Friday, August 25, 2006

The Wisdom Tree -- the sad tale of a forgotten legacy ...

When first assigned to West Contra Costa County as Dion Aroner's aide, I learned about the Wisdom Tree during one of those rubber chicken suppers. The tall bronze former boxer sitting at my elbow was a man who'd lived his entire life in Richmond and was now a successful corporate executive with an embracing warmth. Jerrold Hatchett was sharing a story that held true importance to him. This was in no way an idle conversation -- and it stayed with me through recent years. Today it rose to the surface in a new context.

"Have you seen the Wisdom Tree over near FoodsCo," he asked? The place he was describing was the busy strip mall that serves the Iron Triangle -- with
the usual complement of stores found in low-income shopping areas (Walgreens, FoodsCo, Hamburger King, a few small independent stores, the Goodwill clothing store, and one specializing in oversized menswear of today; a doughnut cafe, manicure/pedicure shop operated by a Vietnamese couple, etc.). Though familiar with the shopping mall, I couldn't recall seeing the tree. I could see many trees there-- in my mind's eye.

He went on, "...for many years this has been the meeting place for men in this area. Oddly enough, in the morning, Latino men are gathered there and in the afternoons, African American men come to share their stories and boasts." I recall that we laughed when I suggested that it wouldn't surprise me a bit if the morning crowd weren't seen as socializing -- and the afternoon group as loitering. Not far from the truth, I think. Abou
t two weeks ago, at the "Memories of Macdonald" event at the Richmond History Museum, a woman from Atchison Village (located at the end of Macdonald Avenue) had mentioned the Wisdom Tree to those taking oral histories. Here was confirmation to Jerrold's dinner tale.

Earlier in the week, as preparation for adding walking tours of the historic district to our plans for fall -- Naomi (park ranger), Donna (historian), and I met in front of the Winters Building in the heart of the Iron Triangle; map in hand designating the structures in the area that would be noted on our upcoming tours. This would be our run-through of the path we might follow. Today we would rely upon Donna (who'd done extensive work on the downtown mapping of historic sites) to inform us.

We spent the next hour walking and learning (St. Mark's Church, the lovely and well-maintained school district administration building, past all of the redevelopment agency-owned abandoned commercial buildings; the post-war post office, the no-longer standing Elks Club, the union hiring halls for the shipyards, and the old hotel on the corner of Harbor Way and Nevin; it was fascinating as we moved back in time in this city whose soul I've had such a difficult time finding.

When we reached Bis
sell Street we found ourselves across the street from a fairly recently-built housing development, "Memorial Gardens," I believe. The site had once served as the site of the Veterans Memorial (no longer standing). The small neatly-kept homes were on the backside of the strip mall from which they were separated by an attractive ornamental iron gate. Behind the gate stood -- it must be -- the towering and majestic cypress known as the Wisdom Tree. We would make our return trip on Macdonald Avenue and visit this great monument close up before leaving the area. It would be interesting to see who was gathered there today. The great tree dominated my thoughts -- and as we made our way to the front of the mall it was impossible not to recognize it. It stood taller and darker than the rest against the intense blue of the late-morning sky.

We crossed the busy parking lot to where it stood all alone except for two large trash dumpsters standing against
the wall nearby. Despite the fact that the mall was filled with shoppers, not a soul was standing in her shadow. None of the life that I'd expected to find was here. The really lovely backdrop that framed her was that ornamental tall iron gate, and the ground surface was red brick and welcoming. Flanked on each side were small businesses; one was the coffee and doughnut shop that begged for sidewalk tables with folks hunched over board games and conversations under those lofty branches -- but there were none.

As we approached the reason became clear. There were several very prominent black and white print signs emphatically stating, "NO LOITERING, NO DRINKING, NO BEGGING; SUBJECT TO FINE!" and signed by the Richmond Police Department.

This beautiful tree must have a plaque to mark its significance in this community, I thought, and immediately my mind began to nibble at just how that might be done. Could it be reclaimed from the degradation and abandonment? Surely -- from its age and beginnings, this tree had been witness to stories shared by veterans of the first world war and beyond. This marked the place of our sons and fathers, quite literally.

We stopped in at the Main Street Initiative offices nearby. This organization is charged with the economic revitalization of the old downtown. I learned from an agitated executive director that there had been drug dealing and fights and ... and... and... and it was quite clear that there was another story here and that it wasn't a pretty one. But, after I drove away I wondered if she was even aware of the tree's history as a part of the lore of downtown, the memorial garden, or what it has meant to generations of men who claimed it as their outdoor living room? I'd forgotten to ask. Did today's police department know what they'd done?

Yesterday the story took on even more significance. Lucy and I had lunch with the head of the Richmond Chamber of Commerce, a woman who grew up and attended school within a few blocks of that tree. She's never heard of the Wisdom Tree, but after a few minutes of chatting she remembered that -- when the strip mall and the housing development behind it were planned, the previous owner of the site had insisted upon an agreement that everything else could be cleared, but that a single tree must be left standing. Yes. It had to be the Wisdom Tree. This completed the story. There were now three independent confirmations. This giant must be reclaimed. The children must know about it. A plaque suitable to its stature and place in this community must be installed. The park can do that, I think.

I found myself wondering where the older men gather to tell their stories and make their boasts these days ... and, were the younger men and boys given an alternative to this magical place, or were they simply dispersed as undesirables who tarnish the image of the neighborhood simply by being visible while being non-white and idle?

Will it be possible to reclaim this living history? I'm wondering how many generations of men claimed this space before it came to its slow inglorious end as a community resource? When did we begin to be ruled by fear? We learned from the executive director of Main Street that people were afraid to pass that spot now. Why? Could those fears be groundless because the lore was lost and -- because even those who gathered there no longer remembered why? Would they not insist upon their right to congregate if they knew that they are acting in an honorable tradition? Is this then, a lesson in the importance of knowing our history?

...and just how does one reclaim this significant symbol of social history and help to give the city back its soul?

There's a metaphor here, but I can't find it yet ... .

Do you suppose it's related to the rights we've started to relinquish to those who would control us -- in exchange for their protection against known and unknown dangers? Is this what that looks like, on a local level? Are we giving up those things that give life meaning, needlessly? Could some ceremonial recognition of the Wisdom Tree and its story allow us to look at that possibility and reconsider? Is this an example of the Ashcroft/Cheney syndrome, maybe?

Perhaps that's it.