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Reverb Effect Episode 7: Transcript

Return to the audio for Reverb Effect episode 6.

Daniela Sheinin: How do past voices resonate in the present moment? And how do we make sense of those voices? What were they trying to say? And whose job is it to find out? This is Reverb Effect.  

Daniela Sheinin: A few years ago I found a drinking glass in an antique mall in Maumee, Ohio. It had a picture of Archie Bunker star character of the 1970 sitcom, All in the Family, set in Queens, New York. Below his face, the glass read, Archie for President. Okay, funny, maybe preposterous, definitely. Could Archie Bunker have been president? He was loud and crude, famous for his offensive wisecracks targeting women, youth, hippies, African-Americans, Jews, and the list goes on. He was furiously protective of his home and neighborhood and immediately suspicious of anyone he didn't recognize. He was always the smartest in the room or so he thought, endlessly defensive of the good old days. 

Archival Audio (song): Mister we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again. Didn’t need no welfare state, everybody pulled his weight…

Daniela Sheinin:  We could use a man like Herbert Hoover again, he and his long-suffering wife, Edith, lamented in the show's opening song. How could such a character lead the nation forward in Watergate, Vietnam-era America. Then a couple of generations later, another Queens native, Donald Trump, was actually elected president 

Welcome to Episode Seven of Reverb Effect, a podcast brought to you by the University of Michigan Department of History. I'm your host, Daniela Sheinin, and for our final episode of the season, I'm also going to be your narrator.

Archie Bunker now holds my toothbrush and stares up at me each morning from beside my bathroom sink. At half off a dollar, on sale, it was the deal of the decade. Then only a few weeks ago at an antique mall in Michigan, two more drinking accessories appeared with the Archie Bunker For President design. They were more expensive, but I had to get them. I'm committed now.

Build a Better Yesterday with Bunker, one of the new, old glasses read. Did All in the Family creator, Norman Lear and his team pick up on the rightward shift in politics already underway and vehemently celebratory of a disappearing, fanciful past. Did they anticipate Trump's Make America Great Again campaign slogan? Or the earlier Ronald Reagan 1980 presidential campaign slogan, Let's Make America Great Again? The slogan is a tongue-in-cheek jab. The creators didn't really believe that Archie Bunker should be president. The third piece is a beer Stein announcing Archie as the Beer Party Candidate, which signals a less than desirable, perhaps even intoxicated—or deplorable—voting bloc. Does building a better yesterday even make sense? Yesterday is done, what is there to build? Unless you're talking about one's perception of yesterday, a memory.

Interview Audio: But then you hear the stories of your parents and your grandparents and stuff like that, so I'm living through them all with the stories they told me. We were in Italian American family who lived in an Italian American neighborhood… 

Daniela Sheinin:  This was one of the major themes of All in the Family and of the Archie Bunker character. The world moves onward. The nation evolves, but does progress leave something important behind? And to whom was this idea appealing? A lot of people, apparently. There are, and were many, who felt as though movements like affirmative action, housing rights, gay liberation, and then marriage, and equal pay for women takes away from others. Some who want to build a better yesterday, see the world as a pie, slice off a piece for housing rights and less is left for me.

Archie Bunker's largely white, 1970s Queens neighborhood reflected rising numbers of former white residents from Brooklyn and Manhattan who had settled there a generation earlier, sandwiched between the ongoing white flight from Queens to Long Island, Florida and elsewhere. But Queens neighborhoods were hardly alone. It might've been a neighborhood in a city like Detroit or St. Louis, whose residents had seen drastic demographic change by the time All in the Family finished its run in 1979. 

Interview Audio: A lot of people are moving out. So that whole family neighborhood that it used to be isn't so much. 

Daniela Sheinin: Donald Trump and Archie Bunker both come from Queens, the New York City borough that's today home to over 2 million people. During Trump's presidential campaign, the news media often made the comparison between the two. Rude and ignorant, sure, a case could be made, but Trump's Queens is both similar and different from Archie's. Archie is no Trump, but Archie may have foreshadowed the infamous “deplorable,” the working-class supporters of Trump, skewered by Hillary Clinton in the 2016 campaign 

Archival Audio (news clip):  here in New York city, Clinton said half of Trump's supporters are quote, “a basket of deplorables,” and this morning the Trump campaign is out with a new campaign ad making sure voters…

Daniela Sheinin: Trump's Queens always stood in contrast to Manhattan, the hub that never quite accepted the loud mouthed, tactless version of the city's most impressive real estate moguls. For Trump, Queens was the borough he couldn't wait to vacate. Archie's Queens was the safe haven suburbs for Manhattan and Brooklyn transplants. It was home. You could have a big yard and a parking space and you wouldn't be living on top of your neighbors. When you did see your neighbors, they looked like you. The bunkers lived at a fictional address in Astoria, one of Queens Western-most neighborhoods. Today, it's an increasingly gentrifying extension of Manhattan, that Archie Bunker might not recognize anymore. The house pictured in the opening credits could be any two-story home across borough neighborhoods. A typical house for an everyman. 

Interview Audio:  Astoria has become now, nothing but cement and brick and a lot of people. That's progress. It is what used to be, absolutely not. No, no. It was a community. Whatever it like here. Everybody knew each other. It was pleasant, you know? Now, this it's Manhattan rush, rush, rush, rush, rush, which you I would like better. I like the way it was. You know, it was enjoyable. You know, it was calm. 

Daniela Sheinin: Donald Trump hails from Jamaica Estates, an affluent neighborhood further South. A neighborhood planned as a suburb within the city. Mansions and green spaces separated from the hustle and bustle, though they were still in the city. Trump grew up in a neighborhood built in the early 20th century with the express purpose of keeping others out. This Queens neighborhood anticipated by decades Archie's disdain for his African American neighbors, a neighborhood where non-whites were kept out with great efficiency by realtors and management companies, and were a childhood might hone the conceptual foundation for Trump's discriminatory residential projects in the 1980s and his disregard for people of color, women and labors. Archie is the racist working stiff who in the end had to learn to get along in the rapidly changing Queens of the 1970s 

Interview Audio: Flushing has seen change quite a bit. That's all Asian now. In fact, you walk around there and you want to take a trip to China, just the signs are not in English anymore you know? <inaudible> walking around it’s Chinese or Korean, you know, it's like amazing. So it's nice. There's just, that's what when I want to go to China I go to Flushing, when I want to go to India, I go to the 74th street with all the Indian restaurants and all the stores there and then you want Greek you go to Astoria So that’s the beautiful part about about Queens is has all these different neighborhoods like that. 

Daniela Sheinin: As a super wealthy son of a wealthy housing developer, Trump never had to learn to get along with anybody. All in the Family episodes typically ended with Archie bested by a smarter, more witty, nicer person from among one of the other groups he hated, reinforcing his working-class, never-get-ahead identity. Trump's public persona thrives on the myth of his never having been bested by anybody.

During the production of this episode, New York City became a so-called “hotspot” for COVID-19 infections. Every day, the news covered the ongoing battles between President Trump and New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo, who by the way is also a Queens native. Tt this time, over 10,000 COVID-19 caused deaths in New York City have been recorded. Reports have also come out revealing the devastation to low income neighborhoods in the outer boroughs, Brooklyn and Queens in particular. Corona and Elmhurst are two adjoining neighborhoods in Queens. Both are home to large numbers of working-class immigrants in multi-family homes. These are the city's essential workers, in restaurants, hospitality and grocery stores. As hard as they might try, social isolation is near impossible when you have to work, when you have to travel by public transportation and when you share an apartment or house with another family. 

The Queens-Manhattan contrast is materializing today as much as ever with the staggered COVID-19 cases. The Wall Street Journal reported in early April that there are four zip codes in Queens with a 70% positive testing rate, compared to 59% for Queens as a whole and 43% for Manhattan. In March 2020, as the death toll quickly mounted in Queens, social media exploded with news of the surge in cases at Elmhurst Hospital. People quickly learned where the Elmhurst neighborhood in Queens is, and where Queens itself is. Finally, people in rural Pennsylvania, Michigan, Kansas, and Virginia had something to share with New Yorkers—a virus. 

Interview Audio: Well, New York is that, there's five boroughs in New York. People don't realize, people think New York—Manhattan. That's the only thing going. No there's five boroughs, so people living in Queens, Bronx, Brooklyn, Staten Island, that's all part still part of New York. 

Daniela Sheinin: Back in December 2015 WNYC reporter, Stephen Nessen asked, “Is Donald Trump the Archie Bunker of today?” He went to Glendale, where the house featured in the opening credit stands, to try to find answers. He asked residents from the neighborhood for local perspectives on Trump and whether he reminded them of a guy who was perhaps closer to their histories than anyone else's. Reviews were mixed. Some liked him, some believed he shouldn't be president. One man, who was passing through from Long Island, said that while he didn't love some of Trump's recent comments, he would be happy if he could do something positive for blue collar workers. But he then went on to say that, “Archie bunker was part of middle America. He was a blue-collar worker,” and that Trump really didn't have a sense of the world in which people like himself or Archie lived. Maybe the sympathies from the so-called flyover States toward New York City wasn’t that unlikely.

That interview was December 2015, and at the time, and through much of 2016 it seemed impossible that Middle America would believe a New Yorker could understand them. Even that Middle America included the Archie Bunkers of Queens, who in the end are still New Yorkers. And yet working people voted for Trump in droves, against their interests according to those who criticize the Republicans threat to Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare. And it's those same people, who along with others of lower incomes, who lack access to affordable healthcare, who lack paid time off from work, suffer disproportionately from the pandemic.

But there are still unanswered questions. If Trump isn’t Archie, and if Archie was never Trump, what does their shared hometown mean? Why does the media link the president's belligerence and triumphal confrontational nature with the working people he left behind? Where is the media's coverage now of Trump's Queens origins, and where might Cuomo fit into this formulation? Trump's traits have been characterized as Queens, but certainly not Jamaica States, the segregated neighborhood in southern Queens where he grew up. When the media cast Trump is Queens, it's as working-class, and a grossly simplified version of that 

Archival Audio (news clip): and I'll tell you who he's going to be president of. You can tell Donald I said this, the Queens County Bullies Association. You got to cut it… Listening to this low-life from Queens talking about paying off his low-lives from Playboy magazine. I mean, I think… <inaudible> You’re an inherited money dude from Queens County bring it, Donald. [You're close to the Walker, right?] <inaudible> You’re an inherited money dude from Queens County.  

Daniela Sheinin: The thing is, this isn't the only character that Queens represents. Not even close. Among the borough’s over 2 million residents, 800 languages are spoken. What about the working-class Italian American neighborhoods where kitchens where the sites of political organizing, the Peruvian anthropologist navigating his new job at the grocery store, the Jackson Heights synagogue, that due to its dwindling congregation opened its doors to Pentecostals and Hindus. Walking by, you might see young girls practicing in traditional dance costumes just inside the doors. What about Chinatown in flushing? The Guatemalan brother and sister who take their children to Flushing Meadows-Corona park every Saturday. The Colombian woman from Jamaica who travels to work at Citifield. Surely the home of your friendly neighborhood Spiderman, who would take on the kind of Queens bully the media describes, must be considered when we attribute Trump's crude demeanor to his childhood home. 

Interview Audio: My dad has always written poetry in Spanish as a hobby. And one day I'm reading a few poems that he had written for my mom, to my mom. And then I said, you know what, I'm gonna, I'm gonna make an album. I was like, I'm going to get like 12 total songs and going to music to it. But you know, I'm a rocker, but this was different. I wasn't going to do everything in rock. I was just going to do whatever the music transporting me lyrically. So, you know, there's a, there's tango in there. There's some Latin American rhythms from Colombia, Venezuela, you know, there's definitely rock, there's acoustic, there’s spoken word…

Daniela Sheinin: In the end, and in keeping with 1970s TV sitcoms, as time goes on Archie softens. he shows compassion, and grieves for neighbors who leave, even if they were part of a group he once claimed to despise. Even in the beginning. He's regularly bested by African Americans, women, Puerto Ricans, and other foils returning him each time to the poor, working stiff identity, never able to get ahead. But unlike Trump, who runs from, and who can't adapt to Queens (or to America for that matter), Archie does adapt. He changes over time as Queens changes. Norman Lear's Hollywood, liberal, imaginary Queens disappoints anybody who might have admired Archie as the racist everyman.

The racial, gendered, ethnic, and other divisions that underscore Trump's politics and Archie's early worldview become irrelevant between neighbors as the pandemic unfolds. Of course, these divisions dictate federal policies, including access to housing and healthcare, but what does that mean as you watch your neighbors carried out of their homes by paramedics, or as you yourself are carried into the emergency room at Elmhurst hospital? 

All in the Family is about Archie losing the Queens he knew, or the one he imagined. In the spinoff, Archie Bunker's Place, he buys the neighborhood bar he goes to regularly, a symbol of his determination to cling to the neighborhood he once knew. But he's constantly under financial pressure. The bar doesn't attract many people. It's a relic from a time when there were good, blue collar jobs for the residents, many of whom were white and male and for whom the bar was an afternoon refuge to be with friends. What he fears in All in the Family comes to pass in the ethnic and racial transformation of Queens, but what he can't anticipate is the collapse of well-paid union jobs. Archie Bunker's Place ran from 1979 to 1983. It ended a full 12 years after All in the Family began. Reagan and now Trump's America had already begun to take shape and the Reagan administration's assault on unions. 

Archie Bunker's Place is more about his precarious class position than it is the racial tensions of All in the Family. And if the story of Trump's rise is one of both racial and class anxieties, then Archie Bunker's Place as a key moment in this timeline. At the very least, Archie's bar would be an ideal location for a WNYC reporter to ask locals what they think of Trump.

Our current tragedy finally plays out precisely where Archie buys the bar, one of what will become the bustling avenues of Queens on and off, which COVID spreads faster than anywhere else in America—in working class neighborhoods, unsupported by wages and benefits Archie and his family had in 1970s Queens. Over the course of the show, Archie references his world's fair spoon several times. A souvenir that commemorated the global event hosted twice in Queens at Flushing Meadows-Corona park in 1939 and from 1964 to 65. This is perhaps one of the most revealing sentiments on the show. Archie's grasp onto a past spectacular moment, a celebration of American prowess and optimism for what the future held. A moment that for him and his real-life contemporaries from the 1970s to today represents a lost neighborhood, and a lost borough. The park’s landscape is always recognizable. You might've seen images of the famous Unisphere, a massive steel globe, at the center of a fountain that's been featured in countless films, music videos, and tourism brochures. You might remember in Men in Black when Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones are trying desperately to stop a flying saucer from leaving earth. That flying saucer is the top of what was the New York State Pavilion. And that structure is still in the park today. So while the park’s landscape might be recognizable, the rate of change and how it's used has long been a reflection of a borough and constant flux and far more complex than what Archie or Trump might mean. 

Interview Audio: So in the early, in the early 20th century, there was, um, a Peruvian composer who wrote the song, um, “El Condor Pasa”, The Condor Passes. You know, condors, symbolically, that’s the bird represents Bolivia, represents Ecuador, Columbia, like about five, like seven countries, in Latin America. You know how the Eagle represents the United States? Well the condor, you know, is the symbolic bird for those. So when this guy wrote this, he wrote it, um, as an instrumental. Then, throughout the decades of the, of the, of the 20th century, people were recording the song with their own lyrics, like putting, writing lyrics. Everybody would write their own lyrics or they'll, their own take on the song. In, in 1972, there was a group called Los Incas, uh, opening up for, um, Simon and Garfunkel. So they're opening up for that and those guys actually are playing Indian music, música Andina, that’s what they call it. And, and they start playing the riff and you, you probably know the riff. [plays riff]

Anyway, they start playing that song, and Paul Simon loved the melody. So he goes to the guys, he says, who wrote that song? Well it was written by this guy in the early 1900s, blah blah blah. So he says, I want to record it, but I'm going to do it in English. And he says, but I want you guys to do the introduction. Because they play all the pan flutes and all that. And the little charango thing So they came up with [plays music: I’d rather be a hammer than a nail. If I could, yes I would. I surely would.]

I went and uh recorded it last year, uh, with a, with a female singer, singer from Ecuador. She's a good friend of mine. And, um, I did it in Spanglish and I wrote my own lyrics. This summer we’re gonna shoot the video pretty much underneath the Unisphere. Underneath America. 

Daniela Sheinin: The once important 1964 World's Fair now lays in fragments, much of which was simply too expensive to maintain or to tear down. But thousands of neighbors happily walk the former fairgrounds every weekend. The fields once dominated by baseball games are now host to cricket matches and soccer tournaments. The soccer teams are often divided by Latin American nationality, yet unified in their weekly moment of leisure and love for the game. 

Interview Audio: And then another guy says, says, you know what, he says, my wife on a Saturday, she knows that she has me from six in the morning until 2:00 PM. Anything she wants, I'm there. After 2:00 PM? Don't even look at me. Don't talk to me. I’m, straight to the park.

Daniela Sheinin: A neighborhood lost to Archie. means something else to them. 

Thank you so much for joining us. Our editorial board is professor Melanie Tanielian and Matt Villeneuve and our production team is Executive Producer, Gregory Parker. And I'm your Season Producer, Daniela. Sheinin. I hope you'll join us for our next episode for more stories on how the past reverberates in the present. This is Reverb Effect.