The Term “Urban Pioneer” and Media Portrayals of the City

A reporter from a local radio station recently interviewed me for a story about “urban pioneers.”

I didn’t think much of it, until I started reading this amazing book called Missing Women, Missing News. Turns out, this term is based on some pretty suspect assumptions about cities and the people who inhabit them.

Author David Hugill points out that the term “pioneer” symbolizes a “frontier,” or sharp physical or social divide, between competing constituencies. In the case he explores in his book, the competing constituencies are the wealthy gentrifiers of Vancouver and the poor residents of the city’s Downtown Eastside neighborhood.

What's behind our tendancy to describe places like this as a "frontier"?

“Gentrification efforts produced a new manifestation of the courageous pioneer charged with penetrating the dark places of disordered chaos and establishing the first bulwarks of civility.” This helps paint the city as “an urban wilderness [of] savagery and chaos, awaiting the urban homesteaders who can forge a renaissance of hope.”

Hugill’s book examines media portrayals of a serial killer case in Vancouver to illuminate how “journalism unwittingly upholds structures of power and domination,” particularly with respect to the issues of race, gender and class. In the case of Downtown Eastside Vancouver, 26 street-level prostitutes, many of them of native origin, were murdered before the media and law enforcement took notice. Contrast that with Missing White Woman Syndrome, a la Natalie Halloway.

Anyway, we see this bias all the time in our local newspapers. That was the point I was trying to make when I criticized the Plain Dealer’s coverage of Cleveland’s serial killer case. But really, I could go on and on. In a particularly egregious example, just a few weeks ago, on the eve of receiving a finalist ranking for the Pulitzer Prize, Plain Dealer columnist Philip Morris wrote a column that compared black children to “a pack of dogs.” And that’s from the PD’s token black columnist.

Day after day we’re subtly told that cities are dangerous, their inhabitants ruthless and that no sensible person would chose to live in such a place. Hence the newsworthiness of the “urban pioneer” narrative.

After living in the city of Cleveland for a while, however, I have to say that narrative just doesn’t hold up. The thing about my neighborhood is, it’s a really nice place to live. It’s not scary. Poor people and rich people, black people and white people live in harmony.

Am I an “urban poineer” because I live in the city? It’s true I grew up in the suburbs, but I haven’t lived in a truly suburban setting for more than 10 years. Many of my white, middle-class neighbors have lived in the neighborhood for 20+ years. In fact, when I first moved to the neighborhood, one such family from across the street told me it was “the closest thing they’ve found to paradise.”

It’s true that the neighborhood is still very poor (median household income $25,500 last census) and struggles with issues like vacancy and crime. But vacancy and crime aren’t solely urban issues. It’d be nice to see some recognition of that from the local media.

The idea of branding me as an urban pioneer, even though it is a positive story about my neighborhood, makes some negative assumptions about my neighbors. Assumptions that are very closely tied to issues of race. And I am not comfortable with that. We as a culture should not be comfortable with that.

I keep hoping we can have a more measured, less sensational discussion about our urban communities in Cleveland. Meanwhile, as newsrooms shrink, the television stations are still chasing ambulances and the newspaper reporters are working courtrooms, with the same old zeal.

-A.S.

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Filed under Headline, Race Relations, Real Estate

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