Navigating Sprawl with Pop Culture

One of the iconic figures from Paris in the 1800s is the flaneur, a man of leisure who wanders through the city, observing and writing. Flaneurs have been linked to modernism, in particular a sense of simultaneous engagement and alienation, and above all, with the city. They are our historical experts in describing the day-to-day as well as the profound, making sense of the complexities of urban life in the nineteenth century.

What does one do today with the American suburbs? Who can explain these strange spaces?

Those questions circled around my reading of Jason Diamond’s The Sprawl: Reconsidering The Weird American Suburbs. Diamond, now a denizen of Brooklyn, is a product of the Chicago suburbs. He is a journalist, critic, writer and modern day flaneur. The Sprawl is a thoroughly researched yet idiosyncratic wander through America’s suburbs, a road trip across the country as well as down memory lane. Neither history nor social science, the book is a very interesting meditation on sprawl through the eyes of a very well-informed critic.

There’s history and some facts in The Sprawl, but Diamond’s primary vehicle of understanding is popular culture. Want to understand the Chicago suburbs? He would give us the movies of John Hughes, as well as reference indie rock and Wayne’s World. While I’m reasonably up on many of his references, Diamond’s knowledge is encyclopedic and deep. He spins a network of popular culture to map the burbs. Woven throughout the book are Diamond’s personal recollections, his personal history, and his predilections. He comes across as a very interesting person, a pleasant and curious guy who writes very well.

Are American suburbs all that strange? Sprawl – America’s suburbs and exurbs – are by definition spaces defined by what they are not. They are neither rural nor urban. They are not small towns. Sprawl is the space around and in between, the plazas, roads, highways and byways between shopping plazas and housing developments. It is easy to get lost, physically and in terms of meaning, when the only available markers are negatives. Diamond’s challenge is that what he is looking at is everywhere and nowhere.

Despite the constraints, Diamond tells a good story. The Sprawl rightly received several awards. It is not a map, but this book is most certainly an entertaining and informative guide.

David Potash

Gentrification 301: Beyond the Basics

“Gentrification” is a loaded term, bemoaned by most, resisted by many, and championed by more than a few – especially real estate developers. While healthy cities change all the time, the dislocation of the less fortunate and their replacement by the wealthier has become a major factor in every city over the past fifty years. The trends have reshaped neighborhoods, framed politics, and led to social and political movements. Gentrification has likewise become a focus for academic research, policy studies, and a lens through which urbanism is understood.

What does gentrification mean? For Matthew Schuerman, a journalist who recently wrote a book on the subject, gentrification is the process by which poor neighborhoods become wealthy neighborhoods. It is a useful grounding, for it bypasses loaded expectations. His work, Newcomers: Gentrification and Its Discontents, is a nuanced study of gentrification in three cities. Schuerman’s take, guided by close local research, reveals the complex factors that can lead to gentrification. It is not a simple process, as his work with primary sources and detailed investigation reveals.

Newcomers zeroes in on Brooklyn, from Brooklyn Heights through Park Slope, the Mission District of San Francisco, and to a lesser degree, Cabrini Green in Chicago. Schuerman’s historical periods starts after World War II and extends through the early 2000. This is not a study driven by tables and statistics. Instead, Schuerman works through local neighborhood groups, planned developments, and the politics of land use and government support or resistance. While broad societal and economic changes took place nationally, the particular shape, pace and feel of gentrification is affected significantly by local conditions. Schuerman offers the reader some, but not much, of those national factors.

Schuerman takes pains to avoid snap judgments or easy generalizations. He neither champions increased property values nor romanticizes less wealthy neighborhoods. What we learn about are the multiple steps, rarely in one direction, by which these neighborhoods became wealthier. He makes sure that we understand that “gentrification” has become a conduit through which other political issues and concerns gain oxygen and burn bright. Gentrification can be a fighting word.

Newcomers makes one give pause when it comes to the changes in cities. That’s a valuable gift. The book is a very welcome study shining a light on a complicated social, economic and political process. In so doing, he teases out the relationships between the local and the larger. That helps explain why policy rarely achieves its stated aims. Schuerman is to be commended for a deliberate and carefully crafted book teasing out a complex phenomenon.

David Potash


A dear reader wrote to me about this post with a query: “But what do you really think?” It is a fair question, for while I stand by every word in the post (it is all what I think), the issue of gentrification cannot help but stir strong feelings.

What Schuerman’s book and other writing has convinced me that “gentrification” is probably better understood as a particular subset of economic dislocation. The Genus is expansive, from gentrification to planned communities to urban renewal, and is woven deeply into our core belief that market-driven decisions are the most effective and efficient. Most, though, believe that some countervailing forces are appropriate and needed to soften consequences. Consequently, I believe that if the massive dislocations taking place on a daily basis in our cities are to be addressed through countervailing forces, it is necessary to consider policy and practice holistically. For example, the gentrification taking place in Chicago’s northwest side is part of the same processes that have contributed to the disinvestment on Chicago’s west and south sides. A wonderful topic for more research and, one would hope, action.

Generation All: Models for Tomorrow

Mauro F. Guillen tosses of ideas like a glitter gun, shiny an in many directions. A professor, scholar, theorist and public intellectual, his most recent book is The Perennials: The Megatrends Creating a Postgenerational Society. It is chock full of observations, data, theories and provocative asides. Pitched at the level of a business executive or perhaps an aspiring entrepreneur, the book is both easy to read and difficult to digest.

Guillen’s key argument weaves together demographics, deep shifts in work, technological shifts and policy. First, he explores how people society are living longer and are enjoying healthful life longer. That shifts the way that we think about work, retirement, and many life choices. He notes that there are changes in when women decide to start a family, what sort of family structure is sought, and the growth of intergenerational households. The nuclear family is a relatively recent innovation. Add to that mix the desire of more and more people to finds to ways to balance work, family, and pleasure. These all add up to broad societal shifts, Guillen stresses. He believes that the ways in which we think of generations (Boomers, Millennials, and so on), as well as their priorities and values, are becoming obsolete.

Interesting, isn’t it?

While the broad argument Guillen posits is very general, there is much to recommend in the “megatrends” he examines. For instance, he makes a strong claim for abandoning the “four stages of life” theory. That is play, study, work, and retire. It simply does not hold true for many people. However, much of our societal structure and expectations is grounded in this concept. Educational, housing, health and retirement policies immediately come to mind. Guillen shares data which indicates that the nuclear family ideal has peaked. As for how people make money, net job growth does not align with expected mindsets, either. The fastest demographic finding employment is now for those over the age of 60. Guillen looks closely at the many shifts in the lives of women, from career trajectories to different models of family.

The Perennials is built on a consistent structure. Guillen makes a provocative big picture observation and explores the concept, mixing research and good quotes and examples. The stories stick. However, one cannot help but wonder about the many factors and complications mixed through each big idea. Is the “megatrend” sustainable? For all or for some?

Education figures prominently in the book. Guillen sees many opportunities for higher education to provide new and different types of learning opportunities. One major shift he explores are means that might match older potential students with new jobs and careers. He rightly observes that demographic changes call for new models that many institutions of higher education have not created. Guillen is correct, too, in observing that mindsets, policies, practices and even laws limit new thinking about multigenerational thinking. Everything from funding models to course and program structures have roots in generational assumptions.

Spinning this out, The Perennials is the sort of book that leads to questions and imagined future. It also makes you wonder what Guillen would be like in the classroom, at the seminar table, or at a party. I would wager that he would be memorable, the kind that would inspire challenging ideas. Smart, eloquent, and with a striking ability to weave data points into potential big-picture ideas, Guillen’s The Perennials is a welcome and creative read.

David Potash

Addressing Addresses the Illinois Way

Having moved house in Chicago recently, I decided that it would be prudent to update my address with the Department of Motor Vehicles. Neither a priority nor mandate, it was one of those tasks on the “to do” list, like vaccinations and getting the oil changed after 3,000 miles. The journey to a correct drivers license – and it most definitely was a journey – was an interesting experience in citizen-state interaction.

Updating the address for my vehicle registration was easily done, handled all on the web with a straightforward form to complete. A little more than a week later, the new registration arrived in the mail. A model of simplicity. It was a different story for the drivers license.

I prepared on the Illinois DMV website. It offers a template that illustrates the various types of acceptable documentation necessary to prove a new address for a drivers license. I printed it out, checked and rechecked, and determined that I was in good shape with my new vehicle registration and a new voter registration card. Next step was an in-person visit to a local DMV office.

A few years ago, during a financial crisis, Illinois closed several DMV offices. Accordingly, my choices of sites was somewhat limited. I found one reasonably close, though, and took a bike ride on a sunny Saturday to prove that I had a new address. Thirty minutes on the bicycle got me to the facility where I locked my bike and stood in line to talk with an official standing outside, directing people to different lines. Lots of folks were milling about, herded this way or that. The DMV official looked at me with surprise when I said that I wanted to update my address and I did not have an appointment. “You have to make an appointment! How didn’t you know this?” Somehow I missed that in my web preparations.

Later that day I logged into the DMV site and secured the next available slot at that site, only three weeks in the future. The morning of my visit, I checked out Google trips to see if it would be easier to drive or to bike. Ironically, the thirty-minute bike ride saved eleven minutes. I thought of the irony as I rode on the cloudy morning to the DMV.

When I arrived two officials were outside, directing the throng. When I stated that I had an appointment, showing the message on my phone, I was ushered in to a building. Not exactly like the VIP line at a club, but I was grateful. The first line had about eighteen people in it, all of us weaving back and forth to talk with one of several clerks at a counter. This initial function was set up to determine what task we were there to complete. Accordingly, I was next directed to the photo line, where I had but a short wait before getting an updated photo. The clerk indicated that I was looking pretty good for a cloudy morning.

From there, I was sent to a different line with but a short wait. The woman behind the desk looked at my documentation and commented that it was smart to have multiple documents. “You never know,” she opined. “It can be really difficult.”

We started talking. She’d worked for the DMV for many years. She liked the job, particularly because roles were rotated on a regular basis. Employees were cross-trained, from taking photos to doing driving tests. Most customers were well-behaved. Having the screeners out front helped, she said. That role was difficult. On the other hand, doing driving tests could be a lot of fun.

We were interrupted by a colleague. A few weeks back, an official from the Springfield Secretary of State’s Office visited. He had ideas, and the local employees were concerned. However, if you want to know why employee resignation has become a pressing issue in our workplace, it’s important to consider several factors.

A bit of background may help. For many years, Illinois’s Secretary of State was the charismatic Jesse White. He held the office for 24 years, deciding recently that seven terms was sufficient. White is a larger than life Illinois politico. A gifted athlete, White was a high-school stand out, a college phenom, and an Army veteran. He knew Martin Luther King, Jr., and in 1959 he created the Jesse White Tumblers, a group that has remained a staple at events around the state ever since. White was politically gifted, too, and he served in the state assembly and as Cook County Recorder of Deeds before becoming Secretary of State. For decades Jesse White has been a key figure in Illinois politics.

Stepping into White’s shoes has been Alexi Giannoulias. A financier with political ambitions, Giannoulias served as Illinois’s Treasurer before his election as Secretary of State. It has been clear, too, from the news that Giannoulias’s desire to advance and make a difference remains.

Back at the DMV site, employees were talking about this new initiative to dress them all in vests. The Springfield official decided that standard wear, along with name tags, would improve service and customer satisfaction. The employees on the other side of the counter were skeptical. On my side of the counter, I could not see how it would improve service. We talked a bit more about uniforms, working for larger systems, and office humor. I was sent to the next station.

The wait here was short. I presented my paperwork and was billed $5. With a little cash in my wallet, I paid and received a receipt. It was only a short step to the next station, where a clerk gathered my paperwork, reviewed it, and presented me with an updated paper drivers license. He punched a hole in my old drivers license, gave me both, and informed me that I would receive an updated license within two weeks. Six stations, many conversations, and I was on my way.

It’s been a week and I am still waiting for the updated license.

Jokes about DMV services aside, everyone I interacted with was pleasant, friendly and helpful. Fast or easy? Perhaps some room for improvement. But I have to give it to the staff – they made the visit memorable. I hope that the vests aren’t uncomfortable.

David Potash


Recently had an opportunity to hear Secretary of State Giannoulias speak. He’s very, very impressive. Count me as a fan.

Thick Democracy: In and Out of the Light

We would be well served by reading, or re-reading, Benjamin Barber’s Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age. Yes, it is not a recent publication. That said, it’s as relevant as ever, perhaps even more so today than it was when first published nearly four decades ago.

Barber, who passed away in 2017, was a political scientist, a political theorist, and a scholar. He wrote important books, works that crossed the boundaries of academia into public discourse. Perhaps the best known is Jihad vs. McWorld, which grew out of an article for the Atlantic magazine. Barber was consistently interested in questions of democracy, human rights, and justice. No abstract idealist, Barber looked as those issues through the lens of power and economics.

Why Strong Democracy now? I recently learned of billionaire Jeff Bezos’s challenge to the team at the Washington Post shortly after he purchased the newspaper. He asked for a phrase that would make people want to buy a subscription. After multiple efforts, the tagline “Democracy Dies in Darkness” was proposed and adopted. I like the sound of it, but is it true? Light may be necessary, but is is enough? I would argue that there are many ailments attacking democracy and the absence of light is but one. The bright and shiny are not always healthy for us or for democratic values.

Barber’s book differentiates between “thin democracy” and “strong democracy.” Thin is about personal gain and personal profit. “Because liberal democracy makes an ideology of radical individualism, it depends heavily upon the idea of private property.” In other words, in thin democracy we think about ourselves, not the collective good. This comes with significant negative consequences. “Politics, more than nature, abhors a vacuum. Where citizens will not act, judges, bureaucrats, and finally thugs rush in.” Barber does not downplay the role of individual rights. He is committed. What he asserts, rightfully, I believe is that “individualism . . . has consistently underrated the human need for association, community, and species identification.” We have been increasingly living in that space. We want connection yet our society, our structures, our politics is about the individual. Lots of individual private goods do not necessarily make for a healthy public good.

Strong democracy, Barber asserts is about talking and listening to each other. It is grounded in “reasonableness” and the awareness that one’s perspective may not be as certain as one would like. If we listen to each other – truly listen – we will find ways to solve problems, get along, and help each other. “Good listeners may turn out to be bad lawyers, but they make adept citizens and excellent neighbors.”

Barber knows how to turn a great phrase. His prose is a joy to read.

The values advanced in Strong Democracy don’t support quick decisions by catch phrase or marketing tool. “By emphasizing the politics of common will and de-emphasizing the politics of brokered interests, strong democracy makes interaction, listening and common judgment the allies of civic and psychic integration.” Barber truly believes that “talk makes and remakes the world.” He is correct, if we can get out of our phones and away from our petty priorities, and decide to engage with with each other. If we do not, instead thinking only for ourselves and paying attention solely to those whose positions we already hold, society loses.

There’s an “expansive and generous understanding of citizenship – bound together by common interest” that emerges from Barber’s thinking. That’s hard to picture today, when our many media streams consistently harp and feed on dissent. However, it is still possible – if we take the time and we take care.

An optimistic message, to be sure, but it is one whose light still shows a path.

David Potash

Un-credentialed & Successful

Call me an optimist, a sucker for hope, advancement, and seeing people succeed. I find stories about a person’s growth and development to be inherently satisfying and consistently interesting. What’s more, when done well they offer insights and lessons.

Christopher Zara‘s book Uneducated has a telling subtitle: A Memoir of Flunking Out, Falling Apart, and Finding My Worth. It is a fascinating account of a man’s troubled childhood and difficulty journey to a professional career – all without a college degree.

Zara was born into a working class family in central New Jersey. His parents were neither particularly supportive nor attentive, and mental health issues compounded the author’s difficulties. Acting out in his teens, Zara was angry and confused. Kicked out of school, he was briefly institutionalized before moving into an un-moored decade of personal drift. Zara’s description of himself, the toxic environments he was drawn to (picture shaved heads and Doc Marten boots), and the underlying lack of direction speak to difficulties many face. Zara is far from unique in his rejection of school. He wanted something and did not know what. While help with addiction was an essential step in Zara’s journey, he was able to earn a high school equivalency, progress, and health came slowly. Overcoming drug addiction and, eventually, his addiction to heroin were further challenges he had to confront. Fortunately, Zara managed to beat his addiction, relocated several times in the hope of improving his situation, and began to discover himself and his passions with the assistance of rehabilitation centers. If you’re looking for guidance for your fast recovery, you can click here for more information about rehabilitation centers. For additional information, you can also find CBD anxiety relief. Moving to New York City and utilizing his language skills reshaped his life.

The key turning point, Zara writes, was an unpaid internship for a struggling show business publication with an abusive owner/boss. Eliding his lack of a college degree, Zara talks his way into the position and proves himself as a competent and dedicated employee. He struggles with impostor syndrome. Zara perseveres, gains more contacts, new positions and begins to write a book. There’s an “aw, shucks, I didn’t know ——-” throughout the book as a challenge/opportunity is identified and then overcome. It takes decades, tremendous discipline and an occasional break, but it happens. Zara writes a very successful book, becomes a well-known journalist, marries and finds stability and himself. Uneducated is his coming out, so to speak, about that journey.

Zara’s fears of not getting the interview, not making it past HR without a college degree are well founded. We don’t seem to have a good reasons for it as a society, but it persists nonetheless. Zara’s op ed piece in the NY Times concisely spells out the consequences of bias against those without a college degree. What he does not examine fully, though, is that a degree alone does not necessarily open doors. What institution, what major, what degree are other important parts of the equation. Community college graduates more often than not only list their baccalaureate institution. Public institution degree holders often feel inadequate around Ivy League alumni. Organizations and rules to determine and allocate status is a big part of how societies and cultures operate. Status drives assumptions, opportunities, and much more of our lives that we are comfortable admitting.

What I found most interesting about the memoir was Zara’s terrific smarts – he’s a wildly clever and creative man – and his avoidance of the distinction between learning and credentials. He did not attend college but in no way does that mean he is uneducated. What he lacks formal education and a credential. These are very different things. Most of us in education are well aware of the difference. Had I had a chance to talk about the book with Zara, I would have suggested “Uncredentialed” as a more appropriate title. The man has experienced quite the education indeed.

David Potash

Pushing the Boundaries

Most of us follow the rules. For those that don’t, the results usually are not all that good. It’s the rare person who makes their own rules, lives life as they want to, and leaves a meaningful legacy. Douglas Tompkins was one of those special individuals. Jonathan Franklin‘s biography, A Wild Idea, provides an fascinating account of this complicated and larger than life figure. Tompkins impact was across sectors, and culture, and remains important today.

Tompkins was born on the east coast during World War II in an upper middle class family. Athletically gifted and a trouble maker, he was tossed out of prep school for misbehavior. Tompkins followed his interests: skiing and climbing. He was exceptionally gifted at both and without an injury, might have been a member of the US national ski team. Tompkins focused on climbing and he excelled. His explorations and outdoor feats were taking place, too, when these passions were not celebrated in everyday American life. Sure there were families that camped – but extreme rock climbing? It was Tompkins’ life. He traveled the world, uninterested in material gain, and constantly tinkered with his climbing equipment.

Along the way, hitching a ride to Tahoe, a casino worked named Susie Russell gave him a lift. They hit it off, got married, and came up with the idea of putting together a store in San Francisco to sell outdoor equipment, especially to rock climbers. It seemed like a timely idea. All manner of San Francisco and cultural figures were part of their circle. For example, the Grateful Dead performed at the store. It’s name, by the way, was The North Face, a reference to the harder way to scale a mountain. It’s a multi-billion dollar global brand today.

The North Face’s success allowed Tompkins and Russell to sell their shares in the business. Their next moves were far from retirement. Tompkins pushed himself with ever greater outdoor challenges. Joined with several friends equally committed to exploration and endurance, he embarked on a six-month journey to South America. Amid many challenges and adventures, the focal point of the expedition was an extremely risky ascent of Mount Fitzroy in Patagonia.

Franklin’s telling of the trips and ascent is gripping. A fellow traveler made a movie of it all. It’s important to stress, too, that this was no solo effort. Among Tompkins travelers were Yvon Chouinard, the future founder of Patagonia, the global brand, and Dick Dorworth, one of America’s most famous ski racers and a noted author. The South American adventure sealed deep connections among all the participants and redirected Tompkins life. Extraordinary connections and friendships was simply part of Tompkins’ life. He had tremendous charisma and seemed to draw successful people to him. A Wild Idea is dotted with references to this celebrity, that political figure, that scientist or that activist.

Tompkins could also be extremely self-absorbed. He left his wife Susie to tend for herself and their new baby daughter when he went to Patagonia. This pattern, dropping all connections and responsibilities when he felt the urge to do something, was another part of this complicated man’s life. When Tompkins wanted to do something for himself, he did it. Amid the charm, he caused great harm and hurt for his family and friends. It is a short-coming that Franklin raises in the book but never fully addresses.

Susie, a very impressive woman in her own right, did not waste the opportunity while Tompkins was away. She started a clothing brand, Plane Jane, with a friend. They started selling clothes from a VW van and quickly found a market and a growing following. When Tompkins returned they became partners, along with Jane Tise, and changed the name of this company to Esprit. Its growth was extraordinary and by the 1980s, Esprit was worth billions. Much of its success stems from Tompkins role as chief designer, his obsessions and drive. He and his two partners crafted an extraordinary company. Franklin’s book goes deep into Esprit’s operating culture, unusual for its day but now recognizable from successful IT start ups. The company had an outsize impact on business theory as well as global fashion and design.

Tompkins, though, was neither happy nor satisfied. He sold his share and began to cast about for a new direction in his life. He divorced Susie – monogamy was not part of Tompkins’ lifestyle – and increasingly directed his life towards environmental efforts. More and more of his time was spent in Chile and Argentina, as Tompkins became a gifted bush pilot and sharpened his kayaking skills. He created The Foundation for Deep Ecology and a trust that later became the Tompkins Conservation. For the next decades of his life Tompkins aggressively pushed a conservation agenda, battled with all manner of politicos in South America, and built an extraordinary legacy as an environmentalist. South American politics and global political concerns were his for these years. It paid off. Because of Tompkins’ efforts, millions upon millions of acres in Chile and Argentina are now national parks, protected from development. His land purchases, strategy, commitment and foresight place him as one of the world’s most important figures in environmental protection.

While kayaking with friends in 2015 in a Chilean lake, a violent storm took Tompkins and his team by surprised. Tompkins fell into cold water and died from hypothermia.

Franklin’s respect and admiration for Tompkins shines from every page of this book. The author, it should be noted, is an American journalist and writer who moved to South America. His writing is often about courage under duress. Tompkins in many ways fits the bill, a man who consistently pushed himself to extremes. In other ways, Tompkins stands out as unusual character. He was a deep thinker, clearly extremely smart. His brilliance emerged through action. Tompkins was also many different things to many different people: boss, entrepreneur, dare devil, adventurer, environmentalist, and designer. Franklin does an outstanding job recounting what Tompkins did and his legacy. It is fascinating, though, that through it all there’s much of Tompkins that remains elusive. Franklin is challenged in explaining exactly, just who Tompkins was, or why he did what he did. It made me wonder if Tompkins really understood himself, either. He was quite an unusual man.

All told, A Wild Idea is a page-turning biography of a truly one of a kind person, Douglas Tompkins.

David Potash

Painting For Cash Numbers

Who doesn’t love a good art forgery story? It’s an intriguing mixture of high-end culture and old-time deception. Do we root for the forger? The artist? The police and investigators, charged with insuring the integrity of what must be an extremely messy business?

These and other questions came to mind in reading Tony Tetro’s memoir, Con/Artist: The Life and Crimes of the World’s Greatest Art Forger. Was Tetro the world’s greatest? There’s absolutely no way to tell. But the boast is totally in character for Tetro. It is also what one would expect from someone who makes a living forging works of art. It is not a lifestyle for the shy or retiring, most certainly not how Tetro has lived.

Tetro is a self-taught master, a careful student of art. He showed aptitude for drawing at a very early age. Growing up in a working class family in rural New York State, his interest in art was personal – not vocational. He married at an early age after an unexpected pregnancy. He and his wife had little education or professional plans. Tetro scraped by selling furniture and trying to make ends meet. He did, though, have aspirations for something better. His first forgeries came out of financial desperation and happenstance. Tetro was surprised: he truly enjoyed the process. As forgery led to money and more forgery, Tetro put more and more effort into the dishonest work. He learned tricks and that the more time and effort he invested in his dishonest craft, the better his art work copies would become.

Sales led to more sales and soon Tetro was living the fast life: expensive cars, lots of girlfriends, gambling in Las Vegas, and doing quite a bit of partying. He made a name for himself and he spent money as fast as it came in. Halfhearted cautionary admonitions are sprinkled in the book. My reading, though, is that these are not what it’s about. Tetro loved the money, the women, and the lifestyle. Tetro does caution against drug use, which caused health concerns and damaged the quality of his work. But the rest of his excesses? Tetro is a relatively unrepentant criminal.

Tetro eventually was caught. He made the obvious mistake of copying a living artist who might see the fakes. Unsurprisingly, the artist was enraged to find forgeries. The net around Tetro was closing. Much of Con/Artist is a Goodfellows-like account of Tetro scrambling for money, trying to keep his life together, and committing crimes while doing it. The jail time turned out to be a blessing. Tetro got his life in order . He needed to slow down. Now, Tetro makes copies on spec.

Con/Artist is not insightful literature. It is, though, immediate and unvarnished. Tetro is a charming scoundrel, a man blessed with great artistic talent who found a most lucrative way to enjoy it. All that said, I most certainly would be very careful purchasing a work of art from him.

David Potash

A Glass Castle Recommended

Librarians in my local public library branch are fond of calling attention to their favorite reads. One of their recent recommendations, Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle, is a gripping memoir that I had heard about but had never explored. A big thanks to Chicago Public librarians – you know your books!

Walls is an award-winning journalist and writer. The Glass Castle is a first person account of her harrowing childhood. Told in a matter of fact manner with scary good cheer, it’s a gripping account of children’s resilience and the tremendous damage parents can cause. The book, which came out in 2005, was on best-seller lists for years. In 2017 it became a film. Walls’ story remains relevant today, perhaps even more so, and the candor of her writing deserves extra attention and appreciation.

Walls’ first memory is of being badly burned while living in a trailer park in Arizona. She was three at the time. The accident – she was cooking herself hot dogs – is terrifying. Walls narrative, from her perspective as a toddler, is all the more frightening because she is not aware of just how serious her situation is. That pattern of forced optimism in the face of real concern is repeated throughout her childhood.

Severely injured, Walls is taken to a hospital for treatment. Her father, Rex, steals her away before she is released or a payment is due. This is another pattern of behavior – skipping town, the “skedaddle” – that the family does repeatedly. There is very little stability at home, or precisely, at homes. Walls’ mother, Rose, is a fantasist, an artist, and poorly equipped to care for a family with children. Rex is a charming high-functioning alcoholic given to violence. He makes do on scams and luck, and is far from a stable provider. Walls loves her parents and knows, too, that they are dangerous to her well-being. When the family finally settles in abject poverty in West Virginia, close to Rex’s parents, the naive positivism of the younger Jeannette gives way to awareness of the severity of their situation. The kids are bullied, abused, neglected and often hungry. It is truly horrific. Eventually the oldest sister escapes to New York City and Jeannette follows. If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, particularly with substances like cocaine, seeking support from specialized facilities such as cocaine rehab UK could be crucial in the journey to recovery. If you want to know the symptoms of an alcoholic, you can read this article for more helpful tips.

Living apart from their parents was essential for the children to have some semblance of a healthy life. Things with their parents were that bad. Escape, though, proves difficult. Rex and Rose follow their children to New York City. As the children struggle to find employment, housing and stability, their parents battle mental health issues, addictions, and become homeless. The Wells children’s mutual cooperation and coping skills are outstanding. Jeannette works her way through Barnard. Her elder sister becomes a successful artist. There are some good moments. Rex gifts Jeannette with poker winnings to pay tuition. It is the kind of grand gesture, an act of generosity, that makes a reliably positive relationship with Rex so impossible. An inveterate dreamer, he promised that he would one day build a glass castle for Jeannette and the family. Along with the promises, there were many darker moments. Jeannette’s shame at seeing her parents scrounge through garbage, trying to scrape by, is an indelible moment.

Walls’ memoir is a testament to her strength, her resilience, her courage. She is direct about all manner of problems, whether it is fending for herself or fending away predators. There were many, too. Jeannette and her siblings are survivors and heroes. One one level, The Glass Castle is inspirational and speaks, I am sure, to many who have struggled with toxic home life. It offers a message of hope.

Ironically, The Glass Castle has been regularly banned by schools and libraries. Some have complained that the language, the descriptions of violence and sexual abuse are inappropriate for young adults. They are inappropriate. In fact, they are deeply wrong and troubling. Sadly, though, they took place. It is exactly Walls’ candor that makes this book important for so many people of all ages. We do not choose our parents and have little control over the first years of our lives. Walls’ harrowing journey to adulthood, like that of sadly many other children, is a powerful reminder that it is possible to find happiness, with or without a healthy and supportive family. That is an extremely powerful message.

David Potash

Upper East Side Field Research

“Going native” takes on a different level of research and accountability in Wednesday Martin’s sly book, “Primates of Park Avenue: A Memoir.” Martin is a writer, public expert on a host of issues, from parenting to gender to families, a researcher and cultural critic. Her background includes rigorous academic study, with an undergraduate focus in anthropology at the University of Michigan and a doctorate from Yale in cultural studies. Martin is an interdisciplinary scholar with a skill for rendering theory in accessible and humorous ways. Her book defies easy categorization, just as one my expect from the author’s background. If you are curious about the lives of extremely rich families in New York City, Primates is most worth your time and consideration.

As a straightforward interpretation of the work, Primates is a field study of the wealthy mothers who lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in the early 2000s. Martin, who married into New York City money, moved to the city, started a family and began a journey of friendship, competition, and socialization among an elite group of mothers. A member of the tribe, at least through her marriage, Martin brought all the tools, references and methodologies to do a serious ethnography of her new environs. What makes this book intriguing is that she isn’t just a visitor. She is one of the group, a wealthy New York mom. Possessing the analytic and reasoning skills to try to better understand and navigate her environs. Martin’s effort, restructured into this popular book, makes for an unusual read. She makes maps, tracks behavior, and is delightfully cued into issues of status, shame, networks and social power. Martin is also very good with a joke.

Primates is no dry academic text. Martin’s prose is lively . For those that haven’t read much anthropology, there is much to pick up here about how anthropologists see things and sort information. The arguments are intriguing and the references clear and understandable. Martin is not writing to impress. Her aim is clarity, providing understanding and explanation. As Martin moves from outsider to insider over the course of book, as her children make friends and age, more and different opportunities emerge for Martin’s study. She gains trust. And like many other famous anthropologists who do extended field research, she becomes more and more sympathetic to those that she is studying. Like many in her tribe, she is a smart, ambitious, highly-focused wealthy mom.

This plays out in both theory and sense-making. For example, Martin recognizes that a key moment in her acceptance in the group stemmed from the affirmation of an alpha male, an extremely wealthy dad. Arranging for a play date of their respective children gave Martin greater status. She used it, too, opening up doors to more conversations, more interactions and greater knowledge of the community.

The second key turning point in Martin’s position came from power of prized objects. In this case, it isn’t a yam – it is an expensive Birkin bag. This accessory is a required sign of status in the tribe. Purchased through her husband’s money and his connections with others (it bears stressing that males are the architects of the system and prized items are always difficult to obtain) the bag provides access and deeper knowledge of the how and why of group and personal dynamics. The final turning point in the narrative, as Martin’s children become more independent and the fixed strictures of the Upper East Side community loosen, is the tragic death in utero of what would have been her third child. The loss, as one would expect, hits Martin very hard. It is traumatic. She is grateful to her fellow mothers, who provide comfort and support.

All of this is very interesting. Setting Primates apart are two threads that Martin weaves throughout.

The first is a line of analysis grounded in Martin as a cultural critic. She questions the rules of the community. She mocks herself for wanting status and for obsessing over a expensive handbag. Accordingly, she makes fun of herself for enjoying the Birkin bag so much. Martin questions the dieting, the incessant exercising, and the omnipresent anxiety throughout the community of women. Men do not seem to have the same stresses. Martin offers more than a few “Mean Girls” references. Her critiques sharp, humorous, and very humane. After all, she is studying a most unusual community.

The second line of analysis is personal. Martin is a smart, warm woman, and it is easy to relate to her voice in the book. Doctorate and wealth notwithstanding, she wants to connect with the reader. She wants to be liked, to be accepted, and she wants what is best for her children and family. These are normal values. She readily acknowledges faults and failures. Martin wrestles with problems, wonders what is best, and opens up to the reader. Martin’s humanity shines through. It is, after all, a memoir.

Primates of Park Avenue is an inside and outside study, a look inside the townhouse by someone who wonders just what the townhouse is all about. Martin’s study, which is being made into a television series, is most interesting. Good anthropologists do fascinating work.

David Potash