The Sordid Secrets of Cities

Two themes ran through my reader emails this week. The first is that many American subscribers wanted to know how they can watch the latest season of “Babylon Berlin.” If that’s you, then I’m sorry: Netflix hasn’t released it in the U.S. yet, (it’s already available online where I live), but my understanding is that the truly dedicated among you can order DVDs online.

The second theme is that many of you reached out after my Brazil column last week to point out the history of similar connections between politicians and violent groups in the United States and other wealthy countries.

I very much agree, and hope to write more about that soon. But for now, as I often do, I’ve been doing some broader reading to try to get a grounding in some of the relevant history.

To learn more about J. Edgar Hoover, and particularly his notable lack of interest in prosecuting the mafia and other organized crime syndicates — even as their power grew in American cities and they became intertwined with local governments, police, labor unions and other institutions — until the Apalachin meeting in the late 1950s forced his hand, I’ve picked up “G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century,” by Beverly Gage. A friend recommended it to me as “the biography of J. Edgar Hoover but also the biography of the first 70 years of 20th-century America.”

The essence of this kind of violent politics is that it happens at the local level, so I’ve also been reading about specific cities, and how their particular flavors of machine politics have sometimes opened up space for crime and corruption to flourish, encouraged state violence, or both.

Longtime subscribers won’t be surprised that my reading list starts with Joan Didion. She isn’t a historian or political scientist, but she had a unique gift for describing the self-mythology of American cities and then finding, in plain sight for anyone who cared to look, the contradictions that fatally lacerate those myths.

“Sentimental Journeys,” her novella-length article for the New York Review of Books, was nominally a report on the Central Park Five rape trial, but was really an exploration of the deep corruption of New York City politics. “Crimes are universally understood to be news to the extent that they offer, however erroneously, a story, a lesson, a high concept,” she wrote. The Central Park rape case was a way to tell a story about who and what New Yorkers should fear, and who could protect them, in a way that distracted from the corrupt dealings that were more immediately relevant to New Yorkers’ lives.

“The extent to which Los Angeles was literally invented by the Los Angeles Times and by its owners, Harrison Gray Otis and his descendants in the Chandler family, remains hard for people in less recent parts of the country to fully apprehend,” Didion wrote in a 1990 Letter from Los Angeles column in The New Yorker. In her swift retelling of that invention, Los Angeles is little more than a series of sales pitches stacked on top of each other, each one making promises about endless opportunities that eventually crumble on contact with reality, leaving ordinary citizens in economic or mortal peril. (I followed that up with some of Mike Davis’s work, particularly his classics “City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles” and “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn.”)

Didion’s “Miami” is usually seen as a book about Cuban expatriates in Florida. They are, to be fair, its main subjects. But I think that when paired with “Salvador,” her travelogue about a reporting trip during El Salvador’s civil war, it’s better understood as a book about how much Americans were kidding themselves about being somehow categorically different from Latin America. It reminded me of “Paths out of Dixie: The Democratization of Authoritarian Enclaves in America’s Deep South,” by Robert Mickey, which makes a strong case that comparisons to Latin America, not Europe, are often the most informative way to understand U.S. history.

“Chicago ’68,” by David Farber, uses the violent clashes at the 1968 Democratic Convention as a lens for analyzing Chicago’s powerful machine politics and its role in the national presidential race.

Finally, crossing the Atlantic, I’ve started reading the report from the Daniel Morgan Independent Panel, a British parliamentary inquiry into police corruption and other official misconduct in connection with the 1987 murder of Morgan, a private investigator who was found dead in a parking lot with an ax embedded in his neck. There were indications that Morgan was planning to reveal police corruption, possibly by selling a story to the media, so the report analyzes the alleged police corruption from that era, including selling confidential information and assisting criminals with inside police information.

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