Category Archives: Environment & Justice

Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis

Sugrue - The Origins of the Urban CrisisThomas Sugrue (2005) University of Princeton Press

Stunning really, searing and beautifully thorough research on race, political economy and the urban fabric of Detroit.

He engages with some central questions: what the hell happened to rust belt cities, how did they turn from industrial centers to economic backwaters, how did the ghetto form, how did segregation and racism persist? He then answers these questions, in the process knocking the almost the entire body of literature on the ‘underclass’ out of the ballpark. He does build on those that contained some structural analysis, but looks at a multiplicity of structural forces rather than just one or two (like deindustrialization or racism) and also follows a more historical approach, seeing the origins of the urban crisis in the 1940s and 50s. He does not avoid the question of agency — and there is so much in here about grassroots action — but paraphrases Marx when he says “Economic and racial inequality constrain individual and family choices. They set the limits of human agency. Within the bounds of the possible, individuals and families resist, adapt, or succumb.” His main thesis:

Detroit’s postwar urban crisis emerged as the consequence of two of the most important, interrelated, and unresolved problems in American history: that capitalism generates economic inequality and that African Americans have disproportionately borne the impact of that inequality.

I find his work most interesting in the way he looks at race and space, though I don’t fully agree with his view of race. He writes “Discrimination by race was a central fact of life in the postwar city. But the dimensions, significance, and very meaning of race differed depending on its cultural, political, and economic context. … Racial ideology, a shifting and fluid popular vernacular of race, served as the backdrop to the relationship between blacks and whites in the postwar city.” Discrimination and ideologies of race are indeed shifting things articulated with cultural, political and economic context, but never a backdrop. The opportunity this book misses is a deeper theorisation of the way the events it relates also formed racial ideologies. This is not to deny that ideology also worked on more of a national level, and that ideas of blackness

In mid-twentieth-century Detroit, as in the rest of the nation, racial identities rested on Widely held assumptions about the inferior intelligence of blacks, notions that blacks were physiologically better suited for certain types of work, and stereotypes about black licentiousness, sexual promiscuity, laziness, and dependence.

did not shape history as much as ideas of whiteness

On the other side was the persistent association of whiteness with Americanism, hard work, sexual restraint, and independence. These assumptions about racial difference were
nourished by a newly assertive whiteness

He argues that in addition to culture, “Perhaps most important in shaping the concept of race in the postwar ‘period, I argue, were local and national politics. Race was as much a political as a social construction.” But for me, the most interesting thing about this is that he is the first (that I have seen) to deeply examine how race and space intertwine, and the consequences of this third factor in conceptions of race:

Perceptions of racial differences were not, I argue, wholly, or even primarily, the consequences of popular culture. If they were, they would not have had such extraordinary staying power. In the postwar city, blackness and whiteness assumed a spatial definition. The physical state of African American neighborhoods and white neighborhoods in Detroit reinforced perceptions of race. The completeness of racial segregation made ghettoization seem an inevitable, natural consequence of profound racial differences. The barriers that kept blacks confined to racially isolated, deteriorating, inner-city neighborhoods were largely invisible to white Detroiters. To the majority of untutored white observers, visible poverty, overcrowding, and deteriorating houses were signs of individual moral deficiencies, not manifestations of structural inequalities. White perceptions of black neighborhoods provided seemingly irrefutable confirmation of African American inferiority and set the terms of debates over the inclusion of African Americans in the city’s housing and labor markets.

Much later in the book he goes on to say

“Racial incidents encoded possession and difference in urban space. Residents of postwar Detroit carried with them a cognitive map that helped them negotiate the complex urban landscape. In a large, amorphous twentieth-century city like Detroit, there were few visible landmarks to distinguish one neighborhood from another, But residents imposed onto the city’s featureless topography all sorts of invisible boundaries-boundaries shaped by intimate association, by institutions (like public-school catchment areas or Catholic parish boundaries), by class, and, most importantly, by race.

The sustained violence in Detroit’s neighborhoods was the consummate act in a process of identity formation. White Detroiters invented communities of race in the city that they defined spatially. Race in the postwar city was not just a cultural construction, Instead, whiteness, and by implication blackness, assumed a material dimension, imposed onto the geography of the city. Through the drawing of racial boundaries and through the use of systematic violence to maintain those boundaries, whites reinforced their own fragile racial identity.”

How fascinating is that? And depressing. I read this with a little pit of fear that I would run across family members in the accounts of furious blue collar white Catholic homeowners (I didn’t).
But what makes this book so fantastic is its breadth. It looks at space and segregation, but also at work and the process of deindustrialisation, it looks at struggle — both that of African Americans and the grassroots efforts of whites to preserve their neighborhoods, it looks at layers of party politics both local and national, it looks at developers and real estate agents. It looks at gender, at class divisions in the African American community, at union politics and schisms and the way that race consistently trumped class and how homeownership shifted working class consciousness, at the development of discourses around rights and property and housing, shifts in the meaning of liberalism.

This is scholarship to aspire to, the kind of research we need to understand the complexities of race in our cities today and think about effective struggle, and I look forward to reading it again, as its breadth ensures I will find a whole new excitement in it I am sure.

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My Blue Heaven: South Gate and White Working Class Identity

My Blue Heaven - Becky NicolaidesBecky Nicolaides’ My Blue Heaven is a marvelously well researched and incredibly detailed look at the lives of people in South Gate, one which challenges a number of common assumptions about the suburbs while providing evidence for others.

I love how it details the ways that ideas and meanings of home and community were constructed, and their change over time. My Blue Heaven‘s principal argument is that from the 1920s through WWII, home was primarily a survival strategy for the working class. They bought affordable lots and built homes as and when they could, using extensive yards to grow food, thus provisioning themselves against want outside of the cash economy. At this time, residents felt that lower taxes were more important than school segregation for example, highlighting the precariousness of their living situation. This shifted after World War II, as South Gate came to resemble other suburbs such as Lakewood in its infrastructure and tract housing, and as owner salaries rose and situations improved, their homes became principally investments and marks of status. This led to a very strong feeling around taxes. Thus their bitter struggle against school integration, and defensive posture around residential integration to protect home values.

It is an interesting thing to think about, that poverty should make people less inclined to active racism when there were incentives to the contrary. Yet racism was no less virulent for communities made up of so many Southern migrants:

In 1925, the local booster-editor asserted “Home Gardens is a town of, by and for workingmen — and we want hundreds more of them. The only restrictions are racial — the white race only may own property here,” [27]

But this tension isn’t explored as much as I wished it to be, although the racial tensions post WWII are quite well documented. This is also true of the shift in how individuals saw taxes, and the foundations of Prop 13, and the today’s anti-tax conservatism. It is a fundamental dynamic in American politics, and this is some of the best evidence I’ve seen in terms of understanding how American politics has developed, both in the origins of strong-held opinions on the importance of low taxes:

When boom hit bust in the 1930s, their assumptions about the role of individuals and government began to shift. As both the politics of development and education revealed, residents began with the unspoken assumption that the burden of financing municipal services-from streets to schools-should fall on the backs of individual property owners, including the humble working-class home owner. Embracing an ethos of privatism, they believed property ownership conferred the responsibility of municipal stewardship. All property owners- regardless of wealth-became urban stewards. It was thus up to individuals, not government more broadly, to pay for services. In a poorer suburb like South Gate, residents simply chose to limit these services, to create a modest infrastructure that they could reasonably afford. There was no assumption that urban services were a right, and that they should be financed through a redistributive system of taxation. This reflected their deeply held ideals of individualism, self- help, hard work, plain-folk Americanism’ and anticommunism, an outlook asserting that urban fiscal policy ought to be based on a private approach rather than a collective one.

and then the ways in which discussions around taxes have also become coded in terms of race through the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s

In numerous public statements, “taxes” became a coded reference to civil rights and programs for minorities, an excellent local example of the national trend that saw an overlapping of race and taxes as political issues. “While you work and sweat to protect your earnings and property, the politicians scheme with their minority supporters to put you in a hopeless position to protect yourself against raids of everything you work for…. Today CORE, NAACP, COPE [302] and their like are the only participants who pressure our legislators for the kind of government we have now, while today’s citizen is a drone, quite impotent in local affairs because he stays home, and our taxes continue to go up, up and up,”

It is extraordinary to watch a working class community shift from supporters of EPIC and the New Deal, to supporters of conservative Republicans such as Ronald Reagan. But through this historical view it finally makes some kind of sense…it also contains a lot of more ethnographic and quite fascinating information on daily life, entertainment, and particularly labor. Nicolaides argues that home became the center of people’s lives rather than their work, and explores some of its implications for labor.

Definitely worth checking out if you’re interested in any of these topics, and a beautiful example of an in depth historical view of a single suburb that manages to give insight into key historical forces happening all over the country.

[Nicolaides, Becky M. (2002) My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working-Class Suburbs of Los Angeles, 1920-1965. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.]

Daily dose

of tears over coffee, Haiti, I am entirely sadness and rage. Thinking about the way suffering on this scale is always political…the utter inability to deal with famine, flood, earthquakes is always a failure of government. Thinking about Katrina. This insane racism and fear of black people that in both cases has demanded blockade, occupation and armed soldiers rather than the provision of food, water. medicine, shelter…and thus they fulfill their own prophecies of hate and desperation. People know that the mobilization of 12,000 warm to bodies to guard and secure could more easily have provided for their actual needs. I watch soldiers stand around with huge semi-automatics filling their hands when there are bodies and medicines to be dug out of rubble, shelter to be built…as a human I find this utterly inconceivable. As a cynic, I find it all too believable. There is no middle ground between these two sides, which I find to be just another cost of the world we live in.

http://www.democracynow.org/2010/1/20/stream

Where LA’s stolen water comes from, the wonder of Owens Valley

The Coso Mountain range to the east of Owens Valley is a line of volcanoes that erupted again and again, spewing out massive flows of black basalt. The whole area was a center of volcanic activity, creating a landscape of wonder framed against the Eastern Sierra Nevadas

To the north is an incredible cinder cone of deep red, gases and minerals forced violently up from the earth’s core through the hole they blasted in its crust. It reminds you that we mindlessly bang around atop a layer of earth floating above a seething bubbling mass of magma and gas. And only 500,000 years ago it swelled from below, shot upwards, rebuilt the landscape. And here I stand simply marveling at it.

There used to be a lake here, and a river. The river ran down the valley, and when a new lava flow sent it coursing across the black basalt, it sought out weaknesses and devoured them, it polished hard surfaces smooth, it carved amazing forms as it fell forty feet down a basalt shelf, and created one of the more amazing things I have ever seen

I tried, and admit I mostly failed, to capture its beauty and the strange fascination of it. Heat radiates from the rocks, flows about them in eddies and swirls as water once did. This place burns your palms with a deep tingling life as you climb into it, it cuts your skin with its razored lines of grace. And from every angle you discover new shadows and curves, a dark unfurling of stone.

There is no water here now, it was stolen, and the land lies arid and dry as you see it, though abounding with life in gorgeous color.

The land itself was stolen from the Paiutes, they irrigated small farms here from a fast running river, and collected obsidian. When first soldiers and then the homesteading act opened up the land to white settlers, small farmers and prospectors moved here, side by side with land speculators.

Frederick Eaton became mayor of Los Angeles in 1898, and appointed his friend William Mulholland as head of the new Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Together they started what are now fondly known as the California Water Wars. Especially to those who have forgotten that they are ongoing.

LA required water to become the sprawling sucking metropolis that it is today, and the two saw that the Owens Valley had water in abundance. Remember Chinatown? Eaton was a close friend of the agent working for the Bureau of Land Reclamation, who was there to build a network of irigation canals to help small farmers. He bought up much of the land (it all ended up belonging to LA), and Eaton got Teddy Roosevelt to cancel the irrigation project. By 1905 the city of LA had enough land to build the aqueduct through tactics that were varied, creative, and often nefarious. As icing on the cake of venality, the initial run of water went to the San Fernando Valley to water the fields of another close friend, and turn worthless real estate into an agricultural gold mine overnight.

By 1913 the aqueduct was built (it now carries 315 million gallons a day to LA). By 1924 the lake was dry. And in the despair of 1924, 40 men united to dynamite the aqueduct

OwensVly1924

6 moths later residents seized the Alabama Gates spillway and released the water back into the lake. But that was the end of even small victories until the 1990s. The uprising failed as US uprisings always seem to do.

In 1972 LADWP built a second aqueduct, draining surface water. The original vegetation died, and even now the alkali meadows continue to expand. There are salt beds where water used to be, and the wind picks up their dust of carcinogenic nickel, cadmium and arsenic to fling it across the valley. The EPA stated that when the wind blows across the lake bed, this valley becomes the single largest source of particulate matter pollution. In the 1990s and again in 2003, local activists, the Sierra Club and Inyo County won an agreement that a tiny percentage of the water must be diverted back into the valley, but it is tiny…for more on what is being down today take a look at the valiant Owens River Committee.

And read Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner for the whole story, this is obviously a most horrific simplification.

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The streets and strikes of Clifton

Apart from being the final resting place of Santa Teresita, and an old nesting place of white vigilantism as shown by the case of the kidnapped Catholic orphans, Clifton is a photographer’s delight and full of ever more stories. Here is Chase Creek Street, with my folks wandering romantically hand in hand

They escaped the heat over ice cream while I reveled in it, down one of the more amazing Arizonan streets I have encountered, with buildings well loved (where boarding rooms and banana splits and guns are available) side by side with buildings now derelict. And I have so much love for the derelict

Here there is an opulence of decay I’ve seldom found, as the buildings of old mining towns are usually ruins or rigorously and shinily preserved for the tourists. This place is just itself instead, still standing in spite of everything and even ready to make a come back.

Though there are ruins here too…

And I wondered very sadly when exactly it was that the bar shut down, El Rey, here I am in spirit…

With all the attitude a bar tan cabron requires, I am sure que sigue siendo el rey (aunque no mas adentro, because outside? Oh no)…

I would have a given a great deal to have gotten in though! Even more for a cold bohemia.

I lost all of my attitude in the jail. It was blasted out of solid rock long ago, and sits by the side of the main road with an iron gate swinging open. It is wired for light, but there are no light bulbs, so you go down about 10 steep stairs into a cave of absolute blackness…there is a small room off of which there are three cells with horrible iron doors. Using the flash of my camera I got this picture

Of course, I never saw it like this, just the quickest of glimpses in the camera light, and the fear growing and growing every second. You can see nothing in the darkness, but you know the cells are there, and there is no way to know if they are empty. There is one window in the rock that lights up the cell on the right and I crept over to it, but the fear of what lay behind my back, maybe just the fear filling the whole place up like a well, kept me out…and I fought it and lost and scampered back up the stairs as fast as I could possible go.

The story goes that the man who blasted it into being was the first man locked inside of it, he started shooting his gun into the air at the opening celebration after the townsfolk refused to toast him for his good work. Anyone who could think such a place was a good idea definitely deserved to spend some quality time there.

The employment in Clifton all comes from the earth, from copper and gold, and the huge pit mine in Morenci only a couple of miles away. It belongs to Phelps-Dodge…funny to think that I did a great deal of work for them in the old family business of Orbis Geographics…they even now hold maps I hand colored, and never paid on time if memory serves me correctly!

But here is one of the well-kept buildings along Chase Creek St.

There is a long history of strikes, and a history just as long of atrocities committed by mining companies and local government against striking miners in Arizona…not that we ever learned any of it in school. One of the best resources on this is Copper Crucible: How the Arizona Miner’s Strike of 1983 Recast Labor Management Relations in America by Jonathan Rosenblum, which contains a great general history of labor and copper. There was a strike in Clifton, Morenci and Metcalf in 1915-16 led by the Western Federation of Miners.

Then Jerome and Bisbee, 1917: The IWW organized and called a strike, a very successful strike. President Wilson had refused to send in federal troops at local request, and appointed the Arizona governor to mediate instead, just imagine… In Jerome, where the IWW was striking against PD, over 100 men were kidnapped by vigilantes and held in the county jail, before being moved by train and dumped in Needles, CA. In Bisbee the strike was against the owners of the Copper Queen mine. 1,186 men (some of whom were neither miners nor on strike) were rounded up at gun point by vigilantes and put in cattle cars still full of manure and trucked into New Mexico. Many then continued to be held there by the federal government for months. An IWW organizer, Jim Brew, was shot when he resisted the round up, after shooting one of the ‘deputies’. It is believed that Walter Douglas, president of Phelps Dodge and son of the owner of Bisbee’s Copper Queen mine, orchestrated the actions as a way to break organized labor in the state, which he did. The cattle cars belonged to him, and he probably supplied the guns…he was indicted, but charges were dropped. And armed guards were stationed at the entrances of Bisbee and Douglas, to pass them required a passport signed by Sheriff Wheeler…so almost none of the men ever returned. You can read more here.

Back in Clifton, Morenci, and Metcalf a union was again organized in the early 1940s. Mexicans were still not allowed to hold any of the more skilled jobs. When David Velasquez began helping the Bulldozers shovel what he had once shoveled by hand he became eligible to join the Operating Engineers under the AFL. He tried to join, but they old him that Mexican ‘boys’ would be better in their own union, called the Federated Labor Union. There was no possibility of rising into the better jobs. So he and Andres Padilla organized a branch of the CIO, meeting secretly along the river. After two years they won certification, Morenci Miners local 616 of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter workers. Originally they represented all miners, but racism divided the union and crafts split from it; Mine Mill became known as the Mexican union. In 1946 Mexican American veterans returning home from the war gave the impetus for a strike, seeking health benefits and equal wages for all races. Mine Mill won its first contract. And then followed a long period of strength and broad activist unionism (if only all unions could say the same) in spite of  the witch-hunt for communists, where union leadership was put on trial by the CIO itself. It suffered constant attack from the federal government, as well as hostility from other unions who all looked to appropriate its membership. In 1967 it merged with the steelworkers.

In 1982 PD announced it was laying off 3400 workers in Arizona and Texas. Negotiations began, and in July of 1983 a strike was called, and a picket line formed at the Morenci pit. Morenci is entirely a company town…workers were evicted, harassed, arrested, put under surveillance by the Arizona Criminal Intelligence Systems Agency. Very creepy, but Arizona likes to know what dissidents are up to, particularly when they dare to stop mining. Local government was entirely on the side of PD, putting injunctions on pickets and protests. PD announced it was hiring replacement workers, and 1,000 people gathered at the gate to the mine to prevent it. PD shut down production.

And on August 19th, 1983, the National Guard and state troopers were called in to break the strike. They arrived with military vehicles, helicopters, tanks. They forced entry for the scabs. 10 days later they arrested 10 miners in Ajo for ‘rioting’. And that was really the end, though the strike dragged on slowly until February of 86 when the NLRB rejected the unions appeal to stop decertification.

It is often seen as the great symbol of defeat for American Unions. And here is what the pit looks like now:

It has engulfed the towns of Morenci and Metcalf, swallowed them up and lost them forever in the search for more copper. And I suppose you could say, for a moment, it swallowed the labor movement as well. But just for the moment.

[also posted at www.pmpress.org]

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Santa Teresita and Clifton, AZ

Santa Teresita de Cabora…that is how she was known to the thousands who loved her, and believed she could cure the sick, the blind and the lame. So we went on a quest to find Teresa Urrea today,  one of the more extraordinary figure of the Southwest borderlands. It was inspired by reading Ringside to the Revolution by David Romo (which you should read, without a doubt)…but when we started looking we found so much more.

Santa_de_cabora

Her life defies summary, but I shall try. In 1873 she was born in Culiacan, Mexico, the illegitimate daughter of a Yaqui woman named Cayetana Chavez and the local landowner, Tomas Urrea. She worked with the local curandera…known alternatively as Huila (a Yaqui name) or Maria Sonora (a Yori name, we shall disregard it). While an adolescent she went into a coma, her father ordered a coffin, and the story goes that the night before her burial she suddenly sat up. She said that they should keep the coffin as someone else would die within 3 (or possibly 5 days). She was right, and they buried Huila.

From that time on she was famed for her healing powers, powers both of traditional medicine and faith. She never charged for her service. And the thousands came…so many that Porfirio Diaz feared her powers in leading an insurrection and expelled her from the country…revolution was already boiling along the borders among the Yaqui, the Mayo, the Tomochic. And they revolted up and down down the border in her name, they carried her photograph cut out from the papers next to their hearts. Federales saw her mounted on a white horse leading them, even though she was hundreds of miles away. They were called the Teresista Rebellions, and although I grew up an hour from Nogales, I never knew the Teresistas had risen there.

Diaz said that El Paso was too close, so she moved to Clifton…she traveled, always attracting thousands seeking healing. And she returned to Clifton when she was diagnosed with tuberculosis, she built a house there, and died in 1906, peacefully, she was only 33. 400 people attended her body from the church to the grave.

And yet today no one is sure where she is buried. And that is quite a story.

Apparently in the Clifton area there were three cemeteries. There was the whites only cemetery (known simply as the Clifton cemetery, though now it is officially called the Ward’s Canyon cemetery.) There was the Mexican cemetery. And there was the Catholic cemetery. Clifton is a mining town, only a few miles from Morenci, and the largest pit mine in the country. At some point Phelps Dodge decided that there was copper under the Mexican cemetery, and they wanted it. And so they dug it up and dumped all of the bodies from there into…an unmarked place. Supposedly in the whites only cemetery, though that puzzles me really, it would have made much more sense to have put them in the Catholic cemetery, especially as apparently that now belongs to PD as well. And since it was unmarked…it is hard to say.

It’s unimaginable really, especially given the relationship Mexican families have with their dead. It fills me with a kind of fury. But segregation even in death is enough to do that. And there’s the lovely story in the Roadside History of Arizona (full of interesting facts, though nothing about such things as strikes, civil unrest, Mexican saints or etc etc)… in 1904, 40 orphans were brought to the town by New York nuns, happy that they had found good Catholic families willing to adopt them. Sadly, the children were white, the families Mexican, and the good whitefolk of Clifton couldn’t have that. Vigilantes took custody of the kids, and every court up to the Supreme Court supported them in their efforts. Vigilantes are nothing new around here, nor is government support for them.

And so here is the cemetery that was once whites only

You can see Morenci’s open pit in the background. We thought that Teresa’s grave had been (provisionally) identified and marked, we wandered up and down, and found nothing. The graveyard is on a steep hillside, with many of the graves themselves forming the terracing, and the ultimate disposition of bones over years of torrential summer rains an interesting thought. Below is one of the spots I thought they might have dumped a load of calcium and dream rich dirt.

It contrasts with the more worthy sections…

Even Mr. Greenlee for whom the county is named is buried here. Under a small pyramid of rock. I don’t think he would have appreciated PD’s idea, it makes me doubt that they managed to bury an unnamed load of Mexicans here. But perhaps they did, and the outrage was great enough from both communities (united if only in this), that that is what forced them to relocate graves properly when the towns of Morenci and Metcalf were claimed by the pit as well.

We navigated at temperatures of 103 or so…and even hating the idea of a white’s only cemetery (though it isn’t quite at this point…), it was still haunting and some things were impossibly sad, like this, hid amidst great marble headstones

6 years old, chiseled by unskilled hand…and then I found this one a few steps away

Born and died the same day. And you realize how hard and bleak and terrible life could be, for everyone. But heartbreaking as they are, the Chapmans got to keep their headstones. Teresa Urrea has been erased.

So we headed into town to ask where the grave could be found. We started at the courthouse, moved to the recorder’s office, and there met Berta who was amazing and took us to the library over her lunch break, where she had started a file on Teresa. And all of a sudden I started liking Clifton again. I have photocopies now of the original article from The Copper Era (nice title, no?) from January 18, 1906, announcing her death. And a handful of others published in local papers, and one with a picture of a grave they think just might be Teresa’s.  We returned to the cemetery, to the grave we thought just might be the grave in the picture of what just might be the grave of Teresa Urrea. It was missing the wooden cross though….And we left our flowers, red plastic roses, and fresh white calla lilies, deciding that she would be understanding if we hadn’t found her, and anyone else who might be buried there would be happy.

And then we headed into downtown Clifton, up to Morenci…but more on that later. Another stirring tale of racism, labor strikes, evil mining companies…exciting stuff!

And last thing, a brilliant fictionalized book about Teresa is by Luis Alberto Urrea, The Hummingbird’s Daughter.

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Downtown Los Angeles at night

I suppose this could be the title of a number of posts…

It’s the end of January. The night was cool but not cold, I rolled up the sleeves of my sweatshirt and felt the air sweet against my naked skin. The streets between Mals bar and home are my streets. Along Olive I rode through the darkness, glad I didn’t go home with the car salesman. I turned on Pico, passed the corner where I always used to find Mark, before we lost the Morrison, before he lost his home, before he died.  He’s been on my mind a lot, his county issue wheelchair sits empty at Saje now, right by the back door. I see it and think of him, feel a little of the despair and loss and…I don’t even know what you feel about someone you love who died an alcoholic on the streets. And I passed the Morrison and it’s still boarded up, Hope has never been well lit there. Hope. I don’t want to hope any more, I want to see my way to winning.

I headed towards the convention center, all brightly lit, welcoming people with degrees like mine to network and shmooze and score business deals. It offers shit jobs and shit treatment to all those I work with, stand beside. I belong to neither world, though I look to be part of one, and have chosen to stand in the other. For my job, I became part of the first for a couple of days earlier this year. It made me feel split into two people, uncomfortable in my skin as I walked down carpeted corridors and flashed my badge and talked books. And wished I were chatting to the janitors instead. I felt traitorous. And lonely. I wanted to know someone who understands these things.

Down Figueroa I passed the Staples Center and the new L.A. Live, it is like another city. The other day I was biking down Olympic and suddenly didn’t recognize where I was. I can’t tell you how strange it is to feel that way about a section of street you have worked off and on for 8 years. The Baker Building is gone, all of the families I knew there gone. A skyscraping hotel rises to the left unfinished beneath its giant crane. The cold clean unwelcoming space of LA Live bristles alongside it, over 200 families used to live there in 1998. They tore the buildings down to turn the land into parking lots. And now they have created something that Narnia’s Ice Queen might have built. Though she probably didn’t know enough about surveillance cameras. It’s yet another of LA’s quasi-public spaces, easily controlled for the right kind of people, easily managed with its up-scale chains that represent conspicuous consumption without taste or orginality. Figueroa was crawling with cop cars as the great searchlights proclaimed it the place to be against the night sky. Superficial glitz and implicit violence dominate this city.

I biked through downtown, Orishas on my i-pod, every traffic light against me. Office buildings towered into the sky, their patchwork of lights replacing the stars. The spatial inequalities of this city, the pain and displacement, the contrast between ultimate wealth and ultimate poverty, all of these things carved into my heart. I like biking through the darkness, even though it hurts. It is time and space to think, a way of experiencing LA like no other, a physical release of stress and memory. And it is nice to come home at the end of it. To write.

Unidad Campaign puts the “Public” back into “Public Meeting”

Tonight the City of Los Angeles held a scoping meeting for the Environmental Impact Report on the South L.A. and Southeast L.A. Community Plan. Exciting, right? You’re on the edge of your seats…

Usually there are a handful of people at these meetings. Some men and women in suits. Maybe a handful of people in the community with the time and the money and the training to look into the issues and show up. They represent an incredibly small slice of the community interest, and generally a conservative one.

Tonight was different though. First, a lot of people showed up. A lot.  People not usually at this sort of bureaucratically mind-boggling morass of legal and environmental jargon, why would they be here? It is designed to preserve the facade of participation while keeping people out, to ensure planning is left to the experts who can then do whatever they want to do. These experts spent decades removing almost all services and cutting funding to everything left; tearing down homes to build factories; permitting liquor stores, hourly motels, and strip clubs to march side by side with schools, parks, churches. They used planning to devastate the neighborhood with one hand, and withheld any sort of aid to struggling organizations with the other. The war zone that breaks my heart every day has been the result. And in spite of them, in spite of an absence of jobs and hope, in spite of the crack explosion of an earlier decade and the constant battle of drugs and turf that claims our youth, in spite of high rents for slum housing so overcrowded that people sleep in bathtubs and their beds in shifts, in spite of all this we have created some things that are beautiful. And the goal seems to be to plunk down a lot of high end retail and luxury housing on top of that, pushing people from one slum where they have managed to build networks and community to another that is unknown. At least, that’s what has been happening to date with the city bending over in its eagerness to facilitate it.

So people stood up tonight to reclaim the place of the public in a public meeting. To demand that the city recognize decades of racism, greed and neglect that have resulted in a devastated community. To reclaim their right to continue to live in that community even as they fight to improve it. And to reclaim the word environment…when was it reduced to spotted owls, air quality, density, parking and green space? It is all of these things and they are all important, but how can it not also include the buildings, the people who live within them, and the conditions in which they live?

So it was a meeting of righteous anger, of stories that could make you cry, of great applause for all of the community speakers. And comedy of course. You’d really think that planners would be overjoyed at this break in a life of regulated tedium! Monic gave a ringing list of all the groups and organizations present at the meeting and over 60 of us stood in a show of strength, so the Planning Department’s enforcer got snippy and said we had to “keep the agitation down.” I don’t think he knows what that word means precisely, but Jesus, who spoke next, promised to be gentle. Though perhaps you have to know Jesus to appreciate how funny that was. And then there was someone from the neighborhood council, one of those privileged people who always challenge my belief in the efficacy of direct democracy due to their terrifying ubiquity in all community institutions (I’ll let you imagine the kind of annoying person I mean to escape any libel charges). At any rate, she said she lived in a district that had been recommended for a historical preservation zone as the “18th Street HPOZ”…and then she continued (in shock horror) that she couldn’t BELIEVE that the city had called them that and she OF COURSE would never…ha! 18th street is, of course, one of the biggest L.A. gangs, so it’s just funny all the way around, but the thought of her identifying as 18th street had me rolling. And I wonder if the city planner actually had a sense of humor. No one actually laying down the law in an HPOZ (what colors you can paint your house, how high your fence can be, what windows can be used etc) has ever had one in my experience.

At any rate, it was a good and dare I say enjoyable evening that really shed some light on some of the structural inequality within our city, and perhaps will make a difference.

For folks who need details, LA’s California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) threshold guidelines actually do state that displacement and housing are environmental issues; that’s just been conveniently ignored even though I believe we have pointed it out before. They also look at overcrowding and excessive rent burden (sections C, D and J.2 for all you communities under fire).

For more information or to get involved in an amazing effort you can contact the Unidad/ Unity campaign, unidadcampaign@gmail.com. You can also check out www.saje.net, or do some reading on the work of the Figueroa Corridor Coalition for Economic Justice.

global warming and stuff

I’ve only had a few hours sleep so forgive disjointedness, and i’m watching An Inconvenient Truth…and preparing myself to be really depressed. I think I need to hurry up and go see a glacier because apparently there won’t be any left soon, i shall just bump that to the top of my list…i think we’re pretty fucked…

But why didn’t he make this movie 10 years ago? So many people feel that the election was stolen in 2000, hell, i think the election was stolen and still, angry as I am that Bush is president, I think it’s…i don’t have an adjective…why didn’t people rally round him? I think the election was stolen but I have never seen him as my president. Perhaps it’s cause I wasn’t active in his campaign, I didn’t quite understand what was coming, I know it’s in large part because he yielded and didn’t fight…you can’t rally round someone who has already given up. I wish he hadn’t. But now he’s talking about Katrina without mentioning structural poverty or racism, and I suppose that’s why I’ve never seen him as my president. He better start talking about power and who gets to make what decisions and why, and what it will really take to change our course or I shall be more angry at him than global warming.

Yep, I’m depressed…and I’m sold already, watching 20 different interesting scientific phenomena proving that we’re fucked is not real fun. I want to know who is responsable, who is profitting, who is pushing leglislation that is pushing us backwards…and what are we going to do? And it’s not like we’ll just be able to talk those corporations and politicians into doing the right thing….

Alright. Problem – population growth. Those damned poor people having all those kids, its a fact poor people have more kids. So let’s stop exploitation, support land redistribution, wealth redistribution…end poverty. And what will that take? Still, those poor third world countries ain’t contributing much to global warming.

Technology. I love it. But there’s immense profit to be made in automobiles, gas, oil, mining…why must everything be based on those things? And is it a coincidence then that we have the president we do? Funny enough there’s immense profit in war as well…for a few people.

Well, we’re ending on a high point, we can fix this, we just need political will, la la la…it’s true enough, I’m just too cynical about what forces are required to change political will due to the forces we’re up against, I suppose it’s good for the innocent majority he’s trying to gavanize that he didn’t talk about that too much…maybe they’ll stop buying hummers. I’ve just been in the trenches trying to change political will for too long I suppose, it’s like slamming your head against a wall, because even when there is progress it still is nothing compared to the scale of the problems as politicians are entirely controlled by big money…still, the earth really is astonishingly beautiful, I’m not sitting by and watching it be destroyed. But I knew that already. As someone who does not own a car in L.A. I’m rather proud of myself, but I shall try not to let that make me a pretentious ass…it seems to be a major failing of far too many environmentalists, and their emissions might possibly be another major cause of global warming.