Rio de Janeiro’s Summer Olympics: Searching for Legacies

This week in North Philly Notes, Philip Evanson, co-author of Living in the Crossfire, writes about the aftermath of Rio’s summer Olympics.  

The Rio de Janeiro summer Olympic and Para Olympic games ended September l8. Most Brazilians, the media, and Olympic organizers concluded the city of Rio and consequently Brazil had done well by the six week marathon of games and individual competitions. The reputation of Cariocas, the name for residents of Rio, as hospitable, upbeat, generous people with a marked talent for improvisation was reinforced. Furthermore, the second act Para Olympics more than held their own. 2.1 million tickets to Para Olympics events were sold, the second largest number in the history of the games. Enthusiasm for Para Olympics athletes was obvious, a victory lap for greater social inclusion, for anyone with a physical disability.

The run up to the games included many efforts to forsee Olympic legacies. In Rio de Janeiro’s 2009 bid, the Olympics were presented as a spur that would set in motion or speed up completion of several large scale projects. Topping the list was master plan to improve the city’s public transportation and traffic flow. By the start of the games in 2016, there were new BRT corridors, completion of a long planned 4th metro line, and a light rail tram line in downtown Rio connecting the main bus station with the domestic Santos Dumont airport. They added high quality links between international and domestic airports, and Rio’s western and northern suburbs. They finally brought rapid public transit to upscale Barra da Tijuca connecting it to prosperous southern zone neighborhoods of Botafogo, Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon. The construction of lengthy tunnels replacing an overhead freeway in the downtown port area allowed its revitalization to proceed as a tranquil zone of new museums and pedestrian leisure. The revitalized port was christened Porto Maravilha suggesting a modern world wonder or marvel. For Mayor Eduardo Paes and Olympic organizers, Porto Maravilha ranked in importance with the upgrades in public transportation as the other main legacy of the Olympics.

Layout 1Clearly, the middle and upper classes benefit from BRTs, the new metro line, and the opening of long downtown tunnels where traffic flow is not interrupted. They reduce travel time, and demonstrate contemporary big city public transportation at its best.  But will new bus and expanded metro service be within reach of low wage workers and their families, many of whom live in favelas, and distant suburbs? They commonly earn the monthly minimum wage of approximately $300. The cost of a month’s travel to and from work taking the BRT and metro has been calculated as 1/3 of a minimum salary.  Without employer paid travel to work, as might be the case in the informal economy, the cost will be too great for someone earning the minimum wage. The job seeker will look for work close to home. Moving beyond work to leisure, the cost of public transportation to and from Porto Maravilha can also be high. This reinforces a tendency of residents of poor communities to stay at home, to turn inward and be more community bound than they might want. Often overlooked is the frugality of Rio’s low wage workers as they budget for basics such as food, clothing, rent and transportation. Perhaps for these reasons, authorities have considered the option of free rides on the new light rail tram that passes through Porto Maravilha. No doubt they felt a need to show good faith in putting its attractions within reach of as many of Rio’s communities as possible, even more so in the midst of hard fought municipal elections.

There are also distinctly negative legacies. One that dogs the reputation of Mayor Eduardo Paes was yet another cycle of removing poor residents, even whole communities, from homes largely built by them. They were moved and their homes demolished in order to make way for new road and Olympics construction. Removal was part of the first remaking the port area between 1902 and 1906 as overseen by then Mayor Pereira Passos. 20,000 individuals were uprooted as their residences were razed. Many resettled in the nearby favela of Providencia. In the early 1960’s, when the federal government moved to Brasília and the city of Rio de Janeiro became the state of Guanabara, its governor Carlos Lacerda removed 30,000 favela residents from areas he saw as belonging to the middle and upper classes. Lacerda also wanted land for building what became the state university of Rio de Janeiro. Lacerda’s uprooted residents were relocated to the then-new Cidade de Deus (City of God), and to Vila Kennedy, a distant suburban community where the cost of building the housing was partly paid for by the United States Alliance for Progress Program. However, these numbers do not approach the estimated 77,000 individuals removed by Mayor Paes.

For most evicted residents, there was new public housing, or the promise of new public housing. But it was away from the communities in which they had lived which in some cases might be entirely eradicated. A 2016 study of the evictions by Lucas Faulhaber and Lena Azevedo, explained how this was done. In the case of the squatter settler without title to the land removal could be relatively easy. The land might be declared an “area of risk,” meaning the state was acting to save lives, an argument not always easy to contest. Where residents had titles, removal was more difficult. Such was the case of Vila Autódromo whose history as a working class community dated to the late 1960’s. A main quality of Vila Autódromo was tranquility, even bucolic tranquility, in densely populated, noisy Rio de Janeiro. Furthermore, it was a stable working class community without drug traffickers, militias, violence or homicides. For good reasons, its residents did not want to leave. Furthermore, they felt secure having been granted a 99-year right to use the land by former Rio Governor Leonel Brizola in 1994. As late as 2010, Vila Autódromo had a population of 4,000. However, Vila Autódromo stood at the designated point of entry into the Olympic Park for athletes, reporters, Olympic officials and visitors.

Mayor Paes was determined to remove the community. He brushed aside the document with a 99-year right to use the land. It was a “papelucho” or piece of paper of a political demagogue. Paes claimed he needed to build access roads through Vila Autódromo to the new Olympic Village. In 2013, a group of urban planners from the two local federal universities developed a plan showing that building access roads was possible without removal, and that under this plan, the cost would be much lower. The plan went on to win the Deutche Bank Urban Age Award. Paes then argued people coming to the Olympic village would feel unsafe at the sight of a Brazilian working class community so near to them. It was a case of visual pollution. Vila Autódromo did not look middle or upper class. Vila Autódromo defenders pointed to its record of safety, without shootouts or drug trafficking gangs. The Mayor’s team continued to pressure people to leave in exchange for an apartment in one of two new public housing projects. As time passed and people continued to stay, large cash indemnities began to be offered. Residents were harassed as water and electricity were turned on and off. Still a dwindling group determined to stay. Heloisa Helena Costa Berto was a poor black woman and candomblé priestess with a small home and ceremonial religious center in Vila Autódromo. She was also intent on staying. Mayor Paes told her he wanted the area “cleaned.” For critics of removal, Berto had become a victim “social cleansing.” She watched her home and center being demolished in February 2016. Then three months later on May 13, the date slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888, she received an award from the state legislature “conceded to those who work for the improvement of Afro-descendant, Latin American and Caribbean women of the state of Rio.” In Brazil, many contradictions are on display, or as the local expression has it, “Brazil has these things.” For twenty residents who continued to hold out, the city of Rio was forced to build 20 houses on a small area of what had once been Vila Autódromo.

Perhaps the most unconvincing appropriation of legacy was the illegal and unjustified construction of the Olympic golf course. Golf is an elite, not popular sport in Brazil. A newly built Olympic golf course was partly sold as a contribution to growing its popularity, particularly since the course would be open for a few years to the public. But with green fees of $75, few who are not in the upper middle or upper classes were likely to try golf. Furthermore, Rio de Janeiro already had one private club suitable for international championship golf. But Paes and the local Olympic committee did not pursue this option. Instead, the Rio city council passed a decree in December, 2012 allowing a substantial piece of land to be detached from the Marapendí ecological reserve for building the Olympic golf course. The decree violated Brazilian law in two ways: there were no public hearings, nor was there a required environmental impact study. The transferred land was no longer subject to strict environmental regulations. Without the regulations, it was easier to build nearby luxury high rise condominiums that were the specialty of developer RJZ Cyrela, a large campaign contributor to Mayor Paes. An odor of corruption has overhung the construction of the Olympic golf course from the beginning. Marco Mello, local biologist and environmental activist looking at Olympic area condominium building, and the history of the unnecessary golf course provided his own legacy judgment: “Without a doubt, the Olympics are a great real estate scam.” In the October 2nd election for mayor, Eduardo Paes’ handpicked candidate to succeed him finished badly in third place with 16% of the vote.

Meet Davarian Baldwin, co-editor of the Press’s Urban Life, Landscape, and Policy series

This week, in North Philly Notes, a Q&A with Davarian Baldwin, the new editor for Temple University Press’ Urban Life, Landscape, and Policy series.

You have written about migration and Black Urban Life. What drew you to that field of study within American studies?
I am the child of the Great Migration. I am the first generation in my family to be born in the north during the Second Great Migration. While many of my family stopped and settled in other cities like Chicago, my segment of the family kept moving on to a smaller town called Beloit, Wisconsin because I think, even though full of factories it, in some ways, reminded them more of their Mississippi home.

10-041 - Trinity - Davarian - Web Feature

10-041 – Trinity – Davarian – Web Feature

Can you talk about the kinds of books you are looking to acquire for the Urban Life, Landscape, and Policy series?
I would love to acquire books that make bold arguments while, if historical, work closely with less examined archives. I would love to see books that are both global and local in scope…books that feature the city as a crossroads for different people, ideas, and aspirations all deeply grounded within the details of their urban spaces. I want to see books that don’t look at the city as just the repository for social and historical experience, but understand the built environment as equally influential, as a central actor in the storyline…books that balance their attention on the structure of cities and the agency of human lives. For me, recent books that have some or all of these qualities include Beryl Satter’s Family Properties, Nathan D.B. Connolly’s A World More Concrete, and Andrew Needham’s Power Lines.

What book (or books) made you fall in love with reading and the power of words?
While I write and edit non-fiction academic work, I must be honest and say that fiction has always been my first love. In fact I make sure to read interesting and provocative fiction when I am writing more scholarly work. As a child the books were Beverly Cleary and alternative Star Wars fiction. As a teenager The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Alice Walker’s The Temple of My Familiar, and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon changed my life. The book that has stayed with me and challenged me with its combination of searing social commentary and elegant and witty prose remains Ellison’s Invisible Man. I have built an entire course around this book and I find something new in that novel every time I teach the course. To be sure, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth was the next generation version of that book but added a decidedly more urban flavor to Ellison’s racial satire. I think in the more academic realm, W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk and C.L. R. James Beyond a Boundary have done the same thing for me.

What was the last great book you read?
I am a big fan of science fiction and mystery/police procedurals, especially when the genres are both in the same book…so that makes Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife definitely the last great book I read. For me it sort of offers the prose response to one of my favorite non-fiction urban studies; Mike Davis’ City of Quartz.

What one book would you recommend everyone read?
Again mystery books/procedurals are fabulous because the great ones have amazing social commentary about gender, race, social position, inequality and so many feature the city as a central character in the story. I would recommend everyone read Paco Ignacio Taibo’s Some Clouds.

What book did you find overrated or just disappointing?
Certainly not disappointing, but as a scholar of the Great Migration, I didn’t find anything new or exciting in The Warmth of Other Suns. Yet I certainly appreciated how its prose style made decades of scholarship more accessible to a much wider audience. On the fiction side, I found Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections a bit overrated. 

What book do you wish more people knew about?
Salvador Plascencia’s The People of Paper, is an unheralded master work, not just because of its inventive prose but because the ideas in the book are expressed in the paper quality, the typeset, and materials used in the making of the very book itself. I wish the publishing market would allow more books to reflect their ideas and themes in the construction of the actual book

What author(s), living or dead, would you be most interested in having over for dinner? WOW, I hate that I don’t cook! Not just because we share the same surname but certainly James Baldwin because of his courageousness, force of nature, ethical posture, faithfulness to everyday people, impatience with pettiness, and all qualities held with flare and wit. I think I would also want to hang out with Steig Larsson…what would it be like to push out a trilogy of prose in the face of your impending death? The courage that must take as a writer when one could easily curl up in a ball

possessive_investment_rev_ed_smWhat Temple University Press title could you not put down and why?
George Lipsitz’s Possessive Investments in Whiteness was certainly from a different time, a time when the mainstream took more seriously the idea that racial identity can in fact shape life chances and access to important resources etc. But while in the 1990’s a whole shelf of books came out in the form of memoirs or celebrations of whiteness, Lipsitz’s was a thoughtful essay so rich in archival depth demonstrating clearly how state power and private wealth have been so closely tethered to white racial identity. Here the idea that race is a social construction did not justify a dismissal of the concept but called for a more rigorous understanding of its social and hence lived power.

Temple University Press is having a Back-to-School SALE!



Public Security: The Most Important Theme in Rio de Janeiro

In his second Olympic-themed blog entry, Philip Evanson, co-author of Living in the Crossfire, addresses the theme of public security in Rio during the Games.

Two term Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes, who has easily been the most interviewed and quoted public authority for the Rio Olympic games, has said more than once that public security is the most important theme in Rio de Janeiro. For Olympics organizers, a main question always has been will public security forces be able to control Rio de Janeiro’s rising street crime and newly emboldened gangs. A much less publicized question—How can anti-Olympics protesters be repressed without violating their human rights?—has already been answered: It can’t be done. The protesters demonstrate against what they view as public money misused on the Olympics because it is needed much more for health, education and various social programs. There are also protesters—some doubtlessly the same individuals—fighting against the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff. They see impeachment now entering its final phase as a coup d’etat by her political party opponents against Brazilian social democracy. Not discussed at all in politically charged Brazil is the fear of sabotage by opponents of the Olympics or the government—such as setting fires in Olympic installations. All of the above are the various public security fears that must haunt an authority such as Minister of Justice Alexander de Moraes. Focused on Brazilian behavior which is what he knows best, Moraes has played down the possibility of foreign ISIL inspired terrorist attacks.

In the lead up to the Olympic games, public security preparations were usually discussed as numbers of police and of funding them. Taking the lead in providing security is the state of Rio with more than 30,000 police available for Olympic duties. However, for most of 2016, the state of Rio has been broke. On June 17, 81 year old vice-governor and economist Francisco Dornelles—acting in the place of Governor Luis Fernando Pezão then undergoing treatment for lymphoma—rattled Olympic organizers when he declared that Rio de Janeiro was in a “state of public calamity.” It was the first time in Brazilian history this designation had been used to describe anything other than a natural disaster. An immediate effect was the return of 50,000 Olympic event tickets. Dornelles also took experts in public administration by surprise. They questioned whether a “state of public calamity” could be applied to a fiscal collapse. But the wily acting governor, a veteran of 30 years of political combat in Rio de Janeiro, got what he wanted. He activated an immediate transfer of 2.9 billion reais, about 900 million dollars at the current exchange rate, from the federal government to Rio de Janeiro. The money was to help strengthen public security at a time when state police forces more and more appeared not up to the job protecting the people of Rio, the athletes, and the half million tourists expected for the Olympics. The transfer meant police and other public service professionals including teachers and health workers could expect to receive their salaries. One or more local gangs took notice and responded by hijacking a truck transporting containers just arrived from Europe. The containers carried the equipment of two German TV networks for transmitting the Olympic games. The truck was later abandoned. The containers had not been opened, and the valuable equipment was untouched and safe. But the gangsters served notice that they had interests of their own. Following this show of strength, some arrangement might be expected whereby organized crime groups will play a part in keeping Rio de Janeiro safe during the Olympics. Retail and wholesale drug trafficking no doubt continues with little interference. Brazil ranks second on the list of countries in consumption of cocaine, and Rio de Janeiro is a major port for the export of cocaine to Africa and Europe.

The police began to receive back salaries dating to May. Still, on July 4, the civil police staged an event at Rio’s international airport when they received passengers with  “Welcome to Hell” English language banners, and with stuffed figures of dead, bloodied police spread on a terminal floor. The message: Police would not die for Rio if they were not being paid. An exasperated Eduardo Paes viewed the spectacle as yet one more public relations disaster. He went on CNN and in an English-language interview pronounced Rio’s public security “Horrible.” He blamed the police, and the Rio state government. He insisted the city government of Rio had nothing to do with public security which is a state responsibility. But he also knew help was on the way. The next day Mayor Paes welcomed the arrival of federal armed forces, federal police, and soldiers of the National Security Force. Together with state police, they are now conspicuously present in order to discourage crime, and reassure visitors that Rio de Janeiro is a safe haven. Accordingly, 51,000 members of security forces have been deployed in metropolitan Rio. 22,000 members of the armed forces and federal police are assigned to protect the Olympic installations, the routes and public transportation taking people to and from the games, and the Tom Jobim international airport. With security apparently well in hand, a much subdued Paes declared on July 5th that the Olympics would surely be a tremendous success and leave a positive legacy for the city of Rio.

Layout 1This optimism lasted a little over two weeks. The evening of July 21 brought news that police were arresting 13 homegrown ISIS inspired would-be terrorists. All were self-indoctrinated converts to Islam. They communicated with each other via social media. Calling themselves “Defenders of Sharia,” they pledged allegiance to ISIS as virtual acts on the internet. One suspect was said to have tried to buy weapons in Paraguay.   Minister of Justice Moraes said the individuals were clearly amateurs, and in the early stage of planning something.

The arrests and revelations clearly added to public uneasiness in Rio de Janeiro, and mobilized authorities. Would Brazilian security forces be up to the job of thwarting one or more terrorist attacks? There was skepticism as can well be imagined. But people soon learned that the project of thwarting had become internationalized. Other countries, including the United States, France, Israel and Russia with their more experienced intelligence services were present for the Olympics and working with Brazilians which brought reassurance. Intelligence and other security agents—no doubt feeling their backs to the wall after all the recent terrorist attacks in different countries—seem absolutely determined to stop terrorists at the Olympics, be they a Brazilian home grown variety, or foreigners infiltrated into Olympic crowds and groups of tourists. It’s them against us. In this spirit of providing safety, wherever crowds of people gather in Rio, there are substantial numbers of well-armed police or other security forces reinforced by plainclothes agents.

Many people in Brazil and elsewhere no doubt believe that terrorist acts cannot be stopped entirely. The Rio Olympics offer a chance to show otherwise at least for a moment when several billion people around the world are watching the games on TV.  Minister of Justice Moraes has lately declared “minimal” and “approaching zero” the probability of a terrorist attack.

Books to read in conjunction with the DNC

This week in North Philly Notes, in honor of the DNC, we showcase titles that relate to campaigns and elections.

2326_regNavigating Gendered Terrain: Stereotypes and Strategy in Political Campaigns by Kelly Dittmar

From the presidential level down, men and women who run for political office confront different electoral realities. Here Kelly Dittmar investigates not only how gender influences the campaign strategy and behavior of candidates today but also how candidates’ strategic and tactical decisions can influence the gendered nature of campaign institutions. Navigating Gendered Terrain addresses how gender is used to shape the way campaigns are waged by influencing insider perceptions of and decisions about effective campaign messages, images, and tactics within party and political contexts.

2119_regRude Democracy:  Civility and Incivility in American Politics by Susan Herbst

Democracy is, by its very nature, often rude. But there are limits to how uncivil we should be. In this timely and important book, Susan Herbst explores how we discuss public policy, how we treat each other as we do, and how we can create a more civil national culture. Herbst contends that Americans must recognize the bad habits and trends we have developed, use new media for more effective debate, and develop a tougher and more strategic political skin. Rude Democracy outlines a plan for moving forward to create a more civil climate for American politics.

2101_regRace Appeal: How Candidates Invoke Race in U.S. Political Campaigns by Charlton D. McIlwain and Stephen M. Caliendo

In our evolving American political culture, whites and blacks continue to respond very differently to race-based messages and the candidates who use them. Race Appeal examines the use and influence such appeals have on voters in elections for federal office in which one candidate is a member of a minority group. Charlton McIlwain and Stephen Caliendo use various analysis methods to examine candidates who play the race card in political advertisements. They offer a compelling analysis of the construction of verbal and visual racial appeals and how the news media covers campaigns involving candidates of color.

1875_regThe Racial Logic of Politics: Asian Americans and Party Competition by Thomas P. Kim

Thomas Kim shows how racism is embedded in America’s two-party political system by examining the institutional barriers that Asian Americans face in the electoral and legislative processes. According to Kim, political party leaders recognize that Asian Americans are tagged with “ethnic markers” that label them as immutably “foreign,” and as such, parties cannot afford to be too closely associated with (racialized) Asian Americans, demonstrating how the political logic of two-party competition actually works against Asian American political interests.

1922_regCampaign Advertising and American Democracy by Michael M. Franz, Paul B. Freedman, Kenneth M. Goldstein and Travis N. Ridout

It has been estimated that more than three million political ads were televised leading up to the elections of 2004. More than $800,000,000 was spent on TV ads in the race for the White House alone and Presidential candidates, along with their party and interest group allies, broadcast over a million ads—more than twice the number aired before the 2000 elections. What were the consequences of this barrage of advertising? Were viewers turned off by political advertising to the extent that it dissuaded them from voting, as some critics suggest? Did they feel more connected to political issues and the political system or were they alienated? These are the questions this book answers, based on a unique, robust, and extensive database dedicated to political advertising.

1921_regChoices and Changes:  Interest Groups in the Electoral Process by Michael M. Franz

Choices and Changes is the most comprehensive examination to date of the impact of interest groups on recent American electoral politics. Richly informed, theoretically and empirically, it is the first book to explain the emergence of aggressive interest group electioneering tactics in the mid-1990s—including “soft money” contributions, issue ads, and “527s” (IRS-classified political organizations). The book substantially advances our understanding of the significance of interest groups in U.S. politics.


Public Financing in American Elections, edited by Costas Panagopoulos

Reformers argue that public financing of campaigns will help rescue American democracy from the corruptive influence of money in elections. Public Financing in American Elections evaluates this claim in an effort to remove the guesswork from the discussion about public finance. Featuring some of the most senior scholars in political science and electoral studies, this book provides an up-to-date treatment of research and thinking about public campaign finance reforms. Exploring proposals at the local, state, and federal levels, the contributors provide a comprehensive overview of public financing initiatives in the United States and an examination of their impact. Also included are focused analyses of various existing public programs.

1891_regMandates, Parties, and Votes: How Elections Shape the Future by James H. Fowler and Oleg Smirnov

Most research on two-party elections has considered the outcome as a single, dichotomous event: either one or the other party wins. In this groundbreaking book, James Fowler and Oleg Smirnov investigate not just who wins, but by how much, and they marshal compelling evidence that mandates—in the form of margin of victory—matter. Using theoretical models, computer simulation, carefully designed experiments, and empirical data, the authors show that after an election the policy positions of both parties move in the direction preferred by the winning party—and they move even more if the victory is large. In addition, Fowler and Smirnov not only show that the divergence between the policy positions of the parties is greatest when the previous election was close, but also that policy positions are further influenced by electoral volatility and ideological polarization.

And forthcoming in September….

2407_regThe Gendered Executive: A Comparative Analysis of Presidents, Prime Ministers, and Chief Executives edited by Janet M. Martin and MaryAnne Borrelli

Excluded from the ranks of elite executive decision-makers for generations, women are now exercising power as chiefs of government and chiefs of state. As of April 2016, 112 women in 73 countries have served as presidents or prime ministers.  The Gendered Executive is a critical examination of national executives, focusing on matters of identity, representation, and power. The editors and contributors to this volume address the impact of female executives through political mobilization and participation, policy- and decision-making, and institutional change. Other topics include party nomination processes, the intersectionality of race and gender, and women-centered U.S. foreign policy in southern Africa. In addition, case studies from Chile, India, Portugal, and the United States are presented, as are cross-national comparisons of women leaders in Latin America.


Uncanny experiences explained

This week in North Philly Notes, Dennis Waskul, author of Ghostly Encounters,  writes about what prompted him to write about his uncanny experience. 

Whether you are a believer or a skeptic one fact is undeniable: people continue to report uncanny experiences with something that they believe is, or might be, a ghost. Those experiences people have, how they interpret them, and the reasons people believe (or disbelieve) are undeniably real regardless of whether one has faith in the existence of ghosts or, equally, faith in contending that ghosts are a fanciful fiction. In short, ghosts exist as a social and cultural phenomenon, the focus of our research, and the socio-cultural reality of ghosts is entirely independent of the ontology of them. Thus, in Ghostly Encounters, Michele and I have maintained an agnostic perspective on those fundamentally unanswerable questions as we spoke to people who believe they have experienced a ghostly presence and visited places alleged to be haunted. Our focus throughout this book is on the experiences people report, how people arrive at the conclusion that they have encountered a ghostly presence, what those ghosts do to and for people, and the consequences thereof.

Ghostly Encounters_smA wise sociologist, Gary Marx, once taught me to know the difference between a scholar and a fundamentalist. As Gary phrased it so succinctly, “the scholar starts with questions, not with answers.” Seen in this light, fundamentalists come in many guises, and only some of them are religious. Hence, as scholars, Michele and I sought to start with questions about the ghosts that people allegedly encounter, the unique ways that people interpret them, how those ghosts function in the lives of people, what those ghosts do to and for people. Starting with questions, instead of answers, is always at least a bit risky, and mainly because one does not know where those questions will lead, nor what experiences they might facilitate. Indeed, from beginning to end Ghostly Encounters was an incredible adventure for both Michele and I as it led us to people and places we never expected, in addition to understandings and surprising experiences that we did not anticipate. In the end, we sought to replicate that unforeseen experience for our readers with intimate and accessible forms of ethnographic writing that bring our readers inside of these lived experiences of ghostly encounters, within a highly unique organizational structure that assures unexpected surprises. While we hope our readers find the book both informative and enjoyable, above all we urge anyone interested to equally know the difference between a scholar and a fundamentalist—and to start with questions, not answers.

A Q&A with the authors of American Dunkirk

This week in North Philly Notes, we sat down with American Dunkirk co-authors James Kendra and Tricia Wachtendorf to talk about their new book on the boat evacuation from Manhattan that took place on 9/11.

Jim, you are a geographer by training, and Tricia, you are a sociologist. But you both also refer to yourselves as “disaster researchers.” What exactly is disaster research?

As social scientists, we are interested in how people, organizations, and communities think about and behave in disaster situations. How do people experience disaster in different ways? What do we perceive as risky, and why? What helps or hinders coordination, be it in preparing, responding, or recovering from disaster? And then it’s often working with other scientists, be it from engineering, atmospheric, or health science, to solve these problems in a more comprehensive way. Disaster research requires that kind of holistic approach. The Disaster Research Center, where we are fortunate to work, is also well known for quick response research. For over 50 years, its researchers have collected information in the immediate aftermath of disasters, information that often is otherwise forgotten or lost. This has led to critical insights that have improved our understanding of disaster events.

American Dunkirk_smThe boat evacuation on 9/11 is a fascinating story. What drew you to looking at this event?  

We had seen the power of improvised activities in our documentation of some other emergency response activities in New York City, such as the re-establishment of the Emergency Operations Center after the original at 7 World Trade Center had been destroyed. During that study, we began to hear about the boat evacuation. The fact that approximately 500,000 people could be evacuated by boat so successfully without any direct plan in place was amazing, but it was also an example – on a larger scale – of the kind of improvisations we had seen and continued to see in other disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina. And those improvisations extended beyond the boat evacuation, to the bus transport of people once they reached the Jersey shore, to setting up dinner cruise vessels to serve as respite centers for Ground Zero responders, to the retired fireboat John J. Harvey being pulled back into service for fire suppression. We quickly realized there was so much to learn. Plus Jim had been a merchant marine officer, so he was attuned to the aspects of maritime culture: such as the professional obligation to “get the job done” and their capacities for making do with limited equipment. We were grateful for the University of Delaware Research Foundation and National Science Foundation funding to support this extensive work. Over the years there have been a few accounts shared about the boat evacuation, but we still are mostly greeted with surprise when people learn about what transpired along the waterfront that day.

You talked to 100 people involved with various aspects of the boat evacuation and response. What were some of the key lessons you drew from your study?

The boat evacuation is one of many heartening moments throughout an otherwise tragic day, and much of that is grounded in the idea of community. In this case, it was the extended harbor community who were able to envision a role for themselves, who were able to draw on their extensive network within that community, who were open to new ideas that seemed to be working in the moment, and who were able to galvanize the latent resources on their boats, along the shoreline, and across the metropolitan area. But it’s not only the harbor community that can do that. As we’ve said elsewhere, successful disaster response involves ordinary people achieving the extraordinary, solving one problem at a time. What an important insight! Any one of us might not be able to do everything, and there are a lot of things we might not do well, but we can usually do something quite well.

Notable was the number of maritime workers who started out without a plan. They said, “We didn’t know what we were going to do.” But the mariners had a strong ethos of rescue they applied, even if it was a land-based emergency. They had technical and environmental knowledge, and experience working on the fly. But we also learned of a bartender who handed out chips and talked with people queuing up for boats on one of the piers. He saw a need: providing comfort in the form of food and conversation, and it was in his wheelhouse as a bartender to notice the need. We all have something in our wheelhouse.911_CGboard

Before 9/11, and to a much greater degree afterward, public officials and policymakers were emphasizing the need for “command and control.” But large-scale disasters are always characterized by emerging and unplanned activities that are better coordinated than controlled. It’s OK to strive to get a sense of the big picture, but we also have to recognize that no one will have that in the midst of an unfolding disaster. Responses that work involve people starting to put together their part of the picture, alongside other formal and informal responders. It’s a community effort, at its heart.

James Kendra is a Professor in the School of Public Policy and Administration and Tricia Wachtendorf is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Delaware. They are the Directors of the Disaster Research Center.  Visit them online at


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