Sunday, June 01, 2008

Write to the City

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?

Sara

18 comments:

Judy Alter said...

You must live in Hyde Park. I grew up there and treasure my memories of theneighborhood and, later, my days at the U. of C. It was then a place like no other--the joke was that it was the only neighborhood with a recorder (the wind instruemnt) under every bed. I remember places like the Green Door bookstore, which we thought was wonderful because it got the NYTimes on Sundays, the Point where we spent high school summers, and 55th street, and the Coop, for its day a truly innovative grocery. And the lake--some forty years later, I still miss it.
I'm sorry to hear the neighborhood is losing its uniqueness--and I hope they don't tear down all those lovely homes to build McMansions.

kathy d said...

Kathy Durkin said:
I also grew up in Hyde Park from 1952-59. I loved it--the community feeling, multi-ethnic, working-class and academic, anti-war, pro civil rights residents, families. That Hyde Park has changed so much sickens and depresses me.
I have such wonderful memories of my childhood there, my friends, my parents' friends, the school, the neighborhood, the lovely houses and apartment buildings, walking to see friends a few blocks away, enjoying the spring or autumn.
Can anyone do anything to retain its history?

Anonymous said...

Kathy Durkin adds:
I forgot to say I loved swimming in Lake Michigan, fishing off the rocks there, going to the Museum of Science & Industry, bike-riding, walking around to 53rd St., 55 St., 57 St.
Even sleeping on the screened-in porch on hot August nights and trudging to school in snow up to our waists. Loved it all.

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