Wednesday, November 25, 2015

On Bob Dylan's early folk years and the flourishing Minnesota music scene in the 1960s

Robert Zimmerman (Bob Dylan) on stage with the Golden Chords.
Image courtesy Monte Edwardson and Leroy Hoikkala.


When discussing the history of Minnesota rock music, Bob Dylan tends to rate barely more than a footnote because he was living in New York and playing folk music when such seminal groups as The Trashmen, Accents, Avanties, Gestures, Castaways, Chancellors and Underbeats were emerging as the state’s most popular bands. If any of those musicians were listening to Dylan’s early folk albums on Columbia, it did not show in their set lists.

Perhaps only guitarist David Rivkin of the Chancellors even remembers that Dylan had briefly attended the University of Minnesota during the 1959–60 school year. Rivkin had occasionally gone to the Ten O’Clock Scholar at Five Corners to see Dylan perform, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar and harmonica. Rivkin had begun his own performing career as a folk singer, too, but traded in his acoustic guitar when he became jealous of the electric guitar owned by his cousin.

But Dylan’s pre-folk years were an exact parallel to the formative musical experiences of the Minnesota rockers he left behind when he moved to New York in 1961. Like them, he had grown up listening to Elvis Presley (“Hearing him for the first time was like busting out of jail,” he once said), Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly. Holly’s performance at the Duluth Armory in January 1959 left an indelible impression on the 17-year-old Dylan – then known by his real name, Bob Zimmerman – so much so that 25 years later, he told Rolling Stone, “He was great. He was incredible. I mean, I'll never forget the image of seeing Buddy Holly up on the bandstand.”

Poster for the Winter Dance Party on January 25, 1959,
at the Kato Ballroom in Mankato, Minnesota. 

Dylan had played with two rock bands while in high school at Hibbing: the Satintones and the Golden Chords. During the summer after his senior year, he briefly played piano in Bobby Vee’s band in Fargo, North Dakota. But by the time he enrolled at the University of Minnesota that fall, he had traded his electric guitar for a Gibson acoustic and began learning traditional folk songs by Odetta and Woody Guthrie.

His gradual ascent to the pinnacle of the folk world occurred as The Trashmen were attaining national prominence with their novelty hit “Surfin’ Bird.” That single ultimately reached #4 on the Billboard charts, and was recorded almost simultaneously with the release of Dylan’s second album, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” in late September 1963. “Freewheelin’” peaked at No. 22 nationally, but was outsold back home in Minnesota by The Trashmen’s only l.p. release, “Surfin’ Bird.”

Promotional photo of The Trashmen.
Image courtesy Denny Johnson of

From there, the two Minnesota-bred acts headed in opposite directions. Stymied by the chart dominance of the freshly arrived Beatles, and by a lack of direction on the part of their management, The Trashmen were unable to sustain the momentum of “Surfin’ Bird.” Dylan was also impacted by the Beatles, but in a significantly different way. Scarcely a year after the Beatles arrived on U.S. shores, Dylan had returned to playing electric guitar and rock ‘n’ roll – albeit a very different style of rock ‘n’ roll than the rockabilly tunes he’d played in high school.

In 1964 he’d begun writing highly impressionist lyrics, loaded with symbolism and free-association cultural references, exemplified by songs like “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Chimes of Freedom,” and “My Back Pages.” Though these songs were recorded on acoustic guitar, they proved to be sturdy and rhythmic enough to later be re-cast as rock songs by the Byrds, a Los Angeles group whose signature sound was Roger McGuinn’s electric 12-string guitar.

Other folkies were turning to electric instruments in this post-Beatles environment – including Simon & Garfunkel, John Sebastian, and John Phillips – but when Dylan plugged in his Fender Stratocaster at the Newport Folk Festival in the summer of 1965, it sent shock waves through the pop music world. Now, you not only listened to Dylan’s songs for their deep lyrical meaning, but you could dance to them, too.

A crowd of 20,000 at WDGY's 1964 Winter Carnival Spectacular.
Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society.

The folk establishment was outraged. Pete Seeger, the father figure of folk singers everywhere, allegedly threatened to chop Dylan’s power cord with an ax at Newport. Yet his summer 1965 single “Like a Rolling Stone” reached No. 2 on the Billboard charts, making him a bona fide rock star, and he followed that with the No. 7 hit “Positively 4th Street,” a nasty attack on an unnamed former friend.

Folk purists booed Dylan at every stop of his subsequent tour – including his first official return to Minneapolis on November 5, 1965. His concert at the Minneapolis Auditorium attracted 9,000 people and received the expected mixed reviews. As was his custom at the time, Dylan pleased the folk lovers by playing the first half of the show on acoustic guitar, and infuriated them by playing the second half on electric guitar, backed by future members of The Band, guitarist Robbie Robertson and drummer Levon Helm.

Dylan’s next two singles were flops: “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window” did not make the Top 40, and “Sooner Or Later One of Us Must Know” did not chart at all. He recovered with “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” which went to No. 2 in the spring of 1966. By then he had released a stunning run of three albums that changed the way rock musicians approached their art: “Bringing It All Back Home,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” and “Blonde On Blonde.”

The Minnesota rock bands that had been oblivious to Dylan’s early career struggles were now scrambling to adapt to the changes he had made to the musical landscape. Novelty songs wouldn’t cut it anymore. Kids were more interested in listening to music than dancing. Styles of hair, dress, speech, and thought were undergoing rapid transformations. The Bird had once been the word; now many words – often poetically inscrutable – were necessary to gain attention. The new bands emerging from Minnesota had names like the Bedlam Four, the Nickel Revolution, and Seraphic Street Sounds. The Stillroven recorded the cryptic “Little Picture Playhouse”; T.C. Atlantic had a hit with the moody “Faces”; even The Castaways released the psychedelic “Lavender Popcorn.” Meanwhile, Minnesota’s original rock ‘n’ roll standard bearers, The Trashmen, grew weary of the hipper-than-thou scene and retired in 1967.

Image courtesy Mike Jann.

Typical for Dylan, he soon veered away from the stylistic changes he’d wrought, secluding himself for two years at his home in Woodstock, New York, before finally emerging with a new batch of stripped-down, acoustic-based songs replete with biblical allegories. From there, he’d go to Nashville to make a country album. By then, however, his influence on the pop music of the 1960s – both in his home state and around the globe – was firmly established. His fellow Minnesotans were forced to follow his lead throughout the second half of the decade, even as he seemed to pay his boyhood home little or no attention.

Dylan performed publicly in Minnesota for the first time in 13 years on Oct. 31, 1978, at the St. Paul Civic Center. He has played in the Twin Cities and Duluth many times since then. He also attempted to re-connect with his fellow Minnesota rockers.

Tony Andreason of The Trashmen at the Whiskey A Go Go in St. Paul,
Minnesota, 1966.
Image courtesy Mike Jann.

“He came out and watched us play in the '80s,” said Tony Andreason, lead guitarist for The Trashmen. “We were doing a benefit in Minnetonka, and Dylan came and was there all night long. He sent a woman over to talk to us and wanted to know if we were available to go out on tour with him for any length of time, and we said we really weren't. We weren't interested, regardless of who it was. It wasn't going to work.”

The Trashmen rhythm guitarist Dal Winslow recalled that, a month or so later, Dylan was asked by Rolling Stone what he did in his spare time. “He said, 'Well, I go out and watch The Trashmen perform at Minnetonka, Minnesota.' And I thought, 'Well, thank you, Bob. I take back everything I said about you.' ”


Rick Shefchik spent almost thirty years in daily journalism, mostly as a critic, reporter, and columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. He is the author of Everybody's Heard about the Bird: The True Story of 1960s Rock 'n' Roll in Minnesota and From Fields to Fairways: Classic Golf Clubs of Minnesota. He’s a novelist and author of three works of nonfiction and has been in several working bands as a guitarist and singer.

"Engrossing and exhaustive, Everybody’s Heard about the Bird is an invaluable pop history document that chronicles the nascent Minneapolis recording and music industry and early rock-and-roll stew. All in all, a labor of love that feels both fresh and long overdue."
—Jim Walsh, journalist, songwriter, and author of The Replacements: All Over But the Shouting: An Oral History

"Shefchik offers a brisk, light, and lively overview of the arrival of rock in the Upper Midwest and the local bands that brought it to life. Incredibly researched. Totally cool! Awesome!"
—Bill Diehl, Rajah of the Records, WDGY

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Remembering the struggles and achievements of Māori filmmaker Barry Barclay.

While filming Barclay's Tangata Whenua television series in 1972, cameraman
Keith Hawke has the camera about 10 meters from the people on the porch,
leaving them as free as possible from the paraphernalia of filmmaking.
Image: Pacific Films.

Māori media researcher

It has been more than 25 years since the acclaimed Māori filmmaker Barry Barclay’s book Our Own Image was first published. So what has since happened in Māori filmmaking? Quite a lot, I would argue, but with some reservations.

The handful of films released over the last five years with stories written and driven by Māori includes Boy (2010), Mt Zion (2013), The Pā Boys (2014), and the recently released Born to Dance (2015). It is arguable as to what constitutes a ‘Māori film’, and perhaps not always a useful exercise but, as Barry said, Māori are forced to do this for funding purposes within a white system. It also makes visible Māori access or lack of access to feature film funding in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Our early Māori dramatic feature filmmakers, in particular Barry, Merata Mita, and Don Selwyn, paved the way for future generations. Today, many Māori filmmakers acknowledge these pioneers and build on their vision; The Pā Boys has a dedication to the memory of Barry, Merata, and scriptwriter Graeme Tetley.

Barry laid a foundation and fought for a cinematic space where Māori filmmakers could present Māori stories. He argued that Māori needed and had a right to opportunities to speak to a Māori audience first, without explanation, and others could listen in. Barry’s notion of talking in, which centres the indigenous voice, remains a useful theoretical tool.

Barry argued that Te Tiriti o Waitangi (Treaty of Waitangi), an agreement between iwi and the Crown, promised equity, extending this to the right of Māori to tell their own stories and access to funding to enable this. The historical pattern of underfunding Māori productions led Barry to take action and seek solutions. His unwavering determination and unspoken advocacy was a bold move for a filmmaker reliant on funding from these institutions.

I remember attending the 2007 formal launch of Te Paepae Ataata, an initiative supported by the New Zealand Film Commission that was set up to nurture and fund the development of Māori feature films. Te Paepae Ataata came about through tireless advocacy by Māori involved in media production, including Barry. He stood up that evening with optimism and good faith, announcing that “the house is now restored” and he would not pursue WAI 748, a Te Tiriti o Waitangi claim, lodged nine years earlier. The claim charged the New Zealand Film Commission (the major funder of films in Aotearoa New Zealand) with not meeting its obligations under the Treaty. The Pā Boys was the first feature film developed with Te Paepae Ataata support; however, this fund no longer exists. There appear to be no Māori specific funding provisions; instead Māori may apply alongside Pacific filmmakers to the New Zealand Film Commission’s He Ara – Māori and Pasifika Pathways scheme. Sadly, the house is in need of restoration.

Master carver Piri Poutapu chats with Tangata Whenua series writer/
interviewer Michael King and Waikato elder and facilitator Te Uira Manihera
on the porch of Mahinarangi meeting house, Turangawaewae marae,
Ngaruawahia, in 1972. Image: Pacific Films.

Returning to Our Own Image, how has this early conversation progressed and uplifted Māori filmmaking? Barry’s book provides an important record and reminder of the struggles and achievements he and others faced. Barry was innovative, pushing boundaries and challenging the status quo. He established ways of working grounded in Māori worldviews and concepts. His example provided legitimation and support for Māori filmmakers working or wanting to work in similar ways and offering a path for future generations of filmmakers.

His transformational practices were conceived during the making of the Tangata Whenua (1974) television series and expanded and refined during the production of his first dramatic feature film, Ngati (1987). He advocated for a sustainable Māori cinema and workforce leading him to train and employ Māori on Ngati.

Barry’s sense of accountability, apparent in his writing, guided his work with communities. He generously gave his time when I was writing a thesis, which included filmmaking theory and practice. He was careful to stress that process is crucial rather than a prescribed set of rules, saying: “My starting position is to say I’m an outsider. I know nothing about anything when I go into a community. I’m an ignoramus. I’m there at their sufferance. And I use the word sufferance deliberately…You get weighed by the results.”

Barry was very aware of wider connections and responsibilities not only to Māori but to indigenous people globally. Our Own Image plants the seeds of theoretical thinking that Barry expanded on throughout his life. His notion of Fourth Cinema is the result of a strategic creation of an indigenous cinematic space where none previously existed. It was apparent that Barry loved to engage with ideas and could immediately see the resonance between Fourth Cinema and Kaupapa Māori film theory, pointing to a shared language and understanding. Barry was always looking to create that safe and supported space for Māori cinematic voices.

Barry’s contributions reach beyond filmmaking. Generous with his ideas, we have learned much from him, and the re-release of Our Own Image will reacquaint some with his legacy and introduce him to new audiences. Our Own Image, one of many gifts Barry left, is a reminder to reflect on both struggles and achievements, continuing to build on the legacies left by Barry and those of his generation who envisaged a brighter future.


Angela Moewaka Barnes is a Māori social scientist based at Te Ropu Whariki, Massey University, Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand. She has a track record of research using kaupapa Māori methods on a range of topics including media. Her doctoral thesis, Ngā Kai Para i te Kahikātoa: Māori Filmmaking, Forging a Path (2011), examined Māori dramatic feature film and filmmaking, in particular the work of Barry Barclay, Merata Mita, and Don Selwyn, alongside the development of a Kaupapa Māori Film theoretical framework. Angela’s field of research interests includes media, Kaupapa Māori, identity, health, and wellbeing.

Barry Barclay (Ngāti Apa) (1944–2008), author of Our Own Image, is an award-winning New Zealand filmmaker, writer, and philosopher. He coined the term Fourth Cinema and has been honored with a Laureate Award from the Arts Foundation of New Zealand and the New Zealand Order of Merit.

"In Our Own Image, Barry Barclay produced a manifesto for indigenous cinema. Both intellectual exhortation and community document, it is driven by a ferocious critical intelligence and a commitment to a practice and understanding of cultural representation based on principles of justice and self-determination. It deserves to be seen as a major contribution to global film studies."
—Stuart Murray, University of Leeds

Friday, November 13, 2015

#UPWeek finale: More authors on working with a university press

On Monday, we kicked off University Press Week with a tremendous blurb from Nona Willis Aronowitz about the value of working with a university press. Today, we are pleased to wrap up #UPWeek with not one, but THREE more blurbs from beloved authors who value our particular model of publishing.

Working and publishing with a university press means I can count on the editors and the whole team. They are the supporting quality control who tell when something works and when it doesn’t, and pushing my writing and the arguments to improve. The best editor encourages you to be provocative and to experiment but to always remain rigorous. It’s this level of engagement that makes our work as writers and academics motivating. 
—JUSSI PARIKKA, professor in technological culture and aesthetics at Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton. Author, with Minnesota, of A Geology of Media, The Anthrobscene, and Insect Media.

I regularly felt like my editor "got" me. That means a lot of things. One, he knew where my book fit in my field as well as other fields, and really encouraged me to make my book accessible to a variety of audiences. My editor also understood that my publication process needed to fit into a tenure clock and what that meant in terms of timelines for me. I also felt like I always knew what was going on in the book production process and what was expected of me. I never felt in the dark with UMP, and am positive that the success of my book is largely attributed to the care they took in producing it. That care and all of these particular benefits, I felt, came directly from dealing with a nonprofit university press. 
—ADRIENNE SHAW, assistant professor of media studies and production at Temple University and author of Gaming at the Edge.

University presses still value quality over quantity in the publishing of books, and while they may move a work to completion more slowly, university presses still care for the details of language and layout. University presses also take on works that commercial publishing houses would never touch, book projects whose importance and influence outweighs the relatively small readership they might receive. These presses are truly a national treasure. 
—THOMAS FISHER, director of the Metropolitan Design Center at University of Minnesota. Author of Designing Our Way to a Better World, The Invisible Element of Place, and Salmela Architect.

In the wrapping up of #UPWeek, a number of presses are publishing content in conversation with authors. The Chicago Blog has a useful roundup of today's posts.

In addition, we recommend checking out a video posted earlier this week, "Opening Access: The Reinvention of the Academic Book," featuring, among many esteemed speakers, discussion with Matt Gold about our Manifold Scholarship project.

Happy reading! #ReadUP.

Monday, November 9, 2015

#UPWeek Day One: Nona Willis Aronowitz on working with a university press

For me, working with a university press was absolutely the right choice. I didn't just feel like one of a million authors at the mercy of a breakneck publishing schedule; I got tons of personal attention and received insightful advice from my editor. The publicists were strategic and inventive. Since I was collecting my mother's anthologies for posterity, I took comfort in the fact that they'd stay in print longer than at a trade publisher. And the copy editing was some of the best I've ever received—a true old-fashioned (and endangered) comb-through that's so much more than proofreading. 
—NONA WILLIS ARONOWITZ, editor of The Essential Ellen Willis (2014) and Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music (2011). 

This week is University Press Week, and in honor of the week and all that it celebrates, we've asked our authors to tell us a bit about what they value in working with a university press. We'll post our responses throughout the week.

All members of the American Association of University Presses will be posting various exciting content each day this week; University of North Carolina Press has a great roundup of today's posts. On Thursday, we've got something special in store to honor our 90th anniversary this year. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Birchwood Cafe Cookbook: Good, real, seasonal food inspired by Southern family traditions.

The Birchwood Cafe's strawberry and rhubarb cornmeal
cobbler makes a tasty breakfast or dessert dish. See recipe below.

Founder and owner of the Birchwood Cafe in Minneapolis

Written by Tracy Singleton on the occasion of the publication of The Birchwood Cafe Cookbook: Good Real Food, which features recipes from the restaurant's light-hearted, innovative, sustainably minded menu, divided by eight seasons: Spring, Summer, Scorch, Autumn, Dusk, Frost, Winter, and Thaw.

The Birchwood Cafe Cookbook is truly a labor of love—more than 10 years in the making. Chef Marshall Paulsen, writer Beth Dooley, and photographer Mette Nielsen and I have pored through twenty years of Birchwood recipes, selecting those that hold special meaning for us and for our customers. Our goal is to provide recipes that reflect Birchwood Cafe’s philosophy and that can be made easily at home.

My journey into local, sustainable food began in my great-grandmother’s home and it continues through the food you’ll find at the Birchwood Cafe today. Take, for example, Summer’s Strawberry Rhubarb Cobbler and our Stone Fruit Quinoa Crisp from Scorch. Both spark my earliest food memories of summers spent with my Nanny in a small town in Georgia, miles away from my parents in Minnesota.

On those long, lazy summer afternoons in Nanny’s kitchen, I learned how food is intrinsic to culture, especially in the South. You wouldn’t even think of visiting a friend without bringing something delicious and homemade to share. My Nanny had entire shelves fully laden with homemade goods: canned tomatoes sun-ripened in her garden, preserved peaches, fig jam, and buttery pound cakes. She made the most divine “divinity candy,” each melt-in-your-mouth morsel topped with a perfect pecan half, each piece neatly arranged in a pie tin and draped with a dish towel over the top. We’d carry these gifts when “calling” on neighbors.

Whenever I taste these homey seasonal desserts from Birchwood’s bakery case, I’m transported right back in time to picking fresh blueberries for cobbler, two in my mouth for every one in the pail, or standing on a stool in front of her large wooden bake table, her strong, capable arms on either side of mine as we rolled the biscuits for our cobbler topping by hand.

Of course, back then we didn’t use words like “organic,” “sustainable,” or even “local food system” to describe the food we’d harvest from the back yard and cook up in that sunny kitchen. It was good, real food and really, all that mattered was the warm, food-is-love feeling I basked in.

Those vivid childhood memories were reawakened in my mid-20s when I landed a job at Lucia’s Restaurant in Minneapolis. Here, food was sourced from farmers and not factories. Real butter, churned at local dairies, came from real cows—the kind that Nanny would let me eat straight from the cut-glass dish. Lucia respected the farmers and their food as well as those who worked and dined in her restaurant. At Lucia’s, I came to know these farmers, producers, cooks, and diners, and I reconnected with the warmth and love of Nanny’s kitchen as I started eating real food again.

Making dishes from scratch and knowing the source of each ingredient, just as my Nanny did, is what we do each day at the Birchwood. Most importantly, Good Real Food connects us to ourselves, to each other, and in turn to our community.



Lovely, fresh cornmeal from Riverbend Farm in Delano, Minnesota, adds a distinctly sweet, corny crunch to the topping. Truth be told, this cobbler is as delicious for breakfast as it is for dessert.

From The Birchwood Cafe Cookbook, page 48.

Serves 6

1/4 cup sugar, or more to taste
1 teaspoon unbleached all-purpose flour
Pinch of cloves
1 - 1/2 pounds whole strawberries, hulled and halved (about 6 cups)
2 pounds (about 15 stalks) fresh rhubarb, cut into 1/2-inch slices (about 6 cups)

1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup cornmeal
1 tablespoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup buttermilk
Sugar for garnish


Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

To make the filling, whisk together the sugar, flour, and cloves in a large bowl, and then stir in the strawberries and the rhubarb. Turn the filling into a deep pie dish or six 2-cup ramekins.

To make the topping, stir together the flour, sugar, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. Using your fingers or a pastry cutter, work in the butter. Slowly work in the buttermilk to make a soft dough. Spoon the topping over the filling and sprinkle it with sugar.

Bake the cobbler until the topping is golden brown and the filling is tender, about 25 minutes. Serve warm with ice cream or at room temperature with fresh whipped cream.



The Birchwood take on this favorite is crunchy and nutritious. Maple syrup adds flavor while keeping the dessert from being overly sweet.

From The Birchwood Cafe Cookbook, page 80.

Serves 6 to 8

2 pounds stone fruit (apricots, plums, nectarines, peaches), pitted and cut into large dice (about 4 cups)
1/2 cup maple syrup
2 cups rolled oats
1/4 cup quinoa
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup rice bran oil

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a medium bowl, mix the fruit with 1/4 cup of the maple syrup. Turn the fruit into a deep 9-inch-square baking dish.

In a separate bowl, stir together the oats, quinoa, cinnamon, vanilla, remaining maple syrup, and oil. Distribute the topping over the fruit. Bake until the top is toasty and golden and the fruit is bubbly, about 25 to 30 minutes.


Tracy Singleton is co-author, with Marshall Paulsen, of The Birchwood Cafe Cookbook: Good Real Food.

"Birchwood is more than a cafe—it is a community. The stories, recipes, and the people who make it all happen are embodied in this beautiful book, bringing the Birchwood experience into our homes and kitchens and onto our tables."
—Michael Ableman, farmer and author of From the Good Earth, On Good Land, and Fields of Plenty

"This gracious and simple cafe has a big presence in our lives—Marshall’s tasty food and Tracy’s social activism have led the way for many healthy and sustainable initiatives and have us all thinking about where our food comes from."
—Dan Buettner, National Geographic Fellow and New York Times bestselling author of Blue Zones Solution

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Fight for 15 shines spotlight on harsh daily realities for low-wage workers

Fast-food workers, university workers, students, janitors, retail workers, and airport
workers rally on April 15, 2015, near the University of Minnesota to demand a $15/hour
minimum wage.
Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Recipient of the 2015 Paul Davidoff Award from the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning for his book Degraded Work

The list of cities and state opting for double-digit minimum wages seems to grow by the week. The New York State Assembly is considering a statewide wage floor of $15. If it doesn’t happen in New York, it will happen somewhere else: After decades of bewildering silence on the issue, income inequality has become both a dominant political topic and—even more surprising—good politics for elected officials counting votes.

The Fight for $15 campaign stands out for converting a seemingly outlandish political goal into common sense, and doing so in the short space of three years. Yet to take the next step to improve lives and match the reality of work with our collective expectations of it, Fight for $15 will need to succeed at the much harder task of naming and responding to the many workplace inequalities that low-wage earners suffer in addition to poor hourly pay. The campaign and the workers driving it have recognized this from the beginning, but the task they face is tremendous: Convincing policymakers and members of the public who haven’t worked a low-wage job in the past decade who are unlikely to believe the problems entry-level workers face.

This problem can be seen most readily in the growing practice of just-in-time scheduling. When I was conducting fieldwork for Degraded Work in the mid-2000s, a small number of the workers I interviewed told me of their frustration with arbitrarily cancelled or shortened shifts. A butcher in a Chicago supermercado explained that on slow days, or during a storm, he’d be sent home a few hours early, then told to report ahead of time the next day. This unpredictability constantly upended his attempts to arrange childcare and keep a second job, but there was nothing he could do about it. Aggregating his experience with related details about “three strikes” dismissal systems, punishment for taking bathroom breaks, and other micro-level degradations on the job, I reached the conclusion that employer experiments with labor control were proliferating.

Today, nothing about this arrangement could be classified as experimental. In the years following the recession of 2007-2009, employers insisted on erratic scheduling as a matter of policy. Job seekers began reporting that “open availability” (the ability and willingness to work any shift, on any given day) was a prerequisite for landing a retail job. Human-resources software packages now alert managers to dismiss workers early when weather or sales amounts compare unfavorably to benchmarks. The havoc this unleashes in workers’ lives is extraordinary. But more to the point, it’s complicated: Some workers spend hours taking public transit to the job, only to be sent home before the shift starts. Others forego sleep and reliable child care in an attempt to hold multiple jobs. And just about everyone finds that the uneven weekly cash flow means there’s no way to stave off debt, much less dig out from under it. While low wages have a single measure, scheduling and the dozens of other problems workers face on the job are context-specific and heterogeneous, and they have a lot to do with hamstringing life after the shift ends. Attempts to describe them cannot come close to the simplicity of fighting for $15. This is a real problem. We have good data on wages and on hours, at least for a person’s primary job. We can say some things about people looking for more hours. But the measures of erratic scheduling’s toll on human beings come from interviews. And even by the standards of interview data, they’re narratively complex – seemingly designed to resist the compact measurement that makes policy problems legible.

As Fight for 15 pivots to the problem of scheduling, it also faces the challenge of stepping outside of professionalized discourses about work. Pay remains the simplest, most elemental measure for a job. It’s an especially good measure of the compensation of professional work, which generally has regular (albeit, often long) hours, health insurance, dental plans, and retirement packages. But for low-wage workers, everything is negotiable all the time, including actually collecting the pay promised for work. The lived experience of work differs so much for professionals and low-wage workers. Beyond the challenges of numerical expression and narrative simplicity, raising support for reforms to job quality faces the challenge of conveying a workplace that few of the professions who make or legitimize policy have experienced.

There is hopeful precedent for giving voice to problems like these. During the fieldwork for Degraded Work, I worked a lot for a Chicago Worker Center whose members organized impromptu delegations to press construction contractors to pay wages they had wrongfully withheld. We called the problem “robo de salarios.” Today, wage theft is a recognizable social problem, a plague understood to be much more systematic and amenable to legislation than our efforts to chase down a few unreliable construction contractors would have indicated. It’s a source of legal claims, and a way to organize workers.

None of this is to suggest that Fight for $15’s wage victories were easy, or that it has paid scant attention to these problems. They weren’t, and it hasn’t. But one of the many benefits to the campaign is that it allows us to look beyond wages, to the many other important things that unions do and need to do today.


Marc Doussard is assistant professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. He is author of Degraded Work: The Struggle at the Bottom of the Labor Market, which has received the 2015 Paul Davidoff Award from the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning. He has worked with community and labor organizations in Chicago and elsewhere since 2000.

"Well-researched and illuminating." —Labor Studies Journal

"A remarkably detailed book, Degraded Work challenges one of the dominant theories for urban inequality in North America and challenges readers to do something about inequality in their own city. Perhaps Doussard’s greatest accomplishment is to challenge what his readers believe and what they are doing with their lives or careers, without being confrontational. His analysis shows considerable depth and detail, but he presents it with humor, and without pretense, so it is accessible to experts and laypeople alike." —Economic Geography

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

On the perils of absolute ownership, tractors, and T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot astride a John Deere tractor.
Photo remix by David S. Roh.

Assistant professor of English at the University of Utah

What does T.S. Eliot have in common with a John Deere tractor?

Quite a bit, as it turns out. The John Deere company (owned by General Motors) recently set the blogosphere ablaze when it filed a claim with the U.S. Copyright Office arguing that, in effect, the farmers of America don’t own their tractors, they’re just licensing them. Thanks to a controversial clause in the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act—written and passed at the height of industrial panic over file-sharing technologies and peer-to-peer protocols—any product that has software embedded within its systems can in fact be claimed as off-limits from modification.

The crux of John Deere’s argument is that since the company owns the patents to the software system integrated into new models of tractors, they in fact own the tractor in perpetuity. Similar to the logic of computer software on your operating system (you purchase a license, not the software itself), the DMCA grants a bundle of rights to the licensee and licensing body. Therefore, as software becomes more integral to the latest model of automobiles, owners will find themselves stripped of rights that they previously enjoyed. For example, weekend hobbyists will no longer have a right to tinker or modify their cars with impunity, since that might be considered “circumvention” or alteration beyond the parameters laid out by GM’s legal team. What makes this example particularly egregious is that it runs counter to the individuated do-it-yourself culture of farming and our very American ideals of property rights and self-reliance.

So how does this relate to T. S. Eliot? Eliot’s estate was once known to claim absolute ownership of his work, going as far as denying scholars and critics access to his poetry in scholarly studies. Critics who were interested, for example, in exploring some of Eliot’s more controversial papers or positing a thesis running counter to the Eliot estates’ wishes might find themselves locked out from his papers. As Jonathan Bate has pointed out, the consequences are quite real: Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Eliot is notable for its distinct lack of quotations and overabundance of paraphrase; Ackroyd explains in his preface that the Eliot estate has denied him from quoting extensively. It was only when the Eliot estate decided to adopt a less draconian policy that scholars began to write more liberally about his work; subsequently, Eliot’s reputation and institutionalization in the Modernist canon is now considered beyond dispute.

Common to both scenarios is the stifling of technological and cultural development. Farmers who purchase John Deere tractors expect that they’re free to tinker with the machinery and repair or modify it as they see fit, depending on the particulars of their situation. The idea of the John Deere company wielding a stranglehold on how they can manipulate the material object thanks to an obscure copyright clause seems counterintuitive at best; a gross violation of property rights at worst. Likewise, scholars toiling away on a lonely monograph generate new ideas based on a body of work that has seeped into the cultural consciousness. Implied in the statutory and social contract between artists and the public is the understanding that there is a commons from which everyone should eventually have the freedom to draw. Creative works are granted a monopoly for limited times and then are supposed to turn over to the public domain; but even during periods of monopoly, the fair use clause gives wide latitude for critical commentary. Cultural critics want to tinker with the material that has already returned to the cultural commons.

The problem is, those goods aren’t going anywhere. Intellectual property law, in its byzantine and oftentimes hamfisted manner, has become so broad that it supersedes the principles of creative incentives, thereby creating counterintuitive scenarios—such as tractors that you cannot own, let alone modify, thanks to software code embedded within the machinery. Or, in the realm of literary studies, only being allowed to quote 1.7 syllables of a 17-syllable haiku, thanks to an absurd ten percent rule (which doesn’t exist in statutory form). Our expensive litigation system skews in favor of the copyright holders; upstarts often wilt under pressure.

You can credit this kind of madness to two things: our cultural reverence for solitary genius, and our state and corporate paranoia over unregulated information exchange—best manifested in digital networks. Both have led to overreaches in intellectual property law, granting copyright holders (not necessarily the original creators) de facto veto power over subsequent artists and denying ownership of material objects through licensing schemes.

Thankfully, a countermovement is brewing that has caused some backtracking by the more brazen copyright abusers. John Deere, stung by the negative publicity, have put out a statement clarifying their claims of pure ownership. The Eliot estate long ago abandoned its scorched earth campaign against literary critics, much to its—as well as literary culture’s—benefit.

I’d argue that another reason for the pushback after so many years of unmitigated copyright expansion is cultural. Thanks to a mode of cultural creativity that operates according to the free exchange of information and knowledge, facilitated by the modern network, artists, and indeed, even some content owners themselves, are beginning to see the value in the freedom to tinker with both technology and culture.

It is a narrow and small world indeed if the John Deeres and literary estates of the world can dictate the future of creativity. Instead, we should encourage a multiplicity of voices to create a symphonic chorus.

And hot rod tractors.


David S. Roh is author of Illegal Literature: Toward a Disruptive Creativity and coeditor of Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media. He is assistant professor of digital humanities and Asian American literature at the University of Utah. More information: and @drdr78.

"Illegal Literature is a clear headed look at the copyright protections surrounding authorship and the combined legal, material, and aesthetic construction of authorship over the modern period."
—Joseph Tabbi, University of Illinois at Chicago

Friday, October 9, 2015

Homelessness and housing justice in gentrifying Brooklyn

A homeless man in New York. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has been interested
in East New York as a mass transit hub—but at what cost to the rest of the neighborhood?
Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Assistant professor of cultural studies, George Mason University

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal publicized new efforts by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to curb rising rates of homelessness. Citing a city study that found 32% of families arrived in shelters from evictions, the mayor will increase funding for public attorneys to represent tenants facing eviction in Housing Court. As the Wall Street Journal reported, while the city currently funds that program at $34 million, it would be up to $60 million annually by 2017.

City support for eviction defense is hard to argue against. But at best, the program is a stopgap that will slow the flow of people from homes to shelters. Eviction defense does nothing to address the root causes of housing insecurity that produce vulnerability to eviction among New York’s poor and working classes, predominantly populations of color.

But the de Blasio Housing Court plan is not only shortsighted; it is doomed by the Mayor’s other plans. Back in February of this year, the Mayor’s office unveiled its $41 billion Zoning for Quality and Affordability program. While touted as a means to preserve and expand affordable housing, the plan would lift height restrictions for developers, allowing for more luxury apartment buildings. Furthermore, rezoning efforts—which would convert commercial districts to residential corridors for these new high-rise developments—target neighborhoods that are currently low-income and predominantly Black, such as the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn. City subsidies would require new construction projects to allocate twenty percent of units as affordable. Housing activists have raised concerns regarding the lack of clarity about how rents and income requirements would be determined. In especially economically disenfranchised neighborhoods like East New York, the incomes of current residents can fall below the Area Median Incomes often used to determine rent ranges. So while new units might be below market, they might be above what families already in neighborhoods like East New York can afford.

The introduction of thousands of new units of exorbitant “market price” apartments will deeply and irrevocably change these neighborhoods. De Blasio has been clear that he is interested in East New York as a mass transit hub that could draw higher-income residents into what has been thought of, by gentrifiers and developers alike, as the far reaches of Brooklyn. It would be absurd to imagine that this new housing stock and new residents will leave the rest of the neighborhood untouched. Traditional models of gentrification imagine a slow, piecemeal process in which a new class of renters with limited means is slowly recruited into neighborhoods; Neil Smith referred to them as the “foot soldiers of gentrification.” De Blasio’s development-driven model brings much more rapid displacement as, almost overnight, hundreds if not thousands of new, mostly white, higher-income renters arrive in a neighborhood. This development-driven model has been aggressively pursued in Washington, D.C., which saw many predominantly Black neighborhoods go from white populations of less than ten percent to fifty percent between the 2000 and 2010 censuses.

The Zoning for Quality and Affordability plan will in fact increase housing insecurity and vulnerability in the neighborhoods it targets. And it will do so under the guise and rhetoric of “doing good.” In my book, I describe this as being “rescued into abandonment.” And thus, with one hand the mayor pours money into the housing court system, claiming to protect tenants facing eviction, and with the other pours money into the development and construction industries, ramping up and fortifying the forces producing eviction in the first place. The Wall Street Journal article notes that 84% of families in the New York City shelter system already receive obviously inadequate cash benefits from the city. What good is a lawyer who may help postpone an eviction if New Yorkers lack the means to pay rent in a city that is actively investing in furthering gentrification?

There is of course a long tradition of diverting poor people to court-based solutions; as Anders Corr showed in his book, No Trespassing, the United States imposed a housing court system in Puerto Rico not to protect renters, but to diffuse a growing tenant movement by absorbing its energies into bureaucratized legal battles. In Brooklyn, housing activists see the need for grassroots mobilizing outside the court systems. Residents of Prospect Lefferts Gardens formed the Movement to Protect the People to fight rezoning and redevelopment plans there. At a September 2014 Community Board meeting, that group successfully shut down representatives of City Planning, preventing them from presenting their plans and powerfully demonstrating that any conversation about rezoning was a no-go. Neighboring Equality for Flatbush is doing related work, while building a broad base of support across Brooklyn. Rallying under the call, “Before It’s Gone/Take it Back,” Equality for Flatbush recognizes “redevelopment” as a cover story for real estate speculation and increasing displacement, and that the promise to “do good” through legal programs and rezoning plans is no good at all.


Craig Willse is author of The Value of Homelessness: Managing Surplus Life in the United States. He is assistant professor of cultural studies at George Mason University and coeditor of Beyond Biopolitics: Essays on the Governance of Life and Death.