Tag Archives: women writing cities

Karen Tei Yamashita: I Hotel

I just finished I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita. The last book started on a holiday that already seems months ago. It is splendid, one of the best things I have ever read I think for its power of storytelling, its innovations, its illustrations, the way it brings together these interconnecting lives circled around a single building and a struggle to change the world.

Two full years of my own life were spent in just such a struggle to save a residential hotel, our Morrison Hotel a mix of white, Latinx, African American, ours not knitted deep into an activist community through shop fronts or anything like the community of old Manilatown. Ours sat where it once fitted the scale and character of the street, but the long-ago razing of neighbourhood had left it more isolated, almost anomalous so close to the convention centre. Our generation did not believe the revolution was upon us, did not quote Mao to frame our defiance of capitalism, did not raise fists over small points of praxis. yet so much resonated, it made me ache. I miss my LA family.

I loved all of it, could have quoted anywhere, but you know the bit I am quoting ridiculously extensively below is about cities–like Tropic of Orange, this is all about the city but so different from that novel… This is long, also brilliant in how it says so much about the place of hotels in our world of work and poverty, about home, about nation, and opening with the solidarities that were, that could be, that should be built:

Thus we emerged from every living crevice in our hilly city, every tenement, blighted Victorian, public housing project, cheap hotel, single or collective rental, many of us the forgotten and abandoned people whose voices were muffled in the underbelly of working poverty, stuffed into the various ethnic ghettos, we the immigrants from the Old and New Worlds, from the black and white South and tribal America, we the dockworkers from the long shore, we the disabled and disavowed vets, we the gay and leathered, we the garment workers, restaurant workers, postal and clerical workers, we who praised the Lord in his house at Glide and his People’s Temple, we of the unions, tired and poor, we the people.

But why save an old hotel?

Because if we remembered the history of our city we would remember how frontier towns began: with a trading post and a saloon with a second floor of lodging rooms. … When we took everything away and thought only about the second floor of lodging rooms, we remembered that people have always come from distances and had to be accommodated, given shelter and a bed, and what we used to call board…

This basic town got complicated and multiplied into a thing we call a city, with every kind of reinvented trading post and saloon and lodging that over time we could imagine. And we supposed that the history of any city could be told through the comings and goings of any trading post or saloon, but thinking as we do, as people coming to the city to find work to pay for shelter and board, whether just for ourselves or for our families accompanying or  left behind, it was the lodging that most concerned us. And we could see how city life and hotel life were inextricably connected, and what the city had to offer had a home in the hotel. Over time, we’d forgotten that hotels in our city have long served as temporary but also permanent homes, that living in hotels had been a normal consequence of living in our city. From the inception of our city, our city life could perhaps be translated as hotel life, the way that we as young, single, and independent people could arrive to find work in the industry of the city, find the small cafes and bars, theaters and social clubs, laundries, shops, and bookstores, all within walking distance or perhaps a cable stop away. Even if we did not actually live in hotels, we may have participated in, if not considered, the simple luxuries of life: the bustling social life of our streets, the hotels’ communal restaurants and social galas, the convenience of maid service and bedsheets changed, the possibility of being completely freed from any housework, the possible leisure to think or to create, and finally the anonymity and privacy of a room of our own. Hotel life defined the freedom of the city, but such freedom has been for some reason suspect, and there are always those who want to police freedom.

Finally, like the society that evolved in our city, there have been, of course, hotels for those with money and hotels for those of us with not so much money. And even though the city required our labor and allowed us housing in cheap hotels, in time we came to know that laboring people are necessary but considered transitory. Eventually, it was thought, we’d just go away or become invisible. So even if hotels depended on our constant occupancy, we were not considered permanent or stable members of society. We did not own homes. We may have had families, but hotels were suspect places to raise children, and so we were suspect families. Our communal lives in hotels with shared bathrooms and shared dining, shared genders, shared ethnicities, and heaven forbid, shared thinking that might lead to shared politics, were also suspect. Hotel life might even be subversive. A famous scholar who studied our hotel life warned us that when there are no homes, there will be no nation. But what did he mean by home? And, for that matter, what did he mean by nation?

By the time we got the red alert to place our bodies in a human barricade around an old hotel that held seventy years of our city’s hotel history, we were already the displaced people in the city’s plan to impose a particular meaning of home and a particular meaning of nation. Since our hotel life was considered suspect morally and socially, our hotels should naturally be replaced by proper single-family houses built in locations distant from the city, and our hotels and all our businesses that services us should be replaced with what the city was properly useful for: trading posts, jails, courthouses, and saloons. And no one should be allowed to live over a saloon unless he was just passing through. A commercial room was simply not a dwelling. These edicts were substantiated  by zoning and blight laws…Almost as quickly as an earthquake, our neighborhoods located in the Fillmore and South of Market were already razed and being replaced by forty-eight-story multinational corporate trading posts. Even if we were expected to build, maintain, clean, and service these posts, we weren’t expected to live anywhere nearby. Be at work promptly at eight a.m., but please, please disappear by five p.m. But this was an impossible request because we could not leave, and we had nowhere to go. (588-591)

We could not leave, and had nowhere to go.

I love how this situates the residential hotel in a long history of city building, in the development of our urban form. How little things have really changed — though this makes me see US cities with new eyes. Seeing the saloon, the trading post, the lodging house. The change is in the way that capital is working, the way that workers are no longer welcome in the city centre, the disciplining of the poor into certain kinds of homes or punitively forcing them into homelessness. This captures both so beautifully, captures just what it was we were fighting over — not just the profit that owners wished to make on a building they had violently extracted every penny from at the cost of its tenants, but their ability to flick aside human beings and their security and their dreams as if they were nothing. The structural workings of race and class and labour and value that made such cruelty possible. The I Hotel was lost in 1977, and still we were fighting in 2007. Others still fight today, is there any organisation I love and respect more than LA CAN?

As two thousand of us were eventually bullied away from the hotel entrance, we saw our sheriff enter at the head of his deputies, leading them into the hotel and the final phase of the eviction, breaking into the doors of each of the hotel tenants and ordering them to leave their homes. And yes, we knew that each room was a tiny home, a place of final refuge for a lifetime of work, and the the room, though housed in a hotel, was sill a home. (591-592)

The last paragraph excavates something inside of me. Why we do, why we write.

And in time we may remember, collecting every little memory, all the bits and pieces, into a larger memory, rebuilding a great layered and labyrinthine, now imagined, international hotel of many rooms, the urban experiment of a homeless community built to house the needs of temporary lives. And for what? To resist death and dementia. To haunt a disappearing landscape. To forever embed this geography with our visions and voices. To kiss the past and you good-bye, leaving the indelible spit of our DNA on still moist lips. Sweet. Sour. Salty. Bitter. (605)

[Karen Tei Yamashita (2010) I Hotel. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press.]

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Margaret Harkness: Out of Work

margaret harkness, out of workJohn Law (really Margaret Harkness, 1888)

Spoiler alert — and the biggest spoiler perhaps is that as fiction this book is actually, and so sadly, really terrible. Except for the accidental hilarity of some of the prose. Stolid, worthy, and yet also raising all of my class hackles. And I mean ALL of them. But she’s a Victorian woman living on her own in the East End and writing about it, which makes her interesting.

margaret harknessThe excellent introduction from Bernadette Kirwan gives what background we have on Margaret Harkness, a distant cousin of Beatrice Webb Potter, born in 1854, her father a rector from Upton-on-Severn in Worcerstershire. She moved to London in 1877 and trained as a nurse, but soon changed to a literary career, writing articles for various publications and three novels of East End life of which this is one. The first was A City Girl, criticised by Engels for not being realistic enough and portraying the working classes as too passive. The third, Captain Laboe: a story of the Salvation Army. She was also a member of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), and Beatrice Webb Potter noted her utopian ideals and impatience with theory, making this a fraught political relationship. It could not have been too much of a surprise when she later moved closer to the Salvation Army and then dropped out of political organising (and our view) completely.

The novel opens in a Wesleyan Chapel, and this strange thread of religion continues through the book — highly descriptive and very judgmental, yet I don’t think the judgment is quite the same as my own nor altogether negative. What I loved about this book are the details that are surely drawn from her observations (mostly after her own judgments have been expunged), like this verse from the service:

God, the offended God, most high.
Ambassadors to rebels sends
His messengers His place supply,
And Jesus begs us to be friends.
While the wicked are confounded.Doomed to flames and woe unbounded,
Call me with Thy saints surrounded,
O God of love! (9)

I couldn’t make that kind of terrifying religious view up. Nor this other kind of view of Whitechapel streets from a middle-class perspective:

They went through back streets, full of trucks covered with unwholesome looking fishes, fishes whose names are unknown in polite society, whose huge heads and minute bodies are only appreciated in Whitechapel. Tubs of pickled cucumbers stood on moveable tables, and by these were stalls covered with cockles, pigs’ feet, and large tins of eel broth. The inhabitants of the slums were holding a Sunday picnic, indulging in dainty East End dishes,which they bought at low price, and washed down with draughts from a neighboring public house.

“Hokey-pokey! who’ll buy it?” cried a man. He was wheeling a tin down the middle of the road, a tin full of ice, cut in squares and wrapt in paper. The ragged boys and girls flocked round him, for they enjoyed ice-cream more than sour cucumbers, and hokey-pokey seldom made its appearance on week-days, but always came on Sundays to furnish a dessert to the picnic, an “end-up” to the out-door repast. How the dirty little feet danced! How the grimy little hands clapped! (21).

Ice-cream called hokey-pokey! There is also this splendid view of their lodger, Mr Cohen’s shop. He is a barber, dentist and purveyor of cosmetics, and beneath the bust of Gladstone hangs this verse which he wrote himself (and I can’t help but think somewhere there must have been a barber just like this one, who did in fact write this fabulous verse):

Heads of great men all remind us
We can make our heads sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Headprints on the sands of time (33).

The home of the protagonists is a mark of their status — one that keeps the mother aloof even from other church people. Mrs. Elwin keeps a tidy house of up to twelve lodgers and one maid servant for them all, whose sad life is spent dreaming of aristocrats in romance, even though her own ‘short stout figure seemed made to carry buckets’ (27).  Again, the house seems to be one Harkness has seen (or a composite thereof). It’s decorated with wax flowers, oil paintings of Mrs Elwin and her dead husband facing each other, and most astonishingly, the skeleton of a dead cat on top of the bookshelf.  The best mouser she’d ever had. A later description of it also offers a taste of the diversity of the East End at the time, the way that so many different kinds of people lived alongside each other (though immigration as a problem runs throughout the commentary given by open-air speakers and reported conversations, along with the need to send people ‘back where they come from’). This is Mrs. Elwin to a man from the church she wants to marry her daughter Polly:

I’ve often asked myself whatever would become of us…I’ve had so many Jews here at once, that one of my rooms has been made into a synagogue without my knowing it. I’ve had six Mohammedans standing their feet in tubs of water at the back, because they couldn’t say their prayers till they’d done their heathen habits. I’ve had black men, what have run up and downstairs in nothing but their night shirts. I’ve civilised many of em…. (147)

In her descriptions, Margaret Harkness certainly provides a number of details on the geographies of class and status:

People who live in Shoreditch, or St-George’s-in-the-East, are apt to be confounded with their poorer neighbours by the uninitiated, although the initiated know that there is a greater distance between a dressmaker and a charwoman than between a countess and the wife of a successful merchant (42).

And the Methodist ‘heroine’ Polly Elwin dreams only of a little house in Hackney with regular visits from the butchers. Harkness later describes her: ‘Natures like hers are incapable of deep feeling; they always love their fellow-creatures in a qualified manner. They vacillate from pillar to post; and stay longest at the point where they discover their own interest’ (151).

It’s clear that Harkness can see no humour, no promise, no real dreams in the people she describes. Of one of the regular open-air speakers from the Mile End waste near the People’s Palace (what’s left of it incorporated into Queen Mary University where I’m now working), she writes:

That man had a very barren mental history. He was one of the many people crushed out by our present competitive system…His crude, narrow ideas were fast crystallising…His brain was losing its power of gathering from fresh sources, beginning to exercise itself upon the small stores of knowledge stowed away in its cells. Personal experiences had made him bitter (59).

This after describing a tiny room he inhabits with his wife and baby daughter, with walls blackened by smoke and smuts blackening the face of his wife and his only reading the torn pages of books he has rescued from rubbish. To her they are very less than human, even as she acknowledges it is environment that has made them that way (the man above could have been a judge she says, if only things were different).

The hero — whose quest for work gives the title, the moral and the bulk of social commentary to the novel, is a young man named Joseph Coney (‘he looked as most young men of his class look, until one has time to recognise their individuality’ (39)).  Describing Jos’s descent from recently arrived country carpenter looking for work and renting a room from the Elwins to his forced move to a common lodging house, to his first fatal taste of gin to the doss house to the workhouse, there’s stuff like this:

It is commonly supposed that men of his class feel a sort of general spooniness, mixed with a good deal of animalism, for their sweethearts (106).

I’m not even sure what that means, this book is full of stereotyped visions of the working classes with some checks given by the reality she observes, but not very many. Class permeates this book and how she sees things. There’s more of the city when Jos heads down on his first day to work at the docks — a position so low it is impossible to return from it, a last hope for the money needed to stay alive:

Half-past six o’clock the following morning found Jos at Fenchurch Street station. Half-past six is an unpleasant hour in that part of the city. The streets look greasy. There are not enough people about to enliven the houses. Shops have shutters up; untidy girls are scrubbing doorsteps; no one is there, except men on their way to work, old women going to market, and that scum of the populace who sleep in any hole they can, and live in any way they may; bleating sheep and lowing cattle are being driven along by butchers; yawning policemen are talking over a suicide here, a murder there; lean dogs are acting as scavengers, ragged children are seeking breakfast in dust heaps and gutters. The damp morning air is adding to the unpleasant smells in the atmosphere.

Little wonder that public houses entice customers! (126-127)

Her descriptions of the doss house and all of its characters, including Squirrel, a little ‘foreign’ girl who takes care of Jos, seem drawn from observation, as does that of the workhouse. Jose is set to break granite and he can’t do it, instead injuring himself as a splinter of stone injures his eye and seals his fate. Polly marries her Methodist class leader while Jos walks home to his village and dies of starvation on top of his mother’s grave. Squirrel jumps into the Thames, unable to bear London without Jos. It is one hell of a morality tale.

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