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11 November 2011

Two deep thoughts on community from other people

I post these two passages side-by-side because they’re more connected than you might imagine.

First, a rant by the eminently make-fun-able (but still preeminent) music industry firebrand, Bob Lefsetz.

    Once upon a time, centuries ago, when we all lived in little villages, you had your fame. You were the blacksmith, the singer, the storyteller. You had a defined role and if you did it well, you received accolades, everybody in your hamlet knew who you were. As far as worldwide fame goes, most people had barely been to the next town, the concept of spreading your ideas far and wide didn’t even cross your mind.

    And then came modern transportation and media and suddenly, you could reach everybody.

    This was a thrill. Not only for the performer, but the audience. Instead of being restricted to the talent in your local burg, you could be exposed to others, with a different voice, a different viewpoint, in many cases with superior talent.

    And by time we hit the era of network television, there were very few slots, and if you made it through, you’d truly made it. That was the goal, to make it.

    Artists want to be heard by as many people as possible. If someone tells you they’re satisfied with a tiny audience, they’re lying. Art is expression. It foments understanding. You’re filling a hole inside yourself and the satisfaction comes when you realize you’re filling the same hole in others. And no matter how many holes you fill, you still feel empty, it’s the artistic temperament.

    And then the filter was tightened even more, during the MTV era. It was harder to make it, harder to get your video on television, but if you did, you were instantly nationally famous. You achieved that goal of mass exposure overnight.

    But now that’s impossible. Unless you stab or shoot someone, commit a crime. If you do something outrageous, there are Websites devoted to exposing you, never mind YouTube. But shy of that, it’s nigh near impossible to reach everybody.

    And this has got all artists scratching their heads.

A next a passage from The Geography of Nowhere, the similarly excellent, albeit similarly ranty book by James Howard Kunstler.

    For all practical purposes, Schuylerville became a colonial outpost of another America. Its impoverishment is one of the untallied costs of the policy of limitless “growth.” The leading business establishments in Schuylerville these days are the two convenience stores, each operated by large chains — call them X and Y. The main east-west road through town, Route 29, has become a major “feeder” for Interstate 87, and the convenience stores were built to take advantage of that traffic. They sell gasoline, milk, beer, cigarettes, soda and snacks. Plenty of local dollars are spent at the X and Y stores too — at times, the whole population of town seems to subsist on Pepsi Cola and Cheez Doodles. Perhaps in the future people will look back at convenience stores with fond nostalgia, because they are the late twentith-century successors to the old general store that sold a little bit of everything. But there is one big difference — the X and Y stores are not owned by local merchants.

    The X and Y corporations pay property taxes to operate their stores in Schuylerville, and a percentage of the county sales tax they pay is returned to the village via a rather abstruse political formula. The stores also furnish a handful of minimum-wage jobs. But what they take away contribute to the town is far less significant than what they take away: the chance for a local merchant to make a profit, to keep that profit in town, where it might be put to work locally, for instance, in the upkeep of a hundred-year-old shopfront building downtown, or a Greek Revival house on Pearl Street, or in the decent support of a family. But that profit does not stay in town. Instead, it is funneled directly into distant corproate coffers. The officers of the X and Y Corporations, who do not live in Schuylerville, have no vested interest in the upkeep of the 100-hundred-year-old shopfront buildings or the Greek Revival houses there. (They may not even know what they town looks like, or a single fact of its history.) Their success is measured strictly by the tonnage of Cheez Doodles and Pepsi Cola they manage to move off the shelves. The income they derive from their jobs is spent supporting and maintaining distant suburbs — and the cost of that is fantastic. The presence of convenience stores has eliminated many other local operations — the newsroom, several lunch counters, mom and pop groceries — which couldn’t compete in volume of sales. The volume of sales is the sole measure of what makes Schuylerville a worthy community from the point of view of the X and Y Corporations. So no local businesses thrive and the old buildings fall increasingly into disrepair.

    The buildings that the X and Y Corporations put up express the companies’ attitudes perfectly. They are cinder-block sheds that have no relation to the local architecture. They do not respect the sidewalk-edge of building fronts that line Broad Street, but are set back behind parking lagoons. Their garish internally lighted plastic signs tower above the town’s rooflines, and the mercury-vapor lamps in their parking lots cast an unearthly pinkish-green glow far behind the edge of their properties. What they contribute to the village visually is ugliness and discord. The people who design them and build them do not have to live with the consequences of their shabby and disruptive work.

    Today, many of the old shopfronts along Broad Street stand vacant, or have been rented by marginal businesses — a tattoo parlor, a room full of video games, a store that sells dented cans and damaged boxes of food at cut-rate prices. Quite a few shopfronts were converted into cheap apartments — dingy curtains hang across the old display windows — because the Saratoga County Department of Social Services uses Schuylerville as a welfare dump. There is a system in which landlords get grants from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to fix up their property on the condition that they rent to people on public assistance. The people on public assistance often wreck the apartments, for which new grants are then obtained, and so on in a downward-spiraling cycle, until the buildings are finally trashed beyond repair. For the landlords it is a sort of extractive process, like mining buildings for profit, with the same kind of destructive consequences as strip mining coal.

    The people who live here are losing ground steadily and drastically. Their institutions have failed them. Two generations ago, they were hardworking mill hands who earned decent wages and looked after their families. Now people don’t work, or only sporadically, at lower pay, and in any case, no longer in town. They commute to Saratoga, Glens Falls, Albany — an expense that only puts a further drain on their finances. The $4500 it costs to own and operate a car each year could cover a year’s payments on a $30,000 mortgage. Often, it is absolutely necessary to keep two cars operating in a family so that two adults can drive long distances to work low-wage jobs. The cost of driving everywhere, to work, or to obtain the necessary goods and services of life, impoverishes families. It makes it impossible to own their own home.

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis

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