Slummin’

The earliest meaning of the word slum is “room.” Short for slumber, a slum is a place where people sleep—where the poor sleep. The meaning of the word is synchronized with the Industrial Revolution of the early 1800s, a time that produced rapid, alienating social and economic inequities squeezed inside tight urban spaces. Unlike other unconscious, perhaps even confidently “poor” places of the past—third world villages, pioneer farms, spiritual dropout zones, gypsy camps—slums are the shadow side of the prosperous city, encased by walls, making two sides bound together inside one finite urbanized whole. A “gritty vineyard of the Victorian underclass,” the East End of London was perhaps the first slum. To “go slumming” became a pastime of the 1880s, popularized by East End novels, which fictionalized that side of town. To the rich upper class, fascinated by these stories, a “slum” was physically contiguous, but socially in another world from the luxurious and powerful imperial capital. Not only a scourge of misery, this infamous other place was also a valued escape zone for freedoms of pursuit (sex, drugs, philosophy, murder) not allowed in the rigidity of upscale industrial heavens. The slums were a resource readily exploited.

(false) WEALTH

In 2008, it’s pretty unpopular to be poor. Poverty seems like something to keep secret because of the judgment and fear the label incurs on the stage of high capitalism, and now society is taking part in a new role-playing game in which the rich are mimicked. Technology has sped us into feeling boundless: illusions of unprecedented public access and incredible financial inequality, constantly displayed by media and advertisements. As global citizens, judgment seems to have real consequences, and it’s no wonder most people clamber for association with the team that enjoys the spoils of the industrial revolution and is protected from its ugly aftermaths. Will you be part of the new shiny future, or will you only be watching and serving it? The urgency to take sides is hype fueled by businesses shamelessly marketing to the top small percentage with cash to burn. This does not stop the rest from hedging toward the values of a luxury, tourist lifestyle that only about a half percent of the world population can expect to ever participate in.

In 2008, slumming may just be the best training for an unpredictable, accelerated world. I do not wish to demean or disrespectfully romanticize the real suffering of slums, homelessness or the debilitating hopelessness of human poverty, but in America and certainly weather-wonderful Atlanta, poverty is in many cases, a relative term. There are groups of people in this country who choose relative poverty as a quiet political decision. Not having a new car or a car at all, living with roommates, cooking at home, shopping at thrift stores, clipping coupons, not traveling to Europe for the summer, camping instead of staying at the Ritz, doing your own renovation from scavenged materials, using “vintage,” low or no technology at all, taking MARTA, saving up for that fancy pair of shoes, cutting your own hair, working a service job…many of us, myself included, feel poor by unrealistic standards, but actually live quite well by total world standards. In this sense, poverty is a conscious rejection of idealizing fantastic wealth, the goal of an unhealthy hyper-materialistic age that blinds and distracts.

Russell Means, American Indian philosopher, activist and actor foretold in his 1982 speech, “For America to Live, Europe Must Die,” that the only real revolution for industrial capitalism will come from Mother Nature. Indeed we are fearful of the chaos presently brought to our attention by global weather patterns that do seem charged up, agitated and broadcast now prolifically through the media. Our own industrial activities may have contributed to this chaos with pollution and devastation of the land. Then there are the effects of communications technologies, which have altered age-old equations of distance and time, eclipsing slower trusted rhythms of the earth. Our perception of time is sped up and space in turn collapsed. Since we are moving through time faster, easier and shorter passageways are now available but at premium prices. The rate of change is faster and so are the problems and complications of life. Traditions are clashing as they overlap, quarrel over territory, and are generally busting up. Logic, with its slow pace, must be rushed along by intuition. Some would even claim that this situation is forcing us to evolve. Plurality and interconnectedness challenge our nice perceptions of having control. If this chaos continues and intensifies, who are the people best suited to deal with these new unpredictable scenarios? Those who are cloistered inside protective walls, allowed to maintain old expectations of perfection and privilege at the expense of others, or those who tough it out creatively on the wilder frontiers?

Leslie Marmon-Silko, an American Indian writer, tells a story from her tribe, the Pueblo Indians, in a collection of short essays called Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit, in which she references the Pueblos’ knowledge of living in a barren desert (farm, get water, raise livestock, hunt, build shelter, make clothing, communicate with the powers of Nature, etc). Surrounding their homeland was another tribe sharing space, but they were going hungry. They stole food and livestock repeatedly from the Pueblos. There were numerous battles, a few deaths. One night some criminals were caught red-handed. They laid their heads down on the ground, expecting to be beheaded for their crimes. But instead the Pueblo took them into the village, housed them for some time, taught them techniques for living well in the desert. Then they were sent back to their people with pregnant livestock, water and good information…a generous send-off for criminals. Instead of mounting an eternal relationship of retaliation, violence and resentment, the Pueblo took a chance with enemies by helping them with their immediate problem and ended up with a friendship, which strengthened the stability of each of their living situations.

THE BENEFITS OF (false) POVERTY

We don’t have to participate in this dangerous game of financial obsession. Actually, it’s a rather distracting preoccupation considering our ecological and economic crises. Being on the side of the meager, the independent yet interconnected, the thrifty, the hands-on, the humble, the mobile, the flexible, the unattached, the self-educated, is a wise practice. Consider the potential benefits of the consciously poor lifestyle. Also consider the coming centuries and what survival on this planet will actually require. Perhaps being fragile and unfamiliar with the real sharp edges of life and nature only makes us weak, unable to adapt to hardship and, for those able to avoid those edges, lonely.

The Industrial Revolution seemed for a time to put man in command of nature. We still aspire to live in climate-controlled places, cleared of the germs and other unpredictabilities of the outside environment, spend wealth attempting to control it all. A somewhat goofy ‘70s ecology textbook hit the nail on the head when it claimed we live like astronauts on our own planet, bubbled or otherwise glassed-in colonies of fragile artificiality.

Being poor, one exercises the uncomfortable pendulums of winter without heat, summer without air, is sensitive to changes in the climate, the local rhythms of Earth. How about hunger? It certainly can prick up our awareness. To a certain extent, these experiences toughen us up and enable us to understand our tenacity as well as develop compassion for others going through similar discomfort.

Health care, focused on expensive surgeries and equipment, bureaucratized authorities and unnecessary medical prescriptions, is a privilege of the professional class. Many Americans who work part-time or freelance or are otherwise off the books must be responsible for simpler practical approaches: preventative or alternative health care. Healers with folk or occult knowledge are certainly valuable in the slums. Self-education can bring simple medicine to light. On a deeper note, living without health care, one must make peace with the potential realities of pain or death that others can put off till later. The poor may be motivated to reach out to form supportive communities, subcultures or alternative family systems.

From the establishment of trade agreements outside the mainstream economy, new routes and living arrangements form, gated resources hacked into, thriftiness wisely employed. Sharing space, services, stories of frustration, chores, daycare or any other resource can be a very powerful bonding activity as well as a recipe for living a pretty decent quality of local life. Organizing these arrangements takes discipline, forgiveness, artful communication, generosity and self-sacrifice, all very good ingredients for advanced social development. Going without what you think you “need” can breed a certain bitterness or territoriality, but it can also groom attitudes of gratitude and strength of character. It is interesting to remember that those who “have” certainly may still be in need of non-material things that money cannot buy.

If you are monetarily poor because you don’t work much, you are rich in free time and free from expectations of traditional success. America believes that time is money, but dilly-dallying is not just for fools. Who wants to constantly work? How stressful. What if you have priorities for your time that are relatively inexpensive like being in love, making art, conversation, music, fiction, wandering, appreciating nature, playing, tinkering, reading, thinking, spending time with family and friends, imagining, partying. In this way, progressive slums may again become the envy of the well-to-do.

The poor learn to be strategic with desire as well as be alertly aware of what’s freely available. They may be able to get what they want with charm, talent, trade, persistence. It may be wise to study the patterns of the wasteful and pick up behind them. The poor must roll up their sleeves and fix it themselves or go without. Salvaging parts and souping up discarded machinery becomes a saving grace as well as a creative endeavor. Materials get reused, discoveries and new fusions occur.

The poor are not in total control, not even close. They live in a position of surrender, which is perhaps a more appropriate attitude to attain.