On the Lean Out podcast, we’ve talked a lot about the haves and the have-nots. My guest today has another way of thinking about this. He calls it the “front row” and the “back row.” The front row is in power. It values education, credentials, and consumerism. But the back row values different things. Things like family, faith, and place.
Chris Arnade is a writer and photographer who covers poverty and addiction. He’s the author of Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America. His new project is walking the world and documenting it on Substack, and he recently roamed the streets of Ukraine. He’s here today to talk about the strange, surreal moment we’re in — and how the back row/front row tensions play into it. Chris Arnade is my guest, today on Lean Out.
TH: Welcome to Lean Out.
CA: Thank you for having me.
TH: I’m interested in speaking with you about your project, Walking the World, and some of the countries you’ve visited and written about on Substack, especially Ukraine. But first, I want to talk about how you became a wanderer. 10 years ago, you were working on Wall Street as a bond trader, living in an exclusive neighbourhood in Brooklyn, the kids were in private school. How did you find yourself walking into Hunts Point in the Bronx?
CA: Walking has always been my way of exploring the world. I had a PhD in physics; I went to Wall Street when I was 28 and stayed there for 20 years. But that was more the anomaly. I did enjoy the career, but I still always had the academic, curious side. So I’d go for long walks through New York. It was my way of relaxing, decompressing. That was generally confined to weekends when I was working so hard and when the kids were tiny. As my career advanced, and I got more disillusioned, I found myself walking more often. Also, the scope of the walks changed.
I walked the entire New York subway system, above line. I’m a mathematical type, so I like a goal. But then the walks became more about meeting people.
I was an amateur photographer then. When I brought my camera, people would start asking me to take their pictures. It became a new way of learning. I had spent so much of my life being a math geek — very quantitative. If you asked me to approach a problem, I would go, “Well, I’ll just solve it. I’ll go to the library and find all the books and read them all and look at the data.” If you approach the world from a very quantitative, positivistic framework, that’s a framework. And we tend not to think of it that way. I started pivoting towards an experiential, ethnographic approach to life. Like, “Okay, people say Hunts Point is dangerous. Let me go see if it’s dangerous.”
When you look at data, you only look at two things about Hunts Point: It has high crime and it has lots of drugs. Hunts Point, for your listeners, is considered to be the “worst” neighbourhood in the South Bronx. I think it’s New York's poorest district by metrics. But it’s 15 minutes from the Upper East Side, one of the richest.
I made a point of walking into the Bronx. I saw a lot of stories and a lot of resilience. A lot that was missing if you just look at the statistics. … I quit my job on Wall Street and ended up spending four years documenting a street family of homeless addicts, people who lived in abandoned shelters, and cars under bridges, and were shooting up heroin. I ended up becoming friends with many of them. The only thing I could really do, given my skill set, was document their lives and try to bring it to a wider audience. We, the educated class, tend to filter these issues they’re dealing with through our lens. I was trying to give some insight into their perspective and how they see the world.
TH: I do want to talk about the class issue. But first, can you introduce our listeners to a few of the people who really stand out to you from that time?
CA: Shelly, who I’m still in contact with, is from upstate New York. I think she ended up in Hunts Point at the age of 17 or 18. She’s in and out of jail, has been on the streets for probably most of her life. She’s transgender. She works as a sex worker. She calls herself a prostitute, so I’ll use that word. She hustles. And she’s hilarious, funny. She’s a lifelong addict. It’s a rough life, but she doesn’t particularly feel sorry for herself. This is the world she knows. And that’s one of the things I try to get across — feeling sorry for someone is very demeaning.
Then there is Millie, probably one of the more tragic stories. Millie was born into a very bad situation. I met Millie at two in the morning. She was on the street. She told me her whole life story. I always printed what people told me without doing “journalism” and fact-checking. Her arm was always bandaged; she made a point of not letting me photograph her arm because she was embarrassed by it. I remember seeing her in the laundromat late one night around Christmas. She looked very, very bad. So I offered to drive her back to her home. That was it; she disappeared. After two months, I started getting worried and I went and searched for her. I did the journalism. I found that she had died with no papers.
If you die in New York City with no papers, and no claim on your body after three months, they bury you in a place called Hart Island. Which is a story unto itself. It’s got over a million bodies buried in trenches. It’s been there since 1870, a small island off the Bronx. It’s the paupers grave, and you’re not allowed to visit it traditionally. Due to the work of one woman who made this her lifelong project, you can now visit it once a month. We ended up getting Millie exhumed. I found what exists of her family and we ended up getting her properly buried.
That was a real moment in my life. Because if you had talked to old me, the scientific me, I would say, “What does it matter where you’re buried?” But I remember one of her friends saying, “You only really die when people start forgetting about you.” If you’re buried in a mass grave on Hart Island and nobody can visit, it’s easy to forget about you. So that was a real moment of like, “Ah, yes, there’s these spiritual things that I used to dismiss.” I think about Millie a lot. She ended up having died of that wound. She would shoot heroin into her wound and that ended up getting infected.
TH: [In talking about spirituality] you’re touching on a different value system. This is something that you write about in the book, in terms of the front row of America and the back row. The front row values consumerism and credentialism, but the back row values other things, like faith, like place. Tell me about that conception.
CA: That’s been the hardest thing to get across to people. I got a PhD in physics. So, I’m not here to dismiss education. It’s wonderful, and that’s the life I live. But we have a worldview. And it’s one that we don’t question as a worldview because we think it’s right. It leads to what I call intellectual colonialism. We believe that everybody should share our worldview. That worldview is pretty simple; it’s very materialistic. What is valuable is what you can measure.
So, things that are unmeasurable — what I’d call transcendent qualities, or non-credentialed forms of meaning, things you can’t put on a resume — are dismissed. Things like faith, like family, place. These things that you can’t trade in the marketplace are actually deeply important to people. And in a very non-elitist way, in the sense that they’re free. You don’t need to go to college to find the power of God, or Allah. You don’t need to study to appreciate the town where you’re from; you’re gifted that at birth. These are things that are free for everybody. And when you demean them, it’s a very elitist framework. We’re saying that the only things that are really valuable are the things that we can acquire through education.
Place is really important. The meme of “just move, idiot” is so condescending. It’s wrapped in a scorn of provincialism — that you shouldn’t want to stay your entire life in the same city. But that’s very important to people. That defines who they are, that gives them literally a place in the world. It’s a way of understanding. It’s a way of being valued. The idea that you might want to spend your entire life surrounded by the hills that make you happy, or the people that make you happy, is kind of foreign to us because we move all the time. I do, I’m guilty; I will jump at a dime to change where I live. … After I did the Bronx thing, I went around the country and put 400,000 miles on my car, just walking and talking to people.
Place, family, faith — these things are organic regulatory bodies that provide people not only a place to be integrated, but also rules to live by. We in the front row look at those as outdated. We want to replace them with bureaucratic state-sponsored institutions that regulate stuff. I think a lot of the chaos that’s going on in so many of these communities is that you’re tearing apart regulatory bodies and replacing them with a uniform regulatory body that just can’t handle these things.
When we erode [daily custom] and try to replace it with a rule book written from D.C., or Ottawa, it’s going to cause a lot of chaos. And I think that’s what we’re seeing. You’ve eroded these places that give people a sense of who they are. You’re left with this very hierarchical, materialistic society that says your place is how much stuff you have, and how big your resume is. The only people happy with that are the people at the very, very top.
… Look, I’m not over-romanticizing the back row. I don’t want to be that person. There are two worldviews. They have very different perspectives; they both have their faults. The point I want to get across is we’re the ones in control. We make the rules for everybody. We’re the occupiers. Forget about the moral side, I think at a sheerly pragmatic level, you’d want to know how the people you’re occupying think. The people you’re making rules for, what do they value? Especially if you’re going to masquerade as saying we have democracy.
If you keep imposing this highly materialistic, highly competitive, very secular framework on people, they’re going to revolt. If you don’t want that to happen, maybe you should listen a little bit more. When you make your rules from far away, what do the people think about it?
TH: I wanted to ask you about the scrambling of the left and right that we’re seeing right now. You identify as a socialist but your book was embraced by Republicans. And blurbed by some very prominent Republicans, like Tom Cotton and J.D. Vance.
CA: If you look at the extremes of communism and capitalism, both are two sides of the same coin. They are very materialistic. They don’t value transcendent values. The framework is arguing over how we should distribute stuff. People don’t just want stuff. There’s other issues out there, and those are the cultural issues. Everybody in the policy class gets really angry when we’re arguing over cultural issues, what they see as symbolic issues. But that’s what matters to people. Do you value me and my lifestyle? Do you get me? Do you understand my lived reality?
I was surprised with the reaction to my book from both camps. I had thought it was a book from the left. I think in many ways, what appealed to the right is the fact that I wrote about God. Someone on the right told me, “You wrote a book that had faith in it where you didn’t make fun of it. Thank you.” I not only not make fun of it; I actually celebrate it.
The East Pasco County Democratic Club used to meet in my father’s house once a month. As a small kid, I was raised around Democratic meetings. It was people who had complicated lives, a mixture of academics, gays, working class, African Americans, Mexicans. It was just a weird group of people. If you go into a Democratic party meeting now, it’s generally the professional class.
[Before] it was a very forgiving group of people because their lives were complicated. There was no purity test. But the Democratic party has been taken over by the elite, educated class. Debates in the Democratic party amongst the activist class look like a grad student seminar on what the people want. You’re sitting in the conference room talking about what the people want. And you’re not the people! You’re reading about it through books and you’re imposing what you hope they want on them. It’s not what they want.
Most people hate both parties. Most people don’t pay attention to politics. Most people don’t vote. There’s a reason for that: Nothing changes. One thing’s the same as the other.
I wrote in my piece of walking in Washington, D.C. about this. One day I walked from Virginia to the White House via Anacostia, which is the working class Black neighbourhood. And then the next day I walked to the White House through Alexandria, which is upper income educated whites. That’s the Democratic coalition. There’s a good historical reason for the coalition — Republicans haven’t done anything appeal to Blacks. So I understand why the coalition is holding together right now. But I don’t think the front row/back row coalition can hold much longer.
One of the things that happens all the time is I’m on Twitter telling people I’m doing these walks. When I did the Anacostia walk, people told me, with good intentions, things that are very revealing. Like, “Watch out, you’re going to get mugged. Be careful.” How can you think that? These are your coalition partners. These are the people who keep you in power, the people you claim to care about. And you’re telling me to be scared of them? Anacostia is fine. It’s a working class Black neighbourhood.
TH: Before we close, I want to talk about Walking the World, and what you saw in Kyiv.
CA: So now I just go around the world, walking cities. I didn’t go to Kyiv for any reason other than I was curious and it was cheap. I kind of dismissed the troops clustered on the border. I left three weeks before the war. You know, it was a really interesting town. Nobody thought the war was going to happen. Nobody. I wrote that — to some mockery now — but I was trying to reflect what I saw.
It was a wonderful town. I spent most of my time in the Northeast corner, which is working class, Soviet block houses. What I was seeing was a pull between the West and the East, but not in the way that is being played out now, with soldiers. A lot of the countries I go to — like Ukraine, like Peru, like Turkey — still have transcendent values. Still value family, place, community. That’s partially why I go, because it hasn’t been fully taken over by Western liberalism. … We always think of Western democracy and liberalism as being this great thing that everybody wants. You know, “Everybody wants more stuff.” But when secular democratic materialism comes in, it destroys a way of living. And not everybody necessarily wants that, or necessarily understands what’s coming. I think you see that played out in so many of these countries. I certainly saw that in Kyiv. There was the old Kyiv, these outer fringes that still were built around family, around local ownership. That still celebrated an aesthetic that I really appreciated: Art as beauty.
TH: That’s interesting. It’s a time of such flux and such change. What do you think it would take for us as a society to start reprioritizing these makers of meaning that are free? What would it take for us to reprioritize family, faith, community, and place?
CA: This is where I end up short. I got criticized in my book for not offering solutions. It’s not just about policy. It’s much larger than that. You know, we can stop policy that’s directly corrosive of these things. And almost all policy is, because we don’t value them, so we don’t think about them. Unfortunately you have to convince the political class. They’re not going to give up power without a fight. And I don’t want a fight. So, the less messy answer is to convince the political class. Like: “When you look at policy, don’t just do it in a spreadsheet, actually go out and be part of the community you’re making policy for. Talk to people, rethink what you prioritize. If you prioritize economic growth above all else, there’s a lot of destruction. Because you tend to forget about these things that get in the way of growth — these messy things like family and place.”
So, the policy class has to stop being actively aggressive against these values. Short of that, I’m pretty cynical. I wish I could say a happy answer. But I think you’re going to see a lot more chaos going forward. Because you can’t have an elite manage the world, basically against the interests of the people. It doesn’t end well. And when it does end badly, it’s really ugly. I think there needs to be some understanding between the two groups, so we don’t come to blows.
This transcript has been edited and condensed.
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