Everything was better in a time you no longer have access to

Neighborhoods are always losing their soul

Today an essay on what we mean when we say a neighborhood is losing its soul. First some other stuff.

I love restaurants and bars perhaps more so than I should but something about this rush to get back to a wholly unrecognizable version of them while also being wildly unsafe and exploitive puts the lie to the whole thing being about an experience and not just consumption for consumption’s sake. Nothing we are supposed to love about this shit — the atmosphere and the camaraderie and bonhomie even the pleasure of fine service — is available at this time it’s been 86’d so all that's left is the process of spending money because you miss spending money and having people fetch things for you. Enjoy the alfresco asphalt patio though I guess.

If you missed this paid-only Hell World the other day it’s “A Good One.”

While a lot of the racist name changes happening right now in music and at schools and so on are certainly welcome and fine by me do you ever think that after all the cosmetic tidying up is dispensed with many of the people involved will throw up their hands and say well what else do you people want?

I’ve just read “Abolitionism and the White Studies Racket” by Noel Ignatiev printed in the pamphlet Race Traitor in 1999. In it he draws out the difference between white identity preservationists and abolitionists like himself.

“In their eagerness to preserve a white identity, the preservationists sometimes slip back into biological rationales for it,” he writes.

In her book White Trash Annalee Newitz says “whiteness is ‘an identity which can be negotiated on an individual level. It is also a diversity of cultures, histories, and finally, an inescapable physical marker.’ Contrary to her claim, whiteness is about neither nature nor culture, but status. Without the privileges attached to the white skin, the white race would not exist, and skin color would have no more significance than foot size or ear shape.”

It’s a short read but I wanted to highlight this part in particular below especially for a lot of white people right now who are doing good faith work in examining their internal feelings regarding racism but not necessarily considering the extra step that will be required to dismantle the material institutions of white supremacy.

We abolitionists favor personal growth and transformation, but we believe they take place best in a context of struggle against oppressive institutions, and when self-examination is put forward as a substitute for institutional struggle, then it is a barrier to progress. One example of the sort of thing I am railing against is the film “The Color of Fear.” In it a few men, white, black, Asian, and Latino, get together and talk about their feelings. Among them is one white guy who insists that he has no race problem. The dynamic of the situation then requires that the others present spend their time arguing with him, which rules out their talking about other things. Finally, it gets to him that the rest consider him the problem. He has an epiphany and starts to weep. Then of course they all have to gather around and reassure him and welcome the reformed sinner into their fraternity-except that there is no indication that anything will be different. He will still go back to his white neighborhood, etc. And this film is grossing big money. It is being sold for hundreds of dollars a pop. The “diversity” industry does not depend on small groups of well-intentioned people meeting in church basements, but on lucrative contracts with corporations to conduct seminars for executives on how to manage their labor force. Some of the people in the “diversity” industry remind me of doctors who secretly love the disease they are supposed to be fighting. It is fortunate that in the nineteenth century they had abolitionists instead of diversity consultants; if not, slavery would still exist, and representatives of slaves and slaveholders would be meeting together-to promote mutual understanding and good feeling.

I am once again begging TV news stations to stop serving as a collaborating conduit for pure uncut police propaganda. Consider the latest I saw yesterday.

I love to turn on my local news station in Boston to see stories about cops in Ohio being nice one time to a Black kid. And it’s not even a particularly uplifting story! The young boy says right in it he’s often scared to death of the police. Awwww.

Here’s another I saw yesterday.

Took me a minute to get sad from reading this one because I didn’t understand it was the dog that is sick at first.

Who is this story for though? Why does the national ABC News account need to share it? What do these sorts of stories do besides humanize police at a time when their refusal to consider Black people as fully human is the very fucking matter in question?

I wrote about copaganda like this and other “feel good” pieces that spin a nightmare of capitalism into a triumph a while back in this paid-only Hell World.

Here’s the thing about a cop buying a homeless woman some shoes or a teen going to his job injured because he was hoping to donate to charity or a bus driver buying hats for the kids he drives or some students building a baby a wheelchair or people in Home Depot building a walker for another baby or the owner of a company giving a car to one of his workers or say the ex-wife of the richest man alive promising to donate $37 billion to charity as MacKenzie Bezos recently did the thing is that those are all nice things. There is nothing wrong with personal acts of charity or kindness of course and the individuals that they are helping are all somewhat better off than they were previously and that is good.

The problem is that the conditions that led those people to need to become the recipients of charity are not random bad luck they are the baseline reality for vast swaths of the American capitalism and the lack of clothing or medical equipment or sufficient insurance or funds to be able to miss a day or two of work have nothing to do with their individual choices in life or anything like that they are solely because people like the owners of the corporations in question like Home Depot to name one or Amazon to name another have hoarded all of the wealth that we created for them and belongs to us.

When a Black person is killed by the police white supremacists are always quick to rifle through their background to find reasons why they deserved it.

That’s what the typical rap sheet disclaimer paragraph in a crime story does. No angel this guy Torrence Jackson in other words. When it’s a white person they tell you what they majored in in college or what the name of their horse was when they grew up on the farm twenty years ago even when you chop up your family and put them all in an oil drum they say you were a family man and show pictures of you smiling but when it’s a black person or a white person who’s addicted to drugs and does petty crimes which is almost the same thing in the local news humanity calculus they tell you what crimes they had done before and then you go this guy seems like a real piece of work and you adjust your sadness dial like you’re turning down the heat on the stove top coil where you boil your upset.

Please enjoy the riffs here. My god the riffs.

By the time I’d arrived it was already over. That was the sense I had anyway. That the Boston I now inhabited was some imperfect and diminished version of what had come before. Shuttered clubs and bars and diners where matters of significant local folklore had transpired and defined life for the previous generation were lost to time they said.

This likely happened in whatever city you came of age in as well it’s the same story anywhere. Everything was always some degree better before in a time you no longer have access to. This is a lie in many ways and a story people tell themselves to mythologize their own youth but it can also be true. Things can and do very often get worse.

They can also get better though and so you nonetheless find your own places and make of them what you can and conspire in the erection of new monuments to joy and then twenty years on as the marriage of progress and entropy has its sour way with your life this time you pass on this sense of disappointment to your younger friends who listen but only so much. You know things but you don’t know everything. You know what happened but you don’t necessarily know what is happening.

I was thinking about this because despite a valiant effort to raise the money to save it by my friend Carl Lavin and the music community at large the dream of the beloved indie rock club Great Scott — which I memorialized in here a few weeks ago — appears to be dead. The specifics of this particular club do not matter if you’ve never been there you have a story like this in your city wherever it is. The general story beats of a neighborhood losing its soul are familiar to us all because neighborhoods are always losing their soul.

Some of them like my places Allston and Harvard and Central Squares in Cambridge have been losing their souls for as long as I can remember. Some would say the soul was gone before I even stepped foot in them and they would be wrong because what I experienced there was no less real than the people that had come before me it was just happening in differently appointed rooms.

I’d worry these are the flailing memories of an old man on his scene deathbed but my twenty-something friends are experiencing this loss in real time as well and the cross-generational disappointment is something like a chorus in a harmony of despair.

A curious thing happens too when you live long enough to see this cycle play out a few times. I read yesterday that Eastern Standard one of the most beloved hotel bars in Boston and one of the most lauded in the country may be in danger of closing after fifteen years over a dispute with the landlord. It would truly be a huge loss for me and many others but its existence has always represented another previous loss for the generation before me. Kenmore Square was once the ragged punk heartbeat of Boston and home to the legendary rock club The Rat where everyone from the Pixies to the Cars and the Ramones and R.E.M. and Dinosaur Jr. played. It closed just before my time and people still won’t shut about it and I believe them that it was worth never shutting up about. Eastern Standard and the rest of the changes in the neighborhood to those people then was its own insult when it arrived. A garish totem about the march of gentrification. To me losing it today to some hypothetical and likely worse use of the space feels like a wound on top of someone else’s scar.

Speaking of which it’s really hard to type right now because in the midst of an exceptionally budget dumb ass Rocky-like workout the other day I jumped up to grab the beams in my shed to do some pull ups and gashed the shit out of my knuckles on a piece of metal. Injuring yourself as a dude is so stupid because you’re like fuuuckk oh no but also lol cool look at all the blood at the same time.

This closing feels similar to the Eastern Standard thing but perhaps not to the same degree of uh quality in terms of food:

It’s a Pizzeria Uno who cares right but I remember travelling into the city as a teenager on the train and going there after a day of used record shopping and thinking it was the coolest thing in the world. Not to be there specifically but to be anywhere. And not to say a chain like that is worthy of mourning in itself but rather the period in your life it might represent.

I was just reminded of this chapter from the Hell World book. If you never read it you should it’s one of my favorites.

Just outside the gates of the Hofburg Palace the massive baroque seat of power for the Habsburg kings and emperors of the Holy Roman Empire and in the shadow of the 13th century cathedral the Michaelerskirche with its elaborate series of subterranean crypts there’s an open air museum in the center of the popular Michaelerplatz. Amidst the tourist bustle and high-end retail shopping and cafes with blankets strewn over chair backs and the omnipresent wall-mounted cigarette vending machines the excavation looks like a narrow scar carved into the earth that opens a window into Vindobona which is a Roman military outpost that is believed to be where Marcus Aurelius died in the year 180.

Aurelius’s Meditations were something like the first self-help book albeit one that set the course for Christianity and Western civilization. In short it was a set of guidelines for being a good man written by himself to himself. Everything happens for a reason he’d say. “The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it.” Sorry but since I’ve been rewatching True Detective season one it’s almost impossible not to hear shit like that in Matthew McConaughey’s voice.

“Time is like a river made up of the events which happen, and a violent stream; for as soon as a thing has been seen, it is carried away, and another comes in its place, and this will be carried away too.”

We build on top of ourselves burying the past I thought. We live on top of the dead I thought while staring down into the ruins there snapping photos of the ancient culture’s bones on my phone so I could remember them some day in the future. Eventually you accumulate too many memories on your phone so you have to decide which ones to delete. You have to go through and be like do I absolutely need to remember this hamburger?

Almost ten years ago I wrote a book about the dive bars of Boston and of the hundred or so I mentioned maybe twenty still exist. Four years ago I revisited what that means in a column in the Globe.

“But for all the lionizing we do of the good old days, it's often very easy to blur longevity and tradition with hagiography,” I wrote. “It certainly doesn't help that so many of my favorite bars today — Deep Ellum, Highland Kitchen, and Trina's Starlite Lounge, to name a few — had in their previous incarnations been dives. Their transformation inspired all manner of there-goes-the-neighborhood handwringing.”

“The days of a dive bar on every corner are never coming back, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't make room, even cherish, the ones we've still got. A dive bar closing is akin to any other small neighborhood business closing — a local bodega with character turning into a CVS, or a mom-and-pop hardware store becoming a corporate chain. It's not necessarily the place itself that we mourn when it's gone, or its history, although it is often that too, but rather the encroaching, pulverizing anonymity of the homogenous. Let the old bars give way to the new, then — let's just try to make sure they're telling their own individual stories about the neighborhood, not the same ones being told on every other block in every city around the country.”

The point was that a beloved bar doesn’t have to exist forever as long as what replaces it begins writing its own history for the people who come along to inhabit it in its own distinctive way.

A neighborhood’s soul is lost then rebuilt then lost again and it goes on and on but there is I think a potential end point where the predictions of a neighborhood’s demise can finally be fulfilled and maybe that’s here for Boston. Places with an abundance of soul can drag out the process for a long time but there are only so many blows they can take. My beloved Harvard Square has continued to be a cultural destination for all these years of loss simply because there was so much to lose in the first place. Now every other storefront is a bank branch.

I’m told the Great Scott space is going to become a chain convenience store. A Circle K I guess. Perhaps the next generation will manage to make some memories there but I doubt it. Perhaps teenagers who come to the city years from now will look back at a neighborhood filled with now shuttered convenience stores and complain that they’ve all been turned into Army recruiting centers.

When a room slowly starts to fill with water you can continue to float upward and breathe until the very end when you’re left scraping at the last pocket of oxygen. Things used to be better in this sunken room you think and then you go under.

There’s a great interview with two of the founders of the ACT UP Boston chapter in Dig Boston this week by Noah Schaffer. It reads in part like this:

This Pride Month, DigBoston checked in with Raymond Schmidt and Stephen Skuce, who were two of the founders of the ACT UP Boston chapter, along with Donald Smith and Paul Wychules. ACT UP/Boston’s heyday spanned from 1988 to 1996. Its protests targeted everyone from Michael Dukakis, to Cardinal Bernard Law, to the John Hancock Insurance Company.

We asked how these pioneers of LGBTQ rights and public health activism view the current climate.

In what ways are the responses to COVID-19 similar to the early responses to HIV/AIDS, and in what ways are they different?

Stephen Skuce: It’s interesting in that on the one hand there has been a vastly larger response—certainly it doesn’t begin to echo anything that happened in the AIDS crisis, especially in the first four years. But this specific administration, well, if it could drag its feet even more than it already has, it would, and that does echo what I experienced when Reagan and [George H.W.] Bush were in the White House. There was serious opposition to doing anything, and in that instance it was because [of] who was affected. They didn’t care, or another way to say it is that they welcomed it—it was happening to people they despised.

Now this crisis is different: at least early on there was the perception that everyone was vulnerable. Indeed, in the Boston area, the Biogen meeting was a major spreading event, where there was a bunch of seriously well-to-do, influential, overwhelmingly white, and I assume largely male population that was infected. But now what we’ve been seeing is that members of communities of color are much more likely to be exposed to COVID, and if they become ill they’re much more likely to succumb to this illness. Given how awful things are at the top in this country, finding out that Black people would die first did not speed anything along with the response.

“Who is getting sick?” will always be an important question when you have an epidemic or pandemic. Not too long before the AIDS crisis there was Legionaire’s Disease, which impacted a very small handful of very elderly, mostly white men, and the government mobilized to an astonishing degree and on a per capita basis much more potently than they did with HIV.

One major problem is that different segments of the population seem to be operating under very different assumptions about how this virus spreads. Was public information a challenge in combating HIV/AIDS?

Skuce: The surgeon general under Reagan was C. Edward Koop, who was not perceived as a friend by those who were impacted by HIV. But he did find himself changing his position and [in 1988] he sent out to every household a mailing about the crisis. It was edited by political players, and it was watered down, but every household got the same bit of information about what was known and ways to avoid contracting HIV.

Now, in the current environment, at the highest levels of government you have a hands-off approach, where the federal government is taking no responsibility. The idea that you don’t centralize an approach to a pandemic is completely obscene and insane. The federal government during the AIDS crisis was overwhelmingly absent, and at the same time the government was actively hateful: They would not let people share information about safer sex and needle exchange. It was against the law in several states and banned [if federal funds were used]. The federal government was not allowed to distribute life saving information to gay men, but again, everyone could see what was going on: a disease that most impacted despised minority groups: people of color, gay people, and IV drug users [who] were seen as expendable.

Let’s turn to the recent demonstrations. You hear some people say they’re against racism but they don’t understand why the Black Lives Matter protesters have to engage in civil disobedience instead of just having peaceful, completely lawful protests. Or that they want too much change too soon. Does that sound familiar?

Skuce: We got the same exact thing. “Why do you have to be so aggressive?” In the 1980s there was already the AIDS Action Committee and they were doing really important work: bringing meals to people, caring for the dying. But you also need shock troops, too. It’s a somewhat similar analogy [with racial justice]. We have plenty of wonderful mainline organizations like the NAACP that must work in particular ways, they must guard their access to the back rooms, to the senators’ offices, and that accomplishes a great deal. You will never find me bad mouthing or criticizing organizations that do the hard work of creating incremental or more than incremental progress.

But breathing while Black should not be a death sentence. You hear “they’re not polite, they’re making too many demands.” No, they’re not. And yes, there was some opportunistic looting or violence. That’s called criminal activity, and what else is new? If there’s a blackout you might have more break ins because there’s a criminal element in society. But that shouldn’t be confused with the protests going on. What is thrilling to me is that with Black Lives Matter it’s such a multicultural mix of people in the streets right now.

Raymond Schmidt: When it comes to being polite, Larry Kramer [the famed ACT UP New York activist who passed away last month] kept asking people why they weren’t screaming in the streets. “I can’t believe you want to die,” he’d say. Once you accepted the reality that you had a population that was dying at a rapid rate, you had to react and respond.

Read the rest here.