Friday, April 15, 2005

The problem with

Every town has its seamy aspects--places, people, and happenings the Chamber of Commerce would rather you didn‘t know about. Exposing the seamy side of our towns and cities is a worthy journalistic tradition. Lincoln Steffens’ classic, The Shame of the Cities, comes to mind. His 1904 study of corruption and decay in major American cities put the blame where it belonged--at the top: “In all cities, the better classes… are the sources of corruption, but they are so rarely pursued and caught that we do not fully realize whence the trouble comes."

Another classic from the same era, How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis, is a photographic essay documenting the plight of New York’s tenement dwellers. Riis, like Steffens, faults the rich and powerful for the appalling situation.

Elkhart, Indiana, a town I called home for fifteen years (and to which I’m trying to return), has its seamy side. I would welcome anyone who seeks to expose the corruption, poverty, and blight of “The City With A Heart.” But such an exposé needs to have a heart as well.

Some of is in the tradition of Steffens and Riis. The photo essay on Accra-Pac--pictures of the factory accompanied by excerpts from an “executive summary” of a fatal explosion at the plant--clearly makes the point that things were not as they should have been.

But the “residential” section of the site takes an entirely different viewpoint. The photo essay, “The Ghetto,” has no empathy with Elkhart’s poor. The snide caption, “How much crack is a drier worth?” accompanies a photo showing clothes hung out to dry outside a public housing unit. A picture of a public housing parking lot carries the caption, “The Suburban is stolen.”

“Historical Elkhart” is really just a comment on urban blight--history doesn’t have much to do with it. And the webmaster doesn’t take on absentee landlords, but the poor. “Fires started by smoking crack have been on the rise in recent years,” reads a caption under a picture of a fire-damaged house.

The legend, “There's something to be said about painting your house the color of cotton candy,” accompanies a photo of a bright yellow house. Perhaps the webmaster prefers the look-alike beige McMansions taking up Indiana farmland .

And the website never mentions the right-wing silliness of the Elkhart County Commissioners. Their resolution calling on the United States to withdraw from the United Nations (passed after closed meetings with members of the John Birch Society) made the county a laughingstock.

Simply to say, “Elkhart, Indiana is the worst city, county, and place in the United States” isn’t enough. Maybe you have to love the place to make effective criticism. But if, is to be more than a series of snide comments, it needs to go after the people in power--not the poor and powerless.

No comments: