About Jason Luger

I am an urban theorist, practitioner, researcher, and lecturer. All opinions are my own.

Envisioning Cities in an Authoritarian Age

Is there such a thing as an ‘authoritarian city?’ If so, where is this city,  what does it look like, how does it operate, and what are the textures of the power flows within, across, and beyond it?

Foucault (1980) envisioned a circular, rather than top-down flow of power, in a similar vein to the way that Arendt (1958) complicated extant understandings of power flows from, and across, the grassroots.

 

climate_change

Indeed, if urbanism is global in scale and planetary in operations (as Brenner and Schmid, 2015 propose), then perhaps authoritarianism is likewise planetary. And if this is so, then all cities are, by extension, comprised of the full range of authoritarian flows, processes, structures, and institutions. Such a reality would necessitate a huge broadening of the approach to authoritarianism, urban studies, and the geographies of power, which often sit cloistered in area studies or political science research. If there is no ‘Global East’, ‘Global West’, or territorial delineation between ‘liberal’ and ‘illiberal’ – which is a fair argument, given the rise of dictators in the United States and the rise of liberal arts colleges in places such as Singapore – then how to expand and deepen the understanding of power, place, and the urban? I propose that such an expansion is necessary as we continue the paradigmatic shift into a new planetary authoritarian age.

Arendt, H. (1958) The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Brenner, N. and Schmid, C. (2015) Towards a new epistemology of the urban? City, 19(2-3), pp.151-182.

Foucault, M. (1980) Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972–1977. Pantheon Books, New York, NY.

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The Amazon-Race: Are we Edgy, Real, and Urban Enough for Jeff Bezos?

At the time of this writing, 238 cities have submitted official bids to Amazon in order to be considered for Amazon’s second headquarters, supplementing their base in Seattle.

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There is a long and ongoing debate within economic geography (and related fields) about the costs and benefits of such competitions for major corporate expansions and relocations. Literature can be found that is supportive of intra-urban competition, tax incentives, and boasts of the intangible economic multipliers and dividends that these companies can bring (sometimes academic, but often led by think-tanks and consultancies). More critical literature (from geographers such as David Harvey, and many others who have critiqued the neoliberal urban economy) questions whether awarding companies such as Amazon tax and other incentives really pays off, especially in addressing structural problems and societal injustices. To be fair, a nuanced exploration can find examples where incentives might be judged to have succeeded, and others where they have clearly failed.

Regardless of this ongoing debate, one thing that is fascinating to me (and relatively unexplored) is the way that cities (and regions) present themselves during these processes, culminating in the 5-minute “bid videos” that are hand-crafted by local officials to showcase certain aspects that the courted company (in this case, Amazon), might find appealing. “Bid videos” are perhaps more famous when used for mega-events such as the Olympics, but are often featured in economic development efforts of the corporate type. For the viewer, they run the spectrum from inspiring to cringeworthy.

The psychology of the city bid video could be a sub-field within urban cultural studies, and I think would make a pretty interesting research sub-agenda (and a really fun conference session or two). From this topic, a series of questions emerge that deserve exploration:

Who is involved in these efforts, and what informs their worldviews?

Why are certain subjects, images, themes, symbols, sounds, and text chosen – and what are the meanings (or attempted meanings) attached to them?

Who ‘owns’ a city’s self-identity – and at what point is this agreed upon, or in a state of constant negotiation and formation, what are the competing conceptions of identity?

Where are the misunderstandings and disconnects between what local groups ‘think’ a company like Amazon wants, and what Amazon’s decision makers are really looking for?

To what degree do notions of ‘cultural capital’ and ‘habitus’ (referring to Bourdieu) deliberately or non-deliberately enter these processes; the subtle spoken and unspoken cues and clues meant to reach and connect with certain audiences?

What power relationships, power geometries, and uneven / exploitative structures are reinforced, questioned, or challenged in these efforts and marketing materials? Are there opportunities for subversions; for resistances; for progressive transformations – or must this be an (and caught within) inherently unjust neoliberal process / processes?

I link here (below) two similar, and yet so different, videos in the AMAZON-RACE: Charlotte’s (cringeworthy) effort to be seen as an edgy, hip, urban Millennial hotspot (count how many times the word “millennial” is mentioned in the video) and Detroit’s (somewhat more inspirational) showcase of its unique identity.

Both, interestingly, are written / performed in “spoken word” – the urban poetry form that is often associated with contemporary intellectual African-American-hipster communities. For Detroit, a city that has been majority African-American for decades, and is a national and international center of African-American music, culture and history – this representation seems somewhat natural (even given Amazon’s relative whiteness, coming from Seattle, a city in the least African-American part of the country). For Charlotte, however, there is a bigger question mark: is it to appease Pacific Northwesterners who might be wary of lasting racial attitudes in a Southern city? An effort to seem culturally relevant, offering the sort of culture that so-called Millennials are deemed to want and crave? Or a badly-disguised and unapologetic appropriation of an urban African-American art form for a corporate relocation largely planned by and benefiting affluent whites? Or, is it simply an example of what local critics have previously called Charlotte’s “Pinocchio” syndrome – the incessant need to say, “look, papa, I’m a REAL city!?” (with “Papa” in this case being Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man).

Perhaps these conclusions are best left to the eye and interpretation of the viewer, or a researcher interested in further exploring these questions. And the conclusions may be informed by whichever city Amazon picks, if indeed, their exercise is not just illusory.

Detroit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DO4J_PC1b5M

Charlotte: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8s1-0khtLps&t=6s

Whither the Creative City? The Comeuppance of Richard Florida

Talent, Technology, and Tolerance, said Florida (2002), were the pre-conditions for a successful urban economy. Florida’s ‘creative class’ theory, much copied, emulated and critically maligned, delineated urban regions with ‘talent’ (PhDs); ‘technology’ (things like patents granted); and ‘tolerance’ (represented by a rather arbitrary ‘gay index’ of same-sex households in census data).

This combination, according to Florida’s interpretation of his data, indicated urban creative ‘winners’ versus urban ‘losers’: blue collar cities with more traditional economies and traditional worldviews. Creative people want to be around other creative people, wrote Florida, so failing to provide an ideal urban environment for them will result in their ‘flight’ (2005) and the loss of all the benefits of the creative economy. Therefore, to win in the ‘new economy’ (Harvey, 1989), cities need to compete for, and win the affections of, the ‘creative class’. Or so Florida then-believed.

Policymakers were keen to spread the ‘gospel’ of the ‘creative city’ (Peck, 2005) and despite its methodological question marks, the idea has found traction in both North American/European and Non-Western contexts. Florida’s books were ‘required reading’ for urban policy officials in Singapore, for example – one direct quote given to me during my doctoral research on cultural policy in the City-State (2012-2013). The rather awkward linkage between Florida’s North-American theoretical perspective and Singapore’s loosening restrictions on ‘table top dancing’ (in the words of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong) is just one of many examples of the haphazard yet fervent application of policies geared toward an envisioned (and mythologized) ‘creative’ elite.

The elite nature of the ‘creatives’ that Florida conjured into being, and the sharp delineation between urban ‘winners’ (creative) and ‘losers’ (non-creative), were not lost on Florida’s critics (among them, Peck 2005; McCann, 2007; Zimmerman, 2008), who quickly equated these ideas as neoliberal economics wrapped in a one-size-fits-all disguise.

This division, however, has become especially prescient since the 2008 financial crash, and in light of the sweeping socio-political movements that swept populist leaders like Donald Trump into power. What unifies populist movements from ‘Make America Great Again’ to ‘Brexit’ are reactions against urban elites and globally-focused cosmopolitan ideas. In other words, the very things Florida suggested cities needed to win.

Map of ‘Brexit’ Voting Patterns, with London inset 

It seems that Florida himself, who has made a (successful) career out of the ‘creative city’ thesis, has now come full circle and has re-thought, critically, his own theories (having sold enough copies of his books to enable him the luxury of such a self-critique).

His recent book, ‘The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class – and What we Can Do About It’ (2017), recognizes the problems in the increasing gap between elite, cosmopolitan cities and more traditional / conservative hinterlands. Indeed, Florida recognizes this gap is tearing apart the fabric of society, a fair and just observation.

Florida’s new argument is a sort of conceptual throat-clearing of why this gap is problematic and he adopts a much more left-wing approach than he has taken previously in suggesting some ways to combat the divide (solutions like affordable housing built on a mass scale, to make it easier for people of all incomes to live and remain in ‘winning’ cities where they are now priced out and displaced). The achievability of these solutions are left for urban policy officials to figure out, but the sentiment, at least, mirrors the growing and urgent call for housing equity in the world’s most expensive (and unequal) cities.

So, perhaps the new book represents the self-imposed end of the ‘creative city’ paradigm (which had a lifespan from 2002 to 2017, a healthy 15 years). The ‘creative city’ is dead, even if still dominant (to re-phrase Neil Smith’s 2008 musings on neoliberalism’s demise and and paradoxical resilience). If, as critics attested, the ‘creative city’ is inherently a neoliberal concept, then, as neoliberalism collapses under its own crisis-prone weight, so must the ‘creative city’. So what comes next?

What I find remarkable about this shift is the rapid speed at which the discourse has changed. Florida was not the only voice in the 2000-2017 time period arguing for the dominance of ‘winning’ cities: see also Edward Glaeser’s book ‘The Triumph of the City’, (2011) which in a slightly different yet similar vein, outlines a winning model of a city that has ‘made us richer, smarter, greener’ (with Manhattan portrayed on the book’s cover). And associated policy – pieces on ‘super-mayors’, and the potential for individual cities to change the world, released by urban think tanks (based in some of Florida’s ‘winners’).

From Silicon Valley’s homeless camps to London’s tragic Grenfell fire and the rejection of that city by Brexit voters, it now seems that the world’s dominant (economically, anyway) cities have emerged into the post-neoliberal age as highly vulnerable (rather than simply ‘winners’) and rife with problems. Furthermore, the resilience of deep poverty, and a falling standard of living in cities in the Global South (and North), pose difficult questions for urbanists who have long considered the ‘city’ as the ideal form of human settlement. If the city isn’t making us richer, smarter, or greener – and by extension, if the city is causing dangerous socio-cultural-political divides that threaten to topple longstanding stable world governments and institutions – then is the way forward anti-urban, decentralized and bucolic, as envisioned by earlier urbanists such as Frank Lloyd Wright (in his vision for ‘Broadacre City’, 1935?).

Wright’s ‘Broadacre City’, 1935

As new technologies like driverless cars and IT infrastructure continue to shrink distances and re-shape settlement and labor patterns, and as anti-urban movements re-shape the political landscape in dramatic and paradigmatic ways,  it remains to be seen which cities will ‘win’ or ‘lose’ in the future;  or even if the city will remain the prototype for human co-habitation at all. Indeed, the future might be a rural one: will Florida’s next book be entitled ‘The Creative Hinterland,’ written from the comfort of a self-sustaining 40-acre exurban ranch?

The City of Tomorrow…Today

I recently attended an event in San Francisco sponsored by Ford Motor Company called ‘The City of Tomorrow’, focusing on the future of urban mobility.

http://fordcityoftomorrow.com/

Topics included driverless technology, such as recreational driverless cars, delivery and public transit. Speakers from the public and private sectors as well as academia moderated discussions on the implications of this new technology and some positive, and potentially troubling outcomes. Since Ford is bullish on driverless technology, the overall spin was a positive one – though critical questions from the audience were addressed (such as the potential mass unemployment that automation might induce). Millions of jobs depend on ‘driving’, from delivery and logistics to taxis and other services. Speakers discussed the positive benefits – time saving; cleaner air; fewer accidents; less sprawl; less congestion, and a public realm free of parking lots and exhaust. But there were also questions like, ‘will people walk less, if their car will drive them places? Will this lead to more, rather than less, obesity?’. Different speakers had different angles.

But all speakers agreed on one thing: these changes are underway, not hypothetical. Tomorrow is today. 

One of the speakers was Ford C.E.O. James Hackett, who discussed Ford’s future vision to the roughly 600 attendees (a mix of industry types, city planners and mobility policy officials, and the odd academic like myself). The overall feel was rather utopian, with futurist quotes and slogans about inclusivity, participation and just outcomes.

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I found the event chillingly timely, given the comparisons to the Ford pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens, New York. That fair’s concept was ‘The World of Tomorrow’, and Ford presented a model ‘City of Tomorrow’ with ‘Roads of Tomorrow’, showcasing the emerging trend of superhighways and modernist-sprawling urban forms.

Ford Pavilion ‘Roads of Tomorrow’ at 1939 World’s Fair, New York

Then, as now, society was at the cusp of exciting, yet dramatic technological changes that would re-shape and reconfigure cities and urban life. More darkly, I was reminded that now, as was the case then, we are at time of rising authoritarianism and rising right-wing and left-wing social movements. The many other parallels to draw between 1939 and today are well documented in current popular discussions.

As we now know, the ‘tomorrow’ after 1939 was not utopian, but extremely dystopian, with the world descending into war, and right-wing hysteria leading to the invention of industrial-scale genocide. War aside, we also now know that Ford’s vision for a personal-car based urban world of mass suburbanization, which seemed like a good future at the time, was fundamentally unsustainable. The deliberate destruction of public transit systems (in the USA, a process that was pushed by Ford and its suppliers); the stretching of cities into highway-clogged agglomerations, and the dispersal of jobs into far-flung locations has resulted in a host of problems, from fossil-fuel related climate change to the structural poverty, obesity, and social alienation endemic to sprawl. Sprawl has been blamed for everything from the current socio-cultural divides that are tearing apart America’s political fabric, to the housing bubble that caused the 2008-2009 financial crisis. ‘The City on the Highway’, as Peter Hall outlined (in his book ‘Cities of Tomorrow’, 1988) is fundamentally a segregated and dysfunctional urban form.

Once again, Ford is promising a vision of the future. Once again, we await tomorrow, today, with optimism and a tinge of fearful apprehension.

On Good v. Bad Urban Government, City-States, and Cultural Symbols: Reflections from Fallen / Falling Empires

On a recent trip to Italy, I had the pleasure of visiting the cities of Rome and Siena. Rome, the “Eternal City”, enchants with its multiple layers of history. The modern city super-imposed on several earlier urban texts: Mussolini’s functional and monumental fascist infrastructure on top of the Baroque city of flourishes and curves; the neo-classical Renaissance city on top of a messy Medieval street grid; Medieval housing blocks on top of ancient Roman foundations, which in turn sit upon even earlier foundations (Greek, Etruscan, etc.). A shopkeeper informed me that beneath her shop was an Egyptian temple.

Siena, one of the powerful and wealthy Renaissance city-states, arguably the Frankfurt of its time in terms of its banking dynasties (Monte dei Paschi di Siena is still one of Italy’s largest banks), sits atop a hill crowned by a marble-clad cathedral.

I have visited Italy before, most recently in 2009 and before that, studied one undergraduate semester in Rome (in 2004). But this summer’s visit felt especially timely and powerful, given the stories that these ancient cities tell about the waves of history and the rise and fall of empires. It is perhaps cliched to compare Rome’s rise and fall to Pax Americana and / or the rise and fall of the global capitalist empire, but it is hard to avoid such comparisons (at the time of this writing, a controversial play portrays Donald Trump as Julius Caeser, widely considered Rome’s first dictator). The Colosseum towers above the crowds with its numbered entries, as global cities build and destroy sport arenas constructed in the same way. The market (or shopping malls of its day) of Emperor Trajan (below) crumbles beneath modern retail advertisements, as modern retail itself creatively destroys itself with Amazon and drone-delivery. History is always present.

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In particular, I was struck with three thoughts while meandering through cobblestone streets.

1. Urban Governance as “Bad” or “Good”: Both the ancient Roman urban world and the Renaissance Italian era had very strong and well-developed concepts of “good” v. “bad” urban government, that are directly relatable to our contemporary era. 21st-century urban governance is fraught, difficult, and increasingly characterized by divides and schisms within the new global populism. “Good” urban mayors emerge as global superstars (in popular imagination, LA’s Villaraigosa or Bogota’s Penelosa come to mind); while “bad” mayors seem determined to destroy, rather than to build, urban best practice (Toronto’s Rob Ford one recent example). In an urban world where an increasing majority of humans live in cities, and cities compete globally in an interlinked economy, the difference between good and bad urban governance has huge implications.

This was starkly the case as well in 14th century Siena. While touring Siena’s medieval city hall, I came across three frescoes dating from 1338-1339, painted by Amborgio Lorenzetti, representing the allegory of “good and bad government” (see below). 20170622_154044

“Bad government” (above) features the devil-like horned tyrant, while the captive figure of Justice lies bound. They are flanked by the figures of Cruelty, Deceit, Fraud, Fury, Division, and War, and above, float the figures of Avarice, Pride, and Vainglory. These figures, according to an advice book for city magistrates of the time, were considered to be the “leading enemies of human life” (Skinner, 2009). Surely these same character flaws apply to many vainglorious modern mayors, council members, civic leaders. 20170622_154033Meanwhile, in the allegory of “good government” above, there are six crowned, stately female figures: Peace, Fortitude and Prudence on the left, Magnanimity, Temperance and Justice on the right. “Peace”, however, sits upon a cache of weapons: a city maintains its peace but must not surrender its strength if attacked.

In the new populism, cities around the world are maligned, otherized, and blamed for many of society’s ills (e.g. the anti-urban language of New Yorker Donald Trump, or the anti-London rhetoric of the pro-Brexit discourse in Britain). Siena’s leaders understood the power of good urban governance as a tool to placate the people, a lesson relevant today.

2. City-States as a Natural Political / Economic / Cultural Organization

Medieval and Renaissance Italy was not a unified nation (that wouldn’t happen until the 1870s), but rather a competitive collection of powerful, autonomous City-States that gained commercial, political and cultural dominance at different times. Venice, Genoa, Florence and Siena are just four examples of this territorial organization. Each city maintained a powerful army; had a powerful economic competitive advantage usually centered around one or a cluster of specialized trades; and also cultivated a unique sense of self and culture through the patronage of art and architecture. Time also cultivated a distinctly local, rather than national sense of belonging; unique customs and traditions, and in many cases even distinct dialects and languages.

The 19th century through the end of the Cold War was a period of national unification and amalgamation, as unique cities with centuries of history were swept up into the re-ordering of empires and joined into (often artificial) nation-state boundaries. “Italy” and “Germany” came into being; and “Yugoslavia” was just one example of the blurring of smaller boundaries into a larger whole. The advent of the European Union in the late 20th century is perhaps the most prescient example of the collapsing of the city-state layer of government into a broader sense of global region. Many other national and supra-national clusters emerged, from NAFTA and MERCOSUR to ASEAN and OPEC. Urbanism was envisioned by theorists as increasingly “planetary” (see Brenner, 2014), embedded in relational global flows and networks and no longer tied specifically to particular geographies. Harvey (1989) predicted this new global urban geography in late capitalism, as global supply chains and labour flows circulated more rapidly in an increasingly flat world.

However, more recently, the failures of the 19th and 20th-century conception of the “nation state” or even “global region” seem to point again to the primacy of the City-State as a rational, and even utopian, scale of global territorial governance and organization. One can point toward the (economic) success of City-State models such as Singapore, or to the increasing dominance of mayors and urban leaders in terms of global governance and policy. Localism has challenged notions of state, nation and region from Brexit to the continued attack on Federalism v. State in the United States (by the right-wing); cities in the Global South are emerging as command centers for larger and larger hinterlands as rural to urban migrations continue from Africa to China. Indeed, some argue that in certain contexts, effective national governance is becoming nearly impossible. Britain continues to devolve power to locally-elected mayors (following the American model). As the United States rejects global climate change accords, its mayors commit their cities to CO2 reduction.

Amidst the flows of the current populist Balkanization (which also manifests in cyberspace), we may be returning to an age like that in which Siena fought for dominance with its urban counterparts.

3. Cultural Symbols as Essential to the Old, and New Nationalism 

20170629_163545Somewhat contrasting the observations above, I had another thought while meandering through the ruins of the Roman Forum. The most poignant artifact I encountered was the Temple of the Vestal Virgins (above), where beautiful statues of the Vestal Virgins have miraculously survived the millenia. The Virgins guarded the “Sacred Fire of Vesta”, Rome’s eternal flame, and its most poignant and holy cultural symbol. Popular lore stated that should the flame be extinguished, so would Rome’s heart. Entry to the Temple was strictly forbidden, save for a select few.

As the Roman Empire slowly collapsed due to both internal and external forces, splitting into two (with the power center moving East to Constantinople) and sacked / burned several times by marauding intruders, still the flame burned.

Finally, in  394 AD, by order of the Christian Emperor Theodosius I, the rites of Vesta ended and the fire was extinguished. A collective sigh resonated through Rome’s chattering classes, chronicled by Roman historians. The weight of this symbolic act was apparent, even then.

This anecdote was chilling to me. I began to think about what our contemporary cultural symbols are: what is the metaphorical “fire” that burns at the heart of our civilization? What is the eternal flame that maintains human light, hope, development? What will it look like were it to be extinguished, and it what ways might this happen?

Has our eternal flame already been extinguished, and will future historians be able to point to an event that has already occurred, to events occurring all around us today?

As we continue to lament the fall of many of our institutions (in America, for example, bipartisan government; public education; a non-partisan judiciary, just to name three), we may be too distracted to notice when indeed, the fire is put out. Let’s hope we keep it burning.

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‘Angels’, and the myth of the ‘New South’

Jason Luger

ANGELS-jumbo

 

Figure 1: Still from Broadway revival of ‘Angels in America’, 2017.

Fallen Angels in the Queen City 

Twenty – one years ago, the Charlotte Repertory Theater staged Tony Kushner’s award-winning play, ‘Angels in America: a Gay Fantasia on National Themes’. Known as the ‘Queen City’, Charlotte was named for King George III’s German wife, Charlotte Sophia of Mecklenburg -Strelitz: her buxom statue greets travelers as they arrive at Douglas International Airport. This fact is not lost on area drag queens.

Charlotte, then just emerging as a major national banking and transportation center, gained international headlines when ‘Angels’ – which is about AIDS, politics and gay life in 1980s New York – was forcibly closed after the city cut funding to the Repertory Theater. There had been an angry backlash from the city’s influential evangelical community (including local celebrity the Reverend Billy Graham) about the show’s themes – in particular, the fact that city funding was supporting a play focusing on the homosexual experience. Charlotte, ever conscious of its reputation vis ‘the New South’ and imbued with the civic boosterism so common in Southeast boomtowns, found itself engulfed in a cultural war which pitted cosmopolitans against hometown Bible Belt values. As seen in the Economist (below), and the New York Times (‘Play Displays a Growing City’s Cultural Tensions’, 22 March 1996), Charlotte’s episode became a national conversation about the arts, the public, and the city. The play had, by this time, opened and toured in a number of cities across the country, but few had seen the type of controversy and feverish public discourse that Charlotte witnessed (Nielsen, 2008; Tepper, 2011).

economist

No gays, please, we’re Carolinian

 Apr 24th 1997 | CHARLOTTE

Home to Fortune-500 companies like NationsBank (now Bank of America) and Wachovia (now Wells Fargo), with a new NFL team (Panthers) and major hub airport (US Airways, now American Airlines), Charlotte’s ‘New South’ identity was suddenly paralyzed.

This would not be the city’s last cultural war, and it certainly wasn’t the first.

The ‘New South’ Myth 

Jim Crow

Figure 2: Life under Jim Crow in North Carolina (1940s).

If Atlanta was ‘the city too busy to hate’, as civic boosters claimed during the precarious years of desegregation, Charlotte (in some ways, Atlanta’s little sister), was the city where making deals trumped everything. Born out of textile looms and convenient road and rail intersections, Charlotte had established itself by the mid – 20th century as the Carolina’s largest metropolitan area and a growing financial center. Race relations, Charlotte leaders claimed, took a back seat to the city’s overall progress. In 1971, Charlotte became a national test-case for mandatory busing to desegregate public schools as a result of the landmark case ‘Swann vs the Mecklenburg Board of Education’, which upheld busing as a Constitutional, and indeed necessary, antidote to the legacy of Jim Crow.

In the 1980s, Harvey Gantt, an African-American businessman, became mayor, and Charlotte was seen as a model of desegregation compared to other Southern peers, with a meritocratic leadership structure and democratic civil society. By the 1990s, Charlotte was shaking off the dust of its humble, pious, yeoman Scotch-Irish origins. A flood of newcomers to the region – many from the Midwest and Northeast – had changed the demographics considerably: Charlotteans were just as likely to be from Pittsburgh or Cleveland as they were from the rural South. Embarrassing scandals had seen the downfall of televangelist celebrities like Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, and local business leaders like Hugh McColl – the CEO of NationsBank, and later Bank of America – had aspirations that went not heavenward, but with an eye to competing with major financial centers for talent and commercial prestige.

The arts, leaders like McColl believed, were crucial to this effort to attract talent and cement Charlotte’s reputation as a worthy home of some of the nation’s largest banks. NationsBank built a monumental new headquarters in 1992, at the time one of the tallest buildings in the country, and attached to the lobby was a new performing arts center.

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Figure 3: Charlotte city skyline, 2016.

But like the mythological financial instruments traded in these glassy, neo-gothic towers (such as the ‘Collateralized Debt Obligations’ that went ‘poof!’ in 2008-2009), the ‘New South’ shimmered / shimmers like a desert mirage, a Potemkin village, a fable. Just as ‘the South’ was a construction based on the necessity of racial and class subjugation, the ‘New South’ emerged as a necessary snake oil, a smoke and mirror act, to hasten the neoliberal remaking of the southern textile town and quickly sweep racial scars and ‘fire and brimstone’ tent revivals under the proverbial rug.

In 1996, the ‘Angels’ controversy erupted. By this time, scholars such as Kuklinski et al., (1997) had already begun to debunk the ‘New South’ myth and the fallacy of a post-racial Sunbelt. Indeed, it just so happened that many of the newcomers from other places reinforced, rather than challenged, extant southern racial attitudes and prejudices. After all, Henry Grady, the Atlantan who had coined the term ‘New South’ in 1890 – had not foreseen a region of class or race equity, but rather a resurgent South of industry and modernism. The birth of the New South, and its roads, textile mills and country clubs – coincided with a re-affirmation of white supremacy and the legislative encoding of racial apartheid (as seen in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896).

In 1997, a local white parent sued the county over the forced school busing, and won his case. In 2000, a Federal appeals court upheld the decision, and race-based busing ended. Charlotte schools began a rapid re-segregation.

In 2008, Wachovia went bankrupt, and was purchased in a fire sale by San Francisco-based Wells Fargo.

Then came the Bathroom controversy.

Bathrooms

Figure 4: National press for North Carolina’s House Bill 2 controversy, 2016.

The 2000s had been good to the ‘Queen City’. Bank mergers and financial services growth, along with the steady expansion of US Airways’ Charlotte hub, had propelled Charlotte into the top 20 American cities, with a metro population topping 2 million by 2010. Superbowl appearances by the Panthers had also helped with national, and international name recognition – culminating in the city’s hosting of the 2012 Democratic National Convention, widely lauded as a success. In 2014, Charlotte’s CAST theater group, based in the now-trendy ‘NoDa’ arts district – staged ‘Angels in America’, to positive critical reception and this time, no public outcry.

But the election of Barack Obama in 2008, combined with decades of neoliberal economic policy resulting in the 2008-2009 financial crash and great recession, had awakened all of the South’s skeletons from their (brief) slumber. The myth of the ‘New South’ came crashing down with the stock market. The ‘Tea Party’ was born, and made North Carolina one of its command centers, backed by fantastic policy and financial support from nationwide groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the billionaire Koch brothers.  In 2010, conservative republicans took control of North Carolina’s General Assembly, forming a veto-proof majority that effectively neutralized the Democrat Governor, Beverly Perdue. In 2012, former Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory, a republican, won the governorship. With all three branches of government under control (and significant reach into the courts as well), North Carolina’s general assembly went to work dis-assembling the fragile frame of the ‘New South’, the politically-moderate costume North Carolina had donned for a generation.

Issue after issue, North Carolina gained national headlines – strict ID rules for voters, with the effect of disenfranchising African-Americans and liberal college students; spending cuts to social programs, and perhaps most strikingly, a vicious attack on LGBTQ rights. In 2012, ‘Amendment One’ passed in a state referendum, making gay marriage a violation of state law (later repealed by a Supreme Court Decision). The ‘Moral Mondays’ protests at the General Assembly, led by local NAACP leader Rev. William Barber, gained international press.

Image:

General Assembly Police Lt. Martin Brock, right directs Rev. William Barber, President of the N.C. chapter of the NAACP to step down during “Moral Monday” demonstrations at the General Assembly in Raleigh, N.C., Monday, July 8, 2013. Nearly 700 people, led by the North Carolina Chapter of the NAACP, have been arrested over the past 10 weeks of the legislative session while protesting against policies being enacted by the North Carolina General Assembly. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Figure 5: Rev. William Barber at a ‘Moral Mondays’ Protest, North Carolina General Assembly, 2016.

Charlotte, the state’s largest city, again found itself front and center in the battle between cosmopolitan and conservative forces. The battlefield, as it turned out, wasn’t a play on gay themes this time, but the everyday life of transgender people. In 2016, the Charlotte City Council passed an ordinance that protected LGBTQ residents from discrimination and, notoriously, that mandated that both public and private businesses allow transgender persons to use the bathroom facility where they feel most comfortable. This was similar to non-discrimination ordinances passed in a number of other cities, including Columbia, South Carolina. And a firestorm was unleashed.

Fallen Angels, Redux 

20 years after Tony Kushner’s ‘Angels’ had fallen on the Queen City, the boomtown found its social fabric torn apart.

The city, with some of the South’s wealthiest zip codes, had become known for some of the lowest social mobility in the country, with huge gaps in social and economic indicators between white and non-white sections of town. Racial tension erupted into rioting in October 2016, when police officers killed an African-American man in Northeast Charlotte, one of the city’s poorest areas.

riots

Figure 6:Race  Riots in Charlotte, Oct. 2016

The riots exposed the myth of the ‘New South’ for what it was: a marketing ploy, and window dressing on long entrenched, deep structural problems that Charlotte – and many American cities face. These problems are especially stark in sprawling Southern cities like Charlotte where decades of re-segregation, poor public transit and uneven economic growth have resulted in a neoliberal cityscape in which quality of life has fallen for many even as affluence has increased for many others.

Meanwhile, another battle had erupted between the city of Charlotte’s (white) progressive community and the (white) state legislators, who in March 2016 passed House Bill 2 – known as ‘the Bathroom Bill’ – in the middle of the night, with no debate or public discussion. House Bill 2 (or HB2) rescinded Charlotte’s non-discrimination ordinance, and went much further: it banned any municipality from passing similar nondiscrimination ordinances, prevented cities and towns from increasing their minimum wage, and, most nefariously, mandated that transgender persons use the bathroom corresponding to the sex on their birth certificate. This was, far and away, the most draconian and far-reaching recent anti LGBTQ legislation in the country.

This blog post will not recount the specifics of the long back and forth between the General Assembly and the City, the business community, the NBA, Bank of America, the national and international press, and the efforts of the LGBTQ community or various civil rights organizations; the boycotts and travel bans; the nasty rhetoric and name calling and overall ugliness exposed in what sociologist Elijah Anderson (2011) might call a ‘tear’ in the precarious ‘cosmopolitan canopy of civility’ that was the illusion of a progressive North Carolina. Or the half-hearted (non) repeal of House Bill 2 that leaves many of its worst, and most discriminatory pieces intact and leaves LGBTQ North Carolinians without basic legal protections.

But I will conclude by suggesting that the ‘New South’, just like the ‘Old South’, just like ‘manifest destiny’ or John Winthrop’s ‘Shining City Upon the Hill’ – are conceptual rather than tangible; dreams rather than realities; phantoms rather than fact. As Faulkner himself mused, ‘the past is never dead. It’s not even past (1951).’ At the time of this writing, Confederate monuments are being taken down in cities from New Orleans to Richmond. What will rise in their place, or fall from the sky, is yet unknown.

***

References

Anderson, E. (2011) The Cosmopolitan canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life. New York:  WW Norton & Company.

Faulkner, W. (1951) Requiem for a Nun.

Grady, H.W. and Dyer, O. (1890) The New South. Atlanta: Robert Bonner’s Sons.

Kuklinski, J.H., Cobb, M.D. and Gilens, M. (1997) Racial attitudes and the” New South”. The Journal of Politics, 59(2), pp.323-349.

Nielsen, K. (2008) Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. New York; A&C Black.

Tepper, S.J. (2011) Not Here, Not Now, Not That!: Protest Over Art and Culture in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

The Economist, 24 April 1997, ‘No gays please: we’re Carolinian.’

The New York Times, 22 March 1996, ‘Play displays a growing city’s cultural tensions’. By Kevin Sack.

 

Lees on Gentrification: ‘It’s Displacement’.

Professor Loretta Lees appeared on talk show ‘Renegade, Inc.’ to discuss the impacts of gentrification – which she defines as resulting in displacement against one’s will. And critiques the more recent turn toward ‘regeneration’ as a more palatable form of social cleansing. https://www.rt.com/shows/renegade-inc/387555-gentrification-alternative-socially-cleansed/