Some Sunday Stuff: September 24th.
Happy Sunday! It’s been a couple of months since my last “Some… Stuff”, so let’s kick off the start of Fall with some links, shall we?
First up, this Motherboard story that rebuts the claim that Toys “R” Us’s recent Chapter 11 filing is due to the company being anti-tech. On the contrary, Toys “R” Us has historically embraced advancements in toy techs, being a huge seller and promoter of video games going back to the 70’s. From the story:
The rise of digital gadgets and the ease with which they’ve both replaced physical toys and made the physical toys people do want easier to ship may have led to Toys”R”Us into massive bankruptcy—the third largest in US history.
But something that’s not to be forgotten is that electronics were once the savior of the company’s mascot Geoffrey the Giraffe, the element that turned the toy retailer from a bankruptcy cautionary tale in the 1970s to one of the biggest retail success stories of the 1980s. Certainly, gadgets didn’t drive all that success on their own—Barbie, Hot Wheels, Lego, and Monopoly more than played their part—but it was the differentiator that made the toy industry exceed expectations for years.
The toy industry was utterly reshaped by electronics in the 1970s and 1980s, first by memorably tinny toys like Milton Bradley’s Simon and Texas Instruments’ Speak and Spell, and later by the rise of video game consoles.
Toys”R”Us held a lot of value for the toy industry as a whole, electronics or not. Formed in the 1950s and brought under the tutelage of Interstate Department Stores in the 1960s, it took decades for the chain to reach its iconic behemoth status.
But there was a time when the toy retailer wasn’t doing so hot. With the toy chain at one point caught in its corporate parent’s troubles, the Toy Manufacturers Association—now known as the Toy Industry Association—had to step in to convince banks to help the chain out financially so that it could continue growing.
This proved a particularly astute move on the part of toy manufacturers—which not only created a retailer dedicated to play that drove interest in toys far beyond Christmas, but created a hub for a trend that was soon to revamp the industry—electronic gadgets.
The earliest toys bearing silicon boards were primitive, of course, but they were also quite expensive. In 1978, an electronic toy often went for around $30, an amount equivalent to $109.28 today. That meant the inexpensive-to-produce toys had major margins that the industry then wasn’t particularly used to. In a 1978 Washington Post article, local Toys”R”Us manager Bill Bederman spoke in a stunned tone about the success these toys were seeing.
“What it did was revolutionize the toy industry,” he said at the time. “We’d never seen anything like it before—thousands of people demanding $30 items—and this year we’re seeing electronic toys follow through to dominate the business.”
Little did he know how quickly the industry would shift its value proposition around electronics. In the third quarter of 1979, Toys”R”Us saw its sales jump 36.2 percent, while sales at other major retailers were basically flat. A Copley News Service article from the era found that sales at Toys”R”Us, driven by the boom in electronic games, were outpacing overall population trends, which traditionally defined toy sales.
And the numbers kept improving. According to a November 1982 Washington Post article, a full 19 percent of the company’s sales in the prior quarter—which drove $189.6 million in revenue—came from electronic toys. Charles Lazarus, the chain’s founder, was bullish about the rising video game industry at the time.
“We strongly believe that electronic games are not a fad; it is the way America is playing games now and will increasingly do so in the future,” Lazarus said at the time.
Read the whole thing here. Next, signs that your neighborhood is being gentrified, in this story by Michal “MJ” Jones at Salon:
A news search of “gentrification” will land you with thousands of perspectives both for and against. Though the debate has emerged most vocally in the past several years, for residents born and raised in major cities, the ongoing loss of home is felt deeply.
“It is a feeling of powerlessness,” says Bie Aweh, who was raised in the Roxbury and Brighton neighborhoods of Boston. “You’re already vulnerable because of poverty, and it makes you feel like you have no power because capitalism talks the loudest.”
While many in support of urban renewal and development cite decreased crime rates and increased revenue as benefits, long-term residents from coast to coast echo concerns about the impact of gentrification on historically poor, predominantly of color neighborhoods.
Each of the people I spoke to were raised in historically black, poor communities now experiencing continued or more recent waves of gentrification. Noni Galloway, of Oakland, defines gentrification as, “when an environment or culture is taken over or redefined by another culture.”
On a surface level, the changes that come with gentrification are physical — new beer gardens, condominiums and bike lanes — and happen seemingly overnight. Many residents are left to grapple with what, where and whom to call “home.”
1. Shifts in demographics: ‘White people jogging was the first sign.’
When I first moved to Berkeley as a teenager in the early oughts, my peers had endless warnings for me about the neighboring city of Oakland. People living outside of Oakland, many of them white and/or middle to upper class, generalized it as “sketch,” “dangerous” and “crime-infested.”
The neighborhoods they cautioned me against visiting are now, over 10 years later, spaces where young professionals are flocking to, often describing them as “up-and-coming.”
When asked to reflect on the first signs of gentrification they saw in their cities, three of four interviewees specifically mentioned “white people jogging,” especially in areas they previously would not have set foot in. The influx of white and middle-class newcomers on its own is not the issue; rather the loss of culture and diversity that comes when a city’s long-term inhabitants can no longer afford to stay.
“We used to be a Mecca for black home ownership. Now illegalforeclosures.org reports that thousands of illegal foreclosures take place in Wayne County,” said Will, an activist from Detroit. “The discussion of so-called ‘improvement’ should not be separated from the misery being created for tens of thousands of Detroiters.”
Much of the conversation in support of gentrification is coded in a racist and classist belief system that blames the residents themselves for crime rates, rather than lawmakers, local politicians and complicit newcomers who are disinvested from solving the causes of poverty.
The increase of white and/or middle-class new residents to traditionally poor neighborhoods tends to follow or reflect changes in infrastructure, another highly discussed symptom of gentrification.
2. Shifts in infrastructure: ‘Government housing began to disappear.’
“Government housing began to disappear and the projects were being torn down,” said Crystal Lay, of Chicago. “People were being displaced to other areas and put in these quickly built homes.”
The shifts that happen to city landscapes undergoing gentrification are more than physical, they are symbolic of efforts to “improve” an area for incoming residents.
For those who have called these cities home since childhood, there are some strange contradictions: new bike lanes and rent-a-bike programs on streets riddled with potholes; sleek, market-rate apartments popping up beside historic Victorians; urban gardens and beautification in prior dumping grounds.
Oakland’s Noni Galloway summarizes the complex feelings that arise from witnessing these shifts overtime: “I have mixed emotions because … there were much-needed upgrades to the area that I feel didn’t happen until the gentrification started,” she said. “But it hurts to see my old neighborhood turn into the hot spot for someone else to enjoy.”
Another undeniable impact of the skyrocketing housing market is the increase in individuals without shelter, some of them former residents who have been recently evicted. In Oakland, homelessness increased by over 25%, and complaints went up by 600% between 2011 and 2016.
When developers are allowed to build housing starting at $3,000 a month in a neighborhood with a median family income of $35,000, what is being improved? Where can a family call home after their house becomes unrecognizable and unaffordable? What is the cost of gentrification? And who pays?
“Whites and the rich benefit the most,” said Crystal Lay. “I believe poor people and people of color lose. I think any mom-and-pop businesses also lose their customer base and those familiar faces.”
On the left: Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim in 1890. On the right: Judi Dench as Queen Victoria and Ali Fazal as Abdul Karim in a scene from Victoria & Abdul. (Image Source)
Read it in its entirety here. Next, from Julie Miller at Vanity Fair, this story on Queen Victoria, her manservant Abdul Karim, and the film about their friendship being released:
The relationship between Queen Victoria and her handsome, young Indian attendant Abdul Karim was deemed so controversial and scandalous by her family members that, upon the monarch’s death in 1901, they scrubbed his existence from royal history. According to The Telegraph, Victoria’s son Edward immediately demanded that any letters between the two found on the royal premises be burned. The family evicted Karim from the home the queen had given him, and deported him back to India. Victoria’s daughter Beatrice erased all reference to Karim in the Queen’s journals—a painstaking endeavor given Victoria’s decade-plus relationship with Karim, whom she considered her closest confidante. The royal family’s eradication of Karim was so thorough that a full 100 years would pass before an eagle-eyed journalist noticed a strange clue left in Victoria’s summer home—and her consequential investigation led to the discovery of Victoria’s relationship with Karim.
But why was the relationship so controversial—beyond the interclass curiosity of the Queen of England confiding in a servant—that it warranted full censure?
According to historians, Victoria’s family and staff members exhibited prejudice of the racial and social variety, which compounded with jealousy as Victoria became closer with Karim and afforded him privileges including traveling with her through Europe; titles; honors; prime seats at operas and banquets; a private carriage; and personal gifts. The queen entertained Karim’s family members, helped his father get a pension, and enlisted local press to write about him. Victoria also commissioned multiple portraits of Karim—which would be the key to discovering the depth of their relationship (more on that later).
Karim was the only servant to ascend to the queen’s inner circle since the death of her Scottish confidante John Brown, who helped fill a personal void in Victoria’s life after her beloved husband, Albert, died. (Dench also starred as Victoria in the movie adaptation of that tongue-wagging palace relationship, Mrs. Brown—named for the nickname the queen’s staffers gave her behind her back.) Though court members did not approve of Brown’s relationship with the queen, they considered Karim’s friendship far worse.
According to historian Carolly Erickson in Her Little Majesty, “For a dark-skinned Indian to be put very nearly on a level with the queen’s white servants was all but intolerable, for him to eat at the same table with them, to share in their daily lives was viewed as an outrage.”
Did Victoria catch wind of the racist animosity swirling in her palace? She sure did. Her assistant private secretary Fritz Ponsonby ended one letter, which protested Karim’s favored standing, by outlining Victoria’s assessment of the inter-palace resentment: “the Queen says it is ‘race prejudice’ and that we are jealous of the poor Munshi.”
Ahead, more burning questions about Victoria and Karim answered.
How did they meet?
According to Shrabani Basu, the journalist who uncovered this friendship after a 2003 visit to the Queen’s summer home and wrote about it in her book Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant, the Queen had expressed interest in the Indian territories ahead of her Golden Jubilee in 1887, and specifically requested Indian staff members help serve at a banquet for heads of state. As such, Karim, the son of a hospital assistant living in the North Indian city of Agra, was one of two servants selected and presented to Victoria as “a gift from India” on the occasion of her 50th year on the throne. Karim, who joined Victoria four years after the death of her beloved Brown, quickly set to work for the nearly 80-year-old monarch. Victoria wrote that her first impression of the handsome Karim was that he was “tall with a fine serious countenance.”
What did they bond over?
At Victoria’s summer home on the Isle of Wight, shortly after the Golden Jubilee, Karim impressed the monarch by cooking her chicken curry with dal and pilau. According to Victoria biographer A.N. Wilson, the queen enjoyed the dish so much that she incorporated it into her regular meal rotation.
As she became more interested in the culture, she asked Karim to teach her Urdu—then known as Hindustani.
“Am learning a few words of Hindustani to speak to my servants,” Victoria wrote in her diaries. “It is a great interest to me, for both the language and the people.” In order to better communicate with Karim, she also insisted that he double down on English lessons until the two were able to communicate directly with each other. Though he was hired as a servant, Victoria quickly promoted him to “Munshi and Indian Clerk to the Queen Empress” at a monthly salary of 12 pounds. He was later promoted to a highly decorated secretary.
As for what the Queen saw in Karim, beyond his provenance, Basu told The Telegraph, “He spoke to her as a human being and not as the Queen. Everyone else kept their distance from her, even her own children, and this young Indian came with an innocence about him. He told her about India, his family and was there to listen when she complained about her own family.”
“I am so very fond of him,” Victoria wrote. “He is so good and gentle and understanding . . . and is a real comfort to me.”
Fascinating. The rest of the story here, and you can read a review of the film at Rogert Ebert.com here. And finally, with Stevie Wonder in the news today, I figured I’d close this post with one of my favorite songs by the legend. Have a great week.
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