Book Review: N+1’s City By City

In  her seminal publication, On Death and Dying, psychologist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross explains her model of grief. In the first stage, subjects remain in denial about their situation’s reality. Once reality sets in, subjects may feel anger and resentment and express these feelings to the people around them. In order to feel they have agency over the situation, subjects may try to bargain and negotiate with a higher power for a better outcome. Depression sets in when subjects realize they have no control over the situation, resulting in sadness and grieving the loss. Finally, subjects reach a state of acceptance, in which they prepare for their inevitable future. These steps are not concrete; two people in the same situation may experience a mix of the stages in any order. While the Kübler-Ross model focuses on the death of a loved one, it may also apply to the end of a relationship, the loss of a job, or drug addiction, and more. According to Kübler-Ross, the model applies to any situation in which an individual struggles to “integrate new information that conflicts with previous beliefs.”

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Image courtesy of eClosure

City By City is a well-written, engaging, and enlightening portrait of a nation struggling to reconcile the American Dream with its many conflicting realities. The N+1 project coincided with the Great Recession with a working title of City By City: The New American Poverty. Fortunately, the book and its title evolved over time. Falling into the trap of ruined porn photos and romanticizing crumbling infrastructure is too simplistic. Too often, the resulting stories and images ignore the complexities of humanity pushed to the margins or outside the frame. Instead, the resulting vignettes dig deeper to deliver a more nuanced portrait of cities and the people who inhabit them.

Viewed as a whole, City By City reflects on the collective history that recurs throughout many urban spaces. The decline of industry created an economic vacuum. Cities with an existing middle class, like New York and San Francisco, were able to pivot and embrace the information age while Rust Belt Cities, left empty-handed and without a plan B, were condemned to rot. The era of Robert Moses ushered in waves of slum clearance which was (poorly) veiled as urban renewal. While the rich and poor used to live side by side, the development of the suburbs combined with the advent of highways made it easy for middle class white folks to create their own enclaves. Once racial groups no longer mingled, it was easier for the government to marginalize communities of color and compound existing problems whilst simultaneously creating new ones.

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Image courtesy of N+1

Now it is the year 2015 and we, as a nation, have still failed to integrate established–and alarmingly poignant–facts into our archaic schemas. In city after city, Americans remain trapped in denial or wrestle with anger and resentment at the current state of affairs. The Los Angeles police periodically sweep homeless people off the streets of Skid Row, creating a temporary illusion that they don’t exist. El Paso newspapers run boilerplate copy each time Mexicans perish while crossing the Rio Grande. Even after WaMu’s dramatic decline, Seattle continued to build luxury condos to attract “pioneers” to neighborhoods. White people in Palm Coast, Florida, defend the Stars and Bars as a representation of Southern pride while black people cannot comprehend the ease with which their white peers interact with the police. In Baltimore, Ferguson, New York, and countless American metropolises, Lawrence Jackson points out, “blackness still causes the distance to evaporate between who you are and what you have done and what the society has made you.”

From Seattle to Cincinnati, these stories repeat time and time again. Blinded by the mythology of the American dream, those who have the privilege to do so choose to turn their heads and ignore the realities of others when it is too inconvenient to care.  The spectrum of have and have-nots expands like Stretch Armstrong in both directions. But at what point will it snap back? Has any society been able to not only exist, but prosper, whilst ignoring the well-being of its worst-off?

By viewing these stories as a cohesive collection, City By City serves as tangible evidence that these problems are not unique and that no one wrestling with them is, in fact, alone. In places like rural Kentucky, where not having a car eliminates access to job prospects and health care, or Reading, Pennsylvania,where the double whammy of poverty and racism compounded by drugs and gangs make a way out seem impossible, it is critical to cultivate a broader sense of community.

Amidst these reminders of our nation’s mortality, there are fortunate pockets of hope. Most often, these game changers understand that progress cannot be made in the current system under the existing rules. Instead, they step outside the status quo by putting people and their needs first.

When the Detroit police force failed to serve and protect its citizens, Dale Brown stepped in and created his own security company, VIPER. In Cleveland, cooperatively owned businesses like Evergreen Cooperative Laundry, Ohio Cooperative Solar, Green City Growers provide a fresh new model with the potential to revitalize communities. Charged with a commitment to their workers and community investors, these businesses have an economic and political stake in the surrounding community. City Life/Vida Urbana, a Boston-based non-profit, also harnesses the power of community in their unique approach to championing tenants’ rights. Using collective bargaining tactics, the group galvanizes tenants and provides them with the tools they need to negotiate a fair rent. It’s increasingly the case that our nation’s average citizenry–people like you, and like me–are attempting to breathe new (and sustainable) life into our democracy by repeating behaviors once common at the turn of the 20th century.

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Photo by John Hulsey, courtesy of City Life/Vida Urbana

While we may continue to bargain or mourn the current state of things, City By City’s narratives help us, as Americans, take a step closer to accepting these realities. But if the repeating themes are any indication, N+1 would do well to send its writers back to the field and report back on signs of progress. In a January op-ed, Daniel Bornstein expounded on the merits of highlighting solutions to problems in addition to discussing their causes. As he explains, problems scream while solutions whisper, making it easy to favor sensational headlines over tiny victories. What organizations in New York or San Francisco could adopt City Life/Vida Urbana’s tactics to empower tenants? Can Milwaukee and Detroit, once the home of social progress, renew their status as agents of change and creators of wealth and success–even happiness–for their citizenry? What will be our generation’s equivalent of the St. Louis General Strike?

It’s easy to grow myopic about a problem after staring for too long, but an old approach in new clothing can breathe fresh life into old efforts. The investigative process may require more digging, but journalists hold a profound position of power when they choose what is shared or omitted. If the history of all hitherto existing human society is the history of class struggles, let us hope that the journalist is struggling to give voice to the voiceless and power to the powerless,  to reveal naked and objective truths.

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