The Ethics of Slumming

Opium Smokers.jpg

by Brendan I. Koerner

There's a great passage in Acid Dreams that describes the exact moment when San Francisco's "Summer of Love" turned into a massive bummer. It was the morning that the first tour bus rolled through Haight-Ashbury, carrying camera-toting curiosity seekers who wanted to see the hippies in their native habitat. The sharper locals were humiliated by the gawking tourists; once proud of having created an LSD-tinged utopia, they now realized that they'd been involuntarily transformed into human zoo animals.

The hippies of the Haight were hardly the first victims of San Francisco's tourist industry, however. The city pioneered American slumming back in the 19th century, when tour operators started offering package deals on nocturnal Chinatown visits. The historian Catherine Cocks described the phenomenon:

San Francisco's Chinatown came the closest of any minority neighborhood to being constructed as a midway concession. As early as the 1870s, this small, densely crowded and impoverished neighborhood just above the city's business section was the stage for an increasingly standardized tour. Almost invariably, the tour was a three-hour, night-time visit in the company of a hired guide. Initially, these guides were moonlighting police detectives, but by the 1890s there were small firms specializing in this work.

The guide conducted his party through the streets to see the residents, the stores with their signs in Chinese characters, and the decorated balconies. Next came the joss house or temple, followed by the theater, where the slummers paid extra to enter, sat on the stage, mocked the music and acting, and always left after half an hour. Descending to the depths, they visited a gambling den if one could be found and always peeped in at an opium den. They concluded their tour at a restaurant, where they nibbled and poked at a few strange cakes and turned up their noses at the unsweetened, milkless tea.

Pretty darn disrespectful by today's more worldly standards. But is there something to be said for the impulse behind this breed of voyeuristic tourism?

In the fine Ta-Nehisi Coates tradition, I really have more questions than answers when it comes to the ethics of tourism, and specifically the ethics of tourism in marginalized communities. The travel industry has become remarkably adept at shielding its customers from the day-to-day realities of the places they visit. (The episode of The Office about Michael Scott's return from a Jamaican resort does a brilliant job of poking fun at this trend.) But dropping in on a slum merely to satisfy one's curiosity about the seediness contained therein strikes me hopelessly condescending--every bit as skeevy as going hippie hunting in The Haight circa 1967.

It's natural for us to be curious about the circumstances in which our fellow humans exist—not to make us feel better about our own situations, but because we genuinely want to empathize with their travails as well as share their joy. But there's obviously a right way to make those connections, and a whole bunch of wrong ways. So what's an earnest tourist to do when he or she decides to step outside the safety zones created by industry?

(Image of the "Chinese opium den" exhibit at the 1893 Columbian Exposition via JapanFocus)

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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