Tag Archives: culture

Thoughts on Richard Sennett’s “Flesh and Stone”

The other day I read the introduction to Richard Sennett’s, Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization. What an incredible piece — perfect example of why I love introductory essays.

Sennett here is writing a history of the physical aspect of life in the cities I have been learning about all my life: Athens, Rome, Paris, London. He isn’t interested in an intellectual history: just a bunch of Western thoughts traveling along from one place to another. Instead, he writes, “I was prompted to write this history out of bafflement with a contemporary problem: the sensory deprivation which seems to curse most modern building: the dullness, the monotony, and the tactile sterility which afflicts the urban environment.” With the context of history, Sennett introduces us to the ways citizens have lived differently in the past and the role of the city in protecting and facilitating human interactions.

Additionally, Sennett conjures a common conflict within this history that sets Western cultures in opposition to the body. He writes, “Western civilization has had persistent trouble in honoring the dignity of the body and diversity of human bodies …” from the Greek ideal of male athletes to the multicultural communities of modern Greenwich Village (15).

Consistently returning to the current experience, Sennett writes that rather than interacting with other people while accomplishing daily tasks, even literally bumping into them, many of us live from one contained space to another: the home, the car, the office.

Today, more sensory experiences are now consumed with little required input. Pleasure and pain are most often experienced through television, movies, and video games and even the greatest cities are most often viewed through the windshield of a car. Distances that once involved hours and innumerable human interactions now require only 10-15 minutes of driving. “Both the highway engineer and the television director create what could be called ‘freedom from resistance.'” Sennett is writing from the vantage of this society we’ve created for ourselves in order to prevent unplanned, unwarranted encounter. “Thus the new geography reinforces the mass media. The traveller, like the television viewer, experiences the world in narcotic terms…” (18).

After looking through my books, multiple friends have commented that the large font of Flesh and Stone “stands out” on the shelf or that the title is “weird”. I think Sennett (or his publisher) chose the title partly in order to make people uncomfortable. The fact that it sounds sort of like an adult romance novel is definitely connected to Sennett’s thoughts on contemporary life and our discomfort with even the word “flesh.” Sennett is concerned for the experience of the body in the city in and most importantly the way that social behavior reinforces social connection far more than in merely romantic terms. He writes, “much as today in small southern Italian towns a person will reach out and grip you hand or forearm in order to talk seriously to you” (21).

When I read that particular example I was struck by the simple idea of it and how far it is from normal behavior among my friends and family. Sennett writes to teach us about ourselves and the lives that we live, sometimes prescribed by urban design and other times by cultural tradition we have forgot to even notice

Finally, Sennett concludes with a personal note about the origins of his research, particularly within the context of his friendship to the late Michel Foucault. When they began in the 1970s, he writes that Foucault envisioned human bodies as constrained by tradition, culture, and “choked by the knot of power.” But as he observed Foucault in his last days, Sennett noticed that the fixation on power and control began to relax. As a result, the book that he completed is not the research that Sennett began decades before.

Particularly, he pushed his research beyond simply the realm of human sexuality and, to honor his late friend, embrace the numerous aspects of life that provide meaning and value. He writes, “If liberating the body from Victorian sexual constraints was a great event in modern culture, this liberation also entailed the narrowing of physical sensibility to sexual desire” (26). This narrowing, to Sennett, is no longer necessary or helpful toward understanding human social interaction. As in the example from Italy (I think the Instagram account @notmynonni is a fitting connection here) there are a million meaningful moments in a life that deserve our attention.

Ever-committed also to his hope in the potential of the city, Sennett writes from the Judeo-Christian perspective that the body is connected to the spirit, valued and important. Although I don’t think Sennett is a Christian today (in more recent interviews it seems like he identifies as a secular humanist), at the time of writing this book he identified as a “believer” and acknowledged this perspective in his research. While conceding the Biblical idea of “the fall” and great separation between humans (loss of trust, for example) he also shares the way that his faith weaves into his research and his own stubborn optimism.

Somewhere between the chaos of the past and the isolation of modern life, Sennett ultimately writes, “to show how those who have been exiled from the Garden might find a home in the city.”

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Baseball at the Heart

The mayor’s proposal for Shockoe Bottom is a bit of a chameleon. When it was first revealed, it seemed like it was clearly a ballpark plan: baseball balloons, Nutzy, Parney Parnell cracking jokes. But as the plan progressed, this central goal became secondary to a host of other justifications for the development.

The phrase, “not just a ballpark plan,” has become popular in this current debate at the same time supporters of the mayor’s plan have proudly placed signs proclaiming, “I support Shockoe Ballpark,” in front yards and businesses. Clearly, we are confused. Like many, I’ve studied the proposal for Shockoe Bottom and attempted to make sense of all the arguments. As always with these sorts of plans, it is necessary to distinguish the certain from the projected.

Beyond all the letters of intent, the promises, and the economic projections, there is a baseball stadium. This stadium project will likely cost around $167M including interest over the next 30 years. We will hopefully finish paying off the debt around 2046. I will be almost 60 years old. These are the certainties of the mayor’s proposal. All other elements of the plan are subsidiary to the ballpark.

Below I have compiled four common arguments (other than baseball) and reasons why they are not substantive or central to the Shockoe plan:

#1. This plan will improve schools in Richmond

Schools argument

This is a photo of a billboard paid for by the LovingRVA ad campaign. It’s simple, it’s clear, it’s exciting. How could any of us say no to a promise like “More $$$ for schools?” It pulls at our heart strings and connects the plan to something we love.

Then I realized: this is not a schools plan. Not a single dollar of this plan is allocated for school maintenance, construction, or modernization. There isn’t a contract that says that our government is obligated to increase school funding a certain amount each year. We also don’t have any idea how much added tax revenue this plan will generate so there can be no sure promise made for future increases.

And yet, we are being promised that this plan is for our schools and our children.

After digging around, I realized the connection from this plan to schools is pretty weak. The most I could find was a quote from Mayor Jones in the RT-D:

“I think that as we continue to negotiate with City Council people and get them on board, that there’s probably going to be some designated streams that go to some various places that people feel very strongly about….”

Wow. Either Jones was badly misrepresented or the mayor did a terrible job convincing me that that this plan will have any meaningful connection to things I “feel very strongly about.” This schools argument  is like playing “seven degrees of the Mayor’s economic development plan.” Where will all the money end up? We have no idea. But I promise there’s definitely a chance you could get a slice.

And I’m particularly annoyed because I do have a soft spot for schools. The need in RPS is incredible. There are countless reports and articles on the financial need and the deteriorating infrastructure of our school system. Our mayor is promising us more money will be sent to schools, but he isn’t saying how much. All we know is if we build the stadium in Shockoe and if it’s surrounded by lucrative businesses and if we can attract huge amounts of private investment on the Boulevard, then we will have more money that might be allocated to schools.

To me, that seems like a lot of “ifs.” If you care about schools, ask the mayor to sign on the dotted line. Anything less is empty promises.

#2. This plan will provide access to good, affordable food

grocery

I’ve heard this argument regularly enough that it deserves to be included in this list. I haven’t seen it on a billboard, but this is the argument that seems to tug at the “food justice” movement in Richmond and the desire for residents to have access to healthy, affordable food.

As a resident of the East End, I think it would be great to have a new grocery store. I think it will provide access to good food for a wide economic spectrum of people. Residents nearby will be able to walk to get their food rather than drive around the corner to Farm Fresh. Many riding public transit will be able to get off 10 minutes earlier than they would for the Kroger on Broad St. I wouldn’t have to drive out to the Martin’s at White Oak for fresh vegetables. Sounds great to me.

I just keep returning to the fact that the grocery store is not a central element of this plan. Honestly, this grocery store has more to do with economic development and the mayor’s revenue bonds financing scheme. I think we would have built anything there if it promised to bring in a certain amount of revenue each year. Also, do we have to build a baseball stadium to have a grocery store? More on that later.

#3. This plan will memorialize and interpret Richmond history

museum 2

The third claim is that this plan has been created in order for Richmond to restore the history of slavery to its rightful place. On the cover of the Venture Richmond “Downtown’s Transformation 2014” document (an unfortunate title), there is a presumptuous photo of the proposed slavery heritage site, an element of the Mayor’s proposed revitalization plan. On the second page of the document there is a photo of the ballpark. For some reason, Venture Richmond chose to promote the heritage site.

Here’s the problem: the slavery heritage site is not funded. We honestly don’t know when or if it will ever be built. To further complicate things, Richmond City Council and the state legislature of Virginia have recently committed funds to the construction of a slavery museum. Is the heritage site enough to fit the specifications of these funds? We don’t know. There are designs for a full museum, but they haven’t been adopted by the city or promoted publicly to my knowledge. If all funds go toward the museum, how will we pay to memorialize the Lumpkin’s Jail site?

Many of us are in favor of building something to commemorate the history of slavery in Richmond. The Washington Post even wrote an editorial in support of a slavery museum back in December. It’s certainly the most historically, culturally, and socially important element of the mayor’s plan, but it’s not the main attraction. This “heritage site” has been tacked onto the ballpark plan to satisfy those of us who care about history, culture, and memory.

It’s a beautiful design and I would like to see it in Shockoe Bottom. But I have to wonder: why do we need to spend $52,250,000 for a baseball stadium so that we can memorialize the history of slavery in our city?

I’m also very concerned with the process by which this heritage site/museum has been developed. When municipalities plan and construct museums or heritage sites, they typically spend years developing a network of scholars, institutions, community members, foundations, and government agencies in order to strategize the future success of the enterprise. If done well, this process results in a site that is ready to receive public school tour groups (where will the busses park?), host educational events (who will coordinate?), conduct relevant research, and curate exhibits to keep the material relevant and interesting for visitors. This sort of strategic planning results in a place that is vibrant and well-loved by locals and out-of-town visitors for generations to come.

If the mayor’s plan were truly a plan devoted to the history of Shockoe Bottom, there would already be a consortium of interested individuals from all over the nation and the world developing potential directions for the space and the building. Right now all I see is a pretty picture.

#4. This plan will stimulate the economy in Richmond

city

The argument for economic development is the lynchpin of this entire plan. Many believe that the “baseball stadium + hotel + grocery store + heritage site + apartments + future development on the Boulevard” plan holds the greatest possible economic benefit for years to come.

I have to respectfully disagree. If maximum economic output were the ultimate goal of this plan, Richmond wouldn’t have a baseball stadium at all. Minor league franchises are mostly money losers. They are highly subsidized franchises with all salaries paid for by their parent major league team and stadiums funded by localities. So it’s counterintuitive to include a ballpark in an economic development plan. Unless by “economic development” you mean “we need to find a way to pay for this darn baseball stadium.”

Also, not only are minor league stadiums expensive on the front end, they usually require renovations 20-25 years after they are built. It’s fitting that our local leaders travelled to Durham in January. A few weeks before the Richmond delegation made their trek, The Hearld Sun reported that the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, opened in 1995, the model for our ballpark scheme, is now planning a $20M renovation. Nineteen years after it first opened.

If it weren’t for the ballpark, Shockoe Bottom wouldn’t even be on the mayor’s radar. This flood plain is surrounded by the many hills of Richmond that don’t require a $20M investment in infrastructure for development to start tomorrow. There are cranes up in Richmond right now already investing in the future of this city. The only reason we’re talking about Shockoe Bottom is because we have this baseball team and we need to find a place to put them that can generate enough money to pay of the enormous sum it will cost to construct a brand new stadium. But if economic development were the goal, we would be saving our future tax dollars for general use rather than for servicing the debt on a baseball stadium for the next 30 years.

So why are we calling this an development plan? The argument is this: the ballpark should go in Shockoe Bottom because it’s best in Shockoe Bottom because it will allow us to 0pen the area to private development so that the lease on the ballpark will be paid for. This is a cyclical argument: we have to spend money so that we can make money to pay off the money that we spent. Also, the word for that is not “free.” The only legitimate argument for economic development is on the Boulevard, everyone agrees on that. But why has there been so little planning done for this site? How sure can we be sure of its success?

You may be asking, “What about all the data that proves the stadium is a good idea for Shockoe Bottom?” Here we have to make a critical distinction between data-driven projects and data-justified projects. Throughout the planning process, our leaders have selectively chosen data that supports their goal: constructing a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom. We can be certain this was not an externally vetted process. All the evidence we have seen is simply a case that our leaders have developed to debate and defend their plan. That’s not my idea of leadership.

Regarding this plan for Shockoe Bottom, we can only be sure of the expenditures. The revenue is all projected based on letters of intent and market analysis.

Again, expenditures = contracts. Revenue = projections.

The report put together by Davenport & Co. LLC includes a comparison between developing the Boulevard and Shockoe Bottom. According to this report, putting the ballpark in Shockoe Bottom is a responsible option. But in the low estimate for revenue generated in Shockoe bottom, the debt service (at $4,062,976) is greater than total revenue ($3,874,778) which leaves a projected deficit of $188,198 annually. And everyone has been telling me this ballpark is “free.” Am I reading that wrong? If this project were truly concerned with economic development, it would not include the city of Richmond diverting tax revenue toward paying off the debt service for the next 30 years.

Our leader is convinced the ballpark is our ticket to success when it is actually the ball and chain we will drag, year by year, into our own reluctant future.

***

My final question is, why isn’t Mayor Jones talking about the ballpark?

Perhaps it’s because an estimated 70% of the people that go to the Squirrels games live in Henrico and Chesterfield. Does it matter? I think so. Why should we divert $4.8M in tax dollars each year for the next 30 years to pay for an entertainment facility that primarily exists for county residents? Or why didn’t we wait for a more unilateral deal? In 2003, the counties were planning to pay two thirds of an $18,500,000 ballpark renovation. That proposal was sidelined by a local official that decided he wanted to build a new ballpark in Shockoe Bottom. The deal was scrapped, Nothing has happened ever since. Now we’re planning to pay 100% by going out on our own.

Mayor Jones seems to only talk only about economic development. Many other leaders in Richmond are excited about the heritage site. Most of my friends are excited about the benefits for local schools. All the while we’re skating around the most controversial elements of the plan: the cost of the ballpark, the lack of public support for the ballpark, and the location of the ballpark.

I’ll leave the last word to Andrew Zimbalist:

“Cities spend millions of dollars to support a variety of cultural activities that are not expected to have positive economic effects, such as subsidizing a local symphony or maintaining a public park. Sports teams can have a powerful cultural or social impact on a community. If that effect is valued by the local residents, then they may well decide that some public dollars are appropriate. However, if the public or its political representatives are trying to make the case that a team or a facility by itself will be an important development tool, then the electorate should think twice before opening its collective wallet.”

Richmond, if we want a new baseball stadium, let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about how much we might be willing to invest in a new stadium. Let’s talk about where we would want it to be built. Let’s not allow ourselves to be convinced into needing a stadium for a host of unrelated reasons.

From Drinking Songs to Pet Theories

I recently felt convicted on behalf of the individualistic, intellectual, global community. Didn’t we used to sing drinking songs together? It seems like these days we spend our time talking and debating rather than getting lost in something greater … something that unites.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between beer and coffee. In 2010, Stephen Johnson gave a TED talk titled, “Where good ideas come from.” I highly recommend it. In his presentation, he argues that the advent of the English coffeehouse played a significant role in the development of ideas during the English enlightenment. With the coffee house, Johnson states, the English people moved from a perpetually drunk society to a stimulated community of thought and collaboration. The ideas that transformed society emerged, at least in part, from within the incubator of the coffeehouse. So I originally saw this as a good thing. Don’t we need good ideas to progress? Well, yes, but I think we’ve lost something in the process of becoming enlightened and thoughtful. In short, we’ve lost drinking songs. We’ve lost this social tradition that connected us to each other and our sense of belonging and place.

I see the effects of this coffeehouse culture on my own upbringing in Tyler, TX. My friends and I would often meet for coffee at the “local” Starbucks and talk about life. These were great times we spent laughing and solving the world’s problems. But they didn’t unite us or connect us to our city in a meaningful. We never spontaneously burst into song with steins of beer sloshing around as we sang, “Tyler, oh Tyler! Da-dum de-dum de-dum …” Or anything of the sort.

In addition, the people that did drink together in high school did not usually do so with members of the older generations because they were partaking in something that many consider immoral. Thus, if there were a drinking song for Tyler, they wouldn’t be singing it. Instead, they would still be stuck in the teenage ghetto while their parents either condoned or condemned from afar. It really is a tragedy. When it came time for me to look for colleges, I felt no remorse leaving that city in the dust. I had clearly not connected to it’s people or culture in such a way that made me feel like I belonged. I had not yet come of age.

Here’s the deal: It’s not about beer and it’s not exactly about drinking songs. It’s about the cultural traditions that unite people.

The thing about these traditions is that they have to be taught. This teaching process requires close, intergenerational relationships. Drinking songs clearly had an incredible ability to galvanize that “togetherness” of community because they eventually became Baptist hymns and even the national anthem of the USA. The difficult question for me is whether this generations is producing material that could be redeemed in the same way. Does our philosophizing  bring us together? As I sit here at my computer developing this theory I wonder if instead I could be singing a drinking song (or any song) with a group of people. Granted, it’s 10 a.m. on a Thursday, but my point is this: I don’t want to care more about my pet theories than our collective humanity.

I think it’s time to start singing.