Thursday, October 27, 2005

Another resurrection day ...

Had forgotten for a moment that death comes in threes -- and Dorothy Pete, Lucretia Edwards, and Mary Otani obviously formed the triad. Can put that kind of introspection aside until the next cycle unfolds. I can stay in that place just so long before natural exuberance takes over and I'm again feeling the zest for living -- pressing against the edges of consciousness -- and back in the swim doing a reasonable breast stroke while pushing the river.

Despite what feels like the starter version of a cold, all sorts of wonderful mind games are going on in my head. Some were stirred by something I wrote a few days ago about those "...visions of a lifetime now being realized, finally," and about how exciting that can be.

Like inner cities across the country -- abandoned and left to rust and ruin as habitat for those who can afford to live nowhere else, Richmond suffers its urban core. In our city that part of the old downtown is situated between 3 railroad tracks, in "The Iron Triangle." The district is infamous in many ways. The crime stats match the level of need and is predictable by the lack of recreational resources for its young and mostly African American kids.

Prominent as a presence and a major negative influence on the lower end of the main street is a Rescue Mission that serves as a place for the depositing of troubled souls who struggle against drug addiction, alcohol abuse, and parollee status. It's safe to say that few other communities would accept such an enterprise, and that the county allows for little opportunity for objections. Add to these the homeless of all races who drift in and out as pressures wax and wane. Poverty and the aura of failure are the common denominators in this environment. In such a social climate, the pall of potential danger hangs over everything. The drug trade is highly visible and ever-present on street corners and in the park where dealers work with impunity and relatively little interference from the police.

I remember in the late Sixties when our little store -- in a similar area in Berkeley -- was being broken into so often that my young husband started spending his nights sleeping in a back office with a loaded rifle beside his cot. He could no longer afford to come home to suburban Walnut Creek at night -- the 28-mile drive made him vulnerable to break-ins and his desperation and paranoia effected our life together and contributed to our eventual divorce.

At one point he drove to the police department to demand better surveillance but was told by the officer on the desk "... it's convenient to have an area like this. When something happens in other parts of Berkeley -- we know where we can most likely pick up the culprit." The city was practicing an informal policy of crime containment -- and our building was right in the middle of their catchment area. Of course. I recall that the county methadone clinic was established within two blocks of our corner -- putting the addicts right in the middle of the "candy store," and no one saw that as inappropriate either for those being served or for the youngsters in the community and their families. At that time there were 11 halfway houses located in the city, 9 had been placed in our very low-income community. The cynicism is inescapable.

Richmond's historic downtown stands less than two miles from the National Park's interim reception center and -- should be set aside for historic preservation and restoration. Market forces and the redevelopment agency may deem otherwise. I don't know. If we follow the lead of many like communities, city government may well opt for one more unimaginative generic shopping district. What a pity that would be! What a missed opportunity. There is little recognition that this part of the city will be living in the midst of a national park soon, and that there are implications for related economic development that can help to redefine a civic identity that has suffered for years from poor image and disastrous crime rates.

One of my dreams is to find a way to help to create in the Iron Triangle an African American Arts & Entertainment District. The city still has a 40% black population mostly concentrated in the Iron Triangle, with the legacy of the Home Front WWII history. We need a memorial to those workers and to the artists who -- through their music -- enriched a time of persistent painful racial struggles for these hastily transplanted hard-working black folks.

That history involves a rich legacy of black music; both blues and jazz. During the war years Tappers Inn, Minnie Lou's, and the Savoy in North Richmond hosted the likes of Jimmy McCracklin, Bobby Blue Gland, Lightnin'' Hopkins, PeeWee Crayton, Wynonie Harris, Joe Liggins, T-Bone Walker, Big Mama Thornton, Johnny Otis and Little Esther, Howlin' Wolf, etc.  Richmond was the West Coast mecca for traditional blues that arrived with the great migration of African Americans who came from Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Oklahoma to work in the Kaiser shipyards -- and had little "home" to return to.  How did I know?  Because we opened Reid Records in South Berkeley on June 1st of 1945 to satisfy that demand for the expressions of black culture that arrived with them.

Many of the bluesmen and women stayed on at war's end to earn their way as chauffers, waiters, porters, red caps, maids, during the day and to make their music at night for little or nothing in the small storefront clubs that sprang up along the coast over the years. Their music, their techniques, their aura, didn't. That traveled overseas over the next 3 decades to find a home in Liverpool, London's East End, Paris, Amsterdam, and Sweden until the music later re-entered our country through the artistry of Eric Clapton, The Beatles, Keith Richards, etc., and swept the world to great acclaim and created great fortunes for those artists. Janet Joplin, Elvis Presley, and later, Bonnie Raitt, adopted the music and relayed it back to audiences who'd refused to accept it from the original black artists, but couldn't resist its power when expressed by whites. Of those musicians, Raitt, Clapton, and Richards have been foremost in crediting those who inspired their music and created their careers. To their credit, all three have tried consistently to honor the debt.

Somewhere in the world there needs to be a marker for the art form. Richmond is the natural center for the establishment of a Blues Hall of Fame. Here's our complement to the new national park; a world destination. It needs to be a place where the entire African Diaspora can be celebrated in a museum, rehearsal and performance spaces, workshops for set-building and costume-making, art galleries, cafes, small shops for souvenirs, clubs and restaurants that feature the great variety of African and African American arts and cuisine from Gullah to Cajun-Creole, Ethiopian, Ghanian, Brazilian, Cuban, South African, Caribbean, etc. Were I a child you'd have to beat me off with a stick!

We need to make it a place where we can celebrate our heritage and where non-blacks can come to learn. We need to have a place to grow new young black artists so that the music will not continue to be delivered by derivatives. We all (not only African Americans) need our children to know of this legacy and to be enriched by it. We need the arts passed on by those black masters still living among us before it's too late, and there are many such scattered around the West Coast and looking for somewhere to land. (Are you listenin' E.B. Wainwright and Johnny Tolbert?)

A friend once described to me a plan whereby artists from all of the disciplines were given partially subsidized live/work spaces in a district like ours -- this, in exchange for the sharing of their gifts with children in the local schools. Since most dancers, painters, sculptors, potters, weavers, musicians, etc., who live by their art have such a difficult time making ends meet, subsidies are essential for survival, but what they have to barter is priceless. When I think of a time when a critical mass of such creative people become a part of this community by living among us and sharing their talent with our young, I'm ecstatic!

The Iron Triangle can be transformed. We can replace degradation with creativity and new life. We can begin to stop watching our backs because our children might also have their eyes on the prize of new possibilities. African/American "Have-Littles" would again have a sense of place and might stop waiting around not-so-passively for gentrification to sweep them off into some other place where no one else wants to be now that they've lost those "jobs that nobody else wants to do." We can claim dignity by restoring the pride that now exists mainly in our places of worship, but that should move out from Sunday to enhance our weekday lives. The best jazz in the world now comes from the choir loft and has for years -- but only the most hip are aware of it.

And best of all, our children can learn to identify the artist within themselves.


If Dorian has the capacity -- given her mental deficits -- what about all those youngsters who are fully functioning but deprived of that spark of life and direction and hope?

It could happen ... but I'll need to strike a Faustian bargain with the devil for another 20 years!

Or not ... .

Photo: My younger son, David Allen Reid, current proprietor of Reid's, here seen at age 14 listening raptly to his teacher, Jim Stein, playing the blues in classtime at Pinél, a small private school named for the great French psychologist/educator. Both Dorian and David attended this Summerhill-inspired school in the Alhambra Valley near Martinez, California.

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