Earlier this week I heard Bruce Springsteen interviewed on NPR’s “Fresh Air.” The occasion was the release of the 30th anniversary edition of his breakthrough album, “Born to Run.” I’ve always liked Bruce, despite some friends’ reservations about his evident patriotism and his particular flavor of masculine assertion (I guess I like them too). But now, in middle age, he has become especially funny, tender and wise.
At the end of the show, Terry Gross said, “My guess would be that you live in a neighborhood that not only doesn’t have back streets, but doesn’t even have streets.”
“It doesn’t have sidewalks,” he said.
“Do you miss them?” she asked.
In response, Bruce described the neighborhood in which he grew up:
“Yeah, you do. My recollection of my childhood was, I lived in a very unusual situation where I had an enormous family within half a block. We had six or seven houses all one up right next to the other and the church and the rectory…and the school all in the middle of all our houses. And the street was filled with a lot of life.”
His evocation was vivid, resonating with own memories. Three generations of my family lived in a house next door to other relatives on a street of homes south of San Francisco built for white ethnic families like ours, becoming homeowners after World War II on the G. I. Bill. (Living down the street from the Catholic school was no picnic: in each of those pre-Vatican II years, when catechism vilified the Jews for killing Christ, we had to run fast to escape taking personal responsibility–but that’s another story.) On summer nights, everyone sat outside. All the kids gathered at the wide place where the street took a turn. As the sun went down, we played endlessly at jump-rope, chanting rhymes into the gathering starry darkness.
Bruce described going home again. “But the funny thing is, when I go back to the neighborhood now, that’s not there…. Where’s all the kids out on the street? I hardly ever see them. Where’s the people out on their porches? I don’t see any. American society has changed dramatically since I lived on my little street.”
I see that change too. Here in Richmond, there are streets not unlike those of Bruce’s and my childhood. Related families live side-by-side near the church they attend or not far from their kids’ school. But people are afraid to sit out on their porches at night, because their neighborhoods are notorious for drug-related drive-by shootings, the scourge of this town of single-family homes and small apartment buildings.
Thinking about this, it is tempting to sink into a kind of nostalgic despair. Things are ruined, life will never again offer the semblance of safety and sense of connection Bruce described with such tenderness. Maybe not. There are inescapable truths, such as population growth. When ever-larger numbers share the same space, pressures on the fabric of life increase until something somewhere rips.
But the level of fear and hopelessness that pervades certain neighborhoods in this town is not an artifact of growth, nor of choice. No one wants to live in fear. No one freely chooses it. It is forced on people by decisions made beyond their control.
Contrary to the scare stories of TV melodrama, the drug-dealing life resembles other forms of dead-end work, with a great many marginal workers supporting a few wealthy owners. Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, in a chapter of their book Freakonomics entitled, “Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live with Their Moms?” explain that “a crack gang works pretty much like the standard capitalist enterprise: you have to be near the top of the pyramid to make a big wage. Notwithstanding the leadership’s rhetoric about the family nature of the business, the gang’s wages are about as skewed as wages in corporate America. A foot soldier had plenty in common with a McDonald’s burger flipper or a Wal-Mart shelf stocker. In fact, most of J. T.’s foot soldiers also held minimum-wage jobs in the legitimate sector to supplement their skimpy illicit earnings.”
How many people presented with viable economic alternatives would reject them in favor of such high risk and low compensation?
Perhaps we can’t reanimate Bruce’s dream of community. But imagine how different our violence-plagued communities would look if we had investment in people instead of tax cuts for the rich. What if we had drug decriminalization policies that took the cutthroat incentives out of dealing and offered treatment instead of punishment? What if we had decent-paying public service jobs to shore up our decaying infrastructure? What if a community like Richmond had good schools and funding for the social goods that make life sweeter, such as learning opportunities, creative outlets and wholesome recreations for those who can’t afford to purchase such things for themselves and their families? The money that could pay for these enlightened policies is going to further enrich George W. Bush’s wealthy friends and to prosecute a trumped-up war, even while real threats to our future–internal and external–are neglected.
Terry Gross asked Bruce why he chose to get involved in electoral politics in the 2004 election. (He has been a consistent activist and donor, but has usually stuck with grassroots efforts and issue-based groups like Vietnam Veterans Against The War.) What he said seems applicable here too:
“Democracy was eroding so visibly and obviously that if you didn’t try to do something about it, you had no right to get up on stage and sing the songs I was singing and try to be about some of the things I’ve tried to be about for my work life…. If you’ve built up any credibility, this is the time to use it.”
Postscript: If you want to know what using one’s credibility sounds like, and you didn’t get a chance to hear Rep. John Murtha on NewsHour yesterday, click here to download audio or video or read the amazing transcript. I was driving when I heard it, and it was so exciting, I almost had to pull off the road.