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Saturday, May 22, 2004

Attended a meeting this day for the Just Cause Initiative ...

being sponsored by a coalition of community groups that came into being about five years ago as Richmond Vision-2000. As field rep for State Assemblywoman Dion Aroner, I'd been a member of the original steering committee. Have continued to participate, but over the past several months -- since leaving my position as a member of her successor's staff -- have dropped away. It seemed important to give my successor (field rep) space to create her own identity in this important group. It was interesting to climb back into the saddle again. Felt the old excitement at being among creative dedicated thinkers. I'm always energized by activists, and these are the best.

While driving to the center of town I noticed a group of young Latino youth huddled together on a street corner and recalled the day when I lost the fear of youthful loiterers and reclaimed territory in South Berkeley.



Summer 1978-80:

It was a warm Saturday mid-morning. I was on the return trip from the bank where I'd gone to pick up change for the weekend. The distance is but a short ten blocks through a residential area and a drive past a school soon to be named named Malcolm X Elementary. As I was passing the school, a pack of about a dozen young black youth were suddenly thundering down upon me in the middle of the street -- on a collision course with my car! Some were bare to the waist, some wearing head rags. I caught it all as an impression since there was time for little else. Fully expecting a hail of bullets to spray my car in the next instant, I caught sight of an intersection just ahead and instinctively wheeled about crazily to get out of their way and my certain death! Just as I was screeching around the turn, out of the corner of my eye I caught the sight of a football streaking through the air and a hand reaching up to catch it! I stopped -- hitting the curb and some bushes clumsily and -- as I did so -- in a cold sweat heard myself laughing crazily! I'd bought it all. I'd been had by the media. These were kids, kids like my own. And this is what they were first of all. That they might also be gang members or drug dealers or anything else came second. I'd allowed my reality to be defined by images on television. This day I knew that the right to define reality was mine alone, and that it was within my power to do so. I, alone, would define my world.

Some weeks later, on a very hot summer day, I arrived from my daily visit to Music People in Emeryville where I'd done my wholesale buying for the weekend. I noticed the five or six dealers who'd taken up my corner and who occupied the bus bench that was so precariously sitting 18 inches from my 8' plate glass windows (this was before I was successful in getting it removed). I was tired and annoyed that I had to park illegally (no loading zone), carry the heavy cartons into the store in dribbles because I couldn't handle much weight. Because of their presence, it was necessary to lock my car with each trip and then repeat the process over and over again until all had been delivered inside. Energized by PMS(!) this was the day that I walked up to the gang, pointed to the corner across the street, and with hands on hips and honest outrage screamed, "y'all just get yourselves away from here. Now!!! This instant!" "This is MY corner!" To my utter surprise the obvious leader of the group dropped his head and said, "Yes Maam." And off they went, never to darken my corner again.

When I got inside, Rick, who'd watched the skirmish from just inside the store said, "Mom, how could you? Those kids are surely armed. That's crazy!" Then, with obvious admiration he added, "good show!" With mission accomplished and the memory of that football vignette, it occurred to me these youngsters (no longer thought of as drug dealers) knew how to handle cops and parole officers, but they didn't have a clue about what to do with an angry Momma! I'd declared turf and they could respect that. From that day forward, I took the time to greet them on the street and ask about those who might be missing from on any given day. Learned to not ask names, but to identify each in my own way, "...where's Red Pants today?" In this way we began to establish ties. They would talk with me easily about someone who may have been picked up by the police over the weekend, and I would send greetings. I learned much later that I, too, had a street name -- but I never learned what it was. That's probably just as well.

I can recall attending community meetings (regularly held when election time was nearing) where the police would invite discussions about the drug problems. One day I stood up and said, "...you know, those guys you know as the "Kingpin," or "Street Warriors" and "Perps" I know as "Mother Johnson's grandson" or "Ms. Jackson's son-in-law." I remember telling them that these were OUR children, and not some invading outside force, and that I couldn't understand why resources weren't being provided for them beside jail cells. I knew that a youngster I'd been watching grow up far too fast -- had been pushed out of the nest when his mother could no longer collect money for his support through welfare. This, in order to have enough resources to support his younger siblings. He was by then living in an old car out on the Berkeley Marina and selling drugs in order to survive. They lived next door to my store and were a part of my 500 ft. territory now, and mine to care about.

There was a bus stop directly across the broad street from our shop. As the days began to grow dark, I could see those young men move into position -- near the bus stop -- and watch over me and my store until it was time to close up. It was not out of the ordinary to have one or two cross over to walk me to my car. There was rarely if ever any sign of graffiti to be seen on my building and when there was, it was pretty clear that someone from outside the community was the culprit. I kept a gallon can of matching paint behind my counter and would immediately paint over any markings myself, within plain view of everyone on the street. On more than one occasion, some youngster would cross over -- take the brush from my hand and complete the job.

The day came some years later when two of these same young men were registering voters at a table in my stairwell. I'd asked them to do this and was amazed to see them arrived at ten o'clock on that morning dressed neatly in slacks, white shirts with ties, to man a registration table. Their respect for the process was touching. They remained in the stairwell for most of the morning, but eventually took to walking up and the down the streets in the latter part of the day. When they came to turn in their clipboards there were scarcely a dozen forms attached. I'd seen how easily they'd approached others, and had no idea of why this would be. There also were no cards for the two of them. The explanation was soon obvious. Neither could vote because they'd been disenfranchised by felony convictions involving drug violations. This was true of a high percentage of people in this community. A few ounces of crack cocaine could bring a felony conviction (the drug of choice for African Americans). A bagful of powdered coke has rarely if ever brought a felony conviction for a White user/abuser. Congress has failed in every attempt at equalizing justice on this issue, and the prisons are bursting with non-white offenders unlucky enough to be caught and convicted.

My naivete was embarrassing. It was a lesson learned that I've never forgotten. The Black Vote was disappearing through clever use of inequitable sentencing practices involving crack and powdered cocaine. That was at least 30 years ago. The corrections have never been made. I once asked online if anyone could tell me what percentage of non-whites in this country were no longer able to vote for these reasons. An answer came back from someone who'd been researching the problem. "The number is now equivalent to the population of Scotland." That was about ten years ago, long before the happenings that accompanied the Bush rise to power through manipulation of the Florida electoral process.

Stopped by the shop the other day, (son, David, is now sole proprietor). He told me that Charles, one of the street kids of those years, dropped by to say hello. He's since traveled to and lived in many places in the world and is a total success story in mainstream American. He's a business man with pride and stability. His family must still have a home in the Hood. Wish I'd had a chance to see him. Many of those kids are undoubtedly long since dead or incarcerated, but there are the Charles's who survived and were able to sustain enough of an existence to overcome and to become contributing members of society. Those survivors have great stories to tell.

Wish I knew some of their tales to share. Most such stories are now only available to us through the poetry of the times, but if you listen closely -- they're being clearly and dramatically sung and danced and rapped wherever young people congregate.

They're there to be witnessed, by those sensitive enough, open enough, and willing enough to hear ... .

Friday, May 21, 2004

Shades of the past ... .

Jennifer Ross and I met yesterday with two members of the Richmond city council. We made our presentation on the proposal we're honing for a hearing before that body in mid-June. The reviews were mixed, I think. They seemed to be persuaded by our enthusiasm, but underwhelmed by what they saw as our lack of awareness about the difficulties we would surely be facing in this financial and political climate.

To date we've met with the original city manager who has since retired in a surprise move (for health reasons). Since that time we've met with his replacement -- one of his assistant city managers who has since been replaced by another interim city manager who has already announced his intention of leaving in August. On Monday of this week we met with the man who was recently named as head of the Division of Parks and Recreation -- but who will replace the assistant-assistant interim city manager who is leaving to complete his doctorate after a trip to Paris in August! (Got all that?)

In addition, the present city council that has numbered 9 (by charter) will be reduced by 2 due to a sudden move caused by political pressure from the State to do so. That means that -- with 5 of the 9 up for re-election -- and the 5-7 other wannabees challenging them for the seats being vacated -- only three will be voted in. It will be a fiercely fought struggle for power in a city in complete chaos!

The city is facing a 35 million dollar budget deficit that has caused the lay-offs of 200 members of city staff. The climate is hostile and growing meaner by the day.

Into this miserable civic mess leaps Betty Soskin and Jennifer Ross of About Face Consulting, seeking to take over the management of the Civic Center Auditorium -- a facility that the redevelopment agency is looking at as a possible means for raising much-needed revenue. We're pushing arts & culture in a time when others are thinking World Wide Wrestling and indoor flea market - five days a week! This is literally what is being considered. You might call this pushing the river.


Back to 1978:

I'm situated in a crime-ridden poverty-stricken community with the powers that be telling me day after day that change would be impossible. "We cannot insure either your life or your property." And, "...we need neighborhoods like this so that when crimes happen in other parts of town, we know where to pick up the culprit." "Give up. Shut this down." And, from my friends on campus, "...how can you possibly expect to change what decades -- centuries -- has wrought?" From Bill, "Betty, significant social change is only measurable in decades; and sometimes centuries. Your idealistic attempts at chasing the sirens and trying to disarm the bad folks simply cannot happen on the timespan you've chosen for yourself." My response, "I know that social change takes decades to produce, but if you didn't have the Fannylou Hamers and the Rosa Parkses, and yes, the Betty Soskins out there -- in the short term -- chasing the sirens and disarming the bad guys -- there would be no social change for you social scientist types to measure!" As you can see, there are times when a mere doctorate is simply no match for ghetto logic (grin).

It took 7 years and pushing the project past the point of no return through 3 administrations, but in that 7th year it happened. On the 3000 block of Sacramento Street in South Berkeley, on the block that was the site of 1 quarter of the city's homicides in 1978, there now stands 41 units of attractive market rate housing and a community room for the tenants. The whore houses and "shooting galleries" are gone, but so is the Larks Club, Q Martin's barbershop, Jimmy Wiggins' dry cleaners, the pool hall and -- saddest of all -- the home that Q built years before with his own hands. All were bought out and all in the name of progress. Those who were property owners with legitimate claims were relocated and paid adequately for their homes. We discovered in the process that many of the homes and shanties on that block (on the residential side of Stanton Street) were occupied by squatters. The old house immediately across the street and that housed much of the illegal activity, had been long ago taken over by drug dealers who dared the rightful owners to try to collect rent. Those legal owners wanting to return were promised occupancy in the new homes, if they wished. In all, the city poured 8 and a half million dollars into that project, a signficant amount in terms of the times.

But that's how the story ended. The 7-year process leading to that end was anything if not problem-ridden. It wasn't a cake walk, but there were as many rewards as disasters, and many true friends made along the way. Many of those most heavily impacted by change were also those who participated in the achieving of it. This was the miracle that few suspected could be; the willingness of the few to sublimate their own needs to the welfare of the many. That is the soul of community, and being witness to this has served me well. In a place where need was so great and where there was so little to be shared, there exists nonetheless a quality of selflessness that cuts across everything. I'd seen little of this phenomenon either in suburban living or within the ivied walls of the university. Being a "Have not" breeds its own kind of awareness of the need to share. This was where I first began to understand that respect is learned through being respected, and rarely otherwise. I learned that love sanitizes the other side of the apple shared.

Once I laboriously learned what it was through my work at city hall, I was able to form and maintain a Housing Development Corporation through which the Byron Rumford Homes were created. The Corporation was made up of community people who learned the process right along with me, and together, we were able to bring that project into being -- from the clearing of the site, the choosing of the architect and developers, to the grand-opening a year later.


Back to 2004:

Yesterday we learned from the two council members we met with that the union's position was going to be a roadblock that we may not be able to overcome. After all, SIEU and 790 had just been severely pink-slipped and had taken a heavy hit with the workforce now having suffered two rounds in the layoffs over the past month -- with another coming soon.

Today we sat with our friends at the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts -- a 35 year-old institution that has seen recent 50% cuts in both its budget (down from an annual budget of 2 million to one) and a 50% cut in staff. It was all we could do to hold their attention as Jennifer slogged through our proposal. We were seeking their support in our effort to begin to bring together the arts elements now existing in the community -- under the roof of the convention center and its related facilities. The message seems to be "it can't be done." "The economic climate is too weak at this time."

I figure it's gonna take a bit more than my 500 ft. strategy to pull this off, maybe 650 ft. (given the gradual upgrade of my personal power over the years), but a look back at that other impossible dream gives me hope. Now I'm needing to give Jennifer a call and try to revive her spirits. after all, she didn't share the experience of the Byron Rumford Homes miracle. She isn't aware yet that "can't" is simply one more four letter word.

Oh to be fifty again!

Thursday, May 20, 2004

For fear of leaving the impression ...

that I felt in any way capable of what I was embarking on, be it known that doubt plagued every step. I remember standing in the middle of that store on that first morning, quaking in fear and starting with each new street noise. Had no idea where this would take me or whether I was in any way up to the task -- but I did know that long years before -- in 1945 -- I'd stood behind the counter in a makeshift workspace in a converted garage with a cigar box for my receipts and orange crates to hold the stock and that we'd survived. That was only some 100 feet away in the duplex next door. This building had been constructed in 1964 and was luxurious in comparison to those days. What could I do now with a real display cases for inventory, a commercial cash register that gave receipts and a custom-built counter to stand behind? In those days I'd served our customers through a window cut in the wall of the garage. This was a huge step up from the early days (1945). All that was missing was my youth and sense of daring. The neighborhood at that time was safe and the clientele easy to please. The prognosis should be far better under these circumstances, despite the awfulness that lay just outside the front door in the form of the drug trade. Others managed to cope with it; could I? Could I be tough enough?

After all, the people in this community lived on welfare for the most part and coped with uncertainty to a degree that I could only guess at. When night came, I climbed into my late model Toyota and headed back through the campus and into the hills to look down on the romantic lights of the city while eating quiche and sipping white wine! These families stayed behind in this fear and longing with the sounds of gunshots ringing throughout many a night. There was no respite for them. I was only a daytime warrior with a pass if I needed one. How well I could keep my eyes on the prize and tenaciously hold on to my purpose would determine whether I could make this work.


Among the social and political groups that I belonged to, was ABC (can't recall what those letters stand for). It suffices to say that there were two very active political groups in Berkeley at that time. Both would be considered liberal with one a bit farther Left than the other. I knew of no conversative activists within the city limits. ABC was the more conservative and was the one led by Ms. Carol Sibley, dear friend of Bill's and mine, and co-sponsor of the busing plan that brought school integration to Berkeley. Carol was a community leader by anyone's standards. Her co-sponsor on the busing plan was Bill's best friend from their days in Washington, Leonard Duhl, of the School of Public Health at the University.

During that time I was working hard to bring whatever influence I could from the Hills to the Flatlands and to the South Berkeley community where I now spent my days. It was to Carol that I turned for help with my growing conflict with the tenant from my second floor offices. I was more and more certain that he might be involved in less than legal activities. My fear of him was growing with each day. A female member of his staff had come downstairs to speak with me in private only that week, and confirmed my suspicions. I also knew of his strong city hall connections.

Carol listened intently and then said, "...I understand, Betty, I'll invite my friend Shirley to lunch with the two of us to talk about this -- before the week is over." Her friend was a member of the Berkeley City Council, and had recently announced her intention of running for mayor in the upcoming election. This should be most helpful.

As promised, within a few days the three of us met over a fine lunch in Carol's luxurious Japanese-style home just north of the campus -- (dining on Imari, of course) -- and I told my tale of woe to her friend. She was silent for a moment and then said, "...Mr. Blank is a leader in that community, and can deliver the vote down there. I see no reason to do anything to block his efforts." I was shocked! I'd been very candid in my plea to her. I was literally living in fear and desparately needed her help. She simply said "no." This man was her key to the black vote, or so she believed.

It was in the hours that followed that political Betty Reid Soskin was born. I drove back to South Berkeley, angry and hurt. I drove up and down Sacramento Street noticing the many Shirley Dean signs in the windows of every little business along the way. Drove back to downtown Berkeley to the headquarters of her rival in the mayor's race, Gus Newport, and picked up as many signs as I could carry. Returned to South Berkeley and started at one end of my six block small business community -- walked into each business, introduced myself to the proprietor, and asked permission to place a Newport sign in his/her window. Each in turn granted permission. I had soon covered the neighborhood with those signs certain that I'd done the job well. I was a woman on a mission.

The next morning as I was driving to work, it was clear that things had changed. Every single sign had been removed and in its place was a large Shirley Dean poster. Mr. Blank had moved in and taken over. He'd staked his territory and I was no part of it. This was his declaration of turf.

When questioned (and I did walk the streets again, asking what had happened) there were signs of intimidation everywhere. People were apologetic, but clearly wanted no part of a fight over a political issues in which few felt they had any claim.

I returned to the Newport headquarters for more signs. Came back to my building with a newly purchased heavy duty stapling gun and plastered signs everywhere that I could reach -- in the windows, on the stairwell, across the front and on the sides of the building. I was a veritable Newport signboard! Mine was the only location in all of that community where Gus's signs were posted. Since this was a black community and Gus was African American while Ms. Dean was white, the undercurrent of intrigue was almost palpable. It was no accident that not one single sign was removed from my building during this battle of wits. The guys on the street were clearly watching over me. My tenant had to walk through that phalanx of Newport signs to reach his upstairs office. It was war!

A few weeks later when the elections were held, my candidate won with a strong majority, and the precinct where we had stood our ground gave him a great victory. It was also true that where I lived high in the hills, Dean signs were everywhere. The Newport signs on our fence were rare in our neighborhood, so the huge victory citywide came as a surprise.

This was the beginning of my association with city hall. It was only a short time in Gus's term of office before the city received a HUD grant to do 61 units of scattered site low-income homes and I was named by the mayor to serve on the committee to select those sites. From that -- from my attorney, Don Jelinek, who was elected to the city council in the same election cycle -- I accepted a position as legislative aide, working part time at city hall. It was in that role that I began to learn how things get done in cities, for the purposes of designing my strategies for South Berkeley. I worked with him for two terms and accomplished a great deal with his help. This meant splitting my days between our store and city hall. I'd inherited two employees and the off-and-on-when-he-was-sober help from Rick, so it was possible to do both. The store was able to support only three small salaries, but since I wasn't dependent upon the shop for my support, it worked out reasonably well. It required an outside job to support my business. We'd never have made it without that effort. I also needed my outside social connections in order to do the job of community organizing that must be done if my agenda was to be carried out at all. I had a business to support and an environment to dramatically change -- if this was going to work. This I could not expect Bill to participate in.

The store was all there was left of the estate that Mel and I had intended to create for our children. He'd given 35 years of his life to the effort, and was no longer able to contribute. He'd actually lost most of it over time and I found it was up to me to try to reconstruct as much our family assets as was possible in the years I had left. This situation was a carryover from my first marriage. I was fortunate to have married someone who understood this driving need and who was willing to allow me the time to do that. To ask more of him would have been beyond reason. This responsibility was mine alone.

The demands placed upon our marriage began to threaten its stability. Bill made several trips to India that I was unable to join him in. He went as far as Ladahk, on the Tibetan border at one point - and I didn't. We had less and less to share as time wore on. There were events and journeys that drew him away that I either couldn't or wouldn't participate in with him. I suffered from emotional and physical fatigue much of the time and was distracted by a world that he neither understood nor wanted to share. He'd married me -- not my family or my former life. He had never been a father, so was barely able to connect with my sons except in a very formal manner. There was rarely need to since they were now off on their own. I missed them. Dorian was living at St. Vincents, a fine boarding school in Santa Barbara. I missed her. My parents were aging and I was their caretaker, their lifeline, as I was Mel's. I loved them all. The marriage was beginning to unravel -- but it would be years yet until the end would come. We worked valiantly to keep it alive. He became more and more deeply invested in Tibetan Buddhist studies as I became more and more African-American identified and absorbed in the business of creating social change.

Transitions are painful, but they're also the places where growth occurs and where life becomes more precious... .

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Knowing so little about the day-to-day running of a small business,

the work of re-creating Reid's Records proved to be more difficult than I'd ever imagined. The simple act of slinking out of my car (head down, chin on chest, quaking in fear) used up much of my energy. At that time the building had not been secured with safety bars, and -- after parking around the corner -- cringing past the drug dealers who inhabited my corner whatever the hour, I'd check the door for break-ins to assure myself that no one was inside waiting for me. It happened often enough to become the routine for opening up each morning. But if that was true, it was also true that Fred would stop by a few minutes after I arrived (watching for me from his window) to say good morning and to check to see if everything was alright.

Fred was veteran of Pearl Harbor. He'd served as a cook in the navy and was wounded in the bombing. But in subsequent years he'd become a victim of cheap wine and toxic wine coolers. He was always sober in the morning and progressed to a total stupor during the course of the day. I believed that he'd served as a lookout for Mel in the same way over many years and that was now one of the perks I inherited.

At first it was a bother, but over the first few weeks I discovered the man beneath the scruffy appearance and foul smells. He lived alone in a little outbuilding with no electricity, a crude shelter in the backyard of the house next door -- just beyond the fence. I'd notice him from time to time with an old broom sweeping off the sidewalk in front of my store, neatly gathering the debris into a concocted dustpan of some sort and depositing the trash in the dumpster behind the shop. He asked for nothing but a good morning smile each day. He also was eagle-eyed and would come in to report on any suspicious goings-on within eyesight. I learned to rely on his watchful concern as the weeks wore on and as I began to learn where to place trust. One morning -- after a heavy rain -- Fred turned up with a ratty old doormat, laid it at the front door with, "...Ms. Betty, this you gonna need so that folks don't track up yo' flows."

There was "Q" Martin, a barber who had a very interesting arrangement across the street from our shop and in the next block north of us. He owned a lot that ran from Sacramento Street to Stanton, just behind his little barbershop. The block was only as wide as one house and yard and fronted on the broad expanse of Sacramento Street. "Q's" shop was on the commercial street side -- and behind it stood a small structure that connected to the rear of his barbershop and opened onto his backyard. In time I learned that this was a gambling place that was frequented by the local men from around the general area. The pool hall was next door to his barbershop. Between the two structures -- most of the older men in the community would gather to socialize and place bets on sporting events, I later learned. I was also pretty sure that the police were very much aware, and quietly ignored it as a legitimate activity for this community, a difference in values as dictated from outside.

Q and his wife had raised a family of 12. In order to manage that, he'd earned a barber's license and ran a pretty efficient barbershop. I learned from one of the other men that he'd spent his nights for many years pouring over manuals that allowed him to single-handedly build the home they shared -- board by board and brick by brick. Each spring he would drive his truck to their old home in Arkansas where his extended family owned a farm. There he would butcher a cow or a hog, pack it in ice for the drive back to the Bay Area to freeze for winter. He made the trip twice a year, once in summer/fall to harvest and preserve fruits and vegetables that would feed the family throughout the year. This was an enormously resourceful man, and someone I learned to deeply respect and admire. It was my guess that,like many others in the neighborhood -- he'd come to the West during the war to work in the shipyards. When I met him he was in his sixties, I suspect. In time I learned that he'd once served time in prison for a crime of some sort -- but by the time that was revealed to me, I'd come to believe that any black man with such family obligations could hardly get through life without breaking one law or another, so it held no relevance for me. I'm sure that he'd taught himself to read, and eventually learned well enough to master those manuals and to build a home that met all of the codes required for construction. The community proved to be peopled by so many stories of wonderful inventive creative stubbornly resourceful people, and I found my place among them quite comfortably over time. It was only a case of finding the common denominators, something I'd become pretty good at. Those common denominators were far different from those I'd had to search out on campus, but in many ways the process was the same.

I learned some lessons in ghetto living that almost brought my grand experiment to an end. For instance, I could not get any insurance company to insure the building. I was told by agents that -- if I could lift the building up and move it six blocks in either direction -- they would write a policy. As it turned out, I was situated in a cauldron of illegal activity, and too high a risk. No glass insurance. No theft or property could be underwritten. Fire insurance was a condition of the mortgage so that was the only coverage possible, and only because it was secured by the credit union that held the mortgage for their protection, and not mine. It only covered the balance owed on the loan. I was on my own.

I installed iron security bars on every window (after frequent break-ins) and at one point realized that I had more money in bars than I had in inventory. In that, I had a lot in common with the other little struggling businesses on the street.

Knowing little about the current market in music, I gradually re-built the stock by using a simple formula. I would allow the clientele to create the inventory. I began to keep a list. When I received 3 requests for any item, I would buy 5 at wholesale. Later the formula grew to 5 requests, order 10, etc. There was a One-Stop distributor in Emeryville that Mel had dealt with for many years and who was willing to work with me toward the recovery; a godsend to this amateur entrepreneur. He allowed me to buy in small lots as I re-built the business. I made the trip to Music People, Inc., every day in order to keep current. There was an indebtedness of over $15,000 on his books, and at the rate I was recovering -- we'd be lucky to get ourselves into the next century! But Elliott did have faith in my ability to handle things, and for that I was grateful. It was clear after a few months that the character of the store was changing -- maybe had changed radically over time -- and was fast-becoming a black gospel shop with a potentially large clientele in a growing field of music. Interesting development for a non-believer, right?

Gradually the Rhythm & Blues and Jazz were replaced by this entirely new and exciting form of African American music -- a specialty that had not yet been discovered by white music stores. I may have been the only one in the field who realized that jazz had not disappeared, but had returned to the choir lofts and was blazing away in new dress. The music was wonderful and was beginning to infuse all of popular music in the way that black music had always done. It brought the black church community into my store and introduced me to every African/American preacher from Monterey to Sacramento. Today it is hard to tell the difference between contemporary black gospel and white. The mega-churches in the South have crossed over musically in ways that are unheard of in other areas of the country. I had the field pretty much to myself for several years, enough time to have been able to rebuild the store back to its original level of success, but not before lots of anguish had to be lived through.

The second floor of the building held a beauty shop that was operated by a woman who'd been a tenant for many years, though we'd never met. She managed it and -- as in her the pre-arrangement with Mel -- paid to me a percentage of her profits. She employed a number of other operators who paid rentals on their chairs. Her contributions supported the rest of my efforts in the beginning. I was such a novice, but pretended to be nothing else so everyone gave me the space to grow and learn, Rita most of all. Learned recently of her death, and that her beloved grand-daughter had been murdered by a stranger who shot her when she opened her front door.

There was also a male tenant who ran a program funded by CDGB funds from the city -- employment and training -- and was someone I had little or no trust in and who later proved to be a significant challenge. He presented my first experience at staging an eviction. His power was derived from a member of the city council "downtown" and was strong. He was known to "deliver" this community at election time. I feared him. I believed that his was the voice that pretty much controlled "The Street," and he was literally operating under my roof. Establishing "turf" was going to be dependent upon how well I could handle this situation. I was sure that I was being watched by the community. Q and the others "had my back" so to speak. Their quiet presence gave me strength to face the challenges.

The answer was to try to create a Merchant's Association made up of the little marginal businesses on that six block stretch; barber and beauty shops ("Q" Martin and Rita the beautician), the pool hall, a few liquor stores, dry cleaners (Jimmy Wiggins), two little grocery store operators, a real estate salesman, etc. They met for the first time in our upstairs offices one evening. It was fascinating. I learned immediately that these men were all armed. In fact, Q told me that he was concerned about my safety and offered to get me a "piece" to stash behind my counter! I was apparently the only person in the room without a gun. I also learned that they universally believed that vice was a necessary element in the black community, and that once cleaned up, no one could survive. Keeping my eyebrows properly aligned without having them bob up and down crazily was not easy to manage. This was a world I knew nothing about. Needless to say, I declined his offer.

It was clear to me at that first meeting that these men represented a thin slice of the community; that slice that edged on the street itself, and that just one house back -- all around -- lived the women and children and families of churchgoers who had an entirely different agenda. To do anything to strengthen the voice of these merchants would do a serious disservice to the rest of the community. We met only once more, then disbanded. But these men had made me one of them. I was a trusted member of the group. I've never known whether or not their trust was being extended through their allegiance to Mel or whether it was mine, alone. Walking lightly and remaining trustworthy in their eyes would become more and more important as time passed. I was entering a phase where heightened sensitivity would be critical to my ability to hang in. I needed them in order to survive. I needed to learn some of the skills of the streets that were second nature to most. And, as strange as it may be, there were several of these guys that I liked immensely, and trusted instinctively. We had developed a mutual respect that would serve me well in the years ahead. I was going to need them to help change the environment of the community. Without their buy-in, it would be impossible.


This was a long way from life as I'd known it; from the East Oakland of my childhood, from early Berkeley, from suburban middle-class life in Walnut Creek, and most of all, like my life among the intellectual pacesetters of the university. This would erase most of my temporary truths, and would become the canvas upon which to paint an entirely new view of the world.

It was almost impossible to know whether I was taking a giant step forward of backward in time or simply caught on the cusp of I knew not what ... .

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

More meetings with city officials re the Convention Center ...

To date, all have been male -- a clear disadvantage for two women of color. We tend to be seen as glorified house maids -- regardless of credentials -- and that could prove to be a problem. Jennifer is clearly a trained professional in the field of arts and culture administration as well as theater management. I'm pretty impressive myself, but a generalist, with a long but unfocussed resume. Makes me self-conscious in interviews. My experience is long and varied, touching upon so many aspects of life that it's difficult to capture all that and put it into "25 words or less." Nonetheless, we have completed another round of obstacles and have the go-ahead now from two city managers. That doesn't remove the financial instability I'm dealing with, but it helps to know that at some point my bills will be paid and that total collapse may not come until the fall... .



Back to 1978:

In those first few days of assessment I made several interesting observations. There was some inherited goodwill that would help me through the months ahead while I sorted things out. There were some paradoxes that would have to be dealt with -- a layering of life that had only just begun to unfold for me.

The drive from my home high atop the Berkeley hills and through the UC campus to South Berkeley created a kind of culture shock day after day. I was beginning to live in two totally different worlds, full time. While on a given evening I would have gathered before our hearth the likes of the Episcopal Bishop of Northern California, Kim Meyer; his Archdeacon, John Weaver; Tarthang Tulku, Rinpoche of Padma Ling; Dr. Leonard Duhl of the U.C. Dept. of Public Health; Gay Gaer Luce of SAGE; Carol Sibley the godmother of the school busing program of the city -- I would the next morning drive to the other end of town to a world that was to these leaders the stuff of pure sociological speculation.

I once found myself in a friendly dinner debate with the city manager of Rome who was visiting the Bay Area and our home. He and Bill were extolling the virtues of regional government. I was standing alone against these giants, arguing energetically. In time they couldn't compete with my every-day-living-in-the-midst-of-the-inner-city logic. It angered me to hear them defending the right of whites to abandon core cities to develop the suburbs then to suggest ursurping political power as well. This had largely been caused by the removal of services and financial resources that whites took with them as they fled. Remember, I'd just left their world and knew them well. I was the anomaly.

For the first time, due to an expanding Black population, it was possible to elect minority candidates to run those cities. However, we were forced to do it with dwindling resources and deteriorating governing structures. White Flight and increasing poverty had descimated all systems. Due to an involvement in national black caucus activities, I'd met mayors and other public officials from Gary, Indiana; Cleveland, Ohio; and our own Berkeley. This was not new for me. How dare these men presume to now try to defend the move to subsume those same struggling and abandoned inner cities into regional governments? They wished to now complete the transference of power totally? It was a heated debate. A growing sophistication about racial matters played a huge role in helping to re-establish my racial identity.

In this new world of contrasts, my "difference" played a positive role. My brown skin had become an asset in a curious way. Bill encouraged my active participation in all such debates with a glint of pride in his eye. He seemed to delight in my verbal skills and willingness to stand alone on principle. That evening of our good-natured argument established that their advanced degrees were simply no match for my living day-to-day in that dichotomy. I was literally driving in and out of those worlds, experiencing culture shock each day, and finding it both exhilarating and frightening each time. Eventually it became abundantly clear to me that those worlds would meet only marginally in our lifetimes, if at all. The distance between was far too great. The river too wide. The bridge too weak to trust. I would move between them as long as I could, but it was clear early-on that a choice would have to be made at some point. This was the new arena for growth and I embraced it. Bill, quite wisely, accepted that this must be lived through, whatever the outcome.

After pillow talks far into long and often troubled nights, Bill and I eventually knew that it was necessary that I develop a clear sense of what could be accomplished by restoring the business and what could not. It would never be financially profitable. It hadn't been for a very long time. If my plan was to end up in the Fortune 500, this would surely not be the place to make my stand. However, if I could rehabilitate it enough to amplify my voice toward social change in a community that desparately needed it, this may be just the place to do so. As a faculty wife (and a trophy wife at that) living in the hills of Berkeley, flirting with academia and the heady life of the jet setters, I didn't mean much. I felt decorative, but relatively powerless. But -- as that "little Black woman storekeeper down on Sacramento Street" in a liberal city wallowing in white guilt -- well, this just might be peculiarly well-suited as a venue for social change. After all, the echoes of the Civil Rights Movement of the Sixties were still being heard and making possible the monumental social adjustments that would rumble through all other minority groups in the decades to come.

I've often said that when I was young idealist, visions of changing the world lurked in the back of my fertile mind. As I matured as a young wife and mother -- active in the defense of myself and my family -- there were dreams of changing the State. On Sacramento Street I had to become enough of a realist to know that I had to settle for no more than 500 feet! And I did. Within those limits, over about 7 years, I looked out from behind the counter through the iron bars that promised protection, at just about that distance. I proudly claimed territory. This would be mine to shape; drug dealers, prostitutes, floating crap games, local crime bosses, social policy, and all.

It was possible to bring all of the experience of the preceding years to bear on what happened there over the time. How rewarding it was. Every minute of every seemingly-unrelated day of my life rose to serve in the rehabilitation of my 500 feet. The concentration of effort paid off handsomely. The fears and pain, the disillusionment from time to time -- all grist for the mill. Nothing was wasted, not one minute.

The book that would guide my efforts had not been written. Maybe this is it.

We'll see.

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