ON THE NORTH END AND STARBUCKS

from – www.thegentrificationofboston.com

I had the great pleasure of recently watching a documentary short entitled Everything is Incrediblea film that tells the peculiar story of a disabled Honduran man who has been trying to build a homemade helicopter out of his garage for the past several decades. The film, in trying to make sense of this unusual life project, interviewed several people from the man’s family and neighborhood, and the general feeling regarding the project was something to the effect, “What can we say, the man is a little bit out there, he is different. We don’t exactly know why he is doing such a crazy thing.”

But things get interesting when we actually listen to the man speak, once we hear the care and logic in his voice that unapologetically justifies the decision to carry on with his life’s work in the face of such pervasive criticism and questioning.

At one point in the film the documentarian asks him what the underlying reason is for this seemingly illogical drive, this attempt to build a makeshift helicopter that most certainly will never be completed. The man, sitting up tall and dignified in his wheelchair, replies in the following manner:

The problem with (this world) is that everything is incredible but no one can accept it.

If we were to transpose the spirit of that very same quote onto the situation now developing in Boston regarding a Starbucks Coffee trying to force its way into the city’s historic Italian-American neighborhood directly against the community’s wishes, we could just as easily say:

The problem with the North End is that it is incredible, but Starbucks can not accept it.

When hearing a quote like this, our initial reaction, in a flood of emotion and memory, is to simply praise it as a statement of pure truth. But what is often is absent in such a moment is any real critical reflection. We are afraid that if we intellectualize such a statement we will potentially lose its raw spiritual power. So, what is truly needed here is not just a standard critical reflection, but rather a critical reflection that can still retain the emotional force and spiritual depth of the proposition itself.

So although I absolutely agree with the underlying sentiment of the man’s statement — “The problem with this world is that everything is incredible but no one can accept it” — one cannot help but look around today at the state of working class urban neighborhoods throughout America, like the North End in Boston, and encounter the sad fact that things are anything but incredible. Things are actually not good at all if we are being completely honest with ourselves: real estate prices are spiraling out of control, local communities are progressively losing their history and culture, and real estate development funds and transnational corporations like Starbucks are now moving in and radically transforming the social-symbolic substance that these very neighborhoods once signified — forever changing them away from their working class, ethnic, and family oriented roots.

In this very sense, the fight to keep a Starbucks out of the North End — or the ridiculous attempts to represent Boston’s ‘Little Italy’ as a living testament to working class and ethnic life in contemporary Boston when in reality the average condominium price is now approaching closer to one million dollars in the neighborhood — has a similar logic of trying to build a helicopter in your garage. And this is precisely why the people, politicians, and corporations that defend the gentrification process as being “natural,” as being “just the way things are now in the city,” often claim that anyone who tries to resist gentrification is simply silly, foolish, or borderline crazy — which is precisely why one should do it.

In other words, fighting back against gentrification in contemporary American cities is exactly the same as trying to build a helicopter in your garage. In one sense it is stupid and ridiculous, but in a much deeper sense it may in fact be the only real way to discover that the world is actually incredible, to see that the world is actually beautiful: we can only find out who we really are when we try to do the impossible, when we are willing to risk it all for something that we believe in.

A Starbucks trying to move into the North End and the incredible backlash it has produced over the past several weeks, culminating in a community hearing on June 28th in which virtually every major media news outlet in Boston covered as the lead story that same evening, has very little to do with this specific Starbucks itself. Such an impassioned response is more like a setting off point, the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back,” that rather speaks to the tail end of a three decade process in which a neighborhood like the North End has been continually drained of its people, history, and unique culture.

But why now? That is to say, why are The people just resisting it only now, in 2018, in such a palpable and direct way?

The principal reason why 21st century urban gentrification is ultimately so dangerous to cities around the country is because gentrification is first and foremost an abstract process, it is ideological, that only reveals itself through its own self-produced symptoms. And, what could be more of a symptom exploding to the social surface than a Starbucks Coffee trying to open a store at the very gateway of historic Hanover Street? What I mean by that is that even if you think you can “see” gentrification in action, the true danger of gentrification lies in the fact that it is an invisible phenomenon. It is invisible because gentrification is ultimately only a way of thinking, it is a way of orienting yourself and experiencing the urban world without the accompanying consciousness of its logic. 

The purpose of gentrification, like the purpose of a Starbucks, is to put everything and anything into a system that is fully mediated by a global capitalist logic, technological efficiency, and a spirit of pure competition. This is precisely why something like gentrification absolutely loves Linkedin profiles, Tinder Swipers, and corporate coffee chains: gentrification only works when people are ruthlessly competing with one another: it is truly the ultimate “dog eat dog” phenomena in 21st century urban American space.

But what gentrification cannot stomach, what it cannot to stand to be around, what terrifies it more than anything are things like friendship, solidarity, and self-respect. Nothing is more frightening to gentrification than two people sitting on a front stoop watching the world go by; nothing is more unsettling to its logic than an urban community with nothing left to lose that is finally willing to fight back.

A Starbucks trying to move into the historic gateway of the North End in Boston — even if this neighborhood is not even historic any longer, even if this neighborhood is already a thoroughly gentrified neighborhood in its present state — is in many ways symbolic of everything wrong with the world today, and most certainly everything wrong in America; which is, in a sentence: corporate violence against local communities and local people.

Seeing the small, remaining North End community mount a pushback against a multinational corporate giant is actually a beautiful thing to witness, it is something that can give us all hope and faith in the world, just like a person in a wheelchair determined to build a helicopter in his garage.

The North End is incredible. It is, as Jane Jacobs once correctly remarked, one of the truly great urban neighborhoods in America.  

And it is absolutely worth fighting for, most especially because of the fact that it is already gone.

ON THE DEATH OF THANKSGIVING DAY HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL GAMES

One of the easiest ways to clearly perceive the state of community life in contemporary urban neighborhoods (and America at large for that matter) is to simply take note of the various annual Thanksgiving day high school football games. Once a highly important event that directly spoke to the production of a shared local consciousness and sense of neighborhood belonging, these games now barely register on the cultural map.
But for the now pervasive ‘gentrified’ mindset, the cultural debasement of these Thanksgiving day games is actually seen as a positive development; as a clear sign of progress that signifies an overcoming of primitive urban rivalries and passions that are felt to have no place in contemporary urban living. In a certain respect, we could even make the provocative claim that gentrifcation silently mock these games, questions their utility and derides their folksy simplicity.
But what this all too typical attitude of ideological arrogance completely fails to see is that the passion and intensity these games once evoked brough forth a highly sophisitcated newtork of community relations and social-symbolic resonance that gentrification is fundamentally unable to produce in the present. 
In other words, when you understand why the local Thanksgiving day football games have progressively lost their cultural power, you can also understand why the local artist or musician have likewise lost their ability to capture and communicate the essence of  community life. And, furthermore, why local politicans are increasingly perceived as helpless to enact any real change, why middle and working class families can no longer afford to live in urban neighboorhoods, and at the extreme – why opiate addiction is tearing through the very fabric of American society. What my claim rests upon is that something as simple and banal as the decline of the high school football game is actually deeply sympomatic of a culture in crisis, of a culture that is now unable to produce local subjectivities, meaning, in the age of 21st century globalization.
The following passage is from my recently published book, ´Conversations on Gentrification´ where I speak about the (once) famous East Boston/South Boston Thanksgiving football rivalry. Interestingly enough, I feel that the history of this game, and the fact that is entirely irrelevent today, is particularly revealing in attempting to grasp the general trajectory of gentrification in Boston and the effect it has had upon neighborhood sensibility:
 And then of course there is the deeper work, which is to reimagine the idea of what it even means to be an urban citizen in the 21st century. One of the things that I think would be helpful — especially in a city such as Boston — would be trying to rehabilitate a sense of neighborhood consciousness. And when I say that, I certainly don’t mean trying to rehabilitate the old modes of neighborhood consciousness. I’m speaking of something entirely New. In other words, what has to happen is that we have to reimagine what the urban neighborhood can look like that simultaneously rejects both gentrification and this nostalgic retreat back toward the unreachable past.
You now see the absolute wrong way to do this in South Boston: they are trying rename it “Sobo” — a shameless homage to the yuppies. But this is by no means a genuine reimagining of a shared neighborhood consciousness, this is a marketing slogan at best. What I am speaking about is a reawakening of the intersubjective texture that lives and breathes within an urban neighborhood, that which gives an urban community a narrative structure and a shared sense of meaning. This is what is desperately needed today to combat the psychological aggression of neoliberal globalization. It’s funny, but I claim that one of the best things that could happen to Boston in the future would be, for example, that if in 20 years something like the famous rivalry  between the South Boston and East Boston high school football teams was to be reactivated. Something like this: re-opening these neighborhood rivalries with new stories, new families, and new children.
But to the sensibilities of gentrification this seems like the worst possible idea. ¨The Eastie/Southie football? God no!¨ For gentrification, even the mention of this game seems  anachronistic, reactionary, and something entirely against the notion of contemporary urban progress. But this is precisely where we encounter the important question: why would gentrification find this idea — the Eastie/Southie football game — so deeply offensive? Because it considers football a dangerous sport for children to play? Maybe. I can concede that. But I actually think it’s really something else that gentrification would never admit. 
You see, what we are ultimately dealing with here is an awakening of a neighborhood cosnsciousness that is expressed through a football game; an awakening of the pubic dimension, an awakenuing of the things that we share in common completely free from capitalist mediation. Gentrification cannot stomach this because the whole point of gentrification is to turn individuals into abstract consumers that ruthlessly compete against each other on the mirco level. The example of the Eastie/Southie football game — and I used that example intentionally — is something that has absolutely nothing to do with this kind of logic …
 When I say, “Let’s bring back the Eastie/Southie football game,” I’m by no means saying “Let’s bring back the Irish/Italian ethnic rivalry that was once expressed through a high school football game.” What I’m saying is that we have to reinvent these neighborhoods — not with cute marketing slogans and gentrified advertising to ‘brand’ them correctly so developers will invest there — but away from the gentrified horizon itself so that new a sense of shared identity can come forth. 

Radio Interview

The following is an interview I did today with Tom Hayes on his show “Upbeat with Tome Hayes.”  Talking about several topics relating to the essays that have been posted on this site thus far.

Link is to interview is here

Full link:  http://www.blogtalkradio.com/tjhayes/2015/07/15/upbeat-w-tom-hayes-and-brian-culkin

Boxing and The Image

Note:

I am currently in the process of directing a film on boxing. 24 to Heaven, is a look at the breakdown of boxing in urban America. Namely the rupturing of the factory system and its related structures in the wake of World War 2 and the urban crisis that followed suit. These blogs are also the rough drafts of a book, a collection of essays, ‘Postscript on Boxing’ I will be releasing with the film. This specific chapter of the book, chapter 7,  is a collection of my boxing photography, a few of those pictures I included on this blog. 

The image is violent because what happens there is the murder of the Real, the vanishing point of Reality.

| Jean Baudrillard |

Part of this text, as the reader will see upon completion of this chapter, is a small sample of my boxing photography I have captured over the course of producing this work. So from that artistic viewpoint, independent of the boxing theory I have thus developed, I can most appropriately characterize photography centering upon the contemporary boxing community as creative work that centers around the documentation of a collective last rights ceremony where the sick, the living and breathing authentic boxing community, is not fully aware of its terminal condition. In a certain sense, the boxing community does in fact recognize something amiss — uncomfortably aware that some part of its system is clearly afflicted with a social disease — however, it has not yet come to terms with the ramifications or meaning behind the overwhelming dysfunction. So this awkward relationship I have often found myself in, between artist and boxing subject, ultimately puts the artist in the most uncomfortable of positions. For the artist’s task is to chronicle a way of life that is simultaneously dying, as its sick are partially oblivious to the very fact of their sentence, while at the same time trying to aesthetically covey the force of its powerful Life.  The juxtaposition we find in a local boxing gym is hard to fully comprehend: a dying and disintegrating community filled with Life. 

But this is the very dynamic that underlines what is central to the cultural obliteration of boxing in a digital era – a sport that found its significance on the intersection of mechanical modes of production and urban life – that is proving to be an insurmountable foe to the sport: the contemporary crisis of reality itself, the crisis of the human body; a crisis brought forth into the fold from the overwhelming power of the global media, the continued virtualization of the economy, and the hyper gentrification of American cities. What remains of boxing today is either the residue from the past or, as we are now finding in the presence of “yuppy boxing gyms” — non authentic gyms that cater not to developing legitimate prizefighters, but as an exercise method for professional workers — as a reactionary strategy undertaken to push back against the dehumanizing pressures of digital culture. The reactionary measure that such a move ultimately translates to, in terms of boxing, as individuals simply seek out a gym to train, is, of course, to seek out life: the dying boxing gym, either in its authentic form such as Ramalho’s in Lowell, and even in its caricature form as “boxing gyms” in gentrified cities, has become a paradoxical cradle for life.

This very tension, in my reading, seems most pronounced in my photography of the boxing community in Lowell, Massachusetts. For in Lowell boxing still manages to retain some form of cultural significance, as it still represents the lingering association of this mill city to its glory days as a center of industry and how the craft of boxing once ran as a social current along side the multiple working factories along the Merrimack River; the same city whose native son Jack Kerouac once remarked

If you ever see an

amateur heavyweight

whacking away

full-fisted at a sandbag

and making the whole

gym creak, you’ll learn

never to start a fight

with any big boy you

ever do meet in any bar

from Portland Maine to

Portland Oregon

Only an artist like Kerouac can truly appreciate boxing: a highly sensitive and intuitive soul; a street corner intellectual respected by university elite; and simultaneously the type of guy would gladly step outside of a bar with any man and go toe to toe; with Kerouac, if he was drunk enough, we could even see him hopping in the ring with Tyson. But this is why, as a side note, a writer like Kerouac would have been the greatest boxing writer ever. Because Kerouac, at the end of the day, was simply a “neighborhood guy” — a French Canadian kid from Lowell who could scrap in the street, respected the man who worked 9-5 and provided for his family, and believed, paradoxically, in a boxing type of logic. It is no secret that Kerouac eventually came to despise Ginsberg and his ultra liberal politics, his pathological desire to breakdown the very things Kerouac, after all his travels and pain, came to hold most dear — just being an everyday Joe from Lowell.

Re-approaching the dynamic between the contemporary boxer and my photographic work, this same tension is taken to its limit when we abstract a step further and juxtapose the boxer against the image itself.  There is a fundamental tension that now lives where the boxer meets himself as an image: how the boxer now perpetually encounters himself, not as a boxer, but as an image of a boxer. Today, with the rise of networked technology and pervasive digital influence, the image has become a hegemonic force. In 2016, the image functions as the dictator, ironically, of reality itself as it continually asserts its presence as the driving force of both the global economic and social order: we socially act as if we are our Facebook avatars, we economically respond to the incessant streams of advertising and marketing we daily encounter, and on the pixilated screens of the equity trading pits around the globe, the real power of the image is unveiled in its most radical form.

Boxing, in principal, categorically rejects the power and presence of the image within the ring. The ring, a square enclosure of 20 x 20, is the ultimate space where the raw power of reality is displayed: Violence.  Boxing is a sport fundamentally comprised of concrete physiological processes and organic social relations that coalesce into two human beings encountering one another in the form of a prize fight. That very activity — which transpires within the ring in the form of two human beings authentically and intimately encountering one another —  is the point where we can bear full witness to the essence of reality: and in such a moment, what is most un-welcome is the image. It is the height of irony then, that within the scope of boxing’s existence as a contemporary global sport and spectacle, it is the image itself that is the most essential piece for the sport to be effectively branded and marketed: boxing must drink its own poison to function. In a certain sense, I would make the claim that one of the central reasons the sport is collectively disintegrating is for the very fact it’s essential activity is too real for the image saturated world we currently inhabit.

So with that being in mind, I am always aware that every picture I take of the boxer captures a small piece of his or her integrity and power away. Therefore, I am extremely grateful for being allowed to photograph these boxers in their natural environments. I have been continually inspired by their humility, candor, and genuine sense of humanity. To be in an authentic boxing gym in 2016 is somewhat of a cathartic experience, possibly even spiritual. Its contemporary power rests on the ability to bear simple witness to reality itself, to humanity itself unfolding with every landed jab and piece of footwork. My respect of the authentic boxer — the aspiring prizefighter — is due to this precise dynamic: they are the mystics of the modern world, the corporeal prophets who can awaken us to what the body can still do, how it can still labor under excruciating conditions; even in a world such as ours that seems pathologically fixated on eschewing of all things mystical; the very thing that provides reality with its most real dimension.

.

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Professional boxer Javier Fortuna

The legend himself, Arthur Ramalho, carefully watches a Golden Gloves fight.

The legend himself, Arthur Ramalho, carefully watches a Golden Gloves fight.

Aspiring professional fighter, Manny Antonetty, shadow boxes in an empty gym

Aspiring professional fighter, Manny Antonetty, shadow boxes in an empty gym

Former professional boxer Tommy Attardo, L Street Boxing gym, South Boston.

Former professional boxer Tommy Attardo, L Street Boxing gym, South Boston.

Boston based professional middleweight, DeLuca utilizes an oxygen deprivation mask to improve performance.

Boston based professional middleweight, Mark DeLuca, utilizes an oxygen deprivation mask to improve performance.