Detroit and Commodification

In my Socio 100 class on wednesday we watched an episode of “Parts Unknown” by Anthony Bourdain. (side note: Do all CAP professors like Bourdai?) The episode focused on Detroit and the deindustrialization that occurred in the city leading to its decay. The episode journaled Bourdain’s travel around dilapidated Detroit as well as interviewing the citizens striving to survive in the city. He found not a city of helpless people, but a city of proud Detoriters who were adapting to new niche markets and did what they had to do to survive.

First let us address the elephant in the room. If you recall I was not that impressed by a previous episode Bourdain did in its catering to a western audience. Bourdain still carries his arrogance of being a world class chef. There is a  scene when he goes into a new upscale eatery in the “hipster” area of town and questions the chef’s sanity of moving back to Detroit as there was nothing here for him. The chef could be working in Las Vegas and instead he chooses to come back home to support him hometown. Bourdain seems unable to wrap his mind around this concept. However, perhaps Bourdain has taken a class in cultural appropriation because he seems much more respectful in this episode. This is probably attributed to the fact that Detroit is not a far away place like Nicaragua was and cannot be so easily “othered.” After all as Bourdain mentioned Detroit was once the manufacturing hub of the USA, pumping out weapons during WW2 and luxury cars after it, so it makes sense if he is familiar with it.

Much of Detroit is abandoned. The population fell from 1,850,000 in 1950 to 701,000 in 2013. There are many reasons why this happened, but a main factor is the rise of the suburbs and the hollowing of the urban core as white families fled in a phenomena dubbed “white flight.” This created a sparse spread out population with a lot of abandoned factories in-between. This led to the rise of  the “‘ruin porn‘ scene, in which tourists and others gawk at and take photos of the city’s abandoned and blighted buildings.” As this article by David Muller points out people from all around the world come to Detroit to take photos and explore this urban decay.

Let’s look at how this relates to commodification. Bourdain mentions the fact that film studios, professional photographers, wedding companies, and other media agencies  come to these abandoned locations to take “urban” and “gritty” photographs. However, they do not have to pay for doing this as it is abandoned. What these people fail to realize is that they are benefitting from other people’s suffering. Detroit does not want to be a poor city. They do not want to have to deal with bankruptcy. Detroit is not an empty city, it has culture, so by only showing the decay these people are furthering stereotypes. By taking pictures of “ruin porn” you are commodifying a living breathing city into a exhibit to serve your own purposes. There is something morally uncomfortable going in and profiting from people’s hardship just so you could get a “cool shot.” It shows a complete lack in respect.

Click here for a very interesting blog highlighting some of these issues.


The Problem of Representation and Rob Ford

Being away from my home city of Toronto has made me miss it more than I ever thought I would. I miss knowing where I am when I go downtown. I miss being able to know where the coolest places are to shop without looking on the internet. I miss the the whirling sounds the streetcar makes as it lurches along it’s tracks and oh we’re stuck in traffic again. I miss the the quirks that make my rough city home, so when I see Rob Ford used as a representation for Canada, but especially my city my blood boils.

Let’s first get this out of the way, I do not like Rob Ford. His policies are based on the polarization of “leftist-downtown-pinkos” and the suburbs, he has been caught on video being racist, homophobic and sexist, his policy on how to fund the city, whilst decreasing taxes don’t make any sense, and he has used his privilege of being a mayor to kick people off a bus. He has lied on multiple accounts of drunk driving and using elicit drugs, and he uses the idea of him being bullied by the world in order to get votes.

When Ron Ford finally admitted to using crack cocaine the media went crazy. A simple search for Toronto will pull up thousands of hits around the globe of “Mayor Rob For Smokes Crack.” The Daily Show, Jimmy Kimmel Live, the Colbert Report all report of it. Many people couldn’t tell you a think about Canada, but doesn’t that mayor smoke crack?

Suddenly he becomes the representation of Canadian politics. Steven Harper who? It is all about Mayor Rob and his issues. This may seem like a silly issue, but it fundamentally highlights the issue of representation. Canada has 33 million people and 1 man becomes the face of the country. All the voices get swallowed up. Especially in a city like Toronto that has had it’s entire identity dragged thought the mud with this guy. The issue with representation is that people don’t connect to it happening. I didn’t vote for my city to become the laughing stalk of the world.

Fundamentally the issue is that people skip over what the city, and a larger sense the country, has to offer. Toronto becomes the city where the mayor smokes crack, not the city where insulin was invented.


What Audience?

In POLI 100 we watched two clips last week on garbage pickers in Nicaragua showing very different ideas.

In the first clip produced for Anthony Bourdain‘s show “No Reservations” where he tours the world dining and experiencing world cuisine and culture. In this particular episode we are showed his experience looking at the waste pickers, or “Churequeros” at La Chuerca dump. For the 300 families who live here, we are told that they live a life of extreme poverty, lack of basic education and sanitation. The waste pickers sort throughout the enormous amount of garbage every day. People hope to produce 1$ a day from the garbage picked by selling the recyclables. This is similar to here in BC where you get 5¢ per bottle that you return. Bourdain is horrified at the life that these people have to live. Feeling what we call “white guilt” he describes the paradox of people having to eat food from the dump and where he cooks decedent food for TV. That link refers to a direct response from white people to people of colour. However, we can extrapolate the definition of white guilt to include a western guilt.  He particularly he is upset by the fact that there are so many kids working at the dump. One of which is his daughter’s age.

While moving and provocative. There is something distinctively off-putting about the clip. Bourdain stands separate from the crowd talking to the camera as if nobody around him can hear him. He also is wearing sun glasses that block off his his eyes. It makes it all seem very zoo-like, as if he were standing outside a cage, but in fact he is standing in the middle of a crowd, and filming people most likely without their consent. It is a very western idea of individualization that a person can do whatever they want.

Bourdain’s reactions of “well I’m totally depressed” is understandable. Many of us would have the same reactions faced with people having to sort through garbage to meek out a basic existence. However, the way the clip is filmed and the way he narrates it clearly panders to a western sentiment of pity and guilt. That we are responsible for these people’s living conditions (of you look at it with a colonialist lens) and that we have to somehow fix and help these people. This is a very neo-colonial idea.

Now let’s look at another clip. This clip of the “First Congress of Latin American WastePickers” shows a completely contrasting view of the “Churequeros” that was shown in Bourdain’s video. Rather than hopeless people doing what they have to do survive. These people are an empowered multi-generational community that is proud of being who they are. They fight for the right to pick the garbage, because they play a key part in the economy-as recyclers.

Let’s discuss this in terms of “God Grew Tired of Us.” The film was portrayed in a similar matter as the Bordain clip. It showed how the “boys” were saved by America and how great the country was for doing that. It showed them as aliens in their surroundings by portraying them as clueless of an consumer society that they were not familiar with. Both films were made for western audience. They were both narrated and produced by American companies and portrayed western ideals such as freedom and the “american dream.” However, in the second clip it was meant for a variety of audiences. They film, while in Spanish, had English subtitles hinting on a trans-cultural dialogue, because they want to tell their side of the story. Instead of observing and making deductions as Bordain was doing, the creator of the second clip went and interviewed people.

What these two clips show is that it is important to be critical of the information we are given. Be critical of the intended audience and the different biases that are shown. Because while it is true that the Churequeros may not be working in safe conditions, it does not imply that they are doing it out of desperation.


“Defend Our Climate” and Indigenous Life Narratives

On Saturday November 16th I had the pleasure to go to one of 130 rallies occurring across Canada, from coast-to-coast-to-coast, against tar sands expansion,  pipeline development, and “run away climate change.”


5,000 people attended the rally

At 2 pm I boarded a bus, by myself, from UBC and headed to Science World. I’ve been to a few climate change activities in the past year and the experience of going to PowerShift 2012 in Ottawa deeply affected me and changed my outlook in life. It was one of the reasons I got into UBC as I wrote about my experience of going somewhere by myself with friends to learn about activism and how intersecting the climate change issue is. I came out of the experience with a newfound network in climate alliance and a new outlook in life.

At PowerShift I heard a woman by the name of Crystal Lameman speak on her experience as a member of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation who’s lands are directly downstream and on tar sands development. She spoke on the increased amours of rare cancers appearing throughout the community and the loss of a way of life. She spoke on how the people on her reserve do not have antiquate living standards. There is no access to clean water. However, just across the invisible border that separates “indians from non-indians” a farmer has access to clean, safe drinking water and doesn’t have to worry that he is poisoning his children by keeping them in their home.

And we thought indigenous suffering ended with residential schools.

The city of Vancouver declared “June 21, 2013 to June 20, 2014 as a Year of Reconciliation in Vancouver.” And now four months later my hometown of Toronto has decreed that November 12, 2013 to November 12, 2014 will be the year of reconciliation in Toronto. In Vanocuver we’ve seen the TRC come and go. We’ve heard the voices of past events, but what abut the present and the future? Colonialism did not end with the residential school system and still occurs in Indigenous territories across Canada where we have pipelines, mines, fracking operations, and chemical plants in communities where the people see little to no economic value. What is the point in reconciliation when children and elderly people living in the tar sands region have ten times the risk of developing life threatening cancers?

As a Torontonian I’m more familiar with the Line 9 proposal which seeks to transport crude oil from the oil sands through the poorest and most impoverished neighbourhoods in Toronto. So, coming to the Defend Our Climate Rally was eye opening because the same thing is happening here with the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline. You may have seen an add for that as they have released a multi million dollar campaign to change public opinion in BC. I heard from Indigenous leaders from the interior (side note: I’m learning BC lingo) and the coast who have come in solidarity to oppose the pipeline as most of it runs through their unceded ancestral territory.

As I learned. first nation’s are the last line of defence for the environmental movement, because the minimal laws we had have been gutted with the passing of two omnibus bills. The latest one, Bill C-45, was the one that sparked IdleNoMore. However, Native Canadians have rights that are guaranteed in the constitution that gives them rights to their land and their way of life. And because of this collaboration between the environmental movement and indigenous peoples there has been a proliferation of oral life narratives. Every single climate event that I have gone to within the past year has featured a opening ceremony by the nation of the area followed by the stories of how the issue is affecting them. There are usually sage smudges, music and dancing. Never before have Native Stories come to the forefront of Canadian minds with the IdleNoMore protest and the story of Chief Theresa Spence and her hunger strike, and now this with the first line of a Global News article reading “First Nations and environmental groups hopes came true when thousands of people gathered to attend a ‘No Enbridge’ rally this afternoon.”