Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Feeling So Vibrant I Gotta Wear Shades...

I'm headed to China shortly and should have some fresh, China-related material to post soon, Great Firewall permitting.

In the meantime, I've been thinking about more mundane matters. Specifically, where the hell am I going to live?

I moved out of Venice Beach after 25 years last November. When I moved to Venice in 1987, one of its nicknames was "Slum By the Sea." It was a cheap place to live, a bohemian refuge, in part because it wasn't exactly safe. There was gang violence. A lot of people living on the streets, many of whom had mental health issues, substance abuse problems. I was very lucky during my years there, overall. I was nearly mugged once, another time followed by a creep in a truck who thought I might want to f*** him (and called me a "hippie c*** when I yelled that I had his license plate number and was calling the cops).

I lived in a building where weird shit happened, where cops where frequently called, where the SWAT team showed up once, where there were needles on the stairwells, where guys would steal a microwave from the 5th floor and knock on my door on the 1st floor at 8:00 AM and ask me if I wanted to buy it. I was at times the person who intervened, who waded into weird situations because, I don't know why. I just did. Weird domestic violence case with two incredibly drunk, naked people that I christened "Blue Velvet in Real Life"? Yeah, I was the person who walked through the door and told the little creep to stop hitting his girlfriend. I guess I was pretty dumb, except I figured, "they're both really loaded, and he's a skinny little dude, and he's naked, so it's not like he's gonna pull out a gun out of his butt."

Venice stories, I haz them.

During that time, I did a lot of stuff. I played in a band. I wrote screenplays and weird, unpublishable novels. And I held down a full-time job at a film studio. I started as a clerk and worked my way up to a position that I used to refer to as "mid-level studio bureaucrat." Eventually I bought a tiny house that I called "Shack by the Sea." I went through a lot in Venice, but ultimately, I was happy there, or my last few years were, anyway. It was a place that was rough at times but that encouraged creativity.

As I started doing better in my life, as I started making more money, established myself as a professional (albeit an eccentric, fringie one), Venice gentrified around me. By the time I left, Venice had become a very desirable, and very expensive, place to live.

Which, you know, has its plus sides. I liked being able to walk all over the place at night. Liked having groovy bistros and wine bars a few blocks away. Loved it when the Whole Foods moved in.

But ultimately, a novelist like me couldn't afford to live in a place like that.

So, I sold Shack By the Sea, and I've spent nearly a year ping-ponging around, exploring other places, trying to figure out where I wanted to be.

I thought, San Francisco. I love San Francisco. I mean, who doesn't? But talk about insanely expensive. It's gotten to the point where you literally cannot find an apartment for less than $2000.00 a month, and if you do (there's a huge rental housing shortage), it's a tiny studio. The gentrification there has become  a civic crisis, as long-time residents are priced out of the city that many of them were born in. This New Yorker piece may sound a little bitter and over-the-top, but from my experiences, it expresses how a lot of people are feeling; also, the clueless entitlement of the wealthy who look at the city as their personal playground.

I recently went to Albany to attend Bouchercon. Albany is an interesting city. It's a combination of grand civic buildings befitting the capital of the state, lovely, old row houses and homes built in the 19th and early 20th century, and de-industrialized blocks where industry fled and not much has come in to fill the vacuum.

I had a great time tromping all over the place in Albany, but it was sad to see these abandoned blocks with shells of beautiful buildings, with urban renewal projects that had failed.

After Albany, I went to New York for an event and for meetings with my publishing peeps. I decided to stay in Brooklyn, because I'd hardly spent any time there. I ended up in Williamsburg, which is just a bridge away from Manhattan. You can walk from Williamsburg to Manhattan in about 40 minutes, not that much longer than a subway ride. It's a beautiful walk across the bridge spanning the East River, into Manhattan. And Williamsburg, it's nice. Another community with industrial spaces that were colonized by artists and are now way too expensive for most artists to afford. Cute streets with bistros and bars and coffee houses. I liked it a lot. But I doubt that I could afford to live there.

Manhattan, of course, gentrified long ago, taken over by finance barons and Masters of the Universe. For a lot of folks, it's become a City Museum, not a living, breathing, creative place, but an Incredible Simulation! Walking on Manhattan's streets, it doesn't necessarily feel that way, at least not to me, but it's true that I could never afford to live there. And a life long Manhattan resident told me: "Parts of Manhattan, you used to walk on those streets and they were packed with people. They're empty now."

Because the people who own the co-ops, who rent the apartments, they're very wealthy, and they only live in Manhattan part-time.

So, where does that leave writers and artists? Queens? Vallejo? Detroit?

As a sidebar, I have to share an article I just read that inspired the title of this post. It's by the incredibly brilliant Thomas Frank, who wrote "What's The Matter With Kansas?" This piece is about the buzzword "Vibrant," and how encouraging artists and colorful creative types has basically become a substitute for addressing real, structural problems in the US economy. Instead, it's "let them eat art," where:
We build prosperity by mobilizing art-people as vibrancy shock troops and counting on them to . . . well . . . gentrify formerly bedraggled parts of town. Once that mission is accomplished, then other vibrancy multipliers kick in. The presence of hipsters is said to be inspirational to businesses; their doings make cities interesting and attractive to the class of professionals that everyone wants; their colorful japes help companies to hire quality employees, and so on. All a city really needs to prosper is group of art-school grads, some lofts for them to live in, and a couple of thrift stores to supply them with the ironic clothes they crave. Then we just step back and watch them work their magic....
...Vibrancy is a sort of performance that artists or musicians are expected to put on, either directly or indirectly, for the corporate class. These are the ones we aim to reassure of our city’s vibrancy, so that they never choose to move their millions (of dollars) to some more vibrant burg. An artist who keeps to herself, who works in her room all day, who wears unremarkable clothes and goes without tattoos— by definition she brings almost nothing to this project, adds little to the economic prospects of a given area. She inspires no one. She offers no lessons in creativity. She is not vibrant, not remunerative, not investment-grade. 
(I'm not doing this piece justice with these quotes. Just go read the whole thing)

I know that cities change and evolve and gentrify. Or decay. It's one of those life-cycle things. But what does it mean when a city like San Francisco, a city that has always been a refuge for the eccentric, for writers and artists, is no longer affordable for the people who were so essential to creating its character?

What happens when cities lose the qualities that made them what they are?

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

To the surprise of no one...

(originally published on Murder Is Everywhere, 10/2/13, with a few additional thoughts added here)

Bo Xilai was found guilty.

(Bo is over 6 ft. tall, so those are some very tall cops!)

For those unfamiliar, I wrote a little about Bo Xilai and his criminal case here and here. It truly is one of the most bizarre, Byzantine and fascinating political scandals of...maybe ever, but at least of the modern political era. I won't recap it again here (for one thing, I just got back from Bouchercon and a few post-Bouchercon events and...well, if you've been to Bouchercon, you'll understand! I need to sleep for about a week). But since my second post, a few more highlights of the trial were: Bo called his wife "crazy" (she's the one who supposedly murdered British businessman and fixer, Neil Heywood) and accused his once loyal righthand man, ex-police chief Wang Lijun, of having an affair with her. So, there's that.

What did surprise many observers was the severity of Bo's sentence -- life in prison, with the possibility of parole after a decade or so. Many had expected he'd get closer to 10 - 20 years, given his high "princeling" status. Also, the evidence presented in court was not terribly compelling--it was the sort of petty corruption that as one internet wag remarked, didn't even rise to the level of village headman. 

But there were many factors at work here. 

The first was the manner in which Bo proclaimed his ambitions before his downfall. While there might be some sympathy for his neo-Maoist politics (how deeply Bo believes in them is another question) Bo, with his American-style glad-handing, crowd-pleasing style, openly campaigned for high office. This. Isn't. Done. Decisions are made behind closed doors, and the battles are largely unseen. 

Another was the current regime's desire to prove to the Chinese people that they are serious about tackling corruption, that they are willing to take down as high profile a leader as Bo Xilai, the son of an "Immortal." This is problematic, because the public suspects that most if not all Chinese leaders are in some measure corrupt, and if they aren't corrupt, they are so privileged that the distinction really doesn't matter. In fact, much of Bo's popularity stemmed from his anti-corruption campaign in Chongqing, and I can't really say if his downfall increases peoples' cynicism that "they're all the same," or if it reinforces a belief that anyone who really takes on the system will be brought low. Probably both, depending on who you talk to.

I think that Bo Xilai's unpardonable sin in the eyes of the current leadership was that he openly campaigned for high office. It threatened the hard-fought, behind the curtains consensus that has governed the succession process since Deng Xiaoping. His use of Maoist tropes suggested that he was willing to mobilize "the masses" to gain power, and that is a red-hot button for the leadership. They do not want to see a return to the violence and chaos of the Cultural Revolution period, but more to the point, they do not want to see a leadership selection process or the rise of a populist movement that's outside of their control.

Bo might have gotten a lighter sentence if he'd accepted his fate, admitted his guilt, thrown himself on the mercy of the court, but he did none of those things. He challenged the government's case every step of the way and loudly proclaimed his innocence. Now, he is appealing his verdict. How that will work out in a legal system largely designed to reinforce the Party's will is anyone's guess. 

But most observers agree that the government didn't do a very good job of presenting the case against Bo, that when it came to the charge of abusing his power, they weren't willing to dig very deeply at all. From all accounts, Bo's anti-corruption campaign was also a tool used to punish his political enemies and to extort money from businessmen who were not his allies. The abuse of power was very real and very deep. But the real facts of Bo's case too clearly illustrate the arbitrary nature of authority in China. And apparently the new leadership isn't ready to tackle that.