“Instead of committing suicide, people go to work.” – Thomas Bernhard
By Martin Billheimer
April 30th, 2019
Zigzagging from crisis to crisis, Decline Chicago-style went full south in the wake of Vietnam, the gold-grain-OPEC hit, and the free-market killing floor of the Chicago School. Boss Friedman’s projects ran from the Heartland to Santiago Bay, Cortez/Mengele model economics whose legacy is murky offshore but clear as hell at home. ¡Mira! dying tool and dies, the Falstaff Brewery’s dry ghost, US Steel’s sold-off South Works (they did Picasso in happier days), and the blight Calumet mills by the Skyway. Our Late Capitals of pain and pain relief, ads for phantom products, the coming forth of the pay-day loan… ‘70s-‘80s crack austerity was one long winter, still in season in Uptown and Edgewater and every poor elsewhere.
Dave Ranney’s memoir of economic electroshock in South Chicago is subtitled ‘from the outside in and the inside out’, which is apt for many reasons, not the least being the picture of a city flayed alive. Living & Dying on the Factory Floor is just what was done, with little life in between. Ranney was a member of Sojourner Truth among several Leftist groups, going from CLR James to Red Rosa politically and from professor to prole on his soles. A mixture of discontent with easy sitting-by and the spirit of Lenin’s old vanguardism made him quit his job in academia and go down past Senior’s Last Hour into the guttering world of the factories. Few predicted how quick it would vanish (Paul Sweeney was prophetic here – so was George Romero) or foresaw the strange familiarity of a hollowed-out Gold Rush landscape rolling back into the greatest American industrial towns.
The landscape is employment statistics in stone. Numbers are quite unnecessary for those who act out numberless spells in cities where the Best and Brightest and the silicon wizards have utterly lost control. But loss of control is rarely what it seems – it is usually a strategy of terror or tensions, a domestic counterinsurgency. So perhaps the stats were a projection rather than an analysis, no matter which came first. You still hear laments over the slow death-agonies of the middle classes, but the fact is that the poor got there ages ago. And that all seemed quite logical to the future dispossessed, who now see themselves in the crosshairs. Reagan truly was a revolutionary – a revolution of fools certainly, but he leveled a warhead at a complicit middle class, along with deregulation for all, property fraud and savings looting, union busting and the KKK made fiscally responsible.
Back in the small and medium producers, Ranney’s co-workers may dislike each other a lot of the time but even the most bigoted of them shows what he can be in a strike – which is still terrifying to capitalists in Bangladesh or Beverley and remains the main power of transformation, despite Zuckerberg and Tor (and even WikiLeaks, bless). After all, the enemy is never content with just the virtual. They still arrest, kill, rape, and coup. At the strike at the Shortening plant, one of Dave’s co-workers tells him he doesn’t care if they lose or not, if they’re fired or even shot by the cops because the unity of the picket line has been his proudest moment. Flesh is still a fierce form, no troll farm or web but sometimes immortal for an hour.
Chicago had an eerie beauty then, a skuzzy razing that moved in a slow power outage down elemental stations. Giddy enervation pressed lovingly against a creased blind: medusa heads in temporal defeat, a chain-smoking comic book gloss leaking over chipped doorway gods and open doors. It has all been folded up in thirty years’ reckless debt mining and the incarceration boom… Was it all a flash in the eternal Oxy dream of new technologies? Can a knife have a philosophy? Does genocide always wear jackboots? No wonder people are paranoid and suspect plots everywhere. They are quite right to – Dick Gregory is still right about everything, improvisations aside – the devil is a superstructure made of miniatures. And there is hardly any evidence of what is being done, except for evident actions in stressed real-time. This crime does not need adumbration or clues. It is not even necessary to identify the killer because everyone knows.
You always wonder what happened to the people you chanced to work with if you are basically unskilled. All of you thrown together in some crap shop or in a kitchen, all cleaning, storing or putting-up and making. To cease wondering about them tells the great erasure of the working class, the purest proof a prosecution of ghosts would need in the investigation of Neoliberalism. No more chance encounters at the job, disturbances in demographics, conflicts or contradictions. No more action, no mingling of kinds or classes, no more wondering or wandering or changing one’s life like Rilke said you must (Fred Hampton said it too). Walking through the twilight of the places he was beaten, struck, stomped, and arrested, Mr. Ranney ends up at his desk looking out through the window and thinking of those dead or charged to disappear. His book is surely beautiful and hardly hopeless; the chapter There Ain’t No Justice – Just Usis especially masterful and vivid. These are hard-won conclusions, if they are won at all. But the question of ‘winning’ has no part in fighting if you fight just to fight. All in all, his picture of the city and its people is as unforgettable and as fleeting as an old reunion in Bashō. You have done your old and rainy comrades proud, Ranney.
Unemployment and ‘Missing’ notices are cannibal gaps in the labor cost-cut. But there is always a genius like Larry Hoover to find a void and fill it, which bring us roundabout to Compliments of Chicagohoodz, a stunning fotonarcorridoby Jinx and Mr C, published by the estimable Feral House. Hoover is not mentioned in Mr. Ranney’s book, but as founder of the Folk Nation he is more than a name in Chicago and he is always present in spirit. Although he is now in the Supermax for life, his genius was clearly of the permittedkind – a place ordained from the beginning by the power of City Hall as a protective device against real radicalism and as a testament to the paranoia of the rich. Local and national powers can afford a parallel incorporation; they even benefit from its price controls, its outlets for cash in danger of hording, and its dynamic figures who fight from nothing to ruthless heights. ‘I am a capitalist’, as bossman Larry Hoover said.
Drugs and gang work are too often confused; sometimes they are even at loggerheads (e.g., coke destroyed much of the Latin Kings’ leadership via addiction in the early ‘80s, leading to its severe proscription). Riding is also the simple fact of controlling areas, friendship and fighting together, redemption by violence and amateur policing – at least primarily in the period this book covers. Who would live without a circle of friends and who would deny that rank is also fellowship? What is more profound than leaving your group for an hour in the warm wind of mid-June? And graves, tit-for-tat, one going all out with the most momentous sign and leaving a name on a wall where strong streets collide. It’s not all glamour, though. Despite the busts and hypocrisy, there are security forces at every civic level. Fluidity between them is not only possible but desirable. Professionalism is moving from para to official, while keeping the game and past initiations close.
Chicagohoodzis also a psychological map of several decades of warring city zones, shifted by real estate, immigration, joblessness and assassination. The acted-upon act upon the city, indelibly – thus the rich photographs here can be seen as a continuum in the epoch, a similarity it shares with Ranney’s memoir. Gangland is a parody of the British Public School, with seals and codes drawn from religion, politics and the occult. New meanings are grafted onto the points of stars and swastikas, which is confusing to outsiders who only see apparently-disparate signs together on a wall. A city kid develops an educationin this symbolism, gang affiliation or no, specific to a certain time and a certain place. The institutions of highest learning are Pontiac, Stateville, Marion, Menard. Jinx spent years collecting the ornate calling cards of the mostly Northside Chicago gangs and he also provides superb photographs of his own or loaned from members’ scrapbooks – the warriors pose, guffaw, bristle and menace, acting steely or really being it. His own photos show him to be a master of the Kojak–Weegie snapshot, a purely American ballet in Technicolor gauze. Choreographed streets in successive rates of time creature-feature our own unstable memories, observation points washed with varsity colors and damp backroom glow. In contrast, Mr C’s text is icy clear yet unafraid to make a wild guess or two or repeat schoolyard legends as you might have heard them. Murders and fights are recounted Rashomon-style, which fits the postmodern Water Marginsurveillance chic of late-century war poetry. In Feral House’s trademark layout, the plates cluster like a city grid occasionally crossed with obscure warnings – but there is a secret economy here that betrays a very careful eye behind frame and juxtaposition, and in the choice of autographed scraps and ailing stars.
The tension in ‘factual’ books is between the point where the outsider peers in and what a chronicle of an inside world must do to keep him looking. Dislocations in time, the blurring of similarities, insecurity in the passages of both the time of the world and the time such a record would record. This persistence of vision is fatalistic, a momentum carried forward by the very line of typeset whose express heads toward a bitter final word. Luckily, both of these books tempt you off to the margins effortlessly if you know the places and recognize some of the faces. If you do not, the effect is more documentary and maybe even more hypnotic.
These books are about signs and numbers. As for the bosses and law enforcement, you see them rarely these days – except for the cops, whose faces are easy to exchange. But they have not ceased to win every time, have they? So what.