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…
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?
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.
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.
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.
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:
On the way — Joe Strummer saying know your rights:
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:
I knew Ken Loach’s 1966 film version of Jeremy Sandford’s Cathy Come Home would be harrowing, so I saved it for a time when I had great things to look forward to. The great London weekend of ought-seventeen. Made me miss London. Sadly I am writing about it post great weekend, but it has to be done.
Also, spoiler alert. Though you can probably guess the broad outlines of how this film is going to go.
I can see why it caused nationwide controversy and outcry, can see how it connects to the formation of Crisis and Shelter — from the BFI’s description, it:
gave a welcome boost to the (coincidental) launch of the homelessness charity Shelter a few days after the play was first broadcast, as part of the BBC’s The Wednesday Play strand.
I can see why this is a pivotal film in thinking about housing in Britain. For showing the state of it, for showing what the loss of it meant. For showing how many people sought it in vain. I loved how it abandoned the studio to take us through the city.
Clearly it showed a number of viewers (12 million people says wikipedia, for what that’s worth, a quarter of Britain’s population from the glory days of limited channels) a great deal of the absurdity of judgmental support systems when you are poor. How demeaning, how belittling, how ultimately idiotic they are. How a bit of respectful support early on could stop that terrifying descent and the loss of everything. Dignity, hope, marriage, children. The demolishing of a family. This is a battle we continue to fight, I imagine will always have to fight. People with privilege never seem to quite believe that poverty isn’t the fault of the poor, this seems the most massive of hurdles. Even when the privileged do cross it, the poor or working classes too often remain a ‘class’, a cypher, never become fully human in all their potential and possibilities and everyday kind of flaws. They are always other.
I think one of the true successes of this film, as in Up the Junction, was how Loach succeeded in bringing alive workers and those finding themselves homeless, making them real for a broader audience. These films make them entirely human. They reveal the brutal and exaggerated consequences of bad luck, the easily-trodden pathways to despair that abound in our society for those without wealth or property or connections. Above all, I loved that Cathy herself got to speak and be heard, got to tell her story.
A newly growing majority once again.
It starts though, as life usually starts….Cathy (Carol White) arriving in the big city, falling in love with Reg (Ray Brooks). Their romance is set against the housing programme of their times, as they climb up and up and stare out over the slums. ‘It’s all coming down’ Reg tells her. It is only a backdrop here, not yet the loss which will define their lives.
Like the other films, their story is interspersed with bits and pieces of others. The film goes from their from wedding to the visit of a health worker conniving with a daughter in overcrowded lodgings to get her dad put into home. It broke my heart this banal conversation about him as if he were not there even though there he sits, the clinical discussion of his incontinence and his face… oh his face trying to hold in the emotion.
The boys are coming home, she says, we don’t have space to keep him. Like he’s a pet. Yet true enough, there is no space to keep him. There is no larger house on the horizon.
For Cathy and Reg all starts out well. A flat that feels like home. Until Reg’s accident. The loss of his job. Cathy’s pregnancy. They go seeking for a room and there is nothing, and over the top of it all documentary voices discussing the lack of housing, the overcrowding. The documentary voice dissasociating itself from the very human struggles over home.
And thus begins the great descent.
First to Reg’s family’s home. Kids and laundry everywhere, SO MANY KIDS, so many pregnant women. The voices of its residents describing their lives there.
One bedroom, no married life…
You can sit on the toilet and cook your breakfast…
Reg’s mother (Winifred Dennis — poor Winnifred Dennis, the horrible racist mother in The End of Arthur’s Marriage as well) going on and on about her having done her bit, raised her own children, going at Cathy saying she’s been teaching her boy dirty habits, worrying her son so he drove off the road. That awful nitpicking voice.
Still, I liked seeing this life now gone. Hope still lived here with them.
It gets to be too much so they take another step down, to a cheaper street — people talking about how horrible these streets are, the boarded up windows, the rats, the noises from the empty houses. But there is also the camaraderie, the friends, the jokes.
This film is full of amazing views of the old two-up-two-downs. The landlady is kindly, forgives the arrears. But death takes her, and the nephew demands the money.
The council begins to come in to its incompetent and horrible own. A man explains the point system, the lack of housing (and hello Geoffrey Palmer!). They are visited by another council worker telling them their house isn’t fit to live in and he will have to evict them — they are living in one room as it is too damp upstairs for the children. His reaction when they tell him they’re being evicted already by the landlord?
Oh good, it saves me from doing what I don’t want to do.
Day of the eviction they barricade themselves in, bailiffs beat the door down, throw all of their things into the road in front of the huge neighbourhood crowd. There is no drama here really, it just rolls on relentlessly the way poverty does.
Another step down. Off to the caravan, past a long line of junked cars. A cast of brilliant characters, a sense of community. Men in the pub, women bringing in the water. My favourite quote of the film (loosely quoted mind you)
You’ll never find a louse, because we know how to thwart them. With the devil’s dung.
Another telling quote from those not so fond of the life.
Once you’re in a caravan you’ve gone as low as you can go.
With the building of a new housing development, new neighbours give speeches about slums on wheels, hold meetings, speak with all their petty fury about the caravans, and how yes that’s a traditional gypsy camping ground but these aren’t gypsies, they’re scroungers. They throw rocks thrown through caravan windows, firecrackers.
Scenes go from talking about hops, potato picking, enjoying laughter in pub to a caravan set on fire, and dead children. The hatred is shocking.
Cathy and Reg search again. No children allowed anywhere. From caravan they look to a boat. Another good quote:
people tend to deteriorate when they’re living on boat… they turn it into a slum…
And so they yield to the worst — emergency shelter, women and children only. They have to interview for it and again we are face to face with just how horrible the council is as the case worker (or whatever his title might have been) tries to catch them out in lying, to convince them that they don’t want it, that other tenants aren’t very nice. That he can’t accommodate the father, that they have to pay rent for it, that it is only one room. Treats them like dirt.
Nurse sends Reg off at the gates, and you know that this is probably the end for them. Another clinical voice
Many social workers feel that all homeless families are problem families. If they weren’t when they arrive, they are when they leave…
This place is full of even more women and children.
What shocked me, I suppose, was the same old blaming of immigrants for the lack of housing, the same horrible attempts to control the women body and soul, the same treatment of them as less than human. The same program forcing them to abstinence and hunger and the scrubbing of floors on their knees, the same as fucking Margaret Harkness (1854-1923) described in her illuminating investigations of workhouses. It shocked me that so little had changed.
So I was happy to see her get angry, see her talk back to the nurse talking down to all of them. See her snapping at the social workers snidely asking if she’s even married after telling her that her husband has stopped paying for her. Not even a thought to what that means. I was happy, but terrified too, because I knew what that would cost her. Privilege can’t bear to be talked back to. Charity requires humility and submission from its objects, which is perhaps one of the worst things about it. It is the thing I hate most.
I cried as she runs, is caught, is left sitting alone after her children are taken.
I wish that such stories remained in the past. But welcome back to 1966.
This post is so chock full of spoilers I could not bear for you to read it unless you have seen Ken Loach’s The End of Arthur’s Marriage (1965). Or plan never to see it.
Have you seen it?
Right. It opens with dancing — that funny canned dancing from some 60s television program, and the faces of two old people watching. Prurient, disapproving. It’s rather horrible. And into the script written by poet Christoper Logue, and the poetic chorus sung to a very modern, discordant kind of music. Which was the first surprise.
We are the little investors
We are afraid of Negroes and Jews
We are boring, it is easy to mock us
But what would you put in our place?
… Politicians love us
There’s much more, but I can find the lyrics nowhere, and who has time to transcribe them?
And so we are launched into the story after some nasty comments from the parents, their cross daughter, and the handing over of £400 to Arthur (Ken Jones — briefly in 3 Clear Sundays) with many an admonition. It’s their life savings, it’s the reason they’ve been so miserable all these years, it’s the reason they don’t have nice things, never had a holiday. It’s clear they don’t think much of him, so I had to wonder at why they should do such a thing. It’s some kind of Orwellian test. Father and daughter walk out the door and the camera pans disjointedly over suburban rows of brick houses and endless white window frames, the occasional semi-detached, you can see the subtle class distinctions street by street in the presence or absence of bow windows, the size of the gardens.
The curious greek chorus continues:
We are not very likeable
We are not very easy to like
We work in big cities
They sing of the great lower middle classes. I thought of Erich Fromm writing about how they are the mainstay of fascism, thought of Brexit and xenophobia.
Luckily, a huge brick wall and a door and we escape with Arthur and his daughter Emmy (Maureen Ampleford) into what feels like wilderness, a grass hill, flowers — yet you find out they have escaped into the gas works. A huge hill of slag and earth and they climb to the top.
A funny voiceover (I love these voiceovers, this mixing of documentary and film — a feature of everything I’ve seen so far) describing as a bureaucrat would this problem of a gas works (but not too much of a problem of course). There were Rhubarb fields here once…now just dust and cranes in the distance, industrial buildings. I have a slight fascination with gas works myself, so this has just built onto it another layer.
And so they arrive to stare at their gloomy house. Go inside and pick their way across broken floors, rubbish. Full of dismay. Encounter the agent, encounter a second family wishing to buy. (That’s Arthur on the left staring up).
While the nasty little son is propositioning Emmy and the wife is going on about tearing down walls and saying things like ‘We’re great friends of the Liberal candidate’, her husband pulls Arthur aside:
For god’s sake buy it, I can’t afford it … I buy the Times and read the Express, I’m ashamed of my parents…
The horrible couple get the house! It cuts to crowds cheering!
Neighbours, homeowners, open your ears! … Many are called but few are chosen…
Lose the house? Arthur and Emmy are overjoyed. The money is burning a hole in his coat and you know his in-laws are right not to trust him. Awful as they were I still felt a pang. But I did quite love his idea of treating his daughter to one impossibly wonderful day. They take a cab to the west end, walk down Oxford or Regent Street, arrive at Fortnum & Mason’s and OMG THE HATS! Again the old technique of zooming into other people’s conversations and then out again. I love it. Are those gangsters’ wives? They must be. Oh, and I forgot Ken Loach’s own cameo at the entrance.
They wander. I chuckled out loud when the watch salesman burst into song. It was extremely, and I mean extremely, surprising.
They buy a gold watch.
More songs, surprise shot of half-naked indigenous women in their village carrying out everyday tasks. That was a bit worrying really, but over all it is surreal and Brechtian and so while I had expected sadness and depression, instead I was all puzzled smiles. I enjoyed it, I mean, actually enjoyed it.
Still, there were to be honest unhappy couples everywhere. One moral is that happiness is not to be found in monogamy.
They go to the zoo. Police take them aside, walk them through huge space, white walls. But it’s not the wife’s call to the police that’s done it, but a surprise gift as Emmy is the 5-millionth ‘savage’ to visit. There is an absurd and quite wonderful homily on the horribleness of children. Another moral? But the nicest thing about this film is this father and daughter who seem so alien to the crabbed family they have left behind.
It cuts to a naked Adam and Eve running through the woods.
The narrator returns for these scenes, and others cut from a nature documentary, really it’s rather glorious. More songs, and this brilliant line:
that special kind of zoo called paradise
I don’t know quite what that sarcastic line means, but I like it. And then they buy an elephant. Of course. There forms a great parade of bright young things.
Arthur is lovely, absolutely lovely.
So they end up on a barge full of more people dancing, talking, music playing…everything the opposite of the home Arthur is returning to. The elephant disappears…I was very confused about that. I am not alone.
It all goes a little sad then, I guess it had to. Arthur drinks too much, upsets Emmy, throws the rest of the money away to float down the Thames. I was rather cross with him myself. His wife’s packed a suitcase for him and meets him at the door, and Emmy disappears inside. I worry about her, not so much Arthur who tosses the suitcase in the bushes and walks jauntily off.
I did like this film very much. Because it was so strange, because it felt so unpolished. And because it was fun. I did, however, find a great quote from Ken Loach himself, which I shall end this post on:
Yes, I was guilty of that (film). Christopher Logue, who’s a fine poet, had written a very funny, imaginative script, a surreal fantasy with songs by Stanley Myers about a man given some money to pay a deposit on a house and goes off and buys an elephant with his daughter. There were scenes involving the elephant going down a canal on a barge. There was no way I could achieve that. I could see it in my head, but I didn’t have the technique or experience to bring it off. I was the wrong person for the job, unfortunately. It was the first time I had shot anything on film too, and it was a total cock up
— Ken Loach on directing The End of Arthur’s Marriage (as found on Letterboxd)
Life is more than that house, that car, that work and more work endlessly striving for material possessions and life measured in their worth.
Luke Cage: Hero for Hire — I loved these, much prefer Luke Cage to Black Panther though I am not sure why… But maybe I am. My adopted home ground may have been South Central LA not NY, but these are the gritty streets, the hustlers, the African American and Spanish-speaking mix, the dirty cops, the unfair prison rap that you can never come out from under, the community clinic hanging on by the skin of its teeth that I know and love… and I know it’s still almost all white writers, but there’s inker Billy Graham and he had a shot or two.
Look at this opening cover. Maybe I love Luke Cage because it is as much (or maybe more) noir than superhero comic, look at the elements up in this mix:
True enough he’s unlike any superhero before him, just like his background and his neighbourhood — no surprise comics are as segregated as real life.
Straight out of (prison) hell to Harlem… Of course, it’s no surprise that I should think this is more like noir, because they make it hard to miss. There are all kinds of references, Luke’s just another PI, right?
There’s a homage to Dashiell Hammett in The Claws of Lionfang from Graham and Engelhardt, and a hint to what they’re kind of trying to do, but not too hard given Luke’s doing some of that ‘unromantic’ footwork, but it’s all to find a dude who can control giant cats with his mind:
There’s lot’s of this colourful language, like the writers can finally liberate themselves a little…
Three hours of expletives that never repeats? Goddamn, now that’s some street.
You gotta love Luke’s reactions to the superhero world too…
C’mon man…how many times have I said that to myself? Especially reading Iron Fist and those Fantastic All-American Four, but anyway.
I loved this issue. Doom assumes he has to hire a black man to find escaped slave robots who have also disguised themselves as black so they can better hide themselves after they have fled? A creaky setup, but there are some fucking layers here. Reminds me too, of that crazy quote from Ross Macdonald’s The Ivory Grin:
“I think you said she was a Negro”
“I have no race prejudice–”
“I don’t mean that. Black girls are unfindable in this city. I’ve tried.”
— Lew Archer to client
There are these moment when the distance between worlds crystallizes into just a few words, the off-hand commonsensical acknowledgment of just what a segregated society white folks have created, but treat as just the way of things.
Billy Graham comes more to the fore in Retribution, where he is co-scripter and artist. A side story, one of many, showing Luke Cage just can’t stop himself from helping people in trouble, and in this case the victims are the construction workers destroying condemned tenements for ‘yet another round of urban renewal’, and finding themselves trapped (like the tenants once were? are still?).
See, you’re just not going to find references to urban renewal in the Fantastic Four or the other story lines, not like this. I know I shouldn’t be surprised at the world reflected here in such ways, yet still I am. Something about this black superhero allows things to be seen that are usually ignored completely. Then and now. They are suddenly part of the script, a sudden awareness of another reality.
This guard advertises to find a job for himself in the personals? Almost makes you nostalgic….Check out these homemade costumes as well, they are pretty awesome…
Back to Rich Man: Iron Man — Power Man: Thief. George Tuska artist, Graham inker, Len Wein writer. And the moment Luke Cage becomes Luke Cage (Black) Power Man. A little Black Power never goes amiss. Sadly he also starts calling people sugar.
Of course in this world you can’t just take on a name like Power Man and think you won’t get challenged by the last dude who had that name already. This is from The Killer With My Name — Tony Isabella with assist from Len Wein, drawn Ron Wilson, inked V Colletta — check out those middle panels:
Turns out the old Power Man is a bit racist…I enjoyed the shit-kicking Luke Cage gave him. I also liked the ‘my family was so poor…’ joke.
You can see, though, that they keep switching the team around, not like Black Panther who got a solid run at a consistent identity.
On to Essentials Book 2 – My old favourite flowery comic book philosopher, from the Black Panther in fact, Don McGregor writes some deep thoughts in Look What They’ve Done To Our Lives Ma!:
and Luke Cage faces Cockroach and Piranha. Piranha is a nod to the comic world, Cockroach a nod to the world of slums and predatory hustlers and shitty housing. I like the mix.
But in later issues the writing starts shifting around, as does Luke’s character. He is more and more violent, thinks less and less, then thinks more… they’re reaching to figure out what to do with him, so there’s Chicago storylines from Marv Wolfman as editor/plot and Ed Hannigan guest scripter, with Mace — just another vet who didn’t get the help with his PTSD that he needed:
Luke running around trying to foil some harebrained scheme. And still succeeding with the ladies…
I don’t know why these panels make me laugh at loud, but they do. By the end of the volume it’s C. Claremont and Tuska
Oh shit, Black Buck? They came out and said it. Luckily there’s some people around to call him on it, sort of.
My favourite issue will be in a separate post — good old Mace starts up a gated community in the middle of nowhere and they try to blow up the Greyhound Bus Luke is on because it comes too close to their territory… I can’t even begin to describe how interesting that set up is to someone working on race and geography. Jaw dropping really. So I’ll keep that separate. It’s been interesting watching Cage change, get reimagined, first to be kinder, then to be more physical — though in truth all he knows to do is just go smashing in no matter what the odds.
I love it.
Sadly at the end he teams up with Iron Fist.
Oh, Iron Fist.
I might write about that essentials Vol. 1, I read them because Luke Cage comes in at the end…I also like the women in those stories I confess.
I might write too about the new Luke Cage series. I enjoyed them immensely, though I’m a little bit conflicted about some things maybe.
Anyway, to end with a little salute to Billy Graham.
I just finished Georges Perec, Species of Space and Other Pieces, it is wonderful. What struck me most forcibly was this list he gives of the uninhabitable, as it has struck so many. It is one of the most moving things I have ever read, without quite being able to put my finger on why. It captures somehow capital’s destruction of the earth, its destruction of urban spaces and housing, its carceral geographies. The madness of this world we have somehow created for ourselves. It invokes the misshapen forms that inhabiting the uninhabitable has produced, but in their absence. All this in a list.
I have thus set it apart. To read. To re-read. To return to.
The uninhabitable: Seas used as a dump, coastlines bristling with barbed wire, earth bare of vegetation, mass graves, piles of carcasses, boggy rivers, towns that smell bad
The uninhabitable: The architecture of contempt or display, the vainglorious mediocrity of tower blocks, thousands of rabbit hutches piled one above the other, the cutprice ostentation of company headquarters
The uninhabitable: the skimped, the airless, the small, the mean, the shrunken, the very precisely calculated
The uninhabitable: the confined, the out-of-bounds, the encaged, the bolted, walls jagged with broken glass, judas windows, reinforced doors
The uninhabitable: shanty towns, townships
The hostile, the grey, the anonymous, the ugly, the corridors of the Metro, public baths, hangars, car parks, marshalling yards, ticket windows, hotel bedrooms
factories, barracks, prisons, asylums, old people’s homes, lycees, law courts, school playgrounds
Time for more poems I think, poems of courage and beauty, poems about the fight for a better world. More from June Jordan.
— excerpts from Some Changes (1971)
a note beneath the title tells us this was written for a law passed to allow some light and air into the Lower East Side Slums…landlords complied by blasting false windows into brick.
4. Unskilled millions crammed old mansions
broke apart large rooms and took a corner
held a place a spot a bed a chair a box
a looking glass
and kept that space (except for death)
a safety now for fugitives
from infamy and famine
working hard to live.
5. In place of land that street the outhouse
to a horrifying speculation that would quarter
debase and shadow and efface
the pivacies of human being.
6. Real estate rose as profit spread
to mutilate the multitudes and kill them
living just to live
What can a man survive?
They say: The poor persist. (61)
10. The Tenement Act of 1869
was merciful, well-meant, and fine
in its enforcement
tore 47,000 windows out of hellhole
shelter of no light.
It must be hard to make a window. (62)
Poem about the Sweetwaters of the City
— from Poems of Return
the subway comes up
a quick one
two stops rattle rusted short
where the letters tell me
PLEASE KEEP HANDS OFF DOORS
(Or near there)
you assume the buildings and
the smallprint roadways and
the cornered accidents
of roof and oozing tar and ordinary concrete
It is not beautiful.
It never was.
These are the shaven
the city show
of what somebody means
when he don’t even bother
just to say
“I don’t give a goddamn”
“I hate you” (133)
This next one about the ways our lives are constrained by our intersecting identities…I have felt this, I have felt all of this.
Excerpt from Poem About My Rights
(From Passion – 1980)
Even tonight and I need to take a walk and clear
my head about this poem about why I can’t
go out without changing my clothes my shoes
my body posture my gender identity my age
my status as a woman alone in the evening/
alone on the streets/alone not being the point/
the point being that I can’t do what I want
to do with my own body because I am the wrong
sex the wrong age the wrong skin and
suppose it was not here in the city but down on the beach/
or far into the woods and I wanted to go
there by myself thinking about God/or thinking
about children or thinking about the world/all of it
disclosed by the stars and the silence:
I could not go and I could not think and I could not
as I need to be
alone because I can’t do what I want to do with my own
who in the hell set things up
like this (309)
Maybe this next one doesn’t quite fit here, not being a city, but displacement…oh, displacement feels the same, just as struggle does.
from Lebanon Lebanon
(Kissing God Goodbye – 1997)
behold the refugees
aroused by soap
behold a people
lost inside a landscape
that belongs to them
behold a landscape
taken by the fiend
of force (515)
And this one? This last one for hope and all the things we do because we must, the struggle that makes us who we are…
Excerpt from War and Memory
(Naming our Destiny – 1989)
I fell in love
I fell in love with Black Men White
women White women
dared myself to say The Palestinians
worried about unilateral words like Lesbian or Nationalist
tried to speak Spanish when I traveled to Managua
dreamed about The Fourteenth Amendment
defied the hatred of the hateful everywhere
as best I could
I took long nightly walks to emulate the Chinese Revolutionaries
always wore one sweater less than absolutely necessary to keep warm
and I wrote everything I knew how to write against apartheid
thought I was a warrior growing up
buried my father with all of the ceremony all of the music I could piece together
lust for justice
make that quest arthritic/pigeon-toed/however
invent the mother of the courage I require not to quit (470)
A good kind of synergy came from reading June Jordan and Jimmy Santiago Baca so close together — especially in these two poems describing the leaders of different struggles over justice and land. One in Chicago, one in Albuquerque. I love how this form captures so perfectly the different feel, the different place. At the same time they feel almost like two sides of my own life, L.A. tenant unions and my LA/ Tucson neighborhoods and every childhood Thanksgiving up in Albuquerque with my grandparents…
For Beautiful Mary Brown, Chicago Rent Strike Leader
— From Some Changes (June Jordan, 1971)
All of them are six
who wait inside that other room
where no man walks but many
talk about the many wars
Your baby holds your laboring arms
that bloat from pulling
up and down the stairs to tell
to call the neighbors: We can fight.
She listens to you and she sees
you crying on your knees or else
the dust drifts from your tongue and almost
she can feel her father standing tall.
Came to Chicago like flies to fish.
Found no heroes on the corner.
Butter the bread and cover the couch.
Save on money.
tell me how you wash hope hurt and lose
don’t tell me how you
sit still at the windowsill:
you will be god to bless you
Mary Brown. (p 48-49)
From Meditations on the South Valley
(Baca – 1985)
El Pablo was a bad dude.
Presidente of the River Rats
(700 strong), from ’67 to ’73.
Hands so fast
he could catch two flies buzzing
in air, and still light his cigarette.
From a flat foot standing position
he jumped to kick the top of a door jamb
twice with each foot.
Pants and shirt ceased and cuffed,
sharp pointy shoes polished to black glass,
El Pachucón was cool to the bone, brutha.
His initials were etched
on Junior High School desks,
Castañeda’s Meat Market walls,
downtown railway bridge,
on the red bricks of Civic Auditorium,
Uptown & Downtown,
El Pachucón left his mark.
Back to the wall, legs crossed, hands pocketed,
combing his greased-back ducktail
when a jaine walked by. Cool to the huesos.
Now he’s a janitor at Pajarito
Elementary School — still hangs out by the cafeteria, cool to the bone, el vato still wears his sunglasses, still proud,
he leads a new gang of neighborhood parents
to the Los Padilla Community Center
to fight against polluted ground water,
against Developers who want to urbanize
his rural running grounds
Standing in the back of the crowd
last Friday, I saw Pablo stand up
and yell at the Civic Leaders from City Hall
“Listen cuates, you pick your weapons We’ll fight you on any ground you pick.” (72)
Giszowiec is utterly, completely different from Nikiszowiec, though designed by the same architects and both built in Katowice. I am still quite bewildered that George and Emil Zillmann should build Nikiszowiec in dense quadrangled apartments and Giszowiec after the model of Howard’s garden city. In almost the exact same year — 1907 to 1908.
From the slightly institutional-feeling density of Nikiszowiec (below part of the central square), Macin drove us to the place of his upbringing, Giszowiec (below part of the central park):
It is almost impossible to photograph Giszowiec, with its curving roads and single and duplexed housing.
This view from above does it better, I am just sad it is not mine…
Perhaps its lack of photogeneity is why there is not the same impetus to put it on the tourist maps. We are lucky, perhaps, that it survives at all, as more housing was needed and much was torn down to built the high-rise housing that in places looms over the small family homes. They have much charm, these homes, even when run down or under reconstruction:
And above them the mine:
A German company ran the mine, German engineers held the priviliged positions and also the nicest corner houses sprinkled throughout Giszowiec to maintain some level of integration and control within the community.
A little off the main roads, and sometimes just along one side, you can still see neglect and age:
But yay Sputnik street
The weird home-made
We sat outside the restaurant there, part of a large complex of community halls and services along the park that I signally failed to photograph — as I did the bakery and shops, the first place of care specialising in supporting kids with Down Syndrome, the schools, the chess tables and many other things that were built here (just as in Nikiszowiec, yet so very differently) to improve the lives of workers.
I still find it so extraordinary. To improve the lives of workers. I am wondering where the impetus came from to build this housing so well, so permanently, with such support. I am trying to fit these examples into my understandings of the world, and it is hard, but it’s just because I don’t know enough.
Of course, Macin remembers when the pollution was terrible here, when the streets were rougher, grayer, when kids reluctantly did their public service in the park. He tried to explain it wasn’t quite paradise, and we believed him. yet for myself it was a belief of rational mind only. It feels quite different, staring at the lush green park full of services, the neat little houses and allotments and gardens. For workers.
The miners continue to have more power here than ever they did in the US (or the UK) I think, I still haven’t quite got my head around how different it is in the two places. It is as striking as the differences between the strength and politics of dockworkers in the UK and the US. The new government has committed completely to coal, the mines are safer and cleaner than they have ever been, miner’s salaries are twice the median wage. Their influence isn’t entirely (possibly not much at all) for the good. There is a whole complex history here that I know I have only scratched the surface of — the resistance against the communist government seen in Nova Huta (a third strikingly different type of worker housing along utopian lines), rumblings that would help to bring it down. The strikes, and the violent suppressions. On the way back to our hotel, we passed by Wujec Coal mine, where in 1981 the government sent tanks in to suppress the uprising of the union Solidarity.
The crosses commemorate the nine miners killed.
A powerful day, to see all of this. So much to think about, come back to. I hope to do more work around mining, and these contrasts feel important.
Nova Huta was built in a Poland dominated by Stalin to be an exemplar of urban planning, a workers’ paradise.
Some say also to be one-in-the-eye for a literary, intellectual Krakow.
It’s also all about steel. Poland ‘refused’ aid from the U.S. through the Marshall Plan, turning instead to a 1948 economic agreement with the USSR to provide it 1.5-2 million tons of steel per year. In 1949 the site of Nova Huta was decided on, to be built on 11 thousand hectares of rich soil and three villages. I am writing in more passive voice throughout this post, because agency is complex though ultimately I suppose it was mostly about Stalin. This land was taken, as the book (finally a book in English with more context, even if only a write-up of an exhibition held here in the lovely little museum that used to belong to the scouts, with chapters written by the curators Paweł Jagło and Maria Lempert) states:
sometimes without financial compensation. The investment was realized against the will of inhabitants of the villages near Krakow, who felt deeply harmed by this decision. (17)
This immense steelworks, named after Lenin, started operation on 22 July 1954 using Soviet technology. After 1956, more modern technology in the form of machines designed by Tedeusz Senzimir (American of Polish descent) was brought in. Senzimir — who workers wanted to name the factory after in 1989, and did briefly. Now of course, through the glories of global capital, it is Arcellor-Mittal Poland.
Architecture (Paweł Jagło)
It is curious to me, coming from a country where social housing was always a victory for our people, to read the inner conflict and diffidence in descriptions of this place imposed and in many ways representative of outside oppression despite its positive role in the lives of so many. Interesting how this then folds into architectural and social critiques of such density of worker housing, and the underlying ideals of this kind of utopian planning. Paweł Jagło writes:
‘The winning design, which was a creative comment on the Renaissance idea of the ideal city, was submitted by Tadeusz Ptasycki (1908-1980)… Housing estates designed for 4-5 thousand people were built around public utilities and services like kindergartens, schools, playgrounds and parks. Services (shops etc.) were located on ground floors of residential building by main streets.
Each housing estate became a well-defined self-contained ‘mini-city’ within the bigger urban establishment of Nowa Huta.’ (23)
Look at this model, amazing:
The dominant style of that time, force-fed to the people by the Communist regime, was that of Socialist Realism….a historicising mannerism based on the Renaissance and Baroque periods. (23)
A view from the central plaza now, though not from the optimum height:
I am puzzled by some sentences, that again imply that the imposition of style and form was not as simple as it might look, but perhaps is just to ensure that the architects are not let completely off the hook.
Nowa huta’s socialist realist architecture was criticised for ideological reasons. Experts were of the justifiable opinion that architects gave in to the authorities too easily. (28)
Honestly though, it’s quite all right this place, even on a muggy afternoon in the rain. And it is not, after all, all of a sameness. The first estates, built between 1949 and 1951, ‘were designed in the fashion of pre-war working class estates in Warsaw to save time and money.’ Not too long after, the style ‘allowed’ for architecture was expanded:
Another feature of the new style were greater spaces between buildings…as a result, the estates were partly mini-cities and partly gardens.
This place is indeed full of trees, plants, green. Almost more pleasant than the sound of the modernist buildings (like the Swedish building, which we didn’t go see because of the rain) ‘in the Szklane Domy Estate, following the style of Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation of Marseilles.'(25)
I really hate Le Corbusier. He would have been confused about where the servants were supposed to live.
Walking around we found the theatre:
The cinema (now a Tesco, yay capitalism. Though I won’t deny queues suck and shelves with food you can buy are good things):
The stylish cafe for workers, where we had a nice meal:
We passed men playing chess on the tables provided in the park along the main boulevard, despite the rain:
The housing — and people who obviously love and care for it as evidenced by their balconies:
Supposed to hold 100,000 people, the 100,000th person moved in to Nova Huta at the end of 1959. Yet the steel plant continued to expand and so the housing for the workers expanded also (that at least is refreshing). Four more estates were built in 1968, three others along an old airstrip in the 1970s, and another in the 1980s.
Curiously enough there is mention of gentrification, put forward by a sociologist named Jacek Gądecki, which I am most curious about. But that is to return to later.
Also curious — or not — is the way that Nova Huta became a base for the toppling of Poland’s communist regime. Initially it crystallized around religion.
Defence of the Cross – Paweł Jagło
Jagło writes of the famous incident — called the Defence of the Cross — that began a long history of simmering revolt and rebellion in Nova Huta:
Defence of the Cross in Teatralne housing estate was the first major rebellion of the people of Nowa Huta against communist authorities. (30)
It took place in 1960, after agitation to get their own church (hardly surprising the original development was designed without one, though several were located nearby). Finally promised a church, the bureaucracy back-pedaled and delayed. A cross was placed on the location, but new plans were put forward to build a school instead. As construction crews came to remove the cross, women defended it and thus began days of mass confrontation. The new, amazingly modernist church called the Lord’s Ark was built as a result further down the road, but eventually a church was built here too, and a cross remains as a reminder.
Another focus of anger was Lenin’s Statue, put up in Plaz Centralny.
Lenin’s Statue – Paweł Jagło
Marian Konieczny created this quite amazing hulking beetle-browed statue of Lenin (reminding me immensely of Israel Singer’s description of him in The Brothers Ashkenazi), and it was erected on the 100th anniversary of his birth on 20th April, 1970.
Lenin lived in Krakow for a few years of his exile, and we had spent some time in his footsteps during our time there. It is full of both irony and tragedy to me that his statue should become a symbol of a regime of very real oppression, a lightening rod for anger and resentment. Nova Huta’s residents both mocked and attempted to destroy it in many creative ways — trying to shoot the head off with a light canon, spraying it with Valerian drops to encourage cats to defecate on statue, placing old rubber boots and a bike in front with a sign reading ‘Here’s some old shoes and a bike, now out of Nowa Huta, take a hike!’ Someone tried to blow it up, succeeding only in damaging one of the legs while blowing out windows all around it and injuring a number of people. Bricks and stones and paint were thrown.
Authorities removed Lenin’s statue on 10th December 1989.
Eventually it was bought by a Swedish millionaire named Big Bengt Erlandsson, who took it to the High Chaparral Theme park in southern Sweden.
A pause here. Because we need one.
Anti-communist opposition – Paweł Jagło
In 1979 a group started the ‘Christian Community of Working People’, who began publishing a samizdat magazine Nova Huta Cross. This was a beginning of the intertwined resistance movements, bringing together Catholicism and trade unionism. There is a look at Solidarity here, which I find fascinating, but necessarily very simplified and brief.
After the beginning strikes at Gdansk shipyard, a strike was called at Nowa Huta and a branch of Solidarity formed. In 1980 they formed the Steelworkers’ Working Committee. I’m sure it did more than bring crosses (all consecrated in the Lord’s Ark Church) and banners into all departments of the Steelworks, but this is what is highlighted here. On 13th December 1981 martial law was introduced, Nowa Huta declared a strike. Three days later the plant was ‘pacified’. (41) Continuing demonstrations through 1982 and 1983 were followed by raids and repressing. Another strike in April 1988 was suppressed, but all of this was part of the build up towards 1989 and regime change. Jagło writes:
‘And so, Nova Huta slowly began to rid herself of the ‘socialist city’ tag. The change of image continues to this day.’ (42)
I am not sure what I make of that.
Myths – Maria Lempert
This is the final section, very brief but quite illuminating I think, in showing the swirls of contention around such a project. :
Myth 1 –Nova Huta built in place of poverty-stricken villages to improve the lives of residents. (They were quite all right thank you)
Myth 2 – it was a ‘socialist godless city’. (They were quite religious and god-fearing thank you)
Myth 3 – the steelworks polluted Krakow and caused depreciation of historic monuments. (There are lots of other factories polluting Krakow, given weather patterns, Nova Huta’s steelworks are mostly polluting Nova Huta)
Myth 4 -the most common and enduring myth of all, wherever you may go:
and the most deeply rooted in the minds of Cracovians is the opinion that Nova Huta was and still is the most dangerous of all of Krakow’s districts, full of social pathology typical of areas populated by the working class. (50)
There is much more to be explored, I hope I have the chance to do so one day. Particularly as this connects to worker housing elsewhere like the homes built for Katowice’s miners at Nikiszowiec and Giszowiec.
That Poland has gone for Ronald Reagan as a new hero after whom the central should be named perhaps embodies much of what is going wrong now…
In Nikiszowiec, the housing is terribly terribly permanent. Coming from a place where company housing was built, picked up, moved, rebuilt, swallowed by pits, this seems very strange. It has all the weight of New Lanark, if not quite the grace. It is solid in red brick, windows, doors and balconies picked out in bright red paint and wonderful details built into each and every facade.
It is beautiful. I know that does not mean it is necessarily a beautiful place to live. It does have a vaguely institutional feel, like the Peabody estates in London, which are from much the same time period.
Built between 1908 and 1912 to house workers in the backyard of their place of employment – the large smoke-churning Wieczorek (formerly ‘Giesche’) coal mine – the enclosed residential complex of Nikiszowiec is composed of six compact four-sided three-storey blocks with inner courtyards. Distinguished by its uniformity of style – red brick buildings accented with red-painted windowframing, and narrow streets joined by handsome arcades – the neighbourhood was designed by Georg and Emil Zillman of Berlin-Charlottenburg to be a completely self-sufficient community for 1,000 workers with a school, hospital, police station, post office, swimming pool, bakery and church. Thanks to WWI and the subsequent Silesian Uprisings – St. Anne’s Church (Pl. Wyzwolenia 21) wasn’t able to be finished until 1927, but it became the crowning glory of the neighbourhood as soon as it was.
There is almost nothing written about them online in English, a fragment from google books notes that the Zillman’s were inspired by worker’s housing built by Krupp, and just as paternalistic. It is still owned by the company, but has become the subject of town regeneration and an attempt to get it declared a UNESCO heritage site. This explains both some of the crispness and the roughness around the edges, which I confess I liked very much.
A model of the development as a whole:
Nikiszowiec: Public Spaces:
A large central square, with church, hall, pubs, shops, cafes:
Each courtyard had room for ovens, playgrounds, animals…
Arches, and long beautiful streets. We heard they are normally filled with children, but weekends they are more for the tourists. The locals eyed us with indifference if not annoyance, and traces of an array of opinions about just why we thought this should be worthy of visiting at all:
The ‘Naive Art’ fair just starting as we left:
One rumour goes that every arch is different, and these differences were introduced to ensure that drunk miners always found their way home to the correct door…
Graffiti that means ‘fuck the police’, though an alternative explanation is that it means something like Put Your Windows in Your Basement from the days of a rumour that the police were raiding people looking for pirated copies of Windows.
And finally the mine itself:
Building community, building housing…and this is only the first of the two complexes of worker housing the Zillman’s built. The other, Giszowiec, is completely different and also for another post.