About this time last year I asked our readers, “why we don’t criticize other things like we criticize the internet?” It seemed like a fitting topic for the season; we utilize some of the most resource-intensive technologies at our disposal so that we may enjoy egg nog with old friends or taste grandma’s famous Thanksgiving day turkey. Everyone wants to be near their loved ones for the holidays, and so begins a massive effort to transport ourselves in cars, trains and planes until we arrive at our optimal holiday season arrangements. It is a wonder, then, why we spend so much of our lives outside of this optimal arrangement. What kind of relationship do we have with our immediate surroundings? Not just the people, but the technologies and the patterns. There is a lot of excellent work on carbon footprints, local food movements, and walkable communities but I hear comparatively little about who is capable of making this transition. What does opting out of the status quo truly entail?
I am on deadline for a journal article so, naturally, I thought I would take a few minutes to do something completely unrelated. My short essay "Time Traveling in Troy, NY" has gotten some traffic and I am noticing that some readers (specifically some of the users of lifeinbkln.com) have understandably mistaken my pessimism for alloofness or detachment. As one of the lifeinbkln commentors said, "His perch high on the hill, at RPI, is a good symbol of his attitude towards what's going on down below. He never connects to anyone, it's all literally 'above it all.'" I can certainly see how someone would get that from the article, but I never wanted to convey such a notion. Rather- I am intensely hopeful that cities like Troy are the future for innovative political, social, and technological change.
I agree with fellow Capital Region resident James Howard Kunstler when he says,
Today these places [the small and medium size towns in the upper Hudson and Mohawk river valleys] stand gutted, half-vacant, idle, hopeless. Paradoxically, they may be the kinds of places that have the strongest chance of surviving the challenges of the Long Emergency. It won't be esay. But they have the potential of coming back to life at the scale that new economic realities will require. And as populations decamp the suburbs and the metroplexes, these are places that might attract them.
Kunsler and others have argued that the Long Emergency mentioned above is coming to pass. The consequences of peak oil and global financial meltdown are wreaking havoc on the sociotechnical systems that shape our built environment. The quote above is particularly precient because it was written 2005, several years before the global financial collapse that halted major suburban construction projects and the financial milieau that allowed for their physical existance. In many ways, Kunstler is dead-on. I think Troy is benefiting immensely from out-of-control rent prices and the need for a cheaper, more grounded lifestyle.
The problem I alluded to in my original piece, and what is probably the source of readers' criticism, is decision-makers uneven acknowledgement of this reality. The Hedley project still exists and still dictates the actions of government and private enterprise. There is not nearly enough concern or effort being put into shoring up the resources we already have. Perhaps the solution is financial: how do banks and municipalities make as much money off of restoring old buildings as they currently do from building new ones? Perhaps the soltuion is rhetorical: cast those that look to build new as wall street fat cats detached from the realities of Real People. Maybe we need a little bit of both?
And finally, on the subject of Real People, one Cyborgology commenter noted: "More stuff appears to be going on, in a cultural sense; more small, hip, culturally-aware businesses have opened up since the earlier 2000s; the experimental electronic music scene has come into its own a bit more." This can also (and probably should) be read as gentrification. The poor are being priced out of downtown, and those parts of Troy to the north and south that do not have Business Improvement Districts are severely lacking in resources. The blatant segregation, while not new, is getting uglier and much more apparent. I must admit that I benefit from this gentrification, and I love the wine bars, coffee shops, and other local businesses that make downtown Troy so much fun. But Troy needs to do better. It needs to --and indeed can-- be a model for city revitalization that does not include marginalizing the poor.
If my original post appears despondent, it is because I fear that this opportunity will be lost. I fear that well-meaning activists and public officials will be duped by the same progress narratives that gutted Troy just a few decades ago. That white progressive elites will build up little enclaves of boutique shops and artists' lofts and never work to make the current residents of Troy the beneficiaries of local prosperity. Again, I say this with full acknowledgement that I am guilty of supporting this kind of redevelopment. When I say "we" in my post, I am certainly not including all residents of Troy. It is only when inequality is abolished that we can all truly have safe streets and vibrant towns.
There’s nothing particularly glamorous about Troy, New York. Troy is a city that, in an alternative universe, might have been a major metropolitan region. It stumbled early though, one of the first places to suffer the oxidation of the iron belt. What it lacks in size or elegance it makes up for in internal contradictions and a special brand of awkward coquettish charm. It is the home of Uncle Sam and the setting for Kurt Vonnegut‘s novels. Its buildings have been painted by Norman Rockwell and torn down by public officials in search of progress. The local university has one of the highest-paid presidents, but also hosts the Yes Men. My campus office is on the fifth floor of a 19th century chemistry laboratory. The former lab sits atop a steep hill, providing a view that, on clear days, can go for miles. The view from my office (above) is an eclectic blend of multiple decades of technological achievements and blunders. Highways, public housing, suburban enclaves, and the husks of Victorian factories stand in conversation with one-another like old friends. It is obvious that they need each other. Some get along better than others, but they would be lost without the others’ continued existence. New technology may be introduced to us as singular entities; improvements and replacements that make the old obsolete and irrelevant. More often than not however, these technologies find themselves sitting next to veterans of past technological revolutions. I have lived in Troy for almost three years now, and each day is a lesson in the history of technology.
As I (and a record 8 million other live Youtube viewers) witnessed Felix Baumgartner jump from a floating platform 128,000 feet in the air, I could not help but think about those little red bulls on his helmet. Red Bull, the ubiquitous energy drink and funder of all things Extreme™, had branded nothing less than a moment in human history. A monumental achievement brought to you by a peddler of a sugary drink that has fueled some of the worst decisions in the world [NSFW]. There was a day when the United States government was in the business of dazzling humanity with its feats of technological superiority and raw tenacity. For three years we were landing on the moon almost every six months. We made it look easy. Baumgartner’s jump is truly incredible, but it also makes me a little angry. I am tempted to bemoan the fall of civic life and the rise of corporate-sponsored spectacle, but ultimately I cannot find a moral handhold. Do I want an arms race or consumer capitalism to fund the greatest technological achievements of my lifetime?
I had a brief chat with the hosts of ABC Radio National's "Common Knowledge" show about Red Bull Stratos. Audio and links here.