This article originally appeared in the March 2016 issue of VICE Magazine.
EVICTED: POVERTY AND PROFIT IN THE AMERICAN CITY
by Matthew Desmond
A family home on Milwaukee's South Side, late in the afternoon, the house warm and fragrant from cooking done in a well-built kitchen. The little girl's bedroom—"the princess sleeps here" reads the sign on the door—is painted pink, the office disheveled from five years of homework. A toddler's toys blink and beep underfoot. A mover turns to a mother. "In our truck or on the curb?"
"Truck" and it's all taken to a storage facility with fees so steep she may never get it back; "curb" and her new homelessness is piled high for the neighborhood to see. Impossible math or visible shame—it's a double bind that plagues the catastrophically broke, and the kind of harrowing choice Matthew Desmond renders vividly and repeatedly in his extraordinary new book Evicted, a lyrical and exhaustively researched ethnography of eviction's effect on the poor in America. A century ago, evictions were so rare in the United States that crowds—sometimes in the thousands—would gather to witness them. People rioted, fought the police, tried to move the family back in. But now evictions are a regular ritual. In Milwaukee, where Desmond's book is set, more than one in eight renters were forced from their home between 2009 and 2011, a number typical in mid-sized American cities. In New York City, 80 households are evicted a day.
While we tend to think of eviction as a symptom of poverty, Desmond argues it is actually a cause, one of the most important ones. Eviction, he writes, "sends families to shelters, abandoned houses, and the street. It invites depression and illness, compels families to move into degrading housing in dangerous neighborhoods, uproots communities, and harms children." And its perpetuation is in the interest of a low income housing industry that is booming.
Over the last 20 years, median rent has risen 70 percent, wages and public assistance have stagnated, employment has dropped, and low-income housing landlords have professionalized—forming associations, lobbying for friendly policies, and capitalizing on a market that increasingly favors them. A rat-ridden two-bedroom with shot-out windows rents for as much or more than a safe and clean two-bedroom, but low-income tenants, Desmond proves—particularly black women with children—are forced into the former. If they complain about their living conditions, it is cheaper to evict them than to make repairs. When they fall behind (and they likely will; it is common for low-wage workers to spend 70 percent or more of their income on housing), eviction is better for profit margins than losing a month's rent; there are always tenants to take their place. So there are designated eviction moving teams, storage facilities, and data-mining services to help landlords keep tenants moving.
Desmond, a professor of social sciences at Harvard, spent 2008 and 2009 living in a white trailer park on Milwaukee's South Side and a rooming house on the African-American North Side. He studied court records and 911 call transcripts and sent interviewers door to door. Evicted weaves this quantitative research through the stories of two landlords and eight Milwaukee renters, who struggle to find and keep homes. Scott, a nurse who slipped a disc at work, got addicted to painkillers, and fell into an eviction cycle; Arleen, whose eviction cycle started with her son's errant snowball, and who, by the end of the book, ends up applying for 89 apartments: They are people whose tenacity and despair are hard to forget.
When Desmond published a paper showing Milwaukee women must often choose between reporting domestic violence and getting evicted, the city changed its policy. His proposals here—the right to free legal counsel in housing court and federal housing vouchers—should invite debate, as he hopes. But the book, if you can bear to read it, does something deeper than that.
The South Side mother chooses "curb." At first, she rushes to meet the disaster, gathers things, and calls people, but then she slows and slumps, appears sleepy. Her face has "that look," one the sheriffs and movers know well—the look of a "mother who climbs out of the cellar to find the tornado has leveled the house."
We meet her only briefly, and she's a homeowner, while the subjects Desmond follows are tenants. But that's why her face stayed with me: It bears the look of someone reckoning with the odds Evicted teaches, someone on her way from working-class home ownership to the low-income rental and eviction nightmare Desmond describes. It's the look of someone "undone by a wave of questions," and one that is difficult, once you've read Evicted, to forget. Where will you go? What will you take? What will you do?
The poverty of others brings up terrible questions of there-but-for-the-grace-of-God and what if, were your circumstances or skin color or gender different, that could be you. Your gaze pulls away. But Desmond writes so powerfully and with such persuasive math that he turns your head back and keeps it there: Yes, it could be you. But if home is so crucial a place that its loss causes this much pain, Evicted argues, making it possible for more of us might change everything.— Kristin Dombek
THE PEOPLE V. OJ SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY
FX This new ten-episode series opens with footage of Rodney King's beating by police officers and the 1992 riots in LA that followed, seeming to promise a consideration of the Simpson trial as part of the larger question of racism and the American criminal justice system. But The People v. OJ Simpson, produced by Ryan Murphy, the creator of Glee and American Horror Story, doesn't take a clear stance on the way race affected the trial, on Simpson's guilt or innocence, or on anything much at all. Instead, it's an engrossing costume pageant of clichés: Sarah Paulson and Sterling K. Brown as the prosecutors Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden are noble but outmatched pros, drinking tequila and bantering at the office late into the night like Don Draper and Peggy Olson; Steve Pasquale, as Detective Mark Fuhrman, lovingly polishes his Nazi memorabilia. As in Oliver Stone's reenactments of recent history, the novelty casting and the idiosyncratic hair and makeup decisions take precedence over everything else. John Travolta inexplicably channels a lizard with Botox to play Robert Shapiro, one of Simpson's defense attorneys, while Cuba Gooding Jr. and David Schwimmer, as OJ Simpson and his confidant Robert Kardashian, might as well be playing themselves for all the effort expended to make their portrayals plausible. Maybe it's all in the service of a kind of metaphorical verisimilitude: As in the trial itself, with distractions this fun, who needs justice? —Andrew Martin
THE ASSOCIATION OF SMALL BOMBS: A NOVEL
by Karan Mahajan
"People say 9/11 was the worst terror attack of all time—was it? I think the small bombs that we hear about all the time, that go off in unknown markets, killing five or six, are worse. They concentrate the pain on the lives of a few." This is the claim of Tauqeer, a terrorist in Karan Mahajan's second novel, The Association of Small Bombs, and it furnishes his darkly incisive book with a timely subject: the worlds created and destroyed by small-scale terrorism. The novel depicts a fictional aftermath to the 1996 bombing of the Lajpat Nagar market in Delhi, one of many such attacks in India. Mahajan follows a group of characters whose lives are inextricably bound to the bombing, including the Khuranas, a Hindu couple whose two boys are killed in the blast, and the Ahmeds, a Muslim family whose son Mansoor survives the attack but suffers an injured wrist. As the Khuranas struggle to cope, Mansoor pursues computer programming, only to be stymied by his lingering wounds. In Mahajan's riveting and intricate story, the aftershocks of small bombs are as inescapable as their explosions. —Alex Traub
TIME AND REMAINS OF PALESTINE
by James Morris
The British photographer James Morris is best known for his work on the interplay between man and the environment. From townscapes in Wales to Antarctic explorations, he documents the way we change the world around us. However, his new book, Time and Remains of Palestine, deals with a more explicit conflict. The photos collected here show the ghostly remains of Palestinian settlements razed or abandoned in the 1948 Nakba, when an estimated 700,000 or more Palestinians fled or were expelled from their villages. Since then, the Israeli government has actively obscured many of these sites, replacing some, as Morris's photos show, with playgrounds and parking lots. Another photo of Israeli developments encroaching on contemporary Palestinian settlements in the West Bank seems to emphasize the precarious position of Palestine, which after the Oslo Accords failed to develop into the functioning independent state many had hoped for. In less careful hands, Morris's book could have felt tubthumping or partisan. But introduced with a sensitive yet impassioned foreword by the Palestinian lawyer and writer Raja Shehadeh, the photos, which are serene, eerie, and often unnaturally still, have more a feeling of impartial witnessing than outraged finger-pointing. —Bruno Bayley
French Kiss Records
Is it still the 70s upstate? Eleanor Friedberger left Brooklyn two years ago for the Hudson Valley, and now she's recorded her third—and most mature—solo album since extinguishing the Fiery Furnaces. And those wideopen spaces have led to wide-lapel vibes: New View has Wurlitzers, arpeggiated synth lines, and that cover! The warm production and mid-career Van Morrison/Bob Dylan arrangements give Friedberger room to be wry then weepy, piercing then elusive. But Friedberger's only a little bit country. Embedded in earthier jams are one-liners like "And even if you had a twin / I wouldn't notice her or him," proving Lou Reed's cosmopolitan curiosity is still her lodestone, as it has been since 2011's Last Summer.
At times she wallows in broken connections and writer's block (winningly, though: "Something, something / No, never mind, nothing"). And while it passes—"Today I am frozen but tomorrow I'll write about you"—these hesitations are a powerful undercurrent to the perfectly observed puppy-love pop (see "Because I Asked You") that keeps New View bubbling along. It's heartening: The idea that communication isn't easy even for someone whose raw, direct alto voice makes it sound that way. Adulthood, even at its sexiest, still comes with disappointment. A new view doesn't mean saying goodbye to all that. —Jake Cohen
FROM THE THIRD EYE
Evergreen Review on Film
BAMcinématek, March 16–31
From the late 1950s through the early 1970s, Barney Rosset's Grove Press, the American publisher of Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett, and Jean Genet, and its glossy, post beatnik spin-off, the Evergreen Review, embodied avant-pop—as did the movies that Grove began distributing in the late 60s. Pegged to the publication of From the Third Eye: The Evergreen Review Film Reader, BAMcinématek samples films that Evergreen celebrated, along with those that Grove distributed. Among the latter are features by Grove writers Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet; Susan Sontag; photographer William Klein; the great Japanese director Nagisa Oshima; and the softcore blockbuster of 1969, I Am Curious (Yellow). In addition to topical documentaries on the Black Panthers, the Prague Spring, the My Lai massacre, and the sexual revolution, the series—much of which, for those far from Brooklyn, is available through Criterion—takes the temperature of the times with one of Andy Warhol's worst films (The Nude Restaurant) and one of Jean-Luc Godard's greatest (Weekend). I'm not sure why Dennis Hopper's 1971 film maudit The Last Movie was included, except perhaps as an example of full-tilt countercultural hubris, but it's always great to see this misunderstood, reviled masterpiece. —J. Hoberman