Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The neighborhoods I fly through each day on my bike

I'm reading a book (very slowly, the same way I do everything) by Harvey Warren Zorbaugh called The Gold Coast and the Slum: a sociological study of Chicago's Near North side. It was written in the 1920s. I'm learning a lot about life in 2007, though. And thinking about myself, because I'm a self-centered asshole. The isolation and disorganization of city life, particularly for apartment dwellers, was a new thing then. Where I can't recall a time or place when I knew all my neighbors, or where I knew much of the kind of community that is auspiciously noted as lacking in many of the neighborhoods in this book.

Zorbaugh's descriptions of increasing specialization in people's lives, and their increasing dependence on monetary transactions to replace social and community functions, are particularly striking. And as their mobility increased, their use of this mobility to move away from communities for the individual pursuits of career and fortune. The exceptionally transient people of the rooming house district were on the leading edge of this trend in the 1920s and the same process presses onward today. I think the leading edge is now on the west coast, particularly the Bay Area. It's really a trend I could do without; I really want to belong to communities maintained through things deeper than commerce, against the full force of the one I grew up in, and against the force of my introversion and my apparently very lucrative skill at fixing logic errors in computer programs, and also while acknowledging the power of the abstraction at the heart of capitalism, that of people to either explicitly or implicitly express their values and priorities through money, without having to necessarily agree about anything. I want to put that away, make my final change, live naturally for my family and friends first. But I can also understand the stories of my colleagues that came alone to Silicon Valley, or even my own. We didn't come there from the tight-knit socially-integrated communities idealized as home by some of Zorbaugh's case studies. We came from the varyingly-conscious material worlds of North American suburbia, or from the competitive upwards-looking upper-middle class families of China, India, Pakistan... or even Little Egypt (as sons and daughters of SIU professors attending elitist high schools, raised to dream of the glamour of the business world). From places that largely wouldn't know us if we returned, because they'd have moved on to pushing another class of people out to their individual careers.

My friend Yi, currently in his final year at Berkley, recently came through Chicago and I came downtown to visit him during his night in town. His other friends in the city are people he'd known from programs that would send top students from scattered Illinois high schools on trips to places, largely (so it seemed to me from their descriptions) to become acquainted with the atmosphere of the world of business. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that products of such a program are comfortable in high-stress, long-hour jobs, with getting what they want and need through the money earned with labor in their fields alone. When they asked me about my job and life, they seemed only at first to envy that I didn't have to work nights and weekends. But even though I'm not quite where I want to be yet, I still could plant a seed in their minds of the things that could be done through a non-career focused life. But I'm not sure that they'd know where to go or what to look for if they had four extra hours in their days. I at least have my mom's family in Paxton as a model for enduring community, and my years in Allen Hall as a model for inclusive and creative community (limited as it was)... not to mention my dad's parents as models for community leadership and hands-on philanthropy. With all this that I've seen I have something to aim for, right through the tendency of modern cities and suburbs to alienate and objectify. Not everyone has that. As a side note, it's like 8 minutes to Thanksgiving and I'm pretty damn thankful for that stuff. Woo! To go farther aside, if there's a reason I'm not more radical on the surface it might have a lot to do with positive experiences I've had in the mainstream; I can identify those things and why they're positive.

Aaaand seeing as I've managed to let yet another innocent discussion slip into a rant on careerism and consumerism, it's safe to say I'm Done For The Evening.

Happy Thanksgiving, y'all!