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William Finnegan’s Cold New World

January 10, 2014
Cover image courtesy of Picador Books. Cover photograph Mary Ellen Mark

Cover image courtesy of Picador Books. Cover photograph © Mary Ellen Mark

The period of the Clinton administration was an era of relative plenty in the United States. But in Cold New World  (published in 1998), William Finnegan scratches beneath the surface to reveal a disturbing level of poverty and drug abuse in four disparate parts of America – New Haven, Connecticut; San Augustine, Texas; Washington State’s Yakima Valley; and LA’s Antelope Valley.

Think of New Haven and Yale University springs to mind. But beyond the privileged Ivy-league world lies another city of drugs, poverty and violence. Finnegan meets “Terry Jackson”, a 16 year old black “work boy” selling cocaine on the streets. In the working class Newhallville neighbourhood where Terry lives “gunfire is so common that residents were careful not to sit in windows that faced the street”. It is an indication of the problems in the city that when Terry leaves New Haven he heads to Detroit, the “ground zero of white-flight urban apocalypse, the biggest Rust Belt fiasco of them all”.

Finnegan reports from the Texan town of San Augustine, “a backwater even in a backward, isolated area,” comparable more to the Deep South than the prairies of Texas, where “dense pine and hardwood forests shroud rolling terrain; lakes and bayous are fed by fifty inches of rain a year”. Here too, drugs have blighted the community. Finnegan reports on the controversial multi-agency drug bust Operation White Tornado that saw former successful-builder turned drug dealer Lenard Jackson jailed for 15 years. He meets legendary former sheriff Nathan Tindall, whose main weapon was not guns but his wits. His charisma meant he organised arrests, even some for murder, over the phone, asking the perpetrator to meet him at the jailhouse.Next Finnegan goes to the Yakima Valley in Washingston State, one of America’s largest wine growing regions, where irrigation channels made during the New Deal water the fields. The region has long been dependent on Mexican labour and he hangs out with two Latino teenage friends, the disaffected Juan Guerreros and calmer Mary Ann Ramirez. Finnegan thinks the area is “fairly weird,” where Anglos, American Indians and Mexican families “mix as little as possible”. Drugs have blighted the communities in this largely rural area. But Finnegan notes there was “a startling amount of urban-style violent crime unrelated to drugs: murders, robbery, drive-by shootings”.

Sunset over Lancaster (Wikipedia Commons)

Photo: Sunset over Lancaster, Antelope Valley, CA (Source: LancasterCA at en.wikipedia)

The fourth area Finnegan visits is the “overwhelmingly white” Antelope Valley in Greater Los Angeles with its exurb cities of Lancaster and Palmdale. Long distance commuters make their long daily journey over the San Gabriel Mountains to LA from this once prosperous area. The 1990s recession meant foreclosures and an “imploded local economy” that “changed everything for many of the valley’s kids”. Now it’s “minimum wage at Taco Bell or in telemarketing”.

Methamphetamine or “speed” is the drug of choice here. Finnegan hangs out with Mindy Turner, a “full-tilt tweaker [speed freak] with a daily habit”, who has “the casually harrowing life that I was starting to regard as common in Lancaster”. Conveniently for Finnegan’s reporting, she has links to both local skinhead gangs – the Nazi Low Riders and the anti-racist Sharps. Unsurprisingly, it all ends in violence.

Perhaps it is my own white suburban background, but, like Finnegan, I too found life in the Antelope Valley “more disturbing than the other communities featured” in the book. It is, Finnegan says, “the wealthiest of them, certainly, but it was also the least coherent. Its young people seemed the most seriously lost, its public spaces the most forbidding”.

Cold New World was published in 1998, 16 years ago now, so it would be interesting for Finnegan to go back to these areas and do a follow-up story for the New Yorker (where he is a staff writer), to  see how they these people are faring in Obama’s America.

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