The word recession, meaning a temporary dip in economic activity, was coined in 1929 during the start of the Great Depression, so even then, we were kidding ourselves. Now, after months of babbling on about "green shoots," the main stream media, always fluffy and clueless when not outright dishonest, are starting to use "Great Recession," but that's still sugarcoating it. Why not the Great Recess, as in a fun pause in labor when we can all run out and play, or, better yet, let's give a nod to Saddam Hussein and label it, properly, as the Mother of all Depressions.
In November of 1929, a month after the stock market crash, Lou Nevin recorded, "Happy days are here again, / The skies above are clear again / Let us sing a song of cheer again." In June of 2009, eight months after another stock market collapse, the New York Times launched "Happy Days," a series of mostly palliative, feel good articles. Like Twain was supposed to have said, "The past does not repeat itself, but it rhymes."
Happy Days was also a popular TV sitcom, of course. Airing from 1974 to 1984, it featured a loveable, corny cast of working class Americans from the 1950's, with its most popular character a greasy (oily) mechanic and biker named Arthur Fonzarelli. When times were good, even a high school drop out could give two thumbs up and co-own a diner. Today, Fonzie would be lucky to work as a sales associate at Wal-Mart. America's most enduring and quintessential icons, Elvis Presley, Maralyn Monroe and James Dean, all came out of the 1950's, a decade of peak American confidence and prosperity. Many factors contributed to these good times, of course, but what's often overlooked is that we were the biggest oil producer in the world. A nice chunk of our wealth was a godsend. We were all Beverly Hillbillies.
The oil industry started in Pennsylvania in 1859, with the first significant oil well named "Empire," appropriately enough. Fuel and engine of the American Century, oil has allowed us to build an unprecedentedly sprawling, wasteful and alienating environment, where citizens are conditioned to spend hours sitting alone in a steel box and liking it. The car, not the eagle or cracked bell, is the symbol of American freedom, with its erratic, stop and start speed a metaphor for inevitable progress, but what happens when this joy ride stalls and we are forced to reverse? In 1953, Charles E. Wilson, President of General Motors and later, Secretary for the Department of Defense, declared to congress, "What's good for the country is good for General Motors, and vice versa," so if G.M. (and Chrysler) are near death now, are we also lying on the slab?
Just look around you. I live in Philadelphia, a broke metropolis gutted of almost all industries, like almost all of our towns and cities. Every so often, bored and angry youths rampage through The Gallery, our downtown shopping mall. They fight security guards, sending some to the hospital. Roaming sidewalks, they knock down random strangers. Just this week, more than a hundred students staged a mini riot inside Macy's, causing nearly a thousand dollars' worth of damage. One was hospitalized after being kicked in the head. Fifteen were arrested.
Across the river is Camden, once the home of Campbell Soup and RCA Victors. Last year, it was ranked as the most dangerous American city. The year before, merely the second most deadly. Etched onto City Hall, a line from Walt Whiman, "IN A DREAM, I SEE A CITY INVINCIBLE." Beneath it, two boarded up windows. Downtown is mostly deserted. On its main drag, people strut about aimlessly, past Chinese and fried chicken joints with their bulletproof plexiglasses. Just outside downtown is a tent city. During the summer, more than a hundred people live there. During the winter, around fifty. Black, white and Hispanic, the youngest is 20, the oldest, 76. They share one toilet, a honey bucket, and two shower stalls. No hot water or electricity. Heat comes from burning wood or cans of Sterno, the jellied alcohol normally used on buffet tables.
An hour from Philly is Bethlehem, home of Bethlehem Steel, now a hulking ruins visible from miles away. The second largest steel producer in the U.S., it was responsible for the Golden Gate Bridge and nearly all of New York's skyscrapers, including the Empire State Building, which was conceived during the roaring twenties--think irrational exuberance--and built during the Great Depression. In Bethlehem recently to photograph, I was hassled by a security guard working for Sands Casino. "But I'm on a public street," I protested.
"You're photographing Sands' property."
"That's Bethlehem Steel, man. That's American history!" I stared at this guy incredulously. Like I said, you could see the old factory from at least a mile away. "Are you from Bethlehem?"
"I was born here. My grandfather worked in that steel plant."
"You were born here and you're stopping me from photographing Bethlehem Steel?! You know how funny you're sounding right now?"
"It's not Bethlehem Steel anymore. It belongs to Sands."
"Man," I shook my head and pointed at the sky, "your granddaddy is probably laughing at you right now."
Citing the Patriot Act, he demanded to see the images on my camera, but I refused to show them, and as I turned to walk away, he stopped me under the threat of arrest. After more absurd back and forth, he finally let me go when told, through a walkie talkie, to do so by a superior.
Done with making stuff, we sold each other products and services. I'll cut your hair, you'll cut mine. When those prospects proved inadequate, we turned to hustling. That's why casinos are mushrooming across this land. In Kansas City, Kansas, I even saw one occupying an old church. Heading into this Mother of all Depressions, we're armed with not much more than the audacity of hope that luck will be on our side as we shove one last penny into the slot machine.