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.

October 2nd, 2006.

Last Thursday night, Starlight Ballroom in the Lower East Side, our 21 year-old guy is wearing the new Diesels. The Thanaz. Sure, the back of his knees are nasty and sweaty from the bike ride over (he got the Bianchi frame from some pawn store for $120 – seriously), and the mousse that’s keeping his asymmetric bangs carefully plastered to his skull is dripping into his mouth, but there’s got to be some sort of trade-off for credible indie super-hipness. It’s probably in the guide book. So anyway, the fresh baile funk dance punk shredcore trio from North London are halfway through their ragged set when he sees her. The leggings are what got his attention at first: bright red and white, running all the way up to that black micro post-feminist skirt with the cyber-punk-grrrl patch where her right asscheek would be. But it was the buttons that really got him: three of them, lined up in a neat row upon her camo-headphone print messenger bag. The first one: green, ninjatunes. A way down hip hop label. On the other end: Morrissey, “Viva la Hate” era. That’s sort of by obligation, but still…quality. In the middle, however, a total thrower: “Drop needles, Not bombs!” She’s into knitting too? This is too rad…

Buttons through a broken apertureButtons have been in existence since, well, people shed robes in exchange for trousers, during what may have been known as “The Great Separation of Jacket and Pants 647 AD. Perhaps even before that. But the indie button is a very different story. It combines the 60s inspired art school influences of Pop and Dada with iconic elements of youthful rebellion such as punk, feminism and anarchism. Throw in a liberal dash of po-mo (post-modern) irony with the cute subtlety of two dollar upward-mobility-angsty tastes, and the indie button (“iButton” if you will) is at this stage a fully entrenched staple of the discriminating urban hipster diet, nestled cosily in handfuls on the dresser next to the “I’m Gay, Ask me how” shirt and old Yeah Yeah Yeahs ticket stubs. But how long will the button, and indie pop culture for that matter, remain cutting edge and relevant? Will it eventually go the way of Hot Topic economics, down slicked tunnels leading into the annals of ephemeral pop culture trashiness? Or, alternatively, does the button point the way to the birth of an enduring, independent culture capable of rejecting the watering down of mass-niche market consumerism and, as has remained a constant question for the indie faithful: can it remain true to artistic integrity and expression?

It was with such questions in mind that I descended last weekend upon Crafty Bastards, DC’s only “indie” crafts fair. It fell on a pleasant Fall day in Adams Morgan, where Marvin Gaye blasted from turntables and crowds strained to observe b-boys cartwheel. The crowd was largely young, trendy, and discerning. In 2006, that means going heavy on the aviator glasses, slouchey boots, and naturally, lots and lots of buttons. As I wondered the stalls, I wondered how much further all of this could really go; in fact, there was little ‘traditional’ craft on display at all, but rather a slew of plastic buttons, rings, bags, and clothes.

The button-makers at Crafty Bastards were much like the indie button makers I’ve encountered at similar events: young, clever, fashionable and articulate white women whose appearance suggests well-read, pop-culture quipping personas. Through casual conversation, I found that several had attended art school and been making buttons since their middle school days, while some held neither formal art training or more than a few months’ experience.

Their buttons offered a good synopsis of the themes and attitude currently framing the conversation of their generation. As with any of its other incarnations, the indie button spans an unsurprisingly broad cross-section. Upon further inspection, however, a handful of recurring motifs become prominent. The most traditional (or ‘safe’) of any aspiring buttonista’s collection are her music buttons, sporting favorite band members and logos of the indie rock institution, both classic and current. Perennial favorites include early punk and mod heroes like Lou Reed and Paul Weller, and current (many might say unfortunate) well-represented groups from recent derivations such as emo and neo-prog. Extending naturally and often directly out from music, one generally encounters the political: ranging from anti-corporate to pro-gay marriage, but practically universally liberal. One strand of indie kids—the anarchist punk batallion—particularly enjoy wearing their politics on their sleeves, as rally cries like “Insert anarchist slogan here” affirm in a most direct fashion. Feminism remains an extremely popular theme amongst the female half; not atypically, this involves a stereotypical housemother from a 1950s magazine with an unexpected piece of separate text stuck across her image, spouting lines such as “Phone sex is so outdated” or “Can you say ‘sleeping on the couch tonight?’”

“The point is to give voice to these women, who may have not had a voice in their original [depictions,]” explained one button maker from Mischief Shop.

Other buttons at the fair invoked more innocent times. Jenifer from Sprout studio, an elementary school teacher, took pictures from children’s books about to be thrown out from her school’s library in San Francisco and recycled them into cute, Enid Blyton-esque buttons, equally suitable on a first grader’s dotted frock as that of a Boston art student. One was even of Curious George!

The same selection featured a popular botanical collection of fine plant sketches. When asked whether she was interested in sustainable ecology, Jenifer told me that indeed, she was, but that that “wasn’t really the point.” More important, it seemed, was her commitment, like all of the other crafties at Crafty, to creating only one-of-a-kind, organic work.

Line 'em up; now if only I could squeeze out the light...

Despite button-makers’ earnest striving to create unique work, it is very rare to find original drawings or art within the indie button oeuvre. At its core, the button is a thoroughly modern artform, drawing inspiration from the Pop and Dada movements, which recycled images and text from advertising and entertainment mediums, and infused them with new, often subversive meanings. In the case of buttons, this largely involves outdated magazine articles and books. Through their “recycle and recreate” philosophy, it occurred to me that button makers are similar to many of the musicians they might listen to. Having reached a stage at which creating entirely new sounds within contemporary rock music has become a formidable task, critical and artistic trends have reoriented their efforts towards the pastiche-honoring yet still unique combination of sounds. The pretense for such “re-packaging” is that truly original sounds or images are almost too difficult to come by or bother creating.

The majority of images used at this stage in the indie button evolution are culled from a very particular period, including the stiff, outdated images of the mid-20th Century…the sort that originated during the blissful, pre-sweatshop-busting campaign days of American consumerism. This is done almost exclusively in jest, with irony and kitsch the major preening-tool through which it seems they were selected. I asked one button lady about how she chose particular images, taken from an old dictionary.

“Well, there’s a fair bit of grab ass in some of the boy scout pictures,” she quipped, referring to the apparent homoeroticism her buttons illuminate.

“That’s too funny,” commented a browsing button-purchaser. Such irony-laced, insinuating high-context comedy, which pokes fun at itself as much as at others, is another essential piece of elite indie discourse.

The current generation of mid-20 through early-30-somethings who prescribe to this Radiohead-era indie subculture are often the children of blue-state baby boomers, and subsequently, one might infer, thoroughly secular. Removing the traditional spiritual and classicist American bedrock from the equation, their art thus focuses on the themes with which their generation grew up in the 80s identifying with: social liberalism, disgust at Reagonomic values and the working stiffs they poked fun at, rock rebellion, and, of course, pop culture. The fetishizing and subsequent commodification of this most particular of music and fashion eras, has been solidified in recent years by the music channel VH1, whose tongue-in-cheek “I Love the 80s” programs and rash of contrived culture-jabbing, failed-celebrities-cum-failing-comedians, has in turn spurred a new mass market for ironic t-shirts and thrift store devotees. Slogans such as “Jesus is my homeboy,” “Jersey girls aint trash (Trash gets picked up),” and “Stop Stalin, Start Russian” have, quite bizarrely, become the light-hearted earmarks of a generation which at face value could be seen as a mySpace-obsessing cohort of apathetic consumers; smarmy, nihilistic vagabonds to those with little to go on but face value.

Of course this, like most assumptions, would be rash and oversimplifying in the most demeaning way. Ours is in actuality a generation of over-achievers, of 50s-aping careerists. It just happens to be that some of us are compelled and able to temper such ambitious economic compulsions with healthy (sometimes perhaps extreme) levels of satire and irony. The post-industrial, mass middle-class society our parents built has provided ample resources, as well as an education system which encourages critical analysis. The humor drawn from our buttons frowns upon the traditionally blinded, “Yes-man” mentality, whilst remaining in tow with traditional American values of hard work and earned merit. This newly carved space, which allows for corporate-ladder scaling that actually embraces the sexy and dark, is manifesting itself in the ascendancy of potty-mouthed, sexualized post-feminist journalism from the likes of former-Wonkette, now Time reporter Ana Marie Cox and other Gawker-stylized blog pioneers. It redefines masculinity through the mainstreaming of the Metrosexual meme, and through reading habits which can finally combine the ambition and technological savvy of Harvard Business Review or Wired with the unabashed mindlessness of People. It’s the bourgeois and the bohemian; the classically kitschy with the giftedly technological.

How this generation’s meta-critical smarts might match up with the more traditional work ethic and business drive of the new-India and China generation of dreamers remains to be seen. But we are who we are, and whether our parents’ look upon this as the great decline or most fortunate peak of human civilization. If nothing else, this indie generation’s worldview and aesthetic habits offer testament as to just how far the consumer society can travel. Or, more specifically, how far the humble button has already gone.

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.

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.

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.

In past weeks, the ever-tempestuous world of international cricket has been mired in great controversy. In a recent match between Pakistan and England, Darrell Hair, an Australian umpire whose decision-making throughout his career has won him few fans on the pitch, penalized the Pakistani team for illegally tampering with the ball. The Pakistani team returned to the field late, and as official cricketing rules do call for, Hair awarded the match to England, a dramatic move that created so much furor in the South Asian and cricketing world so as to lead Hair to write a letter to the International Cricketing Commission asking for a half million dollars for his early retirement.

There is no evidence of ball tampering, and yet there is little logic to accusing Hair of rabid anti-Asian racism. What has been discussed only slightly is the concept of “izzat,” loosely translated as “honor” in Urdu. When Hair accused the Pakistani team of tampering with the ball, he did far more than chastise a handful of men on a cricket field for scratching the ball (a practice done to alter the ball’s weight and movement). In izzat terms, Hair was doing no less than attacking the country of Pakistan. Certainly, Inzaman Ul-Haq, the soft-spoken, well-fed and deeply religious captain of the Islamic nation’s national team, was deeply offended by Hair’s actions.

Occasionally, I play a game of 33 at the Rec with some of the regulars. As I take part in my standard drubbing by the far stronger, more consistent ballers, I have begun to notice the overlap between what constitutes South Asian izzat and what constitutes African-American/hip-hop/urban izzat, often closely linked to norms around masculinity. Like its historical and cultural great uncle, the izzat of streetball involves its own sophisticated set of accepted behaviors and a highly developed, largely non-verbal language, all of which is closely tied to the psychology of the communities in which it originated.

I recently spoke with several contestants at the Washington stop in a national 3 on 3 streetball tournament sponsored by Burger King about the izzat involved in streetball. DJ Slick from the Russ Parr Morning Show–a popular talk radio program–span popular Top 40 hip hop and live entertainment played as contestants and crowd mingled about, collecting sponsor goodies.

Rodney Rodgers, who is 29, managed to utilize the streetball skills he acquired growing up in New Jersey to play professionally in Madrid and Turin, where he lived for several years after being cut by the Dallas Mavericks in 2001.

He views the izzat of streetball, more commonly referred to as “respect,” as being only one half of the equation. The other, which was oft-repeated amongst other contestants I spoke to, is “getting your name out there.”

Young men “mostly see the only way out [to a better life] is to participate in sports,” Rodgers said. “Otherwise you’re just stuck in the mud.”

“They turn to two things: they turn to sports, or they turn to the streets.”

During one of his team’s match-ups, Rogers’ side became involved in controversy with their opponent, arguing (“beefing” animatedly despite the referee’s attempts to settle the dispute quickly. Both Rogers and William Smith, his direct opponent, later downplayed the hostilities, citing natural competitiveness and the fact that a lot was at stake—two thousand dollars and a free trip to Las Vegas.

But was part of the beef about disrespect?

“Yeah, you could say I was disrespected,” Smith told me.

“We would honor their foul calls, but the other team kept fussing on calls. Then we stopped playing as a team, and started going one-on-one,” he lamented after his side’s narrow loss.

Smith, a large, fresh-faced 23 year-old from East Baltimore, also spoke of his hopes to play overseas. The recent growth in an international market for American players unable to crack the NBA has propelled dreams of making a living through basketball even further.

One demographic who was starkly non-represented was women. There was not a single female player on any of the teams I saw, and Jessica Taylor, a freshmen playing for Trinity College in Virginia, was less than pleased about the situation.

“If they had a separate division for women, I’m sure there’d be more of us actually playing,” she told me, adding that she “likes the contact” involved in streetball before making the claim that women are even rougher in the paint than men.

Some of the older female observers had more macro-oriented perspectives somewhat befitting of their age.

“It keeps ’em off the street,” maintained one resident of Southeast, who was seated at the emergency care table.

“But there’s not enough courts. Everywhere in DC, there’s not enough courts.”

And therein may lie the heart of streetball. At its most primal level, streetball is a rejection of organized basketball, with its reliance on oft-unavailable sporting facilities, rules and focus on teamwork and exercise. Streetball is at once the art of the oppressed and the means of salvation. Without the educational and economic opportunities which allow for the opportunity at upward mobility that defines the young American worldview, African-American youth turned to the courts to define their selves, to maintain natural levels of hierarchy and ego, to exercise their creativity and exorcise their rage at the oppressive forces they feel are weighing down upon them. The best of the streets—those with the most game—occasionally make it to the professional leagues, before acquiring the highest pinnacle of respect through fame and stardom.

Today, streetball continues to play that cathartic role for many young poor, largely African-American men. But its global popularity has expanded exponentially through the profusion of And 1 mix-tapes and hip hop culture due largely to increasingly-accessible media. I recently met two Ugandan streetball legends using their fame and rhyming skills to build a youth HIV prevention rap movement.

In a way, streetball is the liberator of the poor just as soccer has been for so long, a unique opportunity to be simultaneously artistic, manly, and playful. In a world of deeply defined separations across religious and ethnic lines, streetball speaks a universal language that exculpates us from the Tower of Babel yet in a manner much less Eurocentric than Esperanto.


    Thirty-three is at face level an extremely simple game. One player shoots an uncontested shot, which is rewarded with another identical uncontested shot if he makes the basket. If he does not, then the rest of the players contest for possession of the ball, before then endeavoring to make the basket. Repeat this process until one player has 33 points, and you’ve got the basic gist of the game.

    But thirty-three with izzat? To the uninitiated, it would be akin to a Tahitian watching Woody Allen, like a Polish grandmother attempting to dance to reggaeton.

    The izzat of streetball is all about maintaining one’s dignity and credibility. One gains respect through several key measures. In traditional basketball, scoring points is most valuable (indeed, it wins you the game). In streetball, however, scoring is the mere cherry topping to establishing one’s cred. Real cred comes through embarrassing your opponent.

    So what is the ultimate dis? I posed the question to several streetballers, and the answer was practically unanimous.

    While there are numerous ways to dis an opponent—at one point trash talk (the fabled ‘Yo mama’ joke era) was in, not long ago it was being dunked on or swatted—and the cycle of what constitutes the ultimate dis continues to change, the most recent revolution came as a clear-cut line between Michael and his generation of followers.

    The moment is etched into recent basketball history, joining the freeze frame moments of past NBA hardwood heroes. Allen Iverson, then an upstart young prodigy, embarrassed the world’s greatest living athlete, Michael Jordan, with one of the greatest moves in basketball history, what became known as the ‘killer crossover.’ Faking a drive to his left side, Iverson fooled Jordan into moving several feet to his right, before unleashing a devastatingly quick crossover dribble to his right side. Jordan was completely wrong-footed, known in streetball parlance as “getting your ankles broken.” Being Jordan, however, he couldn’t let his pride go so easily, and attempted to resurrect his defensive assignment. Iverson proceeded to shoot a smooth-as-silk jump shot over Jordan’s outstretched fingertips, hitting nothing but net. It was the closest thing to an official changing of the guard the sport has seen, and firmly established the broken ankle as the dis of the post-Jordan era.

    Perhaps largely because of this, izzat is a game of controlled limits. Defenders stand back far enough from a skilled dribbler in order to limit any chance of limb disfiguration, thus preferring to let her opponent shoot unchecked jump shots. In this way, one’s izzat is maintained at a comfortable level. It may not provide the most comprehensive workout, but relationships are maintained in harmony, with those who are already of great izzat remaining at the top, and those at the bottom humble in their tribute to the bigger man. In many ways, it reminds me of the dynamics of Confucian societies, and in a useful sense, ties contemporary izzat to something much older and larger than streetball itself.

    Earlier in the evening, I was trying on clothes at Pentagon City Mall. A wife sat outside as her husband tried on jeans.

    “I married a metrosexual man,” she lamented to the sales assistant.

    “I am not metrosexual!” came the immediate denial: adamant, gruff, and decidedly manly.

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.

“Wanna play one-on-one?”

Her name is Janine, but the first time I saw her, I might have guessed it would be something closer to “John.” Constructed of all wiry muscle, in a loose white t, dark mesh shorts and a closely shaven head, it was only the pitch of her voice which gave her gender away.

“Alright,” I reply, quickly realizing that this is the suss-out game. As I do with everyone else I’ve played at Kennedy Rec individually, I start with the same line:

“So where you from?”
“Around here…you?”
“I’m from Australia.”

Immediately distancing myself from any frame of reference, I set the sheet as clean as I can. ‘Tabula rasa’, ‘take it from the top’…whatever euphemism you want to use, I shove my background as far outwards as I possibly can in order to let my game speak for me as wholly as it can. This is the way I played when I was nine in a friday night school league at the leisure centre in Australia; when I was 16, trading baskets after school with the juniors in Maryland; and now, at 22 and a suit (but still rockin’ the Jordans), I’m still trading the shakes and step-back Js, only with a different crew.

Janine moves fluidly, smoothly, displaying a solid handle and great first step. Like some of the other Black girls I’ve balled with, it’s her pure athleticism which stands out most clearly. The White girls at College Park had solid fundamentals, but physically, they had trouble keeping up or playing strong with the guys. Now Janine may not be able to wrestle on the boards, but she’s lightning to the basket, and I found her draining floaters on me every time I gave her the right. But even beyond the speed, her game has a flash and style that speaks playground-ball all over those seasoned shakes. Alas, she’s too in love with her fall-back jumper – shot with a gorgeous (if oft-inaccurate) behind-the-back release—but being a sucker for style I’m too busy admiring her moves to really notice. She’s friendly, and cracks a wide smile during our playful trash talk exchanges, letting her guard down much more quickly than many of the others I’ve run with on this court.

After about 20 minutes of waiting, my ‘next’ is up and I form my team, selecting Janine. It’s the first time that I’ve seen a girl run with the guys, and she holds her own. What impresses me most is the way the men don’t even hesitate to defend her as they would anyone else; likewise, Janine expects nothing less than the regular, full-bodied treatment. Our team is under-sized on the whole, but I feel rewarded for putting my faith in her, as she bumps and struggles in the paint alongside these powerful young men, some of whom must be over three times her weight.

This is pick-up ball, raw and furious, where squabbling over calls is never far away and something far bigger than simply a ‘good workout’ is on the line. I’ve still got a ways to go before I fully adjust to the style they play here, compared to the tighter rules and pace of rec ball in college. But I’m willing to make the adjustments, and am buoyed with optimism that the more times I show up on these sweaty, humid summer nights, the more sparks such as Janine I’ll discover.

This morning I walked to the 7-11 to buy the Sunday Post. Whilst waiting in line, I found a not uncommon situation, that of somebody without sufficient funds pleading for the cashier to let her have the goods regardless.

“Go to the Giant. It’s much cheaper there,” instructed the young Hispanic women behind the counter.

But the little woman, with her bottle of Pepsi-cola and pack of overpriced American cheese slices, did not wish to do so. And after a little while, the cashier attempted to keep the line moving, directing her gaze toward me. As did the little woman, who looks North African but whose accent I could not place (she could well be a Shaw native), who asked me to pay for her $4.49 packet of cheese.

When I did so, she gave me an unexpected hug, holding on to me surprisingly tightly. I put my arm around her, and I wondered how it must feel to have to have someone pay for something as ordinary as cheese, especially when she could have walked the three blocks to the Giant and maximized her limited purchasing power.

Earlier in the morning, I had woken up to a new vintage silk dress in my closet, a pair of cowboy boots, and some throwaway LPs from a Takoma Park shopping excursion the day before.

And as I walked back to the house, I felt the familiar, bitter bile of self-disgust rising in my throat as my conscience drew lines between my spending habits and office work geared ultimately for people “over there” (the developing world), reconnecting the disparate dots to include the myriad homeless and working poor in this neighborhood.

When I first moved to this country six years ago, in the Summer of 2000, my first American friends were made, naturally enough, through the basketball court. They lived across the road, in some of Howard County’s rare government housing, a self-suspended example of Columbia’s largely unsuccessful attempt at planned Black/White cohabitation.

These boys wore long denim shorts, spoke in loud, brash jibes, and soon began referring to me as “Australia.” Standing under that pounding Maryland sun, I loved the exoticism of it all: playing ‘pick-up games’ that I had previously only read about in SLAM, wearing my teal and black Air Jordans, mixing with a group of street-savvy African-American teens.

My mother was not so thrilled. When she eventually observed the rather unkempt appearance and casual manners of my new acquaintances, she attempted to steer me clear of them.

“MUM, YOU’RE SUCH A RACIST!,” I remarked, jubilant in my teenage self-righteousness. She wasn’t sure quite how to react to the unexpected and rapid politicization of her son.

Unable to conscionably banish me from the court, the organic pull of my parents’ intentions eventually worked their desired effect. Following several residential step-ups, attendance at a competitive, largely Caucasian high school and consequent completion of a B.A. degree, I now find myself entering into a position at a comfortable non-profit working in international development. I now also find myself—not without a shade of socio-economic irony–in a similar situation to that six summers ago.

Two weeks ago, I moved into the neighborhood of Shaw in Washington, D.C. Where earlier a matter of geographical happenstance led me to my initial b-balling partners, on this occasion a desire for affordable housing and ‘suburban flight’ has drawn me to this gradually gentrifying borough, where police sirens pepper the evening chatter and daylight muggings recur like sweat lines down a white cotton blouse.

Upon first sighting, my parents’ response toward my new digs was muted at best.

“It’s not too bad,” I told them, as they drove away towards the sleepy refuge of SUV-urbia. And it really hasn’t been.

But now I have the opportunity to do more than trade cross-over dribbles. I’m enthusiastic at the opportunity to explore my de facto status as unclassifiable ‘floater,’ to drift across lines of class and race. As the boundaries blur, I feel compelled to do more than yuppify in oblivion, and hoping rather to engage with my new community and deconstruct false dichotomies, all whilst working towards a practical theory of pro-poor gentrification.