Original, engrossing discussion of emerging class, race, and gender transformations in post-industrial urban America.
Rotella (English/Boston Coll.) utilizes unorthodox structure and focus to good effect here; this consists of long essays on four unique urban environments and a particular subculture within each, creating a greater portrait of American cities on the cusp of change. He is sympathetic to the information-age dilemmas of the working class, writing about “sure-handed characters who . . . make culture, a form of work in itself.” He utilizes this idea of cultural production to explore the historical environments enveloping his central figures. In Erie, Pennsylvania, he writes about the ascent of Liz McGonigal, a “compact and graceful” champion in amateur woman’s boxing, exploring both this sport’s strange collision of aggressive athleticism and sexual archetypes and the Erie boxing scene’s connection to the town’s hard-bitten industrial tradition (itself down but not out). The most engaging section focuses on Chicago guitarist Buddy Guy, who in his 50-year career has witnessed and profited from the blues’ transformation from an entertainment of and for the city’s African-American South Side into a valued tool of civic boosterism consumed by mostly white blues-rock enthusiasts. Rotella’s most unusual ideas develop in considering two eccentric New York City detectives whose work during the “urban crisis” (c. 1965–70) influenced The French Connection and numerous other films and TV shows, essentially creating the post-1970 cultural idea of crime and the underclass. Equally thought-provoking is his closing chapter on the clash in Brockton, Massachusetts, between landscape artist Patricia Johanson, who purchased native son Rocky Marciano’s decaying house as part of a project to honor him, and the city’s political establishment, which cooled on Johanson’s proposal for reasons including their wish to attract high-tech investment. Although Rotella sometimes reverts to the abstracted terminology of cultural-studies journals, serious readers will appreciate his enthusiasm, sharp observations, and the overall narrative’s meandering wit.
Powerful exploration of underexamined relationships between labor, culture, and the urban future.