Burning The Village May Not Save Us; Reviews of Mapping Decline and The Angel of Grozny
14 January 2009 |
Mapping Decline (2008, University of Pennsylvania Press), by Colin Gordon
The Angel of Grozny (2008, Basic Books), by Åsne Seierstad, translated by Nadia Christensen
On a weekend of anticipation — for a snow that never comes, an Eagles’ win that does — the 90 foot crane stands motionless and quiet. Its bright red paint blurs in the haze and stains the dull, ochre sky. The crane looms. A security guard circles the block.
Cold air drifts across the pale branches of the London Plane trees that stand in front of the Youth Study Center. The building’s dull sandstone façade shrinks against the coming storm. Despite the hush, already demolition is underway. Machines have forced a large opening in the 12 foot fortress wall. Brick cladding on Pennsylvania Avenue is gone, exposing a row of jail cells. The entrance has been blown away. What’s left is slender carcass: mean, frozen, and dirty.
In 1953, YSC was astringent, institutional modernism. Now it merely looks post-Soviet. The Russian tri-color flickers across the Parkway.
The YSC — a detention center and also a school for youth offenders — emerged from a habit of idealistic modernism, the product of a city that would perfect itself. It was a particular moment — a flash of post-war urban optimism. America’s largest and most densely populated cities had swelled during the war, surpassing population thresholds last met 20 years before. These cities, Philadelphia among them, expected to continue to grow.
That they didn’t and, instead, began a precipitous decline “is arguably the most important and persistent domestic issue of the modern era,” exerts Colin Gordon, professor of history at the University of Iowa, in the introduction to Mapping Decline. “Not only,” he continues, “is the ‘urban crisis’ important in its own right but troubled cities hosted, shaped, and overlaid with a peculiar spatial logic so much else that was going on.”
Gordon’s project is one of the first of its kind in urban studies to give sustained attention to the “peculiar spatial logic” of urban decline, suburban advancement, and attempts at renewal. He does so by employing geographic information systems (GIS), the contemporary mapping technology that allows data to be described spatially. Good maps clarify history. But Gordon’s — with several factors laid out across time and territory — do the talking. Visuals make the case — how the “seemingly iron law of urban decay” was really the product of institutionalized racism, political fragmentation, suburban zoning, and policy that devalued urban land to make it attractive, in ways that makes text seem not merely insufficient, but incapable.
Gordon deftly uses GIS to show how and why population groups move across the metro region, how and where private sector money is invested, and to explain the spatial mismatch between poverty and social injustice and the public sector response. Mapping in effect enhances our understanding of the now formulaic story of urban decline. Mapping Decline is thus an indispensable addition to the urban studies syllabus.
Among the most straightforward (and therefore least dynamic) but effecting illustrations is a gray map of the City of St. Louis reflecting the impact of race on the city’s spatial development. In Gordon’s maps, St. Louis is shaped like the bulb of a white onion, stalk rising from the top. A street grid decorates the onion skin. Here, in a city hell-bent on setting up restrictive covenants, blocks colored red are those “in Which Negroes May Thereafter Take Up Residence.” This turns out to be quite a pure, white onion — there are very, very few red spots. It was 1916. “The plot of this story,” says the author, “in St. Louis and elsewhere, is irretrievably racial in its logic and in its consequences.”
Of the ten largest American cities in 1950, St. Louis with a population of 850,000 was ranked eighth. The present city contains 350,000 people. At 41% of its peak size, and after a half century of inchoate, bedraggled reformation, much of the city is literally gone. Gordon rightly says this makes it a most emblematic case study. Some of Philadelphia’s story is certainly here, as is Baltimore’s and Cleveland’s, Chicago’s, Pittsburgh’s, and Detroit’s.
But there’s something missing in this account that keeps Mapping Decline from being a great work. Gordon has given us St. Louis, St. Louis County, the suburbs. It’s all here, the jarring shifts of time in one single flagrant, vulgar, small-minded place. But he’s forgotten to tell us what was beautiful, inventive, sticky, and memorable, in short why St. Louis — or any city — matters (curious, since a sub-chapter is headed “So What?: Losing St. Louis”).
He’s aware of the short-coming, I think, and in an attempt to ascribe meaning to his narrative, he hopes to observe the changes at one address, 4635 North Market Street, in the Greater Ville. It isn’t enough; only a few architectural details are provided, the lot dimensions, various names of owners. There are few details about the life of the neighborhood. But I need them just to care. Synthesis doesn’t move me.
4635 North Market is today, finally, a vacant lot.
In thirty years, 1970-2000, the census tract in which the lot is located lost 75% of its population. Decline is painful, frightening. When St. Louis politicians set out to rebuild “the tax base,” explains Gordon, “their favorite short-term strategy was to dismantle it — the equivalent, in local public policy terms, of burning the village to save it.” It turns out a city neighborhood burns slowly, and so too its people. Dreams at first merely cloud. Then they fill with uncertainty. Soon, coldness, a bitter detachment, settles in.
About a year ago, Bruce Schimmel, founder and former publisher of the City Paper, invited me to observe and take part in a radio project he was conducting with some of the students in the Youth Study Center’s school. We met in a second floor room — at present open to the wind — filled with computers and fairly average looking young Philadelphians. Most of them were repeat offenders.
Schimmel wanted to give the inmates a chance to write their own stories. Then, those willing would sit with him in the YSC library to record an interview. A particularly compelling, articulate young person might be asked to recite her prose, or poetry. I was asked to be a resource for the young writers and I floated around the room until someone felt ready for critique.
Ultimately, I spent the bulk of my time with a boy about 16 and a girl a little older. As they wrote, I read, questioned, listened. The boy, whose crimes and misdemeanors were hidden from me, was calm, reflective, intent. He didn’t smile. He chose an elaborate typeface, and wrote about the evil inside him.
Sitting at the next table, the other, bright and beautiful, wrote to her mother, hints of compassion, crinkled desire. She’d been raped from an early age, sent out by an abusive grandfather to sell her body, and left for lost. Her writing was direct, at times suffocating. Conducting the radio interview, my questions felt like stabs in a vast, jumbled darkness. She shined, vulnerable and also impenetrable; we laughed. The city, still burning, the flame: what more damage could it do?
I stopped thinking about those kids until I encountered them a second time, this time while driving through Logan Square a few months later. A woman, the Norwegian writer Åsne Seierstad, author of The Bookseller of Kabul, was on the radio being interviewed by Marty Moss-Coane. And here, using the words of the two children from the YSC, she was describing them, a boy who was aware of but couldn’t control the evil inside him, a girl who had been raped repeatedly by a relative, who couldn’t stop stealing. It was a stunningly accurate psychological profile.
Only their names were Timur and Liana, Chechen orphans of the Russian war in Grozny, victims not of the slow dissolution of North Philadelphia, but of internecine war, of a different city of rot and hopelessness. Then, listening, I was struck by the precise similarity of the language, here from the text of Seierstad’s masterful Angel of Grozny:
Timur was the person who changed most during the time I lived in the children’s home. When I first met him, he did his best to be an exemplary child. Now he torpedoed that effort. It was as if he did everything he could to make people dislike him.
One day I sat down next to him on the porch steps.
“Why do you do all these things?” I asked.
He turned to me. His eyes narrowed.
“Inside me, in my heart, it’s full of evil. I’m very evil.”
“But you can choose whether you want to be evil or not, can’t you?”
“No, everything inside me makes me be bad. I’m mean and wicked.”
Here, in a lovingly crafted, profoundly intelligent book about a war of mindless aggression and intolerance half a world away, we can find the fate of the American city, the gash in our own psyche that yet threatens to push us apart.
Seierstad began covering the war in Chechnya while pursuing a post-college longing for the Russian soul. That was 1994. The war was begun on a political whim by Boris Yeltsin. Vladimir Putin extended it and made it more brutal. This is a book, therefore, of loss, of children without parents, of mothers without children, of soldiers without eyes and teeth, of a city whose buildings are only painted facades. It is heartbreaking, relentless, made readable not by any perceptible hope for a better life but by the author’s own humanity. When she is most careful, and steps out of the way, The Angel of Grozny sings, the sound of the most terrifying madness and melancholy.
Zaira’s sister had already told me that it was Mariam who took her brother’s death the hardest. She became silent and withdrawn. The turquoise and pink clothes were put away, she no longer left the house unless she was swathed from head to toe in a long dark skirt and cloak and a think head covering. The gold-blonde locks that before had hung loosely disappeared under a tight headscarf. Where once there had been a curly fringe, now not a single strand of hair was visible. Her headscarf crept down on her forehead. The pale peach skin and rosy cheeks disappeared further inside the scarf. In the end Cleopatra’s [she’d been described as looking like Elizabeth Taylor] eyebrows were hidden too . . .
“We never thought . . .”
The woman barely manages to get out the words.
“We’d always let her do as she wished . . . She was so kind and respectful, so strong and wise. Of all our children she was the most helpful. Not so good at school, but the very best when it came to cooking, sewing and helping with the animals . . .”
“Then she changed. She stopped going out, started to study the Koran, to pray five times a day . . . We hoped that she would eventually recover from the sorrow of her brother’s death, and that the happy girl would return.”
Seierstad allows us to watch the woman change, become distant, numb. Take away too much, insult and maim and humiliate people too often and if they don’t snap, they retreat. They stop feeling, become killers. Put weapons in their hands and they kill. Mariam did, and she herself was killed.
Last year, some 300 Philadelphians did, and so we’re still narrating this city’s long decline.