Paul Krugman Mellencamp has finally uttered the words. We’re in a Depression. His Sunday NYT piece, “Depression and Democracy,” is here.
Elsewhere, Leonard Cohen has shared about Depression and Depression:
LC: Well, you know, there’s depression and depression. What I mean by depression in my own case is that depression isn’t just the blues. It’s not just like I have a hangover in the weekend… the girl didn’t show up or something like that, it isn’t that. It’s not really depression, it’s a kind of mental violence which stops you from functioning properly from one moment to the next. You lose something somewhere and suddenly you’re gripped by a kind of angst of the heart and of the spirit…
– Leonard Cohen, French interview (trans. Nick Halliwell)
It’s hard to be hopeful about the world economic situation. But Cohen’s kind of depression — God, he’s right on, isn’t he, about there being different kinds? — the kind of mental violence, the kind that stops you from functioning properly from one moment to the next, the kind that grips you and won’t be shaken off without time and effort and help…maybe you see yourself in that. Unwanted thoughts, irrational compulsions, excessive guilt.
For years, I looked to Cohen’s quote and thought, well, shit, this is the condition of artist. I found out later that it’s also the condition of millions of people who, in addition to being sensitive, winsome, and artistic, also happen to not produce enough serotonin on their own. For many, such is the biology of general anxiety, OCD, and other depressions. If that’s you, please know there is help. If you don’t know if that’s you, please see a trusted physician and find out. A friend of mine said it best: “no one should have to suffer because of their biochemistry.” We’d never suggest a diabetic go without insulin. We’d never expect a diabetic without the right help to function in healthy ways, let alone thrive. Any physician worth her salt will tell you it’s the same with the way our brains process the presence or death of chemicals our bodies are making as best they can. Beloved, God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind. A righteous mind.
I used to work for a mutual fund company, but I’d never say I’m an expert on the economy. If you want to wax nostalgic with me about a time when money markets were paying more than .01 percent, I can handle that. If you want to talk about Series 6 and Series 63 licensing exams, I’m sorely out of date. That said, I retain the basics, and I happened to leave the industry just as everything started to crumble.
I say “started” because everything’s still crumbling. I’m no Amartya Sen, but we Americans have the long historical memory of the Great Depression always at our backs, and while most of us don’t really understand everything that’s been going wrong, our gut index is pretty savvy. We know when times are bad and we know when they’re not getting any better.
In the mid and late 70s, just before I was born, there was an energy crisis, a high Misery Index, inflation, bad geopolitical situations and, so I’m told by the media and everyone over 50, a prevailing and understandable emotional malaise. People were worried, afraid, out of work, strapped.
In 2011, the gut index tells a similar story. We know, deep down, that we’re still in an energy crisis and will be until renewable fuel becomes a nationwide efficiency and standard. The Misery Index is officially back in political discourse. The economy is abysmal, the world stage is a mess (with some hopeful things still happening), and people are worried, afraid, out of work, busted.
Once upon a time, when main street was “white washed windows and vacant stores,” we had the luxury of telling ourselves that even if our mid-sized industrial cities failed, the wealth of the burgeoning suburbs would save us. Fail our cities did, and so grew the suburbs, over green space, agricultural space, water tables, cemeteries. So grew our commuter corridors, our pollution emissions, our traffic patterns, and BMIs.
Take a look around your local suburban strip mall. Witness all the empty store fronts. Consider all the tier two stories at your local mall. If your gut’s like mine, it’s telling you things are getting worse.
I’m not an alarmist, but it seems patently obvious to me that the era of suburban mercantilism is over. And, like most forms of mercantilism, the suburban boom of the last 20 years was, itself, a bubble. On the frontier line of our industrial cities, townships had wide open space to develop and overdevelop. The businesses leaving our strip malls like they once left our downtowns are never coming back, that is, there will never again be the faux demand for that many grocery stories, hair cutteries, pet shops, Subways, and Chinese buffets. We simply don’t need that many Wal-Marts or Targets or Sears.
What to do now with these vacant spaces?
Knock a few walls down and mix open space in with surviving retail. Plant flowers, get benches. Make butterfly gardens and bike racks. Young people drive the economy, and young people like being outside. We like having access to options. We’d love to sit in the grass with our kids while our spouses run errands elsewhere on the strip. We like eating outside, learning outside, shopping outside. Tell us that your micro-greens in the suburbs are part of your commitment to sustainability, and even if we don’t believe you, we’ll use them. What goes better next to a Petsmart than a dog park? Why not put tables and chairs and umbrellas between Subway and the pizza place? How about some of those lawn games hipsters love? Maybe a fountain or two.
One of the things our suburban communities lack is access to open, common spaces at commerce centers. Target being close enough to drive to from soccer practice isn’t what I mean. I mean walkability and multipurpose. Micro-greens could bring these opportunities. Kids could paint murals and the real estate companies could compete for most beautiful, creative, or sustainable patch. There could be concerts and readings and rallies and ecological learning stations. There could be weather monitors and air quality sensors. There could be meetings and speeches from leaders. There could be questions. And all of the sudden I’m talking about sustainability in much larger terms. I’m talking about art and culture and civics, all of those other things not commonly associated with our suburban places, and I’m talking about doing them out in the open, in front of people as a way of engagement, ecology and economic innovation.
My gut index says many, many people are more likely to patronize a multipurpose complex like the kind I’m describing than the same old depressing vacant strip malls. My gut says people want creative solutions, more fresh air, more green grace and more synchronicity. In short, we want better options than the failed strip mall aesthetic, and we want to be able to access our disparate goods quickly and efficiently. Beat those vacant spaces into open ones. If you unbuild it, they will come.
Yesterday, I saw this piece on the CBS Evening News website:
The crux: “About 6.2 million Americans, 45.1 percent of all unemployed workers in this country, have been jobless for more than six months – a higher percentage than during the Great Depression.” Read the rest here.
A few moments ago, I came across (again) a now-famous set of rare, full-color photos from The Depression, here. I find these so striking. Have you ever read the Calvin and Hobbes strip where Calvin asks his dad why old pictures are in black and white and new ones are in color? If you have, you probably haven’t forgotten his dad’s answer: “no, son, you see, back then the whole WORLD was actually in black and white.” Calvin’s dad was a jerk like that. But if you were born after color film became commonplace, doesn’t it sort of feel a little bit like that? Everything before the 60s was black and white. The 70s are yellow, matte, grainy. The 80s are glossy, possibly Polaroid. The 90s tread water until digital cameras became more affordable.
To people like me, the these Depression pictures look almost too real to be real. But they are real, and so was the Depression. It was suffered through and overcome by real working people with full-color lives of depth and contrast.
When I began my MFA program in the fall of 2009, I had just seen the Depression pictures for the first time via Photo District News. On the night of my New School orientation, there was an impressive photo exhibit exploring the many facets of the American Dream on the large wall at the front of the room. From my seat in one of the middle rows, I could tell that one of the photos was from this same set. This is my picture of the exhibit’s picture of the Whinery family, homesteaders in Pie Town, New Mexico, 1940 by Russell Lee:
I wrote at the time about feeling a haunted kind of reverence for these homesteaders, for places like Pie Town, circumstances seemingly ripped from the 19th century and put back to work like old parents, like some Giving Tree. And there are the connections these images conjure to the grandparents and greatgrandparents of people my age, that generation that raised us on Depression stories. Isn’t there something in the things people do because they have to that makes you feel like you’ve stumbled into sacred space? Were people’s faces just more honest then, or do we always look like this when there’s no reason to pretend things aren’t exactly what they are? I don’t know, but I see something holy there. And, behind it, hope.
And here we are again, with bad and worsening economic news, horrendous unemployment numbers, the worst housing market for sellers since this crash started. You’ve heard this thing we’re in called The Great Recession, and I’ll leave it others to say if we’re not just kidding ourselves. Whatever it is, it’s real and in color. Its subjects are on the brink. Some day, our grandchildren will curate blog posts and HD videos about what they will be calling The Second Great Depression, and they’ll look for the same steely resolve you see linked above. I don’t know if they’ll find it. As a society, we’re so hooked on excess.
If there’s hope behind the picture of 2011 and forward, it’s in the sustainability movements still gaining steam. It’s in sustainable design and infrastructure, in localism, and in alternative, appropriate transportation. It’s in dialing back our consumption, investing in kids and communities and eschewing status symbols and status quos. We need the full-color resolve of those old days, and we need leaders who will call us to conservation, compassion, community.