Saturday, July 28, 2012

Cities On the Move

"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." -Emma Lazarus

I write this piece from a specific geographic area* with its own specific conflicts and interests, but believe it pertains to all of our cities.

We live in a capitalistic society, and capitalism is about motion. Rather than moving towards a fixed progressive goal it is about evolving to meet the tastes and provide services for the monied classes in our culture. The poor and middle class in our society have only a few options in this scenario; find ways to cater to these tastes and provide these services, or get out of the way. Were we living in a socialistic country, the goal would be clear. We would be attempting to elevate our entire society by providing it with equal access to education, culture, healthcare, leisure, and political relevance. But this is not the society we live in. We are capitalists, more or less.

Being that we are capitalists, our cities are constantly vying for relevance, and constantly looking for aromas to send out into the outlying suburbs of each of our urban centers to attract the surrounding bourgouise into our stores and public events. Our cities want patrons, because when it comes to capitalism, it is the law of the jungle: eat or be eaten, survival of the fittest.

This is surely the bottom line, but it's not the whole picture. We need to bring capital into our cities, because like it or not, our system is what it is. But these beautiful cities that we are building hide ugly truths beneath new and renovated architecture; there are large portions of our population that continue to go unserved. Think of them as parts of our collective subconscious that we would prefer not to think about, and instead shove into--to borrow a term from Robert Bly--'the long bag we drag behind us'.

Our society tells us that it respects achievement, yet in order to cater to those that have already achieved (or more likely, inherited) a certain social class, it deprives those who have internalized that message of means to succeed. We are most likely to die in the social class we were born into. This is a fact. So to the impoverished person who grows up worshipping at the alter of success, dreaming of achieving the next level in what she is told is the game of life, the dream is forever deferred. I remember someone once wrote about what can happen to a dream deferred...

From the vantage point of someone who works in the human services, I can tell you the constant evolution and re-invention of our cities brings mixed feelings. While our parks look better, and our businesses are increasing their income, the human services continue to fight for the bare minimum In our shelters, prisons, and hospitals, we see the mentally ill cycling through the system again and again. We see aged laborers whose skills have been made irrelevant by advances in technology seeking public assistance for the first time. We see veterans who ostensibly committed their lives to serving this country applying for food stamps, sleeping in shelter beds. We see GLBTQ youth rewarded very poorly by their families for their bravery in coming out of the closet; they are often kicked out of their homes, disconnected from their families, and forced into our shelter system--and often into sex work. We see women fleeing abusive relationships, often with children in tow, into our shelters. We see addicts and alcoholics who have burned every other bridge, and immigrants stranded without a country due to our convoluted immigration system, unable to get deported, yet unable to receive any services in the united states due to their alien status. There are systems in place to support these folks: non profit organizatinos full of social workers, lawyers, doctors, and faith based organizations who strive mightily to meet the needs of their populations. To go back to Robert Bly, these folks are mere representations of people from across the economic spectrum: mental illness, addiction, and abuse affect individuals from every community. They are just more pronounced further down the income scale, because as the ability to accrue capital deminishes, so to do the resources. The safety net looks very thin to the people who need it the most.

Our cities are beautiful to the person driving through and to the casual visitor in town on a shopping spree or for a concert or some other event, but are our cities beautiful for those who live in them? Are they beautiful for those who serve the 'poor huddled masses', purpotedly fulfilling one of this country's defining principles?

I am all for beautifying our cities. I want them to be beautiful on the inside as much as I do on the outside. The only way to do this is for more of us to awake to the needs of our fellow citizens, and to demand that the services that assist them be properly funded. Not only that, we have to demand equal access to healthcare, education, culture, green spaces, and the political system for all of our countrymen. The law as well has to be applied equitably: Only when the same risks exist for swindlers living in high rises as do drug dealers living in the ghetto can we say that our legal system is just.

More importantly, we have to volunteer. We have to bring our own ideas to the table. Our system is always on the move, and it moves towards no specific goal. It only answer to demand. We have to set the goal. We have to make the demand.

If you have read this far into this piece, I would ask you to consider our system as a whole. What part of it can you impact? What ideas do you have that might make the system better? I have seen citizens with what could be considered very small ideas about improving things make very large impacts. In my city, a woman has decided to make sure the shelter I work at always has fresh cut flowers on the dining tables in our lobby. Another man dedicated the past few decades of his life to making sure our homeless residents had adequate foot care, and new pairs of shoes and boots to help them get through the winter. I've seen recovering addicts and community organizers give rousing speeches to the residents of our shelter that have deeply touched and motivated them. Local teachers come in and volunteer their knowledge, helping our residents with resumes, job skills, and other enriching information to help them help themselves. We see service projects, neighborhood clean ups, 'street yoga' classes, art therapy. Remember too, money talks. All of our local community organizations will always be glad to accept your monetary donations; money is the language of our system.

There are countless ways that your desire to help can manifest itself. But you have to help. You have to be awake. The hardest thing to do in a society whose highest desire seems to be to feed every craving, is to stay awake. It's easy to fall into an air conditioned stupor in America. Please resist this urge. Roll up your sleeves! Let's get to work. Let's make our cities beautiful all the way through.

*Cincinnati, Ohio


Lodo Grdzak said...

These are some tough times in the city! New York's actually doing better than most; but as someone who comes from Detroit, I hear what you're saying (and can see what you're doing).

the elegant ape said...

vancouver bc.
a standard by all cities shoul be judged.......