Here in St Louis, Garrison Keilor’s Prairie Home Companion radio show is on Sundays around lunch-time. I did not recognise his voice at first — he used to be syndicated on ABC radio in Australia until funding cuts meant that our national broadcaster could not afford the public-radio rates — I thought the program was another of the many religious homily shows that dominates the airways. Across the dial here, both on AM and FM, all that it is possible to find on Sundays is sport or religion, and I’m not sure why I stopped on this station.
Garrison Keilor’s voice has become mellow with age, but his gentle satire about hometown America continues, as does his obvious revelling in the banal, loving details of place. The episode from Kansas City had him and others singing praises to the flatlands — the sense of space that comes from a landscape that stretches across the plains for miles without a hill or valley — while expressing gentle concern about the takeover of flatland life by cell phones and the invasions of the Evangelites.com.
Religious evangelism is being keenly debated across the airwaves, and the latest public discussion in the United States is about whether or not there was ‘intelligent design’ in the universe. This became the context for Garrison Keilor to throw his concern into the conversation that the chaos after Katrina ‘sort of challenges the notion of “intelligent design” in New Orleans’ — or at least it seems, says Garrison, that George W Bush and his team might have missed out on that aspect of God’s work. Different perspectives on how the federal and state governments handled the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are splitting the nation, but one thing continues to hold the country together: neighbourhood is important. Everybody is in favour of good neighbourliness as long as it does not cost too much.
Signs of neighbourhood figure everywhere. Seventh-day Adventists come to the front door and say ‘Hello neighbour, we’d like to introduce ourselves, and share with you your thoughts. We were wondering in the aftermath of Katrina whether you have had occasion to think about God’. The exchange had the feeling of a Simpsons episode. I could have sworn that they never did introduce themselves, and sharing my thoughts with strangers seemed a bit one-sided; still, they were extremely polite in leaving. I did not give them a chance. They had probably come to disavow the email and blog messages swirling around the United States on radical Christian websites. Some proclaim that Sodom had been destroyed, and others write about Sodom’s five abortion clinics now rightly under water. Columbia Christians for Life sent out junk email with photographs comparing the satellite images of Katrina to a tadpole-tucked foetus.
Neighbourliness also comes through the mail. In the box on the front porch we get masses of junk mail addressed to ‘Our Neighbours at 6428 San Bonita Ave’. A regular piece of correspondence, the Money Mailer, comes with a mess of further mailings of local coupons including a ‘FREE 12 months Personal Training’ voucher with every new membership of Muscle-Up Fitness, ‘Your Neighbourhood Gym! It’s like being at home’. Papa John’s Pizza sent us a brochure for another special offer with the heading ‘Let’s get to know each other better’. This mail is addressed to ‘Auto**3-DIGIT 631 Papa John’s Neighbour, 6428 San Bonita Ave’. Underneath the main heading, an eager, smiling John Schnatter, Founder, stands with his hands on his hips wearing a baker’s apron — not very ‘papa’-ish but the picture of entrepreneurial solidity — and the brochure boasts that for six years straight, Papa John’s has been listed as ‘#1 in customer satisfaction’, whatever that means.
St Louis Post-Dispatch advertise themselves pizza-style as ‘home delivered — any way you like it! There’s never been a better time to subscribe to St Louis Post-Dispatch. We’ve added more coverage, with more in-depth news oriented to your community’. Certainly, the New Orleans disaster seems to have pushed any international news into a half-page section in the deep middle of the paper.
Neighbourhood is all — even down to the banalities of how one walks around the streets. Around the immediate vicinity of San Bonita Avenue, the cars stop for pedestrians even when they look like they might try to cross the road. Drivers do not seem to need a reason to give way. Start to walk across a road in the face of oncoming traffic and the cars stop twenty metres distant so as not to make you feel intimidated or suggest that they are not being attentive to your walking needs.
However, it is impossible to buy bread and milk in the neighbourhood, and venturing out onto the major thoroughfares to find a hypermart changes everything. The status of the pedestrian goes from sacred to pariah. Out of one’s neighbourhood, the walker becomes an annoyance that causes traffic lights to change, and right-hand-with-caution turns to be slowed down unnecessarily. The gas-guzzling sports utility vehicles (SUVs) — that have come in for some implicit criticism in the aftermath of Katrina, with gasoline prices going over $3 a gallon — all seem to have drivers that cannot see strangers through their tinted windows.
Back in the leafy streets of De Mun and San Bonita, the SUV drivers look out for their neighbours, and the only immediate indications that Pleasantville is not perfect are the ‘Neighbourhood Watch’ signs and the entrance ways that close around the gated neighbourhoods. De Mun is a genuinely friendly neighbourhood. The subdivision was laid out in the 1920s and is an early implementation of Henry Wright’s ‘New Town’ ideals of creating communities around parks, schools, sidewalk cafes and shops. It goes against the mall culture of middle America and was listed earlier in the year on the National Register of Historic Places. This is a place where the President of the PTO (Parent–Teacher Organisation) invites your family to dinner as a complete stranger on the basis that your son and her son are playing in the same musical group at the local school. However, behind the scenes lurks a more insidious threat. There is a document floating around on the internet called the ‘Clayton Road Urban Design District’ of September 2005. It is written in the language of protecting neighbourhood. The town planners are simply asking for ‘flexibility’ with increases in high allowances, and their pictures of five-story buildings are very tasteful, but it all points to Development with a capital ‘D’. I can now see why there are a series of houses in Clayton Road that have ‘For Sale’ signs on them.
The idea of neighbourliness is being stretched in other ways at the moment as Katrina has laid bare the shocking level of poverty and inequality in some suburbs of New Orleans. Americans are being encouraged to take in people ‘in transition’ after the flooding. However, very quickly the positive side of concern for one’s neighbour has been subsumed under the rush to ‘reconstruct’ the damaged Gulf States. In New Orleans, volunteers are only welcome to be part of the reconstruction effort if they sign legal waiver clauses saying that if they become sick because of the toxic waters or through accident they have no recourse to support from the agencies that are organising their labour. In Biloxi, realty companies have moved quickly into the riverfront areas and are buying up property at greatly depressed prices. In Gulfport, razor wire is being used to divide the damaged neighbourhoods from the port area. And in big-city USA, at the headquarters of those reconstruction companies we have come to know so well from their Iraq War profiteering, executives with connections to the Bush Government are now signing huge state contracts for rebuilding New Orleans that will keep them in business for years to come. This is reconstruction the capitalist way. Whether it is the Gulf War or the reconstruction of the Gulf States around New Orleans, alternative, co-operative and locally managed processes of reconstruction seem to be beyond consideration.
After Katrina and Rita, life is slowly returning to normal in the Gulf States. Unfortunately this means that we will be left with the rhetoric of neighbourhood and the reality of a divided society, with some people living very comfortably and others in dog-eat-dog hardship. As reported in the New York Times, ‘Gasoline is flowing at the stations and water is beginning to trickle from the faucets, though it is still undrinkable. There is even a man in pizza costume enticing customers to a local Papa John’s’.
I’m getting obsessed now I know, but the examples of neighbourly junk mail continue to gather on the kitchen table. I now look for the telling details. Linens-n-Things have just sent us their catalogue addressed to ‘1 0384 G-29-04-93-0-1 Our Neighbour at 6428 San Bonita’, and their own mailing address — 6 Brighton Road, Clifton, New Jersey — is half the country away. The Pottery Barn catalogue of over two hundred pages arrived with its envelope proclaiming ‘Welcome to the neighbourhood’. Inside is a personal letter from the President of Pottery Barn, Laura Alber:
Dear Paul, Welcome to your new home! It’s good to have you in the neighbourhood. Now that you’ve moved in, it’s time to enjoy the excitement that comes with decorating a new home. As a welcome, we’d like to offer you a special 10 per cent discount on your next purchase with us.
One piece of mail that did not work for me was Amant’s Floor-Care postcard that says ‘We’ve been in your neighbourhood! Your neighbour loves us, your floor loves us, & you will too!’ Two exclamation marks suggests they are trying too hard.
More significantly, on the back of the card in old-fashioned typescript it says, ‘We’ve been at your neighbour’s at 6430 San Bonita Ave’. It stops me slow. They have been next door. It is all getting too close for comfort; they have been inside the neighbour’s house. This is how the Simpsons turns quickly into David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, and I think of Arlington Road, Mark Pellington’s classic thriller where the neighbours turn out to be terrorists and the catch-line is: ‘Fear thy neighbour … your paranoia is real’.
I do, however, feel welcomed — really welcomed, including by people in the street who smile benignly and knowingly at us when we let the neighbour’s dog off its lead against Clayton municipal leash law — but I began to wonder how every commercial franchise in the neighbourhood and across the country seemed to know that we had just arrived. And then the telephone bill also arrived, and it became obvious that the SBC Knowledge Ventures phone company sells off the addresses to its new customers. The surcharges on the account include: the Federal Subscriber Line Charge, the Special E911 Tax; the MO Universal Service Fund (Long Distance), the Federal Universal Service Fee, the Federal Universal Fund; Regulatory Surcharges, the Relay Missouri Surcharge, the MO Universal Service Fund and the Special Municipal Charge. That is, in addition to the taxes: the Federal (Local Charges), the Federal (Non-regulated and Toll Charges), the State and Local (Local Charges) and the State and Local (Non-regulated and Toll Charges). In further addition, and apart from the charge for the internet use, there was also a FUSF Pass-Through Fee, a Shipping and Handling Charge for the modem, a DSL Modem Package Charge and a number of service charges: a Federal Universal Service Fee, a Federal Subscriber Line Charge, a Federal Universal Service Fund Fee and Regulatory Surcharges, whatever that means. You can see that I studied the bill quite closely, but nowhere was there a refund listed in acknowledgement that they had sold off our address to neighbourhood capitalism.
There are lots of other indications that ‘Neighbourhood is all’ — even the national neighbourhood. At Captain Elementary School, the fifth graders are currently learning about the settlement of North America by ‘Native Americans’ who came across the Bering Strait and drifted southward. Interestingly, Native Americans started in Alaska, seemed to miss Canada and then settle in the United States without going further south across the border to Mexico.
At the Captain School they use the Nystrom World Altas (Nystrom, Chicago, 2004). It makes a feature of comparing all the regions and major countries to the United States by overlaying a map of the US. No other cross-comparisons are made. I went to a forum on Hurricane Katrina at Washington University and, though it was brilliant on class and race, the weather map they used had the same quality. The storm came out of the Gulf — not the Gulf of Mexico, but the Gulf region — and seemed not to affect anybody else but the Gulf States of the USA. I had heard that the oyster industry on the east coast of Mexico had been destroyed, but the panelists’ eloquent concern for those affected by the hurricane did not extend geographically beyond images of service-industry workers shucking oysters in the bars in the French Quarter or exporter industries along the Mississippi River who were suffering because Gulfport had been closed down. This is the sort of thing that, wisely, Garrison Keilor won’t comment on. When asked last week why he thought that America was not doing so well in the world, he turned the question back on his interlocutor and said: Oh, I don’t know, I’m not sure that we have enough time in the program to handle that one. In sixty seconds or less, why do you think it is so?
Paul James is an Arena Publications Editor.