This post will get a bit political, so hold on to yer hats and stop reading if you’re more interested in travel writing (I will touch on that as well, but…)
I’m preparing to teach a class next spring on mapping the city, a course I usually teach in Rome. I’ve been asked to reconfigure it for our rust belt cities, and moving from the glamor, squalor, and glamorous squalor (or squalorly glamour?) of Rome has been a bit of a haul. Rome after all is self-billed as the Eternal City, and there are no cities in the U.S. that have been around long enough to even be called the Been Here a Long Time City, so there’s a bit of a conundrum inherent in the conversion.
In the U.S., of course, we idealize small- and medium-sized cities much like the one that I live in. My neighborhood is one of those that fits the carefully-sculpted mainstream narrative – middle-class, mixed blue and white-collar, 99 percent white, 95 percent straight. The houses are older, so we all have front porches, which means that I often know more than I want to know about my neighbors’ business. We do have some immigrants moving in, but in general the neighborhood has not changed significantly in forty years.My situation is far from typical. We in the U.S. are in a housing crunch, one that I’m guessing lots of other places in the world also have but that in our collective American minds is impossible since we have so much space. As this article and many others point out, there are ways out, but the housing crunch itself is the product of a long series of structural inequities built into our DNA, and it will take innovative (and will have to include non-capitalist) ways to figure out.
The cry of pity the poor landlord almost always makes itself heard at this point in the conversation. The fear that landlords will become targets of intractable and insufferable tenants dominates a certain part of the political conversation. The landlord in this argument is one who I think doesn’t fit with most people’s lived experience – inevitably they are naive, struggling themselves, eager to help supplement their income, and incredibly solicitous of their tenants’ needs. Still, this type of landlord is lauded as possessing essential American values.
A standard portrayal, I think, occurs in Pacific Heights.
In the film, Matthew Modine and Meg Ryan play a young couple who can just barely squeeze out a down payment on a beautiful fixer-upper of a triplex in San Francisco. They figure that renting the bottom and middle floors will help them cover their mortgage and get them started on the path to upper middle classdom. A skeazy tenant (played by Michael Keaton) offers Modine’s character cash for that bottom floor flat, and the nightmare starts. Modine eventually has to protect his pregnant wife from the cad, and mayhem ensues.
The anxieties are clear – landlords are people too, often struggling people, and there are predators out there all over the place. Keaton is a grifter of the most horrifying sort, someone who earns his living (and makes a lot of cash) by ripping off hard-working (white) people who are trying to pursue the American Dream, albeit it in a city. He doesn’t belong in an ideal American landscape, the one that features solid (white, straight, middle-class) citizens listening to harangues about picket fences and two point five kids and not joining unions.
Being in the city complicates all of this…but that’s another topic…
Pacific Heights is not made-up, of course. These sorts of grifters happened, and happen. But the film makes a point (by having the person who Keaton’s character just beat out for the place be an African-American cop who takes their complaint and tries to help them get the grifter out) that the law is helpless in these situations. We can’t rely on our institutions and our laws, and must instead resort to rugged individualism. Keaton’s character manipulates the law so badly (he has to take a beating to do it, which invokes all kinds of shaming at those of us who might have fantasized about taking matters in our own hands) that Modine’s character ends up in jail. Of course, he gets smarter, and he realizes that vigilanteism is the only possible recourse.
There’s a subtext here to a larger conversation about being smart and what that gets us in our culture, one that is characterized by Boots Riley in this interview about his new movie. I will skip that conversation for now; it has something to do with missing opportunities because you and I (probably not you, just I) aren’t as smart as the ones who have made it rich. Still, housing and capitalism seem to be a complex mix, and Pacific Heights performs some of the cultural work of villainizing tenants that Jane Tompkins warned us about.
I’m hopeful that we can work towards solving these problems. I think that the ideal that those of us in the U.S. value is pretty awesome, and I can see why someone like George W. Bush wanted to push an ownership society (ignoring predatory loaning and racial profiling and all that stuff). However, housing is perhaps not an ecosystem best addressed by the invisible hand of the free market, since the incentives are counter what capitalism does best in a lot of ways. If our pop culture systems are working this hard to address our anxieties about landlords, then maybe we do have a problem.