Thursday, July 13, 2006

The work goes well -- so well, in fact -- that it's head-scratching time, I think... .

Last night we (Donna Graves, historian; Lew Watts, photographer-historian; and I) met at Nevin Center with the community that lives within what is now designated as the "Rosie the Riveter/Home Front National Historical Park" for a presentation by the firm that is doing the design for a complete new streetscape for the abandoned historic downtown district of the city of Richmond. For the past several years -- as a field rep for Assemblywomen Aroner and later, Hancock -- I participated as a member of a number of advisory groups that contributed to where we are today. We're engaged in the process of restoring the abandoned central core of the city. When completed, the full length of this main street will have been reconfigured, reconstructed, and restored to its former glory as the primary artery through the city. It runs from the Santa Fe-Baltimore & Ohio railroad yards in the west to San Pablo Avenue (main street through the entire east bay area that transects several cities) on the east. This is a major undertaking.

Having served on the advisory committee to the design team that redesigned the entire district (Old Town, Civic Center, and beyond), my relationship to the project has been almost constant from the beginning; but there's a difference now. My role has changed -- maybe deepened -- in that the relationship to the project now involves the City of Richmond's new role as a host city to a brand new national park, and I'm now employed by the National Park Service as the community outreach staffer to bring the city and the federal agency together in the creation of the park.

Since joining the staff a year or so ago, I've concentrated on raising the public awareness of the fact that the previously abandoned inner core of this beleaguered city is now the central piece in the Park that is slated to become a world destination. "The Park" consists not only of the shoreline shipyard, the SS Red Oak Victory, the beautiful Albert Kahn-designed Ford Assembly Plant, but in addition, about 20 war-related structures scattered throughout the historic old downtown area. In this respect, it is a unique park that requires new sensibilities. In most places, properties are owned by the Parks Service through the Dept. of Interior. Here in Richnond, the structures are privately-owned. For instance, the old 23rd Street Greyhound Bus station is now a Mexican-Peruvian restaurant which we hope can be marked by a plaque that describes the role it played during the war years in bringing so many strangers here. Sidewalks might have landmarking plaques embedded where many relevant places (now gone) once stood.

Deliberating with the community just how and what to designate, and encouraging individual artists to conceive ways of doing that should feed the creative juices of the young and the gifted for years to come. Under the guidance of historian, Donna Graves, we've involved Iron Triangle teens from two programs -- one from the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts and another called City Studios -- of the San Francisco Arts Institute -- in a project of photography and videography under the direction of University of California at Santa Cruz faculty member, Lew Watts and his team. They will document the process of restoration, community involvement, and education as we go along.

As an aside, over the year I became aware of a relatively new concept that's been adopted by the National Park Service; that of "civic engagement." This means that there is a mandate from the top that new ways be found through which to build a stronger relationship between communities and places that we hold as worthy of reverence and/or through which we share history in common as a nation. Richmond, by an act of Congress five years ago, was designated as such a place. We have only to grow the awareness of that fact with a community that has suffered slow degradation over the past 60 or more years. Many of the structures now marked for reverence exist only through benign neglect, and have been awaiting the wrecking ball for decades. The only factor that saved them was undoubtedly the lack of funds with which to do the work. In more affluent cities, war-related sites have been slowly disappearing; being replaced by sports stadia, industrial parks, etc. Richmond was on a slower time schedule, I suppose, and not particularly reverent about its past.

Kaiser Permanente walked away at war's end, leaving behind a city that had grown from 28,000 to 108,000 almost overnight. It had been a bustling wartime city with 8 movie theaters and major department stores -- but became an economic ghost town within weeks of war's end -- leaving behind jobless, homeless, deserted people who'd been brought west a short time before to fill the ranks of homefront workers who built the ships and helped to defeat the enemy in a time of national need.

Richmond held together for some years, but about 30 years ago the central core fell victim to the national move toward suburbanization. The central core was abandoned to the forces which created shopping malls. Richmond's was established about five miles away at the northern edge of the city, leaving the old downtown with its historic structures to deteriorate into poverty, high street crimes, despair, and a general climate of hopelessness and neglect.

During World War II, African American homefront workers were shunned in the central parts of the city (this was a time of rampant racial segregation), and those who stayed on after the war foraged and salvaged what they could from the deconstruction of the temporary war housing that HUD had provided and built living spaces for themselves in North Richmond on the only land open to them. Over the years, as the downtown was abandoned by whites who fled to the suburbs and elsewhere in the Bay Area, homes in the historic downtown became available to non-whites. According to the last census, 40% of the Iron Triangle population (downtown) is African-American. It is in this section of the city that most of the low low-income HUD housing has been built. Currently, there's a fast-growing Latino population competing for low-income housing and related agencies and businesses to support them in the same areas.

The changing demographics have altered social patterns, but racial integration is a reality here. There is a quiet acceptance of differences though one still finds the more subtle patterns of discrimination as can be found almost anywhere in the nation if we look closely enough. But for the most part, Richmond is a fine example of positive co-existence.

There is much to be learned from the people of this city -- and the park may help to reveal that to the nation and the world. Only problem is that I don't think the city is aware of its uniqueness yet. My work involves finding ways to reveal this reality to those who are living it today, as well as to those who come to revere these heroic workers and sites and structures that served as background for the women and minorities who came here to serve in the homefront mobilization that helped to save the world.

A daunting challenge -- but one that excites me into sleeplessness many nights. Find myself looking around for some Faustian bargain that will grant me at least another five years -- at least.

But then I think of Sage, and Maybelle, and Dorothy, and Flossie, and Linda, and all the other women whom we've known and lost over the past year, and ... .

How dare I plead for more!

Photo: Postcard advertising upcoming event to be held August 5th at the Richmond Museum of History. We will collect stories and artifacts, oral histories, and begin the process of gathering the material that will be used to produce interpretive markers to stand along the sidewalks in the historic downtown. Click on to expand to read content.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Aha! There's an inconsistency in our Bill of Rights.

It's been taking up most of my thoughts since writing that last post...the thing that bothers me still and won't be dismissed casually:

It's this.

I fully understand the concept of Civil Disobedience. I've engaged in it around matters of importance, like the time that I joined with others to block the passage of trucks carrying war cargo into the Concord Weapons Station in Concord during the Vietnam War. Or, more recently when we stood at the gates of the Bayer Pharmaceutical Corp. in Berkeley when they joined with other big pharmas to block the sale of generic drugs to HIV victims in Africa. I (We) were on both occasions purposely disobeying the law to call attention to an unjust policy -- with full awareness of the legal consequences and willing to be arrested for the actions. That, according to Kohlberg ethical standards, is the highest form of patriotism. One has only to re-read Thoreau or Dr. King for confirmation. The hard fact is that -- according to the Bill of Rights -- I can engage in Civil Disobedience, but must be willing to face the penalty for my actions.

However, under the Freedom of Speech dictum, we have to face the old "you can't yell fire in a crowded theater" gambit -- without facing criminal charges;" the sole exception punishable by law.

In the case of the displaying of the Confederate flag or any other paraphernalia (KKK regalia, for instance), those rights can be exercised and are fully protected, but the policy does not provide for a penalty for exercising that right in the event of the dire consequences it may invoke or the pain it might inflict on the unsuspecting or the intended victims. That's a problem that needs addressing, I believe.

But, the fact that the Civil War was never cleanly won, nor have the issues of full emancipation or the question of reparations been addressed, much has been left unfinished; in political limbo. These critical omissions are clearly indicated by the fact that the 1863 date of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation -- clearly the epochal event in the life of this nation -- has never been declared a national holiday -- makes one wonder, doesn't it?

Now that's a conversation we've postponed for far too long. I'm almost certain that I'd have been spared the pain of uncertainty about my position in space on this 4th of July, had it been so. My right to stand in my own shoes upon any spot in the city, the state, or the nation on that day should have been unquestioned, at least in my own mind. After all, my family has been a part of this nation since the 1600s on one side and before the 1805 Louisiana Purchase on the other!

It is inconceivable that I should have been made to feel defensive about fears and resentment at the sight of those who would question my right to exist -- as I did in seeing blatant evidence of strident segregationists on the streets of a small town in my state -- and on the day celebrating the birth of my nation!

Fear gone -- anger present and accounted for. Now to find ways to continue to transform it into something usable and not destructive to myself and those around me ... .

I've been silenced by fear, I think ... at least for a few days ... .

The 4th of July holiday started out uneventful enough but quickly escalated into a climate of unease that was completely unexpected.

On Saturday morning I drove up Highway 101 to Route 128 -- through the Anderson Valley, through the winding country roads that opened into that beautiful redwood forest leading to scenic Coast Highway #1 -- without a care in the world. Had thought to take along an audio book of "The Devil Wears Prada" (don't bother -- it's a waste of print) that shortened the trip considerably -- until I discovered that the book wasn't going anywhere that I cared to be. It just made me feel old and irrelevant.

Arrived in Mendocino anticipating a bucolic 4th of July weekend in the quiet artist colony now beginning to fill with tourists and weekenders from nearby towns -- in for the festivities.

Dorian had chosen to spend the weekend in town with friends; David and his kids were occupied; and I hadn't heard from Bob for weeks, but assumed that meant that he was deep into his own life and needed me not. A mother could hardly ask for more -- even an older one whose "children" had outlived their childhood by many years.

This would be a time to enjoy. I'd thought to bring along my camera this time in the hope that the Headlands might still be wildflower-covered against the blue sea. I'd so regretted losing that shot on my last visit. Just maybe the coastal areas were more forgiving and the fog just might have slowed summer enough to not have lost spring, totally.

It was not to be. I slipped into town shortly after arriving at Tom's -- camera in hand -- but the headlands yielded nothing but dandelions and a few stray California poppies that were not those of my childhood (a deep orange) but indistinguishable from the sulphuric yellow of the dandelions that they now mimic; a disappointment.

After a quiet weekend, July 4th arrived to the rare sound of traffic slowly-building to a crescendo along Highway 1. Tom and I had decided to skip the fireworks the night before at Fort Bragg, but would drive in for the parade scheduled to start around noon. I was excited. It's been a long time since I've witnessed this kind of classic American smalltown holiday parade and it made me nostalgic for a time I've never lived -- kind of borrowed from a Norman Rockwell cover of the Saturday Evening Post of long ago. It was all to be Boston-Pops-on-the-Green and "American Pie."

We drove the short 5 minutes from his home and parked just a block or so inland from the Headlands to join the other walkers to the place where the parade was haphazardly organizing itself. There were decorated antique cars, the volunteer fire truck; children with crepe-paper-decorated tricycles; homemade "floats" covered with plastic flowers; balloons and dogs with fancy collars; flags everyhere, and for a few hours there I had found myself so steeped in small town celebrating that I forgot ... .

It came to me in a momentarily flash -- that I was the only person of color among thousands! This is a uniquely white American holiday -- in celebration of a time when I would have been enslaved. I'd forgotten.

In the city of Richmond where I live there is a 40% African American population, perhaps 35% Latino, a significant East Indian as well as Laotion and Asian demographic as well. We forget that we're not the generic people, but the exotics, because our numbers tell us differently.

I thought ruefully for just a minute as the tune ran across my mind, "Where have all the powers gone?" Obviously, there really are two Americas; the one where I live, and the one where I found myself this day. How quickly I forgot... lulled to sleep by my friendships that span time and space and distance and race -- and that have in these years when there's more wheat and less chaff -- I no longer make those distinctions so readily.

Then it happened: We came alongside a flag-draped flatbed truck carrying muscular young white males. They were displaying two large flags -- one traditional stars and stripes -- and the other, that of the Confederacy! I felt a chill. I wondered if Tom had noticed. He had. I wanted to run. Fear and panic took over my body and my sense of balance and logic -- and all I could think of was leaving. Now! And we did.

Later we spoke of it. He said all the logical things about there not being any way to prevent such expression -- given the Freedom of Speech mandate of the Bill of Rights. But I didn't want logic. I didn't know precisely what I wanted to hear, but that wasn't it.

Then I recalled an online encounter I'd had years ago with a woman somewhere in the South. She'd spoken with great pride of her southern heritage and love for the flag of the Confederacy -- and I'd challenged her, but I wasn't at all sure of my ground. We'd been virtual friends up to that point, discussing many things upon which we fully agreed. What was different now?

She'd also brought up the "Freedom of Speech" issue, and I was just as troubled then about why that didn't suffice for me as I was on Tuesday. Until -- until I realized what was wrong with that argument. "Of course you have the right to display your flag," I told her. "But there is a cost to your doing so. It means that you must sacrifice my friendship by such an act. And, if you are willing to pay that price, then it is surely your right to so choose." I felt our mutual sadness at the time, but felt the truth in my words and held to them.

Perhaps that goes for the young Americans on that flatbed truck. It seems to me that they're displaying a total disregard for those who carry in their DNA the suffering associated with the nation's history of slavery and injustice. The cost of their action might well be the inciting of violence from those so marked. The cost of their act might well be the sacrifice of peaceful coexistence. Their willingness to do so by holding to this particular expression of the freedom of speech is an affront to freedom and justice for all. And, of course, that is their right, guaranteed by our founding documents. But do you suppose that anyone ever takes the time to weigh the cost?

I drove home -- back through the redwoods seeing for the first time more shadow than the flickering filtered sunlight that usually is so visually interesting -- and back through Philo and Booneville where I saw only that there were no people of color anywhere in sight -- and I drove just a little faster ... .

Happy 4th of July may not be all that I'd hoped, but I'm workin' on it.

Photo: "Sage in Bloom," from The POD. In memorium.
Thanks, Alf and Fern.