Industrial Tourism Ghost Towns: Another Sports Hustle Revealed as Mirage

London Ghost Town

New Orleans    There is no bigger industrial tourism hustle than what we witness with regularity around the hype connected to major international sporting events.  The Olympics are grand quadrennial fare with plenty of “bread” for the masses and are quite moving for the athletes, as indicated by NBA and USA center, Tyson Chandler’s comment that getting a medal felt like someone was “pouring hot water down his back.”  Meanwhile the rest of us are being taken to ice cold showers.

Once again, the Olympics were a major league bust for the host city.  This may come as a surprise, but there’s no news there.  The Commonwealth Games in Delhi recently were also a billion dollar fiasco once again proving that “if you build it, they will NOT come!”  Television is trumping tourism, even though the sales pitch by the promoters and industrial tourism developers are chock full of sky high projections about the number of tourists that will travel to the games and swell city and commercial coffers.  Reality shows it simply is not happening.  London spent between an admitted $14 billion and an estimated $20 billion in getting ready for the Olympic Games, but to quote John Burns in the New York Times “fears of the Gridlock Games have transformed into complaints about the Ghost Town Olympics.”  London experienced the usual situation ignoring “the lessons of other Olympic host cities that have emptied out during the Games over the past 20 years.”

How do they get away with it?  The official spin is always that these expenditures will pay off in the future, but what’s the real story?

It is impossible to believe that the promoters and public officials are not winking-and-nodding in concert here as they pull the wool over the biscuit eaters paying the bills.  Part of this is easy to understand, because there is no harder sell than the need to hunker down to pay for “infrastructure improvements.”  In tough times what citizen wants to have to double down to pay for bricks-and-mortar?  What mayor, governor, or higher wants to risk fame and future just to ensure better mass transit, better roads, and the rest?  The promoters and politicians are easily complicit on industrial tourism.  Big time sports and the publicity and media that come with it, tart up the package enough that no one looks too long at the final bill and long term payment plans.  The developers, contractors, and construction folks cover the blowback for the politicians by being able to back slap about the improved image of the city or the prospects for the future as part of the corporate cushion.

One-time events like the Super Bowl are corporate fandangos so they fill the planes and party locations while the fans watch on TV and understand that is their due.  Even World Cup events leave cities groping for explanations on the costs, as proven by Johannesburg and South Africa last time around, where the endgame rationalizations, as usual, centered on the increased appeal of South Africa in the global tourism market.  I would love to see the figures that have made Jo-burg a destination tourism location since the World Cup.  Now we have Rio de Janeiro at war in the favelas as it prepares for both the next World Cup and the next Olympics.  Brazil fortunately has a strong economy, but so did India two years ago.

The real Olympic dreams are clearly not those of the athletes, but of the developers and the promoters, and theirs are the only ones coming true consistently with the politicians riding on their backs on the money train.  There has to be a better, and more honest, way to build major infrastructure and support ALL of the population rather than the big boys.

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Waste Land

New Orleans This had to be a hot ticket! waste-land-poster-691x1024

Waste Land was an Audience Award Best Documentary (Waste Land Trailerat the prestigious 2010 Sundance Film Festival focusing on a powerful confluence of art and poverty and the lives of waste pickers in one of the world’s largest landfills, Jardim Gramacho, outside of the magical city of Rio de Janeiro. Given ACORN International’s work in organizing the same kind of recyclers in the Mumbai’s Dharavi slum, Delhi, and elsewhere, I could hardly wait to see how the catadores might be different than our cartoneros in Buenos Aires or rag pickers in India, so I jumped at a notice in the paper that the movie was showing at Zietgiest, a film center in downtown New Orleans.

It turned out I was crowded in with 7 other stalwarts in a cold and cavernous warehouse space on Aretha Haley (old Dryades Avenue) right off the CDB, but so what…it was wildly worth it in some strange ways that were surprising to me.

As a disclaimer I should admit that the documentary produced by our friends in Mumbai called Waste which follows a couple of ACORN International’s waste pickers is my personal favorite, but I’m open minded. The work is hard and it couldn’t be easier than to see it sitting in New Orleans no matter where, rather than schlepping down to Rio and walking the turf with the pickers.

My first reaction was one that I’m sure few would have: I couldn’t believe how good the pickers had it in Rio! They were gloved up, well shod, and easily visible to the truck drivers with their bright vests. They reportedly made between $25 and $30 USD per day, which also makes them the crème de la crème of the world’s waste pickers. In India our pickers make $3 to $5 and winning gloves and protection of any kind has been a struggle everywhere.

I might also be the only viewer who sat up straight and was ready to roar and applaud when I could see their association t-shirts and realized that the main character of the movie (other than the artist of course!) was one of the co-founders and leader of the association of pickers of Jardim Gramacho! The documentary was straightforward and respectful of the organization, which had undoubtedly been the driving force hopefully winning the protections I had noticed so vividly.

I guess I should admit that the movie is not about any of this and I dare say, if it were, it would not have been such a big winner and audience favorite, but it was nice to see that they didn’t blink stutter, or step back. The real theme was that a hotshot photographer/artist named Vik Muniz, a decent and talented guy with a riveting tale of his own journey from lower income Sao Paolo to a nice studio that looked like it was in the Williamsburg area and definitely in Brooklyn, decided to combine his art with an agenda of raising money and making some life changing differences in a few lives. Taio, the head of the union, became one of the half-dozen pickers paid to come out of the dump for a couple of weeks to pose and finish portraits of themselves in classic art book poses decorated with recyclable materials from Jardim Gramacho. The pickers were almost unreal in the sense of how physically beautiful they were, as if anyone could even wander into the heart of one of the worst garbage dumps in the world and find models. In London at the auction of some of the finished art, Muniz kids Taio at one point of looking like Lenny Kravitz, if you get my drift. This is art taken from life, not life coming to art.

Nonetheless, the movie is less about poverty than having poverty as the backdrop. It is about transformation and seeks to tell a story of how the process of producing this unusual art changed their lives in some cases forever. So though the association was also part of the background for the documentary, there was no pretense that anyone’s lives were changed, or perhaps modified, by the experience and the transcending gift of copies of their own portraits and art, than these half-dozen, and that was OK. The film pretended no different. Muniz and his art raised $250,000 the final credits said and the exhibit in the Rio museum was seen by a million Brazilians, and that’s some powerful art joining with social change. Furthermore, the money seems to have gone to the work of the Association in trying to find a future for other pickers since the land fill is projected to close in 2012.

It’s a movie. It’s not organizing.

But it’s a great movie merging art and organizing and an artist without much pretense who loves the life he’s build and brings joy and hope to the enterprise. \

Waste Land deserves to have a big audience not a handful here and there, and I hope it finds one, while I try to figure out how to use these tools to build the work and the art of organizing.

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