Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Christmas Eve Story of Alternative Realities: The Fight Not To Go To Pottersville (Or Ratnerville)

Like Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Frank Capra’s film It’s a Wonderful Life is a story of Christmas Eve magic whereby spiritual beings allow a mortal to explore and see alternate realities to understand the consequences of the choices they make about greed versus putting the community first. While in a A Christmas Carol Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by a series of ghosts and spirits, in It's a Wonderful Life it is George Bailey, who is visited by the angel Clarence Oddbody, who shows him what the world would be like if he weren't living his life of commitment to good work in a community called Bedford Falls.

This Christmas Eve we’d like to explore another alternative reality that It’s A Wonderful Life hints at but does not go into further. In It’s A Wonderful Life, the problem of greed that it is George Bailey’s purpose in life to counter is epitomized by the monopolistic acquisition of everything in the small town by Mr. Henry F. Potter. In the alternative reality of what life would be like without him George learns that Bedford Falls, much to its detriment, has been entirely taken over by Potter and renamed “Pottersville.” (The first time George as a young boy sees Potter he wonders whether he is “a king.”)

It’s A Wonderful Life is a New York story clearly taking place in this state. (There really is a Pottersville, New York and while there is also a Bedford, New York, the fictional Bedford Falls is actually probably a stand-in for Seneca Falls.) New York City is constantly evoked as the nearby big city, George’s brother goes to work for glassworks in Buffalo (that sounds like Corning), when setting up a new plastics factory is considered the choice is between Rochester and Bedford Falls and the bank examiner on Christmas Eve is going home to Elmira (another Mark Twain connection in the film).

The key to much of the plot is that Bedford Falls is considered small enough to be on the edge of being taken over completely by private enterprise run amuck in the form of Mr. Potter. George, who wants to be a builder of important projects, must continually recommit to stay in Bedford Falls to counter Mr. Potter acquisitiveness. In addition to the alternative reality of George’s never having lived at all which Clarence the angel conjures for him, other alternate realities and choices for George are continually evoked. What if George made other choices instead of being there to provide a competitive counter to Potter’s monopoly? George personally has dreams of traveling and is offered multiple other conflicting opportunities.

Significantly, at one point the economic freedom of leaving for a larger city like New York is presented to him by his father rather than staying in Bedford Falls. Says Pa Bailey: “This town is no place for any man unless he's willing to crawl to Potter. You've got talent, son. I've seen it. You get yourself an education. Then get out of here.” Later in the film the purpose of the Bailey Building and Loan (in jeopardy of going out of business) is described this way by George speaking to Potter and then to the listening Bailey board of Directors:
I know very well what you're talking about. You're talking about something you can't get your fingers on, and it's galling you. That's what you're talking about, I know. (to the Board) Well, I've said too much. I... You're the Board here. You do what you want with this thing. Just one thing more, though. This town needs this measly one-horse institution if only to have some place where people can come without crawling to Potter.
(See the entire script.)

Twice afterwards in the film the specter of George’s crawling to Potter materializes, once when Potter seeks to neutralize George as by hiring him away from the competing Baily Savings and Loan at a phenomenally high salary and the second time when George has to crawl to Potter when he desperately needs money (to cover a money he doesn’t know Potter stole from him) and sees no other choice but to beg.

Here is the alternative reality we would like to imagine. What if It’s a Wonderful Life were taking place today and what if George Bailey had come to New York to escape crawling to the Potter monopoly in Bedford Falls? Ironically, what he might have found is that in New York City we are now dealing with monopolies equivalent to Potter’s Pottersville. In Brooklyn, we are speaking more and more of Ratnerville. It is a fitting thing to be conscious of this Christmas Eve because government officials just issued very suspicious bonds to promote Ratnerville.

At the time of It’s a Wonderful Life (1947) we still thought in terms of government stepping in to break up monopolies (although there were those who thought the film was Communist propaganda). In the case of Bruce Ratner’s monopoly on Brooklyn it is the reverse: government is abusing eminent domain to help establish the monopoly. For more on this and the extent of the growing Ratner monopoly that sits astride Brooklyn’s subway lines, see: Saturday, November 21, 2009, Mapping Out Forest City Ratner’s Monopolistic Strategy of Subsidy Collection.

Here from the film, courtesy of George’s dialogue, is some description of the Potter monopoly and its effects:
If Potter gets hold of this Building and Loan there'll never be another decent house built in this town. He's already got charge of the bank. He's got the bus line. He's got the department stores. And now he's after us. Why? Well, it's very simple. Because we're cutting in on his business, that's why. And because he wants to keep you living in his slums and paying the kind of rent he decides.
The depressing effects of the Ratner monopoly are real. They resulted in giving us our own George Bailey moment of choice. When we left government and eagerly thought of continuing our involvement with the building of the city we went to a developer friend we very much admire who we have known long enough for them to have attended our first wedding in the early 70s. (As a wedding present they gave us a small beautifully carved decanter.) We were at that time advised that our very best hope for the kind of job we sought was to approach Ratner. We were compelled to be honest in that moment and explain that was one thing we couldn’t do and that it would be a betrayal of our Brooklyn neighbors. On the other hand, we would have happily considered going to work for the competing developers whose options are being foreclosed by Ratner’s eminent domain abuse.

George rejects the job and high salary offered him by Potter. After a moment in which he is allured by the proposition he responds: “You sit around here and you spin your little webs and you think the whole world revolves around you and your money. Well, it doesn't, Mr. Potter. In the whole vast configuration of things, I'd say you were nothing but a scurvy little spider.”

This Christmas Eve we all need to look at our possible alternative realities and recommit to the proposition that we will fight against the Bruce Ratner’s government-subsidized monopoly of Brooklyn at every turn.

In its story of the closing of the bonds being issued for the arena as Ratner’s first mega-monopoly step Atlantic Yards report noted the recent appearance of some of the Ratner-branded signage the community will be living with. There is supposed to be a lot more coming. In the film’s alternative reality, when Bedford Falls becomes Pottersville it too is taken over by relentlessly gaudy signage for the kind of forgetfulness-inducing entertainments with which people preoccupy themselves when they are deprived of their options and more purposeful pursuits. That sounds uncomfortably like Ratnerville to us.
When George Bailey explains earlier in the film why the Bailey Savings and Loan needs to stay in existence helping people out of the trap of Potter’s slums he says:
Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you're talking about... they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn't think so. People were human beings to him. But to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they're cattle. Well, in my book he died a much richer man than you'll ever be.

1 comment:

Patti said...

Pottersville=Ratnerville. Thanks for the adept adaptive re-use of "It's A Wonderful Life." What an eerie, perfect parallel Christmas Eve Story for Prospect Heights, 2009. There's still time for Ratner-to-Repent -- if only Ratner had a heart & took Noticing New York to heart.
-- Patti Hagan