Tag Archives: featured

Book Review: Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation by Anne Helen Petersen

Put down your avocado toast and close that Zillow page — the latest salvo in the intergenerational war between boomers and millennials is here, and you don’t want to miss it. In Can’t Even, media scholar (and millennial) Anne Helen Petersen offers an insightful treatise on the “burnout generation” that is a far cry from the essentialist portrayals of both generations that dominate the current discourse.

Rather than dissect who is to blame for the plight (and it is a plight, histrionics aside) of millennials, Petersen offers a moving discourse on why the kids are not alright and, even more importantly, why they are not, despite how they’ve been characterized, the spoiled, lazy, feckless generation.

“Okay, boomer, sit down and read” is an apropos prescription for this book.

In 2019, Petersen published a Buzzfeed article titled “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation,” which drew millions of readers. Wry title aside, Can’t Even, an expansion of that earlier piece, is well researched and sobering in its findings. The book examines a variety of areas of millennial lives, including work, education, social-media culture, relationships, and parenthood, zeroing in on issues like student debt, workplace burnout, and millennials’ astronomical levels of anxiety and hopelessness.

The section on millennials’ childhood is especially engrossing. Petersen uses the concept of “concerted cultivation” to explain how the parenting style of the previous generation sowed the seeds of the thorny relationship between millennials and work. Dispelling the popular trope of millennials refusing “to adult,” the book illustrates the very opposite: that millennials have been adulting since they were kids:

“The child’s schedule takes precedence over parents’; the child’s well-being and future capacity for success is paramount; baby food should be homemade; toddler play should be enriching; private tutors should be enlisted if necessary…Every part of the child’s life should be optimized to better prepare them for their entry into the working world.”

And, of course, the first step toward that world is education. Here, too, Petersen is masterful in foreshadowing the inevitable burnout. She describes millennials as the “first generation to fully conceptualize themselves as walking college resumes.” Because — you guessed it — getting into college (let alone paying for it) isn’t as easy for them as it was for boomers.

Getting a job isn’t as easy, either. Can’t Even offers an excellent analysis of how millennials graduated into the “worst job market in 80 years,” one with an excessive list of demands:

“To be valued, you need plans, lengthy resumes, ease and confidence interacting with authority figures, and innate understanding of how the job ladder works. You need connections and a willingness to multitask, and an eagerness to overschedule.”

Not to mention that being groomed to find a job one is “passionate” about created a toxic mentality disconnected from the realities of the working world. Fracturing the cliché that millennials heedlessly hop from one job to another, Petersen shows how it was boomers who instilled the “one’s work is one’s identity” mantra into their children. With that conflation came the predictable — and incredible — stress millennials feel about their careers.

One thing missing in Can’t Even is a broad discussion of how class factors into the boomer/millennial dynamic; the author only briefly suggests that concerted cultivation is, in part, a reflection of class anxiety. That is, while only wealthy boomers may have been able to afford things like private tutors, less-affluent boomers could at least sacrifice all their time and limited resources in the name of their child’s future success.

Speaking of time, Can’t Even presents a thoughtful commentary on free time. Connecting it to the groan-inducing “unstructured free time” term from child psychology, Petersen’s conversations with adult millennials are moving and unsettling. These people can’t even have fun: “Any down time began to feel like I was being lazy and unproductive, which in turn made me question my self worth,” one subject shares. So much for the popular image of the carefree, brunchin’ millennial.

The moments when Can’t Even grapples with the burnout that has now become the hallmark of the millennial generation are insightful and leave the reader hungry for more. I, for one, would’ve been happier with fewer statistics and more of those first-person testimonials. Nevertheless, like a good millennial, Petersen has done her homework.

Can’t Even is a must-read both for millennials and the generation that made them. In the immortal words of Tupac, “I was given this world; I didn’t make it.” This book illustrates exactly that: that millennials are living in a world that’s a far cry from the one they were groomed to inhabit. And all that hard work they were taught would lead to a better life has led, instead, to nothing but a need to work even harder.

Book Review: You Exist Too Much: A Novel by Zaina Arafat

My review of the Washington Independent Review of Books

Love addiction is vividly brought to life in this exceptional debut.

Zaina Arafat’s You Exist Too Much is an engrossing character study of a young, bisexual Palestinian American woman. Much more than an exploration of intersecting lines and identities, the debut novel revels in their clouding: “Ambiguity was an unsettling yet exhilarating space…I enjoyed occupying blurred lines.”

This is not a book about isms, however; it is squarely centered on its unnamed protagonist, whose voice is enthralling. Oscillating between prescient self-awareness and oblivion, she transports readers into her rich emotional realm. Her identity is beautifully captured when she travels to Palestine with her mother, who “knows the rules instinctively, in that part of the world, and I only learn them by accident.”

While she fits in (mostly), she also doesn’t: “Anytime I heard of another Arab girl’s engagement, it snapped me out of my gayness.” Her parents’ fraught relationship is also wryly captured: “If my mother was Hamas — unpredictable, impulsive, and frustrated at being stifled — my father was Israel. He’d refuse to meet her most basic needs until she exploded.”

While the book engages with both the narrator’s heritage and her queerness, it is ultimately a story about love addiction. Lest you groan in anticipation of high doses of schmaltz or wince at the prospect of Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” being stuck in your head (sorry, not sorry), the novel’s brilliant exposé on a real psychological condition will leave you, well, addicted and wanting more.

Arafat’s description of the protagonist’s stint in a rehab program to treat her anorexia and love addiction is one of the best accounts of the rehab experience I have ever read. The writing is precise, keen, and relies on observation and no pathos, which is somewhat odd considering the subject matter. It is also well-researched. Arafat reveals love addiction for what it is — codependency, which she defines as “the inability to have a healthy relationship with the self.”

The protagonist is in love with being in love, which puts her on a never-ending Don Quixote-like quest in pursuit of the feeling. And much like Quixote, she is chasing chimeras:

“When love addicts develop a relationship with the object of their affections, they stop seeing who that person actually is, but instead focus on a fantasy image.”

Arafat captures why this addiction is particularly damaging, rejecting anyone’s glib dismissal of it as a made-up disorder. The protagonist’s emotional gyrations are captured powerfully: “I had been clinging to her I love yous like a refugee clings to a threatened nationality.”

The author writes about other characters in the rehab program with compassion and depth, too. There aren’t many books about recovery from this particular addiction — less flashy, perhaps, than drug or sex addiction — which gives the book a bright spark.

You Exist Too Much tackles bisexuality with equal care. The title is what the protagonist’s mother says when her daughter comes out, and its interpretation is rich in ambiguity: The Palestinian mother would never have had the permission or space to be anything but heterosexual. She interprets her daughter’s orientation as a demand for the right to live free of old constraints. But the phrase is also an incisive commentary on the daughter’s fixation on unavailable objects of affection and her lust for a life filled with emotional highs.

This novel is truly captivating. I read it several times over and found something new each time. Arafat’s writing extracts emotion from every word and builds vast psychological landscapes. One of the best releases in 2020, it cements Zaina Arafat’s position in the ranks of Carmen Maria Machado and Lydia Yuknavitch. I cannot wait to see what she will offer readers next.

Book Review: Verge: Stories by Lidia Yuknavich

My review for the Washington Independent Review of Books:

A breathtaking series of insights into people who are “becoming.”

Lidia Yuknavitch’s debut short-story collection, Verge: Stories, is an incandescent testimonial about lives spent on the margins, on the cusp, on the edge, on the periphery, on the frontier, on the birthing place…of something.

Or everything. Or nothing at all.

Yuknavitch’s writing is visceral and unsettling, the metaphors eloquent and moving. “Who amongst us can see a self,” she asks, and responds with singular characters sketched in stark detail, their burdens strange yet familiar. Her descriptions are terse, as though built on picked-clean skeletons, but the flesh emerges from the pages, raw and refusing to be contained.

“The Pull” is set on a capsizing raft of refugees in the Aegean Sea — the people “a wave of other leavers.” Those left behind “never swim another lap toward their futures.” Two children who had been on the swim team back home (and, as the author so pointedly writes, are from a reality that has neither a future nor a past) tie the raft to their feet and swim toward shore: “This story has no ending. We put children into the ocean.”

This is exactly the kind of parsimony that marks Yuknavitch’s writing — the pathos is in the pith-os, I would like to think.

“The Organ Runner,” a story about an 8-year-old who literally runs organs between seemingly disparate yet intimately sewn-together bodies in dark streets, is equally relentless in its quiet condemnation of us:

“Whatever money — that thing more valuable than a body, or a people, or a nation — had changed hands was worth more than the life of one homeless creature in this newsless, powerless, invisible country.”

The author is neither political nor polemic, but her witness-bearing will disquiet readers. The simile “he held one arm against his body like a broken wing” is a trenchant commentary on dehumanizing others in a literal and figurative sense. And again, the author makes clear the damning, if not always apparent, connections tying the globalized world together: “Kiril would die but not by her hand. Or he would die by all of our hands.”

“Second Language” takes this tacit condemnation to a crescendo; the story will hold you hostage long after you finish it. The protagonist is a nameless, sex-trafficked child locked in a house near a freeway (anything but free to her) and “delivered like a card-board box from a UPS truck, sifted through by rummaging hands like recycling,” along with other “girl popsicles.”

To the outside world, she is a ghost, barely even noticed by the “disaffected latte pity” gaze. Her “bodyworth” is the only thing concrete about her — that, and a story in a foreign language. A fairytale, told in a grim and otherworldly tongue, which lulls the popsicle girls to sleep: “Girls are growing from guts, enough for a body and a language all the way out of this world.”

Speaking of language, the author is a masterful writer of towering genius. Her comparisons are so intricate, yet heavy, they often require a reread. A drug addiction is “four long years of youth sliding cold silver glint into waiting blue.” “He builds the fire like a new faith for all the white (snow) against them.” “She aches to summer over into a different life.” “The streets are clean and cured and uncultured — no, that’s not what I meant. Uncluttered, I meant.”

Yuknavitch is also eloquent in her depiction of women. The female protagonists are on the run, gnashing and trashing and aching to tell their stories in their own language. She compares a “street walker” to Mary: “When I see an image of Christ, I picture Mary so drawn and gaunt and tired and angry and spent to the point of emaciation that she can barely wear her own face.” But she is no saint, just an “ordinary woman eaten alive by her own heart, her own veins, her own cunt.” Another character is “on the edge like Ophelia, rewriting her ending.”

Verge is enthralling and should garner Yuknavitch much-deserved acclaim. It is the author’s answer to the question, “Does it hurt more to keep the secrets or to tell them?” While her characters may be on the edge of the storyline, in the dark corners of the nightly news, residing in a forgotten, misshapen geography, speaking in tongues, the book reminds you that you know these people; that you are bound to these people; that you are these people.

The Hidden Cost of the Hustle–Faculty and Director of the Kogod Tax Policy Center Caroline Bruckner hones in on the tax consequences of gig work.

By Toni Tileva | 
In September 2019, California became the first state in the country to pass a labor law aimed primarily at Uber and Lyft drivers that extends wage and benefit protections to about a million gig workers. California Governor Gavin Newsom wrote an op-ed arguing that when workers are classified as independent contractors rather than as employees, they lose basic benefits such as minimum wage, paid sick days, and health insurance. And their employers do not contribute to safety net programs like workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance, leaving, as Gov. Newsom pointedly stated, “taxpayers holding the bag.”Going a step further to address Social Security shortfalls, on December 19, 2019, Congresswoman Deb Haaland (NM-01), vice chair of the Task Force on Poverty and Opportunity, introduced a groundbreaking bill called the Gig Is Up Act that would require companies that gross at least $100 million and employ at least 10,000 independent contractors to pay the full cost of both the employer contribution and the worker contribution to Social Security and Medicare.“My research shows that gig workers can be in a very precarious economic situation, with most of them working gigs as a supplemental source of income,” Bruckner says. “For many, their low incomes keep them from having other investment vehicles, and they rely solely on Social Security for their retirement. Not getting their just dessert, so to speak, is an unforeseen and not often discussed consequence of contractor and gig economy work.”

The gig economy is notoriously hard to quantify, with estimates stating non-traditional work arrangements account for anywhere between 0.1% of full-time employment to 34%. According to the Freelancing in America survey, there are a reported 57 million American freelancers (counting on-demand and independent contractors) contributing in excess of $1 trillion dollars to the economy each year. Yet, their hustle can perhaps best be characterized as a struggle rather than a success, with little worker rights protection, unpredictable compensation, and intermittent work. The “on demand” nature of the work makes it just that—reliant on the customers’ and employers’ demands rather than the workers’.

In her recent book Hustle and Gig, sociologist Alexandrea Ravenelle argues that “for all its app-enabled modernity, the gig economy resembles the early industrial age…the sharing economy is truly a movement forward to the past.” While much research has been conducted on the size and growth trajectory of the freelancer industry, little scholarship examines the often unintended tax consequences affecting the workers and the economy writ large.

“Self-employed workers already have tax compliance and reporting issues, but the existing reporting rules further precipitate their failure to contribute to Social Security and Medicare through payment of the self-employment tax (SE tax),” explains Bruckner.

The tricky part is that companies that use contract workers aren’t required to send out a 1099-MISC unless they have paid that person $600 or more in a given tax year. On-demand workers who are paid by platforms usually get a 1099-K form, which companies use when a contractor has performed at least 200 transactions over the course of the year and has received at least $20,000 in payments. But, often, gig workers don’t receive any tax forms at all, leaving them on the hook to figure out how much they’ve earned over the past year and accurately report it to the IRS.

“Workers who don’t get tax forms from their employers need to figure out their earnings on their own. It is not as though they are intending to break tax laws, but many of them are simply not aware of what the self-employment tax covers and are short changing their Social Security earnings upon retirement in this way.”

Independent contractors and gig economy workers also do not make tax payments through withholding by their employers during the year and have to figure out estimated quarterly tax payments on their own. Not making those quarterly payments can translate to penalties and increases their audit exposure. “This isn’t just about gig workers underreporting their income tax, although this is a way to quantify the tax gap for the IRS and get their attention on the issue,” says Bruckner. “The consequences of the shortfall are twofold: it affects the funding and solvency of Social Security and translates to lower Social Security benefits for these workers upon retirement.”

In their recent “Failure to Contribute” research project, funded by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, Professor Bruckner and economist Thomas L. Hungerford estimate that, in 2014, independent contractors didn’t pay $3.9 billion in Social Security contributions that they should have, and on-demand workers didn’t pay $2 billion.

Bruckner has actively raised this issue with the IRS and given testimony on Capitol Hill. The Failure to Contribute report suggests Congress could take steps to modernize information reporting, update quarterly estimated payment requirements, and require better taxpayer education. Ultimately, these strategies should focus on the independent contractor economy generally and the on-demand/gig workforce in particular. “We need strategies to encourage people to buy into the system,” says Bruckner. “This is why tax policy needs to be accessible.”

With a $50,000 grant from the Wharton School of Business and Pension Research Council, Bruckner plans to continue her research with a study examining how women are using the gig economy to make up for retirement shortfalls. “This next phase of research will be ground-breaking in that it focuses on women specifically, who tend to live longer and have higher healthcare costs,” explains Bruckner. “Because women have been subject to the pay gap or had to take time out of the paid work force,  considering their retirement needs and how gig economy work is a strategy for shoring up retirement savings shortfalls is the logical extension of my existing work looking at the gig economy and its implications for Social Security.”

What Are the Odds? A computational neuroscientist and Kogod adjunct scores a career as a data scientist with the NBA.

So much of our everyday life involves making predictions—from picking the best route for our morning commute to bringing an umbrella to choosing a partner. “We predict all the time, so the process is natural,” says Grant Fiddyment, adjunct professor of predictive analytics at Kogod and data scientist for the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers. “In a lot of ways, it’s the same way we interact with technology and the world. For instance, how can I phrase my web search so that the site will match what I’m looking for? How can I pronounce a word so that a virtual assistant will understand what I’m saying? Without knowing the technical details, we implicitly learn how these technologies work.”

What is predictive analytics, and how does it offer us a glimpse into the future?

At its most fundamental level, the discipline calculates the likelihood of future events by simply (although many would cry foul at this characterization) counting the possible outcomes. Its foundations were laid in a 1654 letter exchange between French mathematicians Pierre de Fermat and Blaise Pascal discussing how the winnings of a coin-flipping gambling game should be split. And while we all know that the house always wins in Vegas, few would know to credit Jacob Bernoulli’s Law of Large Numbers from 1713 as the reason why.

Despite predictive analytics’ old roots, it is responsible for many facets of modern-day life we give little thought to—things like credit card fraud detection, virtual chess partners, and, of most interest to Fiddyment, creating professional sports super teams.

Grant Fiddyment's headshot.

As a data scientist on the research and development team for the 76ers, Fiddyment helps frame and analyze the predictive questions that arise in sports—for example, how will signing a new player impact a team’s title odds, or how well will a tall lineup play against a smaller, quicker one?

Predictive analytics has long been used in sports, going back to the analog days of yore. Baseball has historically led the movement. One of the most famous success stories is told in the movie Moneyball, which follows 2002 Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane as he uses predictive analytics to hire under-valued players and send his team on a crowd-wowing 20-game winning streak. But the methods developed in Oakland have application across all sports.

“Most teams were asking, ‘How often does a batter get a hit when they go to bat?’ Instead, the A’s asked, ‘How many bases does a player get when they go to bat?’ Looking at total bases turns out to be more predictive of how many runs a team will score,” explains Fiddyment. “Similarly, in the NBA, teams used to ask how often a player will make a shot. But this overlooks the fact that all shots are not equal. So now teams are asking, ‘How many points will a player get when they take a shot?’”

In the past decade the number of three-point shots in the NBA has increased. Is the rise just due to random luck or is it part of a well-crafted strategy? Fiddyment and other fellow data scientists employed full-time by sports teams work to answer new questions like these. He credits the invention of video tracking as the proverbial game changer. “Chip or camera-based systems will follow players as they actively play a sport, and the data we get is much more nuanced than a single-number summary,” says Fiddyment. “For example, we can answer how many pick-and-rolls the team ran last game or how open were the shots they generated. We can analyze the individual and team as a whole.”

At the moment, this kind of data collection is limited to professional teams, making it difficult to spot up-and-coming superstars. “College and international teams typically don’t have the same camera systems, so projecting which players will become successful remains a very challenging problem,” Fiddyment says.

Despite rapid advancements in technology, however, not all data is created equal—or, perhaps, equally useful. The limitations of data translate to limitations in predictive accuracy (as meteorologists can confirm). “We need to be aware of computers’ strengths and weaknesses,” Fiddyment advises. “Computers can process vast amounts of data much more quickly than humans ever could. But they are restricted to the data they have and operate very literally, so we should never expect them to behave exactly like a human, even if they can match our performance at a given task.”

From the glitz of Vegas to the life-saving powers of storm forecasts to the way opinion polls affect voters, predictive analytics is ever-present in our lives. Advances in machine learning and big data models are improving our ability to look into the future, but they are also raising some thorny issues, one of the most notable being the boundaries of data privacy. For now, however, Fiddyment has scored a slam dunk for the NBA.

Department of Parks and Gentrification: A Tale Of Dogs and Men at the Shaw Dog Park

View here.

And any fool knows a dog needs a home, and shelter from pigs on the wing.”—Pink Floyd

 

“A place is a meaningful site that combines location (the geographical situation of a place), locale (its physical and material characteristics), and a sense of place (the feelings and emotions that are introduced by a place, especially through representation) (Anguelovski 47). Local social relations and their links to a broader system produce a place over time. People shape places through their interactions with each other and with their locale, and places shape residents through the political and physical processes that intervene in their lives.

I initially conceived this project as a study of cultural displacement via the creation of the Shaw Dog Park on 11th and Rhode Island Streets, in Washington, DC, on the former site of Canchita, a pick-up soccer court. What I discovered was quite different–sometimes, the best laid plans of dogs and men are just that; the heroes and the villains are the most unlikely ones; community is elusive but can be found on asphalt, gravel, or concrete…and that a discourse of us vs. them is not a good lens for studying gentrification. So, here’s a tale of two packs laying claim to the same turf.

Theoretical Background

Place attachment is an essential characteristic of people’s feeling toward a place, and it is defined as an affective bond between people and places. Place attachment provides a sense of security and well-being, defines boundaries between groups, and anchors memories, especially against the passage of time. The ties that exist among residents are based on connections between people who live there and also on the setting, building layout, and characteristics of public or semipublic places. For example–“narrow streets and alleys allow people to develop social and cultural outdoor activities so that residents recreate a piece of village life and build connections to each other” (Anguelovski 47).

Place attachment is indelibly tied to questions of identity. The relationship of people to a place and the feelings they develop toward it contribute to the formation and protection of their identity. Place identity is shaped through interactions that create values and beliefs. The identity of a place is often the object of controversies, conflicts, and traumas. “The loss of place has devastating consequences for protecting individual and collective memory and identity as well as restoring mental wellness. When planners displace people and demolish houses, they leave residents homeless physically and mentally as their memories are destroyed” (Anguelovski 48).

Parks hold an especially important place in public consciousness. “In the environmental arena, neighborhood green space plays multiple roles for low-income populations and residents of color. Residents use public spaces with plants and trees to develop social contacts with each other and feel less vulnerable in their neighborhood” (Anguelovski 49). As playgrounds and parks encourage children and youth to play outside freely, they also increase the sense of safety for families and create a dynamic outdoor and street life (Newman 103).

Parks are seen as stages for urban behavior, where residents from all walks of life and forced to interact and socialize. They are where the social is drawn into a dialogue with nature. “Parks can function as an unpredictable commons of a city and as such are a threat to any political order that invokes the idealized notion of the ‘public’ as a claim to legitimacy. Therefore parks, public squares, and open spaces in general are a source of continual anxiety for those seeking to safeguard normative definitions of the public. Parks and public spaces are continually subject to efforts to “fix’ what can be viewed as unruly vibrant commons” (Newman 74). Therefore, control of the public space is important on both an ideological and literal level. As areas of protest and dissent, parks are monitored and regulated by power impositions framed as preserving of law, order and public safety.

Gentrification brings to the forefront clashing ideologies on public space. The more romantic view of public space as where people can come together organically and in an unrestrained sense is in direct contract to the view of public space as a place of ordered, controlled “recreation.” Recreation is re-created and created by rules—what constitutes “recreation” is very much a contested process. Setha M. Low, an anthropologist who studies public spaces in New York City, believes such spaces are becoming increasingly off limits. As parks get beautified, she argues, poor people feel uncomfortable in what increasingly feels like an elite landscape.

Affluent residents and tourists appreciate heavily-policed public spaces, while black and Hispanic men, fearful of harassment, avoid those places. Teenagers avoid spaces with long lists of rules and regulations; the homeless are deterred by police harassment and perverse contraptions meant to prevent them from even so much as laying down on a park bench. Street vendors, part of the fabric of street life, feel increasingly beleaguered. Low says, “We’re becoming more homogeneous in our neighborhoods –- not less -– while the city is becoming more heterogeneous over all.” Even as an influx of new immigrants has enhanced the city’s overall diversity, she said, many neighborhoods have become more segregated.

In his research, “Social Exclusion and Space,” Ali Madanipour explains the ways in which our world is divided by physical, economic, and social barriers. One’s ability to move freely through spaces gives one a sense of pride, while “some members of society are excluded in the ‘mainstream’ and where this exclusion is painful for the excluded and harmful for society as a whole” (Madanipour 159). Urbanist Mike Davis explains that with privatization of space comes the marginalization and exclusion of “unsavory” populations. “The universal and ineluctable consequence of this crusade to secure the city is the destruction of accessible public space. The contemporary opprobrium attached to the term ‘street person’ is in itself a harrowing index of the devaluation of public spaces” (Davis 180). Socio-spatial exclusionary forces characterize all built landscapes: “A combination of formalized rules and regulations, informal codes and signs, and fears and desires control our spatial behavior and alert us to the limitations on our access. Through these, we have come to know whether we can enter a place, are welcomed in another and excluded from others. More restrictions on our access to our surroundings would bring about the feeling of being trapped, alienated and excluded from our social space” (Madanipour 162). These types of exclusionary forces are especially palpable in gentrifying neighborhoods.

In her article “Of Dogs and Men: The Making of Spatial Boundaries in a Gentrifying Neighborhood,” Sylvie Tissot argues that animals play an interesting role in the processes of social inclusion and exclusion in a gentrifying neighborhood. She writes that residents who move into mixed-income, “inner-city” neighborhoods generally express a taste for diversity while simultaneously attempting to distance themselves from “undesirables.” Dogs and the resultant dog parks are a symbol of newcomers’ attempts to control their environment and they allow for a discourse of a “diverse community” to be deployed (i.e. all dog owners are welcome to these parks). In reality, this mythical “diverse community” simply never materializes.

Pets constitute social markers, and relationships to them are also based on contrasting socioeconomic norms—for example, “doggie spas” and other such markers of affluence are not available or socially accepted for people of different socio-economic statuses. The market has been very responsive in catering to the new class of “yappies,” as I have come to jokingly call them. Case in point: there are now “Yappy Hours” with taglines such as “Looking for a way to spend quality time with your friends and Fido at a local bar or restaurant? Try a Yappy Hour, where pets attendance isn’t just allowed, it’s encouraged.” By extension, dog parks perpetuate this marking of social territory, if you will.

Dog parks are loci of processes of both inclusion and exclusion, especially from a dialectic perspective. Gentrifiers actively use public spaces to create social boundaries; to define insiders and outsiders. The spatial boundaries allow them to distinguish themselves from the poor, long-term minority residents of the neighborhood, but this relationship is ambivalent and fraught. On one hand, gentrifiers staunchly defend dog parks as spaces for “everyone” and as communal gathering spots that encourage friendship building of a genuinely inclusive nature.

They also deploy a rhetoric of difference from “those people living in the suburbs.” The kind of commitment to community discussed so frequently is intended to be in sharp contrast to the “anonymity, isolation, and homogeneity of the suburbs.” Discourses about the dog park are of a liberal bent, connoting openness to ethnic and sexual minorities. In the Charles Park Association document that Tissot studied, dog parks are described as “where people from different racial, religious, social, and economic backgrounds meet and recreate together with their pets” (Tissot 265)

On the other hand, a concurrent narrative thread about the particularistic rights of dog owners is also in place. The dog park is supposed to be good for the community and not only for dog owners because it builds relationships in an urban space. But dog owners are quick to stress another—perhaps paradoxical—point at length in their letters: “that dog owners pay taxes, and as such, are entitled to have a space adapted to their specific use. Like parents for whose children the neighborhood maintains playgrounds, ‘dog parents,’ as one letter says, are also entitled to specific, dedicated space” (Tissot 270).

Conspicuously absent from the conversation is any mention of the potential conflicts among park users and among dog owners of different socioeconomic status or race, and when they do, it is only through euphemism or feigned unawareness. In his article “The Back-to-the-City Movement: Neighbourhood Redevelopment and Processes of Political and Cultural Displacement” Director of American University’s Metropolitan Policy Center Dr. Derek Hyra, discusses the resultant political and culture displacement and feelings of community loss. Some long-term DC residents are not as enthusiastic about dog parks. “Marshall Brown, a political strategist and father of former DC City Council Chair, Kwame Brown, stated, ‘They [the new white residents] want doggie parks and bike lanes. The result is a lot of tension. The new people believe more in their dogs than they do in people…This is not the District I knew. There’s no relationship with the black community. They don’t connect at the church, they don’t go to the same cafes, they don’t volunteer in the neighbourhood school, and a lot of longtime black residents feel threatened’” (Hyra 1766).

The way in which this cultural displacement takes place is quite clear—new residents are better able to lobby and navigate the channels of power to effect the changes they want to see. Long-term residents or immigrant residents, distrustful of byzantine bureaucracy and police authority, lack the political will power to advocate for their needs. “As new upper- and middle-income residents have come into the community, some have joined civic associations, seized political power and have advocated for policies, including limited parking, the removal of go-go clubs, bikes lanes and dog parks, which cater to their tastes and preferences. The combination of the political takeover and development of new amenities is associated with fear, resentment and civic withdrawal among some long-term, African-American residents” (Hyra 1767).

According to NeighborhoodInfoDC (http://www.neighborhoodinfodc.org/wards/nbr_prof_wrd2.html), the total population in Ward 2, where the Shaw Dog Park is located, was 56,986 in 1980. It rose to 76,883 by 2010. The percentage of African-American residents halved—in 1990, it was 19%; by 2010, it was 9.8%. The Latino population has stayed fairly consistent at around 10%, with a 2% increase in the “foreign-born” residents.


Shaw Dog Park

In November 2008, the first DC area official off-leash dog park was built. The dog park is a 15,000 square feet fenced enclosure with pea gravel and small stone surface floor where dogs can roam off their leashes. It likely cost the city well over a half a million dollars to construct (estimates based on similar parks). Shaw/U Street’s dog park was the product of an extensive advocacy effort. With political pressures from ANCs and civic associations, the city agreed to build the dog park. The Shaw Middle School (not in use since 2006) playground, where the dog park is located, also contains basketball courts and a soccer field (on top of an old baseball diamond, which has never been used for baseball). At the time of the dog park’s construction, no resources were dedicated to other playground amenities, which were in need of desperate upgrading. The soccer goals were askew and the field was mainly dirt. The basketball courts had not been renovated since at least 1995. While soccer fields and basketball courts, which are often used by Hispanics and African Americans, are neglected, newcomer amenities are developed and upgraded (Hyra 1765).

According to the Shaw Dog Park website (“Park History”), in 2005, the Dog Owners of Greater Shaw Yahoo Group formed to advocate for a permanent, legal dog park in the Shaw and Logan Circle neighborhood. In November of the same year, the D.C. Council passed a law allowing for the creation of dog parks. In May 2008, under the auspices of the MidCity Residents Association (MCRA), a neighborhood non-profit organization, the Shaw Dog Park application was filed, with 400 petitioners supporting the application. In November 2008, the Shaw Dog Park opened with then-Mayor Adrian Fenty cutting the “leash.” In 2011, the Shaw Dog Park Association (SDPA) incorporated in D.C. as a non-profit organization, separating from MCRA. The IRS granted 501(c) 3 tax-exempt status to SDPA, allowing all contributions to the organization to be treated as charitable donations.

The mission statement of the Shaw Dog Park states that it is a “public dog park that was developed and built by the city of Washington, DC.” The Shaw Dog Park Association is made up of “Shaw citizen volunteers that have a committed and vested interest in ensuring that Shaw Dog Park meets its main mission of providing a clean, safe and open environment for responsible dog owners and their dogs to visit.” I am placing the emphasis on responsible so we can unpack this a little bit.

Meet George Kassouf, the park’s Godfather. Quite literally—he is the one man show that built a field of doggie dreams (he built it and they came). George kindly agreed to be interviewed by me. If you are expecting me to characterize him as some sort of Machiavellian Yappie Overlord, I’ll just say George is a far cry from that. I met a man who had lived in the neighborhood for the last 13 years, who simply loves his dogs. While speaking with him, I felt an intense feeling of a “tail/tale of two cities.” George told me he was unaware of a canchita or even less, of people being displaced (in truth, later on, in examining his park proposal, I see that he was aware and did try to find space for them…so perhaps a better statement would be that he was unaware what impact his work would have). He recounted to me seeing games played, yet seemed absolutely baffled that this might have been a space that held such a prominence in the hearts and minds of people. If he did, he masked it really well by repeatedly reassuring me that all the neighborhood ANC and civic organizations supported the dog park. He insisted that the area had been nothing but a crime magnet, a space riddled with drug users and drunks (he even showed me a picture of a needle on the ground), using three trees as cover for their nefarious activities. George pointed me to a letter by a Police Lieutenant attesting to the fact that this area was in dire need of a clean-up (I will address this letter later). In truth, I saw the trees, which were the “original trees,” and was a bit hard-pressed to understand how anyone could hide under the lush canopies of these…shrubs, but as I said before, George appeared genuine enough for me to accept this as fact.

One major take away from the conversation was how business-as-usual politics is done in DC, sadly—apparently, alike in the lower and upper echelons of power. George’s application for the park had been languishing in the dusty bins of the Department of Parks and Recreation. One day, Councilmember Jack Evans gave George notice that Evans would be going on a walk-through with Mayor Fenty—a fairly routine occurrence. George immediately asked to join this walk-through. Surely enough, upon inquiring about the status of the dog park, the Mayor responded with sheer alacrity and a “well, why don’t we do it here” (referring to the current site). The Mayor had not even seen George’s application–talk about this being a true case of “face time,” “who you know,” and all the other clichés of DC politics. Had George not been fortuitously along for the Mayor’s walk-through, the Shaw Dog Park might have never been built.

Let’s talk about the park. Prior to meeting George, I had visited the park quite a few times at different times in the day, doing some participant observation. The park always struck me as an incredibly sad place—imposing fencing and wire surrounded everything; on the ground, gray gravel; the “trees” sitting in forbidding wooden boxes, with stones piled on top of their soil. As a tree lover, I admired their tenacity in spite of these Spartan conditions. I saw nothing but gray and confinement. I felt pent-in—I suppose an experience dogs are, sadly, all too familiar with. It felt restrictive, constricting, and just plain desolate—a better writer than me would probably describe it as “gritty urban, yappie chique?” By the way, as the diagram below illustrates, gravel is the base of choice in dog parks around the city:

For the life of me, I could not fathom why anyone would go there (and I am not saying this sarcastically, I want to underline). I was simply baffled. Almost every time I went there, I saw people sitting by themselves on the austere metal benches, staring at their phones listlessly while their dogs made equally listless circles. Talk about a microcosm of DC! I did not see the camaraderie, the community, or the fun that this was supposed to be. Below is a picture of the Easter egg hunt the park held for its denizens. I couldn’t help but feel that this was a true example of the commodification of dogs as status symbols—does what you see below seem more fun for the dogs or the owners? It just spoke to me of the “regulation of recreation” concept I brought up in the theory section—that recreation and fun has to be scheduled in a capitalist society, and commodified wherever possible.

 

It wasn’t until I talked to George that I grasped something really important—that the users of this park thought of it as a “socialization” for their dogs. It was more about letting your dog go off-leash and play with other dogs, which would be something unacceptable on a city sidewalk, than walking your dog. My first question to him was why would anyone choose to go to this drab place (doggy jail, as I called it), when one could walk freely on the streets!? This is when it dawned on me that this gentrification we are talking about here is *not* humans vs. dogs. It’s more human insistence on keeping a pet no matter the living arrangement. Most of the new residents in the neighborhood have dogs. Yet, urban living, not created with a dog in mind, necessitates the creation of these artificial “doggie playdate” scenarios.

Ultimately, dog parks are a microcosm of gentrification in the sense that just as dogs act as identity markers for their owners, so are dog parks markers of the regulation of public space. The Shaw Dog Park is maintained by volunteers. Even though every owner is responsible for cleaning up after his/her dog, volunteers still have to spray the gravel with disinfectant every week. No unregistered dogs are permitted inside the park; no non-immunized dogs are either. If you just found a stray on the street and are too poor to take him to the vet or license him with the city, neither he nor you are welcome there. The dog park has set hours. If your dog is aggressive with other dogs and harms any, you are responsible. These might sound like “minor” regulations meant to ensure “responsible” owner use, but, I would argue, they are manifestations of a climate of regulation where even the simple act of letting your dog play with another dog is surveilled and managed.

And the socialization of the dogs? Good question. George pointed to that as one of the greatest benefits of coming to the park. But would this be something of value if the dog were not an identity marker? In other words, does it have any value beyond showing off the obedience of your pet? George extolled the virtues of getting to meet people he would have never met otherwise—and he is right, but he also said, “I might not know their names, but I know their dogs’ names.” Ah! The good ol’ fetishization of dogs rears its head. To harken back to my earlier discussion of theory, this “community,” in a sense, is far less inclusive than we might imagine, though not purposely so. Just picture this—an inner-city youth walks into the park with an unregistered pit bull…would he be as welcomed there as anybody else? I want to believe so, but I can’t speak to that as throughout my entire time doing participant observation in the park, I did not see any Latino or African-American residents using it. When I asked George about that, he pointedly answered, “Well, there is no ‘Whites Only’ sign.” He is, in fact, right.
But I do wonder whether poorer residents avoid the park for fear that if their dog is to “rough up” any other dog, they would not be able to address the costs of this sort of an encounter. One of the reviews of the park on Yelp spoke to this very idea: “People in this park are generally not that friendly. Not mean, but not friendly. My attitude changed, however, when my dog was savagely attacked in this park, and no one there offered to do a thing to help. The owner of the attacking dog did not come forward to claim responsibility either. My friend had a similar experience there. I will not be returning to this park in the future. I’ve been to a number of dog parks across the country and have never experienced such complete apathy.”

The Shaw Dog Park is the largest off-leash dog park in Washington, DC with its 15,000 square foot area. In an interview with Borderstan (“George Kassouf”), George Kassouf explained the impetus behind the park’s creation: “Frankly, I just got tired of getting kicked off of fields for letting my dog off-leash. I learned that there were other dog owners around the District organizing for legal dog parks, and I joined forces with them. As far as Shaw Dog Park goes, it really was a team effort of dog owners and non-dog-owners alike, the police, community groups, ANCs [Advisory Neighborhood Commissions], and at least one PTA, believe it or not. Perhaps, I was just the most dogged — I wouldn’t accept no as an answer. But it definitely wouldn’t have happened without the intervention of ANC 2C Commissioner Alex Padro, Councilmember Jack Evans [D-Ward 2] and then-Mayor Adrian Fenty.”

Kassouf characterizes the park as a communal space, while deploying the “doggie parents” argument brought up in theory section of this paper. “The dog park is our own front porch, where we can gather after work to relax and spend time with our best friends and perhaps some new friends. And for those who might criticize spending money on dog parks, I’d argue, we spend gobs of money building soccer fields not for soccer balls but for soccer players; we construct tennis courts for tennis players, not tennis balls. The same applies to dog parks; it’s for the dog owners.”

Below is a post by Jack Evans on the Renew Shaw blog. The comments below it exemplify the concerns over gentrification and dogs vs. people. I have purposely left all posts in their original, unedited format. “I am pleased to announce construction has began on the new dog park near Shaw Jr. High School site – and at my request the project has been expanded to 15,000 square feet. On a walk-thru the community in September, Mayor Adrian Fenty promised the Shaw/Logan neighborhoods this much needed urban amenity, which was originally slated to be 10,000 square feet. Working with the Department of Parks and Recreation, after numerous requests from constituents in these Ward 2 neighborhoods, I asked for and secured the larger area. The dog park which will be located on the soccer fields near 11th and R is eagerly awaited. The park will open in the near future–stay tuned for the ribbon-cutting date and time! – Jack Evans” (Rez).

Becca said…

what about all the people who used to play soccer there?
October 17, 2008

Drew said…

Yeah, it’s like Robin Hood, but strike that, and reverse it… rob from the poor and give to the rich.
October 18, 2008

In response to questions about why the Latino community was displaced by the park’s construction, ANC Commissioner Alex Padro, at least admits to the presence of a soccer field there, yet promptly dispatches any concerns by positing the new site as an improvement on the crime. Noteworthy is his assertion that the users of the soccer field were not local residents—a fact clearly non-verifiable, but one that affirms that the dog park, unlike the soccer field, is clearly intended for local residents only. So much for inclusivity.
“As a Latino myself, I take offense to the suggestion that the motivation for the location of the Shaw Dog Park was to displace a resource for the Hispanic community. The truth is that the siting of the park was made easier by the fact that the soccer enclosure had been the source of innumerable complaints about public drunkenness and unruly and anti-social behavior, uncontrolled trash, public urination and defecation, etc. MPD has had been routinely sending bicycle officers to the site at night, even deep into the AM hours, to address the complaints and illegal activity, and making arrests when the offenders have not scattered as soon as an officer appeared, as was generally the case. Further, the vast majority of the individuals who were using the soccer enclosure and generating the complaints drove vehicles with Maryland tags. MPD Lt. Michael Smith concurred with the recommendation that a dog park should replace the soccer enclosure, which is not to be reestablished at the Shaw Recreation Center site. I suggested to DPR that they move it to a rec center that was able to properly secure the site after hours in order to prevent the illegal activities that made the Shaw location such a blight.”

Alexander M. Padro
Commissioner, ANC 2C01

October 18, 2008

Anonymous said…

Alex makes some good points but I think this is a pretty clear example of gentrification. I tend to think of Shaw as being a little better about sensitivity to older residents than some other neighborhoods, but not really in this case.

EdTheRed said…

What’s next? Converting the Shaw basketball courts to squash courts? How about a Caribou Coffee where the skate park is now?

October 28, 2008

Canchita said…

Yeah, wonderful addition, plenty of room for everyone, so why the f**k did they tear down the soccer court? Why not put it right on top the useless baseball diamond?! Or the skate park, which sucks for skating anyway.

 

Users on Twitter expressed similar sentiments:

 

The Shaw Dog Park was constructed in less than three weeks and “replaced a concrete fútbol rápido field” (Mathis). The fast pace of construction is telling when considered in the context of how long it takes to build other, arguably, much more needed city amenities. This also explains why the previous occupants of this area had no time to respond to their displacement. It is hard not to view this as something planned and used as a tactic to quell dissenting voices.

George was extremely forthcoming and helpfully shared with me the original application with the Department of Parks and Recreation, as well as all supporting documents. The application shows an awareness of the use of the field for pick-up soccer games (he refers to canchita as mini arena, to clarify) and proposes the moving of the canchita to the baseball diamond area next to the dog park: “Beyond the northern boundaries of the baseball outfield is an enclosed, paved soccer/hockey mini-arena, which measures approximately 4,000 square feet.   To the north of this paved area is a row of shade trees which, because of the cover and concealment they provide, is a magnet for daytime and nighttime drunkenness, drug distribution, gambling and fights. Officers patrolling the area have commented about this persistent problem.

DOGS proposes that the mini-arena be moved to one of the un-designated parcels east or southeast of the athletic field and that a dog park be established in its place. The proposed dog park would sit beyond the boundaries of the athletic field, and full use of the athletic field and relocated mini-arena would thus continue. Finally, placing the mini-arena in a more observable area will deter criminal activity. PSA 307 Commander Lt. Michael Smith endorses this plan.”

In justifying the need for a dog park, George cites over 500 signatures of supporters and dog owners on the petition. He also rightly points to the heavy regulation of space that is the hallmark of city living: “because of the dense nature of the neighborhoods, very little undesignated green space exists for dog owners to play with their unleashed pets. School playgrounds, athletic fields and federal parkland remain off-limits. Logan Circle itself, a recognized haven and meeting place for many dog-owners, is under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, which has a policy of prohibiting dog parks on federal land.” George characterizes the relocation of the “mini arena” as a “response to specific, changing user needs.”

Below is a statement from a local Police Lieutenant, PSA 307 Commander Michael Smith, dated May 5, 2008:

“As a resident of Shaw and a dog owner combined with the responsibility of enforcement, I see all sides.   A dog parks is enjoyed by more than just dog owners. The last time I visited one with my dog in Arlington (where the city’s existing dog park is located), I saw families, couples and bicyclist enjoy visiting with and watching dogs frolic.

Where else can you find free entertainment in this city, fresh air and creatures that provide unlimited, unprejudiced friendliness?

Dogs cannot be expected to live their lives never leaving their yard, or in most cases here, their condo – it is against their nature. You would go crazy, too, if you were kept in solitary confinement.

A dog park gives a place to exercise your dogs without offending the neighbors. It is likely that there are fewer dogs turned in to shelters because people who frequent dog parks share information and helpful behavioral advice, not to mention that a tired dog is a good dog.

As for the financial aspect, unused land serves no interest for the taxpayers. That is really a small amount in the grand scheme of things in this city, the Nation’s Capitol.

In Shaw, that are several location publicly own that I never see anyone use. Yes they are nearby by playgrounds, but these are the same playgrounds that I see homeless drinking, drugs sales and usage. It would be only a good to have an adult dog owners playing with their dogs in sight of these locations. That in itself is a crime deterrent and an extension of my law enforcement capabilities.

I just hope that people use the dog park responsibly and follow the rules so that everyone can enjoy it for a long time to come.”

The ambiguous language used in this letter is tremendous fodder for discourse analysis, so I examine it from that perspective. He first characterizes the land as “public and unused.” Confusingly, he then admits that, yes, it is next to playgrounds, immediately relying on a “protect the children” narrative, which is absolutely irrelevant in this instance as this area had not been a “playground” since 2006, when Shaw Middle School stopped operating, and was certainly never frequented by children. The term “homeless drinking” is also incredibly alarming—are we to assume that is one and the same thing!? That homeless people should be banned from all parks and that they, inevitably, always drink!? In other words, via their presence alone, they pose a threat!?

Lt. Smith’s suggestion that dog parks are “not just for dog owners” is also plainly ludicrous—“free entertainment” for non-dog-owners!? Sure, as long as you don’t have Maryland license plates and take up local parking spots! That would definitely be unacceptable. Noteworthy is also his assertion that a dog would go crazy if he/she is kept in solitary confinement, i.e. a condo. Clearly, the onus and responsibility of a dog’s lifestyle lies with its owner—to suggest that dog owners are oblivious to the issues of keeping a dog in a tiny space, without proper exercise, is patronizing to those owners. Finally, keeping a dog in a condo is “against their nature.” Tissot wrote about the rhetoric of differentiation from their suburban counterparts that urban dog owners use, explaining that they live in the city for the “vibrant, diverse community.” I am sure she would note this all to be a prime example of wanting to have the social advantages of city living, yet refusing to recognize the constraints of space that also come along with them.


Canchita

The “canchita”—as it was referred to by those who played there—originates from the Spanish word cancha or “court/field” Shaw’s canchita is a small soccer enclosure with steel walls that are used in the play. The pitch measures approximately 80 ft in length and 40 ft in width, and is optimal for four-on-four player games.

The canchita game is fast-paced. Similar in speed and strategy to futsal, players engage in quick passing and calculated touches on the ball. The rules of play are simple. Teams consist of four players—three field players and a goalie. Once a full side is assembled, a member of the team yells: “Equipo Nuevo!” or “New Team!” This enters the team into the queue to play. A team remains on the canchita until it loses.

The players at the canchita were an eclectic bunch. Most were first or second-generation immigrants, of Honduran, Venezuelan, El Salvadorian, Mexican, and Guatemalan descent, but there were players from many other ethnicities as well, including plenty of Americans. Canchita had many regulars. During the warmer months (March to October), there were on average 40-45 players during the late afternoon and early evening daily. Because the players rotated into play so frequently (games are, on average, 6 minutes long), everyone got a chance to play.

I conducted interviews with five canchita players from very diverse backgrounds (see Interview Addendum). They all described a very communal and meaningful experience that far eclipsed what one would imagine for an athletic meet. Tim Djawotho recounts: “Met up with friends and strangers and played Monday through Friday 5:30pm until sun down. Sometimes longer. Met players I still play with today. People brought families and children there.  Very unfortunate it was turned into a dog park.” Joe Schoenbauer: “There was a great expectation to show up to canchita every day after work as soon as possible to try to get as many games in as possible. There was a good group of players that would show up most every day that would play and have fun for hours. Mostly young adults in their 20-30s, but some teenagers and kids and older guys as well. The field itself was special as well. It reminded me of what you see in other countries where soccer is such a major part of the culture – free pickup soccer in a small court with goals that encourages quick, skillful type games.” Another respondent recounts what was unique about the set-up of canchita and the game itself: “I moved to the neighborhood, and one day I saw a bunch of people playing at Canchita. The court was a unique set-up, because there were seats built into the frame, so people who weren’t playing at the time, could sit and watch the action. One day I sat down and started watching, and then I joined a team and started playing. For a time, during the summer I used to play about 3-4 times a week after work. I liked that anyone could play, and I liked the atmosphere and style of play. It was quick and team work was needed. There wasn’t anything that I didn’t like. I came to be friends with a lot of people who played there. It was a fun atmosphere.”

Every one of the interviewees expressed having no awareness whatsoever that a dog park was being planned on the site of the pick-up soccer field. “Not until one day when I biked by and it had been mostly torn down already and bulldozers were present.” “My reaction was surprise and disappointment. It happened all of a sudden, without warning. There was no announcement, no warning, no meeting. The canchita was a semi-permanent structure that was used every day. I thought that there could’ve been room for both, if they wanted to add a dog park. But with canchita, it was typical of what people who may be against gentrification are saying. Rich residents with dogs, are more important than prior residents.”

The view all of the interviewees had of gentrification was of priorities shifting towards the interests of newcomers, instead of the long-time residents of the neighborhood. They didn’t always speak in term of poor vs. rich but rather in terms of old vs. new residents. “The thing about the dog park was that it seemed as if they were prioritizing dogs, over people. The canchita court was being used every day. And it brought together people from the neighborhood. I still see people from Canchita in the city every so often and we know each other. People that I probably wouldn’t have interacted with otherwise.”

“Everyone in the whole community was coming to play,” said Sálvador Martínez Arias, 47. Once in a while, he said, people would call the police if someone was suspected of drinking alcohol. “It didn’t bother us if people made calls, though, because we didn’t want them there, either” (Ricard). “No one even stayed to say, ‘Hey, do you guys like playing here?’ “said Eli Sipos. “We just showed up one day, and it was gone” (Ricard).

It is cogent that the same argument used by the dog park creators (“this park allows me to interact with people I would not otherwise be able to meet”) is used by the canchita players as well—that the park was a drawing point for people even outside the neighborhood, from various walks of life, to interact in a truly communal sense. Perhaps relevant here is that, unlike the canchita players, the Shaw Dog Park users felt some apprehension about “outsiders” (meaning people from other neighborhoods) encroaching on their hard-kept turf, both literally in using up parking spaces and facilities but also metaphorically in relying on the political work of the creators of the park instead of creating dog parks in their own neighborhoods.

Canchita is significant in that it also represents a model of sports participation that is threatened by the regulation-centric ethos of D.C. Parks and Recreation. Players and activists argue that gentrification and permit requirements for field usage create an environment of field shortage. The players, many of whom are undocumented Latino immigrants, are fearful of authorities, as a result, and less able to advocate for their rights due to language and access barriers. Unable to afford the fees required to join organized soccer leagues ($70 and upwards), they are reliant on pickup soccer games (Ricard). Tom, one of the former canchita players said, “the sports leagues are cool too, unless they are displacing people that have been using these ‘public’ spaces for years…I would think that at least several pick-up spots have been taken over by leagues that pay to use fields. I have seen a kickball league take over a field that Latinos have been playing on for years. Guess they got a permit or something.”

 

 

In conclusion, we would be remiss to characterize the dog park residents as the villainous gentrifiers who uprooted a community that was less vocal and politically active than them. The structural forces of neighborhood change are inexorable and the euphemistic misnomer of “development” can’t whitewash the razing of culture and the spaces that are so linked to it. Government control of public space is more than physical. Under the auspices of “safety,” regulation, regimentation, confinement, and boundary-making become the tactics of choice for controlling the memories and experiences of the city’s residents. Those unable to navigate the byzantine channels of bureaucracy or gain access to the ear of those that would listen are left out. Their voices are never heard in the din of bulldozers that quickly erase any trace of what might have been. I tried to give these voices a forum.

Yet, the biggest takeaway from this project is that hope, like grass, does spring eternal—George Kassouf kindly extended an invitation to join forces and lobby the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation to rebuild Canchita, as he had initially requested that they not destroy it but rather move it. I remain hopeful that this will happen. “Nuevo Equipo!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

Anguelovski, Isabelle. Neighborhood as Refuge: Community Reconstruction, Place Remaking, and Environmental Justice in the City. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2014. Print. Urban and Industrial Environments.

Davis, Mike. (1990) “Fortress L.A.” City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles.

Excerpt from The City Reader. New York: Routledge, 2007. 178-183.

“George Kassouf: The Force Behind Shaw Dog Park | Borderstan.” N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Nov. 2015. < https://www.borderstan.com/2012/01/23/george-kassouf-a-talk-with-the-the-man-behind-shaw-dog-park/>

Hyra, Derek. “The Back-to-the-City Movement: Neighbourhood Redevelopment and Processes of Political and Cultural Displacement.” Urban Studies (Sage Publications, Ltd.) 52.10 (2015): 1753–1773. EBSCOhost. Web.

Mathis, Sommer. “Shaw Recreation Field Dog Park Finished.” DCist. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Nov. 2015. < http://dcist.com/2008/11/shaw_recreation_field_dog_park_fini.php>

Newman, Andrew. Landscape of Discontent: Urban Sustainability in Immigrant Paris. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015. catalog.wrlc.org Library Catalog. Web. 7 Dec. 2015. A Quadrant Book.

“Park History.” Shaw Dog Park. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.

Rez, Shaw. “Renewshaw.com: Shaw Getting a Dog Park.” renewshaw.com. N.p., 16 Oct. 2008. Web. 3 Nov. 2015. < http://remakingleslumhistorique.blogspot.com/2008/10/shaw-getting-dog-park.html>

Ricard, Martin. “Group Lobbying for More Pickup Soccer Fields Aims to Empower D.C.’s Latinos.” The Washington Post 3 Sept. 2009. washingtonpost.com. Web. 3 Nov. 2015. < http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/09/02/AR2009090203725.html>.

Childhood Deployed: Remaking Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone

My article on Susan Shepler’s book Childhood Deployed:

Shepler’s recent book, Childhood Deployed: Remaking Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone, examines the difficult reintegration of former child soldiers in Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone’s devastating civil war lasted from 1991-2002, leavingmore than 50,000 dead and over two million displaced as refugees. UNICEF estimates 10,000 children were involved in the hostilities.

Shepler was a Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone in the 1980s, where she worked as a teacher. She returned ten years later, while the war was ongoing and again after the war was over, to study the process of former child soldiers’ reintegration into their communities. She conducted ethnographic research in Interim Care Centres for demobilized child soldiers. She followed the children in their everyday lives, in the centres, in school, in the community, and at play. Shepler jokingly referred to participant observation as “deep hanging out” and this description seemed especially apropos in her interaction with the children, which allowed her to gain a view accessible to her as a member of their community rather than an outsider.

The Paris Principles define a child soldier as any child associated with an armed force or group, regardless of whether she/he was involved in actual combat. All the factions in Sierra Leone’s war recruited children (boys and girls) from all parts of the country. The children carried guns, commanded battle, and worked as porters, spies, cooks, or “wives.” Some of the children were abducted and some joined willingly. Shepler’s book brings up the fact that the Western view of a child is actually quite different from the Sierra Leonean—this is relevant in the sense that child labor and child agency are much more heavily emphasized there than they would be in the West.

Shepler’s work examines how the “standard narrative” of the child soldier: “I was abducted; it was not my wish, and now all I want is to continue my education,” is something that was not universally told by the children. Children had different ways of talking about the experience, depending on who they talked to. In other words, it is not as though that narrative was not authentic, but rather that “child soldier” as an identity is created in social practice across a range of settings. In a sense, the process of using that term and applying that term is intensely political and we must examine what is lost and gained by deploying ideas of modern childhood.

“Reintegration works best when it works with local culture,” she said. Child fosterage, for example, would have been a preferable alternative to institutionalization in interim care centres. Apprenticeship, which is an integral part of the child-rearing experience in Sierra Leone, would have been better than the “skills training” provided in the centres.

Shepler advocated for the need to develop better models that capture the complexity behind the term “youth.” She also suggested that policy makers be cognizant of the political consequences of their distinction making. She advocated for the design of programs for benefit all war-affected youth and not just those children who were deemed to fall under the “child soldier” category.

Associate Professor Susan Shepler’s research is a powerful testament to why ethnography matters and why anthropologists have a lot to share with international development organizations.

 

 

A Disconnected Modem: My Accent and Your Privilege

This piece of mine first appeared on Stoner’s Journal:

“Where are you from?” “WHERE are you from!?”

Where am I from…two places, really, but I have a feeling I already know the one you want me to identify, so I will answer that way. You might wonder how such a simple question could be so incredibly loaded. Well, this isn’t really the question I am being asked, you see. Let me present you with several real scenarios I encounter all too often.

“Where are you FROM?” (Asked with an at-best-rather-thinly-veiled-expression-of-dismay-bordering-on-disgust)

“Bulgaria. But I have lived in the United States for the last 24 years.”

“Wow. Your accent is SO strong and heavy.”

“Where are you from?”

“Washington, DC.”

“No, but where are you REALLY from?”

“Bulgaria.”

Ok, let’s parse this out. My accent, without exaggeration, is nothing short of the proverbial scarlet letter. It forces me to engage in conversations often too probing and personal and sometimes, yes, confrontational for a gregarious enough Eastern European with a smile that presents itself rather easily.

“I can’t be languid about my linguistics; I don’t get to be detached from my discourse.

Look at the first scenario. My accent could be described as droll, charming, different, or interesting. Or, it could be a signal of A. a general stupidity and/or ineptitude, or B. an inability to adapt and make myself more socially acceptable and, therefore, palatable to your Western sensibilities. Let’s talk about A. The incongruity of this will not escape you: I teach GRE test prep at an university. My vocabulary, factually-speaking, is probably far wider than that of most “native” speakers. I have no issues comprehending or speaking English. Yet, as soon as I open my mouth, I am waging a tacit battle against so many assumptions: that I am somehow intellectually-deficient, that I am only here to visit for a short while and couldn’t possibly live here, that I just got here, and am soon to return “home.” At the very least, it forces me to engage–to make excuses, to explain, to expound, to prove, to dispel, to educate, to elucidate, to open hearts and minds…that’s a lot for a girl to do. Casual banter becomes…well, not quite so casual.

I can’t be languid about my linguistics; I don’t get to be detached from my discourse.

You might read this and imagine me to be some kind of an oversensitive, chip-on-the-shoulder ideologue. I am actually none of those things. Like you, I too would like to partake in idle chatter that doesn’t involve accounting for my immigration status.

Simple, really.

I sometimes wonder how the people who say, “But your accent is SO strong,” expect me to respond. I am not sure there is a retort to this. Is there? “Ehm, I am sorry, I guess…” I wonder if the people who ask me realize this.

This, of course, is about something much bigger than my accent.  I first came to U.S. when I was twelve. I would sit in class, unable to raise my hand or speak. The words were lodged into my throat…It felt like the only way they would come out was if you turned me upside down and shook them out of me. They probably would have landed like marbles on the floor, enunciating their landing one by one. I remember my utter dismay when, after the first test I took (in geography, funnily enough), the teacher announced “Only one person got a 100 on this test and she hasn’t even been here as long as all of you have.” Even more amusingly, I later won the award for the best student in U.S. history during high school.

I digress–what I’m really saying here is that my accent is merely the manifestation of something bigger. It’s both the cause and the reminder of my general alie-nation. “I’m cut off from the main line, like a disconnected modem.” You see, my own words are foreign to me. When I speak and hear the accent, I feel divorced from *me.* Because the words certainly don’t sound accented in my head. Mostly, I feel like I am talking to people through a plexiglass window. There is a disconnect. Sometimes literally. Occasionally, I have that one cruel student in my class who grumbles about my accent being heavy. But the chasm is much deeper. I am constantly made aware of it as soon as I begin speaking, laden with–and beset by–assumptions. The words coming out of my mouth are far less weighty than the speaker. I am front and center, not them.

I sometimes wish I would lose my accent–not because of some imagined social benefit I might extract from the white-washing of me but for the reprieve from being center stage all of the time. I am proud of who I am. I would never want to lose sight or contact with my heritage–there is nothing there to be ashamed of. But I am so much more than where I was born and where I live. Correction: Maybe better put is that I am so much less. I don’t really have a “geography of self;” I don’t really belong anywhere. Yet, this doesn’t bother me on an internal level. It only bugs me when it becomes the yard stick by which people measure me.

Maybe the worst part of all this is (well-intentioned, self pep talks notwithstanding) there is a point at which you begin to feel as if you have no right to speak. Fear and loathing in *insert location of your choice.* You do lose your voice. It took me so long to allow myself the moniker “writer.” I, too, believed I didn’t have a right to a voice. I had spent so long silencing myself, I forgot how to speak. I made my own words filled with gravitas/heavy with gravity.

I don’t really need to find myself–I am pretty clear on who I am. I wish I did not have to locate myself for others, but even that is generally all right. I hope that, maybe, next time you ask someone about her “heavy accent,” you first take a moment and think about the fact that an accent is not a voice.

Urban Peripheries and Politics of the Slum

My article: Urban Peripheries and Politics of the Slum
The world is over half urban. In 1990, less than 40% of the global population lived in a city, but as of 2010, more than half of all people live in an urban area. By 2050, this proportion will increase to a staggering 70%.

The bulk of new urban population growth will be in the so-called Global South: Sub Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America, with an increasing number of people across the class spectrum settling in peripheral and suburban areas in both megacities and smaller towns. The nature of that growth, however, will not follow a familiar pattern. Dr. Malini Ranganathan, an Associate Professor at American University’s School of International Service and an expert on urban geography, says informality is the “new normal” of urbanization. This new kind of growth defies binary terms like “slum” and brings questions of equality to the forefront of the discussion on city planning and development, making the very concept of citizenship incredibly malleable and negotiable.
Ranganathan’s recent research focused on Bangalore, a city of over ten million people, where much of the growth is occurring in the so-called urban peripheries—the outskirts of town, where people are securing their claim to urban land through a series of negotiations and adaptions that while informal in nature are reshaping the very notion of “right to the city.” The discourse of the slum, Ranganathan explains, is incredibly limiting and doesn’t recognize informal land tenure. “We are referring to something akin to occupancy urbanism, where the people first occupy the space and then start to put in place the mechanisms of livelihood and the infrastructure. Many of these occupants might purchase what is initially considered farm land and then through negotiations and forming a relationship with bureaucrats are able to create a sort of an ambiguous ownership, which is in a sense advantageous to both the state and the inhabitants.” Much more noteworthy, however, is that while home owners associations in the United States are usually preoccupied (or rather, obsessed) with safeguarding property values, the ad-hoc neighborhood welfare associations she observed in Bangalore formed to make demands on the state. By banding together in groups, occupants gain the power to advocate for critical services such as water access and sanitation. As one of the residents described it, “The ‘we’ feeling has to be there.”
While informal urban growth seems to be especially prevalent in the developing world, it is certainly not foreign to the United States. Every day in American cities street vendors spread out their wares on sidewalks, food trucks serve lunch from the curb, and homeowners hold sales in their front yards. “Squatting” or adverse possession, as it is referred to legally, is becoming a little bit more prevalent, especially in cities like Baltimore and Detroit. “Baltimore is full of buildings artists have used over time to solve their problems,” says Fred Lazarus, president of the Maryland Institute, College of Art. “Many of them live illegally in buildings where they rent studio space.” All of these ground realities would require urban planning to be less top-down and more responsive. “The question remains about the extent these lofty goals can stir political action—how can the right to the city be institutionalized and to not rely so heavily on tech fixes. This issue is not just an environmental or technical issue but also a heavily political and social one. It is about social dynamics such as making public transit more accessible, new sustainability initiatives, and providing more affordable housing,” says Ranganathan.
Ranganathan also discussed a recent shift in the discussion on urban inequity. ”Urban inequity is now front and center on the urban policy agenda. Inequality is proving to be bad for development, period.” At the most recent World Urban Forum, the theme was Urban Equity in Development—Cities for Life. The concept paper of the forum argues that, “unequal cities are all-around inefficient, politically volatile, unsafe, and unsustainable, and just plain bad for human development.” The recognition that inequality is detrimental to overall human well-being is a notable shift away from decades of mainstream development policy guided by trickle-down economics and top-down ideas meant to simply offer band-aid solutions to the have-nots while simultaneously focusing on them as the problem. More importantly, the notion that growth and equity are antithetical is fast losing ground: “The OECD dismissed the assumption that the benefits of economic growth automatically filtered down to the poorest in society. The Economist has just affirmed that inequality has reached a level which makes it inefficient and bad for growth. By the same token, the IMF has recognized that inequality slows down economic growth, weakens the demand and contributes to financial crises. When Henry Lefebvre wrote about the “right to the city” in 1968, he was referring to far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources. Right to the city is a common rather than an individual right; it relies on collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. It is the right to inhabit the city, the right to produce urban life, and to right of inhabitants to remain unalienated from the urban life. Yet, on a practical level, making these lofty ideals a reality requires political commitment. Until the time the powers in place wake up to the trenchant realities on the ground, informal settlements and their safety issues and environmental hazards will continue to exist and workers who build glitzy skyscrapers in global cities will still only be able to live in them while working on their construction.