Deindustrialisation in the Rural Heartland

September 22, 2014 § 8 Comments

The Macon County Fair in Decatur, Il, was cancelled this year.  The fair has been a going concern for 158 years, but it also survives through funding from the state of Illinois.  Illinois, of course, is a particularly cash-strapped state, which is saying something.  It has the lowest bond rating from Moody’s of all 50 states of these United States of America.  So funding for county fairs in Illinois has dropped drastically since the turn of the century, from $8.16 million to $5.07 million.  Meanwhile, Macon County’s population has been in steady decline since the 1980s, falling from 131,375 to 109,278 today.

We were in Decatur last summer, in our drive across the continent to my sister’s wedding in Portland, OR.  It was a pretty, but sleepy town in Central Illinois. It remains a central component of the industrial/agricultural heartland of the United States.  It is also the birthplace of the Chicago Bears, the franchise known as the Decatur Staleys, after its original owner, a food-processing magnate.

But Decatur is in trouble, its population also in steady decline since the 1980s.  And this decline is reflected in the trouble the Macon County Fair has encountered, as the organisation that puts on the fair is carrying a $300,000 debt, and its headquarters was damaged by heavy rains in July.

What is happening in Macon County is not unique, it is symptomatic of most rural areas in the United States (and Canada) today, as corporate farming becomes further and further entrenched, in the wake of deindustrialisation.  Oportunities in these areas dry up, people are left with no choice but to move away, most of them to big cities, both in the MidWest, but also Chicago and coastal cities.  Most Midwestern cities continue to grow, though St. Louis seems to be bucking this trend, its population in free-fall since the mid-20th century.

The story of deindustrialisation in North America is one that has been largely limited to big coastal cities, most notably in the northeast, and the so-called “Rust Belt” that stretches around the Great Lakes on both sides of the border (for an excellent treatment of deindustrialisation in the Rust Belt, check out Steve High’s book, Industrial Sunset).  Left out of this story is the affect of deindustrialisation on the rural areas across the Heartland.

Alienation and Belonging

March 28, 2014 § 2 Comments

An old friend visited us this weekend, and as he and I drove up the Massachusetts coast to hunt down the best pizza in the Commonwealth (Riverview in Ipswich, if you’re wondering), we got to talking about New England.  Despite having lived in New England, he always feels like he could never penetrate the insularity of New England culture, and he always feels alienated here.  I found that interesting, given I don’t feel that way at all, despite obviously being a transplant.

This might be the advantage of being an Anglo from Montréal. Anglo Montrealers are always at least slightly alienated from the city and dominant culture.  We are a (small) minority, and we speak a minority language.  That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you.

I’ve always felt alienated from my surroundings. I grew up in British Columbia, very aware of the fact I didn’t belong, which came out in everything from my distaste of the wet, soggy climate to continuing to cheer for the Montréal Canadiens, Expos, and, when they existed, the Concorde or Alouettes of the CFL, as opposed to my friends who cheered for the Vancouver Canucks, the BC Lions and either the Toronto Blue Jays or Seattle Mariners.  I felt similarly alienated in Ottawa.  It was only when I moved back to Montréal I finally felt comfortable in my surroundings.  But I still felt alienated from the larger culture, mostly due to language, even as my French language skills improved.

But, as with all things Montréal, it was never this simple.  My Anglo friends and family dismissed any suggestion I might be a Montrealer, by continually reminding me I grew up out west.  On the other hand, my francophone and allophone friends made no such distinction, and this is also true of my separatist friends.  Go figure.  Anglo mythology would have it the other way round.  One of the most amazing moments of my life in Montréal came during the 2000 federal election campaign when I answered a knock on my door and found Gilles Duceppe, the leader of the Bloc québécois, with Amir Khadir, who was the BQ’s candidate in my riding (Khadir has since gone on to be the co-leader of the sovereigntist provincial party, Québec solidaire, and is currently the MNA for the Montréal riding of Mercier).  Duceppe, Khadir, and I spent a good 15-20 minutes talking about place, identity, and belonging in Québec.  Largely in English.  Even the leader of a separatist party and the candidate for my riding didn’t dispute my bona fides as a Montrealer and a Quebecer (maybe, in part, because I assured them the BQ had my vote).

Since 2006, I have spent a lot of time in New England, before moving here in 2012, on account of my wife being American.  She lived in Western Massachusetts when we met, so we did our best to split our time between Montréal and Western Mass.  After all those years spending time out there, I came to feel like it was Home.  Sure, I was never going to fully fit in, be a part of the scenery, but that was ok by me.  And, even now, living at the other end of the Commonwealth, in the massive urban sprawl that is Boston, I feel similarly at home.  The ways I feel alienated here are mostly due being Canadian.  But I don’t find myself feeling excluded by New Englanders, or, really, Americans as a whole. In other words, I can deal with my alienation, it has kind of become my default way of being.

No doubt this is due to being an Anglo Montrealer and experiencing some degree of discomfort and alienation my entire life in my hometown and anywhere else I lived in Canada, tainted as I was, so to speak, by being from Montréal.

Success at Failure

March 26, 2014 § 3 Comments

Last week I was in sunny California at the National Council on Public History‘s annual conference in Monterey on the central coast.  I was in a roundtable called “Failure: What is it Good For?”  The idea behind the panel arose out of discussions between myself and Margo Shea in the autumn, surrounding various community-based projects we’ve been involved over the years, as well as our wider experiences in public history.  At that point, Margo ran with it, and we proposed a roundtable to the NCPH, along with Jill Ogline Titus of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, Melissa Bingmann of West Virginia University, and Dave Favolaro of the New York Tenement Museum.  All five of us have a wide and divergent experience in community-based history projects in Canada and the US.

We were slightly nervous before our session, unsure if we’d have a full or empty house.  The word “failure” is one that our culture and society does not like very much.  We seem to go out of our way to avoid using the word, given it’s negative connotations.  I have been slightly bemused with Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s announcement yesterday that they were splitting up, they were “consciously uncoupling.”  A column I read somewhere on that term (which I conveniently cannot find today) poked fun at their pretentious terminology (aren’t all breakups conscious uncouplings?) as it is really a way of getting around saying their marriage failed.  I don’t find it surprising.  Failure is a bad thing, continual failure makes us losers, etc.

844651814We were very pleasantly surprised to watch the room fill up; by the time Margo began the introduction to our session, I counted 3 empty seats in a room that sat somewhere between 45 and 50 people.  What followed was amazing.  We had our audience play some Failure Bingo ™ to get our crowd involved in the session early.  And then we began to discuss the commonalities of our case studies, as well as some discussion about our particular cases.

One of the really neat things about the NCPH conference was that it was live-tweeted by several of the participants (myself included).  The conference as a whole was interesting for this feature, as at every session there were a handful of people glued to their phones, laptops, and tablets as they  live tweeted.  I had several interactive sessions with session participants on Twitter, carrying on discussions about their talks throughout the panel.

What followed during the roundtable was kind of amazing, as a number of participants were live-tweeting events as they unfolded.  After I was done with my bit, I sat back and resumed live-tweeting our session, engaging in dialogue with some of the audience members.  This led to a multi-dimensional discussion between us and the audience.  We had a live talk, amongst us in the room, we also used an app called Poll Everywhere to have people text their comments in, which then appeared on the screen behind us, and then there was the live-tweeting, which included interaction between me and some of the tweeters.

The discussion in this multi-platform setting was fascinating, and, of course, kind of hard to keep up with.  But that made it all the more interesting.  As a group we spent a lot of talking about how failure works in other settings.  In particular, medicine, science, and design.  In those fields, failure is a necessary part of the process.  It’s not too trite to say that in those cases, failure is part of success.  In order to be successful, one has to first fail.

But, of course, the difference between fields such as science, medicine, and design is that we, as public historians engaged in community-based projects is that we are dealing with other human beings.  So, while I think we must be more open to failure in the same way that medical researchers and scientists and techies are, we must also keep in mind the human costs of failure.  It can be embarrassing, humiliating and all other kinds of things.  Marla Miller, from UMass-Amherst, also noted the way around this:

But, either way, it is impossible to escape failure.  But,

As this multi-dimensional discussion carried on, it was hard not to feel amazed, looking out at such a passionately engaged audience.  I felt like we had at least succeeded at getting failure into the discussion.

The following day, more than a few people told me ours was their favourite session of the conference.  A few, tongue firmly in cheek, called me “The Failure Guy.”

 

 

The Upside to Gentrification?

January 22, 2014 § 6 Comments

I read an interesting article on NPR.org this morning, about gentrification.  Based on recent research from Columbia University and the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, gentrification may not entirely suck for low-income people in gentrifying neighbourhoods.  The Columbia study looked at displacement in Harlem and across the US, calculating how many low income people moved out of their neighbourhoods when gentrification occurred.  Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve Bank looked at the credit scores of low income people in gentrifying neighbourhoods.  In the first case, researchers found that people didn’t necessarily move out, in fact, low income earners were no more likely to move out of a gentrifying neighbourhood than a non-gentrifying one.  In the case of the Federal Reserve Bank, the credit scores of low income earners actually improved with gentrification of their neighbourhoods.

Not surprisingly, I find these kinds of studies slightly disarming.  Lance Freeman, Director of the Urban Planning programme at Columbia, expected to find that displacement was a common occurrence.  But he is still cautious to note that gentrification can and does indeed lead to displacement.

Most studies, at least most I have read from a wide variety of disciplines, lay out the reasons for displacement with gentrification: higher housing costs, higher food costs, higher taxes (if they own), amongst others.  In my experience of living in gentrifying neighbourhoods, the cost of gentrification is obvious on the street, as the original residents get marginalised as cafés, hipster clothing stores, and yuppy restaurants open.  There is no place for them to go, and the coffee shops and bodegas they used to frequent close down.  However, it is also obvious that people stay.  In part, they are helped by things such as rent control, or dedicated low income housing.  And, at least from my own anecdotal evidence, mixed-residential neighbourhoods are certainly friendlier, more community-based, and generally nicer to live in.

Last weekend, there was a story in the Boston Globe about a Southie woman, Maureen Dahill, who ran for State Senate, but lost gloriously, in large part because she supported the right of LGBT groups to march in the St. Patrick’s Day parade. Dahill ran for office in order to attempt to bridge the gulf between “new” and “old” Southie, between the yuppies, artists, and hipsters, and the old Irish.  Dahill, a native of South Boston, works in the fashion industry, her husband is a firefighter. In other words, she was the ideal candidate for the role.

What I find interesting, aside from the fact she was trounced in the election, was the discussion in this article about the gulf that exists between the old and the new in Southie.  And this is something that is overlooked by quantified research studies such as the Columbia and Federal Reserve Bank ones.  However, what they add to the discussion is that there are those who remain, who refuse to leave for a variety of reasons.  The job now is to, if not attempt to emulate Dahill’s failed campaign (the Globe notes that from the get go “there were many who didn’t want any part of her bridge-building.”  The article doesn’t identify which side of the gulf this resistance came from.

At any rate, it is refreshing to see researchers attempt to explore the myths of gentrification, but I would also caution that we do not need a neo-liberal backlash that leads us to conclude that gentrification is good, it’s the best thing that can happen to us.  We must still discuss the human costs of gentrification, we must still fret over the plight of low income earners in neighbourhoods where rents go from $500 to $3,000 a month in short order.

 

The English Language and Montreal

January 8, 2014 § 8 Comments

An interesting oped appeared in the Montreal Gazette today.  It was written by a guy, Nicholas Robinson, who teaches Japanese in Montreal, an expat American who has been there for the past 30 years.  He is critical of the Anglo community of Quebec when they kvetch about not getting service in English, whether at the hospital or on the STM.  He says that learning French is just as essential to living in Montreal as learning Japanese is to living in Kyoto.

I tend to agree, the fact of the matter is that Quebec is a French province and Montreal is a French city.  Last time I looked at census data, just a shade under 600,000 Quebecers identified as Anglos, as defined by speaking English as their mother tongue.  That’s 7.7% of the population of Quebec.  The largest group of Anglos live in and around Montreal, where 16.8% of the population is Anglo.  Statistically, that’s a sizeable minority.  And yet, most Anglos, at least in Montreal are at least functionally bilingual.

Robinson goes on to argue that “the French speakers of Quebec have been incredibly tolerant of the anglophone “community,” and a vast swath of them have gone to the immense trouble of learning English — when they don’t have to at all.”  I also tend to agree here, though I will note something based on my experience of teaching CÉGEP for 6 years.  I would say that somewhere between 40-45% of our students at my Anglophone CÉGEP were francophone, some of whom did not have great English-language skills upon entering the school.  But their reason for wanting to go to CÉGEP in English (they often went onto French-language universities) was simple: English is the dominant language in the world today, and is the lingua franca of global business (I would also add that about 70% of my students wanted to get degrees in business or related fields).  So there are practical reasons for Quebec’s francophones to learn and speak English.

But, as you might expect, the comments in response to Robinson’s missive are, well, predictable. And vitriolic.  They include exhortations that he remove himself from Quebec and “go home.”  But the first comment I saw was perhaps the most instructive of all.  The commentator lambasts Robinson and notes that Canada is a bilingual nation.  And Quebec is a province of that bilingual nation.  That much is true.

But.  Quebec is not bilingual.  In fact, there is only one officially bilingual province in Canada: New Brunswick, though Ontario and Manitoba will also provide services in French to their population.  Moreover, despite the fact that, say, British Columbia is a province in a bilingual nation, good luck getting anyone to speak French to you in Vancouver.  Canadian bilingualism functions in reality a lot more along the Belgian model: insofar as it exists, it’s regional.  Canada has something called a “bilingual belt” that stretches from New Brunswick along the St. Lawrence River valley to Eastern Ontario.  Within this belt, you will find a sizeable amount of the populace that can speak both English and French, and you’ll also find some bilinguality in Manitoba.  Aside from that, though, forget it.

So, in reality, the Anglophone population of Quebec and Montreal, as Robinson notes, has it relatively good.  An Anglophone in Montreal can get an education in English, and healthcare in English, and there is a robust Anglo media in the city. And, I might add, while I can speak French, when I had to deal with the government of Quebec, I tended to at least try to get service in English, in large part because I, like many Anglos, don’t trust my French all that much.  This was especially the case when dealing with Revenu Québec or the Ministère de la Santé et les services sociaux.  Much to my surprise, this was never a problem. I always got responses in English.  A francophone in Toronto gets none of that.

Having said that, Montreal has a robust Anglophone community because it has jealously protected itself and its “rights”, especially since the rise of the Parti québécois’ first government in 1976 and Bill 101 in 1977.  But that doesn’t mean that Robinson doesn’t have a point.

 

Shameless

December 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

We’ve been watching the American version of Shameless off and on for the past year.  The American version is based on the British show, but is set in the South Side of Chicago.  It is centred around the big and cacophonous Gallagher clan.  The patriarch is Frank, played by William H. Macy.  Frank is a drunk asshole.  There’s no other way to put it.  His wife, the children’s mother, has up and left.  The family is held together by the eldest daughter, Fiona.  There are 5 more children, the youngest of which is 2 (and somehow African American in a family of white Irish Americans; this is never explained).  Fiona scrounges and scrimps and saves to keep food on the table and the roof over the heads of the other Gallagher kids.  The house is possessed by the Gallaghers through dubious means, involving some welfare scam on the part of Frank.  Fiona is left to scam to keep the family together and to keep the rest of the kids from ending in foster care.

I have to say, I enjoy the TV show, though occasionally it hits kind of close to home, in that I grew up mostly poor with an alcoholic and abusive step-father.  But, this show is a rather complicated look at poverty, particularly white poverty in America.  It also dovetails nicely with Michael Patrick MacDonald’s points about South Boston.  The show is set in Canaryville, the historically Irish section of Chicago’s South Side.  Canaryville, like Southie or Griff, is rather legendary for being both Irish and hostile to outsiders.

As I watch the show, I can’t help but wonder if Shameless romanticises poverty, portrays it accurately, or stereotypes poor people as scammers.  I find myself torn every time I watch it.

On the one hand, the Gallagher clan and their friends struggle everyday trying to make ends meet, but it seems they’re always able to put aside their money worries to have fun.  No, they don’t get drunk (except for Frank) and they don’t do drugs.  But they do have a lot of fun, there’s a lot of wisecracking, and teasing.  There’s also a lot of scamming of pretty much anything that can be scammed, from welfare officers to schools, to businesses and anyone else stupid enough to get involved.

When I was growing up, my life wasn’t exactly as glamourous as the Gallaghers, but it’s not like we spent our entire lives miserable because we were poor.  And the “system,” such as it were, was there to be scammed.  To a degree.  It was not like anyone I knew scammed welfare or Unemployment Insurance (as Employment Insurance was once called in Canada), and so on.  Scams tended to be smaller scale.  Like scamming free rides on the bus or the Skytrain.  Life wasn’t one thing or the other, it wasn’t black and white.  It was complicated.

And this is where I think Shameless is a brilliant show.  Obviously there is some mugging for the cameras and the creation of some dramatic storylines for entertainment purposes.  But it represents the life of these poor white trash Irish Americans in Canaryvlle, South Side Chicago, as complicated.  Their lives aren’t all of one or the other.  They live lives as complicated as the middle-classes.  Perhaps more so, because they’re always worried about having something to eat and having gas to heat the house.  In the end, Shameless represents the poor as multi-faceted, complicated people, who are pulled in various different directions according to their conflicting and various roles (as breadwinner, daughter, son, friend, lover, etc.).  In short, at the core, their lives are no different than ours.  They are, essentially, fully human.

Too often, when I see representations of the working-classes and the poor in pop culture, whether fiction or non-fiction, these representations are nothing more than stereotypes.  Poor people are lazy.  Poor people are scammers.  Poor people are dishonest.  Poor people are victims.  Poor people need help.  And so on and so on.  In reality poor people are none of these things and all of these things and more.  In fact, the poor are just like you and me.  And, at least in my experience, essentialising the working classes does them a disservice.

And this is where works like Shameless or All Souls come in.  MacDonald complicates our stereotypes of Southie.  He shows us the complications of the impoverished Irish of South Boston, and he makes it impossible for us to stereotype.  In the end, Shameless does the exact same thing.

Irish Slums

December 5, 2013 § 3 Comments

Last month, I met Michael Patrick MacDonald at an Irish Studies conference in Rhode Island.  He was the keynote speaker.  I didn’t know much about him beforehand, other than he wrote All Souls about growing up in South Boston in the 70s and 80s.  I knew All Souls was a story about heartbreak, drugs, and the devastation suffered by his family.  But MacDonald’s talk was one of the best I’d ever heard, he spoke of Whitey Bulger, drugs, Southie, his work in non-violence and intervention, and he talked about gentrification.  He was eloquent and fierce at the same time.  He is, of course, an ageing punk.  He was also pretty cool to talk to over beers in the hotel bar later that night.

I finally got around to reading All Souls last week.  I’m glad I did.  I was stunned that MacDonald and his siblings could survive what they’ve survived: three of their brothers dead due to gangs, drugs, and violence.  One of their sisters permanently damaged by a traumatic brain injury brought about due to drugs.  And another brother falsely accused of murder.  It was a heartbreaking read, at least to a point.  I know how the story ends, obviously.

It was also interesting to read another version of Southie than the one in the mainstream here in Boston.  The mainstream is that Southie was an Irish white trash ghetto, run by Whitey Bulger, terrorised by Whitey Bulger, but all those Irish were racists, as evidenced by the busing crisis in 1974.  And while MacDonald tried to revise that narrative, both in his talk and in All Souls, pertaining to the busing crisis, it is hard to argue that racism wasn’t the underlying cause of the explosion of protesting and violence.  But, MacDonald also offers both a personal and a sociological view of how Southie was terrorised and victimised by Bulger (and his protectors in the FBI and the Massachusetts State Senate).  And, today, he talks about gentrification in a way that most mainstream commentators do not (something I’ve railed about in my extended series on Pointe-Saint-Charles, Montréal, his blog, Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4, and Pt. 5).

But something else also struck me in reading MacDonald’s take on Southie.  I found that he echoed many of the oldtimers I’ve talked to in Griffintown and the Pointe in Montréal about their experiences growing up.  Griff and the Pointe were the Montréal variant of Southie, downtrodden, desperately poor Irish neighbourhoods.  And yet, there is humour to be found in the chaos and poverty, and there is something to be nostalgic for in looking back.

MacDonald writes:

I didn’t know if I loved or hated this place.  All those beautiful dreams and nightmares of my life were competing in the narrow littered streets of Old Colony Project.  Over there, on my old front stoop at 8 Patterson Way, were the eccentric mothers, throwing their arms around and telling wild stories.  Standing on the corners were the natural born comedians making everyone laugh.  Then there were the teenagers wearing their flashy clothes, their ‘pimp’ gear, as we called it.  And little kids running in packs, having the time of their lives in a world that was all theirs.

This echoes something journalist Sharon Doyle Driedger wrote of Griffintown, where she grew up:

Griffintown had the atmosphere of an old black-and-white movie.  Think The Bells of St. Mary’s,with nuns and priests and Irish brogue and choirs singing Latin hymns.  Then throw in the Bowery Boys, the soft-hearted tough guys wisecracking on the corner.

The difference, of course, is that MacDonald’s ambivalence runs deep, he also sees the drug addicts and dealers, and the grinding poverty.  Doyle Driedger didn’t.  But, MacDonald is standing in Southie as an adult when he sees this scene, Doyle Dreidger is writing from memory.

Nostalgia is a funny thing, and it’s not something to be dismissed, as many academics and laypeople do.  It is, in my books, an intellectually lazy and dishonest thing to do.  Nostalgia is very real and is something that tinges all of our views of our personal histories.

But what I find more interesting here are the congruencies between what MacDonald and Doyle Driedger writes, between what MacDonald says in All Souls and what he said in his talk last month in Rhode Island, and what the old-timers from Griff and the Pointe told me whenever I talked to them.  There was always this nostalgia, there was always this black humour in looking back.  I also just read Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, about a kid growing up in Dublin’s Barrytown, a fictional inner-city neighbourhood.  Through Paddy Clarke, Doyle constructs an idyllic world for a boy to grow up in, as he and his mates owned the neighbourhood, running around in packs, just like the kids in Southie MacDonald describes, and just as MacDonald and his friends did when they were kids.

I don’t know if this is something particular to Irish inner-city slums or not.  But I do see this tendency as occurring any time I talk to someone who grew up in such a neighbourhood, or read stories, whether fiction or non-fiction, to say nothing of the music of the Dropkick Murphys (I’m thinking, in particular, of almost the entirety of their first album, Do Or Die, or the track “Famous for Nothing,” on their 2007 album, The Meanest of Times),  I’m not one for stereotyping the Irish, or any other group for that matter, I don’t think there’s anything “inherent” to the Irish, whether comedy, fighting, or alcoholism.  But there is something about this view of Irish slums.

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