Longtime readers of Culture Briefing may have noticed that our weekly offerings are categorized and color-coded. In a nod to our friends at the Thriving Cities Project, we organize pieces around the six “civic endowments” that comprise their Human Ecology model of civic thriving: the True, the Good, the Beautiful, the Just & Well-Ordered, the Prosperous, and the Sustainable. In the coming months, we will step back from time to time to explain the endowments in more detail: what they are, how they relate, what civic institutions they encompass, and what basic challenges to human thriving they illuminate.

This week we bring you two pieces that, each in their own way, present basic challenges to our understanding of justice. As we all know well, social life depends upon structures of organized care that provide the minimal conditions for human flourishing. Without these basic structures, our lives are seriously diminished; with them, we have the possibility of thriving.

But though we may know this intuitively, these structures are often hidden from immediate view. And despite their importance, we are sometimes hard-pressed to acknowledge their existence, or give them their due appreciation. Until, of course, a crisis appears.

Our first piece is a brief review of Matthew Desmond’s recent and important work, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. In assessing Desmond’s ethnographic study of housing in Milwaukee, New City Commons summer intern Chase Daws highlights the value of a stable home by showing what happens in its absence. The possibility of “residential stability,” Daws shows, is a necessary feature of a flourishing city; and to the degree that structural forces from within the market or public policy make residential stability a struggle for an increasing percentage of a population, the whole of that population suffers.

Second, in light of the recent Department of Justice report showing systemic discriminatory practices within the Baltimore Police Department, we bring you an extended and wide-ranging interview with David Simon, creator of HBO’s The Wire. Though it is over a year old and contains lots of salty language (fans of The Wire should not be surprised), Simon’s experience reporting the Baltimore crime beat during the height of the drug war gives him a unique vantage point from which to comment upon current flashpoints—in this case, the death of Freddie Gray.

Simon’s analysis of the “systemic deficiencies” within the Baltimore Police Department, as the recent Department of Justice report calls them, cannot and should not be generalized to include other police departments. In fact, even though policing in Baltimore is particularly challenging due to broader social forces, the DOJ report states clearly that “most BPD officers work hard to provide vital services” to the communities they police. And yet, what the DOJ report chronicles and Simon highlights is not only a breach of constitutional protections but a near-complete erosion of trust between police officers and citizens. The bond of trust between police and citizen is what Simon refers to as “the code:” an informal but widespread understanding that certain patterns of speech or behavior from citizens received predictable responses from police. While “the code” shifts and morphs through time, it serves to protect citizens from arbitrary expressions of force; and this freedom from domination is an essential feature of a well-ordered society.

While these two pieces this week highlight the value of stable housing and just police practices, the civic endowment of the Just & Well-Ordered includes all the structures of political and civic life that provide a baseline of security and social well-being. The everyday violence that Simon’s reporting chronicles, as well as the serial evictions Desmond’s ethnographic work brings to our attention, call for a renewed commitment to secure the minimal conditions of thriving, particularly for society’s most vulnerable.


Charlottesville-area readers: David Simon will be speaking at a panel discussion on Urban Flourishing at the Paramount Theater on September 16, as part of an event celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the National Endowment for the Humanities. More info here.