Friday, July 24, 2009

Which way to Skid Road?

Or, In praise of slumlords. Qualified praise, you understand.

A post at American Digest (No More Bums in America: Noted in Passing on the Streets) reminded me of a song, Larimer Street by Bruce "U. Utah" Phillips. Sorry, no Youtube, but you can hear it at Rhapsody. And a little about it, too. Now go read and listen, and come back when you're done. Van der Leun is in Swiftian satirical mode in this one, so mind the sharp edges.

OK then, we're back here now.

"Urban renewal" and "blight eradication" sound like good ideas. But what they amount to, usually, is the destruction of cheap places to live. That would be unsubsidized, free enterprise cheap, not officially designated "affordable." Old people on pensions need cheap places to live. Young people starting out need cheap places to live. Misers need cheap places to live. The demolition is usually done by city governments under the influence of developers. So the government tears down acres of slums, cheap houses owned by many different individuals, which then are gentrified into luxury housing or shopping malls, and might build a housing project, which will be run by the government, presumably for the benefit of the people who were displaced. But it's a government project, so there will be restrictions and regulations about who can live there, and what the residents can do there, and if it's one of those high-rise projects it will probably be taken over by criminal gangs. Everybody has the same landlord, and the landlord's not even a person, but a bureaucracy.

An analogy comes to mind. Think of a forest, call it Hundred-Acre Wood. Every creature that lives there has worked out its own individual modus vivendi. Now the local government has been persuaded that this area would be better used as luxury condos, so the Wood is declared "blighted." After all, it contains no fine homes, though the residents may like their nests and burrows well enough. So the government and the developer will build a clean, modern zoo for them, with all the amenities. (I'm not comparing slum-dwellers to animals in any real sense, any more than Orwell was comparing citizens to animals in Animal Farm. Don't get distracted.) But that distressing hunny habit that Pooh Bear has … it leads him to do all sorts of foolish and dangerous things. Bears suffering from hunny addiction certainly should not be permitted in this clean, modern facility. That stuff is sticky. It will mess up the tile-work. He muddled along all right when he was living under the name of "Sanders," but this sort of thing is right out, now. And by the way, what's with the alias? Register under your real name and social security number, Mr. Bear, or go live in the street. No, you can't live in the woods any more, there are no woods, where the woods were there are condos.

I won't beat that to death, you get the idea.

[Sidenote on Bruce "U. Utah" Phillips: He was a great storyteller and songwriter, a social activist, anarcho-pacifist, and one of the last of the "Wobblies" (the IWW has been effectively out of business for a long time). He did considerable good by writing beautiful songs, and towards the end of his life ran a homeless shelter. Like all adherents of the labor theory of value, he failed to consciously understand the importance of capital.]

One reason why Van der Leun can say

Nowhere in today's brighter and more-caring American cities will you see those terrible social wrecks on the streets. Yes, no longer will you find "Bums," "Junkies," "Drunks," "Bull-Goose Raving Lunatics," or "The Hard Core Unemployed" on our sidewalks. They are all gone, a fading memory.
is that the city of Seattle has public housing for drunks. Only for 75 of them, though. Better than nothing, but compared to a living Skid Road, not so much. Ain't it great? Back when there was a skid road, these guys could have worked sweeping out a bar, and found a $20 a week room somewhere nearby. Now, they are housed at the public expense, and
benefit from 24-hour, seven day a week supportive services including:
  • State-licensed mental health and chemical dependency treatment
  • On-site health care services
  • Daily meals and weekly outings to food banks
  • Case management and payee services
  • Medication monitoring
  • Weekly community building activities

Sort of like what happened to Pooh, in the zoo. Of course there are more than 75 homeless drunks in the city of Seattle. And what about the homeless non-drunks? They can't find those $20 a week rooms any more, and employers are forbidden by law from paying less than the minimum wage. There was a time when poverty did not mean being dependent on government. Now it seems that sleeping on the sidewalk is the only alternative to welfare for the drunks or those who would be called eccentric if they had money. Or for ones who can't make it in the 9-to-5 world, but are too proud, have too much self-respect, to take a dole. It almost looks like the government is trying to create a dependent class.

I'm veering, as Horace Larkin would say, and haven't managed to make my point. When the cheap parts of town disappear, what happens to the people who lived there? No more boarding houses, flophouses, SRO hotels. From Phillips's lyric, "Where will I go, and where will I stay? You've knocked down the skid road and hauled it away."

(Did you find the chicken in this post? The bear was easy.)

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