Remembering “The Inner City Mother Goose”

A condensed version of this article appears on The Atlantic’s CityLab

At the close of the 1960s, as the optimism of America’s Post-War economic growth seemed to be fading and the promise of the civil rights movement was giving way to the Nixon-era “law and order” retrenchment, as Johnson’s War on Poverty was being replaced by a new, harsher war on the poor, use of the term “inner city” was peaking as a catch-all phrase to capture the sorrow, the anger, and the blame popularly associated with urban poverty. These two short, common words combined in the mouths of the nation — from a whisper to a scream — to evoke a world of associations, realities, myths, fears, and outrages: crime, drugs, blighted neighborhoods, bad schools, pollution, slum housing, chronic unemployment, and forgotten people, nearly always Black.

Use of the other common shorthand term, “ghetto,” follows an almost identical trajectory. In the years following, residents and activists have pushed back on these terms, calling out their coded racism, and liberal-minded usage panels have increasingly rejected them as a shorthand for urban poverty. (The President apparently missed — or disregarded — this memo.)

But back then, in the shadow of riots and rebellions in Chicago, Watts, Newark, Detroit, Washington DC, Baltimore, Kansas City, and dozens of other cities across America, in the wake of failed or frustrated anti-poverty programs and a growing sense of hopelessness of all sides of “the problem we all live with,” the poet Eve Merriam recruited these two little words in the title of her inspired little book of verse, The Inner City Mother Goose.

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Unassuming at first — a slim, square volume, easily mistaken for any other collection of light children’s verse — the book quickly declared itself a force to be reckoned with. In the six short lines of the first poem,1 Merriam simultaneously issued an invitation for an audience and fired a warning shot across the bow of an all-too-complacent nation:

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Boys and girls come out to play,
The moon doth shine as bright as day.
Leave your supper and leave your sleep,
And join your playfellows in the street.
Come with a whoop and come with a call:
Up, motherfuckers, against the wall.

Thus, from the outset, through that one direct, brutal profanity — incidentally, the only actual swear in the entire book — it was clear that this was a different sort of Mother Goose. From here the book proceeds relentlessly, 65 verses in all, pulling no punches as Merriam takes the reader on a street-level tour of real life in the city, an unromantic “Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood?” that includes the dope pusher, the mugger, the slumlord, the junkie, the uncaring and ineffective public school teacher, the trapped latchkey kid, and more.

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Visions of Alt-Berlin in “Man in the High Castle” (no spoilers)

A condensed version of this article appears on The Atlantic’s CityLab.

When used judiciously, establishing shots are one of the most useful techniques in film and television. As the curtain opens on a new scene, a director is able to convey a whole range of important information—the when and where of the setting, as well as the overall mood and moment that we are about the enter—all through a single short shot. Such is the power of imagery.

The first season of Amazon’s new serial adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s alternative-history thriller, “The Man in the High Castle,” has already made excellent use of this technique, often lowering the viewer into scenes of Nazi-occupied New York or Japanese-occupied San Francisco with shots of key buildings or landmarks. We know and love these cities and we immediately recognize these places—only to be jarred by the superimposition of the familiar (Times Square, the Golden Gate Bridge) with new “alt-history” signifiers (swastikas galore; Rising Sun banners; propaganda on the billboards). In a similar vein, the show’s haunting credit sequence—one of the best in recent memory—uses both landmarks and maps to set the stage and orient the viewer. Planners and urban designers would be wise to take note: these short segments beautifully illustrate the ways history, memory, landscape, politics, mapping, and meaning are interwoven in the ways we “make sense of place.”

Early in the second season, however, these shots take on an entirely new—and quite horrifying—relevance, especially for urban planners who know their history. As the story traces back to the corridors of power in the Fatherland, we get our first establishing shot of the Nazi capital of Berlin, looking east past the famous Siegessäule (Victory Column), towards the Brandenburg Gate.

The column itself is nothing surprising: visitors to Berlin today will find it there in the Großer Stern (Great Star) rotary, although when it was originally erected in the 1870s it was much closer to the center of town. In 1939, the 59-meter column was relocated to this spot as the opening salvo in a massive urban planning assault on the historic city led by Hitler’s First Architect, Albert Speer. (In the process, the column was also made 7.5 meters taller through the insertion of additional stone drums; as will become obvious, size mattered quite a lot of Hitler and Speer.)

Speer’s plan—developed in close collaboration with Hitler, who understood the nationalistic power of architecture and urban design—was to transform Berlin: the old city was to be reborn as Welthauptstadt Germania (Germania, World Capital), the seat of the new empire. (The location titles of the show chose to stick with “Berlin,” presumably to give the audience a clearer real-world referent; or perhaps, in deference to his uneasy truce with Japan in the show, the Führer is holding off on claiming total world domination for the moment.)

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Meowtropolis: Review of “Kedi” (New York Observer)

My review of Ceyda Torun’s 2016 documentary KEDI is now out in The New York Observer.

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Everyone in the neighborhood has a favorite cat—they give them names, personalities, entire narratives. Strangely—beautifully—in anthropomorphizing the cats, residents themselves are humanized in the exchange. One senses that Istanbul is a more caring, communal, functional city thanks to the influence of these strays. There is a lesson here: while cats are independent in spirit, they are also fundamentally social at heart. As such, they the perfect urban dwellers: self-sufficient, but also trusting; adventurous and bold, yet still careful and cautious; curiosity mixed with consideration.

See here for the complete review.

(UrbanFilm web extra! If you enjoy the story of Istanbul’s street cats in KEDI, you might also enjoy the 2013 documentary-essay TASKAFA: Stories of the Street, by Andrea Luka Zimmerman, which follows the tales of the cities stray dogs.))

“Behemoth” review on CityLab

The Atlantic’s CityLab features my review of the Zhao Liang’s hauntingly meditative documentary, Behemoth. Click, read, watch, share.

[R]ather than focus close-in on the maw of this insatiable beast, Zhao places his lens at a quiet and safe remove. The effect, however, is not to deliver security, but instead to emphasize scale, an even more distressing aspect of the devastation shown. One explosion may be terrifying, but a relentless series of detonations over thousands of acres becomes almost mundane, a banality of evil. The very vastness inures us to the horror of watching a valley turned into a wasteland, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.

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See CityLab for the full review.

SF Urban Film Fest, Nov 3-8, 2015

We are please to pass along this info from our friends on the west coast:

The SF Urban Film Fest (SFUFF) is a unique film festival that focuses on cities and civic engagement inspired by great storytelling. We believe that compelling stories can help shape urbanist ideas, practice and project implementation.

The way we approach urban problems has resonated and our film festival is growing quickly. Entering only our second year, we have added two new partners, the University of San Francisco (USF) and the Exploratorium. And we are very grateful our inaugural host, SPUR, has agreed to be our partner again this year.

“Beyond Dystopia: Utopia, Resistance and Reclamation” is our festival theme this year. Throughout the week, we will screen narrative fiction and documentary films that highlight utopian visions that guide us to resist dystopia and reclaim our environment. After each screening, we will convene expert panelists who will tie the themes in the films with relevant urban planning issues such as the role of artists in the urban fabric, the relationship between urban planning and economic inequality, what are ideal cities?

Not to be missed will be a special screening of the classic urban dystopian film Blade Runner at the University of San Francisco’s stately Presentation Hall auditorium. We are also very excited to offer family-centric programming at the Exploratorium’s high-tech Kanbar Forum theatre on the theme of reclaiming urban rivers. For those who want go deeper, we will offer a full day guerrilla filmmaking workshop combining found footage of the Bayview and Hunter’s Point communities and new footage filmed on your own iPhone.

The festival dates are November 3-8, 2015. For more information please visit http://www.sfurbanfilmfest.com.

Don’t Tell Anyone: November 5, 2015

On Thursday, November 5, 2015, the MIT Urban Planning Film Series will feature a screening and panel discussion of Mikaela Shwer’s DON’T TELL ANYONE (NO DIGAS A NADIE).

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Since the age of 4, Angy Rivera has lived in the United States with a secret that threatens to upend her life: she is undocumented. Now 24 and facing an uncertain future, Rivera becomes an activist for undocumented youth with a popular advice blog and a YouTube channel boasting more than 27,000 views. She steps out of the shadows a second time to share her story of sexual abuse, an experience all too common among undocumented women. DON’T TELL ANYONE (NO LE DIGAS A NADIE) follows Rivera’s remarkable journey from poverty in rural Colombia to the front page of The New York Times. A co-presentation with Latino Public Broadcasting.

Presented in collaboration with MIT’s Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, the DUSP Students of Color Committee, and the Mel King Institute for Community Building, in partnership with the award-winning documentary series POV.

After the film, please join us for a discussion with special guests Justin Steil (Professor, Department of Urban Studies and Planning, MIT), Cristina Jo Perez (Visiting Scholar, MIT Department of Women’s and Gender Studies), and representatives of local organizations advocating for immigrant’s rights.

Directed by Mikaela Shwer, Thur 11/5, 7:00pm, MIT Room 3-133. Click here for more info.

Revolution of the Present: October 1, 2015

On Thursday, October 1, 2015, the MIT Urban Planning Film Series welcomed Director Marc Lafia to a special screening of his new film, REVOLUTION OF THE PRESENT.

Humanity seems to be stuck in the perpetual now that is our networked world. More countries are witnessing people taking to the streets in search of answers. REVOLUTION OF THE PRESENT features interviews with thought leaders designed to give meaning to our present and precarious condition. This historic journey allows us to us re-think our presumptions and narratives about the individual and society, the local and global, our politics and technology. This documentary analyzes why the opportunity to augment the scope of human action has become so atomized and diminished. REVOLUTION OF THE PRESENT is an invitation to join the conversation and help contribute to our collective understanding.

As sociologist Saskia Sassen states at the outset of the film, “we live in a time of unsettlement, so much so that we are even questioning the notion of the global, which is healthy.” One could say that our film raises more questions than it answers, but this is its goal.

REVOLUTION OF THE PRESENT is structured as an engaging dinner conversation: there is no narrator telling you what to think, it is not a film of fear of the end time or accusation, it is an invitation to sit at the table and join an in depth conversation about our diverse and plural world.

Directed by Marc Lafia, Thur 10/1, 6:30pm, MIT Room 3-133. Click here for more info.

Free Screening of NEIGHBORS (1977)

On April 23, 2015, there will be free screening of NEIGHBORS: CONSERVATION IN A CHANGING COMMUNITY (1977), hosted by The Alliance/Stand Against Racism, The Mel King Institute, and the YWCA of Boston.

April 23rd, 2015:

  • 9:00 am – Networking
  • 9:30 am-11:30 am – Viewing and Discussion

MassHousing, One Beacon Street, 4th Floor, Boston, MA

“The film, NEIGHBORS: CONSERVATION IN A CHANGING COMMUNITY (1977) examines the challenges and opportunities of neighborhood revitalization through the stories of 12 South End residents. The older, working class population is juxtaposed with the more affluent newcomers who are attracted by the prime location and historic architecture as well as the ethnic mix of the neighborhood. While documenting the differences among these residents, the film also reveals their common goals – to make their neighborhood a better place to live. The film remains remarkably relevant for 21st century audiences.”

Click here to register.

MIT e4Dev Screening: KATIYABAAZ (Powerless)

On December 4, 2014, MIT’s Energy for Human Development (e4Dev) group, the MIT Libraries, and the Urban Film Series will be hosting a screening of the movie KATIYABAAZ (Powerless):

  • Thur KATIYABAAZ (Powerless): In Kanpur, India, an electricity thief provides Robin Hood style services to the poor in the face of day long power-cuts. With the first female chief of the electricity company vowing to eliminate all illegal connections, the lines are drawn for a battle over electricity. In a summer of crisis, both come to terms with India’s energy poverty. Refreshments will be provided! 6pm, MIT Room 3–133. Info: e4Dev-request@mit.edu

Rebels with a Cause (Nancy Kelly, 2014)

This documentary, subtitled “How a battle over land changed the American landscape forever,” recounts the battles to stop development of the country’s national seashores and other recreation areas. More broadly, it seeks to describe the birth of the modern environmental preservation movement, giving full credit along the way to the “little people” — garden clubs, small farmers, hippies, and community activists — who took the fight to the nation’s capital — and won.

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Narrated by Frances McDormand (FARGO, MOONRISE KINGDOM), the story unfolds from small regional struggles to a national movement with petitions to the White House and eventual action by both the President and Congress. Beginning in Northern California in the 1950s and 60s, the notion of saving the agricultural land in Marin County from development began to took root; with Kennedy’s election, attention shifted to the Cape Cod seashore — but rather than play into the politics of division, the emerging movement grew to embrace both coasts. Soon lands in the east and west — and much more — were on the preservationist agenda. What had once seemed an unconnected string of local fights was a snowballing national movement attracting causes (and supporters) across the country.

Along the way, we hear from an all-star cast of 1960s crusaders, including Stewart Udall (Secretary of the Interior from 1961–1969), Huey Johnson (co-founder of the Trust for Public Land), and Amy Meyer (co-chair of People for a Golden Gate National Recreation Area). Importantly, for urban and regional planners, the film is unequivocal about exactly why these lands need preservation: all too often — both then and now — natural areas are consumed by rampant and poorly planned residential sprawl.

The film is directed by Nancy Kelly. If you enjoy it, you may also want to check out her 2002 film, DOWNSIDE UP: HOW ARE CAN CHANGE THE SPIRIT OF A PLACE, which explored the creation of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and the role it played in revitalizing the post-industrial town of North Adams.