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My New Book!
My New Book!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

February 25-26, 2012: Cities of Hope?

[This week’s posts, following the lead of Tuesday’s Mardi Gras-inspired celebration of New Orleans and friends, will take American Studies approaches to a few complex and interesting American cities. This is the fourth and final entry in the series.]

Case studies and cultural representations of the balance of decline and renewal, decay and revitalization, despair and hope, at the heart of late 20th and early 21st century American cities.

When I moved to Philadelphia in the fall of 2000 (to start my graduate studies), the city was poised on the razor’s edge between decline and renewal. The city’s new mayor, John Street, had campaigned and won the office on a platform of aggressively pushing back against what he termed “blight,” the ongoing decay and destruction of many of the city’s neighborhoods and communities. Over the next decade his Neighborhood Transformation Initiative (NTI), coupled with downtown and historic district renovation projects and with ongoing gentrification of certain university neighborhoods, would indeed revitalize portions of the city. But in many others, such as the North Philly area within a couple blocks of my grad program at Temple University, the situation in 2012 seems little improved, if not indeed worse, than it did at the turn of the new millennium.

If Philadelphia’s future remains uncertain, a formerly thriving city in neighboring New Jersey seems to exemplify what can happen if the process of urban decay is not arrested. Much has been written about the decline and fall of Newark, from historical accounts to great American novels; but perhaps the best representation of the city’s experiences is in the fictionalized New Jersey city at the heart of John Sayles’ amazing film City of Hope (1991). I wrote at length about City, alongside my favorite Sayles (and American) film Lone Star (1995), in this early post; here I would add that the film’s climactic events for its two protagonists, Vincent Spano’s construction worker Nick and Joe Morton’s city councilor Wynn, highlight both the realities of the blight and the possibilities of renewal. Without getting into too many spoilers, I’ll note that Nick is in worse shape and is hiding in an abandoned building (while the film’s chorus, David Strathairn’s homeless street person Asteroid, echoes “Help! We need help! In the building!”—cries that are not yet answered but do leave open the possibility of aid), while Wynn is leading a march of African American citizens to make their case to the mayor (who is holding an elite fundraiser) for attention and support.

And then there’s Bruce (you didn’t think I could write about New Jersey and not include Bruce, did you?). The last song on The Rising (2002), “My City of Ruins,” became, for obvious reasons including Bruce’s moving performance of it at a tribute event, indelibly associated with 9/11 and Ground Zero; but Springsteen wrote the song in 2000, inspired not by such a singular destruction but by the ongoing decline of his hometown, Asbury Park. Most of the song’s lyrics capture different elements and images of that decline, from the metaphorical (the “blood red circle/on the cold dark ground”) to the literal (the “young men on the corner/like scattered leaves”), the communal (“the boarded up windows/the empty streets”) to the personal (“my soul is lost, my friend/Tell me how do I begin again?”). But in the song’s closing verses, first its prayer for strength and then, particularly, the repeated “Come on, rise up” with which the song concludes, Bruce turns the eulogy for what has been lost into a call for renewal and revitalization, turns his city of ruins into, potentially but powerfully, a city of hope indeed.

A hope, and a call, I believe all Americans should share. More next week,


PS. What do you think? Any histories or texts about American cities you’d add to the mix?

2/25 Memory Day nominee: Chauncey Allen Goodrich, Professor of Rhetoric and Theology at Yale, benefactor and supporter of the university and of liberal education in America more generally, author of influential works on language and grammar, and, most significantly, Noah Webster’s son-in-law and the editor of Webster’s dictionary who helped extend and deepen that hugely important work.

2/26 Memory Day nominee: Johnny Cash, whose hugely productive and influential half-century musical and artistic career is deeply intertwined with numerous significant American moments, issues, and histories—and, of course, full of pitch-perfect classics and wonderful surprises.

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