Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Drawing of Petersburg, Virginia

On numerous visits to Petersburg, Virginia, I was overwhelmed by the poverty and misery that dominates the city in a proportion higher than I've ever seen. This culminated in reporting on a house fire, caused by deprivation and utility company profits, which killed three children:

This is the first segment of a pastel drawing of the city. It follows the course of an abandoned railroad, which passes by the decayed and destroyed industrial base of Petersburg and then drops off at a bridge that is now just piers. The next segment will follow a road, showing the social conditions of the city and the interactions I had with some I talked to. The drawing was done with chalk pastels in about six days. It's 4 x 20 feet, on paper.

Monday, March 12, 2007

View from the train through Baltimore, Maryland

Railroads in the United States usually formed the basis for a town or city, or at least were present early on in their development. The enormous economic growth railroads were part of caused a parallel growth of urban areas. In most cases, this growth encased the railroads as it was intricately tied to them as the major source of transportation. These original alignments - steep, curvy, and convoluted - were designed when freight trains were carrying several hundred of tons and might be a thousand feet long. At this point, freight trains are carrying from 5,000 to 20,000 tons, stretch between a mile and two in length, and use these routes in far greater numbers. On Amtrak's busiest route, the Northeast Corridor, passenger trains capable of 150 mph are rendered impotent at Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia and New York, where the ancient infrastructure forces them to crawl at 30 mph.

That alone is an indictment of the present state of affairs in America, where no public effort or organization is possible to improve the efficiency of this major transportation corridor. Worse still are the social conditions of the area that it serves, the inner-city. Decades of industrial collapse and rising inequality have resulted in horrifying conditions of life for millions of people in these areas. Everyday, hundreds of thousands pass right through the thick of it on the train, some on the Acela Express. It's high-pricing and amenities - $199 to go from Washington to New York, a three hour trip - are meant to cultivate an elite market. The only way someone from the areas depicted could ride such an enormously expensive train is to work for Amtrak itself. Ironically, the decayed infrastructure of Amtrak prevents this elite express from ever going signifigantly faster than any other trains; it's 150 mph speed is possible in only a few areas between Washington and Boston.

All these pictures were taken as I rode on one of these segments, through Baltimore, Maryland. The view from the train shows an astonishing level of decay and misery in the city - hundreds upon hundreds of abandoned, trashed, and ruined houses and buildings crowd the landscape. In the midst of taking the pictures of the housing, I was told that it is illegal to take pictures from a train and that I needed to stop immediately. The conductor saying this was sympathetic, but forced to do so as an employee. Ultimately, the immense social inequality in the United States, as shown in these photos, is what provokes the ruling class to attack and abolish the most basic democratic and artistic freedoms. Every "suspicious" photo you see is here 100% illegal.

Recent comments have noted that the conductor was incorrect in stating this. This seems true, but it is what I encountered. Whatever the actual status of photography on or of trains, it should not be kept apart from the general roll-back of democratic rights, both in the United States and internationally (draconian anti-terror legislation has been legislation in Britain, Germany, Australia, Spain, Canada, Sri Lanka, France and elsewhere.)

Apparantly here "they" (the city?) simply destroyed whatever abandoned and decayed housing was nearby the Amtrak overpass.

I've seen these billboards in Richmond too, which state "Donate your car" and "help children in need." That's a little girl on the billboard with an explanation of joyful surprise. Indeed, when parents of children have cars it is quite good for their children as well. But why not just state "Help (millions) of adults in need"? That would cover children, and millions of others whose lives are hampered by a transportation system entirely focused on road transport. Moreover, why advertise to an audience facing a protracted decline in living standards? Though just as ineffective, this billboard would at least be more pointed if positioned at the gates of a mansion with a forty car garage.

Progress marches on, but under capitalism it never cleans up after itself. This is a lithography studio, from the days when that tedious and expensive process was the way to make mass images. Good riddance to such technology! Yet the resources focused on it lie here, in a street in Baltimore, decades after it has become obsolete. Last time I passed by this street on the train two policeman had a teenage black boy forcibly lying on this desolate sidewalk, arms and legs outstreched. They stood over him with guns drawn, presumably questioning him.

Another portion of the tunnels on Amtrak's northeast corridor through Baltimore, Maryland. Again, this is the busiest and most technologically advanced passenger line in the United States.

These two photos show just part of a huge industrial complex that has been partially demolished over the past few years.

One of many billboards I've seen in Baltimore along these lines. Some advocacy group thinks it can eliminate the by-products of social inequality by screaming at residents of the city about how they need to act.

This is a tunnel on the busiest and most technologically advanced passenger railroad in the United States.

Trash fills the spaces where tracks formerly were, though a transportation corrider like this desperately needs capacity.