Monday, May 31, 2004

Maybe the reluctance I'm feeling to being singled out for national attention has to do with the role I'm being asked to play. I'm less important as a fraudulent Rosie than I am simply as a twist on the story and therefore newsworthy? The insatiable appetite for news bites cannot be satisfied without new angles being created hour after hour, day after day. Do I want to be one of them? A dissonant Rosie may fit in with the rest of the opposers, a kind of balance to the Norman Rockwell symbol of feminine derring-do. Maybe I'll just come off as an angry old woman trashing "The Good War."

During the 15 minute phone interview with the West County Times guy yesterday, I reminded him that the National Park Service is charged with telling the nation's history through structures. That's true. For the past couple of years, since the new park was created on the Richmond shoreline, a major search has been conducted by historians from the university and by hired consultants, locating the relevant structures still standing. There will be restoration of as many as are needed to tell the story. Impressive signage upon which the stories will be told will mark those portions of the Bay Trail that are incorporated into the park site. Have been working with the advisory group that is designing those pieces. They're impressive.

Since the NPS cannot own property, said properties will need to be funded by the city, foundations, corporations, or private individuals. There is Shipyard #3 (#2 having been razed long ago to make space for the Marina Bay housing development), the old Kaiser Medical Center, the original childcare center, a huge storage facility, and of course, the old Ford Plant that converted from assembling cars to tanks shipped to the Pacific theater. There were also the Whirly Cranes, and the docks and piers that still show signs of the period.

Among the structures earmarked for the park is the only war housing facility still standing. It is a modest cooperative that is still under the ownership of heirs of the original worker families and a few lucky folks who've been able to buy into it. As might be expected, it was built as an all-white settlement. That housing has been landmarked as historic. All housing where non-whites lived was torn down within weeks of war's end by the government. The Jim Crow union hall where I worked was on Barrett Avenue, and met the same fate as the war housing for black folk. If the homefront story is to be told through structures, one would never know that we were ever here or that we participated in that unprecedented effort that turned out a victory ship every five days.

It feels ironic to think that my first experience with the NPS was at a presentation given at the local library early in the process. There was a slideshow with discussion intended to involve the community in the process. I was there on a work asignment. At the time, I covered all of West County as field rep for Assemblywoman Aroner. (How roles had changed over the years.) There were no more than 3-4 other non-whites in the room, and no one was speaking up. I felt keenly uncomfortable without much sense of just why that was. Had pretty much dismissed all of my own WW2 experience, and didn't feel particularly like a Richmond resident, having moved here from Berkeley to work for Dion. I participated that evening as an outsider for the most part. At the time I had no idea where our union hall had been located, but it was the only war-related structure I could recall having seen. I'd not been within sight of the shipyards at any point, so the slideshow was new material for me.

When the formal presentation ended and the punch and cookie period not quite started, I remember saying out loud to no one in particular, "...I have such a love-hate relationship with Rosie!" Judy Hart, the newly-appointed chief of the new park project looked a little taken aback, but bravely asked what I meant. I then told the group of my role in the war and of how far from all of that I really felt -- that I could hardly recall the War. I'd obviously forgotten it all as soon as possible, and now it was coming back -- bringing all of the affect with it.

The feelings of being in Richmond had been always been marked by a sense of hostility and foreboding -- evil bubbling just beneath the surface. Going home to Berkeley was a welcome experience at the end of the working day. (I was remembering all that now.) For reasons I don't understand, that feeling persists to this day. People speak of it as "poor image," and there is a running theme that pervades all discussions about redevelopment and rehabilitation of this city. This aura gets blamed on crime stats and graffiti and poor lighting, but it's in this town's DNA carried over from an earlier time. It's what I'm so anxious to try to change with the help of others -- and through using the Arts & Culture as antidote. It can happen. Beauty can be just as contagious as blight. I know that. I've lived the truth of it.

I had the distinct feeling that this new Rosie The Riveter Memorial National Park was going to dredge up some troubling feelings, and that there needed to be some vehicle for sorting some of that out -- especially for the non-white people who had lived through the period. Was aware that a series of these meetings was being scheduled. But I wasn't sure that the NPS fully appreciated the full impact of the fact that -- in the postwar period -- there has been a resurgence of the KKK, and that cross-burnings had occurred a number of times before being brought under control. There is an historic photograph of the Klan marching in full regalia down Macdonald Avenue, the main street of Richmond. A street now abandoned as the town chose (unwisely I think) to grow from its outer edges, leaving the central core deserted for the most part.

Further irony is the fact that those historic structures are still around because Henry J. Kaiser, Corp., simply walked away when peace was declared, leaving the people it had brought here (over 109,000 of them) to abandonment. Those structures have stood unclaimed -- as were the human beings -- for all these years, leaving rust and blight everywhere. It took many years before the city began to reclaim itself and set down its roots. In many ways it is still little more than low- and middle-income housing, industrial sites all loosely threaded together by strip malls. After 50 years, it has not recovered completely, but is showing signs of progress with a boom in construction rising on the ashes of old brownfields left over from the war years.

The national park will give formal presence to the era and will mark the place where it all happened. That will be a good thing. More importantly, its affordability has created a city where many immigrants and refugees have continued to settle, making it one of the most racially diverse communities in the country. It's richness is in its people, surely not in its physical structures. The DotCom boom and bust left many handsome ghosts of luxurious office campuses (including Steve Jobs' now empty former Pixar Studios) dotting the landscape and looking like movie sets waiting for re-casting in order to come to life again.

There's a strange sense of the "almost" overlaying everything here. The national park will herald a new beginning, I believe, but only if we rebuild the human element of this area carefully and with sensitivity to what has gone before. We can only do that if we truly KNOW "what has gone before." Could that be the importance of my role in all of this? Enough reason to say yes to MSNBC?

There was a legacy of greatness in that the sense of accomplishment -- at having risen to the challenge of winning the war through round-the-clock extra-human efforts. Here were the beginnings of HMO's and universal 24-hour childcare. But the tragedy of the lives of black people who were left to manage in a strange place with little or no assistance has never been told. Their shipbuilding experience was not transferrable by design, so it was back to those "jobs nobody else wanted" (as we're told now about immigrant laborers from south of the border).

When the temporary war housing was torn down, these stalwarts dragged scrap wood from the deconstruction sites -- , piping, nails and screws into North Richmond and began to build lean-tos in order to go on living. Returning to the south was not an option. There was little work to be had, but they survived. Much of the area was marshland and given to flooding. Much of the land was agricultural previously owned by the interned Japanese and subject to being taken away at some point in the future.

There's a dramatic human story to be told. But, if it's to be told through structures, there may be only silence.

We can only learn from our history if we know it, right? That may be enough of a reason to do that interview. There are so few now left alive to tell the stories... .

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