I’ve been back from the the US for a few days now so had time to run through some thoughts I’ve had on the place.
This was, I think, my fourth time over in the states. Over the years I’ve been to the East Coast, the South, the Middle and, most recently, the West Coast – none of which gives me the perspective of a resident or a true understanding of the culture and communities there but I reckon I’ve reached the point of being able to see at least some patterns around some aspects of the society in some parts. If nothing else I can say that I can better navigate Philly than I can Leeds and Columbus better than I can Birmingham so on a personal level I’ve experienced those cities more than I have non-London England. I reckon it goes without saying that I have love for the place. I keep going back for a reason, not just the good friends I have there but the experience certain cities especially grant me. I see a huge amount of good in the US which, I think, some people miss. Especially these days, with Trump acting as the spokesperson for a nation and so much bad news emanating from it with regards to healthcare, gun crime, racism etc. I add that in because I think it’s too easy to judge the USA as a collective mass, to point out the issues it has from the outside and pass judgement on the whole as a result. But like any other country it’s nothing more than a disparate collection of people – most, in my experience, are good, some are bastards and the rest are somewhere in between. There’s nowhere you can’t say that about and so, ultimately, there’s nowhere you can pass absolute judgement on.
Still though, it’s natural to look for patterns. To look for cultural and social markers which you can use to measure how well a society is functioning and how people within it are doing. No matter how chaotic humanity is the desire to find logic or order will always win out and come to certain conclusions. Even if they’re wrong headed, and mine may well be, there’s no one alive who can avoid trying to collate their experiences into something coherent and my attempt this time came out in a way that made me feel a little sad for the US, unfortunately.
I think it’s a mix of age and repetition which has done it. Things which I’ve previously operated around – while being fairly indifferent to – have ceased to be part of an adventure and become more a recognition of an ongoing and, I’m afraid, inescapable reality which effects the country. Issues of physical and mental healthcare, racism, poverty, gentrification, parochialism – they all got me a bit more this trip than they have before. In part that’s probably due to the issues the UK faces here at home, after years of Tory (or ‘Centre’ Right Labour governments) it’s become harder to look at certain issues and assume that they’re transitory. In part it’s probably due to a certain jadedness on my behalf that has worn away at the belief that change is either underway or inevitable. And in part it’s probably a messy mixture of a thousand things I don’t understand because they’re too immediate to me to be open to my own observation. At any rate the structure of American society seems now, more than ever, set on a dismal course. I’ve a few stories to add to express that.
I don’t know Chicago. I’ve been before but, to be honest, me and the city have never gotten along all that well. I’ve enjoyed it a few times, I’ve hated it once or twice but I’ve never formed any kind of final opinion of the place and how I feel about it.
When I arrived this time my first act was to head to a bar. It almost always is, because when I arrive alone in a city I don’t know it’s a personal rule that you find where you’re staying and immediately leave it. It’s important to face up to a place, meet people, see how they are and see how you feel around them. Anyway, the bar I went to was a neighbourhood one. A ‘dive bar’ by American definitions but coming from London it was nice enough – nothing special but friendly in its way and a good place to sit for an hour or two getting a feel for an area and chatting to people. As it turned out I’d arrived just after it had been sold to new owners. It was a new enough development to be a talking point for the barmen who were speculating on what would come next. A small stage was the most radical change I heard mentioned, moving the lights to properly cover the pool table was the main concern for the one or two other people propping the bar up. Nothing interesting, nothing major, just like the place itself, a locals bar set in an area already being nibbled at by gentrification but still with a community around it that was established and ‘normal’, as I’d judge it.
It was twenty four hours later that I heard the truth. First in a community run coffee shop/bookshop, then in another bar. The place from the night before had fired all of the staff and the stage, if it was coming, was only a small part of a greater shift to turning the place into a ‘Yuppie Cocktail bar’. I’m guessing the pool table won’t survive the transition either. To be honest, coming from London, that story is familiar enough. An area comes up, people with money move in and set about redefining it as their own, according to whatever cultural fantasy they have for themselves. If anything is saved from the time before then it’s less as living community or reality and more as momentos from a dead civilisation, minor artefacts frozen in time as an act of cultural felony.
People I spoke to, or overheard, seemed resigned to it. They liked the place as it was, but the area had been lost. They felt sorry for the workers who’d lost their jobs, but it was inevitable. They regretted losing a place to go, but that was the natural process of things. Again, a familiar feeling but still an oddity to see it played out so immediately and depressing to see it met with such resignation. What can anyone do though? Not much.
It was my first time in San Francisco. I’ve never been to the West Coast at all before but I was at a loose end and people said it’d be interesting so why not? I was only there a week or so, split between two places and with a fair bit of wandering around in between. I enjoyed it – SF is a beautiful city and one of thew few in the US you can easily explore on foot. Also one of the few where exploring on foot will show you genuine differences within the communities you pass through.
Now previously I’ve always just blind booked places to stay. Generally I aim for the cheapest and most central, or at least the nearest to bars and food, and don’t bother with any further research. Because I’m cheap and lazy. This trip though I made the error of bothering to look at reviews and, going by them, I was half expecting a hellscape of murder and terror on the streets when I arrived. A result of my own online ignorance, forgetting that the sort of people who write reviews online are usually the sort of people you don’t want to listen to. With their tales of doom and despair in mind though I aimed a little higher than my usual gutter level and booked into what seemed like a nice place in a nice part of the city. And it was both of those things, although going by the reviews I was still half expecting a dirty needle in my eye within five seconds of arrival. What I found though was a normal area in a city with abnormal problems.
San Francisco is a city in crisis, I think. I spoke to locals, old locals – people who’d been there before the millionaire tech boom extended it’s tentacles their way and new arrivals too, immigrants who’re looking to set up their lives in the US. Both sets of people seemed to share the same frustrations. A disdain for the rich people colonising their homes and a fear of the problems that were being shipped to the city.
My first night there I got a very minor taste of the latter. Standing outside a bar having a smoke I got cornered by someone in the midst of… something. I’m guessing a mental health crisis but drugs may have been a factor too. It was a woman about my age, black, normal looking, a bit freaked out but sane enough initially for me to just assume there was a request for a smoke or some cash to come. Then I was treated to a ten minute litany of their various enemies, the conspiracies against her and the victories she’d won in an ongoing battle against… everyone, by the sounds of it. Nothing unusual for anyone in a big city really. Nowhere is without it’s problems and as far as these things go she was more irritating than anything else, a person clearly stuck with some problems and relentless in sharing them in the kind of way that never expects any response. Nothing I haven’t experienced at home. My escape route on this occasion though wasn’t of my own making, instead a local emerged from inside and, with a few words, drew the attention away from me for long enough for me to disappear back to my drink. Although not before my rescuer had a chance to bitch me out for letting her take the bullet. A dereliction about which I feel zero guilt (but thanks all the same).
The conversation inside followed on from that. When my saviour made it back inside, situation summarised by a quick dismissal I’m guessing, she laughed at having given me the escape and took the piss out of my willingness to take it. It was routine, I was assured and I did my usual Big City bit of saying I was well used to it. I’m London mate, nothing new under the sun, a boast which was more or less laughed off.
The same place picked up on the same theme later on. San Francisco was in crisis. The Iranian barman couldn’t understand it, how a city in a country as rich as the US could be so overwhelmed by people so obviously facing problems which weren’t being fixed. I had nothing to say, I was still at the point of not thinking much of it – one messed up person doesn’t make a crisis, if it does then London is fucked. An old lad next to me though picked up the narrative eagerly enough. By his estimation it was more of the same. Back in the day, he said, San Francisco had been the centre of the AIDS crisis as sufferers were shipped there en masse on the assumption that the city would either help people, being one of the few that cared to, or just make them someone else’s problem. That the same was now happening with mental health cases was no surprise at all. California was liberal after all, it had a reputation for caring, to some degree or another, so why not foist problem cases on it? Still I played my London card, big cities have big problems – there’s nothing new under the sun.
It was only when I moved to the next place that it hit me just how bad things were.
Now the place I stayed was fine. It was on the edge of a Hipster area, a mix of residents and drifters like myself. I’ve been in cleaner places and no one likes to share a bathroom but hey, they gave me my own sink and as the rules of travel go that means you’ve got your own personal urinal. Luxury by anyone’s standards. And going out the first few times I saw nothing that struck me at all. It was gentrified, or well on the way to being gentrified at least. People were fancy, shops were pricey, everything was as you’d expect for a city caught up in the Silicone Valley bucket of wealth and what complaints I heard (and I did hear some) came from people who’d been there in the time before, lamenting the death of their community in an avalanche of money. Not a place I’d choose to hang around but nothing to turn you sour over the course of a few days. Until I wandered more than ten minutes away anyway.
It was probably the day before that I’d been warned off. I’d gotten talking to an Irish lad in a bar (see a pattern emerging here?) and we’d struck it off. He liked my art, I thought he seemed sound and between us we’d had a few drinks before wandering off up one of the (fucking infinite) San Francisco hills to get a view out over the city. ‘Don’t’ – he’d warned me ‘go that way’. That way was bad, that way was different, that way was not a way to go. Fair enough, I take my local wisdom where I can get it and I dutifully staggered back to my bed via some wings and a surreptitious piss in a dark corner. At least until the next day, when I had to go that way on my way to somewhere else entirely.
I don’t want to exaggerate here. Bravado for one thing makes me cautious of doing so. But even as I try to be honest about my (fairly recent) experience walking ‘that way’ I can’t help but see it as anything but one of the most depressing walks I’ve ever made. As I made my head down, eyes ahead city walk through that portion of San Francisco I saw a level of brokenness that genuinely shocked me. And that’s hard to write about. Like anybody from a big city, or anybody who’s travelled I’ve constructed a measure of arrogance about my own, mostly delusional, toughness. Homelessness, mental illness, drug addiction, poverty, occasional violence – I’ve seen those things. I’m happy to say I’ve (mostly although unfortunately not always) avoided having to live within and around them but I’m not blind to bad things. And even as I type that I’m aware that it seems almost boastful but it really isn’t meant to be. But even accounting for my own potential innocence and ignorance I know, absolutely and without a doubt, that the prolific level of lost people I saw even just walking through parts of that city isn’t right and most definitely isn’t normal.
Within a twenty minute walk I passed people so fucked they couldn’t stand, multiple people arguing with… someone or something, people paranoid to the point of declaring their own innocence to people they imagined to be stalking them, enough drunks to run a brewery out of business and an all pervasive air of broken normality. Their existence, their concentration in one area was normal, above everything else. Normal enough for community outreach teams to be on the streets, normal enough for sober citizens to navigate it without batting an eyelid, normal enough for police to drive by as people collapsed in the street without a thought to stopping. Normal enough to make me think it was all deeply fucking abnormal. And above all normal enough to stop dead at the border of the next wealthy area, where mental barriers and, I’m guessing, police intervention said the line between broken San Francisco and it’s rich twin should be drawn.
Philly is, probably, the city I know best in the US. I’ve been there every time I’ve visited and always stayed for at least a while. I can navigate it, to a degree at least, and I know the feel of some small parts if not much beyond them. I like it too. I like the honesty of it, I like the ease of it, I like the fact that it’s probably better than New York (although where isn’t?), I like the fact that Philly is an open city, welcoming of all but not particularly arsed about any.
It’s also probably the place I’ve been to that’s most at ease with it’s own lazy racism. Which can be an odd one.
I don’t think Philly is alone in this. I don’t think it’s even particularly notable for it in fact but for personal experiences it’s certainly stood out for me. It’s a city where the natural divides between black and white are almost naturally acknowledged and accepted. More than once I’ve even had it explained to me by people unbothered by the fact of it and happy to elaborate on it to an ignorant Londoner, sometimes almost as if it’s a mark of pride. There are white areas, there black areas, there are white bars, there are black bars, that, from what I’m told, is just right and proper and in no way racist because Philly isn’t the South, or even the middle, it’s a big city with it’s own ways and it’s own bizarre construction of multi-culturalism.
Part of me wants to say it’s a hard one to analyse, because that’d excuse some of the people I’ve met there for their own bigotry – no matter how nicely they frame it – but it isn’t really. It’s just a form of racism that masquerades as an innate sense of order, superior in it’s own perception by the comparison to the ‘real’ racism you get elsewhere. Because on the East Coast it’s not lynchings, it’s just funny looks and it’s not segregation, it’s just separate but different, hell, it’s not even exclusive – you can go to ‘their’ area, you just wouldn’t want them marrying your sister and what’s wrong with that? Unsurprisingly I’ve only ever heard it expressed by white guys.
You can judge that form of separation for yourself, my ignorant arse certainly doesn’t need to clarify it for you. I can see it getting worse though, from one visit to the next. Not that I’ve met people who are any more radical or extreme (no Trump supporters, sorry) but I have seen that casual sense of division being utilised at a higher level. From one visit to the next I’ve seen neighbourhoods being colonised, for want of a better word, in a way that goes way beyond the sense of racial boundaries that old working class communities maintained. Even without really knowing the city I’ve seen (and heard) people talk about ‘fixing’ areas as a platitude for making them whiter as wealthier and more culturally powerful groups move in to exert their strength in the form of artisan breweries and city approved ‘street art’. The irony being that black or white those old communities are becoming less and less welcome as prices go up, leaving whatever passive bigotry that drew dividing lines before redundant.
Columbus and, I’m guessing, a lot of Mid-Western cities are ‘safe spaces’. They are more or less as they were and they will be more or less as they are. Save for a few notable cities they’re places where life is lived on a series of islands with the almighty combustion engine being the sails to get you between them. You can go from your suburb, to your strip of shops, to the bar you know and back home all without feeling you’ve ever left what’s familiar. You never need to travel through the city unadorned and so you never need to see what you don’t want to. And that’s fine. People stay in these places for a reason, despite the dripping disdain they get from both coasts and even the disdain they heap upon themselves as an ironic defence of the mundanity of the place they call home.
I’ve never understood the scorn places like Columbus get myself. Yes, there are places where more happens, there are places where life opens up to expose itself more but hey, if you have family, a home, a job then comfort can be a beautiful thing. It takes a level of arrogance I don’t fully get to look down on that I think, although I can also understand why seemingly so many people choose to leave the American womb and strike out on their own. There are valid reasons to want many things in life, Mid-Western serenity included.
Someone once drunkenly told me (at a wedding, not a bar, I’m not that predictable) that when brands launch new products they do so in Columbus first. If a product or ad flies there, it’ll fly anywhere, that’s the logic. If you can hit Middle America right then you have mass appeal, if no one objects there then no one will object, after all the average is where the money is. That, in itself, is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the place. States like Ohio are where a huge number of people live often ignored by the cultural model of the nation. Not necessarily ignored politically, probably no more ignored economically than other parts, but certainly ignored by the cultural hotbeds of East and West unless it’s to be treated as the perfect middle, the perfect average towards whom commercialism must perpetually be pitched.
As I said at the start though – a nation, or in this case a state – is no more than a disparate collection of people. The Mid-West can’t be distilled down into a marketers chart of acceptable desires and appealing images. No matter how serene/mundane it may be perceived to be there are more than enough people there to insert chaos into the equation and create life that can and, if you get a chance, should be experienced (just don’t go for the landscape, or the architecture).
While I was in Columbus I went to the big art gallery. A gallery I shouldn’t have been surprised to find was pretty interesting, it’s a big city after all.
I’ve been to a lot of galleries, it’s one of my routine tasks when I travel. Find bars, find galleries, do the latter first so you can get enough culture in to feel comfortable having a drink at 2pm. There’s a lot of variety in them, I find. Some are stern and imposing places, built for you to stand and stare at art in awed reverence. Others are immersive, drawing you into the work and making it impose itself on you. Columbus was of a different sort – educational, a focused effort to cater to school trips and, possibly, those indifferent to art who’ve ended up there on a day out. It informs, it questions, it tries to get you to focus on the work without boring the arse off of you with copy and pasted history lessons. That’s an ok sort of gallery, in my opinion. It’s not the best, it’s not the worst and the effort is earnest if nothing else. It does lead to some interesting interactions though, manifestations of the public’s experience with the work which have plenty to say by themselves whether they mean to or not.
When I was visiting there was a whole section given over to African ‘art’. I stick the inverted commas in there because, to be honest, most museums do that too. African work is, almost always, found in its own annex. Usually with a map on the wall to show the confused exactly what shape Africa is and, generally, to surprise them with the number of countries it contains. It’s also craft, not art. From a fair few experiences it’s almost always a collection of carvings and masks which have some special symbolism or relevance to one country or tribe, never with a named creator despite being recent enough to have one, always dated and framed more as an antique than anything. It also feels like a special effort, an intentional attempt to include ‘Africa’ in amongst the exhibitions without ever really putting it on a par with the other work. Go to enough galleries and it almost becomes comically predictable, the confused attempt at doing justice to an entire continent before quietly shuffling back into the living world of European and North American art, which is real and living and not a curiosity.
As I mentioned though, Columbus is a learning gallery and, to their credit, they’ve done more than most to draw people into the concept of an entire continent not being some cultural oddity to be viewed through a semi-Victorian telescope. Sure, some more modern work even spills out into the general exhibitions. Beyond even that though they ask for audience participation through a series of boards and Post-It notes inviting viewers to add their opinions on the work and personally I probably spent more time reading the messages left than I did looking at the exhibits. It was an interesting glimpse at a portion of society who are more usually sold to than listened to and it made for an interesting mix of opinions. There were, unfortunately, the obligatory ‘Build the Wall’ comments, which shows a disturbing lack of understanding of geography. There were also the (probably) equally obligatory references to Wakanda, so Marvel doing a cracking job of raising cultural awareness there. But by far the most dominant narrative was the discussion of where the works displayed should be. Should they be returned to Africa? Do they need to be displayed in the US because they’ll be lost if they’re sent back? Does everyone deserve access to to art and culture or is it an offence to remove it from it’s original roots? There was a genuine and weirdly in-depth debate going on via the medium of hand written Post-It notes going on there. And only a small part of me felt like pointing out that most of the pieces were from the mid-1900s, none of them were that unique and more or less identical copies could be purchased at any number of shops in London if you felt the need. That cynicism aside though there was an honest interest in questions of ownership, access and obligation being played out beyond the filters of the mainstream media and politics. Not to say that it was an entirely positive set of interactions but it was, at the very least, an earnest one. It’s just a shame the same principles of discussion couldn’t be applied to African art beyond the historical and tribal*.
I’ll finish up with the capital. There are others places I hit on my trip which I perhaps should mention (Nashville, Pittsburgh, Toronto (for a Canadian change of pace)) but more on them another time perhaps.
DC has always been a problematic city for me. I don’t much like it, for one thing, but I also never really see it beyond the centre, beyond the tourist/government/cultural strip which was designed to define the place. I know there’s a whole city beyond that but I’ve never really experienced it and generally never felt the need to, there’s more than enough at the heart of the American Empire to fill your time with after all.
And it really is the heart of the nation. Not as far as the hundreds of millions of people in it go I should add, there’s no one place that really reflects them after all, because there never could be. As far as the founding ideal of the US goes though DC genuinely does represent… something.
The USA has always held itself up as the ‘Melting Pot’, a land open to all (well, some) where anyone can build a new life and participate in the American dream, merging their own culture and history in with the greater whole of the land of the free. It’s a nice idea and one I don’t believe for an instant and, in part, DC is the reason why.
Washington is the epitomy of what I think the US really is. Resplendent in it’s vast imitations of old, Imperial European capitals, dripping with classical art and heritage it shows the foundation of a nation born entirely of colonialism and the interests of Empires. It represents a model of power, a model of governance distilled from millenia of European and Mediterranean history almost all of which has followed a more or less similar path of centralised control and expansion. There, more than anywhere, the point is made that while anything can be adopted and utilised by the centre almost nothing can be introduced to change it. There’s a well planned sense of permanence to not just the structures of government but the highest principles of ‘culture’ which defines both absolutely along the lines of an age old sense of civilisation. One which can consume new influences, no doubt, but which is so solid as to remain completely uneffected by them at it’s core. Not a melting pot, but a mould, not a place for assimilation of the new but for fitting it into what’s already established and slowly grinding off any sharp edges.
That, as much as anything, makes me think the US is going to struggle to ever change. Just as the UK will for reasons all of it’s own. The forces of change in America are, seemingly, doomed to be jammed into that mould which has been handed down through the centuries. Even victories will only come when the effort adapts to the demands of the nation as it is and always has been. Not to say that the mould can’t stretch to all manner of things, nothing can remain static forever, but real change? A real shift in the paths and balances of power? I don’t know where, when or how that could come.
*Which certainly has it’s place. I also went to the San Francisco Museum of Asian Art where old and modern work were given far more parity and all art was treated as art, rather than oddity. Also went to a Toronto art gallery where First People’s art was seamlessly integrated with other work – so it’s entirely possible to not create a curio of non-European and North American work.