The Sordid Secrets of Cities

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The essence of this kind of violent politics is that it happens at the local level, so I’ve also been reading about specific cities, and how their particular flavors of machine politics have sometimes opened up space for crime and corruption to flourish, encouraged state violence, or both.

Longtime subscribers won’t be surprised that my reading list starts with Joan Didion. She isn’t a historian or political scientist, but she had a unique gift for describing the self-mythology of American cities and then finding, in plain sight for anyone who cared to look, the contradictions that fatally lacerate those myths.

“Sentimental Journeys,” her novella-length article for the New York Review of Books, was nominally a report on the Central Park Five rape trial, but was really an exploration of the deep corruption of New York City politics. “Crimes are universally understood to be news to the extent that they offer, however erroneously, a story, a lesson, a high concept,” she wrote. The Central Park rape case was a way to tell a story about who and what New Yorkers should fear, and who could protect them, in a way that distracted from the corrupt dealings that were more immediately relevant to New Yorkers’ lives.

“The extent to which Los Angeles was literally invented by the Los Angeles Times and by its owners, Harrison Gray Otis and his descendants in the Chandler family, remains hard for people in less recent parts of the country to fully apprehend,” Didion wrote in a 1990 Letter from Los Angeles column in The New Yorker. In her swift retelling of that invention, Los Angeles is little more than a series of sales pitches stacked on top of each other, each one making promises about endless opportunities that eventually crumble on contact with reality, leaving ordinary citizens in economic or mortal peril. (I followed that up with some of Mike Davis’s work, particularly his classics “City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles” and “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn.”)

Didion’s “Miami” is usually seen as a book about Cuban expatriates in Florida. They are, to be fair, its main subjects. But I think that when paired with “Salvador,” her travelogue about a reporting trip during El Salvador’s civil war, it’s better understood as a book about how much Americans were kidding themselves about being somehow categorically different from Latin America. It reminded me of “Paths out of Dixie: The Democratization of Authoritarian Enclaves in America’s Deep South,” by Robert Mickey, which makes a strong case that comparisons to Latin America, not Europe, are often the most informative way to understand U.S. history.

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