Overcoming Isolation in the Great Depression

This week in North Philly Notes, Abigail Trollinger, author of Becoming Entitled, writes about how workers in the 1930’s shed the stigma of unemployment and gained a sense of entitlement, and what we can learn in the age of COVID.

Unemployment is often hugely isolating, even when it happens en masse. It was for workers in 1932, at the height of the Great Depression. And considering recent debates over unemployment insurance, it seems that COVID-related unemployment has left many jobless workers facing economic insecurity alone.

Becoming Entitled: Relief, Unemployment, and Reform During the Great Depression tells the story of jobless workers and the urban reformers who worked to redeem them. It was an uphill climb: in the 1930’s, workers faced an American culture that was slow to defend the jobless and a federal government that was unwilling to fund the relief they needed, situations that only seemed to reinforce a jobless worker’s feeling of personal failure. As one worker described in Chicago of that year, “I was out of work two years last month. I have never gone for charity. I was ashamed to go.”

In 1932 Chicago reformers rightly sensed, then, that an unemployed worker’s first step toward survival might be the small step of seeing others like them and shedding their sense of shame. Which is why, in Chicago, the newly founded Workers’ Committee on Unemployment (WCOU) hosted seven hearings across the city that allowed workers to tell their stories, and to hear the stories of their neighbors, their landlords, their grocers, and their kids’ teachers. Once workers saw themselves as part of a group, rather than part of the problem, they were able to craft solutions to the economic crisis facing them. As members of the WCOU, workers offered collective action to solve both immediate and long-term problems.

Was a jobless worker’s electricity shut off suddenly, leaving their family in the dark? A formerly employed electrical worker could come turn it back on! Was a family unable to pay rent and thrown on the street? A WCOU member with a truck could help them move! Was a caseworker routinely cutting clients relief funds? The WCOU was there—protesting at the relief site! And were the state and federal governments failing to provide relief where it was highly deserved and much needed? The WCOU was ready to protest—like the 1932 silent march through Chicago.

What emerged from the hearings, the mutual assistance, and the protests was a sense of worker entitlement, or the belief that jobless workers had the right to ask for protection from the state—that when the economy fails, the state is responsible for preserving the dignity and livelihood of those most impacted. As a WCOU pamphlet on declining relief budgets said, “You are entitled to live.… We can not beg all the time. We must ask and demand.”

Unemployment and isolation. These are not unfamiliar concepts for many Americans right now, as the nation has faced unemployment rates between 8-14% since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Jobless workers in the U.S. have had support in the form of the CARES Act and some stopgap emergency funds, and yet they, too, face questions about how much relief they really need. Debates in Congress over stimulus plans (the Heroes Act and the Heals Act), in which legislation has stalled over how much weekly income the unemployed should receive (ranging between $200 and $600 a week), suggest that either jobless workers have a miraculous economy of thrift or that they earn more than they say. And on October 5 the Wall Street Journal reported that some states are requesting that workers who were inadvertently paid more than they were allotted should return as much as $8,000 to the state.

Workers in 1932 did not have a pandemic to reckon with, but their story is a reminder of the fact that entitlement is not a given, even in the midst of national crisis. As we approach the 2020 election, let us call for a generous entitlement that offers both relief and dignity to the many thousands of Americans who currently feel isolated in their economic insecurity.

Celebrating Earth Day

This week in North Philly Notes, we celebrate Earth Day with a handful of recent Temple University Press titles about nature and the environment.

2470_reg.gifIn Defense of Public Lands: The Case against Privatization and Transfer, by Steven Davis
Debates continue to rage over the merits or flaws of public land and whether or not it should be privatized—or at least radically reconfigured in some way. In Defense of Public Lands offers a comprehensive refutation of the market-oriented arguments. Steven Davis passionately advocates that public land ought to remain firmly in the public’s hands. He briefly lays out the history and characteristics of public lands at the local, state, and federal levels while examining the numerous policy prescriptions for their privatization or, in the case of federal lands, transfer. He considers the dimensions of environmental health; markets and valuation of public land, the tensions between collective values and individual preferences, the nature and performance of bureaucratic management, and the legitimacy of interest groups and community decision-making. Offering a fair, good faith overview of the privatizers’ best arguments before refuting them, this timely book contemplates both the immediate and long-term future of our public lands.

2474_reg.gifSinking Chicago: Climate Change and the Remaking of a Flood-Prone Environment, by Harold L. Platt
In Sinking Chicago, Harold Platt shows how people responded to climate change in one American city over a hundred-and-fifty-year period. During a long dry spell before 1945, city residents lost sight of the connections between land use, flood control, and water quality. Then, a combination of suburban sprawl and a wet period of extreme weather events created damaging runoff surges that sank Chicago and contaminated drinking supplies with raw sewage. Chicagoans had to learn how to remake a city built on a prairie wetland. They organized a grassroots movement to protect the six river watersheds in the semi-sacred forest preserves from being turned into open sewers, like the Chicago River. The politics of outdoor recreation clashed with the politics of water management. Platt charts a growing constituency of citizens who fought a corrupt political machine to reclaim the region’s waterways and Lake Michigan as a single eco-system. Environmentalists contested policymakers’ heroic, big-technology approaches with small-scale solutions for a flood-prone environment. Sinking Chicago lays out a roadmap to future planning outcomes.

Gone_Goose_SM.jpgGone Goose: The Remaking of an American Town in the Age of Climate Change, by Braden T. Leap

Sumner, MO, pop. 102, near the Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge, proclaims itself “The Wild Goose Capital of the World.” It even displays Maxie, the World’s largest goose: a 40-foot tall fiberglass statue with a wingspan stretching more than 60 feet. But while the 200,000 Canada geese that spent their falls and winters at Swan Lake helped generate millions of dollars for the local economy—with hunting and the annual Goose Festival—climate change, as well as environmental and land use issues, have caused the birds to disappear. The economic loss of the geese and the activities they inspired served as key building blocks in the rural identities residents had developed and treasured. In his timely and topical book, Gone Goose, Braden Leap observes how members of this rural town adapted, reorganized, and reinvented themselves in the wake of climate change—and how they continued to cultivate respect and belonging in their community. Leap conducted interviews with residents and participated in various community events to explore how they reimagine their relationships with each other as well as their community’s relationship with the environment, even as they wish the geese would return.

Ecohumanism_and_the_Ecological_Culture_SM.jpgEcohumanism and the Ecological Culture: The Educational Legacy of Lewis Mumford and Ian McHarg, by William J. Cohen

Lewis Mumford, one of the most respected public intellectuals of the twentieth century, speaking at a conference on the future environments of North America, said, “In order to secure human survival we must transition from a technological culture to an ecological culture.” In Ecohumanism and the Ecological Culture, William Cohen shows how Mumford’s conception of an educational philosophy was enacted by Mumford’s mentee, Ian McHarg, the renowned landscape architect and regional planner at the University of Pennsylvania. McHarg advanced a new way to achieve an ecological culture―through an educational curriculum based on fusing ecohumanism to the planning and design disciplines. Cohen explores Mumford’s important vision of ecohumanism—a synthesis of natural systems ecology with the myriad dimensions of human systems, or human ecology―and how McHarg actually formulated and made that vision happen. He considers the emergence of alternative energy systems and new approaches to planning and community development to achieve these goals.

Latinx_Environmentalisms_sm.jpgLatinx Environmentalisms: Place, Justice, and the Decolonial, Edited by Sarah D. Wald, David J. Vázquez, Priscilla Solis Ybarra, and Sarah Jaquette Ray.
The whiteness of mainstream environmentalism often fails to account for the richness and variety of Latinx environmental thought. Building on insights of environmental justice scholarship as well as critical race and ethnic studies, the editors and contributors to Latinx Environmentalisms map the ways Latinx cultural texts integrate environmental concerns with questions of social and political justice. Original interviews with creative writers, including Cherríe Moraga, Helena María Viramontes, and Héctor Tobar, as well as new essays by noted scholars of Latinx literature and culture, show how Latinx authors and cultural producers express environmental concerns in their work. These chapters, which focus on film, visual art, and literature—and engage in fields such as disability studies, animal studies, and queer studies—emphasize the role of racial capitalism in shaping human relationships to the more-than-human world and reveal a vibrant tradition of Latinx decolonial environmentalism. Latinx Environmentalisms accounts for the ways Latinx cultures are environmental, but often do not assume the mantle of “environmentalism.”

Untitled-1.jpgThe Winterthur Garden Guide: Color for Every Seasonby Linda Eirhart
Intended as a guide for the everyday gardener, The Winterthur Garden Guide offers practical advice—season by season—for achieving the succession of bloom developed by Henry Francis du Pont in his garden. This handy book highlights the design principles that guided du Pont and introduces practical flowers, shrubs, and trees that have stood the test of time—native and non-native, common as well as unusual. Lavishly illustrated, with new color photography, this handbook features close-ups of individual plants as well as sweeping vistas throughout. Whether addressing the early color combinations of the March Bank, the splendor of Azalea Woods, or the more intimate confines of the Quarry Garden, The Winterthur Garden Guide presents the essential elements of each plant, including common and botanical names; family origins and associations; size, soil, and light needs; bloom times; and zone preferences—everything the gardener needs to know for planning and replicating the “Winterthur look” on any scale.

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