Sunday, October 28, 2018

Main Street, Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh

In the aftermath of the horrific massacre at a synagogue in Squirrel Hill, I am flooded with memories of the pleasant neighborhood and its active, bustling Main Street where I've had lunch and dinner many times. I am also flooded with memories of the contrast between the serenity of that neighborhood and the life-and-death struggles that were going on in The Hill, East Liberty and Homewood.  The separateness was, as I remember it, both profound and false. 

One might ask, "Is not the crime that troubled the poor, Black neighborhoods different from virulent anti-Semitism?" 

I had a major encounter with this question in my research career.  I was engaged as a consultant to a study of instances of fatal school violence, being carried out by the National Academy of Science/Institute of Medicine. My team examined two episodes of school shootings in East New York, 1991-1992. Our paper, "What did Ian tell God?" is included as a chapter in the National Academy Press 2003 book, Deadly Lessons, which you can download for free at their website

Throughout the process of the study of fatal school shootings, the dominant discourse was this:

that school shootings in "white" schools were the real focus of the study, because these were bizarre, "rampage" shootings, nearly impossible to understand. By contrast, a school shooting in the violent, minority neighborhood of East New York was sad, but not unexpected.  After all, "white" people don't kill each other, but, sadly "Black" people do.  

As a result, and because there could not possibly be any connection between the "white" cases and the "Black" cases, our chapter was placed at the back of the book.  I am, I confess, still angry the story of East New York was marginalized, when its lessons were desperately needed to solve the problem of fatal school shootings. 

It was not until the Parkland shooting in February 2018, that links were acknowledged. The youth leaders who emerged from Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School were joined by youth leaders from a diverse array of high schools, all of whom had suffered from violence.

We are sorely tempted, in an Apartheid society, to see things as different, and to rate them as "my problem" or "not my problem" depending on factors like our skin color or religion and geography.  And we are equally tempted to be angry when some problems get attention and others are allowed to fester.  And we get upset when people point out links among problems, as "diluting" the "real" issue.  Why, after all, talk about murders in Homewood just now, after the massacre in Squirrel Hill?

But these reactions derive from the logic of Apartheid, which enforces separation in all things.

To return to the question posed early, we may not yet know all the links between black-on-black crime in a poor neighborhood and virulent anti-Semitism attacking a prosperous one.  But we do know enough to know that the disinvestment in massive urban neighborhoods destroyed effective urban functioning, undermined working class solidarity, and tore the social connections that can keep hatred in check.  Indeed, the destruction of minority neighborhoods was an expression of racial hatred, and once unleashed, why would it stop there? What we call "racial" hatred has many targets, including women, sexual minorities, religious minorities and immigrants, to name a few. 

We need to learn the lesson of history, which is that my safety can only be measured in the safety of others. The German pastor Martin Niemöller wrote this teaching poem:

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out - because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak out for me. 

Might we see the violence in Squirrel Hill as the same as sending pipe bombs to liberal politicians, denigrating the caravan of immigrants trying to reach safety, killing students in schools and cutting school lunches?  I believe these are interconnected in their logic and implementation.  We can create a powerful response if we consider those connections and the ways in which we might interrupt them.

Somebody has to make the first move in creating solidarity.  It may be that Squirrel Hill will reach out to its neighbors in East Liberty, who have lived tragedies of violence.  It may be that the people of The Hill, East Liberty and Homewood will go to sit shiva with the people of Squirrel Hill.  However it happens, let us all be prepared to follow suit, linking arms in radical solidarity.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Can God save a city?

Martha Park is a writer and artist who creates illustrated investigates of urban situations.  She looked at the crisis of Cairo, Illinois, in this remarkable piece.  Ben Carson, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, has abandoned the city -- left its fate in God's hands.  While his act is brutal, in its honesty it reveals the larger approach to cities in our nation -- abandon them and their people when they have ceased to profit centers.  Move somewhere else to make money.  These planned shrinkage policies are a disaster for the local areas and for the nation, as Dr. Rodrick Wallace has so clearly shown us in his studies of the effects of planned shrinkage on the Bronx.  When will we learn?

Thursday, July 12, 2018

A proper cup of tea

Artist Pam Shaw, who has designed three of my book covers, sent me these wise words from Chogyam Trungpa:
Hold the sadness and pain of samsara and at the same time the power and vision of the Great Eastern Sun.  Then the warrior can make a proper cup of tea.
I looked up samsara and found this explanation by Jeff Wilson:
Saṃsāra in Buddhism is the "suffering-laden cycle of life, death, and rebirth, without beginning or end."
When I was in college, and fighting the unjust war in Vietnam, its horrors filled my days.  I read a poem once that asked how was it possible to enjoy a daisy with the war going on?  

In these times, I read of children snatched from their parents, the obscene concentration of wealth, the housing famine sweeping the world, and I ask how can I enjoy the 6" sunflowers I found at Whole Foods, which are now in my yard?

I have come to believe that this is my life quest, to let the joy of the sunflower be present for me, as much as I let the suffering of the world motivate me to fight for justice.  I don't know how to do this yet.  So every morning I practice.  While my tea is brewing, I go outside to get the newspaper.  I scan the headlines for the latest madness.  Then I look at the jolly 6" sunflowers, which make me laugh.  Today my tea was a little bitter.  I'll try again tomorrow.  

It's all good, as Bob Fullilove likes to say.  It's all good.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Documents of Urban Renewal

In a few places, scholars and journalists have found the original urban renewal files, including descriptions of the buildings and photographs of the place and its people.  These documents have helped us reconstruct neighborhood life in 1950s, and support the contention of displaced residents that they were unfairly stigmatized by the urban renewal authorities.

Pittsburgh's Lower Hill was demolished for urban renewal.  Diana Nelson Jones has investigated the story and published the photos.

Albany's downtown was also demolished.  The "98 Lost Acres" Project is sharing the documents and photos on the web.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Main Street as Park

I visited a most unusual Main Street in Portland OR: the Park South Blocks, at the southwest edge of downtown Portland. 
Park South Blocks, bordered by an array of residences, commerce, and university buildings.
It is a long double allée, with curving paths, fountains, sculpture and grassy lawns. It is bordered on either side by roadways, and those, in turn are edged with buildings of fairly uniform height, but a surprising array of uses, from convenience stores to the historical society.  It is, in form, like the Ramblas in Barcelona.  Because of the dense canopy of trees, it is a sheltered and mystical spot, inviting passersby and lingerers.  I went to dinner there, getting a wonderful meal at a food truck, Tall Boy's Fish and Chips.  A young man stopped to order dinner.  I appreciated his tee shirt, which read, "All the good chemistry jokes Argon."  

While I was eating, another young man walked by with a large case -- perhaps a portfolio? I thought -- and a large box.  A few minutes later, I realized that he had set up an informal barbershop and was busy giving a trim.  
Barbershop in Park South.  
I liked Park South so much I went back in the morning.  I got a latte from Starbucks, which opens at 5am, and sat on a bench, watching the dog walkers.  Why do people let their dogs poop and pea on park grass, also used by people for yoga, and reading, and sleeping? I wondered.  A woman looked at my Starbucks and walked off with determination.  A few minutes later she reappeared with her Starbucks.  She raised it in solidarity and said, "I got some too!  I need it."