Sunday, July 17, 2011

Ghetto Beach

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I divide the days into Ghetto Beach and Ghetto Blues days. Neither is wholly bad or good, but in general the Ghetto Beach days are when the neighborhood looks sunny and humanity is intriguing, Ghetto Blues are the days when the streets are garbage strewn and people, myself included, hardened with frustration. Today was another ghetto beach day on the Eastside. Overcast, breezy, but warm and humid. Biking down 12th Street to work there was just enough sun to make sweat roll down the back of my neck. I call it a Ghetto Beach, but 12th Street actually looks more like a river than an ocean. Like aerial photos of the Amazon, from a distance I imagine the street looks muted and smooth. But the ghetto beach hops. Manikins outside Hi-C Apparel have big butts, tight clothes and no heads. Their skin is glossy and preternaturally white. The lanky woman sitting at the steps of the Ministry of Challenge says, "Hey lady, you got a dollar?" The guys outside the barbershop laugh and joke to each other. Their low pulled baseball caps make it hard to know if they are looking at me. But the school boy getting off the bus is. His bag is heavy, he lets the corner drag on the pavement. I stand out on my bike, with my gym bag stuffed in the basket, wearing huge shades to prevent wrinkles. "What's up, player?" he laughs at me.

"You just don't give a damn!" exclaims the man outside the Starched and Ironed dry cleaners as I fly by. I don't. And I don't have a dollar, I am no player, and I am late for work. The cars cruise on, shoppers idle at the Stop-and-Get walk up window, people scramble from one patch of shade to another. The sun is getting strong now and the sidewalk is hot under our feet.

I met W. and J. for dinner tonight and talked about W.'s Graduate Program. Urban Studies, Community Development, City Planning, some combination thereof. He is full of conspiracies. Five anti-apartheid activists murdered in Greensboro in 1981. The cops say it was the Klan. W. believes the FBI put them up to it. Bush should be arrested, he says, for insider trading. Or for destroying the Constitution. Is that even a crime, I wonder? W.'s professor is writing a book about academics who create projects for wealth building among residents of poor communities. Do these projects ever work, I ask? Of course, he says. In San Diego, they are building a shopping mall and all the area residents were given shares in it at the IPO. But first they had to strike down a law that made it illegal to give stock to poor people. And how does the law define poor? I wonder. Cash poor? Currently poor? Impoverished for generations? Downwardly mobile by choice? Habitually broke due to drug addiction? People often see the road from poverty as a lane at the track set with hurdles. If given the proper training, a person could clear the hurdles and break through the ribbon at the finish.

W. talks about community organizations poised to use grant money and academic consultants to recharge their neighborhoods. I can tell he is filled with excitement at the possibilities, but I feel deflated. What will the organizations do, start a day care center, a community garden, remodel houses? That's what they've done in our neighborhood. Then the hookers steal the construction guys' lunches out of their trucks, the junkies throw beer bottles and razors into the day care playground, and rats eat the tomatoes in the community garden. Right now I feel that if people in my neighborhood had shares of stock worth anything, they'd sell the stock and rent a house in the suburbs. Or buy a Cadillac. Or dope.

I wonder if people in W.'s program can relate to the frustrations of people in the neighborhoods they seek to transform. The ribbon at the finish is not the end. We are still on the track, going round and round, or on the ghetto beach, the banks of 12th Street. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, we are boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

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