Friday, September 30, 2016

A Portlander in Europe

I live in Portland, Oregon. Whatever it is you're thinking, it's not that place. Like many other cities in the US, it's a place in crisis. A deep crisis, wherein some developers make billions of dollars while thousands are thrown out onto the street, with hundreds of thousands struggling to keep up with their rapidly-increasing monthly rent.

Various politicians position themselves as progressive, and talk about their accomplishments. Such as making the streets very nominally safer by improving signage. Or publicly refusing to go to North Carolina, in protest against that state's discriminatory treatment of trans people.

I'm all for those things. But as for the acute suffering of half of their city's population (the half that rents), none of them seem to have anything approaching a solution to the problem. They talk about investing a little tax money in some new, low income housing. And then they sometimes even acknowledge publicly that this plan of theirs will have essentially zero impact on the housing market, given the 17,000 people moving to the city each year, and the 1% vacancy rate. And the fact that rent control is illegal, and unmentionable, somehow or other.

The evidence that the city is in a crisis is pretty obvious. The homeless population is mushrooming beyond anything I've ever seen outside of the cardboard shantytowns ringing Mexico City. With so many people working two jobs and spending most of their income on rent, other things are clearly getting overlooked, such as expensive things like car repairs. The number of damaged cars that just sit there and stay damaged month after month are mushrooming along with the homeless population. With more and more of those cars inhabited by people who are living in them.

Gentrification without controls, an undeclared class and race war, an ethnic cleansing in all but name, with half of Portland's African-American population lost between the last two censuses. What over 150 years of racist governance in Oregon failed to accomplish, gentrification is accomplishing.

Those increasingly few of us who have lived in the city for more than a few years walk around in a daze, as if we just landed on another planet. Where did all the stores on Division Street go? Where did all these well-dressed yuppies come from?

I listen to a couple of guys in their twenties talking excitedly about having found a two-bedroom apartment for “only” $1,500 a month. I hear a small group of homeowners slumming it in a food cart encampment, disparaging the tenants rights movement of which I am a part. (I leave, not trusting my ability to refrain from physically assaulting the yuppies, and not wanting to go to prison. Yes, I'm serious.)

I hear people talking about how much they like the new train lines, the new bike paths, the new organic supermarkets, the new drug laws. And I want to shout at them. Who cares about these things? They're just making the city more expensive. They only benefit those who own houses. Or renters making six-figure salaries who don't care how much they're paying to live in the city that still has the reputation of being full of artists. Most of whom have actually already left.

Portland, like the rest of the USA, is an everyone-for-themselves kind of place. I mean in terms of how it's run. Housing is a privilege, not a right. The market, I am told repeatedly by yuppies who somehow find their way to my YouTube channel, is sacrosanct, and those who can't afford to live in Portland should go somewhere where they can afford to live. Like one of those many cities where rent is cheap, but there's no work. They don't say that part, but that's what they mean.

The United States is currently designed by law to be a country where if you want to live in a city where there is work, and you weren't fortunate enough to be old enough to have bought a house several decades ago, then you have to spend most of your earnings on rent. And make some people very rich in the process. If you don't want to pay most of your earnings on rent, you can live somewhere where there is no work.

Of course, some of those places where there is no work are still within commuting distance of a city where there is work. So by design – or by lack of design, however you want to frame it – these allegedly “green” cities like Portland develop horrific traffic congestion, because so many people are moving from the city to the exurbs, in a desperate search for rent they can afford. And there aren't any buses or trains out there, so they have to drive to work, which is in Portland. Thus the traffic.

That's where I'm coming from. The land of capitalist chaos and untold suffering. All the police brutality and massacres and such are, to a large extent, a direct result of this kind of rampant inequity and inequality. Inequality, incidentally, is greater now than at any time since the nineteenth century in the USA. That is, you have to go back to the age of the robber barons, way before we had any kind of a welfare state – decades prior to the New Deal reforms of the 1930's – to get to a point in history where there was such gross inequality in the United States.

So then I go to Europe. Twice a year or more, for months at a time. Europe is where I make a living these days. This is the first year where I'm almost entirely making a living from touring Europe. Most of the musicians I know in the US are struggling to make a living, or have gotten other jobs now. Luckily, I have a following in Europe, and I've discovered this year that it's big enough for me to subsist entirely off of the backs of Europeans.

In Europe, many people talk of the same kinds of processes we're being devastated by in the US – gentrification, government spending cuts on social welfare, rising housing prices, rising rents, police brutality, institutional racism, “free trade” bills, xenophobic, far right politicians. And so on. They've got it all. And the rest of what I'm going to write here notwithstanding, I applaud all the Europeans who are fighting against these things, who hold on to their vision of what society could and should be like. Those efforts will prove absolutely necessary for the future of European societies, as with any other societies.

However, for me, coming from Portland to Europe – not just Europe, but specifically, the social democracies of northern Europe where I've been touring for the past month – always reminds me of being one of Frodo's gang in Middle Earth, leaving the realms that have been taken over by the orcs and the evil forces of Mordor, and arriving in the elven forest of Lothlorien.

As in Tolkien's books, you get the distinct feeling that the forces of evil are trying to push their way in – but for the most part they haven't made it yet. I get the feeling that I have gone from a chaotic land of injustice, to a well-organized, prosperous place where there is still a pretty solidly intact sense of living in a cohesive society. One that shares certain values, such as the belief in the right to affordable housing, health care, actual high-quality education, and many other things like that.

I don't pretend to be an investigate journalist or get all my facts straight, but I thought I'd share various random recollections of this past month on the road, some of which will serve to illustrate various differences as well as similarities between different places.

Random recollections. My first stop was Hellebaek in Denmark, a beautiful town right on the Baltic Sea – where I sit right now, the continental Europe segment of the tour ending where it began, as usual. (As in most of the world, it's cheaper to return the rental car in the same country, and often in the same city, as where you rented it.)

Sitting in my room, from where I can see Sweden a couple miles across the straight to the east, I'm in a building that's part of what used to be a sort of boarding school campus. The school doesn't exist anymore (which is a long and interesting tale of its own), but the folks who used to run the school still collectively own the buildings, and do various things with them. One of which is housing Syrian and Eritrean refugees, for which they get money from the local government each month.

Everywhere I go in Europe, people I know are housing refugees, and getting paid by their government to do so. The money is less than they could get if they rented rooms using Air B&B or something, but it's not nothing. (What if we had a program like that for housing refugees in the US, along with the homeless?)

One of the folks at the school who is involved with various projects in Europe and in Africa is from Germany. She's just back from a year in the Berlin area, where she was teaching German to refugees. She says they were generally becoming pretty fluent within six months. In Denmark, she observed, the refugees get free language lessons, too, but they're less frequent than in Germany, and progress is slower.

I scheduled in several days to recover from jet lag with nothing else to do but relax. (Something I've learned to do over the years, the hard way, by hitting the ground running and then getting sick.) I took daily walks into the small city of Helsingor, several miles away. There are several different paths you can take to get from Hellebaek to Helsingor, all of which involve walking for a full hour without crossing a single paved road.

Some of the paths go through private land. A golf course, a conference center, several mansions, including one that belongs to the royal family. The paths are public, though some of the property is not. (Get your head around that concept, my fellow Americans.)

To the south of Hellebaek I'm told you can go towards Copenhagen, on a bike path that either hugs the coast or goes through forest, without crossing a paved road for dozens of miles.

The first gig of this leg of the tour was on the sidewalk outside of an anarchist book store in the center of Copenhagen. Parking the car was easy, but very expensive, like Manhattan prices. Mass transit and bike lanes are everywhere, so combined with expensive parking, not many people drive cars.

It's the biggest city in one of the richest countries in the world. But traffic is fairly light, even during rush hour – though bicycle traffic is very heavy.

How much does the book store pay for rent, here in the city center, I wonder? Less than the equivalent of $1,000 a month, came the response. A fraction of what a business in downtown Portland might expect to pay for their monthly rent. Why so low? The storefront is rented from a housing collective, consisting of hundreds of apartments in five-story buildings that take up an entire block.

Unlike with cohousing developments, you “buy into” these housing collectives simply by moving in and paying what you could call “rent” – but the buildings have already been paid for by the collective, or by one of many foundations that do just this sort of thing, in order to guarantee lots of nice, inexpensive housing in countries like Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands. Who are the landlords? The collective is the collective's landlord.

My next gig was a house concert for a friend who has worked for the Danish labor movement for decades. He lives with his family in a big farmhouse in the Danish countryside. One of the 80% of Danish workers who are union members, he made enough money that it wasn't a problem for him to live in such a big house, or to spend several thousand dollars to throw himself a party with well-paid entertainment, a rented ice cream machine, a top-notch chef, and more.

Next gig was in Christiania. A 900-person urban commune that has existed since 1970 or thereabouts. Residents pay around $20 a month towards various collective expenses to live there. Some live in artistic, home-made dwellings, while others live in somewhat more conventional structures. There are collective baths for those who lack running water in their places, though many people are hooked up to the city water supply as well as the electrical grid. A few years ago, Christiania was officially legalized, so it's no longer a squat – though even as a squat, it maintained its territorial integrity and autonomy the whole time. (Though frequently threatened with “normalization,” these threats were never really carried out by the state).

The next six gigs were in Sweden. Five of them in the Skane region, all within an hour's drive or less from the city of Malmo, just across the bridge from Copenhagen. In each of the towns, my friend Kristian Svensson and I played in places that were owned by the adult education and cultural events wing of the Swedish labor movement, ABF. These gigs were all free entry, often in beautiful theaters – our fees paid for by a combination of the local and regional ABF.

In Gothenberg, the gig was the most well-attended of all, with around 100 people packed in to the top floor of a five-story building called Marx Engels Huset, which is owned and run by the Swedish Communist Party. For this gig there was a door charge.

We stayed in the housing development which is reputed to be the most dangerous place in Sweden. It may be true – there have been a couple of murders there over the years. But by US standards, it's a nice housing development that might be generally associated with the “middle class” – though maybe the “lower” end of that spectrum, and the part that includes immigrants with dark skin.

There are big courtyards with grass, trees and play structures in between each building. The buildings are well-maintained, and largely made of real wood. They even smell good. I'm told there are rats. I even saw one in the courtyard. (They say in New York City, no one is ever more than thirty feet from a rat.)

In the midst of the little tour of Sweden, I took a ferry to the Danish island of Bornholm. The cheapest way to get there is by taking a ferry from the Swedish town of Ystad. On Bornholm lives one of the many people I know in Denmark and elsewhere in Europe who were students when I first met them, and are now leftwing, elected officials. My gig there was sponsored by his party, Enhedslisten (the red-green coalition is how they refer to themselves in English). It took place in a farmhouse that is being fixed up, after being bought by an ex-squatter from Berlin looking for a more rural life. I met many Danes and Germans on Bornholm doing just that. Some of the old farmhouses in the less popular interior of the beautiful island are going for the equivalent of $20,000.
Coming into Sweden, there were immigration agents occasionally glancing at the passports of the cars driving past them. Usually they literally glanced, not asking most of the cars to stop. On the way back into Denmark, and then into Germany, there are still no border controls. From Germany going back into Denmark, there are now, and it's the same sort of thing as when you go from Denmark to Sweden. A glance. (Though for people who “look like refugees” it's often more than a glance.)

My gig in Hamburg was on a Saturday. I parked the car for free, a few hundred feet from the Rathaus – City Hall – where I was to sing at a rally against the “free trade” agreement between the USA and Europe, the TTIP. 65,000 people packed into the Rathausplatz. In six other German cities, similar numbers, though I think Hamburg was the biggest of the simultaneous demos organized by a coalition of labor, environmental, and other organizations and political parties.

Not only were the demos well-attended, but they were well-organized, too. Mostly music on the stages, mostly independent artists, and playing through a state-of-the-art sound system, run by highly-trained professionals. All 65,000 people could hear everything that was going on on the stage, if they were so inclined, and most were.

The last time I played at a big demo like that was also in Germany, a little less than a year ago. The last time I played at a demo anywhere close to that big in the US was ten years ago. And that wasn't a labor-oriented demo like this one. In fact, I don't think we've had a labor-sponsored demo this size anywhere in the US in my lifetime.

Everywhere I went, I rudely asked people how much they paid in rent. Since the rent crisis in Portland really heated up, it's just always on my mind. And when I go to other big cities that lots of people are moving to for lots of different reasons – prosperous cities in rich countries – I have to know how things function there. And every time, the response causes my jaw to slacken. Because in city after city, when people are living in an apartment similar to mine in Portland, they are paying half of what I pay in rent. It's usually in the low hundreds of euros – never in the thousands.

Now, part of that is probably the circles I travel in. I don't know a lot of really expensive sorts of people. But I know a lot of people who live in apartments similar to mine. And although the cities they live in are way more prosperous than Portland, with jobs available that pay way better on the average, where the urban planning, mass transit, bike lanes, etc., are worlds away from our haphazard efforts at development (which are characterized mainly by sprawling parking lots and sprawling, two-story malls), they are paying half the rent that I pay. And I pay less than most people do in Portland for a 2-bedroom.

In the Netherlands, prosperity takes on a whole new meaning. There, they have had a functional welfare state for so many hundreds of years now that much of the population has moved beyond thinking about money entirely. Which can actually be very challenging for a touring musician who is not from the Netherlands. Because most of the events that anybody in my circles is organizing is usually free, in every sense, out of some kind of principle.

Which is all easier to do when the venues where things are taking place are also free, owned by foundations, or semi-legal (or fully legalized) squats. People say it's much harder to squat than it used to be, but squatted buildings are still to be found in every Dutch city. They are places where people live, and places where lots of cultural events take place as well.

I repeatedly had the same conversation with people in the Netherlands who were grappling with their greatest conundrum in life. Namely, how much paid work they should do in order to avoid going over the threshold that would result in their welfare benefits being cut.

This is not a conundrum because they want to do more paid work. They're happy to do volunteer work, too. But they'll take money now and then when it's available. As long as it doesn't amount to too much. Because why get stuck doing paid work that threatens the welfare payments, as opposed to accepting welfare and just doing volunteer work?

And if we're all volunteers (paid by the welfare state) then why shouldn't everyone else be volunteers? The logic only works for Dutch people, as you can see (or people who are independently wealthy through some other means). But it's lovely logic, anyway.

As I've been driving around Europe on this tour, one of the things that's different from prior tours is my phone plan. That is, with my domestic US T-Mobile account, I discovered one day that I can now use my phone on 2G in 120 countries, with unlimited data. Which includes all the countries I ever go to. So now I'm driving around Europe, listening to US, British, German or other English-speaking radio programs in real time, live. Not just podcasts and audiobooks anymore.

So as I'm experiencing Europe, I'm hearing about the latest massacre and the latest racist, killer cop back home. There was a minor disturbance that was dubbed a riot in Rotterdam a year or two ago, when a cop killed a black man there. It's happened in England and Norway and elsewhere in Europe, too. Like once a decade, rather than once a day. There are racist killer cops here, too. Just not as many. And mostly they don't have guns on them.

A very nice Dutch event organizer let me use his apartment for the eight days I was based out of it, doing gigs around the Netherlands and nearby (by American, Australian or Russian standards of distance) Belgium. He stayed with his parents, in the room he grew up in, I believe, a few blocks away. I had his place to myself, and I explored the neighborhood during the days when I had time. Which was most days, since most of the gigs were not more than an hour away.

What was especially notable was that this neighborhood in Dordrecht, a small city near Rotterdam with an industrial past, is known as being one of the roughest neighborhoods in the country. As with the neighborhood in Sweden with this reputation where I had recently stayed, this one had some dark-skinned immigrants in it, too.

For the first week I was there, it entirely failed to live up to its reputation as rough in any way. It was, as far as I could tell, a quiet, nicely multicultural, family-oriented neighborhood, with all the amenities of life within walking distance – a supermarket, a few takeaway places, a bakery, a convenience store. And the beautiful center of town was only a short bike ride away, for lots more amenities.

Most people there lived in nice little apartments as far as I could tell. And there was a big park in the neighborhood, too, with canals in every direction. On the second-to-last day I was there, however, I heard screams, and glass breaking, and a big thud a block away from where I was staying. The event made the local news: there had been a fight between two guys, and one of them had been thrown through a second-story window, and had to be hospitalized. No one died.

There are lots of down sides to Europe – even to the prosperous social democracies of the north. But coming from the USA, they are increasingly hard to see.