The following is an excerpt from Transformative Planning: Radical Alternatives to Neoliberal Urbanism, an upcoming publication from Planner's Network and Black Rose Books that can be ordered via the University of Chicago Press here.
When I went to Hunter College for my master’s in urban planning in the early 2000s, I did so with the intention of later weaving together my knowledge of planning with media making. Having been a composer and then an arts journalist before becoming a planner, I sought ways to meld public policy and the political with creative expression. My first attempt at this was My Brooklyn, the 2012 documentary film I made with Kelly Anderson (see her article in the Transformative Planning book, “Whose Right, To What City?”)
My Brooklyn grew out of research I had done as a student on the re-making of Downtown Brooklyn’s Fulton Mall by New York City’s billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg. During this process, I collaborated with local community-based organizations, including the Pratt Center for Community Development, the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP), and Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE). Using academic investigation, policy advocacy, and on-the-ground-organizing as our starting points, Kelly and I created a film we hoped would not only explain the complexities of New York City’s corrupt development process, but also, through cinematic art, portray the vibrancy and importance of the much-maligned Fulton Mall in ways that no policy or academic report could.
Allison Lirish Dean filming My Brooklyn sometime in the mid-aughts
It was difficult to get funding for My Brooklyn. One reason may have been that documentary filmmaking since the early 2000s has revolved around an obsession with “story,” to the exclusion of other forms. Filmmakers Alexandra Juhasz and Alisa Lebow provide an apt summary as well as criticism of this trend in their manifesto “Beyond Story” (2018), which draws connections between the dominant mode of cinematic storytelling and prevailing neoliberal ideologies. According to Juhasz and Lebow, while it can take many forms, “story” has come to signify a narrow aesthetic that “privileges individuals over collectivities, people over their environments, human will over systemic forces, and in terms of spectatorship, feelings over analysis and passivity over action.” As “Beyond Story” shows, story became king around 2000, just as there were profits to be made from this approach. Since then, funding and distribution mechanisms for documentaries have favored pieces organized around character-driven storytelling, and success in navigating these mechanisms has been important for professional advancement.
For Kelly and me, making a few characters or a humanistic story the driving element of My Brooklyn not only felt contrived, but conflicted with our politics. We had other goals, like revealing the systemic forces behind gentrification, imparting “dry” but critical information about complex policy issues, and making sure people came away with a clear analysis of what was wrong with New York City’s development process. We also wanted to amplify the many voices that weren’t being represented in the mainstream media. As Juhasz and Lebow so eloquently put it, we wanted to portray the “wisdom, holdings, feelings, and aims of the multitude,” not just those of a few primary individuals. We also wanted to convey the value and history of a physical environment — storefronts, streets, sidewalks, public spaces, and the like.
Despite limited resources, My Brooklyn was made, and went on to be used in many organizing and political contexts throughout the United States and beyond. It was also screened at a number of film festivals, and has won recognition in the broader filmmaking world. The pedagogical aspects that have made the film so useful to organizers, however, would have been compromised had we tried to force the film to conform with the current conventions of story. Having stable jobs outside of our work on My Brooklyn, and staying close to community groups and organizing efforts on the ground, made it easier to buck these conventions.
A Podcast is Born
Coming off the heels of My Brooklyn, I created a podcast, Ear to the Pavement in the fall of 2016 in order to continue to explore what kinds of media that are possible outside the constraints of story. Like documentary film, radio also suffers (albeit less so) from an overemphasis on character-driven storytelling, but it has the advantage of being cheaper to produce, making it easier to experiment without too much at stake. It is also easy to set up a home studio, which was ideal for me since I had just had my second child, had left the formal workforce, and was looking for a way to combine media work with at-home childcare.
A few successful podcasts stay true to progressive politics and stand out as alternatives to the fetishization of story. These have served as models for Ear to the Pavement. Doug Henwood’s “Behind the News” in particular comes to mind: Henwood’s refusal to put forth a chirpy or contrived radio personality is refreshing, and few programs convey such a detailed and yet well-structured and interesting portrait of on-the-ground movements. The Nation magazine’s “Start Making Sense” is another solidly progressive podcast, and Current Affairs magazine’s newish podcast deserves a mention for its ability to cut quickly to the questions that really matter for progressives. I’ve also found inspiration in my local community radio station, KBOO in Portland, where one can find a less-polished radio aesthetic that leaves room for improvisation, surprise, and even, occasionally, boredom (not a bad thing in my view). Of course, traditional public radio still produces some excellent work, but as “Beyond Story” puts it, its political programming tends to function as part of “a seamless neoliberal ideology in lockstep with market forces.”
Contending With Crises in Care and Cultural Work
After becoming a mother, I decided to stay home in part because I wanted to be with my children when they were very young. Most if not all the money I could earn from a job outside the home would go directly toward childcare anyway, and my husband’s job paid well enough that it was financially feasible for me to stay at home. But I also knew that journalism jobs were becoming harder to get, more competitive to keep, and more geographically concentrated in a few major cities, Portland, Oregon not among them. Even if I did get a media job, the pay would likely be terrible, the hours long, and the political and personal tradeoffs significant. Staying home was, in part, a way of avoiding the exploitation I saw friends in “progressive” media jobs experiencing.
In some ways, the opportunity to create media without the pressures of commercialization or a formal job is ideal: I can delve into research for as long as necessary, pursue what interests me, experiment, and not compromise my politics. A serious constraint, however, is the lack of a paid, cohesive team, which compels me to rely on the favors of writer and media-maker friends when I run into thorny production or editorial problems. In addition, the combination of unpaid childcare and low-paid creative work can be demoralizing. “Ear to the Pavement” is produced in association with Progressive City, the web-based magazine affiliated with Planner’s Network, but that organization’s budget is tiny, so I receive only a small yearly stipend for the podcast. I could try to monetize the podcast — something I plan to do — but fundraising plus producing a quasi-regular podcast is a lot to fit into the 12 to 15 weekly work hours I have outside of my family responsibilities, and anyway, I’ve needed to build up enough episodes to make the argument for funding. Childcare is also unpredictable: kids get sick, there are snow days, and other disruptions occur, regularly whittling those 12 to 15 hours down to almost nothing. I’ve made good use of what resources exist for independent producers, the Association of Independents in Radio (AIR) being one of the best. For example, through AIR I did a six-week editing fellowship that filled in for some of the editorial support independent producers often need but find it difficult to get.
If “Beyond Story” articulates a crisis in the aesthetics of documentary-making and media-making more broadly, independent media producers also have to contend with a crisis in which cultural work is not recognized as real labor. Makers of radio are essentially writers, and as writer and activist Yasmin Nair has said, writing is one of the most devalued forms of artistic creation in the United States. This devaluation stems in part from the shift from a public to a privatized system of cultural funding powered primarily by foundations, corporate philanthropy, and to some extent crowdfunding. It is in this context that writing as well as other arts have come to be treated less as a form of valuable professional labor deserving stable compensation, than as a romanticized rat race in which one must relentlessly self-promote in an atmosphere of intense competition for scant resources. This reality shrinks aesthetic possibilities, promotes burnout, and weeds out promising producers who aren’t suited to this kind of lifestyle. Cultural producers oriented toward social justice in particular are supposed to be driven not by the promise of a paycheck but by their passionate devotion to a cause, a noble desire to “change the world.” “Social justice,” however they may define it, gives funders a convenient cover for exploitative practices. To be sure, the “democratization” of writing and media-making has also contributed to the precarity of the media professions: “citizen journalism” and the proliferation of blogs have all made writing look, as Nair points out, as if it requires no effort and hence can be done for free or very little.
As a parent caring for children at home, I have also had to contend with how little U.S. society values care work. The neoliberal turn since the 1980s, as the scholar Adolph Reed has said, paralleled a shift in the women’s movement away from the goal of comparable worth and universal child-care to “celebrating appointments of individual women to public office and challenging the corporate glass ceiling.” This creates a situation in which trying to forge a professional identity outside the formal labor market while caring for children can feel alienating. I prefer a world in which society values care work and other forms of labor equally, including the arts. How different things would feel if I were raising my children in a country with some kind of income scheme for stay-at-home parents, and generous public funding for a wider range of cultural production! Barring these circumstances, it has been my hope that, by working outside the formal media world, I can keep “Ear to the Pavement” grounded in the radical politics that have been the bedrock of Planners Network and Progressive Planning magazine.
“Ear to the Pavement” has come a long way from its beginnings in 2016, but still has a lot more growing to do. I’d like to put out episodes more frequently and more regularly, for example, but to do so without more resources would mean sacrificing quality for quantity, so the question of how to get more support is ongoing. Recent episodes fall somewhere between mini-documentaries and feature radio pieces, and are research-intensive. For example, the September, 2018 episode, “Corporate America is embracing racial equity. Should we cheer them on?” was produced over the course of a year and delves deeply into PolicyLink’s argument that corporations gain a competitive advantage when they advance racial equity. I view “Ear to the Pavement” as an evolving space where such arguments, and their political roots and implications, can be unpacked and explored more thoroughly. Corporate corruption has emerged as a particularly recurrent theme, with topics ranging from Bank of America's role in the foreclosure crisis to corporate influence over climate and environmental policy at the expense of indigenous groups. As of this writing, I consider the episode about Amazon’s history of tax evasion one of the most effective yet.
Since its earliest days, radio has attracted an independent, experimental movement that often overlaps with sound art traditions and includes community media as well. In our current political moment, this movement is more important than ever and still very much alive. “Ear to the Pavement” is situated in that independent tradition, although it is less experimental and more persuasive, academic, and journalistic, resembling the audio essay that attempts to present a clear argument. With journalism in disarray, and with so much that is highly entertaining and skillfully produced but, if it has a politics at all, is organized around “story,” progressive media-makers have a major void to fill. The more voices and wider the array of approaches, the better. I hope that “Ear to the Pavement” can stand as one small example of an attempt to revive a more heterogeneous and inclusive 21st-century media landscape.
Allison Lirish Dean is a writer and media maker based in Portland, Oregon. She hosts and produces Ear to the Pavement, a podcast about progressive urban planning in association with Progressive City. Allison researched and produced the award-winning documentary film My Brooklyn (2012), which has been used as an organizing tool by anti-gentrification activists around the world, and has covered the arts, gender, and urban planning and policy issues for outlets such as Studio 360, Next City, HuffPost, The Brooklyn Rail, and Gotham Gazette.
Juhasz, Alexandra and Alisa Lebow. Beyond Story: An Online Community-Based Manifesto. World Records Journal, Volume 2, Article 3, A project of UnionDocs Center for Documentary Art. https://vols.worldrecordsjournal.org/02/03 (accessed March 5, 2019).
Yasmin Nair. Make Art! Change the World! Starve!: The Fallacy of Art as Social Justice — Part I. Yasmin Nair’s personal blog, December 14, 2009. http://www.yasminnair.net/content/make-art-change-world-starve-fallacy-art-social-justice-%E2%80%93-part-i (accessed March 5, 2019).
Reed, Adolph. Nothing Left: The Long, Slow Surrender of American Liberals. Harper’s Magazine, March 5, 2014.
https://harpers.org/archive/2014/03/nothing-left-2/ (accessed March 5, 2019).