Civic activism


7Q
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

Mural
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.

Advertisements

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 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.

I’m semi-psyched tonight.

I finally managed to make the time to talk to the folks at the Rec in a more official manner about holding a spoken word poetry workshop. Previously, I’d mentioned the idea to some staff in passing, but this time I spelled it out thoroughly. After some initial suspicions at this Asian boy with one jean leg rolled to his knee (a byproduct of biking and unraveller inertia), they quickly warmed to the idea. We even concocted a new vision, starting with a small performance by the poets and a workshop, with an end goal of getting young workshop participants to perform their own pieces during a grand full-scale slam to serve as a major event for the season.

I’ve been in contact with one helpful poet, a prominent figure in the DC slam scene, and she’s told me she’d get back to me with poets willing to lead a workshop.

I focused on the “positive messages” aspect, also selling the Rec staffmember on the need for youth HIV prevention ideas. She seemed a little surprised at my familiarity with DC’s AIDS statistics. They certainly seemed to help, because she called in the acting manager—who I’d previously discussed the slam with—and he assured me he’s take it to the building manager to be authorized by the Department of Parks and Recreation. I don’t see why they’d be opposed.

Since I first started balling at the rec, I’d been constantly considering ways to contribute to youth activities in Shaw. There were drama club sessions I kept missing, the half-serious notion of an Amnesty International-sponsored human rights high school course…but for various reasons, such as my work hours, things failed to come together. Well this is my chance.

It feels good to be organizing these sorts of things again, after a good little break post-AIDS activist burn-out during my college organizing days.

Last night I was scheduled to go on ONE DC’s Shaw Gentrification Tour. The two hour walking tour was billed as an opportunity to see “how one community is organizing itself to control the negative impact of development on long-time residents,” and to understand “more deeply the racial and economic impact that market rate priorities have on lower-income communities of color.” The organization, previously known as the Manna Community Development Corporation, now shares its name with a recent enormously large-scale movement whose mission is confined to the simple enough goal of “making poverty history.” If they are anything like The ONE Campaign, then District condo-developers better watch their back!

I figured this to be the ideal sort of event for me–young professional, predilection toward liberal guilt-trips–to attend. Additionally, I thought it would be nice to bring along, seeing after all as this was a walk all involving progressive white activists working with/for poorer black people: an actual black person! In particular, a wondrously well-adjusted epidemiologist of Tanzanian genealogy and British schooling whom I have somehow cajoled into braiding my younger brother’s unruly chi-fro (much like an afro, only more Chinese).

In classic form, I arrived to the event late. At approximately 6:15, I reached the Howard University exit of the Shaw metro stop, hoping to find a small group of non-Shaw residents looking at their watches or tapping their feet. There was neither. In their place, I met a large young man soliciting donations for his school’s football team, of which he played safety. I do not recall what a safety is, but I did ask him if he had seen a group (I was tempted to add “of white people”) congregated here 10 minutes ago. He hadn’t.

Earlier on, I had arranged to meet with my dear Tanzanian friend, who, in even more classic form, was just stepping on to the train and would be another half hour late. It was thus up to me to catch the walking gentrification lecture before they had gotten too far away! And, like a cat after his class-conscious sandal-wearing mice, I padded off.

In which direction would they have struck out? Debating the way I might structure such an event, I jogged down 7th Street toward Howard University, hub of African-American consciousness and youthful, lively part of the neighborhood. I figured the walk might move along thusly:

a) Parts of Shaw where Black people still live;
b) Parts of Shaw that are in the process of having Black folk pushed out by dastardly lighter-hued yuppies (and their Bianchi bikes)
c) Parts of Shaw which have gone the way of bleach and the icecream component of an icecream sandwich, and are quickly on their way towards $1,500+ rent.

I speed-walked along, whistling by folks arguing at the bus stop, joking outside the diner, all in the throes of early evening workweek activity. At each corner I surveyed the cross street, searching for my elusive target group. Those that bothered cast their own looks toward yours truly, mostly ones of muted reservation and weariness. Wearing a shirt whose manufacture date I’d estimate to fall close to the same year as my birth, plaid shorts and knee length striped brown socks (a carry-over from my work attire that day), I probably looked as though someone not only out of place, but possibly from outer space.

In attempting to locate the gentrification-watchers, I was looking for several things: one person pointing at a house as others nod thoughtfully, blocked footpaths, annoyed bike riders…but more than anything else: I was scouting for whitey. The anti-gentrification movement might wish to see itself as united across racial and class lines, but with events like this, it seems that such ‘sounds-good-in-ethics-class’ universal humanism doesn’t translate across so well to other Shaw residents.

I doubled down Florida Avenue, out towards the 9:30 club, at which point I did finally see a group of white people, but they were just lining up for that evening’s concert. I then tried part of the more gentrified western fringe of Shaw by Logan circle, looping through Winchester street but again coming up empty. It was around this point, given the lovely weather and time remaining before my friend arrived, that I decided to embark on Mark’s own personal, ‘do-it-yourself’, gentrification observation trip. I suppose that any regular traipse through Shaw could count as such, but on this particular walk, I had eyes peeled, ears tuned open, and socio-economic radar tuned to full-conscience potency!

I quickly realized that my tour didn’t require such intensive effort. The transformation of Shaw is as openly noticeable as a Mid-western tourist on the Blue line to anyone who cares to observe…a couple of closed-down small grocers. White dog-walkers cruising past wizened Black men seated outside old storefronts. The separation between East-African, African-American, and White-serving businesses around U street corridor. For goodness sake, there was a homeless man washing car windows on a newly polished street as a well-heeled yuppie strode loudly by.

I also encountered a couple of hidden jewels that are not so readily visible. There were a wealth and diversity of lawn and shop-window campaign signs regarding the upcoming DC mayoral election, suggesting strong civic engagement and the focus on affordable housing in Shaw from many of the candidates. Best of all, however, was a still-running checkers club that would not have looked out of place in the 1950s. It’s weather-beaten sign welcomed newcomers; however, the deep quietude inside and musty feel suggested a long, unbroken run of the same players since decades past.

Pleased with my observations, I scooped up my friend and we retired to my house to listen to Edith Piaf over gin and tonic. It’s truly a fascinating mix of race and culture, all wrapped tightly within the omnipresent, cosmic ball of capitalist momentum that drives change forward in this political artery of a neighborhood. How the city’s next mayor—Adrian Fenty and Linda Cropp, the two frontrunners, both speak of affordable housing and continued economic growth in the same breath–will balance these competing desires, as well as how Black homeowners weigh up the temptations of developer offers against the cultural integrity of their neighborhood, shall say much about the face of Shaw as it enters its next stage in DC’s constant process of neighborhood evo- and devolution.

As I stepped out towards the metro several hours later, I bumped into a small, scattered group walking along 7th. Sure enough, it was my gentrification tour, wrapping up after a successful walk. They numbered less than a dozen: a middle-aged couple, some indie activistas, all resembling lifestyles cultivated in whole grains and moral gravitas, all starkly white. Dave, the pony-tailed and Chaco-footed tour leader, gave me his email address.

A few minutes later, whilst mumbling over train waiting times, I joked with the Howard University student seated next to me.

“My roommate swears that we’d get better service if there were more white people riding the green line,” I told her.

“Ain’t that the truth!” she laughed, before boarding for Branch Avenue.

Now there’s one thing that all Shaw residents can look forward to.