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 flatnoseinchina.wordpress.com and more generally at itslateagain.wordpress.com
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.

“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.

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.

Last night, I brought Halloween to Shaw’s various super-heroes and monsters, taking the initiaitve and applying my former-college activist skills back into use. M&Ms, Milky Ways and Musketeers were duly disseminated in exchange for some semblance of a mouthed reply to the consistent question: “So who are you tonight?!”

My favorite responses came from the younger of the already youthful demographic, who offered “Jamal” or “Tanya” in response, before their guardians cajoled their reluctant alter egos out of them. The Human Torch, an extremely confident young chap of about five, was a definite highlight.

I didn’t see too many folks with lit homes making a particularly large effort, and being on my way out, I wanted to distribute my candy rather than waiting for the kids to come a-knocking, but it still felt really fresh to have this neighborhood, seemingly so divided at this juncture in its history, come together for a tradition such as this one. Plus, you’ve got to adore little tikes, whenever and wherever you have the chance.

As for the slam poetry workshop, it’s tentative date is November 14th, at the Kennedy Rec Centre. I just need to get the flyer authorized by the Department of Parks and Rec, confirm my poets, and pray for an attendance.

I had my keys stolen tonight.

It will prove to be a pain in the butt, losing office and leave time to wait for a locksmith to change the locks and worrying about our things in between, but that of course is not the main blow. What does smack is that just as this spoken word workshop seems to be getting rolling, I am reminded that putting oneself out there to do something does come with its risks.

I’d been playing ball at the Rec, running a pick-up, waiting to get in for a second run, when I noticed that my bag was missing. My slip-on shoes were there, but my keys, spare shirt and the drawstring bag within which I’d stashed them were gone. I notified Tanya, whom I’d gotten to know a little last week and who quickly warmed to the workshop idea. After searching around the bleachers, I checked the men’s room, where I found the bag within one of the stalls, sans keys. Another of the kindhearted staff searched underneath the bleachers and spoke to the kids and adults who remained at the gym, but to no avail.

“They don’t know that all this is only temporary,” he explained. “And when they reach the pearly gates, they’ll have to answer to Him, and this sort of thing doesn’t look good.”

I’ve reached the point at which I recognize almost all of the guys who play at the Rec, even if I only know a handful of them by name. But it’s become quickly apparent that being a semi-familiar unusual face does not equate to being an accepted one. Perhaps they thought I’d brought money (I never do); perhaps it wasn’t personal. But this won’t stop me from coming. If anything, it makes me more aware that I need to market the workshop thoughtfully, removing my own fingerprints and allowing the benevolent power of the art to speak to the young folk itself.

At an ECCA (civic) meeting following the loss, I shared my plans with my neighbors, and several are interested in working together on similar programs for youth in our neighborhood. It’s great to see such active interest in improving their currently barren opportunities, and the call to action on DC’s crippled education system is timely and overdue. But at this point, it’s high time that discussions become preparations for activities, and that real changes are instituted.

It’s going to be a cold winter, and I think all of us are trying to revel in the last days of pleasant Fall crispness before the chill sets in.

As I walked home from capoeira this past Saturday afternoon, I delighted in the fact that I didn’t have somewhere to be. And so I took the time to follow the Shaw Heritage trail, stopping at each of the posts and connecting the historical dotted lines between cross-street and pictured street, decade and day. It was an experience entirely vital to me, an affirmation of a new truth. For most of my 22 years of life I’ve lived amongst people with whom I acquired similar passions. We listened to the same songs on the radio, bought our dinner produce from the same grocer, all watched the same evening news on our two television stations.

This changed quite a bit upon moving to the States. Different yes, but in some ways it was very similar. The accents and many cultural references were radically different, but the pop culture was—this being the MTV generation and all—nearly identical. Another aspect which remained the same was race. I moved from a predominantly white (English, Irish, Italian) town in southwestern Australia to a predominantly white (more pan-European) town on the Eastern seaboard.

And now, scanning over these newly placed Shaw Heritage Trail posts and their tales of backs-to-the-wall Black businesses succeeding against the odds and the neighborhood’s role as heart of DC’s own ‘Harlem renaissance,’ I was struck by the notion that I do not belong. That I should be like more ‘sensible’ yuppies who know their place—whether by income or prejudice or whose settlement has followed more classical ‘birds of a feather’ sensibilities, and that I should be reading these signs perhaps as a ‘daring’ jaunt into an historic black neighborhood before dashing back out to Bethesda or Dupont.

Or maybe I was just jumping in a little too early? There are plenty of other parts of Shaw that have been completely gentrified, with nary a Black soul in sight. If I had chosen to live there, would that have made it OK? If I go to business or law school, come out with a graduate degree and then move into a condominium in Columbia Heights: that is, if I follow the developer’s rule book, is that better? Many hyper-self-conscious, counter-culture liberals describe such actions as ‘selling out.’ Generally speaking, it’s only all right to assuage such guilt by ingeniously fusing together mannerisms which connote blue-collar hygiene standards with white-collar dietary and consumer ethics. To dig out a niche that provides non-black residency, one can try wallowing in self-imposed poverty, working for a conscionable non-profit, drinking PBR at the Warehouse, or better yet…becoming an artist.

As I completed my loop and made my final stop at the 7-11 near my home, I encountered a thin, clearly drunk man accosting a quite shell-shocked, if rather disgusted, older woman. The verbal assault appeared to be motivated largely due to her skin colour, which, as the case happened to be, was white.

“I don’t mess with no white people! That’s right…Fuck you, stupid white bitch!” he spat, as she attempted to cross the street.

I attempted to do the same thing, but as it was, the foul-mouthed drunk was wandering in my direction. Unsatisfied with the pronouncement of his “No Whites” social order, he decided to inform me that in inclusive fashion, it also encompassed those deriving from the East Asian peninsula.

“Fuck you, Korea! I don’t mess with no motherfuckin’ Koreans!” he repeated, staring me down groggily as I crossed the street, his voice hoarse but still venomous.

I was half-tempted to reply: “I don’t mess with no motherfuckin’ Koreans either,” but thought better of it. Such smug riposte may not have inspired a universal humanistic epiphany and could well have proved harmful to my health. Besides, it would have been flat-out wrong.

I mess with motherfuckin’ Koreans all the time! Plus, they have cute accents.

As I dropped a couple of quarters into a woman’s cup, I wondered if the sort of violent resentment that my lighter-skinned Bolivian colleague fears from darker indigenous countrymen is limited to those below the border. A Shaw resident since 1969 recently told me that the current climate reminds him of 1965 DC. The city’s race riots took place in 1968.

History comes round full circle sometimes, as much as we might want to wish that we learn from past mistakes.