Thursday, September 07, 2006

Three Angles

Was browsing through the local news online when I stumbled scross this headline:

Strip Club's Demise Costly

The story, in brief, is that a St. Paul neighborhood has had to scale back an annual neighborhood festival because of lack of funds.

After reading the article, however, I came to the conclusion that there are actually three different angles to this story.

First, and most obviously, is the strip club angle. A local club called the Payne Reliever was about the only thing most folks from outside the neighborhood knew it for, and as might be expected, local residents weren't always happy with the place, or at least the idea of the place. A wave of anti-adult business legislation at the city level convinced the owner to sell the property in 1999 to a developer who eventually opened an Embers restaurant and a bingo parlor on the property.

Interestingly, the old club (which won a couple of categories in the local alt-weekly's Best of 1999 issue prior to being sold) also sold pull-tabs, known locally as 'charitable gambling', the proceeds for which went to the Payne Avenue Business Association. Though one might imagine that a bingo parlor would also be an obvious place for such 'charitable gambling', apparently it hasn't happened, because the loss of revenues to the Association wasn't picked up, at least not in the same amount, as from the old club. The loss of that additional revenue led directly to the scaling back of the annual Payne-Arcade Harvest Festival.

Ironic, ain't it?

But there are also two other angles to the story that the writer could have played up more prominently, if a different sort of story was required.

The second angle, as I see it, could have focused on the following paragraphs:

Despite the unusual circumstances, changes to the Harvest Festival represent a larger trend sweeping community celebrations throughout the city. Local festivals, both large and small, have been struggling to generate crowds and cash in recent years.

From a slimmed-down Rondo Days to a revamped St. Paul Winter Carnival, planners of such events say they're competing for a dwindling pool of sponsorships and volunteers.

Others quietly have faded away. In the 1980s, many community celebrations enjoyed municipal funding, but city budget crunches eventually abolished that kind of financial support, said Jane McClure, a local historian and reporter for the Villager, a St. Paul community newspaper.

This illustrates a couple of societal changes first noticable in the 1980s and which have now come to fruition in the 21st century - societal changes directly attributable to what I call 'me first' fiscal conservatism. This conservatism has manifested in two different but related trends.

The first is 'anti-tax' rhetoric, which has led governments to lower taxes and correspondingly reduce expenditures. Amid near-constant accusations of waste in government, accompanied by appeals to the funds collected in taxes being 'my money', taxes have fairly steadily lowered over the past 25 years in the US, to the point where it could be argued that the overall tax burden on Americans as a percentage of their incomes is as low as it's ever been since the passage of the Sixteenth Amendment in 1913. (According to this essay and accompanying graph, no nation on Earth had as high a GNP per capita with as low a tax rate as the US in 2005.) While there was no doubt some beneficial belt-tightening at the beginning of this era, that the practice has gone on for so long with no reduction in the venom or intensity of anti-tax rhetoric suggests to me that elimination of government waste was never really the issue at hand. (Not to mention that, given the vast amount of law pertaining to government procurement, it could be argued that, save for a few well-publicized exceptions, there really wasn't all that much waste in government purchasing to begin with.) By lowering the discretionary funds a government has available to spend, the ability of that government to fund public events is obviously reduced.

The second and related trend is a redefinition of the best use of 'personal time'. In a more communitarian age, if people had free time they tended to look for ways to use it to help out their neighbors - both because it was the 'right thing to do' as well as knowing that it would increase the likelihood of others coming to help you when you had need of such extra help. However, hand in hand with the rhetoric of lower taxes came a change in the perception of the value of personal time - specifically that personal time could, and should, be perceived as having a monetary value (after all, if you were working, you'd be making money with that time), and thus anything you considered doing with your 'free time' should be measured against the amount of money you could have made during that time. In the minds of many, volunteerism slowly began to be replaced with capitalism, and while folks would still commit personal time to help friends or relatives, simply being a neighbor began to mean less and less in this financial calculus.

You can see the end results of both trends not just in the scaling back of the Payne-Arcade Harvest Festival, but all such local community festivals - a combination of a lack of funds to spend, plus a serious reduction in the number of available volunteers, combined with the overwork and eventual burnout of those who do decide to volunteer, leads to a vicious circle in which community events continue to disappear from the national landscape. What festivals remain, such as the Minnesota State Fair, tend to degenerate into large-scale orgies of capitalism, consisting of little more than block after block of food vendors, beer gardens, and other folks out, not to celebrate the local spirit of community or hobnob with their neighbors, but to make a buck.

If the 'mainstream media' were as unabashedly liberal as many right-wing media folk seem to continue to insist, I'd have expected this angle to be much more prominent. But the media isn't really liberal or conservative (with the exception of party organs such as Fox News); it's capitalist, in the sense that reports mainly on things that sell - and sex sells. Thus the main headline is about the strip club that closed nearly seven years ago, leaving the actual story - the festival - to inhabit the subhead.

The third angle is even more unlikely in a mainstream media article, but even this angle is easily seen from within the article itself:

And then there's a waning sense of neighborhood identity.

Take the Payne-Phalen neighborhood — home of the Harvest Festival — where the white population dropped from 82 percent to 49 percent from 1990 to 2000. Steve Katainen, who loves to watch the parade from his store window at Furniture Minnesota on Payne Avenue, says he's confident the festival will find a way to capture the growing number of minority immigrants and other non-native East Siders.

"The people who attend the parades are people whose parents brought them as kids," Katainen said. "The people who've moved here, they have no idea what it was in the past, so they have no affinity with Payne Avenue or (a desire to) participate. It's a tradition that's no longer there."

If there is, as the writer claims, a 'waning sense of neighborhood identity', it very likely connects to that reduction in the white population mentioned so prominently. Payne-Arcade, like a number of neighborhood around the Twin Cities, has been a haven for immigration into the area. And I'm willing to bet that it isn't that the newcomers don't have an affinity for Payne Avenue as much as it is that the people who still live on Payne Avenue have little affinity for the newcomers.

Case in point:

I live in an inner ring suburb of Minneapolis, in a greying neighborhood. Many folks who live here have lived here for much of their adult lives. A good friend who lives nearby has lived here with her husband since before their daughters were born - and the eldest is a senior in high school now. Yet new families are moving in to the neighborhood as well, as I can see when I walk to the bus stop to go to work each morning and see young parents with their younger children, waiting for the school bus to come by.

Should it make any difference that every single one of these families I see is Hispanic?

Now you might expect that I'm going to start an all-out rant on racism just as I did above on 'me first' conservatism. But here's the thing: while it's almost certainly true that some white communities don't go very far out of their way to welcome minorities into the neighborhood, it's also true that most white people don't see themselves as racist. That Scott Kurtz webcomic link points out that, if you inform a white person of something that's being done specifically for the benefit of white people, that person will be uncomfortable - it's part of the culture to feel that way. And it's certainly true that racism in the guise of white supremacy isn't culturally accepted in many places in the US (though there are places where it certainly remains accepted, if seldom discussed publicly).

So on the subject of racism and the decline of community identification, I'll point out that it is, to me, a sign of racism that minorities either aren't invited to participate in community events or, if they do attempt to participate, are seen as folks who "have no affinity" for the neighborhood. At a certain level, a young family would be happy simply to have a safe place to take their kids, be outside on a nice day, and get to know some friendly people, regardless of whether that family is black, white, or otherwise. On the other hand, a society where it's not only acceptible but expected for black people, for example, to root for the 'black team' on a reality TV competition, but frowned upon for white people to root for the 'white team' is clearly a society with a racial double-standard. Both are problems, and should be addressed.

One simple news story, yet so many connections to issues of deep significance to society. And still they decided to go with the strip club in the headline...

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