Nearly every day, I walk by abandoned buildings. Buildings sitting idle, not having been in use for years; empty dilapidated buildings: these give my neighborhood and its surroundings their character. To be sure, there are those homes that some have chosen to maintain or restore. There are those people who refuse to abandon their community despite its economic depredations. But there’s no getting around the fact that just around the corner lies the vestiges of what was once a thriving city. There’s no getting around the fact of the post-industrial.
When I walk past an abandoned building, I can’t help but see the economic history of the last forty years through its broken glass windows. The financialization of capital deftly maneuvers through cracks in the boards, defying their boundaries of wood, nails, and “keep out” signs. The ghosts of workers and business owners seem to cry out from the past to say “don’t let it happen.” But what they don’t want to happen seems to me, unclear. Is it time?
Some on the left occasionally wax nostalgic about the populist era of William Jennings Bryan as a promise of inter-racial democracy, radically and tragically defeated by the consolidation of corporate capitalism. In looking wistfully to these fallen heroes, there is a sense that it is not only their defeat at the hands of capital, but their defeat by the hands of time, the one thing that makes their defeat, and all of our defeats certain, the dimension that adds such a tragic element to the populists’ downfall: its irreversibility. This temporal dimension of tragedy is the stuff of historians, the job of those political and culturally inclined keepers of the past who attune us to its differences, to what could have been and wasn’t. We look to the past and see the tragedy of human folly. But we also see the tragedy of time sweeping over this folly.
In this rendering of the past, our sense of possibility is given an outlet. We see the tragedy of the past and hope for a better future. But in the abandoned buildings of post-industrial cities, in the faces of those forced to live in forgotten and neglected neighborhoods, the tragedy of the past is there every day, enacting, in a sense, a “history of the present.” We need look no further than the de-facto racial segregation of cities like Syracuse, Baltimore, Buffalo, Detroit, and Cleveland, to see our egregious civil rights crisis, a spectacle with so much tragic history it seems at once to deny that history for exactly what it is now: simply a shame.
Yet the banner of “hope” in this country says nothing about this situation: nothing about the decay of cities, about the shame of their attendant segregation. It ignores the post-industrial. It ignores the historical tragedy of the promise of interracial living and community that small and medium sized cities once held before the imperative of urban renewal birthed the mantras of neo-liberalism.
If it is the inexorability of time that gives the tragedy of the past its force, then time stands still in post-industrial cities; time’s inexorability takes on a new dimension. Reflection on the past-as-tragedy gives time’s inexorability a particular sting when it escapes reflection and becomes imposition by and on the present. That imposition exists in our post-industrial cities, cities where capital follows its own muse, itself, and leaves behind the increasing ranks of the poor; where it can never make amends with its forgotten people and businesses alike, because it simply has no soul. No apologies.
The imposition of the past by and on the present presents us with an arguably more visceral tragedy than the defeat of the populists because of its freeze on time. Buildings remain unused, staring us in the face. Funding to poor areas continues to dwindle. Life expectancies become more disproportionate, falling heavily along racial lines. And nowhere in our political conscience do we seem to find a place for any of it. The fact of our cities arrests us with its imposition by and on the present, leaving us at the opposite end of a Sartrean existential dilemma where the possibility of action becomes the complacency of inertia.
As some still invoke the tragedy of the populists, the tragedy of our cities needs no invocation. And as we as a nation show no sign of addressing the logic of our cities, which follows, droolingly, the logic of capital, we’ll continue to live with, arguably, an even greater tragedy: the history of our present, the tragedy of the post-industrial.