When it’s late at night I start drawing connections between things that at first sight don’t seem to belong together. It makes me think of Jim Jarmusch’s 2003 film, Coffee and Cigarettes. Coffee and cigarettes go together, but the people sitting at the table sometimes did not. The contradictions and discomfort are what made the film work.
More after the break.
One of the most memorable vignettes featured Iggy Pop and Tom Waits awkwardly sparring with one another. The atmosphere is thick with cheap smoke and fraught with tension. It’s beautiful because there is no definite resolution but we see that they are more alike than they themselves realize and potentially best friends.
So where I am going with this long intro?
First, at this hour I really shouldn’t be drinking coffee. It’s from this morning and still in the paper cup. I also shouldn’t be eating so many jelly beans, but whenever I’m about to write about the economy—something I have been trying to avoid because it is so unpleasant—I need something reassuring. I don’t smoke so that’s out. Actually, I shouldn’t even be up this late.
So here is where this all comes together: two books, late night radio, the web, and my brain on old coffee and jelly beans.
The first book is Robert Reich’s, Aftershock. It is essential reading for troubling economic times. Reach for this rather than that bottle of pills or the razor blade. It hits you like punk rock, dispelling any romantic illusions about a quick and easy recovery. His analysis slashes and burns through the maya of the news cycle and market updates.
The bottom line is that the increased concentration of wealth at the highest end of the economy makes the entire economy unstable. This is also what caused the Great Depression. Our current version of this took decades to produce. How long will it take to get out of it? As long as it takes to rebuild a solid middle class so economic power is more dispersed. That won’t be next year.
The second book is Witold Rybczynski’s newest, Makeshift Metropolis. It’s worth quoting a passage at length because by the end of the book he has drawn a link between the recession as Reich describes it, the gutting of the architectural profession, and failed urban planning. It’s a firestorm reality check. The recession isn’t just bad for business, it’s bad for our cities over the long term. It’s bad for design and planning because of all the experience and knowledge that get lost.
…the present recession has produced a virtual halt in construction and urban development. The last time this happened for an extended period was during the Great Depression of the 1930s, a building interruption that extended through the end of the Second World War. The effect on architecture and city building was devastating, and not just because little was built. The disruption was not only physical but intellectual: offices closed, careers were cut short, practitioners took early retirement and the continuity of practice was interrupted. Much professional knowledge, normally transmitted between generations through apprenticeships, was lost.
This made me think of a Boston Globe story that also took its cue from Planet Money and from there, informed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Geography of a Recession as compiled by The New York Times, I did some Google Earth fly-overs of failed suburban housing tracts.
My conclusion, after all this analysis, is that I should turn on the radio…or start streaming something, rather. I’m listening to Henry Rollins’ show on KCRW. He plays a selection of punk, jazz and whatever else eclectic and rare he can find. It’s coffee and jelly beans; junk that shouldn’t go together but magically does. It is the soundtrack for the new economy. I think that until Mr. Reich’s solutions come to pass architecture needs some of the energy and improvisation of punk rock.
At this point, I decide to email Mr. Rollins. Maybe he has some answers. What I mean is that I decide to email one of his people. He’s too huge to deal with his own email. This is one of the things I do now: email people I have no business emailing. Sometimes I get a reply…