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The Weekly

HEARTS OF DARKNESS

Throughout the course of history, the allure of foreign cultures have piqued curiosity and prompted international travel to destinations that present distinct ethnic populations, religions, traditions, and lifestyles. This perceived diversity and air of multiculturalism has curiously proven a marketable asset by unfortunately providing an always on-hand thematic attraction: poverty as entertainment, a truly authentic trip. And what a long strange trip it's been. 

What began innocently enough as an act of Victorian era wokeness, has now been commodified, packaged and sold in ways that even Karl Marx could never have predicted. The first acts of slumming were perpetuated by the upper classes of 19th century London, who had the desire and curiosity to temporarily leave behind the polished squares of Hyde Park to experience first hand how those less fortunate lived in order to return to their dinner parties with their minds somehow more open. Open to what is the question. They felt it a kind of prerequisite to being politically and socially in the know. It let them speak with a certain authority and an air of superiority about the plight of the workers of the world who actually fueled the great Industrial Revolution in the first place.

As Theo Panagopoulos writes in his new piece, “During that time, the capital of the rapidly expanding British Empire developed into a demographic colossus, with its population expanding from one to six million inhabitants in just under 100 years, primarily due to a large number of immigrants from Ireland and other rural British territories. Hence, the growing urban population resulted in high urbanization rates, a paralysis in regards to topographical dispersion and ultimately in an expansion of the gap between the rich and the poor of the society. During those times of industrialization and urbanization, a geographical separation between the social classes of London appeared like the spatial configuration of the deeply split social order of the time, thus creating imaginary borders within the city. This segregation sparked the darkest flames of curiosity in the hearts of wealthier Londoners who started exploring the other part of the town, and in turn, this new fangled voyeuristic day tripping came into vogue.” Read What A Long Strange Trip It's Been.

It eventually crossed the pond to cities like New York, with organized tours of the Lower East Side, the Bowery, and Five Points, because where there are immigrants and poverty, there are self-serving opportunities to define people as other. To define places as other. To define cultures as other. And eventually, in order to satisfy the tourists’ demand for authenticity and meet their expectation for the most accentuated cultural differences, the tourist representations of the immigrant quarters heavily relied on ethnic stereotypes. Hence, this notion of culture in the context of urban tourism led to a racist-evolutionist mentality, as the slum was no longer perceived as a reflection of social inequality, but rather, as a cultural spatial arrangement of the modern city, in which every group was assigned to their place (at least for a time) both economically and socially. Ultimately, ‘ethnic slumming’ contributed to de-problematizing social disparities and reaffirming the social distance rather than reducing it.

So while the poverty of Victorian London may have inspired Charles Dickens and the founding of The Salvation Army, today it does nothing more than inspire a bunch of media bros to claim that this now completely packaged and filmed business of exploitation defines an entire generation of young people looking to claim that their tastes have a bit of an edge. When in fact, this kind of global travel voyeurism is truly nothing more than a journey into the heart of darkness sold as tourism and authentic storytelling (or at least pictures of it) for the Instagram age. And no amount of fake web traffic or venture capital could ever paint over the truth of such vice

Contemporary slum tours can be viewed as the continuation of centuries old practices of social transactions between the powerful and the powerless, the wealthy and the wretched, through which, according to its proponents, slum dwellers will somehow benefit in terms of economic progress (and the dreaded awareness) and the slum tourists themselves achieve new levels of self-esteem by exploring the uncharted global other. In that sense, slumming appears to have been relatively unaltered by the course of time, since it still represents a transaction in which the poor enable the rich to finally feel like they have achieved narcissistic nirvana. At least according to their followers.

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"Nobody ever got saved while they had a toothache.” At least according to preacher William Booth when he founded The Salvation Army. Booth’s intention was to help those in need, but true to missionary form, first and foremost he wanted to spread the word of Christ. And at the time it was seen as a radical move, taking his preaching from inside the church out into the streets, leading many of his fellow clergymen to disagree with his rouge idea. In turn, he and his wife Catherine withdrew from the Church of England and hit the cobblestone alleys of Victorian London.

Booth knew he had to offer more than just the gospel to the homeless and hurt, so he provided meals, clothing, and other assistance to the poor. Impoverished men and women were quickly converted to Booth's cause. Shortly after, The Salvation Army evolved into the organization we know today. And despite having strict, conservative Christian views, they’ve provided for those in need for over 150 years. They’re dedicated to helping the poor, and caring for the sick, homeless, and addicted by providing services and even places of refuge all across the world. 

If you’re unfamiliar with The Army and their work, perhaps you’ve noticed that during the holiday season there are Santa’s of all sizes on every city corner, standing outside your local mall, shopping center, or grocery store. Is that ringing any bells? Throughout the month of December, those who volunteer with The Salvation Army dress up in hopes of getting passerby’s to give in-kind donations. Pretty old school way of doing it, but it's hard to say no to Santa. While it might seem like standing outside in the cold in December (depending on which city you live in) is “slumming it” those in The Salvation Army bring the needy to the forefront of their community's attention, without putting them on display. 

debra scherer