Slumming

It used to be fashionable in the Victorian and Edwardian eras to go “slumming.” The idea was that well bred members of the upper class could perhaps benefit from a tour of the seething masses of the lower classes. Some sort of charity often went hand in hand with slumming–if you donated to the construction of a workhouse, for example, you might go down and have a look around at the finished product, and pat yourself on the back for a job well done. And of course no trip to the slums would be complete without a look at the criminal underclass–living proof that those born into squalor remain that way, and probably should. I mean, my god, kindly men and women reach out kindly hands with jail visits and food baskets, and sweatshop employment, and what thanks did they get? Crime? Socialism? Anarchy in the streets?

Slumming still exists these days, it’s just not called that anymore. There’s a dangerous undertone in traveling to another place where the people are less fortunate. There’s something vaguely…odd, or slimy, about making a study of misfortune the focal point of an expedition. There but for the grace of God go I, indeed.

Which brings me to an article I read in the Chronicle today–Gray Line New Orleans, a tour company, is leading “disaster tours.” For the low price of $35, tourists can be bussed through a sort of “Katrina’s Greatest Hits,” presumably take a few photographs, buy a tee-shirt, and go merrily home. This bothers me. It bothers me in the way that the observation deck at the Twin Towers bothered me, because it’s bald, blatant slumming of the worst kind, in my opinion. Now one might argue that these tours are part of the revitalization of the New Orleans economy. Or that it’s important for people to see the hole in the ground where the World Trade Centre was in order to come to terms with the disaster. Both of these things may be, to some extent, true. But I don’t approve of rolling around in your own misery. I’d rather pay $40 for a beautiful book of photography from pre-Katrina New Orleans. Hell, I’d rather go to Southeast Asia and help build housing for tsunami victims who are still living in tent cities. Which is a form of slumming in itself. Disaster tourism mystifies me, and yet it’s worldwide. We go to Pompeii not only because it’s a fascinating archaeological site, but because it’s the site of a famous disaster. It’s a sombering but also strangely exciting experience to walk through the streets of a ruined city, to see the signs of hasty abandonment everywhere. One moment, you think, all these people were living normal lives, and the next, everything had changed forever. It’s a spooky thought. Most of us, I think, go to the sites of disasters to scare ourselves, though, not in search of the great answers of our lives. We rubberneck at traffic accidents, we flock to plane crash sites, and we watch reality television, and I’m not sure how I feel about all of these things sometimes.

All of us slum to one extent or another at some point in our lives–perhaps my reaction of purely visceral distaste is simply because this doesn’t fit in with my do-gooder (and rather upper-class twit) ideas about slumming, that bus tours of a destroyed city are purely for profit and don’t really “benefit” the city the way a qi-gong class or delivery of organic vegan snacks would. For even in the Victorian era, the upper classes decried the lower classes for flocking to mine disasters, fires, explosions, and other gratifying public spectacles. Perhaps I should be applauding, rather than condemning, this tour company. At least they are up front and honest about what they are doing, instead of Eco-Tours or the Peace Corps. Heck, maybe I’ll take a slumming tour myself, get in touch with my honest side, and go gloat over the destruction of yuppie paradise in San Anselmo, walk around Richmond and stare at the black people, tour the collapsed mine in West Virginia, and then head on over to the Palestinian Ghetto in the occupied territories, for there but for the grace of God go I.

[Katrina]