Letters to Slingshot

What happens when history washes away?

Dear Slingshot

This letter is in response to Alec’s article in the Winter 2005 Slingshot, “Grasping the Spirit of New Orleans.”

What struck me about this article was Alec’s attempt to get to the heart of what makes home. What are all the little bits of life that converge in one space at one time to create the experience and feeling of “home”? And when a disaster like Katrina wipes neighborhoods clean of moms-dads-kids-cars-fences-gardens-stoops-motion-color-activity-stillness, what remains? And even if people return to the decimated neighborhoods they call home, what has been lost in the meantime? What is it that ceases to be?

When I first moved to the East Bay from New Mexico almost 2 years ago, I assumed the ever creepy Emeryville had been a case of sprawl, developers snatching up empty lots and dormant warehouses to create a pre-fab chain store city. Never would I have known, were it not for the lovely plaque the city of Emeryville erected in homage to the past it has eaten up, that this area was once home to speakeasies, brothels, gambling, and all the other “seedy” and rich tokens of life flush with railroad tracks. Who knew that somewhere in the not-so-distant history, there behind the Home Depot and Semi-Freddi’s Bakery Cafe, the gambling men and brothel moms lorded over Emeryville? Now the filled in marshlands, sterile suburbia built on trash heaps, is left to shoppers with a penchant for double non-fat decaf lattes and cheap mass produced Swedish furniture.

It made me think of what Alec was getting at when he tried to describe “what we, who love the city, might have collectively lost amidst all our personal losses and tragedies…”? What he described as “…the way that banana leaves sound when the rain drums against them… the people who sit on their front stoops, or if there are people on their front stoops, and what they say to you when you go by. Like what is sold in a grocery store…-organic chai for $6.99 or collard greens for 49 cents.” What makes New Orleans, or Albuquerque or Oakland a “home”, a shared experience for thousands of people? And when disaster strikes, when hurricanes or tsunamis or civil wars demolish entire neighborhoods and cities, will what is built in their place be “home”? As New Orleans regains it’s footing from Katrina, the next (un)natural disaster they face is the storm of developers vying for the decimated sweeps of NO’s cityscape. So what happens when the natural disaster is good ol’ gentrification?

Moving from Albuquerque during its first waves of widespread gentrification, I saw the old neighborhoods of downtown, home to generations of Hispanic families, breached and infiltrated to build pricey homes for wealthy transplants from California and New York seeking “culturally rich” places to live. I watched “culture” commodified and sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars. I watched as gentrification’s mascot — the sage green, brick red and mustard yellow lofts — move in and infect whole city blocks. I watched the Downtown Action team in their sporty red polo shirts patrol the streets on shiny bikes, keeping downtown free and clean of such “eyesores” as Food Not Bombs and the local transient and homeless folks. I watched locals alienated for the benefit of tourists and outsiders with money. And since moving to Oakland a year ago, I have witnessed the same exponential spread of towering new apartment buildings and white hipster art galleries into poor and black neighborhoods.

What happens when developers eat up the history of whole city blocks, forcing out the holders of the history and supplanting neighborhoods with sterile tokens of consumption and comfort? What does happen when history is washed away? Or bulldozed away? What remains? And what is built in its place? What happens when no traces are left and all people remember are the Starbuck’s and Old Navy’s and chichi juice bars and yoga studios? When this is what becomes peoples’ history? When our history is based on the erasure of history? And what happens when generations of kids grow up historyless? Where does that leave us?

–CM, Oakland CA

Anarcho prison talking points

Dear Slingshot,

I am currently in jail/rehab in Northeast Ohio. However this is not a sob story so I’ll cut to the chase….I went to a party with a friend of mine from Philly, PA. We became quite intoxicated. She then said she had a gift she knew I would like. She proceeded to slide me a little red book called, “Slingshot 2006 Organizer.” I glanced through it, and found that I DID indeed like it.

The week that followed landed me here for four months. While I didn’t plan this “vacation.” I did happen to have your organizer with me, which leads me to my final point…I love this thing, and it has gained quite a following here among my fellow felons. The “Don’t Dream it, Be it” section has been copied more than I care to count. It has spawned many late night discussions of gov’t control, anarchist theories and so on. Discussions that may never have come about had this book not sparked interest. People who called me a domestic terrorist when I first told them what I am and my beliefs now understand and many agree with me. It was hard breaking through the commercialized propaganda idea of anarchy, but I got through to them.

Fight the good fight. -Brad M