05 November 2012

The Empire of the In-Between

Amtrak's Acela train passes through West Philadelphia. Photo taken by Alan Wiig, looking south from Woodland Cemetery. In the distance is the Grays Ferry neighborhood and a closed Dupont paint factory.

Stopping for a time in the Empire of the In-Between: Pieter Hugo’s photographs with an accompanying essay by Adam Davidson in the November 4 2012 New York Times Sunday Magazine look at how the Mid-Atlantic corridor between New York City and Washington DC has become such a devastated landscape. The images Hugo made during two weeks this fall explore the neighborhoods directly adjacent to the Amtrak railroad corridor connecting New York and DC and survey the “heroic wreckage” (p. 26) of the terrain with a sympathetic eye that also does not gloss over the desperation of the neighborhoods. Hugo’s eye hones in on scenes in a way that he has developed photographing strange, unique corners of Africa, such as hyena men in Nigeria or a computer waste dump in Ghana. The continuity of these African images with what was found in the Mid-Atlantic  indicate how removed these US communities are, even as they sit just outside the window of Amtrak’s Acela trains. By creating portraits of the corridor’s residents, and by visualizing the track-side landscape with a similarly vivid intimacy, Hugo’s images show the people and places that are more often sped past from on high, sitting in Amtrak’s air-conditioned rail cars. Even though, as Davidson points out, “for most of the 180 or so years of the train line’s existence, the endpoints of this journey—New York and D.C.—were subordinate to the roaring engines of productivity in between” (p. 26), today the in-between exists too often just as a backdrop. What is most compelling about Davidson’s essay is his discussion of  the recent history of the service-industry economy in the North-East United States and how it has affected a particular part of the region: the corridor of the Mid-Atlantic that borders the train that the Orgmen of the new economy take between New York and DC, a corridor that was built around the rail line but for an earlier, industrial economy that no longer has a part in the region, even as the formerly industrial cities and their citizens are still present, figuratively and literally watching the trains roll past. Davidson explains the situation in this corridor in as concise a manner as I’ve come across, writing:
...the train passes directly through or near 8 of the 10 richest counties in the United States, but all of this wealth is concentrated near the endpoints of the journey: Manhattan’s sattellites in northern New Jersey and the towns where lobbyists and government contractors live in suburban Virginia and Maryland. This is a geographic representation of a telling contradiction. For the past 30-plus years, through Republican and Democratic administrations, there has been much lip service paid to the idea that the era of big government is over. Long live free enterprise. And yet in the case of those areas surrounding the capital, wealth has gravitated to the exact spot where government regulation is created. Why? Because many businesses discovered that renegotiating the terms between government and the private sector can be extraordinarily lucrative. A few remarkable books by professors at NYU’s Stern School of Business argue that a primary source of profit for Wall Street over the past 15 to 20 years could be what I call the Acela Strategy: making money by exploiting regulation rather than by creating more effective ways to finance the rest of the economy. (p. 29)
Davidson’s argument succeeds because it does not single out one political party or another for failing to support the region, nor does the argument push ephemeral, intangible ideas such as outsourcing, the global economy, neo-liberalism or other similar policy decisions as the problem. These concepts and their underlying logic are complicit in the crumbling neighborhoods and empty factories, but blaming the situation on one or many issues would create a simple conclusion that does little justice to the corridor itself. Davidson identifies the places that today are successful economic zones, and those that are not, and makes clear that spatial proximity no longer leads to a distribution of jobs and a ‘trickle-down’ of profits. The present realities do not reflect a positive outlook for the near future. As Davidson continues, “calling for a return to the days when everybody who was willing could make a good living at the factory is a fantasy, maybe a lie and certainly an implicit acknowledgement that nobody has any idea what to do with the underemployed in the slums of Trenton, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Southeast DC” (p. 35).

For the passengers on Amtrak’s Acela trains what matters is moving quickly between Penn Station in New York and Union Station in DC, then heading to offices on either end. For these passengers and the economy they work in, to quote the sociologist Bruno Latour: “between the lines of the network there is, strictly speaking, nothing at all” (from We Have Never Been Modern, 1993 p. 118). Yet there is plenty between the lines, places physically close but in reality very far from Amtrak’s rail network and the service economy it supports. This reportage shows what is present between the end-points of the rail network; it shows what exists today in these cities built for industries that no longer function, with road grids and housing and even citizens cut off from the dominant economic activities of the region, disconnected from political agency in DC and the economic action in New York City.
The success of this essay is that it locates the new economy not solely in its shiny new offices but in its opposite, in the places that have been left far, far behind even though they are in-between the two endpoints and for much of the nation’s history were a driver of the economy itself. The successful economy in the Mid-Atlantic corridor is now suburban, found in the bland single story machine shops and exurban office centers that line the freeway corridors, sitting outside of the cities that originally organized the growth and development of the region. The new economy is also embodied in the rail line itself, and just like the other businesses of the service industry, Amtrak requires relatively few employees to maintain these trains and the tracks themselves. If this were the whole of Hugo and Davidson’s work, it would sit as an interesting piece of quality journalism. But the work pushes further by considering the rail network as an active agent in the story itself. Davidson locates the problem in economic and policy decisions made in DC and New York, decisions made possible on and through the Acela trains as they rumble past these places that have been effectively abandoned.

Underlying this argument about the spatial outcomes of this political-economic muddle is the North-East railroad corridor itself, this transportion infrastructure that also play an active part of the photo-essay. The smooth movement between DC and Wall Street relies on the railroad. Davidson’s work ties closely with Keller Easterling’s analysis of what she has termed the extrastatecraft of the contemporary moment, where politics have become tightly intertwined with infrastructure and urbanism, where statecraft and economic activities are different from past formations; consequently these extra-ordinary new relationships rely directly on things like this rail corridor and the trains that travel it. Understanding the everyday poverty of the cities’ residents and the continued decay of the urban landscape cannot be separated from the Acela trains that pass through the corridor, this network that enables a contradictory set of political and economic relationships between DC and New York City that benefit the two cities and their associated economic services, but leave what is in-between to fall further and further apart. Telling a story of the blighted, post-industrial cities of Mid-Atlantic via slowly exploring the rail corridor that once served these cities but now facilitates their continued decay is a creative, honest, and bleak but needed story of the North-East United States today. 

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