Gilda Haas, who directs a tenant rights group called "Strategic Actions for a Just Economy," reads a lot of crime fiction--maybe because she's married to that prince of noir writers, Gary Phillips. Anyway, along the way she saw that a lot of us write about the same issues that she and her colleagues worry about--imbalances in money and power, the disappearance of unique urban landscapes in exchange for cookie-cutter strip malls and steel towers, and the displacement of people from their homes to make way for the gentrifying high rises.
Last Thursday, Gilda and Gary put together quite a show in LA. Called "Write to the City," they brought together some noir writers, including Gar Haywood, Denise Hamilton, the inventive Nina Revoyr, and me with some organizers and tenants.
I used to do a certain amount of organizing, sometimes more successfully than others--tenant actions against a slumlord, student actions during the Vietnam War, community actions during the civil rights heyday, and even Sisters in Crime. But I've been living the Yuppie life for some years now and it was a good and sobering wake-up to be on a platform with Luis Rodriguez, Davan Corona, and others, to hear what is happening in the lives of people on the margins. Gar Haywood read an elegant essay on urban geography, I read from Blacklist, and Luis and Davan read from life.
Stories of disabled people being locked out of elevators to keep them from protesting the slum conditions of their buildings made my blood boil, but I was cheered, too, by the energy in the room, by Gilda, Davan and Luis, and their intelligent passionate resolve.
I live in a university neighborhood. Until ten years ago, it was a mixed community of academics, students, black, white, middle class and low income housing. Not a perfect m ix, but mixed nonetheless. Then the downtown money people realized the south side of Chicago was not a terrifying crime zone and they could be ten minutes from the Loop, five minutes from Lake Michigan, and--voila, we now have a lot of lawyers, finance people, unaffordable housing for the blue collar folk who used to live here--and unaffordable for junior faculty, so that the university itself is losing its collegiality and community. My own property taxes went up sixfold in four years. What should we have done that we didn't do? I don't know how to solve these problems, but I sure wish we'd had Gilda here ten years ago!
How do you balance the desire to repair and gentrify your neighborhood with the rights of people who've lived there for decades?