Dear Shaw neighborhood bloggers and casual readers,

I no longer live in Shaw. I enjoyed my time at 7th and Q greatly, and still believe that gentrification does not need to take place at the cost of affordable housing and tolerance within the community. Shaw’s a lively, vibrant neighborhood, one that I’d choose over Georgetown or Glover Park were I to return, and I hope it retains its flavor for many years to come.

In the meantime, I will be writing about my new neighborhood, in Chengdu, China, at and more generally at
Peace, Respect, and Shaw,

Addendum: My neighbor across the street, who will go unnamed, was murdered in a drive-by shooting not long after I moved out of my place. I have been home during previous drive-by attempts on his life, and was amazed at how unflustered he was by the threat prevented. So much so that he continued to sit outside his home, after the would-be assassins’ shots failed to connect. The odds, though, grow better (or worse) over time in the drug trade. Though never chatty, he was always respectful in our limited communication. Rest in peace, Neighbor.

Welcome to Q Radio: a Special Edition from ITSLATEAGAIN: The Podcast Series!

Q Radio is not a traditional podcast, or online radio show. Rather, it is a series of vignettes from various characters living around Q Street in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington D.C. Shaw has become a highly controversial battleground in recent months for the ongoing gentrification debate that permeates new developments in the district. Gentrification, the process in which lower cost neighborhoods undergo physical renovation and increased property values, and more importantly: an influx of wealthier residents who often push out the previous, poorer residents.

Q Radio is the word off the street, where the conversations get ugly, the race and class lines are clearly drawn and hostilities are shared against the backdrop of rising gang violence. But the voices of Q also offer glimpses of hope: unlikely friendships are formed, visionary young go-getters continue to inspire.

There’s Daniel, an Ethiopian immigrant whose perspective on being black in America is being reshaped through his daughter. Tony, the doubting patron of a local church accused of “slumlording.” And that’s not to mention Mel, the guilt-tripping young professional and Gustavo, with worries regarding MS-13 and human traffickers. These, and other characters, provide insight into the diversity of walks of life in Shaw, soundtracked by a groove-centric collection of songs and beats.

Look for tracks from Amon Tobin, Royksopp, Fujiya and Miyagi, Sam Cooke, Spank Rock, Talib Kweli, Andrew Bird and Mbongeni Ngema, among others.

I recently moved out of Shaw, and so would like to dedicate this pod-story to the kids at Kennedy Rec. I played ball there a number of times, and after breaking the ice, found many of them to be fun, good-natured young adults.

Collector’s Edition: Q Radio: Voices from Shaw

NB: All characters in this pod-story are fictional.

NNB: In the rare chance that you belong to a large music company and do not appreciate hearing particular tunes in this pod-story, do let me know and I’ll be sure to take it down, sans lawyer.

“How did you feel in God’s house?!” a familiar face asked me this evening, as I bounded into the Rec, basketball under my arm.United House

“Good, man! Like always,” I said, as we clasped hands and pounded. He pointed out a tall man behind us, who had also been in attendance at the Easter Sunday service at which he’d happened to sit next to me. At first, he had asked me if I work for the government. When I realized he was referring to bumping into me at the Rec, it became apparent he was just working out who I was.

But after stepping through the main hall and on to the court, I realized this was going to be a different evening from the quiet post-winter warm-ups I’d engaged in since Spring had returned, and intrinsically, my desire to ball. Tonight, the court was packed with ballers on one side, and busy with an organized dance club of young women on the other.

I had to wait for ‘Next after Next’ before I got into a game, and the competition was tough. This was classic indoor streetball, played at a deceptively quick pace and filled with miniature bouts of comedy, brilliance, and masculine intensity. The first real pick-up for me this season, my shot was off and my defense a step slow. But worst of all, (or perhaps for the better), I got clocked in the face twice. Not intentionally mind you, but both times by the ball, on the receiving end of deflected or mis-thrown passes. The blood against my upper lip made it hard to concentrate, but as the game has taught me to do, I pressed the red bile against my shirt and played on.

Most impressive of all the young men on the court, not for his flash but his control, was E. A familiar face from last summer, he is a powerfully built man several inches shorter than myself, but dramatically stronger and quicker. His jump shot is butter soft, his handle rock solid. But the one skill that lifts him beyond the level of his talented but erratic peers is his decision-making: for every funky ‘And 1 mixtape’ move the others make, E rarely dribbles the ball any more than necessary. And when the turnovers flare and the fast breaking turns sloppy, E will put a stop to it, with the percentage pass or the open jumper. If only most CEOs could run their organizations with such cool-headed mastery, the corporate world would be turned upside down.

After the game, I cooled down out by the ping pong tables. As the game I was watching wound down, in stepped E–now wearing jeans over his mesh shorts. His blonde-tipped dreads and calm persona offered no hint of the exertion with which my sweat-drenched face betrayed. Perhaps that’s because he hadn’t had to try. In all the games, I’ve seen him play, as with some of the other more skilled ballers, he never seems to break a sweat: shorts, jeans, parka–regardless. And now, here he was, serving up beautifully weighed backhand serves and punishing smashes before effortlessly dispatching with the previous round’s winner.

“You play table tennis too?” I’d asked him, earlier.

“I play pretty much everything, man,” he’d replied, with neither over-arrogance nor false humility.

And I don’t doubt him. The city–these troubled streets of Shaw–with its problems and pain and jubilation, is filled with supremely talented young people, boys and girls alike. I sincerely hope, but am sadly skeptical, that E has the opportunity to translate such skill and intelligence from this recreational facility into the economic architecture of his polarized city.

Shaw men
Jati Lindsay. From Shaw and Tell, a photo essay published in the Washington City Paper, April 2007.

Last night at around 11 pm there were a series of gunshots fired very close to my home. The rhythm of the shots came something like this:

Pop!…Pop! Pop!…Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop!

It was during the long series that I heard and felt something strike the house. I thought it was the ricocheting of a bullet and so crouched beneath the window of my room.

One of my roomates saw a man running between alleys behind Kelsey Gardens. It appears the shots were fired from Q between 7th and 8th streets.

After being on hold for abour 45 seconds, we got through to the police, who told us there had already been several calls placed. The police cars arrived a couple of minutes later. It appears nobody had been hit.

According to neighborhood blogs, Kelsey Gardens, in the midst of being cleared for the construction of new condominiums, contains a number of abandoned, largely basement, apartments. Drug dealers, ever opportunistic regarding new commercial locations at which to profiteer and occasionally shoot, have begun using these apartments. A young man was shot dead inside one of them last week, one of a spat of shootings along 7th in this most recent crime spurt.

On the way to the Giant supermarket, I originally walked down 7th past Kelsey Gardens, acquiring dirty looks whilst picking out some of the middle-school age boys I played basketball with at the Rec. After a few months, however, I ended up taking the much quieter and more peaceful route behind Kelsey, along 8th. The “Drug Free Zone” sign within this almost fully gentrified street is eerily marked with the spraypainted visage of a ghost peering out across it.

When I consider the capoeira workshop I was organizing that failed to materialize (the whole teen night was cancelled at the last moment), I wonder how much I, or any other concerned outsider, can offer these young boys, who seem  filled with such torment and anger. They need something greater then that, and if Mayor Fenty and Kevin Chapple have a solution other than pushing folks out into Southeast or PG County, I’m still yet to hear it. Education reform clearly remains a fundamental piece of the efforts, changing the existing culture of violence and hostility speaks to a far broader, more complex situation and set of issues.

From the top bedroom window, it’s possible to make out the National Monument, peeking its pointy crest directly over the Projects at which this bloody pestilence has rotted in. In Sarah Luria’s “Capital Speculations,” which discusses early planning and architectural conversations regarding this city, Ms. Luria argues that Washington remains a city of failure, a flawed and ongoing project toward reaching the original vision of America. Present day Shaw is a good example of the country’s continued failure to successfully lift the disempowered out of bleak situations, a piece of New Orleans, South Central and South Dakotan reservations within passing shot from the White House. And while there are many good people doing excellent work to change this current predicament, more clearly needs to be done.

Young professionals who might be considering a move into Shaw with the notion of raising  children in this neighborhood should know: these problems running down the Projects of 7thremain malignant.

Several months ago, my roommate lost his wallet. His small bundle of leather, with cards, cash and miscellaneous tools of identification, had fallen out somewhere not far from the “Q” (a now mythical reference we use for our little home).

This being Shaw, I would not have held my breath awaiting its return any time soon. In fact, I would have started cancelling credit cards. However, pleasantly surprising as it must have been for him, my roommate had his wallet returned to him by a kindly fellow from the neighborhood, its contents perfectly intact. The man’s name, it turned out, was Stanley, and he was homeless.

Now, it goes without saying, but to have anybody return your lost wallet in Washington D.C. seems a particularly rare occurrence; even in Georgetown or Dupont I wouldn’t fancy my chances. But to have a homeless man in Shaw, someone for whom the amount of cash must have seemed exponentially more tempting, is truly a one in a million. It was a beautiful, honest action, and certainly one of the most principled acts I’ve come across here.

My roommate graciously thanked Stanley, and gave him a reasonable amount of cash as well as some blankets and old clothes.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, however that wasn’t the last we’d see of Stanley. He would come by the house periodically following the incident, looking for a couple of dollars from one of us.

My roommate willingly doled out more cash a few more times, before  beginning to fear that he was fostering a dependency hand-out relationship of sorts, and thus made the conscious decision to stop. It was at this point that I intervened to help Stan out.

Stanley is a fairly short man of gentle disposition, much more consciously grounded in reality than the red-eyed and lost I see nearby, wandering the streets under the Sisyphean weight of stones of the crack rock variety. Of all of the homeless and vagrant I’ve spoken with, in DC and elsewhere, Stan came off as one of the most sincere and straight-forward.

We spoke briefly, and he explained that he’d been living in Shaw for the past 22 years.
“22 years?!,” I’d thought. “He’s been living here as long as I’ve been alive!,” a fact which is difficult to fathom until I took the time to consider the length of my entire life.Through some vagaries, I came to understand that Stanley had run into a bad patch of luck a few years back, and was now on the street.

And yet there I was, taking out a five dollar bill from my wallet as if I was the established member of society, and he merely some sort of passing vagabond. All things considered, American society being the sort of enlightened Western institute of freedom (of speech, if not from hunger) and suffrage (except, of course, if you live in D.C., the political capital of the nation) that it is, perhaps I am the more “established” one.

On another early evening, he came by with an old television and VCR set, and after some cajolement, Stanley convinced me into purchasing both off of him, for about $15. Though in hindsight I might have been gullible to his explanation that the church had given him the items, I bought them off him as a final “good karma-ish” deed. And, as Stanley had quite pragmatically pointed out, I would have more use for the items than he would in the near future.

After setting up the rudimentary system atop my room fridge, I found a video cassette inside the VCR.  It was “The Land Before Time.”
After this purchase, however, I too had reached the “threshold of good will” of my roommate, the favor that Stanley’s initial good deed had initially indebted the house as a matter of human decency. But of course, Stanley’s own needs have not diminished similarly. Basic needs being unmet, he continued to knock at our door for several months following, sometimes as late as 1am. After calling out my roommate’s name several times, he would leave.

My room is right next to the front door,  and so his voice echoed most directly into it. He never pleaded, just waited out in the cold for a moment before heading off. To where, I do not know. He hasn’t come by for several months now, and I doubt that he’ll return, the implicit knowledge that we no longer provide having been sufficiently communicated by the silence of our closed door.

But, in this most fierce of Winter cold snaps, I do wonder occasionally what has become of Stanley, the virtuous Shaw veteran who acted with a moral fortitude that many a CEO could learn from.

The more time I spend living in DC, the more I realize how great the chasms between abstract liberal class-consciousness and actual practical realities of living in DC are.

Case in point: I was just setting out at around 8:30 pm last night when I heard a succession of gunshots, or “fireworks,” as a roommate likes to call them. Police cars–four of them–flashed through the streets around my home within a couple of minutes. I then carried on to the 9:30 club, watched the Scottish folk-rock band I had gone to see, and chatted with a friend about music venues in Los Angeles. From the laptop screen to the office to the music club, modern urban living allows one to be hyper-conscious yet remarkably oblivious to the plight of his neighborhood, to taking in knowledge on one’s own terms, and through one’s own RSS feeds/labor.

Living in Shaw, I’ve become used to living with many things that would have seemed almost unimaginable in former locales. Homelessness, increased noise, steady traffic along Rhode Island and down 7th, and, almost without question, some sort of police presence. I can’t say I was completely prepared for the adjustment; my move into the city was driven primarily by a desire to escape what I felt to be the alienation and plastic-tasting cultural dirge of the suburbs than it was a desire to bathe in youthful class guilt. But since moving in, over the months and more often through word of mouth or the blogosphere (which is just virtualized word of mouth), I’ve absorbed several valuable life lessons and ideas that neither the lectern nor the text book could provide nearly as well:

1. Every incoming publicly elected official should be required to spend some time in the poorest district of their constituency: Ideally, this would involve living in the neighborhood for at least one month, visiting community centers, talking to folks outside 7-Eleven on Sunday afternoons…

2. No, you don’t know what it feels like to be somebody else, but that shouldn’t stop you from trying to understand, more than your ignorant “If only Blue people acted more like Purple people,” or “Those people are all lazy, self-victimizing so-and-so” commentators ever will from their dinner table.

3. People won’t think better of you, no matter how fully you live out a pseudo-Buddhist, one-world worldview: this probably goes as well for developing world back-packing as it does for your own block. Class resentment exists, culture matters, and it takes a long time go from toleration to harmonious co-existence.

4. Hope is the piston of the American Dream: the journey won’t kick into gear without solid factory work to begin with.

I wish more successful folks in the business community saw the dream within a broader brush stroke than that commonly associated with Wall Street culture. “Greed is good” is so passé. All that capital, all that ability, still being thrown about like raccoons in a winter pantry. What makes humanity so thoroughly compelling is our ability to fulfill higher modes of living: beyond the television, beyond wanting a snazzier car than Jim, always a little beyond our current comfort zone.

“Greed is good; social capitalism is better,” should be our generation’s call card. Just like an online personals profile, except regarding civic consciousness.

There’s been several shootings in Shaw in the past several weeks, as some of the more consistent Shaw bloggers have noted.

There’s also been an increase in use of the spotlight, right outside of my house. Though not certain, I’m quite sure that the abandoned building across the street from my house is a hotspot for crack dealing, and things have been picking up lately.

The first time I saw it, it was quite surreal, almost like going to bed in the middle of the day, except where the sunshine is replaced by artificial, flashing light. After a while, as with anything else, you get used to sleeping when it’s bright out.

I often hear about how Leroy Thorpe, the former commissioner for my ward, really turned things around for this neighborhood in terms of chasing out drug elements and reducing crime significantly. That being said, I suppose what I see in my brief moments rushing along outside is practically suburban humdrum quiet compared to years past.

I had another meeting at Kennedy today, this time regarding a capoeira performance I’m hoping to organize. I’m looking forward to holding an event at my local rec, if only because these are the same kids I see as I ride along 7th, or walking to Giant on P Street.

One of them asked me for change last weekend; a stocky middle-school age chap I see at Kennedy often. I was on my bike, so I didn’t stop and carried on. But I wonder if he recognized me as the guy who was trying to convince him to play 2 on 2 not so long ago? We’re from different worlds and asking for different favors, just hanging in the same places.

PS: Crime map is handy, for those with a self-interested, or simply curious–if perhaps slightly morbid–interest in the city.

On my way home tonight, I saw something that felt really super-Shaw.

At the Chinese take-out joint across the street from me, a group of rowdy high schoolers—to lift from Zadie Smith: the sort who make 10 times as much noise as their number might suggest—were inside and outside of the little shop, purchasing nasty, greasy Chinese food, laughing and goofing around, as teens everywhere are prone to do in big groups.

Two little Chinese girls in school uniforms and ponytails, the older one (Je-je) holding her baby sister’s (mei-mei) hand, walked past the older youth with looks revealing equal parts curiousity, innocence and fear.

They walked around the shop front to the white door to the immediate right. As I had guessed, they are the shop owner’s children. After being buzzed in, they literally ran inside as quickly as they could. I can just imagine their mother screaming at her husband about moving the store somewhere else now, as the girls sit down to their homework and rice.

If this sounds stereotypical, it is: I’m Chinese, and I know how my parents think. Chinese parents are incredibly protective to begin with, and (for various reasons, some of them perhaps less politically correct than others) often highly distrusting of Black people. They also seem to be doing quite well: every time I walk past that store, there’s always local business. I’ve tried their grub once, and it’s a quality example of adaptable ethnic cuisine: it’s the most American-tasting Chinese food you could possible imagine.

But this is a scene I can see played out across thousands of tiny Chinese take-out stores across the country, and indeed, across much of the world. Poor neighborhood, crime-fearing parents..and cute little children.

On the whole, the slam workshop was a success, and I’m glad I organized it. Though by no means a moment of spontaneous creative revelation or a mass poetic call-to-arms, the poets were well received and we had a better Q and A session than I had expected.

As I walked into Parkview Recreation Center, located on the other side of Howard University from my home, I passed three large murals. The individuals depicted — Thurgood Marshall, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Frederick Douglas respectively – appeared immensely stern and wizened. As I rounded the corner of the building, I passed another one, of the African continent, with a black strip of folks in African costume running down its centre. Being Australian, South-east Asian, and holding acquaintance with people from each of the continents, I hoped that some sort of internal glint of “with-it-ness” might kick in. It did not, but rather, a kind of apologetic discomfort settled about my stomach.

However, upon entering the center, I was pleased to see that Delrica and Dwayne were already comfortably seated, joking around and bopping to the DJ’s hip-hop beats. It didn’t lessen the way I stood out as the sole non-black dude in the building, but I imagine subliminal waves of acceptability flowed from the heads of my two confident African-American friends and down into my hooded jacket.

This being a teen night, there was nobody in the main room, where we were to hold the event, bar two little boys of about six. Instead, the actual teens were huddled around a Playstation, shooting pool, braiding hair, play-fighting outside. After juggling measured returns to the playful boys’ soccer kicks, I helped set up chairs and was surprised to see that a handsome little crowd of about 25 to 30 teens had sat themselves down. I asked DJ SUPA RO to play his “hottest joints” in order to keep the seats warm, then nervously waited for the other poet to arrive, having driven the not insignificant distance down from Baltimore.

DJ Supa Ro keeping the crowd happy

At practically the stroke of eight o-clock, Chris arrived, as energetic as usual, slightly flustered, and carrying a bag of writing supplies.

“Have you ever done a workshop like this before?” I asked him, a thinly veiled question roughly translated as: “You’re an unabashedly white man about to perform in front of an entirely African-American collection of street-seasoned teens…can you handle it?”

He waved off my concern. Being a Special-Ed teacher in inner city Baltimore, I should have realized how wonderful Chris is with such audiences vastly different from the whiter, intellectual urbanites I encounter at weekly slams.

Delrica opened the workshop with a longer poem, before Dwayne B. and Chris took center stage, taking turns to introduce one another. Dwayne, who is undoubtedly one of the dopest cats to walk DC’s streets, was striking in his dark grey outfit of fedora, cable-knit mock turtleneck, baggy jeans and self-knitted scarf. He works for Cityworks, a neighborhood NGO performing youth HIV prevention, (making him essentially my hero) in between knitting scarves for all of his friends and recording albums (making him essentially my man-deity), and the youth nodded knowingly to his homespun themes of gang violence and class struggles. Dwayne exudes smarts and charisma, which is why I had been so excited to have him express interest in the workshop in the first place.

I was more worried, but also very interested, in seeing how the youth would reach to Chris’ poems. His delivery is manic, his delivery stream-of-consciousness quick, and he leaps and tumbles about in improv-dance fashion, a style not closely associated with the body rhythms of the Kanye Wests and Ying Yang Twins of contemporary BET rap programming. Additionally, I feared that his themes, such as childhood autism and disabled athletics, though not entirely alien, may bounce off of this particular audience with little impression. And yes…Chris, who competed earlier this year in the national poetry slam competition in Austin, with his long hair and effete mannerisms, is very white.

I was proved quite wrong again. The natural comedy of his theatrics brought visual relief to his performance, and the workshop was far better for the variety and diversity (in its multiple forms) that came from Dwayne and Chris’ perhaps unusual partnership. The young audience was indeed civil, if not exactly hollering from the stands. After the performance, having not developed a formal workshop, the poets opened the floor to questions, something that I, having partaken in my share of awkward workshop silences, found a little unnerving.

Dwayne and Chris on 'How to answer questions at a slam poetry workshop'
Dwayne and Chris on ‘How to answer questions at a slam poetry workshop’

Janice, who I’d coordinated the event with, threw in some early ‘gimmes’, following which came a slew of excellent, thoughtful questions from various fragments of the audience. Forgetting words mid-poem, finding inspiration, where to find events…Delrica, Dwayne and Chris handled the kids’ questions with enthusiasm, before ceding the floor to the organizers of the teen night and a DC parks and rec rep. As soon as the workshop concluded, and the kids’ dissipated, two junior-high age girls performed an impressive, effective routine which would have looked at-home behind a performing Beyonce or Fergie. I’ve come to love hip hop dance for its looseness and sassy, forthright sensuality, qualities so distinct from the nervous jerk of Black Cat dance nights, often frequented by white-bred men such as myself.

Chris, Delrica, Dwayne, and co-organizer Janice Wright

We took photos, before an enthusiastic brainstorm of future, larger slam workshops, or bringing in Culture Shock, whom I would consider the coolest dance troupe in this city.

I’m going to be around for at least another six months, so I hope to jump into more of this stuff. Though originally a product of class guilt, I’m beginning to see such civic engagement as something I like doing, as opposed to something self-tortured gentrifiers should be obliged to do. I love working with young people, and if they all offer as rewarding an audience as this one, I think many others in circles of new gentry the country over, far beyond the realms of Washington, would find refreshing. Next time, though, I’m going to try and hold something at the Kennedy Rec, involving as many community residents as possible in the planning. Some of whom I hope may be reading this very post.

After much delay, the slam poetry workshop is taking place tonight. There’s a teen night taking place at Parkview Recreation Center, in Pentworth, and we decided to combine the workshop with this event, given the already captive audience. I’ve cajoled a local MC, prominent in the DC scene, into emceeing, and she’s brought a couple of poets, one of whom was on last year’s DC/Baltimore national team.

It’s taken a lot of unreturned calls, but after some bouncing around, I’m excited to see it finally take place. I really don’t know what to expect, but I’ve told the poets that they should shoot for 45 minutes max. We’re dealing with short attention spans here, and, according to Janice, slam’s been around for ‘a good minute’ so it won’t be new to most of the youth.

Having said that, I’m still interested in seeing whether this workshop can develop into a series, or a youth performance of the kids’ own poetry. The main hurdle is putting that initial spark out there, and that’s what I’ve tried to do.