Tag Archives: vantage

Start at the Edge

As a resident of Richmond for the past five years, I have had the privilege of living through an exciting and dynamic season of change. It seems that after about 60 years of condescension and loss, it’s becoming a good time to be an American city. It’s a good time to be Richmond.

So, with that in mind, I was a little surprised when I read three editorials recently published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch addressing the “issue” of the view of Richmond from the highway. As I read each article, I felt that importance had been placed, not on the city, but on the opinions of passersby. This editorial is a response to those articles and perhaps generations of similar articles that have come before them. I believe that before we have a conversation about Richmond, we need to have an understanding of how the city changed during the twentieth century and more importantly what changed about the way we talk about cities in general.

My undergraduate education on the urban crisis in America presented changes in the city as a process of politics, prejudice, and technological advancement. More recently, I have come to understand the urban crisis as a gradual shift in investment and perception that took the American city, a source of pride, and turned it into a mark of shame. Furthermore, I understand the urban crisis as a rhetorical war between old and new. The goal of the war, as with any, was to frame the other as “backward” and the self as “progressive.” While Richmond attempted to maintain dignity, new technologies seemed dissatisfied with older cities: You’re too compact, too dilapidated, too prone to riot and rot.

As each new suburb was developed it became yet another statement to the American people pointing toward the promise of new, more civilized places with room to roam and play. Within this promise there was also a clear distinction being made from the archaic, dark city where most Americans at the time resided. As with all major shifts, the new way of doing things had to work to undo the more traditional ways of life. Many believe that the post-war zeitgeist of modernization, on a national level, did much to shift popular opinion. But on a local level, citizens of the Richmond metro-region still had to prove to residents that there was a more abundant life to be lived on the other side of the city limits.

This was accomplished through a series of events: The celebrated opening of Willow Lawn Shopping Center (1956), the construction of the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike (1959), the failure of plans for consolidation with Henrico (1967) and other semi-related moments along the way. Each of these also had their corollary effect on the life of the city exemplified by events such as the closing of Miller and Rhodes/Thalhimers, the destruction of urban neighborhoods, and the political isolation that conclusively trapped and humbled this once-proud American city.

As money and people continued to migrate to the suburbs, local officials turned their attention from annexation to urban renewal. “If we can’t have the suburbs,” I imagine them thinking, “we have to do something about this city.” But rather than invest in what already existed, they fixated on dreams of what could be. “We get it” they tried to say “and we’ll fix it,” just don’t move your family to the suburbs.

As Silver writes, the city then “embraced urban renewal with a sense of urgency unprecedented in Richmond … Consolidation would have afforded vast new areas for growth and would have enabled the city to continue its policy of neglect toward inner-city areas” (254). Now left to embrace the demands of reality, Richmond’s city fathers sold out and destroyed much that today would protected as historical. They were always looking to what the city could be rather than accepting the city as is.

To me, this moment of urban renewal was a sign that the suburbs had won the war. This was the point in the story where it was finally decided that new was in fact better than old: Look! Even the city hates the city. In the decades that followed the tumultuous 60s and 70s, much has been said of the potential of cities, but almost all of it with the understanding that cities have something to prove. To this day, the standard to which Americans hold their cities is strangely high while their commitment to funding urban institutions and infrastructure is remarkably low. As Kunstler might argue, this is because we are no longer a nation of citizens; we are a nation of consumers.

Additionally, it seems that many of us have a powerful aversion to cities because we’re still trapped by the negative stigma established all those years ago. While local boosters proclaim, “Richmond is a city of art and great food!” critics reply, “Parking lots! Potholes! Prostitutes!” And regardless of their merit, these conversations do little to change the paradigm.

In this sadly familiar conversation, the subject is always “the city.” The place that needs to change is the city. The place that we want to love is the city. But this is not the perspective of an insider. Instead, we need to recognize that this critique is one of suburban condescension. The suburbs are still trying to prove their worth and their legitimacy and they are still quick to do so by orienting themselves against the “corrupt” and ” inefficient” locality they are ashamed to call neighbor, but delighted to visit for a basketball game.

We cannot have a productive conversation about Richmond until we move past the negative stigma that outsiders have placed on the city and begin to see Richmond as good once again. We should welcome visitors to come and enjoy themselves in the city, but our ultimate concern must be with the needs and desires of existing residents. Developments in Richmond should be for the city, not at the city’s expense, because that is what we can sustain and appreciate. And no longer should we consider developments for someone else to enjoy.

We have nothing to prove and everything to gain.

Not “the Poor Kid”

I’ve been sitting on this post for weeks, but last night’s South Park episode put me over the edge … “The Poor Kid” is both funny and excellent commentary on the ways in which we see ourselves and each other.

The main point of the plot (aside from mocking the Penn State scandal) revolves around Eric Cartman’s constant attempt to solidify his identity as “not the poorest kid in school.” The introduction of course begins with Cartman realizing that he is, in fact, the poorest kid in school. A terrible blow for his shallow identity. He then fakes a meth lab in order to get the attention of CPS and a new start as a foster child in small-town Colorado. Ridiculous, yes, but I bet everyone who reads this post (or watches the episode) can relate to such a desperate attempt to restore their identity rather than own up to reality and move on.

Cartman’s first conversation at his new school highlights this experience:

“O.K. All right, so listen, I know our family is poor, ok, but before we lived here, Kenny was actually poorer than me so technically he’s the poorest kid at this school.”
“What are you talking about? The poor kid at this school is Jacob Hallery.” “Really?”
“Yeah, dude. His dad died five years ago and his mom went crazy from depression so she can’t even keep a job.”
“YES!! Did you hear that, Kenny? We’re good! I seriously didn’t think we’d stand a chance but everything’s gonna be O.K.! (singing now) Cause I’m not, I’m not the poor kid in schoooooool.”

The point is not that Cartman’s mean, although he is. The point is that he’s saying what everyone else is thinking. I laugh because I know it’s true. More broadly, I laugh because the greater message is that we generally follow the human instinct to identify ourselves against others rather than towards ourselves or a purpose.

So this post is about our perspective and identity as well as the external places and people that give us a standard from which we may contrast ourselves. In the same way that Cartman feels relieved by the presence of a “poorest kid” in school, I’ve found that we all believe, in some small way, that we will be “O.K.” as long as we’re not the worst.

For me, if I found that I actually was the worst (e.g. being one of two in the first round cut from the basketball team in 7th grade), then I just decided that it wasn’t worth my time. Ever. But no matter how well I invested my energy in other places, I still felt the need to “beat” basketball (or whatever it was at the time) by thinking of jocks as uneducated or otherwise illigitimize general athletics. In this way, I propped myself up on a prejudice that made me feel more intelligent, industrious and orderly.

In short, this is Orientalism.

Originally used to denote academic and artistic work focussed on “Eastern nations,” Orientalism has now become the term for a strong critique that debunks the very perspective it used to denote. In 1978, Edward Said published the book Orientalism which fundamentally shifted the usage of the word from the study of “The Orient” to the actual perspective with which “the Orient” had been studied and the imaginary space was created as a result. Today, his ideas form a sort of standing check on every scholar attempting to “understand” anything remotely foreign or exotic. The reason why this concept is still important is that Orientalism (the critique) states that the very act of such research is fundamentally a form of identity formation rather than simply an intellectual pursuit for understanding.

I propped up my identity on the myth of the “uneducated athlete,” Cartman celebrated the existence of a “poor kid” on which he could rest his shallow pride, and Orientalists may have sought the “Orient” in order to further the narrative of the progressive, industrious, and powerful West.

At its best, this sort of identity gives people confidence and empowers them to remove themselves from negative influences. At worst, the Orientalist perspective is a delusion completely unable to engage reality. This delusion can lead individuals as well as entire nations to stigmatize other people and regions as inferior to the point of dehumanizing the other. As Ziauddin Sardar writes,

“Orientalism’s failure, Said argues, has ‘been a human as much as an intellectual one; for in having to take up a position of irreducible opposition to a region of the world it considered alien to its own, Orientalism failed to identify with human experience, failed also to see it as human experience’ (Sardar, Orientalism,” 74).

In other words, the perspective established it’s object of study as so distinct that it no longer engaged the complexities of human experience. After years of this study, the Orient became as much a myth as a reality. More broadly, this perspective can prevent individuals from forming whole and healthy identities if they are positioned in opposition to imaginary people and places.

Some more fine examples of this perspective in action are the “rebellious youth,” the “corrupt inner-city,” and “the backward south.” Implicit in each of these titles is the presence of an onlooker (Adults, suburbs, and the Northeast) employing this dehumanizing Orientalist lens. In the context of my general thoughts on “savagery” I believe that everyone, to some extent, believes in this notion of the Orient. The farther away from yourself that you find this ‘other,’ the saver and more comfortable you may feel. The closer the ‘other’ is to yourself, the more unsettled and protective.

Either way, the more we work to prop up these identities, the more unhealthy our lives will become. Humans are complex … we can seek to understand each other as long as we accept that we never truly will. It’s more difficult, but I think this acceptance will allow us to be a little more realistic about ourselves and each other.

That’s the point of this post … and this series: “Savage Places, Human Places

P.S. Nina just called me out the other day for still maintaining that “all b-school students” are completely out of touch with society. So this never stops … and it never should because humans are complicated. Amen.

This post is a continuation of my “Savage Faces, Human Places” series that I’m putting together in my section on Power.

Savage Faces, Human Places

I’ve been thinking about the word “savage” for about a month now. What does it mean? Who uses it? What purpose does it serve in society? At this point, I think I’m about ready to move on.

I may break up this piece later and turn it into more of a series … for now, here’s where I’ve landed:

According to the Wiktionary entry, the word originated in the “Latin silvaticus (‘wild’; literally, ‘of the woods’)” then moved through late Latin and French to English and eventually became the word “savage” as we know it today. The first thing I notice is that the word has always had an implicit vantage built into it. This unspoken perspective is the place from which savagery was determined. “Of the woods” can be read as “not from the city” or at the very least, “not of us.”

My first question quickly emerged, “From where is this word spoken?”

A few weeks ago, my Richmond Perspectives class discussed the relationship between the Native American Chief Powhatan and the English settler/invader John Smith. One of my handouts that week included the following insight on an entry in John Smith’s journal:

“‘Powhatan carried himself so proudly, yet discretely, in his savage manner, as made us all admire his natural gifts,’ Smith wrote, ‘considering his education.’ Majestic, mighty, and prideful Powhatan may well have been, but, in Smith’s eyes, he was still, and ever would be, a savage” (The River Where America Began, 77). 

This quote moved me to wonder about Smith and the British perspective at the time. Was there something particularly savage about Powhatan or had Smith simply decided that every person he encountered would be savage? Clearly, thousands of Native Americans believed Powhatan to be an effective leader, but Smith couldn’t see past his seventeenth-century English perspective of the “New World.” From this vantage, the entire territory, Powhatan’s chiefdom and beyond, was “savage” before it was even encountered.

There was something within John Smith’s mind that prevented him from developing an appreciation for the powerful leader with which he dealt. I’ve landed on three posible explanations for this: 1. Smith came here believing that every inhabitant was inferior, 2. Smith was legitimately shocked by Powhatan’s physical appearance or behavior and lastly, 3. Smith was afraid of Powhatan and used words such as “savage” to demean him and minimize his power.

When I read this quote with my students, I asked them what thought in particular about the word savage. I was actually surprised to hear that they use the world all the time. To them, “savage” is a joke to make fun of friends when they’re not acting proper or just to make fun of someone in general. One mentioned that the projects in Richmond are savage. Another joked that it’s savage when you pick up food off the ground and eat it. I think this conversation actually filled the rest of class and I left that day with a lot to think about.

My history class had just launched itself into the twenty-first century.

When I first started writing this post, I realized the topic was making connections to all sorts of other ideas and semi-related thoughts. This post is the first paragraph of that original piece and I’ll publish the rest in segments. I’m also starting a new page titled, “Power,” where I’ll store these and others because I think perspective and “savagery” are linked to how we position ourselves in relation to each other … identity is a powerful thing.

This post is this first of my “Savage Faces, Human Places” series that I’m putting together in my section on Power.

A Vantage

This week I have been teaching my high school students about imagination, appreciation, curiosity and innovation. The joys of alternative education 🙂 During this time, I’ve made some (albeit naive) teacher observations and formulated some theories to help myself improve and better understand what I’m doing. The most valuable lesson so far is this: The classroom is a vantage. From this vantage, we see the world for its order and structure. As Mufasa took Simba to the mountaintop, so do we teachers take our students to the classroom to make sense of the world in which they live.

From the vantage of Pride Rock, Mufasa shared with Simba the details of his kingdom: Places to go and places to avoid. At the same time, he is also sharing the weight of the responsibility of the kingdom (which I see as knowledge, adulthood, and the unknown future).  In this moment, he is imparting an understanding of life from the mountaintop because that is where the chaos of life begins to make sense. That is the place of perspective. Without the context of perspective we will hardly understand the significance of the information we retain.

One important point is that a mountaintop is positioned far away from life on the ground below. That’s not a bad thing! I think the “ivory tower” critique of education sometimes directs us to teach a more “realistic” education. But this is a mistake. Instead of making our education realistic, we believe that education must be detached from reality in order to prepare students for the abstract and unpredictable future. Is the future reality? No. We can only speculate how our students will use the information we teach them and we must give them the ability to make connections on their own. The ability to imagine the future and prepare for its challenges.

This capacity for imagination is becoming a subject of discussion as a skill that can (and should) be taught. In a PBS Newshour production, “Conversation: Imagination in Education,” Jeffrey Brown interviewed the director of the Lincoln Center Institute for the Arts in Education, Scott Noppe-Brandon. Brown asked, “What would [imagination in education] look like? What would be an example of putting imagination into the skill set and into the curriculum?” To this question, Mr. Noppe-Brandon responded,

“It’s taking issues like, ‘How do you get kids to notice deeply? How do you get them to attend to details and information in front of them? How do you get them to notice patterns and make connections and be reflective and tolerate ambiguity? Elements like that that combined over time start to build that cognitive capacity for imaginative thinking.” Imagine how differently we would teach if we believed this … the excitement in our voices as we say, “Look out over this world of information and conquer it with your mind.”

In my attempt to teach this concept to my students, I landed on the following formula:

Imagination + Creativity + Knowledge + Appreciation + Hard Work = Innovation.

Hopefully, my students will begin to value the ideas in their minds, appreciate the ideas of others and make connections between the two and reality. Reality is  not always the sort of place where people develop the capacity for creativity and imagination. That’s why we have the classroom. The classroom is a vantage. Every other hour of the day is enough reality for now.