Thursday, June 15, 2006

The day of divine madness and a blinding epiphany!

Today's trip brought us past infamous, trash-ridden, needle-infested Fourth Street park on lower Macdonald Avenue. It's a carbon copy of areas in many parts of the country where those lost to the system find fellowship and the next fix or -- on a lucky day -- divine guidance from some itinerant street preacher. It's the kind of an area that the "good folks" avoid if at all possible - and that (I suspect) most city's tolerate and rarely rehabilitate since they are a dependable magnet for state and federal grants -- money that finds its way into the city's general fund to be used for other pressing civic needs. Such a magnet serves the general good, I suppose, since they tend to serve as make-work for a steady stream of professionals; social workers, drug counselors, grants writers, and a host of others whose career path is secured so long as we continue to see those tragic lives as criminal rather than needing to be looked at as problems of public health or a failed system of public education. So much for the sermon.

What lower Macdonald Avenue reminded me of today was the area of South Berkeley in the 70s and 80s when this might well have described Sacramento Street -- the location of Reid's, our small music store. The street was alive day and night with drug dealers on every corner using bus stops as offices; hookers and gamblers using easily detectible floating games working out of parked vans and trailers along the street. There was surely life on the streets, and we were right in the middle of it. The area was considered so risky that no company would insure our building or its contents.

It was during that time that I was working part time in the shop while also holding a job as the Aide for a member of the Berkeley City Council.

My friend, Joan, had recently returned from Washington, D.C., where she had served as the director of the African Institute -- after serving as head of the State Department Reception Center at the Federal Building in San Francisco -- appointed by President Jimmy Carter. Joan grew up in Berkeley -- her stepmother, Zola, and I worked together at Boilmaker's A-36 during the war.

It was Joan who originated the "Just Say No" campaign with the support of First Lady Nancy Reagan. She'd been hailed as a leader in drug prevention from the nation's capital, and was now going to open a small program in South Berkeley. That program would be housed in a corner office in my Sacramento Street building and would serve the at-risk children of the community.

The little office was painted and spruced up with new office furniture and a small staff hired. We planned a Grand Opening to be held on a Saturday afternoon, and I placed all of the information in my talking windows announcing the event.

I knew that (just as the "good folks" avoid Macdonald Avenue these days for the same reasons), the city dignitaries would surely feel insecure coming to South Berkeley where the streets were so filled with poor, troubled, young and not so young, sinners and idlers with little to do and nowhere else to go.

Answer: With the help of some neighbor children, I made up and personally signed colorful hand-crafted construction paper invitations and went out along a five block commercial strip where the street people socialized on the corners and in the doorways. I handed out invitations to everybody on the street, telling them about the party and warmly inviting each to be sure to come! That was midweek. I'd had a slow start, but by that time I'd become very much a business leader in the community and lived under the protection of the street people and the young drug dealers.

When Saturday morning came the street was strangely quiet. Shortly after noon Joan's office staff began to prepare the cookies and punch, inflate the balloons, and drape the streamers. The party was set for two o'clock. At about that time the "uptown" guests began to arrive. The streets were still absolutely empty. No one stood on the usually busy corners. Nobody lay in the doorways or gathered tossing pennies for gain. Street-trading had come to a standstill. The entire community was at home getting ready for the party! And by 2:30 as the mayor and councilmembers and other dignitaries began to arrive, the community began to pour into our little offices. They were dressed for church with kids with starched dresses and shirts -- little girls with lace-topped bobbysox over black patent leather shoes, with neatly-braided hairdos and faces shining from the last minute rub-on of Vaseline. There were ladies in hats and young men in suits and ... no one on the streets! Even the most derelict had sobered and gussied up for the party!

It was clear that someone had appointed him or herself the organizer and word had spread that Miss Betty was having a party and everybody better damned well get off the street!

At one point during the festivities -- I brought Mayor Loni Hancock out to the curb for a look up and down the street. It was a miracle. Nothing we'd seen or heard at those frequent meetings of community leaders and police -- nothing we'd suffered through while seeking answers to the social problems of South Berkeley -- nothing had prepared us for this deceptively simplistic answer to the dilemma of crime and "street loitering."

Was it simply that no one had ever thought to invite everybody to the party?

It couldn't be that easy, but doesn't it make you wonder?

Photo: on Saturday we celebrated "Juneteenth," (a Texas holiday) with a parade down Macdonald Avenue and a picnic in Nicholl Park. There were many months before news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached Texas -- June 19th, 1865, was that day. This holiday is celebrated across the nation, now, in African American communities everywhere. Made me wonder why there has never been a national holiday declared for the Emancipation Proclamation, anyway? Maybe it wouldn't past muster in the southern states, I suppose. Right.
Settling into a new role of luncheon speaker ...
Today I met with a group of about ten civic leaders as the speaker for their monthly Chamber of Commerce Leadership meeting. I'd been invited to make a presentation on the park's programs -- to show the "Lost Conversations and Untold Stories" dvd, then to spend about 90 minutes aboard the Chamber's 15-passenger van on an improvised tour of historic sites.

Our park tours have caught on, and both individuals and groups have begun to request our guided trips around this small city that they all know so intimately, but are beginning to truly see in new ways. It's really a fascinating process. The next tour -- scheduled for July 21st -- is already oversubscribed and a wait-list is forming even as we speak.

As before, we have only to hand out one-page maps with the historic structures numbered and the fun begins. After the very first stop at Ethel Dotson's old International Hotel (stopping place for all black Pullman porters while those Pullman cars were being serviced) the "tourists" took over the tour. Everyone had memories and -- sometimes -- conflicting memories of these structures. That makes for lively discussions that never fail to add reams to what I know about this city and its people, and, slowly -- this oddly troubled industrial town has begun to feel like home.

That's fortunate, too, because next Wednesday I'm being interviewed by a production team from PBS for a segment in a major 4-hour documentary being presented in one-hour segments, nationwide -- on "The Saving of San Francisco Bay." The special will trace the Bay from geologic time to the present. As a critical change factor in the story, World War II and Henry J. Kaiser are major contributors. I will be one of several homefront workers from that era being featured along with some impressive talking heads, Environmentalist Stewart Udall; State Historian Kevin Starr; plus, scientists, economists, engineers, etc. Having seen the 12 minute promotional dvd describing this blockbuster -- I'm more than a little intimidated. My interview is scheduled for 3 o'clock next Wednesday afternoon, and today's Chamber experience helped considerably to prepare me for the experience.

I found myself seeing the city differently today than before. It may have had to do with the fact that almost every one in the van has spent their entire lives here in Richmond, and I am a kind of a "summer person" having only lived here since the mid-nineties. Except -- that I did serve the war effort as a file clerk in a Jim Crow segregated union auxiliary during those fateful years of World War II. And I remember ... and I've learned ... and the sting of segregation lies, still, very near the surface of my consciousness and still colors my days and helps to define who I am in today's world.

Maybe the fact that I've learned to use the pain well, and to articulate it in ways that help to bring change for the sake of the young -- is reason enough to justify sitting before those cameras and talking my truth into the ether.

Awareness of the upcoming interview was ever-present all along the tour, and I could feel myself grabbing at new facts as they spilled into the air as we traveled along the historic path through Atchison Village, The SS Red Oak Victory, the old rusted Whirley Crane, past the Kaiser Field Hospital, etc., and I could imagine the ghosts of the past standing huddled along this now more and more familiar route through a city struggling to re-define itself.

... and my work is -- in a small way -- is facilitating that process.

Photo: Taken not at the Chamber luncheon, but at a similar gathering at the U.S. Forest Service in Vallejo, California a few months ago. Forgot to take my camera along to the Chamber Leadership event. (Do remember that these are thumbnails and can be blown up to full size when you click on them.)

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Maybe it's just a slow news day ...

...but I found myself one evening last week channel surfing and thinking about how much the television offerings have deteriorated since the great consolidation of the airways. Despite extensive cable offerings and at least five major network channels operating -- there's little more than the steady diet of crime shows, reality garbage, what I've begun to call "the last one standing" show; and pundits all yelling across the bow of anyone who dares to disagree with their always declarative proclamations!

PBS is in perpetual fundraising mode with the strangest assortment of barkers and snake oil salesmen and women one can imagine. If not that, there's the ever-present Andre Rieu (and where on earth did he come from, anyway?). I'm aware that the entire system of public broadcasting is under threat, but are we too late already? Is there now little left to save -- except for the occasional NOVA or Frontline? (And, yes, I'm sending my letters of protest to my representatives.) Were it it not for CSPAN, I'd probably cancel my account and bury myself in books again -- and blogs, or course.

I'd decided long ago (when considering a new more powerful teevee set or even HDTV) that I wouldn't invest another cent in the medium until the art catches up with the technology!

In this kind of petulant mode I happened across a KQED fundraiser featuring the exciting trumpet player, Chris Botti. I paused mid-remote-flick to hear him introducing a 16 year-old new jazz singer as the newest "...Sarah Vaughn or Ella Fitzgerald." This was an arresting statement and -- with remote hovering in mid-air -- I listened more closely. This kid must really be somethin', says I to no one in particular. The orchestra vamped for a few bars -- then she swung into gear, "every time it rains -- it rains -- (beat beat) pennies from heaven!" What a disappointment.

There was something familiar about all this, though -- and I suddenly recalled what it was:

Many posts back I found myself writing about the slow and methodical way black culture was being absorbed into American culture -- but that it was a one way street -- with our stuff going in and nothing coming out except the derivatives. These beautiful brass solos coming from Chris Botti were little more than Miles Davis in whiteface. It was again like hearing Lightnin' Hopkins swinging the blues from Eric Clapton's guitar! It was the recently-deceased Billy Preston swinging the entire Beatles combo from his electric piano or Hammond organ -- and never receiving so much as a mention except by the occasional critic who might refer to him as "the fifth Beatle."

On Sunday night I watched the Tony Awards along with the rest of the country -- and flinched at the irony of the Jersey Boys receiving their awards after a segment that clearly was based on Frankie Valli and his group singing Doo-Wop (picked up from black kids on the street corner of Philly or Detroit) and here were these broadway stars doing the Motown Temptations choreography with nary a credit to the originators nor an apology for the theft!

I thought of that really exciting young rhythm & blues singer from Britain who does such a credible job of covering Billie Holiday et al as she sexily slinks across the stage in her bare feet and hippy-like garb cradling the mike and breathing huskily the lyrics of old standards made famous in her grandparent's time. She's phenomenal -- and I'm moved by her ability to express those songs of my youth so movingly.

We've done a great job. Our culture is now so infused into the mainstream that artists rarely take the time to credit the source. It's all American, now. No longer black. Covers are no longer covers. Though depicted as a teenager hanging outside the windows of little black country churches to learn the licks that would bring him unanticipated fame, Elvis went to his grave "The King." Hogwash! He and Pat Boone and the others of the time brought to the public music and style that could not make it into the recording studios and film from the originators who couldn't get a contract and were still being let in the back door to perform in clubs that their friends couldn't follow them into. Even Sammy Davis Jr. and Dorothy Dandridge had to leave the clubs they worked in between shows, and could not be housed in the hotels where they performed. I later learned that this was also true in Hawaii where the Islanders who entertained were not permitted to stay in those posh hotels between shows but gathered at a small cafe nearby where they entertained each other. White supremacy reigned, and it was and is ugly, indeed!

On Sunday as I watched Chris Botti and the parade of young previously undiscovered white entertainers (except for Sting), I realized that the day has indeed come when people no longer are even aware that what they're watching are all the derivatives; those who have learned successfully and elegantly, to "paint by color." The music, the dance, the songs, of African Americans continue to find success most readily (surely in jazz) when adopted and performed by white performers.

I guess I'm resentful. And -- It concerns me when I find myself wondering where the new Dizzy Gillespies and Miles Davises and Louis Armstrongs and Ellas and Sarahs are going to come from? They once came up through the music programs in our public schools and lifted those kids out of the muck and into some measure of financial success (until late in the last century). But more important than the loss of a pathway to success through the arts -- I wonder about the loss of creativity -- of the kind that produced them for the world to emulate?

As I've said before, we've taken away access to the instruments and lessons that once were the keys to a kind of art that changed world culture. Having done that -- leaving them with no more than a pair of lips and a body that moves rhythmically -- differently than any others, our kids have turned that into an art form (Hip Hop and Rap) that has again taken over the world and become so infused into other cultures that I find myself seeking out Asian and Arabian and Island cultures on the teevee -- just to watch exotic-looking kids emulating Philly, Compton, and Oakland dance moves -- right down to the most intricate steps and rhythms.

Would sure like to see the more intricate and complicated demands of jazz continue to grow and prosper, but from our own. Learned in the late eighties that the best of contemporary jazz is now coming from the choir lofts of the country. Contemporary black gospel is jazz come home!

Ask Vicki Winans, and Kirk Franklin, et al. I suspect that those Texas mega-churches have been largely built by jazz-power. Ever watch them folks rock? Make a joyful noise ain't just a whistlin' Dixie. Those saints can blow!

Photo: Taken at Reid's Records the day that the great Motown gospel singer, Vanessa Bell Armstrong, and her entourage visited. We'd just been honored with a plaque for outstanding pioneer work in introducing black gospel music on a grand scale to the music world.