Written for Introduction to American Studies 10AC: Culture Wars
University of California at Berkeley
April 26, 2012
A city sidewalk, illuminated by the light of broad day, is completely empty. Wide slabs of concrete convey no pedestrians; darkened store-front windows mirror no images of road traffic. Only the unseen photographer and the distorted reflection of one passing vehicle suggest that life may exist in this metropolis. If there are inhabitants somewhere in the barren scape, they have left only traces of their presence on this particular city block. The structures still stand, the pavement and sidewalks keep on sprawling, it seems even the streets continue to be swept, but the lights are off inside the buildings. The businesses here have ceased operating, their purpose is gone from within and their names are gone from without. The long line of shadowy windows is the most prominent form in the photograph. Splitting the image like a lustrous black wedge, it guides the viewer, up and back over the frictionless surface of the glass. Scrutinizing the image, one becomes aware of a secondary scene, another world depicted and contained by the darkly lit reflections of the vacant display windows. Framed by a dull façade and set under decommissioned awnings, this reflection is of another abandoned sidewalk. Atop the pavement of that parallel cityscape stands another empty building with more blackened windows, so each defeated business can watch itself die in the gleaming panes of its counterpart. There is no activity on either side of the street, as if this section of the city has been cordoned off, amputated from the areas that still support life. This photograph, of a place that is devoid of people and stripped of value, is an omen. It captures the expansiveness and power of economic adversity and it warns that an accepted way of life, if neglected, can vanish as surely as the light in a window can go dark.
This isn’t some staged ghost town. Nor is it a post-apocalyptic city that humans have abandoned. This is San Antonio, Texas, two years ago. The city has a population of more than a million people, and yet, on this pleasant, moderately upscale street, there is not a soul on the ground. There are no shops, or restaurants, or businesses of any kind, and it isn’t as if they’re all closed for the day, or just recently went out of business. The street is completely untouched by any consumer products, services, or advertisements. The establishments that once did business through these doors and windows have long since closed and moved on, and evidently not even the spaces left behind have the ability to sell. There are no ‘for lease’ or ‘for rent’ signs, just an untitled portico and too many watchful windows.
In 2010, San Antonio, like the rest of the United States was strained by economic recession. The recession officially began in December 2007 and ended in the summer of 2009, but its effects are still being felt on a large scale. The economic downturn, while not proving to be especially harmful to large corporations and the very wealthy, has resulted in prolonged hardship for most middle and lower income families and individuals. With the slump came inflation, rising national debt, a decrease in home equity that led to more foreclosures and declarations of bankruptcy, and high levels of unemployment. This photo is a considerably tame account of economic analysis compared to the types of statements people are directing at the financial sector for causing the recession. After all, this isn’t a picket sign demanding that banks pay for their errors, nor is it a rally calling for economic reform; it is a realistic and strikingly familiar image of the effects of economic crisis on everyday life. An entire city block has been rendered invalid, and how many people along with it? The current recession is a caustic system of interconnectedness. In the case of this block, unemployment may have led to fewer customers, forcing the stores and services to shut down, thereby increasing the number of unemployed, perpetuating the cycle of hardship in one area then reflecting and magnifying it onto another.
There is nothing to distinguish the street in the photograph from the next one, or from one 1000 miles away. Without some historical background, the photograph could represent almost any place at any time; that is what makes it so significant. Something is clearly wrong in the image, there are no people, no cars, no businesses, and no explanation for their absence; that wrongness spreads, it can exist anywhere. Without some historical background, the photograph says nothing; but with only brief reference to its history, a time of extensive financial distress, the image speaks volumes. The economic crisis originated on Wall Street in 2007; this photo was taken in San Antonio in 2010. The geographical and temporal boundaries of something like the financial crisis are too broad to analyze because their effects are so far-reaching and can so thoroughly transcend their spatial and physical boundaries. An area of San Antonio experiences economic instability and collapse, just as countless other places have experienced the same thing before, simultaneously, and are guaranteed to experience after.
The message in the photo, the message being relayed between the two shadowed buildings through the exchange of reflections is that everything is connected. It isn’t a recession in New York that hurt Texas; it’s a nationwide and worldwide crisis that demands acknowledgement, attention, and sensitivity to its sweeping consequences. Like the buildings in the photograph, if society intends to continue using this economic system, and intends for it to recover, then people must return with confidence to that system. Society has to reenter the space that it vacated, that dark, demoralized, equally unemployed building. A light must come back on, so that when passers-by look in the window, they don’t see a desolate reflection, but an illuminated and inviting future.
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