From the St. Louis–based journalist often credited with first predicting Donald Trump’s presidential victory.
"A collection of sharp-edged, humanistic pieces about the American heartland...Passionate pieces that repeatedly assail the inability of many to empathize and to humanize." Kirkus
In 2015, Sarah Kendzior collected the essays she reported for Al Jazeera and published them as The View from Flyover Country, which became an ebook bestseller and garnered praise from readers around the world. Now, The View from Flyover Country is being released in print with an updated introduction and epilogue that reflect on the ways that the Trump presidency was the certain result of the realities first captured in Kendzior’s essays.
A clear-eyed account of the realities of life in America’s overlooked heartland, The View from Flyover Country is a piercing critique of the labor exploitation, race relations, gentrification, media bias, and other aspects of the post-employment economy that gave rise to a president who rules like an autocrat. The View from Flyover Country is necessary reading for anyone who believes that the only way for America to fix its problems is to first discuss them with honesty and compassion.
“Please put everything aside and try to get ahold of Sarah Kendzior’s collected essays, The View from Flyover Country. I have rarely come across writing that is as urgent and beautifully expressed. What makes Kendzior’s writing so truly important is [that] it . . . documents where the problem lies, by somebody who lives there.”The Wire
“Sarah Kendzior is as harsh and tenacious a critic of the Trump administration as you’ll find. She isn’t some new kid on the political block or a controversy machine. . . .Rather she is a widely published journalist and anthropologist who has spent much of her life studying authoritarianism.” Columbia Tribune
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PART I Flyover Country
The View from Flyover Country
In St. Louis, you can buy a mansion for $275,000. It has twelve bedrooms, eight bathrooms, a three-bedroom carriage house, and is surrounded by vacant lots. It was built in the late 1800s, a few decades before the 1904 World's Fair, when St. Louis was the pride of America. In 1904, everyone wanted to live in St. Louis. A century later, the people who live here die faster. A child born in Egypt, Iran, or Iraq will live longer than a child born in north St. Louis. Almost all the children born in north St. Louis are black.
In St. Louis, the museums are free. At the turn of the twentieth century, the city built a pavilion. They drained the wetlands and made a lake and planted thousands of trees and created a park. They built fountains at the base of a hillside and surrounded it with promenades, white and gleaming. Atop the hill is an art museum with an inscription cut in stone: "Dedicated to art and free to all." On Sundays, children do art projects in a gallery of Max Beckmann paintings. Admission is free, materials are free, because in St. Louis art is for everyone.
In St. Louis, you can walk twenty minutes from the mansions to the projects. In one neighborhood, the kids from the mansions and the kids from public housing go to the same public school. On the walls of the school cafeteria are portraits of Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama, to remind the children what leaders look like.
In St. Louis, the murder rate is high and the mayor is named Slay but few think that is funny. In St. Louis, things are cheap but life stays hard. In St. Louis, an African-American man with gold teeth and a hoodie and baggy jeans rushed toward me in a mall, because I was pushing a baby carriage, and he wanted to hold the door open for me.
Ahead of Its Time
St. Louis is one of those cities that does not make it into the international news unless something awful happens, like it did last week in Cleveland, another American heartland city with a bad reputation and too many black people to meet the media comfort zone. The city is treated like a joke, and the people who live there and rescue women and make concise indictments of American race relations are turned into memes.
St. Louis is one of those cities where, if you are not from there, people ask why you live there. You tell them how it is a secret wonderland for children; how the zoo is free and the parks are beautiful; how people are more kind and generous than you would imagine; how it is not as dangerous as everyone says. They look at you skeptically and you know that they are thinking you cannot afford to move. They are right, but that is only part of it.
St. Louis is one of those cities that is always ahead of its time. In 1875, it was called the "Future Great City of the World." In the nineteenth century, it lured in traders and explorers and companies that funded the city's public works and continue to do so today. In the twentieth century, St. Louis showed the world ice cream and hamburgers and ragtime and blues and racism and sprawl and riots and poverty and sudden, devastating decay. In the twenty- first century, St. Louis is starting to look more like other American cities, because in the twenty-first century, America has started looking more like St. Louis.
This is the view from flyover country, where the rich are less rich and the poor are more poor and everyone has fewer things to lose.
St. Louis is a city where people are doing so much with so little that you start to wonder what they could do if they had more.
Rich Are Less Rich
In St. Louis, you reevaluate "fair." In St. Louis, you might have it bad, but someone's got it worse. This is the view from flyover country, where the rich are less rich and the poor are more poor, and everyone has fewer things to lose.
The symbol of St. Louis is both a gateway and a memorial. The Arch mirrors the sky and shadows the city. It is part of a complex that includes the courthouse where the Dred Scott case was settled, ruling that African Americans were not citizens and that slavery had no bounds.
On a St. Louis street corner, someone is wearing a sign that says, "I Am a Man." Like most in the crowd gathered outside a record store parking lot, he is African-American. He is a fast food worker and he is a protester. He needs to remind you he is a human being because it has been a long time since he was treated like one.
On May 8, 2013, dozens of fast food workers in St. Louis went on strike in pursuit of fairer wages and benefits. "We can't survive on 735!" they cried, referring to their wage of $7.35 an hour — a wage so low you can work forty hours a week and still fall below the poverty line. At a rally on May 9, workers from Hardee's and Church's Chicken talked about what they would do with $15 an hour: feed their families, pay their bills. "If we can make a living wage, we can give back to the community, and we are part of this community," a cashier from Chipotle said.
In St. Louis, possibilities are supposed to be in the past. It is the closest thing America has to a fallen imperial capital. This is where dystopian Hollywood fantasies are set and filmed. It is the gateway and the memorial of the American Dream.
But when the American Dream is dying for everyone, St. Louis might be the one to rise up. In St. Louis, people know what happens when social mobility stalls, when lines harden around race and class. They know that if you have a job and work hard, you should be able to do more than survive. They know that every person, every profession, is worthy of dignity and respect.
St. Louis is no longer a city where you come to be somebody. But you might leave it a better person.
— Originally published May 12, 2013
Expensive Cities Are Killing Creativity
On May 5, musician Patti Smith was asked what advice she had for young people trying to make it in New York City. The longtime New Yorker's take? Get out. "New York has closed itself off to the young and the struggling," she said. "New York City has been taken away from you."
Smith was not the only New Yorker to reject the city that had nurtured artists for decades. In October, musician David Byrne argued that "the cultural part of the city — the mind — has been usurped by the top 1 percent." Under Michael Bloomberg, New York's first billionaire mayor, homelessness and rent both soared, making one of the world's centers of creative and intellectual life unlivable for all but its richest citizens.
At play, notes Byrne, was more than a rise in the cost of living. It was a shift in the perceived value of creativity, backed by an assumption that it must derive from and be tied to wealth. "A culture of arrogance, hubris and winner- take-all was established," he recalls. "It wasn't cool to be poor or struggling. The bully was celebrated and cheered."
New York — and San Francisco, London, Paris, and other cities where the cost of living has skyrocketed — are no longer places where you go to be someone. They are places you live when you are born having arrived. They are, as journalist Simon Kuper puts it, "the vast gated communities where the one percent reproduces itself."
There are exceptions in these cities, but they tend to survive by serving the rule. The New York Times recently profiled Sitters Studio, a company that sends artists and musicians into the homes of New York's wealthiest families to babysit their children. "The artist-as-babysitter can be seen as a form of patronage," suggests the Times, "in which lawyers, doctors and financiers become latter-day Medicis."
This is the New York artist today: a literal servant to corporate elites, hired to impart "creativity" to children whose bank accounts outstrip their own.
The Times explains the need for the company as follows: "Parents keep hearing that, in the cutthroat future, only the creative will survive." The "creative" will survive — but what of creativity? Enterprises like Sitters Studio posit creativity as commodification: a taught skill that bolsters business prowess for tiny corporate heirs.
Creativity — as an expression of originality, experimentation, innovation — is not a viable product. It has been priced out into irrelevance — both by the professionalization of the industries that claim it, and the soaring cost of entry to those professions.
The "creative class" is a frozen archetype — one that does not boost the economy of global cities, as urban studies theorist Richard Florida argues, but is a product of their takeover by elites. The creative class plays by the rules of the rich, because those are the only rules left. Adaptation is a form of survival. But adaptation is a form of abandonment as well.
Bias Against Creativity
In an article for Slate, Jessica Olien debunks the myth that originality and inventiveness are valued in U.S. society: "This is the thing about creativity that is rarely acknowledged: Most people don't actually like it."
She cites academic studies indicating that people are biased against creative minds. They crave the success of the result, but shun the process that produces it: the experimentation that may yield to failure, the rejection of social norms that breeds rejection of the artist herself.
Today, creative industries are structured to minimize the diversity of their participants — economically, racially, and ideologically. Credentialism, not creativity, is the passport to entry.
Over the past decade, as digital media made it possible for anyone, anywhere, to share their ideas and work, barriers to professional entry tightened and geographical proximity became valued. Fields where advanced degrees were once a rarity — art, creative writing — now view them as a requirement. Unpaid internships and unpaid labor are rampant, blocking off industry access for those who cannot work without pay in the world's most expensive cities.
As digital media made it possible for anyone, anywhere, to share their ideas and work, barriers to professional entry tightened and geographical proximity became valued.
Yet to discuss it, as artist Molly Crabapple notes in her brilliant essay "Filthy Lucre," is verboten. Recalling her years as a struggling artist, she remembers being told by a fellow artist — a successful man living off his inherited money — that a "real artist" must live in poverty.
"What the artist was pretending he didn't know is that money is the passport to success," she writes. "We may be free beings, but we are constrained by an economic system rigged against us. What ladders we have are being yanked away. Some of us will succeed. The possibility of success is used to call the majority of people failures."
Failure, in an economy of extreme inequalities, is a source of fear. To fail in an expensive city is not to fall but to plummet. In expensive cities, the career ladder comes with a drop-off to hell, where the fiscal punishment for risk gone wrong is more than the average person can endure. As a result, innovation is stifled, conformity encouraged. The creative class becomes the leisure class — or they work to serve the latter's needs, or they abandon their fields entirely.
Nothing to Fear ...
But creative people should not fear failure. Creative people should fear the prescribed path to success — its narrowness, its specificity, its reliance on wealth and elite approval. When success is a stranglehold, true freedom is failure. The freedom to fail is the freedom to innovate, to experiment, to challenge.
In 2012, St. Louis artist Martin Brief debuted his drawing "Success." The drawing consisted only of a dictionary definition of success, with each word broken down into its own definition, until, as he writes, "the language can be read but will not yield any greater understanding of what the word means."
It is a mockery of careerism made all the more salient by Brief's residence in St. Louis — where success, by definition, is supposed to be impossible. To "succeed," one is supposed to leave a city like St. Louis — a Middle-American city associated with poverty and crime. To "succeed" is to embody the definition of contemporary success: sanctioned, sanitized, solvent.
But sanctioned success is dependent on survival, and it is hard for most people to survive in an art world capital like New York, where some homeless people work two jobs. Success by geographical proxy comes with a price: purchased freedom for the rich, serving the rich for the rest. But what happens when we veer off that path? Is it failure? Or is it redefined, recognized anew?
Creativity is sometimes described as thinking outside the box. Today the box is a gilded cage. In a climate of careerist conformity, cheap cities with bad reputations — where, as art critic James McAnally notes, "no one knows whether it is possible for one to pursue a career" — may have their own advantage. "In the absence of hype, ideas gather, connections build, jagged at first, inarticulate," McAnally writes of St. Louis. "Then, all of a sudden, worlds emerge."
Perhaps it is time to reject the "gated citadels" — the cities powered by the exploitation of ambition, the cities where so much rides on so little opportunity. Reject their prescribed and purchased paths, as Smith implored, for cheaper and more fertile terrain. Reject the places where you cannot speak out, and create, and think, and fail. Open your eyes to where you are, and see where you can go.
— Originally published December 17, 2013
The Peril of Hipster Economics
On May 16, an artist, a railway service and a government agency spent $291,978 to block poverty from the public eye.
Called "psychylustro," German artist Katharina Grosse's project is a large- scale work designed to distract Amtrak train riders from the dilapidated buildings and fallen factories of north Philadelphia. The city has a 28 percent poverty rate — the highest of any major U.S. city — with much of it concentrated in the north. In some north Philadelphia elementary schools, nearly every child is living below the poverty line.
Grosse partnered with the National Endowment of the Arts and Amtrak to mask north Philadelphia's hardship with a delightful view. A Wall Street Journal headline calls this "Fighting Urban Blight With Art." Liz Thomas, the curator of the project, calls it "an experience that asks people to think about this space that they hurtle through every day."
The project is not actually fighting blight, of course — only the ability of Amtrak customers to see it.
"I need the brilliance of color to get close to people, to stir up a sense of life experience and heighten their sense of presence," Grosse proclaims.
"People," in Grosse and Thomas's formulation, are not those who actually live in north Philadelphia and bear the brunt of its burdens. "People" are those who can afford to view poverty through the lens of aesthetics as they pass it by.
Urban decay becomes a set piece to be remodeled or romanticized. This is hipster economics.
Influx of Hipsters
In February, director Spike Lee delivered an impassioned critique — derisively characterized as a "rant" by U.S. media outlets — on the gentrification of New York City. Arguing that an influx of "... hipsters" had driven up rent in most neighborhoods — and in turn driven out the African-American communities that once called them home — he noted how long-dormant city services suddenly reappeared:
"Why does it take an influx of white New Yorkers in the south Bronx, in Harlem, in Bed Stuy, in Crown Heights for the facilities to get better? The garbage wasn't picked up every ... day when I was living in 165 Washington Park ... So, why did it take this great influx of white people to get the schools better? Why's there more police protection in Bed Stuy and Harlem now? Why's the garbage getting picked up more regularly? We been here!"
Lee was criticized by many for "hipster-bashing," including African- American professor John McWhorter, who claimed that "hipster" was a "sneaky way of saying 'honkey'" and compared Lee to television character George Jefferson.
These dismissals, which focus on gentrification as culture, ignore that Lee's was a critique of the racist allocation of resources. Black communities whose complaints about poor schools and city services go unheeded find these complaints are readily addressed when wealthier, whiter people move in. Meanwhile, longtime locals are treated as contagions on the landscape, targeted by police for annoying the new arrivals.
Gentrifiers focus on aesthetics, not people. Because people, to them, are aesthetics.
Proponents of gentrification will vouch for its benevolence by noting it "cleaned up the neighborhood." This is often code for a literal whitewashing. The problems that existed in the neighborhood — poverty, lack of opportunity, struggling populations denied city services — did not go away. They were simply priced out to a new location.
Excerpted from "The View From Flyover Country"
Copyright © 2015 Sarah Kendzior.
Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of ContentsIntroduction: The Audacity of Despair
PART I: FLYOVER COUNTRY
The View from Flyover Country
Expensive Cities Are Killing Creativity
The Peril of Hipster Economics
Mourn the Fall of the Mall
PART II: THE POST-EMPLOYMENT ECONOMY
Surviving the Post-Employment Economy
Meritocracy for Sale
Survival Is Not an Option
A Government Shutdown, a Social Breakdown
The Men Who Set Themselves on Fire
Charity Is Not a Substitute for Justice
The Unaffordable Baby Boomer Doom
The Millennial Parent
Mothers Are Not "Opting Out"They Are Out of Options
PART III: RACE AND RELIGION
The Wrong Kind of Caucasian
The Fallacy of the Phrase "the Muslim World"
In the Trial of Trayvon, the U.S. Is Guilty
St. Louis's Sons, Taken Too Soon
The Freedom to Criticize Free Speech
PART IV: HIGHER EDUCATION
The Closing of American Academia
Academic Paywalls Mean Publish and Perish
Academia's Indentured Servants
The Political Consequences of Academic Paywalls
The Immorality of College Admissions
College Is a Promise the Economy Does Not Keep
PART V: MEDIA
Managed Expectations in the Post-Employment Economy
Who Is a "Journalist"? People Who Can Afford to Be
Blame It on the Internet
When the Mainstream Media Are the Lunatic Fringe
PART VI: BEYOND FLYOVER COUNTRY
U.S. Foreign Policy's Gender Gap
Snowden and the Paranoid State
Iraq and the Reinvention of Reality
Where Following the Law is Radical
Water is a Human Right, But Who is Considered a Human Being?
The Telegenically Dead
In Defense of Complaining