Saturday, June 6, 2015

Spectacle, Desperation, and Justice

I'm for the deal for a new arena.  Whether you like it or not, in today’s world you can not address the needs of the city of desperation without a city of spectacle.

Urban scholars are looking to a city of spectacle like Rio de Janerio, Los Angeles, or Barcelona as the 21st century standard.  The industrial city model,  like Milwaukee, Cincinnati, or Gary have been replaced by high tech or tourist capitols like San Francisco, Denver, or Miami,  or even a sports mecca, like Indianapolis.  

Chicago’s rebirth was not based on recapturing the steel industry or meat packing of a dead industrial era.  Millennium Park, Navy Pier, museums, and a host of near-by sports facilities were incentives for highly paid professionals to settle on Chicago for a suitable residence.  Chicago’s banking, futures, and nascent information industries in the Loop have near-by amenities that attract and sustain their wealthy middle and upper class consumers.  Spectacle is necessary to attract capital and their high wage workers.

This means rejuvenating Milwaukee is more than raising — or lowering — the minimum wage. In order to recharge our economy our city has to agglomerate corporations in a few key sectors, like medical technology or water.  But to do that it needs spectacle, starting with the underused Calatrava, our summer festivals, the Harley museum, and the Potawatomi Casino (bizarrely misplaced in the Menomonie Valley after their proposed move downtown was vetoed by former Mayor Norquist).  If the Bucks arena is rejected, what kind of strategy do our leaders have to rejuvenate a truly depressing downtown Milwaukee?  

But the dark side of the city of spectacle is the city of desperation.  Milwaukee is both one of the poorest cities in the US and one of its most segregated.  Black lives apparently don’t matter in this city even in a debate over a mainly African American sport.  Mark Levine’s sobering research on the depths of inequality in our city needs to be heeded.  My own research on gangs in 1980s and 1990s Milwaukee predicated that absent a turn about in jobs for the very poor, gangs would not go away.  

And they haven’t. In Chicago, the danger of a one-sided city of spectacle can be seen in the depths of hostility in all-black, high poverty,  high homicide areas like Englewood and Lawndale.  Chicago’s leaders appear to have been blinded by spectacle and have wanted the public to not think about the wrenching poverty and desperation of the ghetto. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been franticly trying to control the headlines about “Chiraq’s” stubborn homicide rate.  Do you know Milwaukee’s murder rate is even higher than Chicago’s?  The city of desperation is a moral stain on us all and cannot be ignored.

Opposition to the Bucks arena come from a variety of interest groups.  Common Ground has proposed tying Bucks public funding to giving the Milwaukee Public Schools $150 million to rebuild playgrounds.  A coalition of labor leaders has demanded high wages for local construction workers saying,  Good Deal or No Deal.  Others, like Stan Stojkovic, argue that funding higher education has more benefits than having a pro Basketball team.

It is crucial to struggle for investment in the central city.  Construction jobs should be high wage and include minority set asides and quotas for black and other minority workers. It is also important to  invest in, not cut, higher education.  What could be more foolish in an information era than to threaten one of the nation’s top universities?  

But the opposition to the Bucks arena needs to recognize the nature of the 21st century city is inextricably linked to creating a city of spectacle. The entertainment district proposed around the Bucks arena is a sensible piece of an overall strategy toward concentrating amenities for the wealthy and middle class.  Forcing the Bucks to move would be an act of urban suicide. 

But that does not mean we have to remain silent on the needs of the city of desperation. We need to link the two cities whenever we can.  Indeed the Bucks arena financing might have provided some leverage but the needs of Milwaukee's ghetto have been lost in a foolish debate about whether it would be cheaper to keep the Bucks or let them move.

I want to watch Giannis and Jabari bring Milwaukee an NBA championship. But most of all I want to see a City of Justice that can link the dollars brought by spectacle to addressing the needs of the desperate.