The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misplaced even the four-letter words they scrawled. It was a country in which families routinely disappeared, trailing bad checks and repossession papers. Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past and the future as snakes shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held the society together. People were missing. Children were missing. Parents were missing. Those left behind filed desultory missing-persons reports, then moved on themselves.
It was not a country in open revolution. It was not a country under enemy siege. It was the United States of America in the cold late spring of 1967 and the market was steady and the G.N.P. high and a great many articulate people seemed to have a sense of high social purpose and it might have been a spring of brave hopes and national promise, but it was not, and more and more people had the uneasy apprehension that it was not.
Didion's description resonates with the bleak economic picture of today. Yet in the summer heat of 2010, I saw in Seattle a dynamic city, not shiny or idealised, but idealistic. Laid back and grounded, friendly, mostly. Progressive laws are being passed, allowing more intensive use of urban properties and promoting urban agriculture. Previously outbuildings could not be used for shelter. Now, outbuildings up to 800 square feet are permissible, for in-law suites, yoga studios, artists' retreats, and countless creative and functional purposes. And if your heart's desire is to grow produce on your lot, marketing and selling that produce is now legal. Chickens, even! (But not roosters.) To my mind, these changes are proud examples of an embrace of progressive urban policy, grounded in ecological awareness and smart thinking about urban food supply and landuse.
In fact, Seattle seemed to embrace much of what I would name as Canadian values, far more so than the city I live in, the financial capital of Canada, where even the most basic advances in progressive policy are under constant, ugly, partisan contest. Urban vs suburban, north vs south, old immigrants vs new immigrants, haves vs have-nots. My city, the largest in Canada, arguably a major engine of the economy, is in decline and disfunction, infrastructure falling apart, and feeling not unlike the Seattle I used to know.
Seattle was the site of massive protests against the WTO meeting there in 1999. I wonder if the conditions that unnerved me in 1990s Seattle, the edgey, on-the-verge and dangerous vibe, were part of what created this event? I do not know enough to offer an analysis, but I wonder how much underlying social issues in the city drove the scale of the protests? Most interesting to me are the progressive turns in the city's policies since then. Are these things related? Is there something hopeful here, a positive outcome to those protests on a local scale?
Toronto had its own controversy this year with the G20 meetings: huge protests, extreme police presence, and abuse of policing power. Civil liberties (the right to gather, the right to free speech) were deeply compromised. The police board is investigating, and there have been multiple calls for a full public inquiry. The city was damaged by this event, psychologically wounded by visions of violence and violation. I wonder how, in 10 years or so, Toronto will be? Will we continue to blindly promote public penury for private gain, as our infrastructure and social safety nets and civil liberties crumble? Or will the long painful process of post-G20 inquiries help shift the tone, help us embrace our creative, courageous hearts, and make positive, progressive, holistic adaptations? Can the friction we experience here, now, be simply the inertia that clings until momentum has caught us? Time will tell.