VIII in England or the “cities” studding the war zone of Syria.

A former Catholic church in Oxfordshire, UK. [Image by author]
I’m drawn to the traumas of these spaces, particularly the slow ones. The stagnant wages. The spaces cannibalized or abandoned by economic or social trends. The tired streets.

I’m drawn, I think, because I’m not sure what to do at this point. I’m haunted by a dire sense of powerlessness and the sense that the tragedy of these spaces and the people living out their daily lives with stagnant wages, generational poverty, racism, crime, warfare, and conflict needs to be talked about.

I often have my students read the Jargowsky article, and they are always shocked that Syracuse, the city that surrounds our well-manicured “Hill,” has one of the highest levels of income inequality per capita. Again, I don’t know what that does–or the discussion we have about the rhetorics of space that follows. I don’t feel any better about things because things aren’t any better. And it’s not clear, at this point, how they will get better. But I assign the reading because it seems slightly better letting people know that such things exist.

It’s easier, I think, to talk about the scars of a landscape. It’s trauma. It’s dilapidated infrastructure. It’s harder to talk about the existential scars of people, of lives and living ecologies, that circulate in those spaces–or other more manicured spaces, often hidden. It’s also easier to fix a broken building than a broken system or the broken people that inhabit that system.

But for now, here’s where I’m at.

[Author’s Note: This is part of a current writing project; here I’m just trying to think through it.]









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