Friday, April 21, 2006

AMERICA'S CAPITAL

This news piece from yesterday, regarding increases in time Americans spend commuting, reminded me of something I wrote a couple weeks ago after a weekend trip to Washington DC:

The weekend of April 1, I had the pleasure of attending my cousin's wedding in our nation's capital. It was a bit of a mind-bender to witness my "little" cousin's nuptials, but after stringing his girlfriend along for 8 years, it was time. She looked lovely, her family was very nice, and the wedding was a good time. Some random observations I made on the trip:

Washington DC Is A Giant Parking Lot

Everywhere we went, from Friday through Sunday, in all parts of the city, we found ourselves sitting in a sea of stopped cars, red lights, honking, and jockeying for insignificant one-lane advantages. I've heard recently from family and friends up on the scene there, that the town had experienced a recent upswing with the MCI Center & revitalized downtown (read: rising prices and disappearance of black folks from the NE, and parts of the NW quarters of the city).

This is true. And this revitalization (read: influx of lots of young & wealthy white folks) has added, as they say in the Pentagon, boots on the ground, and, as I say while stuck in traffic, too many goddamn cars.

The Beautiful Neighborhood of Georgetown Now Sucks

Over the past 5 years or so, I've noticed a phenomenon, first in the US, and then everywhere: that of taking the finest neighborhoods in town -- architecturally speaking -- and turning them into shopping malls. NY's South Street Seaport, SoHo, and Upper West Side; Boston's Back Bay, especially on Boylston St.; Baltimore's Inner Harbor, the revitalization (read: Non-white folks, please leave) that began it all; Barcelona's Barri Gothic; Paris's 6th arrondissement, and seeping into the 3rd & 4th near Le Marais. In SF it's spreading from Union Square up towards Nob Hill and down into SoMa. I'm sure others can offer examples of this cancer in towns near them.

Anyway, it's happened in Georgetown. If you're not familiar, Georgetown is DC's oldest neighborhood, built above the C&O Canal, and filled with beautiful Georgian, Federalist, and Victorian homes and buildings. And along M Street and Wisconsin Avenue, every single one of those buildings holds a Banana Republic, Starbucks, Body Shop, quasi-19th century pub, chic "ethnic" restaurant, or some other dreadful facsimile of a village boutique. And the streets are crawling with stopped cars between the curbs, and mini-skirted, frosted-haired twenty-something girls and baseball-cap-donning post-collegiate frat-boys on the sidewalks.

An orgy of consumerism, a whirlwind of vacuously-observed trends, and the credit-fueled rush to keep up. I'm not sure what's opposite of an organic scene, the flip side of community that sprouts from local commercial development, hand-in-hand with a neighborhood. But Georgetown might be it.

America Has Lost It's Collective Mind

I haven't been to my father's house in a while. He manages his own life, and I mine. Nevertheless, I like his new wife, and was happy to hear that she was encouraging him to clean up the house, which had fallen into disrepair.
At the wedding, she updated me and my wife of the details of this renovation: new fixtures, new paint, new furniture, new clothes, new bathroom, new kitchen. They don't make much money. He recently took a line of credit against the house. I don't know how deeply in debt they now are, but man, it's gotta be serious. Really serious. Like foreclosure coming down the pike when rates go up serious.

The more savvy I become understanding the nature of our economy, and the debt-driven spending that moves it, I look -- from a perch, eyebrows cocked quizzically -- at the lifestyles of many people I know. With a few exceptions, I'm convinced that many of them are deeply in debt. Deep shit.

The Wedding, Like All I've Attended Recently, Was The Oscars Writ Small

When I was a lad, the Oscars were merely a cheesy celebration of Hollywood hackishness. Overblown flicks, overrated stars, over hyped production companies, over well after midnight (on the East coast). Frivolous, insignificant, and devoid of art or any pretense thereto.

Then came Joan Rivers and her execrable daughter. Let's look at what so-and-so's wearing, they exclaimed. Let's fawn over the handsome man's tuxedo. Let's focus not on the product of their craft, but on the material garnishments used to dress it all up.

MTV Cribs: Here's what your heroes are buying
What Not To Wear: Here's what you should be buying
Queer Eye On The Straight Guy: Here’s what you straight boys gotta buy too.

The message, from Joan, to Carson, and everyone in between? Not only that you should buy . . . but that everyone is buying. The notion -- false -- that everyone, from celebrity to schnook, has a spacious kitchen, a Versace dress, a pimped-up Lexis, a Prada bag, and a diamond that says I love you all over again. And, of course, a credit card. Cause Life Takes Visa.

The creation of a nation that goes beyond normal notions of entitlement. Luxury. Decadence. Debt. George Clooney has it, my boss has it, my neighbor has it, my brother has it. If I don't "have it" then I'm a loser. I'm un-American, in the deepest sense.

The women at the wedding wore exquisite dresses. Perfectly tailored, finely appointed, accessorized to the hilt. Joan and daughter would give the thumbs up. Every man's hair with more mousse than dessert at a French restaurant. The Fab Five would say you go girl. Plenty of issues of Maxim and FHM purchased and obeyed.

And the average age of these young fashionistas? I dunno, maybe 28? How do they afford it? I have no goddamn idea. They work in DC, in government jobs, for think tanks, for non-profits. They're in grad school, in clerkships. I'd lay good odds they're also in the red.

Why? Because they've grown up believing that everyone owns these things. Everyone deserves it. And you know what? They're almost right. Everyone does posses these items. But they don't really own them.
The bank does.

* * *

With every passing day I feel more like a stranger in my own country. I don't recognize the architecture or the city scenes. I don't recognize the clothing. I don't recognize the people. A continuing shift to a world devoid of the reality principle. A life where no one is required to work for what he wants. No one understands the concept of sacrifice, of saving.

It’s a nation of acquisitiveness. Of materialism. Of falsehoods.

4 Comments:

Anonymous karen said...

Even more disturbing than the debt everyone is in, is the latest brainchild of congress in the form of revisions to the bankruptcy code that do not allow discharge of credit card debt in bankruptcy.

Now, I do not believe that people have a right to go around charging prada bags and then declare bankruptcy & stick the credit card companies with the bill, but this new law prevents people who really need it from getting a true fresh start, and puts the burden of bankruptcies on small creditors. This alone would not bother me except for one small point that apparently Congress was oblivious to: credit card companies already had the power to protect themselves, all they had to do was to be careful about who they extend credit to and to not extend credit beyond what the cardholder can reasonably pay back. Instead, credit card companies bombard rich and poor alike with offers of "0% APR! (for the first month)" and then ask congress for relief when it turns out that people can't pay.

am I going off on too much of a tangent on your tangents?

2:18 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

"credit card companies already had the power to protect themselves, all they had to do was to be careful about who they extend credit to and to not extend credit beyond what the cardholder can reasonably pay back . . . am I going off on too much of a tangent on your tangents?"

No, and I agree.

It would, however, be a "tangent" for the banks that distribute these cards to suddenly place a shred of morality over the never-ending chase for ever-greater profits.

Banks and other mega corporations that carp & cry & extol the virtues of the free market want nothing of the kind. They want governmental protection at every turn . . . so long as the laws & regs protect *them*.

2:57 PM  
Anonymous Don in Maine said...

Karen, mike, hmmmm you do realize it is possible to live without debt. It's that old self reliance thing.. you buy what you need not what you want or are told you want.

I can't even guess how many platinum discover cards I've thrown away.

The person who whips that card out, is responsible for the debt. Yeah I agree on the hype and rates etc, but people do have a choice.
I don't have any credit cards and haven't for the last 20 years.

10:36 PM  
Anonymous karen said...

of course it is possible, and if the cc companies did not extend credit to people who couldn't afford it, they would have to do it. My point is that the credit card companies have the ability to protect themselves from overspenders, if the credit card companies would be responsbilbe about extending credit they would not have to go to congress for help. Instead, they extend credit beyond people's means, and yes, people sometimes spend irresponsibly, sometimes they have no choice because they are out of work, have an illness, etc., and when those people declare bankruptcy, the smaller creditors bear the burden, a person who was really in trouble through no fault of their own is unable to get the true protection of bankruptcy, and the big credit card companies now are able to get off scot free.

12:34 PM  

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