Lauren Reeley Guzman
Written for Introduction to American Studies 10AC: Culture Wars
University of California at Berkeley
April 26, 2012
I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream For...Happiness?
Whether from an old-fashioned family owned store or McDonalds’s, ice cream is often related to traditions, celebrations, and times of happiness. Still, most adults do not consider a trip to buy ice cream a trip to buy happiness. A billboard from Halo Farms, located in Trenton New Jersey, declares otherwise. The contrast between this billboard and the surrounding landscape in the photograph demonstrates the incredible complexity of the recession and the impacts it has had on impoverished cities like Trenton.
Taken by Matthew Jacobson, the photo is shot from roadside at a straight-on angle and the billboard is located in the top left corner of the photo. The billboard itself is rather plain; it features a huge pint of ice cream slightly off center with text reading “AFFORDABLE HAPPINESS” to the right. Thus, the billboard declares that happiness is not only something one can purchase, but also something that one can do so for an affordable price. Beneath the billboard, there are three depressing buildings with covered windows. To the far right there appears to be the roof of a house or barn. All of the buildings look abandoned. There is a telephone wire that disappears behind the billboard. The bottom half of the photograph displays dying plants and thistles on the roadside and these plants, like the people and buildings of Trenton, have been abandoned. The monotone gray sky looks as lifeless as the dry thistles and leafless trees in the distance. Altogether, the photograph represents a city in crisis, in search of an emotion that has been beaten out of them by the recession and its effects—happiness.
Trenton, like many other cities in the United States was hit hard by the 2008 recession. Demographically, Trenton is 48.4% African American, 33.0% Hispanic, 16.6% White, and 2% other. In 2009, Trenton suffered the largest poverty rate in New Jersey: nearly 25 percent of the city’s residents were at or below the poverty line. This is more than double the state average of 9.4%. Trenton had negative growth in nonfarm employment in 2009, at -2.2 percent; over 5,300 jobs were lost. Industrial based jobs were some of the largest that declined, primarily in construction and manufacturing. Like other areas, Trenton suffered problems at major banks, real estate, mortgage, and financial services firms that led to excessive housing foreclosures.
The billboard is a notable component of the photograph as it portrays happiness as a commodity. First consider the text on the billboard: “affordable happiness.” The concept of purchasing happiness is not something new in the United States. In fact, the common belief among so many Americans that happiness is something that can be bought is one of the driving forces of capitalism. Americans work, work and work some more, all so we can make more money and buy material items in hopes of achieving ultimate happiness. People at all economic and social levels do this their whole lives, including those in Trenton. Why then, is this billboard such a startling contrast to the rest of the photograph? Firstly, all the other components of the photograph are the stark opposite of happiness. The plants are lifeless, the trees leafless, the buildings abandoned, and the sky melancholy. Happiness is certainly not in any of these things. In opposition, the billboard offers happiness to passerby’s in Halo Farms ice cream and declares that happiness can be bought at an affordable price.
The pint of Halo Farms Seventh Heaven ice cream featured on the billboard is significant not because of its appearance, but because of what is represents. For many adults, ice cream stands for the simpler times of childhood. It stands for carefree days. The economic recession has made life anything but carefree for most Americans, particularly many of those in Trenton. With this, the effect of the interaction between the text on the billboard and the giant ice cream pint is largely a part of what the photograph represents as a whole. Ultimately, the billboard pronounces that a trip to buy ice cream from Halo Farms is a trip to buy happiness. Combined with the other aspects of the photograph, this message is very impactful. The buildings in Trenton may be abandoned, the plants and trees may barely be holding on, and the sun may be missing from the sky. But, there is innocent hope in a carton of ice cream at Halo Farms.
Adults are not the only Americans affected by the recession though, especially in Trenton. In Trenton, 7,419, or 35.5 percent, of children were impoverished in 2009. Statewide, nearly one-third of the 2 million children were living in low-income households and 310,000 children used food stamps. This photograph tells a different story for children then it does for adults. For children in Trenton and other impoverished cities, a trip to the ice cream shop is a trip that brings happiness and most of the time, cost is not factored in. A trip to get ice cream, especially for a child of an impoverished home, represents an escape from their desolate world.
Altogether, there is a lot at stake in the contrasting subjects of this photograph. The landscape and buildings are isolated and vacant, aptly displayed by the grim shades of gray and blacks. At the same time, these shades cannot encompass the complicated effects of the recession. In contrast, the billboard represents a sliver of hope, an escape from reality. This escape however is only one that can be purchased. Whereas happiness used to result from human interaction and internal gratification, for many Americans happiness is now only found in material objects. Ironically, these same materialistic tendencies, a driving force of capitalism, are partly at fault for the Great Recession. Finally, the telephone line that connects the right of the photograph to the billboard symbolizes the intersection of these contrasting components—of everything else and the economic crisis. The recession, its impacts, and any escape from it are deeply interconnected and this photograph of Trenton, New Jersey is representative of this.
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