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    A closeup view of a sidewalk and street, near a puddle of water.

    Seeking Out Back-Row America

    Chris Arnade’s Dignity attempts to communicate what he has seen across forgotten stretches of our divided country.

    By Martyn Wendell Jones

    July 31, 2019

    Chris Arnade is a complicated man. In 2011, after working for eighteen years as a Wall Street bond trader and making enough to live with his family in a large, upscale apartment in Brooklyn, he decided to visit the Hunts Point neighborhood in the Bronx because he “was told not to.” His fellow strivers had warned him of drugs, prostitutes, and poverty, but because he “wasn’t in the mood for listening to anyone,” he decided to visit anyway.

    Camera in hand, Arnade started making lengthier trips, exploring parts of New York he’d never seen himself and taking photographs of people he met. He chose to go on foot, his only goal getting back to that Brooklyn apartment at the end of the night, and allowed the suggestions he received along the way to inform his ad hoc itinerary.

    What these trips began to teach him was “just how cloistered and privileged my world was and how narrow and selfish I was.” He decided to start pulling out the insulation that fellow bond trader Sherman McCoy prizes in Tom Wolfe’s novel Bonfire of the Vanities, and to go in search of the Americans his well-heeled colleagues had many opinions about but rarely encountered.

    So began a career in photojournalism that would see Arnade’s essays and pictures regularly published in the Guardian while traditional reporters at places like the New York Times tweeted accusations of lapses in journalistic ethics. (Formally trained photojournalists would never offer assistance to their subjects, just as they would never offer to pay their subjects in order to take their photographs.)

    Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America is the upshot of Arnade’s career so far. Eight years of pictures and written reflections have fed into a glossy hardback book, its 300 pages divided into alternating photo essays and meditations, thematically arranged.

    The framework Arnade develops after his first forays into Hunts Point is simple. He and his colleagues and peers represent the “front row,” those who escaped their hometowns through academic achievement and credentialing in order to be received into the warm arms of the meritocracy. (Arnade has a PhD in physics from Johns Hopkins, exactly the sort of quantitative background most useful for becoming a high-stakes gambler with the treasure and savings of others on Wall Street.)

    Those who aren’t well suited to the academia-credentialing complex remain in the hometowns the front-row kids abandon, and make do on scraps from the meritocratic table. Where they once found handy employment on the factory floor within days of graduating high school, they’re now left with the aftermath of economic stratagems employed by the front row to “improve efficiency” and “grow the economy.”

    That is to say, they live in the left-behind places: depressed post-industrial towns, cities full of boarded-up storefronts and drug traps, neighborhoods full of tangled lawns and chunked-up sidewalks where the commercial withdrawal of crushable OxyContin has led to a flood of heroin, and heroin overdoses.

    Arnade walks the streets of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, of Gary, Indiana, and Bakersfield, California, taking barometric readings of our nation’s spiritual atmosphere. Where industries have collapsed or moved, taking blue-collar jobs with them across national borders, he finds people who feel confusion, discouragement, and, occasionally, outright hopelessness.

    Outside the gravitational reach of New York City, Arnade finds an America that obeys different laws than those that govern front row life. For one, the people he meets consistently express a desire to stay local, their dim prospects for good local work notwithstanding. In having a stable notion of home in an age of “where are you based?” they challenge a core front-row assumption about how one ought to approach life.

    Staying has its costs.

    Staying has its costs. An interviewee named Ruben in Gary, Indiana, says, “You got to leave Gary now for work. … Back in my day you needed a strong back and a weak mind to get a job. Now you need a weak back and a strong mind.” With work for strong backs evaporating, those who would have made a life out of respectable labor in better days find their way into illegal economies, selling drugs or running guns.

    It’s hard to blame them. The legal options for work are outrageous, in some cases outright offensive to human dignity. One scenario feels as though it could have come from the pages of a Don DeLillo novel: in Selma, Alabama, cotton warehouses said to predate the Civil War are crumbling into rubble. Day laborers can go to the site, pull bricks out of the piles, chip off the mortar, and stack them for $10 to $20 a skid. The bricks are then sold for a dollar each to restaurants and businesses that use them to create a sense of “historical charm.”

    Says one of the men toiling in the piles, “This is slave work.” He has wrapped his bleeding hands in cloth. “That is Selma for you, though: still a city full of slaves.” The affront to Selma’s image in the American historical imagination is palpable. Arnade describes it as one of the worst-off places he visited.

    One of the ethnographic insights Arnade picks up during his travels concerns McDonald’s, which has taken the role of the missing “third place” in back row American culture (after the first and second places of home and work). McDonald’s is the public where many of his subjects go to get out of the heat or cold, to see friends and spend time without needing to endure a sermon – the traditional sort one might hear in church, or the secular variant one might be subjected to in the office of a nonprofit.

    The lack of judgment or moralism at McDonald’s, each franchise so plainly available to meet a variety of needs, is a major draw for Arnade’s subjects. Many of them were told in school they were dumb. Then, too, Arnade confesses that he and his upper-crust peers looked down on the religiosity of the back row. He finds vibrant belief throughout his travels, including in the life of a trans woman and addict whose difficult dinner with her conservative mother Arnade facilitates.

    These varieties of rejection contribute to an overall feeling of depression among the back row, and it is this condition – more so than its interlocking material and cultural causes – that Arnade takes to be important in his book. “It isn’t just about money,” he writes. “These entire communities are stigmatized socially and culturally.”

    By the book’s end, he has seen enough to have reached a conclusion about what needs to happen to guarantee the future of American society and the health of our democracy. “We all need to listen to each other more,” he writes, because “our nation’s problems and differences are just too big, too structural, and too deep to be solved by legislation and policy out of Washington.”

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    Arnade admits it himself: this is a meager conclusion. (He describes it as “wishy-washy.”) In view of the indignities and injustices that fill the preceding pages, “we need to listen to each other more” is a letdown that uncharitable readers may interpret as an abdication. An important question opens at this point. Is this a moment in which Arnade shows his humility in the face of an irresolvable complexity with which he has wrestled to exhaustion? Or is it instead a sign of his reluctance to take up the challenge of understanding?

    In literary and journalistic treatments of the lives of the working poor and unemployed, there are two general, determining emphases. First, there are those who write and report on their subjects with reformist goals in mind, who hope by writing to change the conditions they observe. George Orwell is a representative figure, and more recently, we might hold up the work of sociologist Matthew Desmond, whose bleak, exhaustively researched study of the mechanisms (and attendant industry) of eviction in Milwaukee concludes with a detailed proposal for a universal housing voucher.

    Orwell, Desmond, and other reform-oriented writers establish a firm ground for their figures to walk upon. Orwell’s Parisian plongeurs are located exactly in a social hierarchy maintained in existence by a ruling class fearful of their gaining political agency, and his experiences of local phenomena relate to larger systems he sensibly explicates, and those systems take extremely specific local forms. Desmond’s renters fall into the gears of an elaborate piece of civic machinery that requires the sociologist years to learn well enough to reverse-engineer. Giving each of his subjects a pseudonym, he protects them from legal or police scrutiny while offering detailed accounts of the means – legal and not – that enable them to survive. Says Orwell of poverty: “You thought it would be quite simple; it is extraordinarily complicated.”

    Simplicity is the privilege of the casual onlooker.

    Simplicity is the privilege of the casual onlooker, the very wealthy, and those whose time in a place is short. Orwell and Desmond spent months living alongside their subjects; tellingly, Arnade only rarely gives an account of being inside his subjects’ homes, and it is unclear whether he stayed at length with any of them. On principle, he refuses to think in terms of structure and system except in the most general way throughout his book. He is wary of dates and data, perhaps for being the tools of the front row he has come to suspect, and offers in place of detailed information brief and anecdotal capsule-histories of the places he visits, coupled with descriptions of his immediate setting in them.

    Some transitions between places occur so quickly it can be difficult to remember where in America he’s ended up before finding the next person to interview. This is a natural result of the application of his back-row/front-row social taxonomy: local differences are obscured by his emphasis on his subjects’ membership in a shared national abstraction. (The implications of his framework go from tenuous to straightforwardly wrong when he mentions challenges to the back row’s “worldview.” Which one? How can so many millions of religiously and racially diverse people in such disparate circumstances and places share an intellectual paradigm?) His method of prying loose his subjects – who go from people with problems and anxieties rooted in highly specific local contexts to instantiations of themes he explicates – inadvertently embodies their alienation, their dislocation, as consumer-subjects made fluid by the solvents of global capitalism.

    What ends up missing here is a robust sense of these people’s reality, the very reality Arnade expressly wants to make available to his readers. Grappling as reformist writers do with the highly particular forms of local oppression is a way of honoring the struggle of their subjects, and evoking it. It is a way of conferring dignity and respect.

    This brings us to the second determining emphasis in literary writing about the working poor and unemployed: the aim of simply communicating the lived reality of one’s subjects. Legendary Chicago journalist and radioman Studs Terkel specialized in long-form interviews with people Arnade would classify as “back row,” and in books like Working and Hard Times helped to create vivid, engrossing verbal portraits of his interviewees – and whole worlds of life along with them. In a similar vein, James Agee took an assignment from Fortune magazine in the late 1930s to make a report on the conditions of life for tenant farmers in the south, and several years later turned in a difficult, idiosyncratic modernist experiment: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

    Though his politics were even more radical than Orwell’s, Agee did not conclude his book as his English counterpart did with proposals or calls to action. He instead referred the reader’s attention to two photographs by his co-laborer Walker Evans, the two that best bring out the mystery and reverence he came to feel towards his subjects, with whose lives he had become enamored.

    Here again, the weakness of Arnade’s approach becomes clear in his absence from the homes of his subjects. Agee dedicates scores of pages to describing a single tenant family’s clapboard house. These lyrical, descriptive passages contain some of the best writing in Famous Men – look up the paragraphs about overalls if you’ve never read them – and make resplendently manifest not only the Gudger family’s grueling life but also that of thousands of other families like theirs.

    Arnade could have held on to his social taxonomy of back row and front, refused to frame his subjects in terms of elaborated structures and systems, and presented his subjects as really existing people with complicated and overwhelming lives. He comes closest to this with the people he spends the most time with, Takeesha and her boyfriend Steve. Even in this case, an overriding intention takes them away from us at key moments – as when Steve sends Arnade a text that ends a section of the first chapter. The latter half of Steve’s text reads “By the way, hello Chris. This is Steve. I’m depressed.” The next section opens without reference to the text; Steve’s thread is dropped, leaving the unfortunate impression that Arnade included the text out of a possibly ignoble motive.

    Perhaps counterintuitively, it would have been possible for Arnade to ply a reality-centered approach by inserting more of himself into his story. He offers us a handful of arresting details in the first chapters – he developed problems with alcohol, and purchases Xanax off the street to establish trust with his new friends in Hunts Point – but the figure of Arnade as the narrator of this journey disappears, as does the journey itself. After the chapter dedicated to New York City, we arrive at McDonald’s, and from there are thrown from places into the themes of back row life in America: racism, drugs, religion, desolation.

    This narrative structure dislocates us both spatially and temporally.

    This narrative structure dislocates us both spatially and temporally. Cities receive little context, their residents even less. (Arnade said during an interview with Plough, “I go into communities sometimes without reading anything beforehand, so as not to bring along preconceived notions.”) The story leaps from one conversation to another hundreds of miles away with the only link between them being a shared theme.

    Had Arnade played more of an organizing role as a narrator – which would involve taking on definite motivations, which he never quite gives us – we would be able to meet these Americans along the way as he did, in the manner of John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. We are left with something else instead: a chain of disconnected incidents, snippets of conversation, and attempts at thematizing this cloud of particulate matter with equally hazy passages of reflection.

    I am fundamentally sympathetic to Chris Arnade’s difficult project. I think he is right to challenge the acceptance of meritocracy, to seek out those who have been left behind by our degree-and-credential obsessed economy, and to buck the media trend that has refashioned the news into the content of conversations between journalists in front of a television audience. Though his social framework offers limited insight, it does offer some, and the idea of the back row identifies an important vector of quiet oppression under the aegis of meritocracy.

    Arnade’s brave attempt to communicate what he has seen across forgotten stretches of our divided country is ultimately unsatisfying for those who open it in the hope of deepening their understanding of the lives of Arnade’s subjects – or of the lives of the people these readers left behind when they began their own paths to the front row – but Dignity is an outstanding, unqualified triumph in one regard: as a book of photographs.

    The images that accompany the text in this book are stunning, in some cases worthy of Walker Evans. I suspect that the human warmth and clarity of the photo essays remain when the page turns back to text, and that this afterglow brightens the material with which the photo essays are interspersed. My favorite image is of a boy, shirtless, holding his arms out and staring defiantly at the camera. In his right hand he holds a pigeon, likely a bird kept in an improvised rooftop coop somewhere in Hunts Point, where residents train them to fly in directed patterns.

    There are images involving needles and trickles of blood that are almost unbearably intimate; there is a man who, according to a tweet by Arnade, was so frightened by the prospect of hospital bills that he didn’t go back to get his broken ankle properly set, and now needs to have the limb amputated.

    These photos bear witness to the America that Arnade set out to find. He did find it, and makes it available to us. What he can’t explain, he shows us. It is almost enough.

    Contributed By

    Martyn Wendell Jones is an American writer and journalist living in Toronto, Ontario.

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