Friday, March 20, 2009
In October of last year, I began visiting tent cities throughout the Western U.S. with the photographer Max Whittaker, a longtime collaborator. My intent was to investigate the claim that tent cities are simply a product of the current recession, a notion that I found suspect because improvised dwellings have been a common part of life in the Central Valley for years.The excellent non-profit magazine High Country News recently published a portion of my work with Max on this subject, along with a slide show by multimedia journalist Jeff Chen. The title of the story is "Tarp Nation."
What I found in my visits to the tent cities is that they are not simply Hoovervilles, but rather examples of informal urbanism, a form of so-called slum development most often associated with the developing world. Informal urbanism arises wherever governments and private markets fail to provide an adequate supply of affordable housing, and that is definitely the case in areas such as Sacramento and Fresno, California. Both of these Highway 99 cities have become magnets for journalists looking for concrete evidence that the U.S. is entering the next Great Depression, even though a much more nuanced situation is playing out in informal cities with names like Taco Flat and Hell's Half Acre.