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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Living More Fully in the Present by Living in the Past?

A Interview with "Man of War" Author Charlie Schroeder

I met Charlie Schroeder a few times in Los Angeles through my friend Ian Helfer. The first time I saw him, I was struck by his WASPy good looks and confidence. I thought he must be an actor. Indeed, he had a few moments of fame as "Mr. Pussy" on "Sex and the City." He also writes for publications as varied as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, New York Observer, and Huffington Post. His first book, Man of War: My Adventures in the World of Historical Reenactment, is about war reenactments. The book has just been released in paperback. I interviewed him by email.

You were drawn to reenactments initially because of the debauchery you enjoyed as a young person at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire?

Not necessarily because of any debauchery, but rather my curiosity about the people who came to the Faire dressed as historical characters. Who were they, I wondered, and why did they spend so much time, money, and energy creating a "kit" (the clothing and accoutrements of a reenactor)? I wanted to know what they got out of dressing like a person from the past.

The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to know what attracts people to a particular moment in time. Why are some people Civil War buffs while others are fascinated with the 1920s? Was it historical curiosity? Or was it just a way for them to live out their fantasies?

Why are people doing this? Isn’t war awful enough? Is it a way to recast violence?

I could write an entire book about this. Wait, I already have, and the paperback version just came out.

People reenact the past (not just war, but civilian life as well) for numerous reasons, including escapism (spending a weekend without modern amenities to get away from it all); a connection to something more permanent than the ephemerality of our modern world; the opportunity to honor a relative; a love of educating people about their local history; a chance to be a war "hero" for a couple days; a fascination with militaria; and even what some reenactors call "experimental archaeology," an immersive experience into another time that helps answer nagging questions about why a particular type of soldier dressed the way he did.

Yes, war is awful enough, and I think most reenactors would agree with that. That said, many reenactors are veterans who have an interest in military strategy. It's also important to remember that for those who've served or been a reservist, their early adult years were spent bonding at boot camp. Kitting up for the weekend is often a way to reconnect with old friends who have similar interests and experiences.

Schroeder dressed as a Polish Winged Hussar at
California's Renaissance Pleasure Faire.

About to light a cannon at a French
and Indian War commemoration.
 Old Fort Niagara, Youngstown, NY.

In the book, you divide the reenactments by specific wars. But did you find that reenactors fall into camps besides the war or an epoch they identify with?

Because the hobby can be very expensive, most reenactors devote their time and energy to one particular period, so typically they fall into those camps because it'd be too expensive to reenact multiple time periods. Those with more disposable income, however, do branch out into other eras.

I was surprised to learn that many reenactors were unaware that people reenacted eras like Vietnam and Rome. In the United States, at least, Colonial America and the Civil War are the two most popular eras, so fringe time periods like 17th-century Poland and Vikings are still very underground.

There seems to be a large aesthetic interest in this endeavor, such as a focus on the right kind of stitching in a Nazi uniform or the precise rebuilding of a Roman fort in the countryside. Do you think this a response to the homogeneity of modern American culture?

Partly, yes. Although in some ways, reenactments are far more homogenous than modern America. (Because typically reenactments are a white-only affair.)

Interestingly, an entire "homegrown," noncorporate economy has sprung up around Revolutionary War reenactments. For Civil War reenactments, items are often mass-produced, but there aren't that many Revolutionary War reenactors, so clothing is made by small business owners. In that sense, there are some really wonderfully nuanced items being made, and a personal relationship develops between reenactors and bespoke tailors—not unlike the relationships soldiers of the actual time period had with their own tailors.

There is also hardly any mention of homosexuals. Why do you think this is such a straight pursuit?

History has not been kind to gays and other minorities. That, I believe, is the reason why it's a mostly straight white male hobby. If you're part of a group that's been discriminated against, why would you want to resurrect the past? The one exception I found was with a Viking reenactment group in Northern California. I met two lesbians in that group who were drawn to the era because Viking women actually enjoyed decent rights compared to their historical peers. They owned property, could divorce and kept the keys to the treasure boxes.

A "Roman fort" in Lafe, Arkansas attracts Roman
reenactors for annual mock battles.

On the St. Lawrence River. Schroeder and five
 others dressed as 18th century cargo men
and rowed and sailed replica bateaux
for four grueling days.

What did you learn from writing an entire book?

That it's a very broad hobby filled with many people who reenact for many reasons. Impossible to summarize in a sound bite or even in 87,000 plus words. I wonder if maybe I just scratched the surface of the reenacting phenomenon.

Are you working on another book? If so, what is it about?

I have some ideas, but nothing concrete yet. If I've learned anything about the process of writing a book, it's that you better really love your topic, because you're going to live with it for at least three years—and likely for the rest of your life. I haven't quite figured out what I want to devote my time to.

What are you doing in Hong Kong? Why did you move there?

I'm continuing to write and produce stories for public radio. To my surprise, I've also revived my dormant acting career. I completed a film in January, and I act in the occasional commercial, dub movies, and even use my acting skills to help teach communication skills.

But more than anything, I just wanted to live here. I first came to Asia in 2001 and met my wife in Hong Kong. After Man of War was released, I felt as though I was ready for a new adventure. The timing was right, and I'm so happy we made the move. The city and region pulse with an optimism that seems to be lost in America.

Your book seems to outline a paradox about history. On the one hand, historic reenactments can make us understand history better and thus experience our own time with greater awareness. On the other hand, it seems escapist. Do you agree?

Without question. Some people happily acknowledge that they kit up simply to get away from it all, while others truly are committed to educating themselves and the public. I suggest going to a reenactment, talking to the participants and then doing some follow up research on your own.

I'd also caution people against attending a reenactment and accepting what you see as fact. While you may meet lots of people who know a tremendous amount about history, there are others who have an agenda to revise history. The Civil War reenactment I participated in bore no historical resemblance whatsoever to the original skirmish. In fact, the Union basically "won" the original skirmish, but at the reenactment both sides won. The Union on Saturday and the Confederates on Sunday because the organizer wanted the Confederacy to win "on the Lord’s Day."

As far as what one can learn by reenacting, well, there’s a lot to take away, but the most immediate impact is that our modern lives are just so incredibly cushy. We're so fortunate to live in this day and age. I only wish more people would appreciate how lucky we are to be alive right now.

All photos courtesy Charlie Schroder

Friday, June 14, 2013

When Place Means Flint

A Conversation with Gordon Young, the author of Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City

Journalist Gordon Young escaped Flint, Michigan, and eventually found himself able to purchase a modest cottage (with nothing down!) in overpriced San Francisco. Yet the experience drew him back to his roots in Flint. He began a blog called “Flint Expatriates.” In his new book from UC Press, Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City, he tells the tale of trying to go home again. Place is not always the result of the work of well-intended design professionals. I interviewed Gordon about his book and his hometown.

For more information about Gordon’s book, visit www.teardownbook.com. Gordon’s blog can be found at http://www.flintexpats.com.

Tell me more about how the book came to be. You’ve created a compelling narrative from a lot of disparate threads. Most of your earlier work had been short pieces for magazines and newspapers, right? How were you able to bring all these pieces together? When did you know that you had a book?

Believe it or not, the idea for a house in Flint really emerged because my girlfriend, Traci, and I somehow managed to buy a house we really couldn’t afford in San Francisco back in 2004, just as the real estate bubble was starting to expand. Being a first-time homeowner triggered all these unexpectedly warm feelings for Flint and the house with faded green aluminum siding that I grew up in. I’m not sure this qualifies as a mid-life crisis, but I began to realize that Flint was the center of my authenticity. I still knew every street, building, and landmark. I’d covered large chunks of the city on foot, bike, and skateboard. I still had a deep connection to Flint, even though I’d only been back a few times over the years. It doesn’t matter that I’ve lived in San Francisco longer than I lived in Flint. Flint is part of me, and I’m part of Flint. I wanted to reconnect with the place that made me who I am. It’s also one of the poorest, most violent cities in the country, and I felt an obligation to help it in some way.

Looking back, I can see now that there were easier ways for me to make this happen, but I somehow convinced myself that buying a house in Flint was best way to do it. And I sort of convinced Traci. Maybe it was the prices. Anyone who’s bought property in a big city knows how insane the cost can be. Our 700-square-foot bungalow in San Francisco cost half a million dollars. We bought it with a no-money-down, interest-only loan— the sort of toxic mortgage that would eventually bring the world to the brink of economic collapse. You can buy houses in Flint by the dozen on eBay, like they’re donuts, for about $500 each.

The more time I spent in Flint, the more I realized that what was happening in Flint revealed a lot about what is happening in a lot of other cities around the country. And it seemed like every time I told someone a story about something that happened in Flint, they always said I should write a book about it.

What role did your blog play in shaping the book?

The blog was really my way of thinking out loud about Flint when all these memories of my childhood came flooding back after Traci and I moved into our house in San Francisco. It was a great way to sort out some of my feelings and connect with current and former Flint residents. But the virtual Flint obviously wasn’t the same as the real thing, even though it had better weather and less crime. I needed to go back and re-experience the real Flint.

P-Nut (left) and Aaron (right) with Gordon Young
after a day spent painting P-Nut’s new home in Civic Park,
 just a few blocks away from the house where
Young grew up. (Photo by Sherman McCathern)
Another abandoned house that fell victim to arson
 on Jane Avenue in Flint’s devastated East Side.
 Only a single residence remains on a block once filled
with small homes built primarily for autoworkers and their families.
(Photo by Gordon Young)

What about Flint’s history contributed the most to its decline?

Depends on who you ask. General Motors is an obvious culprit for eliminating close to 80,000 jobs in Flint. Some say it’s the United Automobile Workers union’s fault because the union was too militant and too demanding. Of course, labor agreements are the result of negotiations. General Motors didn’t have to give in to union demands. And union workers didn’t have anything to do with the horrible management decisions General Motors made over the years. Then there are U.S. policies that effectively swapped our industrial economy for the so-called service economy. The middle class withered, but we get to buy a lot of cheap crap at big box stores. Others point out that Flint never diversified its economy, but who diversifies during the glory years? Is Silicon Valley trying to diversify and develop something other than technology right now? So it’s a complicated question, and it’s probably a combination of all those things.

This pattern of corporations using up and wasting towns seems to be a global trend, not just a U.S. one?

Corporations abandon cities to varying degrees all the time. And that is one of the factors creating shrinking cities all over the world. Some of the statistics are pretty surprising. More cities shrank than grew in the developed world over the past 30 years. Fifty-nine U.S. cities with more than a hundred thousand people lost at least a tenth of their residents over the last 50 years. Flint and Detroit are high-profile examples because they lost half their population, but the same thing happened in Buffalo, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis. But don’t assume this is just a Rust Belt phenomenon. The Great Recession ensured that cities in the South and the Sunbelt are part of the trend now.

Throughout the city, abandoned houses like this one
 in Civic Park are ravaged by thieves known as scrappers
 in search of any metal they can resell — doorknobs,
radiators, aluminum siding, but especially copper wiring
and plumbing. (Photo by Gordon Young)

Dan Kildee, a Flint politician who advocates the shrinking city model, is now in Congress. In your book, he talks about a “regional tax-base redistribution system.” How well will that phrase work now that he is in Congress? Won’t he be accused of being a socialist?

Dan Kildee’s never been shy about taking potentially unpopular stances. He frequently says that good policy doesn’t always equal popularity. It’s a refreshing approach for a politician, and Kildee’s recent election to Congress shows he has a knack for convincing voters that he has good ideas and is willing to work to make them a reality, even if the voters don’t necessarily agree at first.

He’s a visionary thinker. As a county treasurer and head of the local land bank, he garnered international publicity for refining and enthusiastically pushing what has come to be known as the shrinking-city concept. It basically calls for abandoning irrational hope and moving on. Kildee wants cities like Flint to accept that they aren’t going to recover from population loss anytime soon. Abandoned houses should be demolished and replaced with parks, urban gardens, and green space. Down the line, incentives could be used to lure residents into higher-density neighborhoods that have been reinvigorated with infill housing and rehab projects. Theoretically, Flint could save money by reducing infrastructure costs. It’s manifest destiny in reverse, a radical urban-planning concept that rejects growth as the fundamental goal of cities.

The details of how it works can get complicated. Kildee casually throws around terms like “scattered site cross collateralized tax increment financing” in conversation. But the essence of what he’s created is a system that keeps distressed property away from real-estate speculators. It keeps that abandoned house on Flint’s East Side, where a Buick worker once raised a family, away from some guy in Nevada looking to make a quick buck. Kildee has given cities facing economic decline and a dwindling population a way to control their own real estate outside of so-called market forces. He’s given them a way to control their own territorial destiny.

Now sometimes that means money from Flint’s more prosperous suburbs are used to help the urban core. So far he’s got a lot of communities in the area to go along with the plan. I don’t see any indication he’s going to abandon this approach now that he’s in Congress.

Congressman Dan Kildee, the pied piper of the
 “shrinking city” movement, wants Flint and other troubled
urban areas across the country to accept the reality
of decline and negative growth. (Photo by Gordon Young)

For me, there were two climaxes to the narrative. The first one takes place in the chapter entitled “Home on the Range,” when you lose it at the firing range. Because at that point, I think you realize that you are not the kind of man who wants to own a gun to protect his home. And then of course in “Joy to the World,” when you break down crying following the service in Sherman McCathern’s church.

I went to the firing range with Dave Starr, a retired autoworker who still lives a few blocks from my childhood home with his wife, Judy. They bought their house in 1968 for $14,000, and it’s probably worth half that amount today. But Dave has never given up on the neighborhood. He’s still fighting to save it. I realized that if I were going to buy a house in my old neighborhood of Civic Park, I’d have to take precautions like Dave. That meant carrying a gun. So Dave showed me how to make bullets in his basement. He taught me gun safety. And we went to the shooting range together. That experience, although pretty funny in hindsight, really showed me what it would take to be a part of Flint again.

I came to view Pastor Sherman McCathern as a real unsung hero in Flint, like Dave and Judy Starr. He’s coming up with innovative ways to help the city in the face of overwhelming odds. And he’s doing it with a sense of humor and incredible resolve. He’s also someone who can be very practical but never loses sight of all the emotion that’s wrapped up in a struggling city like Flint, a place that has a real unemployment rate pushing 40 percent. I’m not exactly comfortable revealing my emotions, but the pastor has a way of tapping into what I’m really feeling. And sometimes it’s not easy to acknowledge those feelings. I was sitting in his church one Sunday while a blizzard raged outside. It was the same day Flint tied the record for the most murders in a single year. And all the emotion he brought out in me and the rest of his congregation really made me realize why I had returned to Flint after all those years.

Pastor Sherman McCathern on the altar of Joy Tabernacle Church
in Civic Park, where he leads a congregation beset by crime,
 unemployment, and heartache. “I told God that if I can’t help
these people create jobs and opportunity, I can’t stay here
and just preach to people and get them all dressed up
 with no place to go,” he said. “And that’s what I believe
 God has promised me.” (Photo by Gordon Young)

I found this a surprisingly spiritual book. The story is about big ideas like Kildee's, but also small deeds and people taking a stand that is within their means. You come across as a lapsed Catholic who is still affected by his religious upbringing. One of your challenges in the book reminds me of what Dorothy Day talks about. Altruism is rarely selfless. You are fairly open about how you need to get out the way of giving to actually give.

At best, I’d say I’m sort of a cultural Catholic now. But I’m still guided by a lot of the big lessons the nuns taught me in the Flint Catholic school system. You should help out when help is needed. And you should feel guilty—very guilty—if you don’t. Without really realizing it, I definitely had this misguided notion in the beginning that I would somehow show up in Flint, buy a house, and spur the recovery of the city. I was trying to help the city on my terms. I wanted to be a combination of the prodigal son and a conquering hero. After spending a lot of time in Flint and getting to know dozens of people there, I eventually figured out that this was a pretty selfish approach. And the reality of Flint forces you to be very practical. There is no magic bullet. No quick fix. It will take a lot of time, hard work, and small individual efforts that combine to improve the city. I think I found a way to do my part, but it required me to let go of all the plans I had cooked up back in San Francisco. I never imagined my return to Flint would turn out the way it did.

What did your family make of the book?

They love it, but that’s their job, right? Four generations of my family lived in Flint, and my mom told me the book captured the city she always loved but always longed to escape. My goal was to reveal the spirit and allure of Flint, without sugarcoating the reality of life there. This isn’t a sappy, nostalgic book. But it does reveal the powerful hold that the place where you grew up can exert on you.

What is your next book?

I’ve got three ideas for new books. I’m in the process of fine-tuning them and deciding which one makes the most sense for me at the moment. Writing Teardown was a very emotional process for me. It took four years to complete. I want to make the right choice. And I still have a lot of work left in Flint.

What’s next for you in terms of Flint? The book may be out in the world, but I don’t think your story in Flint is finished.

Without giving away too much of the book, I’ve forged strong friendships with many people in Flint. I talk to them almost daily. And there is no shortage of projects that can help the city. I’m trying to show other Flint expatriates how to connect with the city in some way. I’ve heard from a lot of people who have read the book and want to know how they can get involved. I hope that my experience can help some of the other people who left to create a bond with the city again like I did.

All photos courtesy http://www.teardownbook.com

In 1954, more than 100,000 people crowded downtown
 Flint for a parade celebrating the 50 millionth car
produced by General Motors. A “milestone car” — a gold-colored
Chevy with gold-plated parts — rolled off the assembly line
 to mark the occasion. (Photo courtesy of The Flint Journal)