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90s Boys, Part I

16 Nov

My fiction consumption lately has featured novels with 90s high school boys at their centers, a kick driven by some of my own preferences and a product of what some good younger writers have put out in 2019. The first, Ben Lerner’s critically acclaimed The Topeka School, operates on a different level from the second, Alexander Tilney’s The Expectations; the latter is content to present its characters’ thoughts as-is, but the chapters in The Topeka School often have extended allegories and drift into stream of consciousness to tie the threads together. Its style is one a New York Times review calls “autofiction”: borderline autobiographical, the fourth wall broken as the protagonist, Adam Gordon, writes in 2019 about his teenage self and includes excerpts from his parents.

At its core, The Topeka School is a meditation on the power of language and an argument for its importance in how we understand our world. Adam in his prime contends for a national high school debate championship by mastering a technique known as the spread, an incoherent, rapid-fire style designed to game the rules of the competition that Lerner none too subtly suggests has leeched into American corporate culture and politics. (The causal arrow most likely goes the other direction.) Another chapter delivers a pained portrait of the loss of those faculties in old age, as dementia removes any possibility of comprehension. Whether an intentional debate tactic or a loss of bodily control, the collapse of language upends the world.

Adam’s parents, two psychologists at an institute in Topeka called The Foundation and direct stand-ins for Lerner’s parents, take over the narration for extended stretches of the book. Jonathan, Dr. J, makes for the most lyrical of the narrators, the man himself practically a living Hermann Hesse novel. But Adam’s mother, Jane, is the book’s moral core, a celebrated feminist author who withstands the misogynistic abuse she endures with carefully refined tactics, a pillar even as some of her most vital relationships crumble. The Topeka School has garnered deserved praise for its treatment of toxic masculinity, and at its best, it shows a way out of that hell, a love letter from a son to his mother for what she taught him, even if he often failed to see it.

The Topeka School makes a concerted effort to diagnose the ills of modern America through frequent references to the nation’s imperial decline. One chapter, “The New York School,” lays bare the underbelly of a glamorous life in the diplomatic corps at the apex of American hegemony, an attempt to question the idea that those really were the glory days. The novel checks the “end of history” phrase box several times and pokes at the conceit that filters down from grandstanding politicians to self-important high school debaters. More often, though, it lingers in the mid-90s ennui of well-off white kids in Kansas, following their forays into sex and drugs and gangsta rap. Each chapter begins with an interlude in the story of Darren Eberheart, a childhood acquaintance of Adam’s and a social outcast who becomes one of Jonathan’s “lost boys,” consumed by male rage. If this is the empire, Lerner seems to say, is its demise all that sad?

While Jonathan is the narrator in “The New York School,” Jane takes command of that chapter, which makes an extended metaphor out of guiding an airplane safely to the ground. That great machine up in the sky, so far beyond the imagination of previous generations, incredible until it suddenly becomes a machine barreling along at hundreds of miles per hour, one small mistake all the only thing between its passengers and certain death. While reading this chapter my mind went to the “Flight 93 election” conservative analogy to Trump, the claim that the salvation of the republic require that people of good faith take down the hijacked plane. This, Lerner seems to say, is exactly the wrong way to react when the plane starts to smoke. Jonathan and Jane’s patients’ attempts to talk through their problems are an attempted corrective to the spread, a hope for a halting path out from the incoherence. When crisis strikes Adam, Jane is there to guide him down, and Jonathan is there as our flawed and awed witness to both the heights and recesses of the mind. Here, amid an otherwise fairly dark rendering of modern American life, Lerner finds hope.

I have two great critiques of The Topeka School. One is that, despite growing up in a comfortable Middle American community a decade later with some talent of my own in academic competitions before heading East, I could not relate to Adam at all. This isn’t to say he’s a false character; maybe the world changed drastically in a decade, and maybe there’s a a red state-blue state split or some other cultural divide between Duluth and Topeka at play. I also don’t think relatability should necessarily be the foremost concern in rating a book’s merits. But I never felt Adam come together as a character the way Ben Weeks does in The Expectations, in part because it skipped over the years between innocent ten-year-old Adam and troubled seventeen-year-old Adam that would have described how he became the way he was. Though he is the supposed protagonist, his parents came to life better than he did, more obvious products of their own briefly rendered parents than Adam is of Jonathan and Jane.

Why does Lerner not seem to care about Adam’s progression through life? I’d hazard to say it’s because he sees his world as fundamentally fallen, a product of nature and forces beyond anyone’s control. A pool cue ball, a symbol of Darren Eberheart’s violent rage, “had been there all his life;” Jonathan cannot say how his lost boys of privilege come to be, and his mentor, Klaus, offers up a contradictory claim of both eternal failings and the product of imperial decline. Some combination of male aggression is inherent, and culture (especially in late capitalist America, a land of “adolescence without end”) acts as an accelerant; the best we can hope for is to tame it. In broad terms I’d buy this hypothesis, and Lerner captures many of its contours. But I’m not sure he gives Adam (and, through Adam, his own teenage self) enough credit; while Jane tells us that teenage Adam is really a pretty decent guy, we see him only at particular flash points, and this never really comes through. The portrait just doesn’t feel complete.

My second critique, related and more serious, is of the ending, which I won’t spoil except to say that its attempt at a zeitgeisty twist fell completely flat for me. I felt some unease when I read the first chapter of the book when it was excerpted in the New Yorker this year: the subject matter drew me in immediately, but I worried it might be too clean in its vision of suburbia, too exaggerated in its effort to wash away nuance in its quest to set a brooding mood and say Important Things about contemporary American life. Beneath this desire to plunge into a full examination lay a simplistic, rather ideological lens, and in the last chapter, it all came back out again. If Jane’s plane had a gentle landing, Lerner’s skids along the runway.

Perhaps this is the price we pay for having a poet for an autobiographical novelist, a writer more drawn to rendering moods and meditative auras than crisp declarative prose. (Either that, or I wasn’t on enough drugs when I read the thing.) The Times review, trading off a point made in the Zadie Smith essay I quoted on here last month, thinks Lerner’s lack of authorial authority is just what the novel needs now, an admission that this author who is trying to say something about contemporary life (notably, a straight white guy from the Heartland) needs to acknowledge where his own perspective stops. The point, surely, is a valuable one. But the counterpoint, right there before us, is Jane Gordon, a far more interesting character than the autobiographical Adam. If only Jane could’ve had the last word; she wouldn’t have needed to append an account of her wokeness to prove she’s on the right side of history. Her life, as rendered in the book, is testament enough to everything that she and Lerner stand for.

A Slowly Widening Gyre: Duluth Election Dissection, 2019

7 Nov

First, to explain my silence on local politics to the readers who don’t talk to me regularly: over the past year, I’ve had the pleasure of serving as the campaign manager for Arik Forsman’s at-large city council campaign. This blog’s ethos has always sought distance from any cheerleading I may do in private, and I much prefer to work with people directly than yell things out at the internet in the hope that doing so achieves things. Now that it’s all over, though, I’ll attempt to step back from my role over the past year and find the bigger picture.

Mayor Emily Larson rolled to a second term, though we always knew that was going to happen. David Nolle did manage to win four precincts, all of them in a row along the riverfront out west, from Irving to Fond du Lac. While political winds blow here and there in many of the other races, Larson holds a dominant center in Duluth politics. She’s heard some grumbling to both the left and the right, and her campaign’s efforts to spend a lot of time out west, knowing it had nothing to lose, didn’t yield stronger outcomes than her even more lopsided win four years ago. For now, though, the mayoralty is firmly in her hands, and she has a chance to see results from some of the longer-term projects that were at the center of her first term, such as the new streets tax and the medical district.

Elsewhere, however, some cracks in Duluth’s governing consensus emerged, and they were most evident in the at-large city council race. A somewhat conservative political newcomer, Derek Medved, paced the field, with Labor-endorsed incumbents Arik Forsman and Noah Hobbs coming in second and third. This at-large race was most notable for its surge in bullet voting, with voters on the left and right choosing only one candidate in the hope of getting theirs across the finish line. Forsman survived this new tactic, while the collateral damage in 2019 Duluth was Hobbs, whose low-key style and prolific policy work didn’t match the moment.

A Trump Era left rejects candidates who aren’t in lockstep with its vision. Mike Mayou, the left’s 21-year-old candidate, ran an interesting jumble of a race, at times displaying some real charisma with soaring rhetoric and at times making unforced errors like 6 AM primary election robocalls. Mayou broke through and seized the DFL endorsement, which seemed to have little short-term benefit but certainly emboldened the progressive wing of the party going forward. His general election performance improved somewhat on his somewhat distant primary showing, but in the end he appeared on a smaller percentage of ballots cast than Rich Updegrove did two years ago; his percentage simply looks a little higher due to all of the bullet voting. One moment he was a “UMD student,” and another he was a “community organizer,” which aren’t mutually exclusive but convey very different things; sometimes he seemed to just follow the incumbents’ talking points, even as some of his supporters trashed Hobbs and Forsman relentlessly on social media. Those supporters will no doubt blame Labor, which did not endorse Mayou, though that argument is difficult to sustain in a nonpartisan race in which one’s candidate is running against two incumbents who have delivered for Labor, and when one’s candidate finishes last among the viable candidates in both rounds; after the primary, I mostly stopped paying attention, as I knew the threat, so to speak, would come from the right. The Mayou campaign seemed an apt mirror for the progressive moment: filled with unbridled passion, devoted to national-level talking points, and at times more fixated on shaming its putative allies than the conservatives whose rise it may unwittingly enable.

City Council At-Large Results by Precinct

A well-funded and organized right, meanwhile, is well-positioned to exploit the leftward internal warfare. Still, Medved ran a vague campaign that really didn’t always align with the tighter messaging of his conservative funders. He won not because he was BizPac’s man (though the money didn’t hurt); he won because he made himself the face of the west side, and that east-west divide is increasingly the fault line in Duluth politics. He even won in deep blue Lincoln Park, and I’m not sure any more money or different messaging would have made a difference. While Medved isn’t particularly Trumpy, the tribal loyalty he inspired does have a whiff of national politics to it, and while both Hobbs and Forsman can claim some working class cred and have taken on bureaucratic red tape, it’s much easier to come across as pure on such fronts when one doesn’t have a track record. As a newcomer to politics, Medved now begins his education in governance.

The district races featured a fascinating mix. Becky Hall, a hard-working also-ran, lost by a substantial margin to incumbent Gary Anderson in the first district, while Janet Kennedy, after twice failing to break through in previous cycles, outworked Jeanne Koneczny in the fifth district. Kennedy improved her performance most notably in the Riverside/Smithville/Norton Park areas compared to her showing against Jay Fosle four years ago and became Duluth’s first African-American city councilor. BizPac’s two district candidates came nowhere near matching its at-large candidate. The third district race, which defied easy categories, saw Roz Randorf pull out the win over Labor-endorsed Theresa O’Halloran-Johnson. The gap closed somewhat after a lopsided primary, but Randorf pulled away with strong showings in the higher-income areas atop the hill and out on Park Point. One presumes Randorf’s loyalties lie more with the leftward core that ran her campaign than her initial BizPac donors, but she offers a potentially fascinating wild card on the council.

5th District City Council: Janet Kennedy (purple) vs. Jeanne Koneczny (red)

On the school board side of the ledger Alanna Oswald proved resilient, winning a second election against a Labor-endorsed opponent despite enduring health challenges in the closing weeks of the campaign. Her early work got her out ahead of challenger John Schwetman, who kept the race fairly competitive but only won in a high-income east side core of neighborhoods and in a few of the precincts outside of city limits. Oswald’s cross-cutting appeal captures both the old Red Plan critics and a new wave seeking to advance greater equity, and the relative blurriness of school politics allows that pitch to succeed in a way I’m not sure can work in a council race.

School Board At-Large: Alanna Oswald (orange) vs. John Schwetman (blue)

In the district races, two anti-Red Plan crusaders of the past failed to win, though the margins map on to the traditional east-west divide in Duluth school politics. Incumbent David Kirby rolled past Harry Welty in the second district, while over in the third district, Loren Martell had his best showing in his many races and gave newcomer Paul Sandholm a decent run despite falling short in the end. Martell carried two precincts, one in lower Duluth Heights and one on the near East Hillside. Welty has signaled this campaign, his seventeenth, may have been his last; after a closer call, Martell may yet give it another go. We are firmly on our path in a new era of school board politics now, and after crossing paths with some of the newer members over the past several months, I’m as optimistic about the district’s future as I’ve been in a while. I look forward to seeing what this group can do with its impending superintendent search.

The past few Duluth election cycles have been dominant for Labor, which usually found a way to hold broad left-of-center center of Duluth politics. Its success isn’t some magical formula: over the past 12 years, it’s coupled union work ethic and business support to back a governing consensus focused on collaboration and incremental progress. It’s overseen a substantial rehabilitation of this city’s outward image, surges in investment with no recent precedent, and incomes rising faster than national averages; while far from flawless, it’s hard to argue with the overall trajectory. The Labor machine, in the words of Don Ness, made Duluth politics boring for a spell.

Labor still won a majority of its races in 2019, but there were some significant defeats and narrower margins. National polarization is making its way into local politics, and when that happens, the center does not always hold. As someone who just managed a campaign that made an effort to rise above national level ugliness one of its core tenets, the end results are not overly encouraging. But centrism (or center-leftism) for its own sake isn’t an inspiring platform, and we can talk about “nuance” and “creativity” all day, but at some point those have to manifest themselves in actual, measurable results. I know the candidate I worked for is committed to that, and I can only hope his interesting collection of new colleagues is as well.

In many ways, my job over the past year was easy: the Forsman campaign was very well-resourced, my candidate worked relentlessly, and he brought together a deep, strong team with good diversity of thought that worked as a unit to keep any one task from becoming onerous. I had plenty of fun with it. At the same time, it was my own education in the rigors of a campaign and the unexpected twists it can take, and at times a striking reminder that politics is not for the faint of heart. I’m not sure what comes next for my political life; I’m not one to take deep pleasure at the mere act of being in the arena, but I do enjoy winning, and the real work, of course, is what we can achieve after an election. Time to get to work.

Good Writing, 10/30/19

30 Oct

In this edition of my recurring feature, I highlight articles come to me from friends and colleagues who sent me articles thinking I’d like them. They were right, and each of them ties into some piece of my semi-recent writing. Hey, maybe this whole concept can take off.

First, we pay a visit to James Fallows at the Atlantic, who offers up one of the more impressive Karl-baiting articles I can remember: his theme is one I have played with, both subtly and not so subtly, on here before. The decline and fall of the Roman Empire, he argues, was not such a horrible thing for humanity. Instead, for most people, life went on. Many of the monasteries and breakaway provinces retained the most valuable pieces of antiquity and formed the foundations of the modern world. If our American moment is indeed analogous to the late Roman Empire, is that really such a horrid thing? Scale makes national politics nothing more than cultural signaling, and the real work of governance happens close to home. Fallows and his wife, Deborah, wrote about Duluth when they traveled the country looking for examples of how this localism could work.

In the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik spends some time in my field of urban planning, and gives some nuanced revisionism of the critiques of mid-century urban renewal. Said renewal gave us a lot of ugly, bad buildings with no concept of the cities surrounding them, but it also aspired to grand solutions. Not all of them were elites glibly or malevolently displacing people of color to facilitate commerce; in fact, many had some of the noblest intentions, and at times they did a much better job of creating access for people than the contemporary ethos of preservation, which often has the effect (whether intended or unintended) of privileging people who already live in a place and making it different for others to break in. As with Pruitt-Igoe, maybe the fault is less with the planners and architects than with a political environment that never gave their ideas a chance.

Gopnik points out many of the ironies of urban political alliances–developers with housing-seeking liberals, conservatives and radical leftist preservationists–and nudges toward a conclusion that attractive architecture and design are what really matters. Our urban moment is very different from that of the past half-century, and Gopnik concludes by abolishing rent control (correctly) and urban planning departments (well, that’s awkward). This kid trained as a planner thinks he is on to something when he says that different times should make us consider rescuing the best of the past era of planning, such as its noble grand attempts to confront pressing issues, while doing away with the ugly architecture and the paternalism. Somewhere in this mess lies an answer, and we can yet find it.

Finally, since I’ve been writing some things about different generations lately, I’ll offer up a New York Times piece by Taylor Lorenz that shows how Generation Z is starting to have some snarky fun at the expense of Baby Boomers (or, at least, a subset of baby boomers that seems particularly naive to some of the challenges that now afflict young people). As noted in my June post, this broad-brush generational portrait is fairly narrow and perhaps enjoys some New York Times confirmation bias, but I am nonetheless amused.

I’ll close with two quotes about writing. The first comes from Zadie Smith, my favorite part of a sparkling, complex essay in the New York Review of Books that explains why fiction is still valuable, particularly in an era when intellectual currents challenge writers’ ability to enter into the experiences of others and accurately represent them.

[I]n our justified desire to level or even obliterate the old power structures—to reclaim our agency when it comes to the representation of selves—we can, sometimes, forget the mystery that lies at the heart of all selfhood. Of what a self may contain that is both unseen and ultimately unknowable. Of what invisible griefs we might share, over and above our many manifest and significant differences. We also forget what writers are: people with voices in our heads and a great deal of inappropriate curiosity about the lives of others.

Amen.

The second, in much the same vein, comes from Sally Rooney’s Normal People, which I reviewed earlier this year:

He knows that a lot of literary people in college see books primarily as a way of appearing cultured. When someone mentioned the austerity protests that night in the Stag’s Head, Sadie threw up her hands and said: No politics, please! Connell’s initial assessment of the reading was not disproven. It was culture as class performance, literature fetishized for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterward feel superior to the uneducated whose emotional journeys they liked to read about. Even if the writer himself was a good person, and even if his book really was insightful, all books were ultimately marketed as status symbols, and all writers participated to some degree in this marketing. Presumably this was how the industry made money. Literature, in the way it appeared in these public readings, had no potential as a form of resistance to anything. Still, Connell went home that night and read over some notes he had been making for a new story, and he felt that old beat of pleasure inside his body, like watching a perfect goal, like the rustling movement of light through leaves, a phrase of music from the window of a passing car. Life offers up these moments of joy despite everything.

The Recesses of Downtown Duluth

15 Oct

On a balmy Wednesday in October, I join some fifty members of my Leadership Duluth class on a walking tour of downtown Duluth. This day of Leadership Duluth is no stray leadership lecture: it’s a day that forces us to confront reality in our city. From the CHUM shelter and food shelf to the Damiano Center food kitchen, from the Safe Haven domestic violence shelter to an open house of social service organizations, this day forces us to see people we otherwise might not see.

A one-day orientation doesn’t allow for much close contact with the people who use these resources; that’s not the point of this day. Instead, we hear from those who spend all of their time working here, the personifications of the leadership this program aims to show us. Among the most deeply embedded is Deb at CHUM, who spends her days reaching out to people on the streets of Duluth, always in some effort to bring them back in. She and her colleagues navigate the tortured paths of love and frustration, of empathy and inability to understand what motivates people to lives on the streets, the drastic turns that a life on the edge can take in a few quick minutes. It is at once both impossible and thoroughly believable to follow the logic that leads a person to the transient inconsistency of a life defined by moves from couch to couch, the transactional life on the street, the turn toward some substance to blunt the cold or pain or demons in the brain.

Whether thanks to inspired leadership or the relative ease of convincing donors to support children, Life House, the city’s largest youth shelter, boasts a warm and welcoming modern space so rare among social service nonprofits that target the poorest of the poor. As families crumble and supportive networks fray, the struggles for Duluth’s youth tick upward. And as I approach the start of my fourth decade on this planet, I now find myself looking at kids and seeing some sense of what they might become, a haunted sense that some of these fresh-faced teens loitering around downtown will someday become CHUM’s clients. A place like Life House may be the last hope for rescuing any of them.

As we walk about, it’s hard not to notice the changing face of First Street. On the west end, the News Tribune and Board of Trade Buildings are both moving toward redevelopment; on the east end, Essentia Health’s massive new hospital project stirs to life. In the middle, scaffolding covers a building at Lake and First, another conversion to housing as Duluth’s downtown catches up with where other cities’ centers were development-wise twenty years ago. Even the bland ARDC building, where I officed for a couple of years before my firm struck out on its own, is getting a facelift, its new façade a marvelously depressing shade of grey.

Another potential project looms on the near east side of First, where the city’s Human Rights Officer, Carl Crawford, delivers the tale of the 1920 Duluth lynchings in his stirring baritone. The Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial plaza frequently bustles with activity, often from visitors to the Union Gospel Mission up the street; today, we share it with just one young woman, who blasts some pop songs as backdrop to Carl’s sermon and sings along in painful off-key tones. None too quietly, she mutters about the white people who have invaded her space. Just the day before, a county court ruled that the Duluth Economic Development Authority may proceed with the demolition of the Pastoret Terrace building across the street, a sad but necessary ending for an architectural icon that has long since crumbled away beyond repair. First Street’s face will change yet again, and I wonder what this woman will think of it when it comes.

Carl asks us to pick out a favorite quotation on the memorial wall. Many are poignant, from Rumi to Oscar Wilde, but I pick out the Martin Luther King quote that stuck with me when I first set eyes on this then-revolutionary memorial over a decade ago: “He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love.” Of all the sentiments on the wall, it seems most absent in our current discourse.

King’s words are grounded in a certain Christian theology, a legacy of service on my mind when we walk up to the Damiano Center on Fourth Street. The Damiano is on the site of an old Catholic campus in the heart of the city: it was Cathedral Elementary School before it became a food kitchen. The site of Cathedral High across the street is now a parking lot, while Sacred Heart Cathedral has become a music venue and the priests’ and nuns’ residences are now housing. Even the church has fled downtown in search of new digs, whether east to Congdon and the Holy Rosary campus or up the hill to the Marshall School, now stripped of any religious affiliation.

No doubt faith can feel absent here, and the tale of the Adas Israel congregation, Duluth’s oldest surviving synagogue and a longtime downtown inhabitant, offers a chilling metaphor for those inclined to that line of thought. Their house of worship went up in flames in September, and initial fears of a hate crime fizzled into a much sadder story of a man without a home who set a small blaze next to the building in order to keep warm. I had reached for some thundering quotes from Eichmann in Jerusalem but was left instead back in the pages of The Human Condition, ever in search of meaning in a corner of the world where life risks becoming a tautology.

The scaffolding and wrecking balls across downtown Duluth hint toward a new future, and I am an unabashed supporter: downtown Duluth above Superior Street is largely a relic of a Rust Belt city center, completely at odds with a city looking for a spurt of fresh life. For that matter, it is at odds with a more humane environment for those who drift about it because they have no other choice, and only a narrow, reflexive idea of community would reject this new development as if the status quo were in some way worth preserving. But if it does go, it will take a few stories with it, and we need to keep those stories somewhere if we are to have a true understanding of our past. Whether the it comes from the Adas Israel congregation rising from the ashes or the Clayton Jackson McGhie memorial ensuring we never forget the acts of 1920 or a kid at Life House finding stability in a life that previously had none, our knowledge of the darkest moments gives us that much more appreciation for the light.

Flawed Education and Millennial Nostalgia: Good Writing, 9/30/19

30 Sep

A quick digest on what I’ve been reading now that I’m back in Duluth after two weeks on the road:

Sometimes I think I could just spend my entire blogging life commenting on George Packer’s work, and he shows off his characteristic range of observation in his account of raising children within the New York school system. He captures the absurdity of the tracking system that tests two-year-olds for admission to preschools, the anxiety suffused through the American meritocracy, and the Trump era over-politicizing of everything by well-meaning progressives and its ensuing effect on children. The opening paragraph is as brilliant a summation of the conscientious parent’s paradox as I’ve ever encountered.

Sticking with the education system, you’ve probably heard about STEM education and how it is supposed to prepare students for the jobs of the future. In American Affairs, Jared Woodward marshals the best data and literature available to show that injecting technology into classrooms has a detrimental effect on actual learning and is a colossal waste of money. One could argue this conflates STEM with a more general influence of technology on learning, but the results are clear enough: the emerging system serves technology, instead of technology serving students.

As an undergrad I frequently took Amtrak back and forth between Minnesota and Washington DC, a wonderfully leisurely way to start or end a semester and move large amounts of personal goods. One of the great highlights of these journeys was a meal in the dining car, where I got to meet random people and share a reasonably good meal. To this, I bring you the deplorable news that Amtrak is beginning to eliminate its dining cars. Most disgustingly, Amtrak is justifying the death of the dining car on the backs of millennials because its officials think we enjoy leading harried, cheap lives devoid of human contact. (Or maybe they know this lifestyle is more a product of being overworked and enduring stagnant incomes, but they also know lazy tropes can help them justify cost-cutting.) This millennial is incensed, and so is Rainesford Stauffer in the New York Times.

On a lighter but still millennial-focused note, Jia Tolentino, the New Yorker’s Official Scribe of the Millennial Zeitgeist, starts a review on the film “Hustlers” but ends up discoursing on her nostalgia for 2008 pop music and its ability to capture that pre-recession moment. If your memories of 2008 also involve slurping on jungle juice while “Love in this Club” pulses away at an underage party, this article is for you. And yes, other generations, you now must endure millennials finding nostalgia for the stupid pop culture moments that defined our quickly fading youth, just as you subjected us to these reminders as we grew up. How fleeting it all seems now. And does anyone else think M.I.A’s “Paper Planes” is a glaring omission from Tolentino’s list?

Let’s close with a quote from Wendell Berry in a semi-recent New Yorker interview:

The thing that worries me very much is how much language we’re using now that is so abstract as to require no thought at all. I mean very important words. Justice, for instance. I had a list, I think, of eleven kinds of justice. Restorative justice, climate justice, economic justice, social justice, and so on. The historian John Lukacs, whose work I greatly respect, said that “the indiscriminate pursuit of justice . . .  may lay the world to waste.” And he invoked modern war, which kills indiscriminately for the sake of some “justice.” He thought the pursuit of truth, small “t,” much safer. I want to remember—and this comes to me from my dad, to some extent—that our system of justice requires a finding of truth, and it labors to see that justice is never done by one person. There’s a jury of twelve. There are two lawyers, at least, and a judge. It doesn’t always work perfectly. Sometimes the result is injustice. But, the effort to discover the truth that goes ahead of judgment is extremely important. It requires us to think about the process and what’s involved.

It’s a very humbling thing, finally. People speak of “the environment.” They don’t know what they’re talking about. “The environment” refers to no place in particular. We’re alive only in some place in particulars.

The Towns Down the River

29 Sep

My education on the travails facing St. Louis was a swift one. On a road trip there for a wedding last weekend, several family members, seeking some beer with which to amuse the group, ventured across the street from the hotel to a Circle K gas station. Each six-pack came to them one-by-one through a drawer from an attendant behind bulletproof glass, a security provision deemed necessary even on this unassuming commercial strip right off an interstate. Next to fried ravioli and Budweiser, St. Louis’s lingering image is one as perhaps the most complete representation of the crumbling of Middle America, a sign of what might await downriver for the rest of us if we’re not careful.

The population of St. Louis is down to about 300,000 from a high of 850,000 in the middle of the 20th century. Streets and buildings frequently nestle behind gates, the divisions of a third-world city brought right into a metro whose urban evolution has followed the same trends. Its many brick facades, I learn, are now often the most prized part of a house, and many get removed and shipped off for use elsewhere. Unlike many Rust Belt towns, St. Louis’s fate wasn’t tied to the rise and demise of a single industry; its struggles stem from the gradual decline of a range of industries and a steady stream of buyouts by larger multinationals. I now understand why Jonathan Franzen named one of his early novels about his hometown The Twenty-Seventh City to note its decline from a great American metro to a middling status. (My copy made this trip with me, but I never opened it.)

St. Louis also lacks the perversely romantic ruin porn of Detroit. Its greatest testament to urban planning failure, Pruitt-Igoe, is now partially repurposed and partially a vacant field. Pruitt-Igoe was to be the modernist model for how to build public housing: 28,000 units designed by Minoru Yamasaki, the celebrated designer of the World Trade Center in New York. Less than twenty years later the whole thing was demolished. The failure of Pruitt-Igoe is often billed as a failure of architecture; Charles Jencks, an architecture critic, called its demolition “the day modern architecture died.”

It’s certainly true that the complex suffered from shoddy construction, and that architecture alone cannot make good citizens in the way some of the more absurd modernist dreamers in that field liked to believe, to ruinous effect. But the greater tragedy of Pruitt-Igoe stems not from its design but from an environment that doomed it to failure: a crumbling economy, blatant segregation, poor city management that destroyed St. Louis’s tax base, and a political climate that had no desire to see public housing succeed. For those who defend those systems, explicitly or implicitly, the architects are a convenient scapegoat. The failures of Pruitt-Igoe endure, its ghosts appearing on the streets of suburban Ferguson in recent years.

As with Detroit, there is still plenty of growth and commerce around St. Louis. It enjoys a large ring of well-off suburbs where plenty of people, including some members of my family, have settled in to happy lives. But it is also an ideal study in how major trends, from economic centralization to government division, can be the lasting difference between cities that are challenged but thriving and those that have come to exemplify the worst of contemporary America. The St. Louis experience offers a compelling case for regional governance and an indictment of a range of incentives and policies, whether malignant or merely misguided, that created the divides of a power in decline.

I don’t want to linger on the negatives for too long. St. Louis has a dramatic arch, and two Grade A large city parks that date to its World’s Fair days, complete with a zoo and a botanical garden. The City Museum, which I explore with a couple of relatives after the reception, is a true marvel, a playground for all ages in the shell of an otherwise vacant old building, the wreckage of a shrinking city repurposed into tunnels and slides and other stray sources of amusement. I’ll be back here in the future, and I hope to find a few more worthy sights. But on this weekend I settle for rolling in and out in a heartbeat, with long drives across downstate Illinois and Iowa to slow down the time along the way. Rarely is it memorable, save for windows into the less dramatic but equally damning rural decay that line the four-lane rivers of commerce that have replaced the Mississippi as the lifeblood of these towns.

*          *          *

Some two hours north of St. Louis, on the banks of the Mississippi, sits Hannibal, the boyhood hometown of Samuel Clemens before he became Mark Twain. He didn’t live there long, but this town of 17,000 left an indelible mark on one of America’s most celebrated writers. Like any small town that has had a brush with fame (and many that haven’t but would like to think they have), Hannibal is all in on its famed son, with Twain kitsch and a full cottage industry around him on full display. We enter town down rather dismal, run-down streets amid a rainstorm, but downtown Hannibal is cute and well-kept, and the Twain Boyhood Home and Museum, which sprawls across several buildings and blocks, is worth the $12. We get a full overview of Clemens’ early life, and the town smartly keeps its emphasis on his early years which were so formative for his two best-known works, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Those two icons of American literature are clearly children of Hannibal, and each of the major figures in those books had direct real-life parallels.

Beyond Hannibal, Twain’s fortunes have risen and fallen over time. The museum acknowledges the controversies surrounding Huck Finn, both for its transgressive language at the time of its publication and its contemporary fall from grace for its repeated use of a word we now consider vile in polite speech. A panel in the museum shows dueling quotes from writers on this flap, with Toni Morrison blasting anyone who’d shy away from an accurate account of historical language and Jane Smiley suggesting that, if Huck Finn is the book that sets the context for discussions of race in America, it’s letting us set an awfully low bar.

Both points can probably be true. There are certainly more effective and searing testaments to the reality of racial conflict in America than the writings of a white man from over a century ago. The problem comes from trying to see Huck Finn only through that lens: it’s a major theme in the book, yes, and there’s certainly something to Huck’s growing understanding of racial divisions that readers can learn from, perhaps especially because Huck is by no means privileged but can still see injustice in front of him. (An exhibit in the Becky Thatcher House does a good job of laying out 19th century Hannibal’s class boundaries for a young audience.) And Twain also deserves judgment by the context of his day: sure, some language no longer resonates, but he was a dedicated and consistent champion of racial equality at a time when that was often a bold take. He wrote a book-length diatribe against the atrocities of King Leopold of Belgium in the Congo, and he blasted injustice around the world, from Boers in South Africa to servitude of Pacific Islanders in Australia. He also oversaw the rehabilitation of Ulysses S. Grant’s reputation through the publication of his memoirs, a vital corrective to a Southern narrative of Reconstruction as a failure and Grant as a bumbling and corrupt commander-in-chief. I have little patience for armchair critics of a man who consistently used his station to combat injustices everywhere.

Twain endures because he embodies the best of the American narrative. He is often wickedly funny, an astute observer of American reality using a vernacular, that, if sometimes less accessible now, was a vital step in literature’s move away from endless highbrow blather to something accessible to all classes. His realism was for everyone, and dedicated to a democratic spirit. He burst on to the scene documenting the freshness of American thought against stodgy Europeans in The Innocents Abroad, and he set his country to overcoming such ugliness as slavery and racism, which he himself had benefitted from as a child. In this vein, his great characters are adolescents: not yet fully formed, burdened by family history and their instincts but still capable of greatness or redemption no matter their backgrounds. Tom and Huck speak to the possibility of boyhood, and Twain’s nostalgia for his early days when a small-town American childhood blurred very real class lines. That formative experience may no longer be possible in the St. Louis metropolitan area, and if that is indeed the case, it’s a major loss.

A dive into a Hannibal childhood stirs some agrarian corner of my soul, itself grounded in an early-life sojourn in a town of 4,000 where I formed my first memories. As with Twain, that small town was my sandbox for my first steps into writing. This road trip’s final day includes a push through the land I associate with those early years: the hilltop farms and meandering coulees and oak savannas of Wisconsin’s Driftless Area. The towns here seem better kept, better able to avoid the shabbiness on display in Iowa or Missouri or, for that matter, northern Minnesota. On a golden early fall morning, I don’t much mind getting stuck behind a house on wheels as I wind up and down these verdant hills. These hills are reminders of a time when I, too, had no sense of the divides I can’t help but see now, and remind me that the dream embodied in Twain’s characters isn’t useless nostalgia, but a dream of how things could be.

30 Hours in Vermont

23 Sep

Airports are normally among the more placeless places in existence, but upon my arrival in Burlington, Vermont, I know I’m in a different sort of place. Wooden reliefs with maps and quotes cover the walls, and a row of rocking chairs runs down the center of the concourse. Most stunningly, a series of quotes on the state’s opioid crisis lines the glass skywalk to the parking garage, a raw admission of a glaring issue and a call for redemption all at once. I develop an immediate appreciation for Vermont’s willingness to confront reality and be itself. If jetting in and out in 30 hours can really give one a true appreciation for a state, I got one in my two quick nights in the state last week.

I make the 40-mile drive from Burlington to Montpelier beneath a giant moon just past its full stage, gently coasting down I-89 through the Winooski River Valley. The Vermont State House is lit up for the night, but the town is silent, and half a block away I find my resting place at the Capitol Plaza Hotel, a grand old thing with rich red carpeting and textured wallpaper and some intricate woodwork here and there. It also shows its age at times, with its questionable elevator and inconsistent updates to some of fixtures in its bathrooms, but I decide this slightly-past-its-prime grandeur is exactly my style. The night desk attendant, a middle-aged man in a sweater and suit coat one might mistake for an English professor, sets me on my way, and after a lengthy but successful struggle with an iron, I turn in for the night.

I wake to find Montpelier blanketed in fog, but get out for a quick run so I can see the town before I confine myself to a conference and then bid it farewell. The downtown is picture book New England quaint cuteness, a couple of main streets lined with restaurants and bookstores and a few church steeples rising above it all. The side streets are lined with more slightly shabby grandeur, old Victorians and Federalist homes, many of them with peeling paint or carved up into separate apartment units. I struggle up a hill to the Vermont College of the Arts and make my way back down around town before an aggressive climb up a steep hill in Hubbard Park, which lords over the city and offers a few vistas through the mist.

I’m in Montpelier to speak at conference on opportunity zones, a federal tax incentive that tries to make everyone happy by giving rich people a tax break for investing in projects in designated low-income or high-poverty zones. The incentive, a product of the 2017 tax cut bill, certainly can be abused, as recent accounts highlight all too clearly. But with up-front community planning we can also drive conversations to focus these funds on projects with a social impact, and in Minnesota, a couple of colleagues and I have worked to do just that. Our grassroots effort is, to my pleasant surprise, one my new Vermont friends would like to emulate.

While I don’t know if anyone explicitly planned it this way, a northern Minnesotan is a good fit for a conference on economic development in Vermont. The state’s chief metropolitan area, Burlington, is roughly the size of Duluth, and both cities are regional centers for some old towns tucked away in the hills. Despite its cool vibe, some of the figures wandering downtown Burlington wouldn’t look out of place in downtown Duluth. Outside of those two outdoorsy metros, the poverty isn’t extreme, but not much is growing, either. The opioid crisis afflicts them all, but they also have rich histories and a promise of renewal. I find no shortage of common ground with the conference attendees, even though the visit is brief.

After the conference I take the scenic route back to Burlington. It follows U.S. Highway 2, the same road that works its way through Superior and Duluth, and it weaves around the interstate and the Winooski and through a few more classic New England downtowns before it heads into suburban Burlington. I head downtown after checking in to my hotel, and after an initial rush of envy over the Church Street pedestrian mall and a molten gold Lake Champlain at sunset, I start to do some calculus on how Burlington stacks up to my hometown. Duluth wins on stunning natural environment: its lake is superior, its ridgeline more prominent, its parks full of more hidden gems. It seems to have more prominent neighborhoods, while Burlington devolves into more of a series of urban strips out toward its airport and beyond. Burlington, meanwhile, wins for its compact urban form: a walkable downtown, a college campus with immediate access to said downtown, a planning regime that has figured out that bike lanes are not some great menace to urban commerce. Church Street is a gem, its food and beer scenes are superb, and the attractions are all in one general area instead of sprawled out across and segregated between a tourist-heavy Canal Park and a dead-after-five downtown and up-and-coming Lincoln Park. Duluth’s leaders should spend some times comparing notes with their brethren on Lake Champlain.

In many ways, Vermont exemplifies northeastern liberalism at its best: tight-knit democratic communities, a sense of history and order and progress, a belief in education and knowledge for its own sake, connections to the natural world. The downsides: arcane state-level zoning limits that stifle any development or drive it further outward, part of a broader struggle to reconcile a wish for personal freedom with that puritan sense of order; an abstract commitment to humanity that upholds laudable principles but sometimes forgets that societies must meet their constituents at both their best and worst, and also sometimes forgets that leaving a better world for future generations means actually cultivating said next generations. All of those traits, the good and the bad, are all too familiar from my own circles back in Duluth.

My early flight the next day gives me one last glimpse of beauty, with a bank of morning fog spilled like a river of milk down the valley of the Winooski. Vermont and I, I realize, have much to learn from one another. Yes, I want to measure my Minnesota work against the efforts of a comparable place, and I also hope to explore some Green Mountain hamlets, cruise Champlain, strap on some skis at Stowe, meander Middlebury, and eat more food like that incredible burger with foie gras and drink more beer from its many excellent breweries. Vermont, I shall return.