This looks pretty amazing, and I am honoured to be in it on Grenfell, right to the city, right to a home. But it is full of struggle to transform the world.
I just finished I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita. The last book started on a holiday that already seems months ago. It is splendid, one of the best things I have ever read I think for its power of storytelling, its innovations, its illustrations, the way it brings together these interconnecting lives circled around a single building and a struggle to change the world.
Two full years of my own life were spent in just such a struggle to save a residential hotel, our Morrison Hotel a mix of white, Latinx, African American, ours not knitted deep into an activist community through shop fronts or anything like the community of old Manilatown. Ours sat where it once fitted the scale and character of the street, but the long-ago razing of neighbourhood had left it more isolated, almost anomalous so close to the convention centre. Our generation did not believe the revolution was upon us, did not quote Mao to frame our defiance of capitalism, did not raise fists over small points of praxis. yet so much resonated, it made me ache. I miss my LA family.
I loved all of it, could have quoted anywhere, but you know the bit I am quoting ridiculously extensively below is about cities–like Tropic of Orange, this is all about the city but so different from that novel… This is long, also brilliant in how it says so much about the place of hotels in our world of work and poverty, about home, about nation, and opening with the solidarities that were, that could be, that should be built:
Thus we emerged from every living crevice in our hilly city, every tenement, blighted Victorian, public housing project, cheap hotel, single or collective rental, many of us the forgotten and abandoned people whose voices were muffled in the underbelly of working poverty, stuffed into the various ethnic ghettos, we the immigrants from the Old and New Worlds, from the black and white South and tribal America, we the dockworkers from the long shore, we the disabled and disavowed vets, we the gay and leathered, we the garment workers, restaurant workers, postal and clerical workers, we who praised the Lord in his house at Glide and his People’s Temple, we of the unions, tired and poor, we the people.
But why save an old hotel?
Because if we remembered the history of our city we would remember how frontier towns began: with a trading post and a saloon with a second floor of lodging rooms. … When we took everything away and thought only about the second floor of lodging rooms, we remembered that people have always come from distances and had to be accommodated, given shelter and a bed, and what we used to call board…
This basic town got complicated and multiplied into a thing we call a city, with every kind of reinvented trading post and saloon and lodging that over time we could imagine. And we supposed that the history of any city could be told through the comings and goings of any trading post or saloon, but thinking as we do, as people coming to the city to find work to pay for shelter and board, whether just for ourselves or for our families accompanying or left behind, it was the lodging that most concerned us. And we could see how city life and hotel life were inextricably connected, and what the city had to offer had a home in the hotel. Over time, we’d forgotten that hotels in our city have long served as temporary but also permanent homes, that living in hotels had been a normal consequence of living in our city. From the inception of our city, our city life could perhaps be translated as hotel life, the way that we as young, single, and independent people could arrive to find work in the industry of the city, find the small cafes and bars, theaters and social clubs, laundries, shops, and bookstores, all within walking distance or perhaps a cable stop away. Even if we did not actually live in hotels, we may have participated in, if not considered, the simple luxuries of life: the bustling social life of our streets, the hotels’ communal restaurants and social galas, the convenience of maid service and bedsheets changed, the possibility of being completely freed from any housework, the possible leisure to think or to create, and finally the anonymity and privacy of a room of our own. Hotel life defined the freedom of the city, but such freedom has been for some reason suspect, and there are always those who want to police freedom.
Finally, like the society that evolved in our city, there have been, of course, hotels for those with money and hotels for those of us with not so much money. And even though the city required our labor and allowed us housing in cheap hotels, in time we came to know that laboring people are necessary but considered transitory. Eventually, it was thought, we’d just go away or become invisible. So even if hotels depended on our constant occupancy, we were not considered permanent or stable members of society. We did not own homes. We may have had families, but hotels were suspect places to raise children, and so we were suspect families. Our communal lives in hotels with shared bathrooms and shared dining, shared genders, shared ethnicities, and heaven forbid, shared thinking that might lead to shared politics, were also suspect. Hotel life might even be subversive. A famous scholar who studied our hotel life warned us that when there are no homes, there will be no nation. But what did he mean by home? And, for that matter, what did he mean by nation?
By the time we got the red alert to place our bodies in a human barricade around an old hotel that held seventy years of our city’s hotel history, we were already the displaced people in the city’s plan to impose a particular meaning of home and a particular meaning of nation. Since our hotel life was considered suspect morally and socially, our hotels should naturally be replaced by proper single-family houses built in locations distant from the city, and our hotels and all our businesses that services us should be replaced with what the city was properly useful for: trading posts, jails, courthouses, and saloons. And no one should be allowed to live over a saloon unless he was just passing through. A commercial room was simply not a dwelling. These edicts were substantiated by zoning and blight laws…Almost as quickly as an earthquake, our neighborhoods located in the Fillmore and South of Market were already razed and being replaced by forty-eight-story multinational corporate trading posts. Even if we were expected to build, maintain, clean, and service these posts, we weren’t expected to live anywhere nearby. Be at work promptly at eight a.m., but please, please disappear by five p.m. But this was an impossible request because we could not leave, and we had nowhere to go. (588-591)
We could not leave, and had nowhere to go.
I love how this situates the residential hotel in a long history of city building, in the development of our urban form. How little things have really changed — though this makes me see US cities with new eyes. Seeing the saloon, the trading post, the lodging house. The change is in the way that capital is working, the way that workers are no longer welcome in the city centre, the disciplining of the poor into certain kinds of homes or punitively forcing them into homelessness. This captures both so beautifully, captures just what it was we were fighting over — not just the profit that owners wished to make on a building they had violently extracted every penny from at the cost of its tenants, but their ability to flick aside human beings and their security and their dreams as if they were nothing. The structural workings of race and class and labour and value that made such cruelty possible. The I Hotel was lost in 1977, and still we were fighting in 2007. Others still fight today, is there any organisation I love and respect more than LA CAN?
As two thousand of us were eventually bullied away from the hotel entrance, we saw our sheriff enter at the head of his deputies, leading them into the hotel and the final phase of the eviction, breaking into the doors of each of the hotel tenants and ordering them to leave their homes. And yes, we knew that each room was a tiny home, a place of final refuge for a lifetime of work, and the the room, though housed in a hotel, was sill a home. (591-592)
The last paragraph excavates something inside of me. Why we do, why we write.
And in time we may remember, collecting every little memory, all the bits and pieces, into a larger memory, rebuilding a great layered and labyrinthine, now imagined, international hotel of many rooms, the urban experiment of a homeless community built to house the needs of temporary lives. And for what? To resist death and dementia. To haunt a disappearing landscape. To forever embed this geography with our visions and voices. To kiss the past and you good-bye, leaving the indelible spit of our DNA on still moist lips. Sweet. Sour. Salty. Bitter. (605)
[Karen Tei Yamashita (2010) I Hotel. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press.]
How few books there are today in which a genius is the main character! Fewer and fewer, as serious novelists more and more tend to put people of lower intelligence than themselves into books, so that the readers will feel at home. (15)
This made me laugh out loud. Until I realised that Hamsun surely felt he was a genius, and maybe that is what propelled his admiration for Hitler, his support for Nazi occupation, his enthusiastic meeting with Goebbels. We saw no plaques for Hamson.
He wrote Hunger in 1890. So I will just write about that. Because it is an extraordinary book. Most descriptions of it seem to start with the list of other authors who loved his work, including Isaac Baschevis Singer, so it must be all right.
I’m not sure, though.
I didn’t really feel myself that genius was the point at all. Hunger was the point. Pride too, mental illness, and the way that starvation twists your vision and carves into your understanding. It is also a very different kind of Oslo (or Christiana or Kristiana as it was known then) than that of Ibsen, or even Munch.
All of this happened while I was walking around starving in Christiana — that strange city no one escapes from until it has left its mark on him … (24)
Oslo is no longer a city that leaves such a mark, I don’t think.
Thoughts of God began to occupy me again. It seemed to me utterly reprehensible of Him to block my way every time I tried for a job and to ruin my chances when it was only daily bread that I was asking for. I had noticed very clearly that every time I went hungry a little too long it was as though my brains simply ran quietly out of my head and left me empty. My head became light and floating, I could no longer feel its weight on my shoulders, and I had the sense that my eyes were remaining far too open when I looked at anything. (37)
This catalogue of a writer’s possessions cut me:
…thinking all the time of my marvellous story…I decided to get it over with right now and move. I took out my bundle, a red handkerchief which contained two clean collars and some crumpled newspaper which I had carried my bread home in, rolled it all together with my blanket, and added my store of white writing paper. (49)
And little could ring as true as this description of an editor’s office — an editor with power of acceptance or rejection. How much more powerful when it is the ability to grant a few pieces of bread and a place to sleep, or hunger and Oslo’s great outdoors.
I looked around me in the tiny office: busts, lithographs, clippings, and an enormous wastepaper-basket that looked as if it could swallow a man, bones and all. I felt sad, looking at this monstrous maw, this dragon — mouth always open, ready to receive more rejected articles, newly crushed hopes. (105)
A country preacher could not have looked more full of milk and honey than this formidable writer, whose words had always left long bloody marks wherever they fell. (106)
Felt sorrow at this:
I simply couldn’t starve any more the way I used to. A single day without food now could make me feel dazed, and I made incessant retching efforts as soon as I drank any water. (107)
He retched often and everywhere, turning aside as he walked as though it were nothing, a terrible aspect of this daily horror. None of today’s streets are somewhere you could slink along retching quietly. Yet we saw beggars stretched out face down in the rain under plastic sheeting, holding out cups for alms. One man kneeling. It seemed that this is how begging is done here, most abjectly.
Then there are the kids…I know kids like this, though very few in the UK. Breaks the fucking heart.
They looked up at my window with their little pale-blue faces and endlessly sad eyes. Meanwhile, the two diminutive enemies continued to hurl words at each other. Words like huge, cold-blooded reptiles poured out of their childish lips, frightful nicknames, whore language, sailors’ curses… (160)
Their mother sleeping with a sailor while the husband watched, the poverty of their existence still able to accommodate a starving writer after his rent fell due.
It is 2 St Olavs Plass where Ylajali lives — the woman the narrator falls for, torments and comes to fascinate. The scene is fairly heartrending where she suddenly realises he is not a mysterious drunkard with a swagger, but simply delirious from starvation — the scene she realises she might still love him but can’t handle all of that.
The irony of naming a michelin restaurant after a ranting in a book about starvation… hard to stomach. Especially since he became a Nazi. We still went to see the place where his suffering protagonist hovered, it was suitably grim, though with a sculptural watery sort of feature now.
He also wanders throughout these places in part 1 (the names pulled from Hunger and from a book about Hunger):
Our Saviour’s Place, Graensen street, Palace Park, Pascha’s Bookstore, Pilestraedet Lane, Cisler’s Music Store, University Street, St. Olavs Plass, Karl Johan Street, the Students’ Promenade, Stortorvet Square, Aker Street Ullevaal Road St. Hanshaugen, Kirke Street, Haegdenhaugen district, Majorstuen, Bogstad Woods, Jaernbanetorvet Square, the Steam Kitchen, Gronlandsleret Street, Møller Street, Christ’s Cemetery, Oplandske Café, Torv Street, the Arcades
We wandered them too, though I imagine the feel of them is much changed, though pictures of these old central areas seem very similar.
A final picture of Oslo city streets, and a happy reminder about genius.
[Hamsun, Knut (1976) Hunger. London: Picador.]
Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space was lovely, and a very real change of pace from most of what I’ve been reading about space — though it shared refenerences to the psychology Jung in common with Clare Cooper-Marcus. But this is a phenomenological approach, not a psychoanalytic one. At one point in the book, he writes
…the unhurried reader — I personally hope for no others … (160)
This is definitely a book to be read as an unhurried reader, especially if its been a while since you read any philosophy or French theorists expanding at length on their favourite topic, and extra especially if you had to remind yourself what the hell phenomenology actually is. I found this useful from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Phenomenology is commonly understood in either of two ways: as a disciplinary field in philosophy, or as a movement in the history of philosophy.
The discipline of phenomenology may be defined initially as the study of structures of experience, or consciousness. Literally, phenomenology is the study of “phenomena”: appearances of things, or things as they appear in our experience, or the ways we experience things, thus the meanings things have in our experience. Phenomenology studies conscious experience as experienced from the subjective or first person point of view.
And the movement?
The historical movement of phenomenology is the philosophical tradition launched in the first half of the 20th century by Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre, et al. In that movement, the discipline of phenomenology was prized as the proper foundation of all philosophy—as opposed, say, to ethics or metaphysics or epistemology.*
Every now and then I dip my toes into philosophy, but I haven’t read much of these. It probably would have helped to be informed about the canon, though reading Heidegger — well. I did try briefly once, but life might be too short to read his nazi ass. Still, as a novice I found so much to think about.
I liked this, on life as a series of flows in time and of course in space:
Referring to Anna Teresa Tymienicka’s book Phenomenology and Science, we can say that for Minkowski, the essence of life is not “a feeling of being, of existence,” but a feeling of participation in a flowing onward, necessarily expressed in terms of time, and secondarily expressed in terms of space. (xvi)
I quite loved this approach to how we experience images —
I now seek a phenomenological determination of images … How — with no preparation — can this singular, short-lived event constituted by the appearance of an unusual poetic image, react on other minds and in other hearts, despite all the barriers of common sense, all the disciplined schools of thought, content in their immobility?
It seemed to me, then, that this transubjectivity of the image could not be understood, in its essence, through the habits of subjective reference alone. Only phenomenology — that is to say, consideration of the onset of the image in an individual consciousness — can help us to restore the subjectivity of images and to measure their fullness, their strength and their transsubjectivity. (xviii – xix)
He is speaking of those images that burst upon us, that break down barriers so we can start to understand how that works. The word ‘image’ is used loosely, a sudden view, a picture, the image evoked by words and poetry:
… this appeal is clear: the reader of poems is asked to consider an image not as an object and even less as the substitute for such an object, but to seize its specific reality. For this, the act of the creative consciousness must be systematically associated with the most fleeting product of that consciousness, the poetic image. (xix)
This is a process that involves both body and soul (the non-physical register in which images have impact, though I am aware there are centuries of philosophy and writing evoked by this mind/body distinction)
The language of contemporary French philosophy — and even more so, psychology — hardly uses the dual meaning of the words soul and mind. … The word “soul” is an immortal word. In certain poems it cannot be effaced, for it is a word born of our breath. … The poetic register that corresponds to the soul must therefore remain open to our phenomenological investigations. (xx)
I quite loved this though…this use of resonance and reverberation as a way to understand what images do to us, how they change us:
Since a phenomenological inquiry on poetry aspires to go so far and so deep …. it must go beyond the sentimental resonances … This is where the phenomenological doublet of resonances and repercussions must be sensitized. The resonances are dispersed on the different planes of our life in the world, while the repercussions invite us to give greater depth to our own existence. In the resonance we hear the poem, in the reverberations we speak it, it is our own. The reverberations bring about a change of being. … The multiplicity of resonances the issues from the reverberations’ unity of being. Or, to put it more simply … the poem possesses us entirely. (xxii)
For this to happen, some suspension of the critical mind is required — I might just like this because this has traditionally been my approach to life in general, but it does help you get much more out of it. Just by the way, though, I hate the use of the word primitivity here, but that last sentence I truly love.
…a sincere impulse, a little impulse toward admiration, is always necessary if we are to receive the phenomenological benefit of a poetic image. The slightest critical consideration arrests this impulse by putting the mind in second position, destroying the primitivity of the imagination … the joy of reading appears to be the reflection of the joy of writing, as though the reader were the writer’s ghost. (xxvi)
So all of this to understand the spaces we love, and why we love them, and how this works to transcend and perhaps beat back the commodified market value of space. Felicitous space is quite a lovely phrase.
…the images I want to examine are the quite simple images of felicitous space. In this orientation, these investigations would deserve to be called topophilia. They seek to determine the human value of the sorts of space that may be grasped, that may be defended against adverse forces, the space we love. For diverse reasons, and with the differences entailed by poetic shadings, this is eulogized space. Attached to its protective value, which can be a positive one, are also imagined values, which soon become dominant. Space,that has been seized upon by the imagination cannot remain indifferent space subject to the measures and estimates of the surveyor, It has been lived in, not in its positivity, but with all the partiality of the imagination. Particularly, it nearly always exercises an attraction. For it concentrates being within limits that protect. (xxxv-xxxvi)
This is, then, a project much along the lines of that taken on by Yi-Fu Tuan on topophilia, but from a very different direction. For the most part it is a look at intimate space and at the home. Bachelard writes of the connection between the home and self:
Not only our memories, but the things we have forgotten are “housed.” Our soul is an abode. And by remembering “houses” and “rooms,” we learn to “abide” within ourselves. Now everything becomes clear, the house images move in both directions: they are in us as much as we are in them, and the play is so varied that two long chapters are needed to outline the implications of house images. (xxxcii)
I am saving those for the next post. A last reminder on the difference between phenomenology and psychoanalysis a la Jung:
A psychologist will say that all my analysis is to relate daring, too daring, “associations.” And a psychoanalyst will agree to perhaps “analyze” this daring … A phenomenonologist has a different approach. He takes the image just as it is, just as the poet created it, and tries to make it his own, to feed on this rare fruit. He brings the image to the very limit of what he is able to imagine. (227)
I think I too prefer to above all feed the rare fruit.
As an aside, a reminder to all academics:
When we are lecturing, we become animated by the joy of teaching, and, at times, our words think for us. But to write a book requires really serious reflection. (xxxix)
*Smith, David Woodruff, “Phenomenology”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/phenomenology/>.
Sun shining and blue skies and birds singing as I walked through the lovely Richard Wagner Park to Wahnfried. Following in footsteps I know to Richard Wagner’s home, to Cosima Wagner’s home, to a haven for Hitler.
I still hope none of that dust clung to my shoes.
Wahnfried, this horrible straightjacketed place of immense ambition, this entombing of a man who never was, this legacy of machinations and power plays to control music, talent, creativity, the meaning of being German tied into the aristocratic and exploitative, the epic, the nationalistic, the anti-semitic… Tied into blood.
I thought about Hermann Levi begging for his release, and the contortions required of him to conduct music. I thought too of Cosima broken down by Madame Patersi and rebuilt again in stone and will and charm.
It is hard to get in, the doors to the building marked museum are all closed and there is no sign of welcome. Of the main double doors that serve as the entry, one is locked. The one I tried. If only I hadn’t been so determined. Almost everything in this town is in German. There is only the occasional nod to a non-German speaker, and that is only in English, most of what is written here is not for you. You start in a great black modern space, head downstairs to lockers for bags and great glass cases for opera costumes carefully preserved from one hundred years of Bayreuth Festivals. Art separated from complicated life.
Up and outside and over to Wahnfried itself. It feels as though almost everything is under dust covers, waiting for more important guests than myself — furniture, paintings, almost as though the house waits for Cosima’s own return. But of course not everything is under dust covers. I listen to an immensity of detail about its architecture and art. Look at old photographs of it, and realise how much of the sacred clutter is no longer here. The video shows expensive bric-a-brac piled and spilling across every surface, a profusion of wealth and a living museum of memory. Cosima still stares down from almost every surface, from walls and corners and up from displays under glass. Not hard to imagine her ghost extorting the rebuilding of the house after her great room was destroyed by the bombing and an irreverent descendant refused to return it to the way it was before. But that’s all changed now, and it has been restored to resemble this once again.
A beautiful house in its way, its great hall built for its acoustics, a house dedicated to music. Up to the second floor and down spiral staircases to the mezzanine. Notes on Wagner’s preferences for pink and blue, his fanciful dress. Liszt occasionally. I think about his holding court here to Wagner’s annoyance, his unhappiness and neglect and death in this house. Nietzsche looks on, caught briefly in this web of power and grand ideas. I realise I am moving backwards through Wagner’s life having gone the wrong way round. I need to read Nietzsche’s piece on Wagner, need to know what he thought of all this.
Nothing about Hitler here, though he loved this house.
On to Siegfried’s, Winifred’s house, a beautiful long and low art-deco house on the left as you stare down to Wahnfried’s front. They expanded the gardener’s house facing it so it wouldn’t be too ruinous to Wahnfried’s symmetry. It is wood paneled and dark with windows at the end looking out over a fountain. My first impression of a lovely house of the kind I could imagine living in. A great stone fireplace at which Hitler once stood ranting about the greatness of Wagner and Germany. He is in footage and in pictures, this is where the Wagner museum has chosen to deal with him. It is mostly about Winifred, the support the festival received, Winifred’s two appearances at Nuremburg. After all, Cosima and Siegfried died in 1930, before Hitler’s rise.
I knew some of it then, not all of it. I hadn’t finished Cosima’s biography. I don’t think it would have stopped me from going, curious to know evil a little better, understand the power of fascism to better fight it. Or just curious. I don’t know I would have expected it to affect me so much, but learning some of that while there in that space — it did. A sick feeling in my stomach, a kind of nausea that made me want to shake all over. A feeling I needed to throw up, vomit out. A physical feeling that took a long time to leave me, and that returns as I write. I couldn’t watch all the footage like the only other visitor there with me. He sat grimly on every bench and watched each film commentary through. He understood German — or he didn’t care to understand. I wonder what he was feeling. Looking back it occurs to me that someone might as easily go there to enjoy this place. Shrug off the tut tutting. Revel in the hatred that once filled these four walls to overflowing.
This feeling crept into my view of the rest of the day, the rest of the town. I tried to exorcise it looking up heroes of the resistance and finding one born here: Wilhelm Leuschner, social democrat, trade unionist, but above all he fought the good fight against fascism. He was executed in 1944. The tenement where he was born into poverty is long gone, and now there remains only a single-story building dedicated to him:
Hard to find, I walked past it first. Not like Wahnfried. Not like the statues of Wagner everywhere. I wish instead that I had been able to escape the conference on Saturday to see other things.
I also read (most of) the memoirs of Wilhelmine, Margravine of Bayreuth. She was here earlier, composed some music and held salons, built some of the massive piles of 18th Century architecture and the fabulous opera house, which drew Wagner here in the first place. Though it was too small for him. There is little in her tales of palace intrigue about Bayreuth itself, but I didn’t want to let the Wagners completely overshadow her. So I suppose I will have one more post on this place.
And from now on finally, whatever else I do, I will NOT mention the war.
I enjoyed Piri Thomas writing about growing up Down These Mean Streets of Spanish Harlem, though for a little while I thought it would be too much, too close to all those boys I knew. The ones I admired but were always too cool for a shy little school girl like me when I was a teenager, the ones that when I was older and wiser just infuriated me and broke my heart as I watched them break the hearts of their families when I was working in LA. I love that they got heart and style, but this hustler roll where it is always ‘me first’, well, I never did get that. I watched them steal from their mothers, cheat on and steal from their girlfriends. Saw their privilege to sleep with anyone (and I mean anyone) alongside that clear division of the pure, ‘good’ girls they might marry and all the rest who are just putas. Saw girls fighting each other over them, not fighting them Came to hate all of that and I still do. I was hoping this might help explain where that comes from, but I still don’t know. Something about city streets, because sure seems there ain’t much difference between LA and NY. Yet I knew other kids this age immigrated somehow from El Salvador or Mexico to work and working like hell to send money home to their moms instead of constantly asking for more or stealing some more from her.
Anyway, enough about all that. What I loved — the way that this is a bit of a love song to Harlem, for all its flaws.
Man! How many times have I stood on the rooftop of my broken-down building at night and watched the bulb-lit world below.
Like somehow it’s different at night, this my Harlem. There ain’t no bright sunlight to reveal the stark naked truth of garbage-lepered streets.
Gone is the drabness and hurt, covered by friendly night.
It makes clean the dirty-faced kids. (vii)
I loved to the feel of walking a while down Lexington Avenue in his shoes:
I’d walk on Lexington Avenue, where a lot of things were going on, and hear the long, strung-out voice of a junkie, “Hey, man, you got a couple charlies you can lend me?”
“Sorry, man, I wish I did have two bucks, but here’s half a man,” and I really wouldn’t hear the the “Thanks, man,” as I slid half a dollar into a hand that somehow would convert that change into a fix of heroin that would drive away for a while whatever needed driving away.
The blocks would fall back, and without feeling the distance I would have gone twenty blocks. At Ortiz’ funeral Parlor there would be a wreath of white flowers indicating that death had copped another customer. I’d try not to become involved in all the sorrow sounds that loved ones made for someone that was beyond their loving.
I’d turn and head for my block, noticing the overflow wash strung out on front fire escapes and thinking about the people who complain that clothes on front-side dire escapes make the block look cheap, that people who do that have no sense of values and destroy the worth of the neighborhood. But I liked it; I thought it gave class to the front fire escapes to be dressed up with underwear, panties, and scrubbed work clothes. (106)
Crazy how even in Spanish Harlem this stupid fight over whether hanging laundry is low class or not was happening. I’m all for hanging laundry.
He continues — and here is the joy and companionship of the street, the experience I’ll only ever be reading about.
I’d meet my boys, and all the other hearing and seeing suddenly became unimportant. only my boys were the important kick, and for good reasons — if I had boys, I had respect and no other clique would make me open game. Besides, they gave me a feeling of belonging, of prestige, of accomplishment; I felt grande and bad. Sometimes the thoughts would start flapping around inside of me about the three worlds I lived in — the world of home, the world of school (no more of that, though), and the world of street. The street was the best damn one. (107)
I like this sense of three worlds, I think especially when you’re a kid you got so little choice over things — school is school with its rules and those same kids you got to deal with year after year and you just have to get through it, your family the same. The street is the only place you really can make your own unless there are some other options for you. Only thing is with the street you got to belong somewhere or you are fair game. I hate that too.
Some real interesting stuff here around race, the difficulties in understanding what it meant to be a Puerto Rican, but one who looks black when your mom and siblings look white. The difficulty in understanding where you fit in US racial hierarchies, especially because no one else seems to know. The lure of maybe being able to choose to be white, or at least not an American black man, because then you are not at the very bottom.
So there’s a whole lot in here about the complications of this social construction we call race, and how it breaks down. How speaking Spanish somehow complicates the Black white binary, but no one knows quite how. how this gets fought out between fathers and sons, between brothers. How this could send a NY puertoriqueño onto a boat headed down South to see what this race thing is all about, and not really finding any answers just a lot more anger.
Because this is mostly about New York this all works a bit different, it was so funny to read how whites are usually referred to by Piri and his crew as paddies. I find that a bit crazy, especially given how long it took the Irish to become ‘white.’ But on reflection I suppose it is exactly because of that — part of that whole process was a lot of violence against people of colour as part of the work to draw that line more powerfully than ever, but with the Irish on the white side of it. They shared these neighborhoods due to their poverty, but race trumped class and so they became the personification of whiteness:
“Look, Piri,” interrupted Brew, “everybody got some kinda pain goin’ on inside him. I know yuh a li’l fucked up with some kind of hate called ‘white.’ It’s that special kind with the ‘no Mr.’ in front of it. Dig it, man; say it like it is, out loud — like you hate all paddies.”
“Just their fuckin’ color, Brew,” I said bitterly. “Just their color — their damn claim that white is the national anthem of the world. You know?”
I like though, the recognition that the real hate is for the claim made for a color, a claim that continues to fuck us all up.
I loved Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Beautiful Struggle almost as much as Between the World and Me. Because the writing is so beautiful — you know, all those days he spent filling notebook pages full of words paid off. This is an incredible window into the struggle of a father, a mother, and all the woke people in a community to save their youth from catastrophe that rode through the neighbourhood like a whirlwind. That peak of violence and despair in our cities that emerged from structural violence and disinvestment and crack. It is the kind of voice I never hear in the pages of best-selling books, and I am so goddamn glad to hear it here.
I loved it for talking about the Knowledge. How much more important this book must be for those who were immersed body and soul in it, whether they liked it or not. It meant much to me, just having been on the weak wanna-be fringes of it. From somewhere that wanted so much to be hard like some big city, from among kids who saw themselves in movies and imagined themselves in rap lyrics and defended their territory and their honour. Kids who still had guns in their glovebox, and a hitch in their walk just looking for a reason to show how bad they were.
‘You looking at me?’ The phrase that haunted my nightmares. The phrase I never understood.
Later I’d understand that the subaudible beat was the Knowledge, that it kept you ready, prepared for anyone to start swinging, to start shooting. Back then, I had no context, no great wall against the fear. I felt it but couldn’t say it. (37)
‘School girl’ was the other phrase. A prelude to shame and fear and freezing in place like a goddamn rabbit. I never did hit back. I did my best to sound like everyone else if I absolutely had to speak, and to blend into every wall.
My style was to talk and duck. It was an animal tactic, playing dead in hopes that the predators would move on to an actual fight. It was the mark of unKnowledge, a basic misreading of nature and humanity. (47)
Yep. I read that so wrong too. it wasn’t life and death with me though. I am lucky, especially in the way I had it easy, getting on my school bus, living out in the desert. Most of my abuse was verbal. Still hurts. But it’s easier being younger, dorkier, non-threatening, no one anyone’s boyfriend would look twice at. Only at risk as the nerdy weird kid. Only had those corridors to fear, and home room when the teacher left. When I went to work in LA I was old enough (21, so old) that my white skin in a place no one knew me put me forever outside all of that.
But now I knew that this was not chaos, that the streets were a country and like all others, the streets had anthems, culture, and law. (115)
Wish I’d figured that out a little earlier, before skin privilege kicked me out. And this:
That was how I came to understand, how I came to know why all these brothers wrote and talked so big. Even the Knowledge feared the streets. But the rhyme pad was a spell book — it summoned asphalt elementals, elder gods, and weeping ancestors, all of who had your back. (111)
Everyone was afraid. I had a different kind of spell book, but a spell book all the same.
Baltimore though. Baltimore comes through clear here, and maybe a few more unlikely hearts will break at the knowledge of what we have done to our cities, how many kids we have lost.
We went to watch Moonlight on Saturday, with the same kind of unlikely audience I am sure were there on their Oscar rounds. It is another meditation on this subject, in this context, where being gay piles on even more risk, puts you even more in flight from yourself and others. I loved that it showed this enclosed world (and didn’t bother to reach out to audiences by having a saviour or a sidekick). Showed the way the violence of it twists and shapes and beats into shape and uses a knife or a bullet to cut short potential. Yet it showed too that the potential remains and there is something never fully beaten. But god does the world try, surely we must do better than this. I cried like a fucking baby.
I did laugh at least once, however, when Juan tells Little he should never sit with his back to the door. I laughed because I still can’t sit with my back to the door. I remember when I first realised that my general watchfulness came from an assumption that any stranger around me could attack me at any time, either physically or verbally. I am still aware of my surroundings in terms of who might be a danger. Still see people who walk while reading or wander around looking lost as stupid in the way they mark themselves as targets. I am still likely to be hit with Adrenalin if someone comes up behind me and tries to do something stupid like cover my eyes. I don’t even quite know where all these things came from, nor why they still linger now I have removed myself from anywhere such vigilance might still be required. I am also well aware that this is an experience I share with many of my class, but probably not so many of my skin colour.
I still remember the amazement of bumping into someone and having them apologise. I was ready to run, you know?
Anyway. How did it come to this? How did a community, how did a beautiful collective struggle for civil rights and a fullness of life end in this?
The story began in our glory years with the banishing of Bull Conner and all his backward dragons. Never had the mountaintop seemed so close at hand. But marching from victory we stumbled into a void. And now we were here in the pit, clawing out one another’s eyes. We were all — even me — so angry. We could not comprehend how it came to this. (105)
I am still not sure. I hope we have emerged, to never go so far back. But the courage of those who fought to save young men and women at the receiving end of all this — inspiring.
But in the midst of Reconstruction’s second collapse, Lemmel fought back. The headmasters arranged their students into teams, and named each one after the Saints — Douglass, Tubman, Woodson, King. (23)
And I loved reading about Howard, the Mecca.
but somehow they were changed there, and left possessed by the spirit of Howard’s legendary professoriat, of Eric Williams and E. Franklin Frazier, and they fled South to be flogged by sheriffs and Klansmen. (26)
The struggle remains a beautiful one, a shifting one, but full justice and equality fought for in mutual respect and love for one another is the only key to living well in this world I think. So no more kids have to grow up with promise and potential cut short, snuffed out.
I love the idea that Nothing is Lost. The struggle that it should be so. I long for it, having often felt the vertiginous realistion that you can’t quite remember what used to be in a place before the regeneration kicked off and filled the world with its shiny ugliness, or the equally vertiginous feeling of being lost yourself amongst streets you once knew well. Have fought over. I think much of academia alongside planners and architects and politicians have no words for this loss, no sense of its meaning. I think too often their own positionality prevent them from ever knowing such grief, much less coming to grips with it.
So it needs voices like those found in the collaboration Nothing is Lost both to understand the tangled legacies of regeneration, and to ensure that development does not succeed in erasing what was there before. I could even imagine a world where this kind of work helps form the foundation for rebuilding an area together with its residents to create a place the steps fully into its own potential, conducive to a fullness of life and creativity and wellbeing.
So what then, did the Games bring to the East End? A degree of examination and scrutiny of the city’s true historical centre, its frayed edges, the backdrop to its most shameful statistics of poverty and conflict, a part of Glasgow with a deep-seated and firmly held distrust of its city fathers (and a long list of grievances to support it) did make its way past the boosterism and aggressive myth-making of the organisers….
I loved this beautiful collection of work in its awesome brown cardboard box, a surprise gift from Mitch Miller, later rushed home from Glasgow to Manchester with anticipation. It hurt me to tear it open and thus ruin a lovely object, but the contents were worth it of course.
Inside three booklets of words, photographs, drawings (and more words), and the incredible dialectograms that unfold to display complex drawings mapping out the interactions between people and the spaces they live in and create. I am more than a little obsessed with those at the minute — love them so much I have already given one away to someone from one of the communities depicted. They are too precious to hoard. Because look:
I have without shame stolen some of the photographs and quoted text from the website (where you too can obtain this beautiful thing). Alison Irvine, novelist and tremendous writer on Schipka Pass:
Schipka Pass. The name is no help. It gives no clue to the gaudy, ramshackle lane between the Gallowgate and London Road that was once a cut through and then an in shot housing an eclectic flea market. It gives no indication of the splendour of the surrounding tenements, long since knocked down. I google the name, Schipka Pass, and try to find out the lane’s roots. Folk on Glasgow chat forums say there’s a Schipka Pass in Bulgaria, the site of a battle between peasants and Turks in the 1700s, and speculate that someone associated with the lane in Glasgow had ancestors who fought there. I don’t even know how to pronounce Schipka, but follow Gary’s lead and use a hard ‘k’ as in Skipka rather than a Connery-esque ‘Shkipka’ as I’ve also heard it pronounced.
Her words capture the experience for those of us who could not be there, the flavour of place and feeling, the smell and sound of the bright caf or the muddy chaotic laughing park as people talk about their work, their homes, their memories. My favourite I think was the chapter on Schipka Pass. That might perhaps just be because it took on the legacy of trader Dick Barton (!). So for me, and I suspect for many, there was a whole other layer of utter delight every time I read the name and this music running through my head for the whole of it. It seems to match the pace of his son’s banter.
Chris Leslie’s photographs reminded me I knew Schipka Pass when I lived there, but only ever as a wasteland.
Schipka Pass – initially a hive of Victorian tenements and bustling back courts, a handy shortcut to get from the Gallowgate to London Road and eventually a flea market akin to Paddy’s Market, bizarrely and somewhat unfittingly named after a pass in the Balkan’s Russo-Turkish War of 1877.
In the latter end of the 20th century it was spiritual home to Dick Barton, who covered his flea market with handmade painted signs of football rants, messages of public safety (beware of yawning dogs) and urban myths of a brothel called Sheik-Ma-Tadger. Empty and dormant since the 80s all that survived was the Patrick Thistle-coloured painted boards. When a wallpaper shop went on fire for several hours in 2011 the whole street level of shops was demolished and then boarded up, leaving another huge crater scarring the East End landscape.
This captures only a small taste of the wealth to be found in these writings and photographs. I feel that the Sheik-Ma-Tadger brothel will of a surety make an appearance at some point in my own stories in its honour.
Back to Alison Irvine, her talks with Robert Kennedy, local boy made good and building an adventure playground from the ground up. Reminding me of how connected the very basics are in communities like ours across the world. This reminded me of the Black Panther breakfast programs — a startling contrast even as I thought it, yet one which holds.
Feed the children, he says. Help out the parents whose budgets during school holidays are burst because they’re having to find money for breakfast and lunch when in term time these meals are provided for free at school. (37)
Irvine talks with a man with a name that actually beats that of Dick Barton:
Raecher Hiscoe thumps the cover of one of the seats on his family’s Sky Dive. ‘That’s the skin,’ he says, in answer to my question. ‘We take the skins off, inspect the steel frames, repaint them as needed, repair any damage and then we reassemble them. Stick your head beneath the floors and get an idea of the layout.’ The ride is mostly packed away but I crouch and take a look.
We’re in a shed in Carntyne, hired by a group of travelling showpeople, including Raecher and his family, to enable them to open out their rides and do the maintenance and safety tests required for the start of the show season. Inside the shed, rides stand in their unlit, undressed state, half opened out, steel arms stretching towards cold corners.
The stories of Dalmarnock’s travellers, how lives and patterns and spaces have changed. Dalmarnock, that I only ever walked through once, knew mostly as a name in a list being called as I waited for my train. Which brings us finally to Mitch Miller’s dialectograms:
For me it meant going back to the work I had done on my own community, Glasgow’s travelling showpeople. ‘We’ form the largest minority group in the schools of Shettleston and Carntyne, and before the new housing that came to Dalmarnock, its largest group of residents. Yet this community – one that has been in Dalmarnock for forty years, and associated with the wider East End for nearly two hundred – has rarely been discussed, despite being directly in the path of Clyde Gateway’s redevelopments. As Alex James Colquhoun, the former Chair of the Showman’s Guild (based just over the river at Cambuslang) noted, not one member of the community made it into Commonwealth City the BBC Scotland documentary on the changes taking place in the Dalmarnock area. Not even the aerial shots that swept over Springfield Road, Baltic or Mordaunt Street or Dalmarnock Road itself captured a single one of the twenty or so yards that line Swanston Street, just a few metres away from all of these thoroughfares.
I can’t begin to capture the wealth of stories, drawings, photographs held here, but I loved them. Together I think they explore in a most beautiful and complementarily detailed way the connections between people and place going back over generations, the stories hidden in today’s empty spaces and fading advertisements, the grief and loss caused by decay, ‘slum removal’, ‘regeneration’. Above all the ignorance built into a profit-driven process with no understanding of the wealth that exists here or ability to ever see it, making hope so precarious for meaningful improvement.
Hearing resident voices, seeing with new eyes what was there and what is gone, exploring through drawings how people connect to each other and inhabit a space to render it place — all of this allows the complexities of everyday life to surface in areas shaped by the structural violence of poverty and discrimination. The kindnesses and community and individual violences these larger structures engender, the hope and the despair, the beautiful and the far-from-beautiful-but-hell-of-interesting (and itsn’t that often so much better)? All of the things that create meaning, and that do so in relation to one another as they grow up over time — it is this old forest growth that is cut down by development, to be replaced with standardized and regimented rows that grimly shine.
Above all, Nothing is Lost throws into high relief the understanding that people matter without judgments or reservations. An understanding that rarely connects with the slick promises of regeneration, which too often simply brushes them away.
Ken Adam designed the iconic sets for Dr Strangelove, which we were at the Arnolfini to see, and it was very cool to see the original drawings of the war room. Kubrick cut the sho of the whole from the film to maintain its claustrophobic feel, but it was pretty awesome:
Not only that, but Adam drew it as a second attempt to please Kubrick who was staring down over his shoulder.
I learned too that the war room table was covered with green baize, to instill the feel of a poker game, amongst the actors at least.
But of course Ken Adam also designed a a multitude of Bond films in the 1960s and 1970s, and Addam’s Family Values, winning two Academy Awards for best art direction. There were some other fascinating facts in the talk by Christopher Frayling at the Arnolfini, I hadn’t even known that Ken Adam’s family had fled Berlin in the 1930s:
- Ken Adam was one of just two German citizens to fly RAF fighter planes in WW2;
- his parent’s sports shop in Berlin, designed by Mies van der Rohe, equipped a number of mountain films (but none of Leni Reifenstahl’s);
- he went to school with Wernher von Braun;
- architect Norman Foster was deeply influenced by Ken Adam’s design of Bond villain’s lairs and volcano bases;
- Ken Adam was a student at the Bartlett school of architecture and planning in London
It made me wonder to myself why it is I love architecture and cities, and yet never paid much attention to set design, and what that might tell us about the emotional affect and signification of space and building.
And of course, films are highly influential in their turn. I’ve heard this about Metropolis, about Blade Runner. But of course some of Ken Adam’s incredible and evocative sets influenced modern corporate architecture, the villains of today.
I enjoyed The Great Black Way, and LA really was amazing in the 1940s. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean the awesomeness of the Harlem Renaissance was any less, so my only quibbles are with the taste of implied rivalry. One of the opening sentences of the book that sets the scene:
Walled off by segregation and custom, black L.A. built an infinitely rich world. Once upon a time, black L.A. was a stand-alone city within a city, and the more I understood that, the more artificial it seems to spear ate music from the rest of people’s lives. Once upon a time, everything was connected: the civil rights leader Clayton Russell was good friends with the R&B artists. He appears fictionalized in one of the early L.A. books of black novelist Chester Himes. On Central Avenue the jazz musicians were civil rights champions; the actors were tied to the gangsters; the gangsters court the crusading newspaper editor, who was allied with the Communist Party; the renegade communist was a member of the gay subculture… (x)
I loved how this connected a lot of the dots for me, because these artists, writers and activists are all people I love, but hadn’t really understood in their full context of place, friendships, connections. The interviews are pretty amazing, and beautifully full of a whole lot of knowledge and pride. I loved too that they understood the privilege they were bestowing on the author — he notes that a number of the people he interviewed gave him a caution in referencing Carl Van Vechten, white patron of the Harlem Renaissance who would end up writing a book called Nigger Heaven. That’s some betrayal of trust. Smith seems to have taken the point.
Did I say there are some really good quotes in here?
“Anything the power structure wanted to know about blacks in Los Angeles,” said Gilbert Lindsay, “they would say ‘Call L.G.’ Now, this is a janitor. And he was the power for the whole Negro community of Los Angeles! . . . L.G. Robinson spoke for the Negroes.” (4)
another on the role of Central Avenue:
“Central was like a river,” recalled musician Clifford Solomon. “A mighty river like the Amazon or the Nile, or in this case the Congo. And all the streets were tributaries that branched off from this great river.” (4)
There are some great passages really evoking the feel of Central Avenue, an imagined tour heading south past all of the many sights to be seen.
Herb Jeffries bankrolling the Bronze Recording Studios, and the Flash Electronic Laboratories — where ‘engineers strive to perfect their ‘color organ,’ an instrument that can take sound from a radio and translate it into visual energy. Sound is seen; the invisible becomes indigo in your living room. (13)
Before it runs into the white wall…
Though Negroes have moved south to the neighborhood around Vernon and Central, all motion stops here. Mister Jones heard the Klan claimed Slauson and everything below; Lady Creswell heard about the kids put in the county hospital after the police caught them playing on the swings south of the line. Everybody’s got a tale of what happens to those detained in this white man’s land, and enough of it is true that the street has acquired a supernatural power. You and I will acquire a seat on the streetcar. (14)
Later on there’s a note about how the song ‘Open the Door, Richard’ became a catchphrase for ending segregation.
You have to jump that to continue on down south to other great centre of culture, though of a very different kind:
Head down to Watts, from jazz to blues, world of T-Bone Walker who can ‘lift a chair, put it in his mouth, and balance it on end as he plays a frenetic shuffle.’ (15)
Chapter 1 is written about John Kinloch, nephew of Charlotta Bass who is such an inspiration, and such a central figure in the black community here as the owner and editor of The California Eagle. I recognised Kinloch’s name from many of the articles, knew he had gone to fight in WWII and died there. He called Charlotta ‘Madame’, she was his mother’s sister. His mother lived back in Harlem — I didn’t know that. I think this gets Charlotta Bass a little wrong — one central factual error is that her husband Joe Bass was not a founder of the Eagle, rather she inherited it from its founder and hired Joe on. They were partners in life and activism, but he was never more than editor. Still, it’s cool to hear a little more of her from Kinloch’s letters, and the have more life breathed into Kinloch as well. A few other facts about people I’ve written about — Leon Washington was Loren Miller’s cousin.
There are lots of little snippets, fascinating facts. There are paragraphs like this one:
The Harlem Renaissance was cracking up on Central Avenue, its one time elitists dropping by to cash a Hollywood check. Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Huston, Arna Bontemps, Countee Cullen and Wallace Thurman had all been on its periphery between the early 1930s and the early 1940s as they performed lucrative, if fruitless writing tasks for the picture business. (29)
Some of my favourite writers, some of this made me a little defensive of them I confess, but there you are.
Maybe the best thing to come out of reading this book — along with a new unfulfilled and unrequited desire so rare in this modern age — is finding out about Duke Ellington’s Jump For Joy musical revue. Langston Hughes wrote a sketch for it. It featured Big Joe Turner and Dorothy Dandridge. It proudly proclaimed Black civil rights through songs like “I’ve got a Passport from Georgia (and I’m going to the U.S.A.)”, and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin Is a Drive-In Now.” It played at the Mayan — where I have danced the night away or watched Lucha — and received death threats from white supremacists. Never filmed, most of these songs have not been recorded. A fucking loss to humanity.
A few more stories, like the one from Howard McGhee of the Charlie Barnet Band, who told the board he refused the draft, refused to fight, refused to go to jail…they sent him to the psychiatrist:
I said, “Well, man, why should I fight? I ain’t mad at nobody over there.” … I said, “Shit, I’ll shoot any son of a bitch that’s white that comes up in front of me.” And they said, “No, we can’t use you.” (38)
Another story about how back in 1919 there was a celebratory banquet at Patriotic Hall for black Angelenos returning from the war, with a mass assembly and parade and military band. I think I remember reading about that, but don’t remember it being mentioned that film of it was used in a film titled Injustice. I’m trying to find it, it sounds awesome and I do believe Joe Bass of the California Eagle is the J. B. Bass who is named as an actor in it. Imagine seeing him walking down the street…
There are more stories about the People’s Independent Church of Christ — I know that church down on 18th and Paloma. Hattie McDaniels celebrated her Oscar there, Jackie Robinson got married there, Adam Clayton Powell Jr preached there…as did Clayton Russell. how did I never know any of that?
There is a rather fascinating comment on noir, which the more I think about it the more it makes sense and is perhaps best exemplified by Chester Himes:
In white noir the hero blinks for a moment, gives in to a single weak impulse, and his life is over. Order shatters around his ankles and we are supposed to realize how much darkness lurks beneath the surface of things when good intentions make way for bad. The moral universe of black noir is different; it’s about realizing good intentions don’t matter any more than bad ones in a world run by white folks. All intentions are equal and equally pointless. All choices in the end amount to one, have the same value — a value determined by people who think you are less than human. (114)
He talks about Bronzeville a little, the short term flowering of Black life, music, culture, bars in Little Tokyo after everyone of Japanese heritage was taken away to the camps. It is one of those more complicated moments of LA history, because while most of the African American said little at the time, there was by the end of the war a recognition of the injustice of it, and some coalition made. But histories of this time and place are made even more complex by things like this that I had never heard of:
By the Fall of 1945, within weeks of the atom bomb falling on Hiroshima and the Nagasaki, the always-looking-for-an-angle club owners of Bronzeville were on the case. Pianist Eddie Heywood was promptly billed as “atomic action manifest” for his stint at Shepp’s Playhouse. The band of Sammy Franklin had abruptly changed it s name to the Atomics, there was a spot called the Atomic Cafe, and you could get your laundry done at the Atomic Cleaners. At the Samba Club, patrons could hear a singer named Francis “The Atomic Bomb” Gray and drink something called an atomic cocktail. (155)
All I could think was damn. That is fucked up.
A little more on geography, and the earliest community in LA:
At the onset of the twentieth century, Azusa Street was an unpaved byway, basically an alley, which dead-ended into the Los Angeles River. It was also said to be the first all-black street in L.A. (160)
William J. Seymour builds his Pentecostal church — the Azusa Street Revival — on the site of first AME church. After the AME church had moved, the land had been used as a tombstone shop then stables. All of it was built on this land formerly owned by Biddy Mason, once a slave, later a large landowner. These roots run deep.
I’ll end on a song, and a fascinating but not very good one. Still, it’s a symbol of how much changed during the 40s, as well as some of the ways people fought to change it back.
“Shipyard Woman” by Jim Wynn
They said the war is over
And peace is here to stay
You shipyard-working women
Sure did have your way
But it’s all over babe
Now you girls have got to pay (212)