Wednesday, June 24, 2009

During a long conversation this morning with Jerome Smith, community activist and poet ...

I recalled what I now recognize as a remarkable story from years ago:

My friend, Joan Adams Brann, had received a federal grant to conduct a drug prevention program in our South Berkeley neighborhood. Joan's program was actually kicked off by an invitation to Washington where she met with First Lady Nancy Reagan who named the program, "Just Say No." Remember?

Joan had recently returned from an amazing adventure -- having been named as the head of the State Department Reception Center in San Francisco by President Jimmy Carter early in his term of office. After he left office Joan served for several years as head of an African Institute in Washington, D.C. This would be her return to South Berkeley, the community where she'd grown up. She'd come home.

By this time I was sole proprietor of Reid's Records, the little business Mel and I created years before in an area that had since become a hotbed of poverty and criminal activity. The streets were filled day and night with young hustlers pushing drugs and old men feeding on their misadventures.

There were often RV's parked along the street in which gambling was openly being conducted and prostitution was probably being pretty broadly practiced. It was a scary place to be -- yet here I was, attempting to conduct a legitimate business in the heart of the drug trade. It was crazy! Not only that, but I'd invited my friend, Joan, to move her newly-funded drug prevention program for kids into a corner office in my building and she'd accepted.

Loni Hancock was mayor at the time, and South Berkeley was the political football that got kicked around every four years as each local politician opened their campaigns by coming down to this small yet infamous crime-ridden mostly black community to make grand promises, usually to order up new studies of just how to bring peace and order to those who had no choice but to live within its borders. Though it would be on Loni's watch that the rehabilitation of the community started under Mayor Gus Newport would be completed. I strongly suspected that almost every urban area like ours gets used as a magnet for federal moneys that go into the general fund never to be expended as promised. If it were ever to be actually cleaned up, the magnet would be lost so the problems of the inner city tend to be perpetually "studied" and never really addressed. Such thoughts are cynical surely; but with a strong suspicion that they were more true than not.

The office was newly-painted and furniture moved in with bright posters in the windows and on the walls. Joan would run films for the neighborhood kids; provide activities of all sorts, and see if she could put a dent in the fatal draw of the negative street activity. It was a brave attempt doomed from the start.

Saturday would be the grand opening with punch and cookies and introductions all around. Joan's stature insured that the town's political figures would surely attend. I was determined that we would make this work. For several days I walked up and down Sacramento Street personally delivering colorful printed invitations. I approached everyone in sight; some I knew by name but most were strangers. The streets were always teeming with activity and every street corner and storefront was populated with those idle from lack of employment and few alternatives. I was greeted with both surprise and pleasure.

I think that it's fair to say that most "uptown" folks avoided this part of the city as much as possible, and that the mayor probably as much as anyone -- and for good reason.

Saturday came and the party was scheduled for about two o'clock. At about noon the streets began to clear. By one o'clock there was not a single soul within sight. It was as if someone has gone along the street and spread the word that Miss Betty was expecting company and things needed to straighten up. This was in no way anticipated; a total surprise to me.

By the time the mayor's entourage and other dignitaries arrived, Sacramento Street and the folks who hung out there were invisible. Apparently those invitations were accepted gratefully. The community had gone home and gussied themselves up and at two o'clock they began to arrive in family groups. They were dressed for church -- women were all prettied up and men were freshly-shaved and dressed in Sunday best. Little girls were wearing lace-topped bobby socks and ribbons in their hair. It was impossible to tell that these were the same people we'd been seeing every day partying in doorways and peddling drugs.

I remember wondering at the time if the hundreds of thousands of dollars paid out to clean up neighborhoods and fight crime can ever equal simply inviting everybody to the party? I thought about that today while Jerome Smith and I were exploring just how we would go about reclaiming the Wisdom Tree site and bringing it back to a place where those who gather there can do so in the spirit of the past -- when it was an important male bonding site for perhaps 100 years of Richmond's colorful history? When did we stop seeing those rituals as socializing and begin to view them as places of loitering? It surely can't be anything so simple as the fact that the skin colors of those men changed from white to black and brown over the decades?

It can't be anything so simplistic as that. I'm far too smart to believe such nonsense -- but there's the germ of something important here that may have been overlooked ... .

Next week Jerome and I will meet again and by that time maybe I'll have fleshed this out into some kind of workable ... .

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