Tag Archives: community

Young and Willmott on Leaving the Slums for the Estate

I know they are listed as Young and Willmott but that simply is impossible to roll off the tongue, I shall try and probably once again fail to write it this way in part two on Family and Kinship in East London (1957). From the densely woven networks of family described in part 1, held together in crowded rooms and turnings by living with parents or next door to them, by every day visits, shared meals, shared chores, shared lives, to spacious new council homes built on 44 acres near Epping Forest. This is how everything changed, and as Young and Willmott write, what better way to understand the importance of residence?

From Bethnal Green to Greenleigh (Debden)

Less than twenty miles away from Bethnal Green, the automatic doors of the tube train open on to the new land of Greenleigh. On one side of the railway are cows at pasture. On the other, the new housing estate. Instead of the shops of Bethnal Green there is the shopping centre at the Parade; instead of the street barrows piled high with fruit, fish, and dresses, instead of the cries of the costermongers from Spitalfields to Old Ford, there are orderly self-service stores in the marble halls of the great combines. In place of the gaunt buildings rising above narrow streets of narrow houses, there are up-to-date semi-detached residences. Bethnal Green encases the history of three hundred years. Cottages built for the descendants of Huguenot refugees, with their wide weavers’ windows and peeling plaster, stand next to Victorian red-brick on one side and massive blocks of Edwardian charity on the other. Greenleigh belongs firmly to the aesthetics of this mid-century. Built since the war to a single plan, it is all of one piece. Though the Council has mixed different types of houses, row upon row look practically identical, each beside a concrete road, each enclosed by a fence, each with its little patch of flower garden at front and larger patch of vegetable garden at back, each with expansive front windows covered over with net curtains; all built, owned, and guarded by a single responsible landlord.

Instead of the hundred fussy, fading little pubs of the borough, there are just the neon lights and armchairs of the Merchant Venturer and the Yeoman Arms. Instead of the barrel organ in Bethnal Green Road there is an electrically amplified musical box in a mechanical ice-cream van. In place of tiny workshops squeezed into a thousand back-yards rise the first few glass and concrete factories which will soon give work to Greenleigh’s children. Instead of the sociable squash of people and houses, workshops and lorries, there are the drawn-out roads and spacious open ground of the usual low-density estate. Instead of the flat land of East London, the gentle hills of Essex.

‘When I first came,’ said Mrs Sandeman, ‘I cried for weeks, it was so lonely. It was a shock to see such a deep hill going up to the shops.’ (121-122)

That gives such a beautiful sense of the differences, albeit a very particular view of them. But the scale is quite incredible.

Between 1931 and 1955 nearly 11,000 families containing over 40,000 people were rehoused from Bethnal Green on L.C.C. estates, many of them outside the county.’ (124)

People did, many of them, choose to come of course. Part of the study was to understand just why. The reasons were many, but not, for the most part, weaker attachments to their family.

lf the migrants did not have weaker kinship attachments than other people, why did they come? The main reason is {quite simple. The attraction is the house. Our couples left two or three damp rooms built in the last century for the ‘industrious classes ‘, and were suddenly transported to a spacious modern home. Instead of the tap in the backyard, there was a bathroom with hot and cold water. Instead of the gas stove on the landing, a real kitchen with a sink and a larder. Instead of the narrow living room with stained wallpaper and shaky floorboards, a newly painted lounge heated by a modern solid-fuel grate. And instead of the street for their children to play in, fields and trees and open country. The contrast is all the sharper because the new residents had, in the main, come from Bethnal Green’s worst houses. (126)

But the council in general had much more to do with it:

But, in general, the L.C.C.’s view of who needed it most decided who went. Our informants were mostly at the top of the L.C.C.’s housing list – they were living in the most overcrowded or the most unhealthy houses in the borough – and that is why they were selected. (127)

One of the tenants told them — ‘If we could take the house with us, we’d go back like a shot.’ (127)

For many, as with so many families, it was about the generations to come, not the generations they had left behind.

‘Everything seems quieter here, more calmer,’ said Mrs Vince. ‘The fresh air hits you when you come out of the station.’ Many people value the air and fields even more for their children than for themselves. Greenleigh is generally thought ‘better for the kiddies’.

So even where they left their kin with regret, the people were not deserting family so much as acting for it, on behalf of the younger rather than the older generation. (128)

But many did not stay.

Many migrants in fact decided that they had made the wrong decision, and left the estate, most of them to return to the East End. Altogether, from the opening of the Greenleigh estate until March, 1956, 26 percent of the tenants who had come there moved away again. (129)

The Family at Greenleigh

So what changed? Any friendly community feeling did not survive the scale of changing community. Everyone found the neighbors snobbish, stand-offish. Talked about the terrible loneliness. Some got part-time jobs just to survive it — one of those said ‘If I didn’t go to work I’d get melancholic.’ Her verdict on Greenleigh — ‘It’s like being in a box to die out here.’ (133)

The study found a great sense of loss, particularly women missing mothers. Most of the men continued to work in Bethnal Green as there were no jobs out near the estate, so suddenly they become the ones maintaining family ties. What made me most sad — it wasn’t distance or time that kept women from their wider families, but the cost of transport. In times of trouble they had no support, there was no one to lend money to tide people over, help when sick or pregnant, help with kids. Visiting was not a thing that was done.

Their study of Bethnal Green showed just how much happened in public spaces, not private ones, and these were precisely the spaces missing in the new estates.

One reason people have so little to do with neighbors is the absence of places to meet them. In Bethnal Green there is one pub for every 400 people, and one shop for every 44 (or one for every 14 households). At Greenleigh there is one pub for 5,000 people, and one shop for 300.

They had no cinemas, so could not congregate there either. This combination of distance and television changed things. Young & Willmott write:

The growth of television compensates for the absence of amenities outside the home, and serves to support the family in its isolation. (143)

Rents were also higher there on the council estate, often by 3 times. That in addition to fares meant people were trapped there.

Keeping Themselves to Themselves

Willmott and Young found people in Greenleigh eager to talk about their neighbours, how unfriendly they found them, and they always compared back to their community in Bethnal Green.

At Greenleigh they neither share long residence with their fellow tenants nor as a rule have kin to serve as bridges between the family and the wider community. These two vital interlocked conditions of friendship are missing, and their absence goes far to explain the attitude we have illustrated. (150)

They believed this to be partly due to the fact that everyone moving in at the same time, and there was no existing community for them to integrate into. While Willmott and Young describe their expectations that things would have improved over the few years between interviews, nothing really had changed. They blame a lack of density — a bit of catch phrase these days.

One reason it is taking so long is that the estate is so strung out — the number of people per acre at Greenleigh being only one-fifth what it is in Bethnal Green — and low density does not encourage sociability. (153)

The new big homes reinforced a feeling of what people lack, rather than all that they had. They were spending more on filling homes with objects, rather than entertainment and going out as they had before.

There is also a facsinating aside on time and space — in Bethnal Green people tended to be very informal, did ‘not need a highly-developed time sense…because it does not matter greatly whether her goes round to Mum’s at 10 o’clock or at 11. If Mum is not there someone will explain where she has gone‘ (157). This was not at all true of Greenleigh. Much of the difference lay in how close things were in Bethnal Green, with everything walking distance. In Greenleigh, life required a car and a telephone to ‘overcome geography and organize a more scattered life into a manageable whole (158)’.

The impact of this was quite profound, particularly on mental health, and particularly for women. This should not have been stuck in a footnote really:

Footnote 1, p 158: The chief psychiatrist at a local hospital told us that the loneliness of the women on this and other housing estates was the immediate, precipitating cause of so many of them coming to his department for treatment.

This lack of relationships, of knowing people, meant both a growing formality, as well as increased reliance on visual clues for judging strangers.

In a community of long-standing, status, in so far as it is determined by job and income and education, is more or less irrelevant to a person’s worth. He is judged instead, if he is judged at all, more in the round, as a person … How different is Greenleigh…Where nearly everyone is a stranger, there is no means of uncovering personality. (161-162)

They continue

Their relationships are window-to-window, not face-to-face. Their need for respect is just as strong as it ever was, but instead of  being able to find satisfaction in actual, living relationships, through the personal respect that accompanies almost any steady himan interaction, they have to turn to the other kind of respect which is awarded, by some strange sort of common understanding, for the quantity and quality of possessions which which the person surrounds himself (163-164)

They also note the lack of forward planning in the planning process for the estate itself…it has been developed as a community where people cannot age. When people’s children are grown where will they live? Nowhere for them to move close by, almost certain that enough existing units will not become vacant over the normal course of things, and it was council policy to prioritise outside people from the list rather than children. Willmott and Young note the protest that this raised among residents, a local association writing of the LCC in 1955 ‘We are in opposition to the view that people are simply units to be moved around the face of the earth in line with the impersonal schemes of some “Big Brother”...’

W&Y continue

The method by which the council has eased the housing shortage in the middle of the century is bound to create a further shortage in its last quarter. (168)

They weren’t wrong.

Movement between classes

They wanted to check and make sure that this growing sense of the importance of geography was not in fact more a function of social mobility, which leads to a rather interesting way to better understand class. Again, Willmott and Young trace sense of loss and disintegration of a sense of community it primarily back to the geography of the built environment — as people tend to seek out larger houses, they must look elsewhere. The authors write:

The East does not provide ‘middle-class’ people with ‘middle-class’ places to live, and such migration may therefore be more common than it would be in districts with more of a mixture of classes. (172)

In conclusion, though, of all of it.

…very few people wish to leave the East End. (186)

While the houses were better, Willmott and Young look at the networks of support, and find they are absent on the new estates. They have the best description of  the daughters’ new plight,  engaged in the ‘arduous…puzzling…monotonous‘ work of child rearing, while older people were cut off from remaining useful and part of the family. Willmott and Young are highly critical.

It seems that when the balance of a three-generation family is disturbed, the task of caring for dependents at both ends of life, always one of the great and indispensable functions of any society, becomes less manageable. (196)

So one key recommendation is to support these connections rather than tear them apart. Central to that there follows the need to maintain communities intact, and save as many of the existing houses as possible, updating the fabric, giving people new bathrooms, lavatories and kitchens.

I cannot help but agree with them, and wish this had been policy for the past few decades so as to build on the strengths of working class communities, rather than the opposite.

Young, Michael and Willmott, Peter ([1957] 1979) Family and Kinship in East London. Manchester: Penguin Books.

The Importance of Residence: Willmott and Young on Bethnal Green

Michael Young and Peter Willmott’s Family and Kinship in East London is an incredible book, and I am just sorry I didn’t get round to reading it while working in East London though it has been on my list to read for what feels like forever. There are a number of critiques of the book, based primarily on the ‘rosy’ views of working class life. Looking backwards it is hard to tell of course, but it seemed to me it captures much of what continues to be good about working class life…and there is enough here to show that such closeness of community is many-sided and not to everyone’s taste. I thought back to Morrison’s writings on East London, which accentuated the narrowness of life, the gossip in those Mean Streets. I don’t know that either is wrong or right, they can sit together in the richness of how people experience life. For myself, it is always the generousness of my class that has impressed me. Anyway.

This is quite a stupendous piece of research. Amazingly I found a pdf of some of the original survey instruments (original link here, another copy of the docs here)… very cool. But what I love most is they seemed to have actually listened to people, rather than categorising them, and in their work to have explored the intersections of family, home and neighbourhood in quite brilliant ways.

This book is about the effect of one of the newest upon one of the oldest of our social institutions. The new is the housing estate, hundreds of which have been built since the war. In the last century people moved into the cities; in this they have been moving steadily out again, towards the countryside from which their ancestors came. (11)

They write too, that ‘We were least prepared for what we found in the borough’. Because what did they expect? The familiar tale of the ‘good old days’ now gone.  They believed old patterns of wide extended families and support networks had disappeared over the course of industrialization and modernisation undergone in East London, but instead:

We were surprised to discover that the wider family, far from having disappeared, was still very much alive in the middle of London. This finding seemed to us of more interest than anything we had been led to expect, all the more so when it transpired that the absence of relatives seemed to be as significant on the estate as their presence in the borough.

and the last line, a rather fascinating methodological note

We decided, although we hit on it more or less accidentally, to make our main subject the wider family. (12)

This is perhaps why I didn’t prioritise this book, being less interested in constructions of family and more in community and home. But I was terribly wrong about that. In addition to tackling the myth f the destruction of familial networks, they take on others. Bethnal Green’ 54,000 residents in 1955 were almost all working class, but only 8% of population found to be Jewish, ‘contrary to popular opinion‘. So on to what they did find.

Kinship in Bethnal Green

The begin with a review of earlier studies — Charles Booth among others, who described barefoot children, undernourished babies, young moths sick and hungry. The majority of these blamed poverty, blamed the poor, and above all men for spending money on things they shouldn’t, particularly nights down the pub etc. This is the image of the brutal working class man, tales of drunkenness and forced sex, bruises, pregnancies.

Even though we may think the accounts overdrawn, and distrust the representativeness of the families they describe, we cannot ignore the historical evidence, all the more so since the notion still survives that the working-class man is a sort of absentee husband, sharing with his wife neither responsibility nor affection…(19)

But you look at the evidence drawn from their interviews, it is the falling death rate that seems the biggest factor in families remaining families — 29% of those born before 1890 came from homes broken up before they turned 15 by the death of a parent, as compared to 2% from divorce or separation. That is a crazy figure. It was still 19% for those born between 1921 and 1933, compared to 1% divorce and separation.

It had never occurred to me before to think seriously of how young people died, to understand what that meant for the living. To remember how soon this all began changing.

Still — things were improving — despite people living longer, more housing was being made available. In 1931 there were 3 households to every 2 dwellings. 1941, 4 households to every 5 dwellings. More space, less hard wear of space. More comfortable spaces you might want to spend time in as opposed to down the pub. It never occurred to me to think of that much either.

Nor labour patterns and rights, but of course those were also definitive.

The spread of the five-day week has created the ‘week-end’, a new term and a new experience for the working man. (24)

You can see, of course, why I should love this book, bringing all these structural factors together to understand just what life lived within their constraints might mean. It is also full of those details you only get with qualitative work. Like the descriptions of the rise of cinema and wireless — a lovely section on the impact it has had on naming children! No longer names that have always been in the family. Aspirations were changing in other ways — work for example. Primarily for sons, but I love the snark in this reply:

I’d like him to take up chemistry. It’s completely unproductive and therefore well paid. (29)

Young and Willmott continue:

A sizeable minority of men in Bethnal Green take a very different view from white-collar people about the status of manual work, placing jobs such as company director and chartered accountant towards the bottom of the scale and manual jobs, like agricultural laborer, coal miner, and bricklayer, towards the top. These men regard business managers with disfavour because ‘They’re not doing anything. They get their money for walking around’ … Agricultural laborers, on the other hand, they value highly because ‘you can’t do without grub’; coal-miners because ‘without coal, industry stops’; and bricklayers because ‘you’ve got to have houses’. But even some of the men that take this view are anxious that their children should get as good a technical education as possible. (29)

That is one of the best statements of how the world should work I have ever read.

Where People Live

Housing was always an issue given its scarcity, and there follows a long, and brilliantly detailed exploration of how and where people live. After marriage, if the new couple have no home of their own yet, they most often live with the wife’s parents — mother and daughter have a long term bond, can manage in the house together by custom. Willmott and Young write:

Their tenancy is the most valuable property-right many working-class people posses: where the property is privately owned, the rent is low and controlled by law. (33-34)

People inherited tenancies from their parents, sometime going back three generations. This was one of the positive aspects of remaining at home after marriage, but as Young and WiIlmott make clear, most people ‘don’t want to live with them, they want to live near them‘ (35). They include a brilliant quote from Sheldon’s, ‘The Medicine of Old Age’ about similar community in Wolverhampton:

The fact that no less than four per cent of the sample had children living actually next door is astonishing; and there is no doubt that this proportion would have been higher but for the general housing difficulties since 1939, for the opinion was frequently expressed by both generations that this is the best mode of life for the old people, since it enables them to preserve their independence and the married children to lead a separate life, while at the same time ensuring that help is at hand when needed. (36)

This study showed twice as many women as men living in same house with their parents, and twice as many in the same street or block. They talk about the matrilocality of the English working class, and spatially at least this is well born out. (37) They include brilliant little pieces of description of the neighbourhoods they are visiting, and the feel of life there, like their visit to:

a four-roomed house in Minton Street in the middle of the borough. The other houses (but not the two pubs, obviously newer) were all built in the 1870s, of brick which has become a uniform smoke-eaten grey. They are nearly all alike in plan; on the first floor two bedrooms, and on the ground floor a living room, a kitchen, and a small scullery opening on to a yard which has a lavatory at the end of it and patch of earth down one side. Many of the yards are packed with clothes hanging on the line, prams, sheds, boxes of geraniums and pansies, hutches for rabbits and guinea-pigs, lofts for pigeons, and pens for fowls. the only difference between the houses is the colour of the curtains and doorsteps which the wives redden or whiten when they wash down the pavement in front of their doors in the morning. Dilapidated but cosy, damp but friendly, in the eyes of most Bethnal Greeners these cottages are the place, much more so than the huge blocks of tenement buildings standing guard, like dark fortresses, over the little houses . On the warm summer evening of the interview, children were playing hop-scotch or ‘he’ in the roadway while their parents, when not watching the television, were at their open windows. Some of the older people were sitting in upright chairs on the pavement, just in front of the doors, or in the passages leading through to the sculleries, chatting with each other and watching the children at play. (38)

The mother is usually the one who helps get her daughter her own place after marriage — she is the one with connections through the rent collector and through friends. She knows who has died or who is moving out, if she is a good tenant the rent collector can assume her daughter will be too. This means empty apartments go to those from the local area due to this web of connections. Some charitable trusts who owned housing in the area had it as official policy that family gets first chance at flats opening up, in others while not official, that was generally the way things worked. Willmott & Young note too, some of the other arrangements that can be made to reduce animosity over flats where they are scarce, such as letting part to a family who also needs it etc.

This was very different from how the council operated, which is rather fascinating. Willmott &Young noted that at the time of writing the council owned a third of dwelling in the borough and that was increasing. The council worked off of lists not personal connection, and early version of today’s points and priority need. Preference was given to ‘slum’ dwellers and those with high need, and it is easy to see the argument for this, but also you can see what might be lost. In 1957, it was still true that

Bethnal Green suffers from a serious housing shortage. In time, we can hope, it will be much less acute… (42)

Mothers and Daughters

From the above, it is clear just important relationships are. Willmott and Young note the amount of time daughters spend with their mothers, and mothers with their daughters, how it makes no sense to talk about the household as such, particularly given how many meals people share. Again they quote Sheldon on Wolverhampton:

‘In at least 40 per cent of cases they must be regarded as part of a family group, the ramifications of which bear little or no relation to architectural limitations. (48)

I rather love how the family overflows and engulfs the limits of brick walls in that sentence.

There is a multitude of ways listed in which mothers and daughters help each other, but I found this sentence about work quite fascinating:

Part-time work is plentiful in Bethnal Green, both in the small local factories and in the tens of thousands of offices which have to be cleaned in the nearby City, and women are therefore less in need of help from relatives than they would be in many other places. (54)

This would change, I suppose, but it seems to me I have not read much at all that really looks at these employment patterns and the independence such work must have provided. While also being rather shit work.

Husbands and mothers

Another amazing description:

Once arrived in the Hanbury’s front room, most of the guests stood about rather stiffly, holding glasses of beer and sniffing the pickled onions. The Buxtons, that is the bridegroom’s family, were grouped by the window, looking disdainfully at the chipped china dogs on the mantelpiece, the worn linoleum on the floor and the pictures of country scenes which did not quite conceal the damp patches on the wall-paper. (62)

Things liven up though.

You’ll be happy to know that the study found sons to regularly check in on their mothers, it tended to be once a week, and it was often them dropping by on their own. Nice.

The Kinship Network

These are broad, reinforced by regular meetings, but often the mother/oldest sister at their centre, and they tend to dissipate after their death.

The Family in the Economy

More on the many jobs available — it is hard indeed not to think of them as better days:

You do not have to live in Bethnal Green, you only have to take a bus down the main street to notice that this is a place of many industries. You pass tailors’ workshops, furniture makers, Kearley & Tonge’s food warehouse, and near to Allen & Hanbury’s big factory. The borough has by itself a more diversified economy than some countries. But the borough has no frontiers: it belongs to the economy which stretches down both banks of the Thames. At its heart is the largest port in the world, which lines the rives for nearly twenty miles from London Bridge to Tilbury, and supports on every side a web of interconnected industries… (89)

More on immigration, some things don’t change.

Because the East End is a port, and near to the Continent, it is the place where for centuries foreigners have landed to escape from war and persecution in Europe. (89)

Immigration’s connection to employment, though becoming more tenuous

The Huguenots most famously, notes still hand-loom weavers in 1939 and the closure of the last Huguenot silk firm in 1955. Furniture, however, once a spin-off of this trade, still strong though showing signs of winding down…

Several chapters on they have another great story about the Huguenots, where a local resident showed them a document written about the time of the Revolution, some kind of petition to the Governors of the French hospital in Hackney (!) to employ, and treat, his granddaughter. Amazing. But I digress.

Despite this winding down of the furniture trade (though that was still existing in pieces when I worked there), they can still write:

East London is less vulnerable because it has many industries to lean on, and while it cannot avoid being harmed by a general contraction in trade. (91-92)

And they note that those in Bethnal Green able to take the job of their choice. It’s political leanings are no surprise:

Every constituency in East London returns a Labour member to Parliament and every council is controlled by the Labour Party, Bethnal Green regularly electing a complete slate of Labour Councillors almost as a matter of course, The people share their politics; they speak the same language with the same accents; they work with their hands; they have, in short, the same kind of life. These deep-lying bonds between members of a class are also bonds between members of the family. (94)

See? Good old days. Hard to imagine this as Labour now.

One change for the better? Things aren’t quite as openly racist as they used to be:

But for most people the Council is not the prize it was. Security does not now matter enough to offset the low pay. Mr Sanderson, a dustman, explained how far his job had sunk…

Things have got so bad that they recently started about a dozen black men. They’re got the rough and rebel from everywhere. One of the black men was sweeping roads with a cardboard box with eyeholes over his head. The foreman asked him what he was doing that for and he said “Well guv’nor, it’s cold.” If it’s a bad winter, they’ll pack up, go home, and make rum.” (96)

The docks a different story (though probably not in the matter of casual racism), ‘It is a matter of pride to belong to a docker’s family‘. (97) I love this story, though I can’t honestly tell if its racist or not:

There were many well-established families — in a nearby dock, one of these was…known as the ‘Flying Eighteen’, a group of brothers and uncles with legendary sensitivity to the ‘jungle drum beats which let them know a ship was coming up the Thames’. (98)

They always got there first. This closeness of community and family surely has its downside. The study looked at how unions and industries gave preference to members’ sons — Transport and General Workers’ Union, Billingsgate for fish, Covent Garden and Spitalfields for fruit and veg, and Smithfields for meat.  Printing, bookbinding and paper workers the same.

Kinship and Community

Willmott and Young meet some of these challenges head on, at least in terms of the wider white working class:

Since family life is so embracing in Bethnal Green, one might perhaps expect it would be all-embracing… Far from the family excluding ties to outsiders, it acts as an important means of promoting them… The kindred are, if we understand their functions aright, a bridge between the individual and the community… (104)

They give this amazing, cinematic description of Mrs ‘Landon’ doing her half-hour morning’s shopping and telling the name and background of everyone they pass. By her own record of who she saw in a week in the street that she considered herself to ‘know’, there were 63 in total, and 38 were the relatives of someone else she knew. It is in the street, the shop, the pub that people meet each other, NOT in the home, which remains private. But I think much more happened then in public that would now be considered things best kept private.

Again we have another  brilliant description of urban space:

The streets are known as ‘turnings’, and adjoining ones as ‘back-doubles’, Surrounded by their human associations, the words had a glow to them, ‘In our turning we‘, they would say, ‘do this, that, or the other.’ ‘I’ve lived in this turning for fifty years’, said one old man proudly, ‘and here I intend to stay’. The residents of the turning, who usually make up a sort of ‘village’ of 100 or 200 people, have their own places to meet, where few outsiders ever come — practically every turning has its one or two pubs, its two or three shops, and its ‘bookie’s runner’. They organize their own parties…some turnings have little war memorials… (109)

They mention a woman had lived in the same courtyard all of her 62 years, spoke of newcomers with only 18 years residence, shocked to hear the council thought of her court as a slum. Imagine.

Another quote from J.H. Robb Working Class Anti-Semite…I don’t quite know what that is about, will have to look it up, but the quote is a good one:

There is a further localism within the borough. People are apt to look for their friends and their club within a close range. The social settlements draw nearly all their members from within a third of  a mile, while tradition dictates which way borderline streets face for their social life. The main streets are very real social barriers… (110)

So in looking at what holds community together, they write:

The interaction between length of residence and kinship is therefore the crux of our interpretation. Neither is by itself a sufficient explanation. (115)

But above all it is place.

In ending this chapter…If we are to pick out one conclusion, it is the importance of residence.

Marriage, changes of life, all of it

A special cast is given to all these adjustments and readjustments by the fact that they are played out within a limited physical space.  (117)

What better way, they say, to study the importance of residence than to look at what happens to this thick web of connections when there is a change? So on to part two — the new council estate at ‘Greenleigh’, now the truth can come out of the name — the Debden Estate. Why did I think it was the Becontree Estate? Dear oh dear, but it matters not. That will be saved for part 2.

Young, Michael and Willmott, Peter ([1957] 1979) Family and Kinship in East London. Manchester: Penguin Books.

Robert Fisher on (Conservative) Community Organizing in the US: 1946-1960

There’s conservative community organizing  and CONSERVATIVE community organizing, and I appreciate that there’s a section on the second in  Let the People Decide? It’s even more depressing than the interest-group model of democracy. It’s hard to get through, I looked at this kind of stuff closely in LA and one day the book will out, but this stuff is racist and grim and not much of that awful rhetoric has changed. Trump has drawn it out with a vengeance.

Fisher writes:

Prosperity and repression formed a powerful recipe for halting dissent, and few did not fall in behind the cold warriors. (70)

Alinsky saw it happening, as did others. Going back to the post-war period, Fisher writes:

the anticommunism of the early 1950s made a wasteland of his community organizing. people were afraid to stick their necks out and get involved. Radical activity atrophied. (73)

Social work organizing did rather better of course.

There is a brilliant quote on the conservative reaction to Shelley v Kramer (the lawsuit that ended restrictive covenants):

Mr Speaker, there must have been a celebration in Moscow last night; for the Communists won their greatest victory in the Supreme Court of the United States on yesterday when that once august body proceeded to destroy the value of property owned by tens of thousands of loyal Americans in every state of the Union by their anti-covenants decision.
— John Rankin, representative from Mississippi, 4 May 1948

The capacity of the right to connect Moscow to any kind of organizing for the good astonishes me every time, just as the effectiveness of their red baiting does. Though that said, I’m not sure if racism isn’t the more powerful undercurrent of anti-red hysteria. But all of this conservative organizing is based around fear and the desire to improve property values — themselves formed in a climate of fear. So Fisher looks here at the neighborhood improvement association — focused on enhancement and protection.

Enhancement includes efforts to secure public services, promote uniform and homogeneous development, control taxes, provide neighborhood-based self-help programs or services, and, in general, oversee the development of the community. Most important, however, the association serves to protect property values and community homogeneity by opposing commercial development and excluding members of lower classes and racial minorities. (79)

Improvement associations work quietly and cooperatively behind the scenes as interest-group “brokers” for their neighborhood. (80) More interest group politics, but most effective as well, as they support the status quo over all. Such organizations tend to be more affluent people, long lasting and can exert a lot of pressure in local politics.

Don’t we all know it.

Still, this shows what a long damn history there is of neighborhoods financing things like mosquito fogging, street lights, pavements, every damn thing government should provide. Instead you have cities like Houston proud of limiting ‘government role’, so entrenched in this strange contradictory ideology.

It was good to read this history of white flight and active organizing to keep white suburbs, only possible through mass government subsidy of suburb developments. There’s much more about this in Sugrue’s work on Detroit or As Long as They Don’t Live Next Dooror Crabgrass Frontier or any of the many books on the fight against segregation. But not enough on books on organizing or urban planning, that is for sure.

[Fisher, Robert (1994) Let the People Decide: Neighborhood Organizing in America. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International.]

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Alinsky on Existing Community Organization

I’ve been thinking so much lately about community and connection and reading so much about poverty and place and feeling so strongly about how wrong most of these authors get things looking into neighbourhoods from the outside and seeing only the absences of things, so I found this little snippet particularly interesting in Saul Alinsky. It’s a lot about seeing what is actually in front you, understanding that you are not operating in some kind of vacuum or emptiness, that organisation exists even if not in the form you expect or recognise.

The ghetto or slum in which he is organizing is not a disorganzied community. There is no such animal as a disorganized community. It is a contradiction in terms to use the two words “disorganization” and “community” together: the word community itself implies an organized, communal life; people living in an organized fashion. These people in the community which concern us may have experienced successive frustrations to the point that their will to participate has seemingly atrophied. They may be living in anonymity and starved for personal recognition. They may be suffering from various forms of deprivation and discrimination. They may have accepted anonymity and resigned in apathy. They may despair and feel hopeless about their children inheriting a little better world. From your point of view they may be representing a very negative form of existence, but the fact is that they are organized in that way of life. Call it organized apathy or organized non-participation, but that is their community pattern. They are living under a certain set of arrangements, standards, accepted modus operandis and a way of life. They may in short have surrendered – but life goes on in an organized form; even if it is as Thoreau described about most lives as being one of “quiet desperation.”

Therefore, if your function is to attack apathy and create citizen participation it is in actual fact an attack upon the prevailing patterns of organized living in the community. Here I would like to state my first proposition; the first function of community organization is community disorganization. Disorganization of the accepted circumstances and the status quo of the arrangements under which they live. These circumstances and arrangements must be disorganized if they are to be displaced with changed patterns providing the opportunities and means for citizen participation. All change means disorganization of the old and organization of the new.

This is why the organizer is immediately confronted with conflict. (115-116)

I am rather fascinated by this. I think he is missing here all the ways the women at least are more positively organized amongst themselves to work and keep the home together and keep an eye on the kids and find out about sources of support and all those things they have traditionally had to do and that often require help, particularly at the time Alinsky was working. And again, he overplays the conflict, always, there are other ways to go about this. But this is still worth thinking about, making sure you understand the patterns that exist, how people are surviving, seeing the strengths there and seeing what might hold folks back. Particularly important, it seems to me, is understanding that in how disrupting old patterns you better be damn sure you are building stronger, more supportive patterns in their place.

Conflict and Controversy: The Genius of Saul Alinksy I

Don’t get me wrong, I have a hardcore critique of Saul Alinsky, but I forgot just how good and smart and hell of committed he was — Rules for Radicals is an important thing to read I think. There is still a lot of room for some of these old school tactics and organizing basics, though maybe not so much for the super-hero profligate organizer and thank god we have some a long way in thinking about intersections of class, race, gender and sexuality…

But damn, is he still a lightening rod for right-wing vitriol or what. My internet search for images turned up some fairly crazy shit. Do we care if he slept with Hilary Clinton? No.

But anyway, I had forgotten just how much Alinsky’s work speaks to its times–it speaks to ours as well of course, but in such a different way. Makes me nostalgic for times I never got to live really, written in 1971, it opens:

The revolutionary force today has two targets, moral as well as material. Its young protagonists are one moment reminiscent of the idealistic early Christians, yet they also urge violence and cry, “Burn the system down!” They have no illusions about the system, but plenty of illusions about the way to change our world. it is this point that I have written this book. these words are written in desperation, partly because it is what they do and will do that will give meaning to what I and the radicals of my generation have done with their lives.

They are now the vanguard, and they had to start almost from scratch. Few of us survived the Joe McCarthy holocaust of the early 1950s and of those there were even fewer whose understandings and insights had developed beyond the dialectical materialism of orthodox Marxism. My fellow radicals who were supposed to pass on the torch of experience and insights to a new generation were just not there. (xii-xiv)

This is perhaps the tragedy of the McCarthy period —  Alinsky himself owes a whole lot to the organizers of the 1930s when he got his start. But the history of struggle in the UK has actually convinced me that it was perhaps not entirely a bad thing to be allowed to reinvent ourselves from the bottom up. But that’s a whole other argument. For now, Rules for Radicals. This first post looks at the big picture, the second looks at the nitty gritty.

The Purpose

What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be. The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away. (1)

Sweet enough, right? He quotes from the Spanish Civil War — better to die on your feet than to live on your knees. Nothing more true in life or death, but of course, it was Zapata who said that. The Mexican Civil War did come first, but never mind.

Alinsky always claimed he was steadfastly non-ideological. The more I read about the communist party in the US, their show trials  (I can think of nothing I’d hate more), the great move as dictated by Russia away from what brilliant neighbourhood and tenant and anti-racism organising they did sponsor to the popular front and all of that followed by Stalin and Hungary and…well. I can’t rightly blame him. None of that history sits well with me and he lived it blow by blow.  It’s left its mark, he writes:

We have permitted a suicidal situation to unfold wherein revolution and communism have become one. These pages are committed to splitting this political atom… (9)

and also

This is not an ideological book except insofar as argument for change, rather than for the status quo, can be called an ideology; and different times will construct their own solution and symbol of salvation… I detest and fear dogma. I know that all revolutions must have ideologies to spur them on. (4)

I question this definition of ideology, but like this practical adaptability. Seems like Marx would have wanted it more that way. In truth, this reads something like Clausewitz or Sun Tzu’s Art of War. This is about tactics and strategy (never enough on the long game).

Radicals must be resilient, adaptable to shifting political circumstances, and sensitive enough to the process of action and reaction to avoid being trapped by their own tactics and forced to travel a road not of their choosing. In short, radicals must have a degree of control over the flow of events. (6-7)

Funny how Alinsky becomes the perfect postmodernist. I never see him credited though. I do like his list of characteristic belonging to an organizer, it’s repeated several times.

An organizer…does not have a fixed truth–truth to him is relative and changing, everything to him is relative and changing. He is a political relativist. … Irreverence, essential to questioning, is requisite. Curiosity becomes compulsive. His most frequent word is “why?” … To the extent that he is free from the shackles of dogma, he can respond to the realities of the widely different situations our society presents. In the end he has one conviction–a belief that if people have the power to act, in the long run they will, most of the time, reach the right decisions. (11)

I don’t think all is relative, but building on such community organizing as one strand of work in combination with a revolutionary process of conscientização as outlined by Freire or Horton will get us where we need to go I think. Horton knew Alinksy, discussed some of these issues, you can read more here.

The world operates on multiple levels, you bring in a deeper understanding of hegemony, of intersectionality, of micro-power then you start seeing a very different picture than that painted by Alinsky. But much of the world does actually operate on this basic level, and these kinds of tactics are often most useful.

It is painful to accept fully the simple fact that one begins from where one is, that one must break free of the web of illusions one spins about life. Most of us view the world not as it is but as we would like it to be.

Political realists see the world as it is: an arena of power politics moved primarily by perceived immediate self-interests, were morality is rhetorical rationale for expedient action and self-interest. (12-13)

The strides in community organizing since his time have been incorporating all of this into a broader framework. I had forgotten that Alinksy himself had recognised some of the dangers of his style. He notes that the folks from the back of the yards organized under

equality for all races, job security, and a decent life for all. With their power they fought and won. Today, as part of the middle class, they are also part of our racist, discriminatory culture. (16)

This is the heartbreak, this the thing we have to work to transcend. I think it goes deeper than

It is the universal tale of revolution and reaction. (17)

Moving from how this fails to address race, I think class is more complex too, but this is an interesting way to cut it (and there is always a strategic usefulness in making complex things more simple):

The setting for the drama of change has never varied. Mankind has been and is divided into three parts: the Haves, the Have-Nots, and the Have-a-Little, Want Mores. (18)

We have to reach the second two, he argues. If only everyone knew in their very bones that this was true, how much better the world would be:

A major revolution to be won in the immediate future is the dissipation of man’s illusion that his own welfare can be separate from that of all other’s. (23)

For Alinksy, even so, it all comes down to self-interest. I think this works for some, not all — I don’t think the low road is ever to be found in the great swells of movement and sacrifice that rise from time to time. To not see beyond it feels like a weakness, but this remains a good point for some people among us, and after all, what else is Keynsian economics really?:

I believe that man is about to learn that the most practical life is the moral life and that the moral life is the only road to survival. He is beginning to learn that he will either share part of his material wealth or lose all of it; that he will respect and learn to live with other political ideologies if he wants civilization to go on. This is the kind of argument that man’s actual experience equips him to understand and accept. This is the low road to morality. There is no other. (23)

Of Means and Ends

I find it funny that Alinsky would have seen eye to eye with Trotsky as well as Bismarck on this. We don’t really have fights about this any more in the US or the UK, do we? Except perhaps in the very smallest of groups. This seems so dated, but I realise only because we have given up on revolution in a way, and for all Alinsky’s faults he hadn’t.

That perennial question, “Does the end justify the means?” is meaningless as it stands; the real and only question regarding the ethics of means and ends is, and always has been, “Does this particular end justify this particular means?”

He goes on to quote Goethe — at the end I have collected a list of all the literature Alinsky quotes, and I swear it will surprise you.

The practical revolutionary will understand Goethe’s “conscience is the virtue of observers and not of agents of action”… (25)

I haven’t thought about means and ends for a long time, but this is challenging, and I think true. I think about Palestinians fighting and fighting for any recognition of their rights, and decades of nothing and I think so much of this holds true.

The most unethical of all means is the non-use of any means… (26)

As do Alinsky’s eleven rules for the ethics of means and ends (he promised us rules in the title, and he always delivers. He also uses a lot of italics):

  1. one’s concerns with the ethics of ends and means varies inversely with one’s personal interest in the issue.
  2. the judgement of the ethics of means is dependent upon the political position of those sitting in judgment. (26)
  3. in war the end justifies almost any means. (29)
  4. judgment must be made in the context of the times in which the action occurred and not from any other chronological vantage point. (30)
  5. concern with ethics increases with the number of means available and vice versa.
  6. the less important the end to be desired, the more one can afford to engage in ethical evaluations of means.
  7. generally success or failure is a mighty determinant of ethics.
  8. the morality of a means depends upon whether the means is being employed at a time of imminent defeat or imminent victory. (34)
  9. any effective means is automatically judged by the opposition as being unethical. (35)
  10. you do what you can with what you have and clothe it with moral arguments.
  11. goals must be phrased in general terms like “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” “Of the Common Welfare,” “Pursuit of Happiness,” or “Bread and Peace.” (45)

This is a philosophical question most current discussions of community organizing aren’t entering into at all, and maybe we should. Similarly, Alinksy devotes a whole chapter to how we use certain words, and the battle over them that needs to take place.

A Word About Words

He talks about words that are ‘loaded with popular opprobrium’ … words prevalent in the language of politics, words like power, self-interest, compromise, and conflict. (48) This isn’t Voloshinov getting into how we fight for meanings in the most awesome of ways, but it is a level of awareness of how our use or avoidance of certain words shapes our movement. For that very reason I don’t know that I agree with all of his analysis of these words, but I love that he includes this argument with the prominence of a chapter.

Power is a good word though. This may be a bit simplistic in its analysis, but worth thinking about.

Striving to avoid the force, vigor, and simplicity of the word “power,” we soon become averse to thinking in vigorous, simple, honest terms. We strive to invent sterilized synonyms, cleansed of the opprobrium of the word power–but the new words mean something different, so they tranquilize us, begin to shepherd our mental processes off the main, conflict-ridden, grimy, and realistic power-paved highway of life. (50)

Disagreeing with his analysis of self-interest, I rather disagree with this, though I love the style of that last sentence. But the idea that how we speak truth to power is as much about the form as the content (I know, I know, you shouldn’t separate them) is important, and is often lost. I like this too:

To know power and not fear it is essential to its constructive use and control. (53)

The next post is on the nitty gritty of being an organizer and actually digging into the process of community organizing.

But first, a look at the books and authors that Alinsky draws from. I don’t know when this man had time to read, but he was no small-time intellectual.

Machiavelli
Bible
Upton Sinclair
Whitehead
Alice in Wonderland
de Tocqueville
Goethe
Henry James
La Rochefoucauld
Founding Fathers (ALL of them)
George Bernard Shaw
Lincoln
Mark Twain
Trotsky writing about Lenin
Gandhi
Rousseau
Whitman
Koestler
Bertrand Russell
Nietzsche
Pascal
St Ignatius
Freud
Clarence Darrow
Thoreau
Shakespeare

[Alinsky, Saul ([1971] 1989) Rules for Radicals: A pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals. New York: Vintage Books.]

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Shirley Baker: a splendour of community amidst the slum clearances

I loved the Shirley Baker exhibition, found it moving and inspiring both. ‘Women and Children; and Loitering Men’ at the Manchester Art Gallery. Her photographs are vibrant, beautifully composed, full of life, provocative–everything photographs should be–and at the same time her subject is the one closest to my heart: everyday life and working-class community.

From the Manchester Art Gallery Website:

Pioneering British photographer Shirley Baker (1932-2014) is thought to be the only woman practicing street photography in Britain during the post-war era. Baker’s humanist documentary work received little attention throughout her sixty-five years career. This exhibition includes previously unseen colour photographs by Baker alongside black and white images and ephemera such as magazine spreads, contact sheets and various sketches. It specifically focuses on her depictions of the urban clearance programmes of inner city Manchester and Salford. This intense period of study, spanning from 1961 – 1981, documents what Baker saw as the needless destruction of working class communities.

This is an exhibition put together by Anna Douglas, first shown in London (of course, already I am feeling this North-South injustice)

For an amateur photographer and an urbanist and with a lifetime devoted to building power and community, these photographs sing. They document this structural period of demolition, the hope of better lives and council housing, the children my god the children everywhere and you love every one of them. Mothers everywhere too (and all my fears of being like that, like them, that joy vanished from them though I know often it is still there and it is my own fear speaking still, it seems visible only in the children and some of the old men).

The old men, the unemployed, the laundry, the cats and the dogs, the hope and despair, beauty and laughter and oppression and a hard working life all painted in black and white and glorious colour.

Maybe I loved most sharing this space with others, it felt like these rooms were filled with unusual suspects for a gallery, and a couple of older men were reminiscing behind me for a while about these days I was staring at captured with such compassion and immediacy it was altogether beautiful.

Some pictures from the website dedicated to her. There was another picture with a cat that was my favourite. I cannot find it. The unexpected heartbreak of denial in an internet age. Reminds me of my own poverty-stricken youth. Nothing like this though.    The kids above — I imagine this was a day that all of them have remembered all their lives. The kids below — those faces too old and wary. I knew so many kids like that, love this country because seems like they are rare now. Nothing sad about this kid though.  There is so little about Shirley Baker and I want to know all of it, devour all of her photographs. The book cost £30 — impossible at the end of the month. The other books from the handful of times her work has been shown all over £100. Luckily there is a website dedicated to her, it states:

Shirley Baker (1932 – 2014) was one of Britain’s most compelling yet underexposed social documentary photographers. Her street photography of the working-class inner-city areas, taken from 1960 until 1981, would come to define her humanist vision.

“It has always astonished me how quickly things can disappear without a trace.”

Hampered by union restrictions on female press photographers, she abandoned plans to work for the Manchester Guardian…. it is her empathetic but unsentimental photographs of inner-city working-class communities in Salford and Manchester as they experienced years of ‘slum’ clearance that has come to define her distinct vision.

“My sympathies lay with the people who were forced to exist miserably, often for months on end, sometimes years, whilst demolition went on all around them.” (Shirley Baker, on the slum clearances of inner Manchester and Salford)

Portrait of the photographer Shirley Baker (1932-2014), kneeling down to take a picture with her Rolleiflex camera. circa 1980s

Look at these incredible visions of the city and the life that filled it and spilled over it as the face of it was being transformed.

They are incredible, I wanted to see all of them. I wanted to know more of how she thought about them. I loved too, the exhibition’s integration of oral histories from people in these neighbourhoods, though I kind of hate the technology so I didn’t listen to all of them.

I will be patient, I suppose, and wait for more.

In looking for some of my favourite photographs I found this one online, an older Shirley Baker in front of this building I love and have long wondered about as I walk past it all the time on my way home, now a Chinese Restaurant on Plymouth Grove. It’s somehow so warming to think of her here, in my own place.

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Bowling Alone: Robert Putnam’s vision of Social Capital

Putnam Bowling AloneRobert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (2000) is the great classic of social capital, referred to in almost everything that is dealing with community and connection.

Everything.

Before getting into why that is, a hilarious aside of how worried people in power get (and academics when embedded in that) about people having too much time on their hands. You know there are some hardcore assumptions about working class people in this

1958 study under the auspices of the newly inaugurated Center for the Study of Leisure at the University of Chicago, which fretted that “the most dangerous  threat hanging over American society is the threat of leisure,” a startling claim in the decade in which the Soviets got the bomb. (16)

So what is social capital?

Whereas physical capital refers to physical objects and human capital refers to properties of individuals, social capital refers to connections among individuals — social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them. In that sense social capital is closely related to what some have called “civic virtue.” The difference is that “social capital” calls attention to the fact that civic virtue is most powerful when embedded in a dense network of reciprocal social relations. A society of many virtuous but isolated individuals is not necessarily rich in social capital.

The term social capital itself turns out to have been independently invented at least six times over the twentieth century, each time to call attention to the ways in which our lives are made more productive by social ties. (19)

This is what I love, that social capital is all about connection. It is all about relationships. What I hate? The word capital. But ah well, it’s done and dusted and a term thrown around hither and yon now, and so must be engaged with. Unlike the capital of Marx’s title, reciprocity is the key here:

Social connections are also important for the rules of conduct that they sustain. Networks involve (almost by definition) mutual obligations; they are not interesting as mere “contacts.” Networks of community engagement foster sturdy norms of reciprocity… (20)

And, of course, such close and tight-knit relationships do not always lead in good directions — the more I write about white mobs, the more clear this becomes. So some care is needed in thinking about how this works. More thought is needed about the nature of these connections.

Social capital, in short, can be directed toward malevolent, antisocial purposes, just like any other form of capital … Therefore it is important to ask how the positive consequences of social capital — mutual support, cooperation, trust, institutional effectiveness — can be maximized and the negative manifestations — sectarianism, ethnocentrism, corruption — minimized.

Of all the dimensions along which forms of social capital vary, perhaps the most important is the distinction between bridging (or inclusive) and bonding (or exclusive). (22)

This is such a key distinction. I think a lot can be done with this… Whereas a Freirean or a Frommean would think about how one or the other leads to a more full expression of our humanity, a more full life, a better society, a truly radical reimagining of our relationships, the use of ‘capital’ tends to lead us down another road:

Bonding social capital is, as Xavier de Souza Briggs puts it, good for “getting by,” but bridging social capital is crucial for “getting ahead.” (23)

I don’t know what getting ahead means, and for people of wealth and privilege, bonding capital is good for both. So this takes us sliding down into a more apolitical, neutral concept. But we don’t have to go that way.

Even so, anything that pulls away from the mad idea that we do it all ourselves is great:

our national myths often exaggerate the role of individual heroes and understate the importance of collective effort.

So a central question of the book is, is it true community is really on the wane? Reading Raymond Williams on the Country and the City, it’s clear there’s a nostalgia in every generation. Putnam writes:

Debates about the waxing and waning of “community” have been endemic for at least two centuries. “Declensionist narratives” — postmodern jargon for tales of decline and fall — have a long pedigree in our letters. (24)

But Putnam seeks to establish whether or not this is true — and finds it to be true:

The dominant theme is simple: For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century a powerful tide bore Americans into ever deeper engagement in the life of their communities, but a few decades ago — silently, without warning — that tide reversed and we were overtaken by a treacherous rip current. Without at first noticing, we have been pulled apart from one another and from our communities over the last third of the century. (27)

And so we enter the great lists of just what is declining.

The Great Declines

Declines in Political Participation

I like the need to measure different kinds of change, to make this distinction between

social change that is intracohort — the change that happens within a generation, an intercohort — the change that happens when a generation dies off. (34)

And Putnam does find a decline.

Financial capital — the wherewithal for mass marketing — has steadily replaced social capital — that is, grassroots citizen networks — as the coin of the realm. (40)

Declines in Civic Participation

Looking at 32 national chapter-based associations (PTA B’nai B’rith, Knights of Colombus etc…), again, more decline (though still, better than 1900):

bowling-alone-23-728(p 54)

On average, across all these organizations, membership rates began to plateau in 1957, peaked in the early 1960s, and began the period of sustained decline by 1969. On average, membership rates more than doubled between 1940-1945 and the peak and were slightly less than halved between the peak and 1997. (55)

Declining religious participation

I don’t know that I think that this all that terrible a thing — because I think we’ve seen a real rise in religious participation lately and it’s fucking terrifying. But liberation theology and Black radical traditions are a whole different thing.

Religiosity rivals education as a powerful correlate of most forms of civic engagement. (67)

…the more demanding the form of involvement — actual attendance as compared to formal membership, for example — the greater the decline. In effect, the classic institutions of American civic life, both religious and secular, have been “hollowed out.” (72)

The result is that the country is becoming ever more clearly divided into two groups — the devoutly observant and the entirely unchurched. (75)

Yep.

Informal Social Connections

In Yiddish, men and women who invest lots of time in formal organizations are often termed machers — that is, people who make things happen in the community. By contrast, those who spend many hours in informal conversation and communion are termed schmoozers. (93)

I like this distinction. I like too the realisation that cities weren’t the evil, atomising places they were once theorised to be.

Some early sociologists though that this thicket of informal social connection would not survive a transplant o the anonymous city, that urbanization would doom both friendship and extended kinship. However, experience showed that even in the most densely populated urban settings, social filaments linking residents were steadily regenerated. The density of social connections is lower in cities … but twentieth-century urbanization was not fatal to friendship. Urban settings sustain not a single, tightly integrated community, but a mosaic of loosely coupled communities … (96)

Despite this,

we are connecting less every year, and schmoozers more and more common than machers. But even ‘informal social connectedness has declined in all parts of American society.’ (108)

Still, I’m not such that schmoozers and machers really describe all the informal connections within communities.I’m not so sure that this captures what I think of when I think of informal support networks, how people survive on low incomes. Another way Putnam measures loss is in restaurants and cafes and bars giving way to fast food —

These cold numbers confirm the gradual disappearance of what social commentator Ray Oldenburg calls “the great good place,” those hangout that “get you through the day.” (102)

And I’m not sure that fast food in some places isn’t actually filling that role still, though in a different way.

Altruism, Volunteering, and Philanthropy

The second two of these three are hard to measure unless you’re talking about middle classes and formal organisations I think, which captures only a fraction of connection…

Reciprocity, Honesty & Trust

There is an important difference between honesty based on personal experience and honesty based on a general community norm — between trusting Max at the corner store because you’ve known him for years and trusting someone to whom you nodded for the first time at the coffee shop last week. Trust embedded in personal relations that are strong, frequent, and nested in wider networks is sometimes called “thick trust.” One the other hand, a thinner trust also rests implicitly on some background of shared social networks and expectations of reciprocity. (136)

This is an interesting concept, this thick and thin trust. I like the ways that Lyn Lofland and Elija Anderson take this in different directions thinking more about the connections people make and the spaces they make them in, building of course on Jane Jacobs.

Small Groups and Social Movements

Ah, social movements… I agree mostly with both of these statements, though always worry when terms like ‘social movements’ are thrown around as kind of everyday things, when in fact I think they are fairly rare, and what we have are groups engaged in building movement.

Social movements and social capital are so closely connected that it is sometimes hard to see which is chicken and which egg. Social networks are the quintessential resources of movement organizers. (152)

Social movements also create social capital, by fostering new identities and extending social networks. (153)

Why the Decline?

Why, beginning in the 1960s and 1970s and accelerating in the 1980s and 1990s, did the fabric of American community life begin to unravel? Before we can consider reweaving the fabric, we need to address this mystery. (184)

Pressures of time and money

Longer working hours, increased financial worries and sense of financial vulnerability mean people don’t get together. Putnam notes that one practical way to increase engagement is to make it possible for men and women to work part time if they wish (and still continue to live a decent life). Amen to that.

Mobility and sprawl

First the creation of suburbs — this is pretty anti suburb, though it doesn’t get into how suburbs fostered a white sense of community by coming together to fight like hell to keep everyone else out. They are now hoist with their own petards.

Eric Oliver found that the greater the social homogeneity of a community, the lower the level of political involvement; “By creating communities of homogenous political interests, suburbanization reduces the local conflicts that engage and draw the citzenry into the public realm.” (210)

A good quote from Lewis Mumford: “suburbia is a collective effort to lead a private life.” Putnam continues:

Now, however, the privatization of suburban life has become formalized and impersonal. Gated communities are innately introverted, as traditional urban neighborhoods were innately extroverted. (210)

Putnam quotes Kenneth T. Jackson, great scholar of the suburb and the KKK, about a ‘weakened sense of community, increase in social life feeling privatized’ (211)

He looks at commuting:

Car and commute demonstrably bad for engagement, the more commuters in  community the less engagement of all members of community, even those who don’t commute (213)

Spatial fragmentation between home and workplace bad for community life. (214)

He looks at sprawl (these are all picked up in Urban Sprawl and Public Health, and Walkable Cities) and gives the main reasons sprawl is bad: Time taken in commute, social segregation and increased homogeneity, disruption of community “boundedness”, separation from work, home and shopping. (214)

Technology and Mass Media

Television

Nothing — not low education, not full-time work, not long commutes in urban agglomerations, not poverty or financial distress — is more broadly associated with civic disengagement and social disconnection than is dependence on television for entertainment. (231)

So What? Why We Should Care

Social capital has many features that help people translate aspirations into realities. (288)

That’s always nice. This is a pretty good list of why connections are good for us, even if I worry about some of the language. Greasing the wheels for example.

  1. social capital allows citizens to resolve collective problems more easily.
  2. … greases the wheels that allow communities to advance smoothly. Where people are trusting and trustworthy … everyday business and social transactions are less costly.
  3. … widening our awareness of the many ways in which our fate is linked… Joiners become more tolerant, less cynical, and more empathetic to the misfortunes of others… (288)
  4. The networks that constitute social capital also serve as conduits for the flow of helpful information that facilitates achieving our goals.
  5. Social capital also operates through psychological and biological processes to improve individuals’ lives. Mounting evidence suggests that people whose lives are rich in social capital cope better with traumas and fight illness more effectively. (289)

Putnam goes on to measures how social capital makes a difference in our lives looking at 5 variables: child welfare and education, healthy and productive neighborhoods, economic prosperity, health and happiness, and democratic citizenship and government performance. (290)

There’s some stuff here too about how inequality and social solidarity are incompatible — the more unequal a society, the less social capital. It’s significant how badly former slave states perform along every index. Of course, books like The Spirit Level have since picked up on this and broadened the analysis to be global.

child welfare and education:

— higher social capital rates statistically highly correlated with babies healthier, fewer teen parents, lower dropout rates, less violent crime, suicide, homicide, lower child abuse rates, higher test scores (informal social capital more highly correlated than formal for student achievement)

healthy and productive neighborhoods,

Higher social capital correlates to lower crime, less lethal violence, also home to survival networks

economic prosperity

support networks for jobs, loans, ideas etc

health and happiness

huge benefits to health (see the Marmot report, not quoted here but all the same findings…)

democratic citizenship and government performance

higher public-spiritedness, local organizations become schools for democracy, the more isolated people, the higher tendency to extremism, need more forums for debate, meaningful engagement in big issues…

The Dark Side — Babbitry

Shows tolerance has increased between 1960s and 1990s as disconnection from civic life decreased…. But still studies find that more engaged people are more tolerant. Given growing inequalities and disengagement, perhaps this all explains the trouble we are having now?

So, social capital.

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House, Home and Homelessness: Kim Dovey

‘Home and Homelessness: An Introduction’ by Kim Dovey is a short book chapter, yet appears here at length — such great length, you have to be as excited as I am to read this and honestly, you’re definitely better off just reading the chapter, this is my most selfish need-to-write-to-digest post yet.

Why? Because I loved it that much in how it tries to grapple with the meaning of home and what it means to be without — a deeper understanding of homelessness, but perhaps a more true one that shouldn’t be ignored in the quest to ensure everyone has at least a roof over their head.

Like everything I am thinking about at the moment, this is looking at home not as discrete object but as a connection, as a relationship (and a dialectical one at that):

Although a house is an object, a part of the environment, home is best conceived of as a kind of relationship between people and their environment. It is an emotionally based and meaningful relationship between dwellers and their dwelling places. Concomitant with this distinction is the assumption that the concept of the “housing problem” is not identical to that of “homelessness.” Indeed, the housing problem can be, and often is, solved in a manner that creates homelessness.

I love that last sentence — building a house does not create a home, and in a nutshell this presents many of the problems of social housing or emergency housing. The point being not to get rid of either or to argue they are unnecessary, but to fundamentally change how we think about housing provision. The question becomes how?

It’s not rocket science is really my new favourite phrase, because none of this is. It is hard work though, and not profitable.

What better first step than a better understanding of what home means to us, how our relationship with it works. Like Bachelard, Dove’s approach is phenomenological, drawing on philosophy, geography, ethnography and literature.

The theoretical approach in this essay is phenomenological. Such an approach is suggested by the intangible nature of the concept in question. … My aim, however, is not to produce specific cause-effect relationships or explanations; it is rather to deepen our understanding of an intrinsically intangible phenomenon. My sources are several. First, I draw heavily on the literature of phenomenological philosophy and geography. Second, the cross-cultural studies of anthropological fieldwork offer an insight into the forms and experiences of home in the traditional world. Third, the world of literature reveals important and clear explications of the experience of home and the processes of its emergence.

I still hate Heidegger. I don’t think you can separate his philosophy from his actions, or from that Heidegger who dressed up in his Nazi uniform to go eat a feast. I don’t know what to do with that really.

Dovey looks at the spatial and temporal aspects of home as order, identity, connectedness and then the dialectics of home (bring on the dialectics), before moving on to look at homelessness and its causes in a way I particularly love.

HOME AS ORDER

The first of these properties is order, by which is meant simply “patterning” in environmental experience and behavior. Being at home is a mode of being whereby we are oriented within a spatial, temporal, and sociocultural order that we understand.

What is more important that understanding how we fit, where we stand?

Spatial Order

One of the most important contributions of the phenomenological approach to environmental experience has been a thorough reinterpretation of the concept of space that parallels the distinction between house and home. At the heart of this reinterpretation is an important distinction between conceptual space and lived space (Bollnow, 1967). Conceptual space is abstract, geometric, and objectively measured, a kind of context or ether within which places, people, and things exist. Lived space, by contrast, is the pre-conceptual and meaningful spatial experience of what phenomenologists call “being-in-the-world” (Heidegger, 1962).

Lefebvre writes about this too of course, maybe a good way of not citing Heidegger.

Home is a sacred place (Eliade, 1959), a secure place (Rainwater, 1966), a place of certainty and of stability. It is a principle by which we order our existence in space (Dovey, 1978).

Temporal Order

Home as order is not only spatial orientation but also temporal orientation. Home is a kind of origin, we go “back” home even when our arrival is in the future. The home environment is one thoroughly imbued with the familiarity of past experience. It is the environment we inhabit day after day until it becomes taken for granted and is unselfconscious. This sense of familiarity is rooted in bodily routines…

I love the jolt this gives that familiar phrase, ‘to go back home’. It does make it temporal, does mean it’s the place you are from, the place you left and return to, it is a cyclical movement not a forwardly linear one.

Our sense of it is based on our past, structured by how we grew up, incredibly specific to time and places and all of their associated privileges or injustices.

Home as temporal order is not dependent on aesthetic attraction; it may be more accurate to say that the homes of our past set the ground for our very perceptions of attractiveness and ugliness.

At it’s best, it connects us to the environment more widely —

In yet another way, home as temporal order can extend to a familiarity with the past processes through which the forms of the environment have come into being. The experience of wood for instance connects with our experiences of climbing trees, sawing, chopping, nailing, and carving.

and it is perhaps a failing of modern society that it is ever more rare to have this rooted sense of materiality, and true cost to the planet of where we live.

Sociocultural Order

This discussion of home as spatiotemporal order has thus far largely omitted any mention of environmental form. This is because the forms in which this order becomes manifest are primarily sociocultural.

It’s different for everyone! Whew, unlike Bachelard there is no assumption of European houses with basements and attics, no hut fantasies. But acknowledgment that ‘home’ is intimately linked with culture… even when that culture is simply one of consumption.

The notion of home as social order is at once extremely flexible and yet conservative. It is flexible inasmuch as it is embodied not in a house or building but in the patterning of experience and behavior. It is a way of relating to the environment that may be transposed from place to place, and in this way the meanings of home may be re-evoked if the patterns are recreated.

I think of new life brought to neighbourhoods by migrants, my small attempts at color and warmth here in Manchester. It is a reminder of connections, history, culture — and a timely reminder that this is not always a positive thing.

Through being deeply rooted in the past, home also carries with it considerable inertia to change. Social hierarchy, injustice, and outmoded sex roles are difficult to question when they are embodied in, and evoked by, the taken-for- granted world of spatial patterning.

Home as Identity

There is an integrity, a connectedness between the dweller and dwelling. Home as order and as identity are strongly interrelated; yet whereas order is concerned with “where” we are at home, identity broaches the questions of “who” we are, as expressed in the home, and “how” we are at home.

Spatial Identity

This can be identity as in the western world of consumption — status and class and etc.

The social perspective tends to interpret the home as a “statement” of identity expressed through a shared symbolic language (Appleyard, 1979b; Goffman, 1971).

But home can be so much more than that.

My view is that the personal and the social are inextricably interwoven; that representation of identity in the home stems from both social structure and our quest for personal identification within it. The home is both a “statement” and a “mirror,” developing both socially and individually, reflecting both collective ideology and authentic personal experience… Individual interpretations often argue for a deeper connection between the home and the human spirit. Jung has argued that self-expression in built form is one way in which the self-archetype becomes manifest. He has described the construction of his own house as a “concretization of the individuation process” (Jung, 1967, p. 252), an approach that has been developed by Cooper (1974) and others.

Where it further from consumption, more closely tied to other forms of culture and self-expression, it is a bottom-up, rooted phenomenon in the natural environment. I think of a permaculture home, or hogans or adobes or constructions perfectly suited to their place.

The sense of identity embodied in the phenomenon of home has an important component of autochthony. Another way to describe this is as “indigenous,” the etymology of which means “to be born within.” Home in this sense is something that grows in a place rather than being imposed from without. It grows both from the particular personal and social circumstances of the dwellers but also from the environmental context of the place itself, its genius loci. Thus home has a key element of uniqueness, it is place based.

Not that this needs be unchanging. We are a connected world — I think of all the wondrous architectural and social hybrids that could flourish through travel, sharing, learning, improving our relationship to and reducing our impact on the land we live on. Why haven’t we done it that way?

Temporal Identity

Home is a place where our identity is continually evoked through connections with the past. Although temporal order is primarily concerned with familiarity, temporal identity is a means of establishing who we are by where we have come from. The role of the physical environment in this regard is that of a kind of mnemonic anchor.

All that is lost to the migrant. A tremendous, implacable loss.

Home as Connectedness

You know I  love this:

The themes of home as order and identity that I have presented thus far are summarized in Figure 1. Home is a schema of relationships that brings order, integrity, and meaning to experience in place—a series of connections between person and, world:

  • Connectedness with people: both through the patterns of sociocultural order and through the role of the home place in the symbolization and representation of identity

  • Connectedness with the place: first, through being oriented in it; and second, through the ways in which we put down roots and draw an indigenous sense of identity from each unique place

  • Connectedness with the past: through having memory anchored in the forms of the home place and from the experience of familiarity and continuity that this engenders

  • Connectedness with the future: when power and autonomy permit directly and hopes to inform environmental change

Hell yes to all of this.

Home then is an integrative schema that is at once a bonding of person and place and, a set of connections between the experience of dwelling and the wider spatial, temporal, and sociocultural context within which it emerges. Home orients us and connects us with the past, the future, the physical environment, and our social world.

Dialectics of Home

Too static you say? Not enough process, movement, change over time? Dovey agrees.

The picture of the phenomenon of home presented here has one critical weakness—it is too static. It does not convey an understanding of the dynamic processes through which the order, identity, and connectedness of home come into being. These processes are fundamentally dialectical.

Spatial Dialectics

Yet the dialectics of home involve more than inside versus outside. Home is a place of security within an insecure world, a place of certainty within doubt, a familiar place in it strange world, a sacred place in a profane world (Dovey, 1978). It is a place of autonomy and power in an increasingly heteronomous world where others make the rules. These oppositions can be subsumed under the rubric of order and chaos. Home certainly has the properties of order as argued earlier; yet it is only through the dialectical interaction that its meaning develops. Home as mere order and identity can well become a prison, a hermetically sealed world devoid of chance.

Social Dialectics

it participates in the negotiation and representation of identity through the oppositions of self/other, identity/community, and private/public.

Dialectics of Appropriation

This is particularly important in thinking about power — what power you have to shape your home and your environment, the extraordinary lengths to which we go to try and take hold of that power. What happens when we lose that battle. and the impact that has on us.

This is a very difficult yet fundamentally important notion—because “it goes to the heart of the concept of home as a mode of being-in-the-world. I use the term appropriation in the general sense of its etymological root, the Latin appropriare, “to make one’s own.” … It involves both a “caring” for a place and a “taking” of that place into our own being (Relph, 1981).

Dovey turns to literature to look at this, those brilliant passages from Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and the transformation of the Palace Flophouse — I remember that this is precisely one of the reasons why this is one of my favourite Steinbeck novels. Margaret Mead’s autobiography is the second example used to evoke that sense of what he calls ‘becoming-at-home’.

I quite love that phrase. Need to read Relph.

So finally the properties of homelessness — not the status of being without a house, but what strips our possibilities of becoming-at-home.

PROPERTIES OF HOMELESSNESS

Rationalism and Technology

The immediately obvious advantages of technological change, in this case improved efficiency and cleanliness, can serve initially to mask the loss of intangible meanings.

These meanings are lost as priority is given to ‘the abstract conceptual modes of “space” as opposed to the meaning-centered mode of “lived space.”‘

Commoditization

The belief on the part of both producers and consumers that the home is the house trivializes the concept of home and treats it as an object to be instantly consumed.

If I could underline this whole section ten times I would, I think commoditization is at the heart of all of this. But I like the other sections as well.

Commoditization has its main eroding effect not in the quality of house form but in the quality of the relationship of the dweller with the dwelling. The house as a piece of property implies a legal relationship between the owner and the place, a relationship embodying certain legal freedoms. Home as appropriation, on the other hand, implies a relationship that is rooted in the experiences of everyday life over a long period of time. It requires adaptability, control, freedom, and security of tenure. A contradiction emerges here under conditions of absentee ownership or rental.

Bureaucracy

Whereas home is the kind of order that flows upward from the opportunities and problems of each unique place and context, bureaucratic order flows downward. A centralized order is imposed across diverse particular cases according to typical situations and contexts (Crozier, 1964, pp. 183-184). Likewise, bureaucratic organization has its own identity that, in the case of housing programs, becomes stamped upon the landscape at the expense of the diverse identifications of the dwellers. Housing becomes symbolic of the organization that produces it, spatially regular and temporally regulated places that may not be easily adapted to the uniqueness of each situation or to changes that occur over time. The complexities of the experience of home and the role of the dweller in achieving it are beyond the capabilities of bureaucratic structures to deal with.

Scale and Speed

The scale at which environmental and housing problems are framed and tackled and the speed at which environmental change is implemented are two properties that are closely linked to those outlined previously, and they contribute to the erosion of the experience of home. Bureaucratic organization, for instance, develops to ensure the remote control necessary to implement largescale programs. Big problems would seem to demand big solutions. Housing, however, is not so much a big problem as it is a large collection of small ones—many people with a desire for shelter, roots, security, and identity, yet with a multitude of dreams, forms, and social patterns within which this might be realized.

The Erosion of Communal Space

The public realm has become a place where it is difficult if not impossible to enact personal or collective appropriations. It is a place where “they” are responsible for control and maintenance of a rule-bound status quo. At the personal level, this loss of a shared common place as a context of the home brings a subtle yet profound erosion of the dialectics of home/journey and private/public. The home becomes the sole area of personal control and security; its boundary hardens, semiprivate edge areas disappear, informal appropriation and surveillance across the interface weaken, and crime proliferates (Newman, 1972). … As the communally shared realm has been eroded, so the private realm has expanded to fill the void, leading to an inordinate demand on the home to fulfill all of one’s needs. Herein lies a dilemma—without the broader sense of home extending into community life, the experience of home contracts and loses meaning; yet at the same time increased demands are placed upon this depleted experience of home.

Professionalism

Strong forces within the architectural profession mitigate against the emergence of a sense of home. … A home cannot be someone else’s work of art.

Thus we have mass housing that hasn’t worked, urban renewal that transformed landscapes, destroyed networks, house seen as technological fixes never becoming homes.

Do I have anything further to add to this list a whole three decades further? Maybe a little more about financialisation and globalisation of capital, but fundamentally, I don’t think so.

Implications for future research?

I like this list too:

  1. the development and application of design patterns or guidelines that embody understandings of the experience of home.  … good examples being Alexander, Ishikawa, & Silverstein, 1977; Cooper Marcus & Sarkissian, 1985; Zeisel, 1977 (ooh, who is Zeisel? Here I think)
  2. Participatory Design
  3. understanding and undercutting the properties of homelessness outlined in the second part of this essay

And to finish, maybe a bit cheesy but true — English is a terrible language for speaking about deeper meanings in:

Finally, a change in attitude and understanding is required of designers. This involves an enhanced understanding and a celebration of the experience of home and the processes of becoming-at-home that exist in every place and every community. The goal here is not only to create a sense of home, but rather to recognize and preserve it in its myriad of processes and forms. Its processes are seldom visible, and its forms are not always beautiful; yet beneath them lie the seeds of a deeper sense of home, struggling to flower.

[Dovey, Kimberly (1985) ‘Home and Homelessness: Introduction’, in Altman, Irwin and Carol M. Werner eds. Home Environments. Human Behavior and Environment: Advances in Theory and Research. Vol 8. New York: Plenum Press, 1985.]

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The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space on the Lower East Side

The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space is amazing. Its very existence, its declaration of ongoing resistance against gentrification and displacement, and the many wonderful urban spaces to be found on the Lower East Side. A testament to all those who have fought to build community and to preserve it in that face of brutal development pressures driven by the commodification of land.

Ah, the Lower East Side…

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For so long it was only known to me through Neil Smith’s work, his descriptions of the battles over Tompkins Square Park and a vibrancy in the squatting/camping/we-will-not-be-moved-from-these-spaces organising that I always found so inspiring.

I saw it on the map, saw this museum marked there and so we headed that way after the inspiration of Harlem — where better to go?

Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space

As a living history of urban activism, the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space (MoRUS) chronicles the East Village community’s history of grassroots action. It celebrates the local activists who transformed abandoned spaces and vacant lots into vibrant community spaces and gardens. Many of these innovative, sustainable concepts and designs have since spread out to the rest of the city and beyond.

Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space

We wandered through the small museum staffed by volunteers — hardly a museum, a wonderful community space of two rooms, one ground floor and the basement where a video is running. The walls of both are lined with pictures and stories of the people who squatted these buildings to create and save housing, transformed vacant lots into vibrant gardens and community spaces, developed movements to push for political will in support of bicycles over cars, as well as cycling lanes, bike racks and respect. This building itself was squatted, which is how this place can exist at all. Every community should have such an accessible shopfront space telling such important stories, with people wandering in and out.

I got a birthday present there! The Architecture of Change , edited by Jerilou Hammett and Maggie Wrigley, an amazing collection of 36 articles from DESIGNER/builder magazine describing movement and struggle around space, design, art, architecture, education and justice (so far, I am only a quarter of the way through) around the country. I opened it up and within the first few pages found a picture of the Vilchis brothers lounging around Boyle heights which made me so happy.

I was less happy that the article failed to mention Union de Vecinos, co-founded by Leonardo and one of the grassroots organisations in LA that I love and admire most. Opportunity lost, they have so much to teach. Ah well.

Tompkins Square Park is still a cool public space full of life and people (though perhaps too much concrete), a very different one than Smith described if I remember rightly (but so much bigger than I was expecting! So maybe my memory is faulty…but still closes at midnight, so no one is welcome to sleep here). And look, Charlie Parker Place.

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A public park alongside a medley of community gardens, they are everywhere, and I was truly smitten. Especially after reading the love and fierce resistance it took to first build and then keep them.

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I wish we’d have had more time here to see some of the other radical spots here, but we were heading over to Williamsburg to meet my cousin. We had a quick walk to the metro — and a quick stop in Bluestockings bookstore on the way. I sent them a lot of emails in my PM Press days, and their amazing selection did not disappoint. Two of the books I’ve worked on under Postcolonial Fiction (!) by Gary Phillips and James Kilgore — seeing that is such a pleasure:

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On the way — Joe Strummer saying know your rights:

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Housing co-ops:

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Such cool city streets and a wealth of things to see and places to eat (omg the best pastrami sandwiches ever at Harry and Ida’s Meat & Supply Co), we loved this place:

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New YorkAnd finally, a wonderful map of the radical spaces of the Lower East Side produce by the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space — I wish we had had more time to explore! Get the pdf here.

 

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The meaning of home: Jimmy Santiago Baca’s Martín

1143647More poetry from Jimmy Santiago Baca, poetry of place and home. Poetry of labour. What it means to build or rebuild a house that will hold you, that will hold meaning. From Martín:

I gutted the plaster frame house,
nailed, puttied, roofed, plumbed,
poured cement, sheet-rocked, tiled, carpeted,
tore-out, re-set,
piled, burned, cleaned, cemented, installed,
washed and painted,
trimmed, pruned, shoveled, raked,
sawed, hammered, measured, stuccoed,
until,
calloused handed, muscle-firmed, sleek hard bodied,
our small house rose
from a charred, faded gravemarker,
a weather-rotted roost
for junkies and vagrants,

wind, rain, and sun splintered
jagged stories of storms on,
I corrected,
re-wrote upon
this plaster wood tablet,
our own version of love, family and power. (47)

Happiness.

But It burns down, this home. They need someplace to stay. Temporary places that don’t fit. These dislocations I share, so rarely found in books.

From Meditations on the South Valley

VI

Cruising back from 7-11
esta mañana
In my 56’ Chevy truckita,
beat up and rankled
farm truck,
clanking between rows
Of shiny new cars–

“Hey fella! Trees need pruning
and the grass needs trimming!”
A man yelled down to me
from his 3rd-story balcony.

“Sorry, I’m not the gardener,”
I yelled up to him.

Funny how in the Valley
an old truck symbolizes prestige
and in the Heights, poverty.

Worth is determined in the Valley
by age and durability,
and in the Heights, by newness
and impression.

In the Valley,
the atmosphere is soft and worn,
things are passed down.
In the heights,
the air is blistered with glaze
of new cars and new homes.

How many days of my life
I have spent fixing up
rusty broken things,
charging up old batteries,
charging pieces of old batteries,
wiring pieces of odds and ends together!
Ah, those lovely bricks
and sticks I found in the fields
and took home with me
to make flower boxes!
the old cars I’ve worked on
endlessly giving them tune-ups,
changing tires, tracing
electrical shorts,
cursing when I’ve been stranded
between Laguna pueblo and Burque.
It’s the process of making-do,
of the life I’ve lived between
breakdowns and break-ups, that has made life
worth living.

I could not bear a life
with everything perfect. (59-60)

Read a book sometimes, and someone captures just what you been missing in these places you been living.

VII

in the Valley at my house
y parcelita de tierra,
I added, raised, knocked down,
until over months and years,
the place in which I lived
had my own character.
I could look at it and see
myself.

This apartment
reflects a faceless person,
with no future,
no past,
just an emptiness. (61)

I remember the house my dad built, I want to build a poem too — and I am happy these words have been breathed into the world.  A different kind of home.

XXVII

After that, the interior of the house
emanating blue dawn light,
full of gusto in the fresh-timber smelling house,
proud of the 3 bedrooms, hallway, livingroom & kitchen,
my finest poem I thought,
that sheltered me from the rain and wind,
as we worked our way
into doors, staining kickboards, putting doorknobs in,
(fine-tuning the poem),
measuring cabinets, leveling the floors,
shimmying here & there,
spitting & stomping, throwing our tools down in disgust
and huffs of temper,
yelling into the cold mornings
at each other, trying to go on and finish
in six weeks. (97-98)