American Utopia

Last night, I went to see David Bryne’s “American Utopia”. I’d seen bits before, but the chance to see it on a big screen, in the East Village was too good to miss.

I have a slight musical confession to make. I used to think Byrne and Talking Heads were pretentious tossers. That was back in the late 70s when musical affiliations at my school were very contentious and factional. I’m sorry to say my strict Communist Party cultural upbringing made me hostile to anything beyond party lines. Big mistake.

We live and learn though and the first thing to say about “American Utopia” is that it’s brilliant. It combines some of Byrne’s music with fantastic choreography in a film directed by Spike Lee. But it’s not just “a concert”, although it’s screened before a joyful, live theatre audience. It marks a moment in time when Trump had come and gone, but COVID had just arrived and America was continuing to wrestle with one of its deepest ideological conundrums.

I recently came across this quote, from 1799:

“I was born French and would have died French if the disgusting cruelties that befell my family and made me detest the country of my birth had not forced me to search out elsewhere the peace and happiness that I could no longer find at home. I examined this country; its mild and moderate government pleased me, and I was naturalized. I swore by this act to maintain its laws to which I submitted myself, to support its government, and to defend my adopted homeland against any enemy whatsoever. This I swore and I will keep my word: I am an American and the last drop of my blood will be shed in the service of my country.”

These words were sent in a letter from the rather obscure Joseph Francois Mangin (see more below), to the now star of Broadway, Alexander Hamilton. They express a sentiment that runs through the history of post-Euro conquest USA and the immigration story to which it’s intrinsically linked.

The idea of America as a utopia is woven into its tattered, blood-stained fabric. But the point Byrne makes in the film, as many have before, is that it’s still possible to build a better America.

With that thought in mind, there’s a huge political fight coming over the next few weeks. The $3.5 trillion “human infrastructure” package is a once-in-a-lifetime (to quote Byrne again) opportunity to change the future for working class Americans. All sorts of caveats need to be attached. But even if only looking from a housing perspective, some of the spending commitments are unprecedented, particularly the $80 billion ear-marked for public housing.

Biden is trying to navigate the Bill through choppy Congressional waters, where the Republicans and a few dodgy Democrats want to hold on to the smaller, physical infrastructure budget for cars, roads and bridges, but avoid anything that might mean taxing the rich, as it says on my Congresswoman’s dress (I think it was a mistake, incidentally, but not one to get too distracted by). As Bernie Sanders has succinctly put it “We are not going to build bridges just so our people can live under them”.

I’m feeling a bit frustrated that housing campaigns, here in New York and beyond, aren’t doing more to make sure the Bill is passed.

But returning to utopics, the French emigre Joseph Mangin was one of the people involved in devising and setting-out the Manhattan street grid. As David Harvey has written, urban planning is “fraught with utopian dreams”. The idea that it’s possible to create a new and perfect place, where none was there before, is part of America’s original sin – and yet planners, politicians and property pimps continue to commit it.

What “American Utopia” reminded me of is that the plans we make are only as good as the people and intentions who make them.

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