Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A Touch of Class

Hell’s Kitchen was famous for the Westies. Ray Ashley’s Little Fugitive (1953) depicted the mind of a child as a dangerous place. Then there’s the Russian Sector of Vienna in The Third Man, Little Rock, Arkansas in the ‘50s, The Brambles in Central Park, Bed-Stuy, South Central L.A., Sheriff’s Street in Dublin, the banlieus of Paris with their notorious public housing projects full of angry, unemployed youth from former French colonies, Northern Ireland at the height of its conflict, The Sudan, Chechnya, Rwanda, the South Side of Chicago, the favelas of Rio, and the East End of London before artists took it over. These are all famous dangerous places, where awful things occurred if you were too rich or too poor, too black or not black enough, or just in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s still not a good idea to be a Turk in certain parts of Germany. Iran is not a good neighborhood for Jews, nor is Jerusalem a particularly good neighborhood for most Palestinians. There was a story about a white woman walking into a predominantly black area of Boston in the ‘60s and being set on fire, and the gay man chased to his death by a homophobic gang in a Brooklyn backwater. And then there's the Klan, with its Grand Wizards, who were once ubiquitous in neighborhoods throughout the Old South. There is still something ominous about downtown Jackson, Mississippi, despite its museum and its veneer of culture. There are also the defunct manufacturing hubs that drove the industrial giant that is no more. Downtown Detroit is one of those.
It used to be that certain socialist societies, especially in Nordic countries like Sweden, Denmark and Norway, produced such a high level of enlightenment and equality that there were no bad neighborhoods to be found, until the oppressed of the world took refuge in these utopias and created a burgeoning underclass whose resentments created their own backlash. Preston Sturges’s Christmas in July (l940) turns a working class neighborhood into a wonderfully bad neighborhood for some titans of industry who set out to reclaim what they think is stolen merchandise. Class and class culture—see Ralf Dahrendorf’s Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society (1959)—ultimately are the qualifying factors in trying to determine whether one is on the verge of entering a bad neighborhood or whether what is bad for you is good for me. Xenophobia is a common means of social cohesion. There is honor amongst thieves and, for the dissolute, Babylon is a bastion of safety. But there are certain places where it is almost guaranteed that your ass will be whipped if you try to save souls.

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