Archive for the ‘gentrification’ Category

Classes start tomorrow so my head is no longer in SC—but before I shift gears, here are some of the photos I took at the Middleton plantation. As soon as I stepped on the bus Saturday morning, the conversation about Gone with the Wind began…to his credit, our driver tried to separate fact from fiction: apparently Rhett Butler was a real person but the film was not shot on site in the South—it was shot in Hollywood. HOLLYWOOD, people. When we reached Middleton Place I was almost relieved to see that the “big house” was no longer standing; the Union army burned it during the war and then an 1886 earthquake reduced the ruins to rubble. And it was never one of those white-pillared houses at the end of a long lane of live oaks (this photo is of McLeod Plantation on James Island). The main house and two flanking guesthouses were made of brick; one guesthouse was left standing but I skipped that tour, opting instead to learn about African Americans’ lives on this rice plantation. My tour guide was a white man from upstate New York—very nice, very informed. But all the interpreters in the Stableyards were also white…which seemed odd. But then how many black folks do you know who’d volunteer to dress up and act the part of a slave? Doug the cooper gave me lots of great information about woodworking tools, which will help since Judah is apprenticed to a carpenter in the sequel to Wish.

Visiting plantations is always challenging because I go in expecting to be misled, which means I’m skeptical of the script that most docents are trained to follow. My guide, Alan, had done a lot of extra research on his own and Doug clearly knew a lot about making barrels. But both insisted that the task system on the rice plantation was preferable to the gang labor system used on cotton plantations. Instead of being forced to labor in the fields from sun up to sun down, 6 days a week, on a rice plantation you were “done” once you finished your assigned task. So a cooper had to make 3 barrels a day, which generally took at least 12 hours. I’m not sure I see that as “better” or “easier” than picking cotton all day. And if you’re planting rice, you have to stand in the muck and snake-filled water until you finish half an acre. When you finish your task, you still have to tend your garden and hunt or fish to make sure you and your family don’t starve. There was no mention of runaways or rebellions…Eliza’s House, a refurbished slave cabin, had a very good exhibit on slave life, but the cabin was decorated to reflect how a freedman might live—and it was quite cozy. I always leave a plantation feeling that the suffering of enslaved people was diminished. Middleton Place hosts a lot of weddings because of its extensive gardens, which were built by 100 slaves over a ten-year period—an extra “task” on top of their regular workload…

My afternoon tour was completely different—my guide was a black man from SC and Al tried to teach us Gullah while explaining how gentrification is changing the racial demographics in Charleston. He also regaled us with songs from Porgy & Bess; we were driven past Catfish Row and saw Porgy’s tomb in a cemetery on James Island. The Massachusetts 54th regiment camped on the grounds of the McLeod Plantation, which is currently being renovated; its slave cabins were occupied into the 1990s by migrant workers. We saw modern housing projects next to massive antebellum mansions where wealthy planters summered to avoid malaria and yellow fever; the Middletons actually went up to Rhode Island from May to September, and I may work that into my novel as well. Charleston was first settled by English planters from Barbados, so the architecture reflects that influence—lots of sorbet-colored houses with long porches that run the length of the house. In the black communities, houses were built one behind the other on a single plot of land, which indicated the residents were all related. The best part of my day was when I met Mrs. Louise Jefferson who was weaving sweetgrass baskets and selling her wares at the Charleston visitor center. I bought a beautiful basket (similar to one Camille Cosby purchased from Mrs. Jefferson) and encouraged this kind elder to record her life story. For just a few moments I felt like I was back in my grandmother’s kitchen, listening to her stories and laughing at her jokes…

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Lately I’ve been tripping down memory lane, in part b/c I’m heading to Toronto soon and in part b/c I’ve been reviewing “the novel of my youth,” which was based on my experience as a teaching artist in Brooklyn back in the day. I started working with kids when I still was a kid myself—both my parents are schoolteachers, and I spent a fair amount of time helping out in my mother’s kindergarten classroom. I typed up her report cards, helped put up and take down displays, and always vowed I would never work with kids that age. When I was thirteen my father had a son with his partner; they had another child two years later, and so I got to find out about warming bottles, changing diapers, and all that baby stuff. In college I volunteered in the Big Sister program and tutored a local schoolgirl—looking back on it now, I wonder whether she was intrigued by having a young black woman for a tutor; there certainly weren’t many black people in that part of Quebec. I graduated from college and volunteered as a tutor in Toronto; my tutee, Richard, had recently arrived from Jamaica and he made me a wooden Canadian goose in shop class, which I still have. Then I moved to Brooklyn and joined the Nia Youth Collective; we provided tutoring and healthy snacks in our after-school program. We met on Saturdays as well and tried to instill pride in our students’ black heritage. The summer before I started graduate school we collaborated with a filmmaker and ran the Youth Media Leadership Project; our teen participants made a video about the community (Ft. Greene before gentrification) and we designed and painted a mural. I first met Cidra that summer—she was one of our brightest members and I worked with her again the following summer when a group of feminists started a program for girls: Sista II Sista.  Now Cidra’s the Associate Director of The Brotherhood/Sister Sol, an amazing organization that provides (among other things) tutoring and rites of passage programs for kids and teens here in NYC. They’ve traveled to Brazil and Ghana, they’ve been featured on Oprah—they’re amazing.  Right now they’re gearing up for a fabulous event you don’t want to miss: Voices 7.  If you can’t attend and mingle with the stars (Cornel West, Rosario Dawson, David Dinkins, Soledad O’Brien), then I hope you’ll consider making a donation to support the important work they do with and for our youth.

(photo credit: Valerie Caesar)

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I’m working on preparing an old manuscript for publication—what do you think of these two covers? I woke up this morning and took my camera for a walk. A lot has changed since I first came to Brooklyn, and I felt uncomfortable snapping photos of brownstones when I know that longtime residents are wary of newcomers invading and occupying their neighborhoods. I’m partial to the first cover, though I don’t yet have permission to use that photograph (ETA: which is why they asked me to take it down). My ideal image would be a black woman shielding one eye with her hand, but I can’t afford to hire Lorna Simpson and don’t think I have the energy to find a model and shoot the cover myself.

One Eye Open is a novel I started in 1993 after spending my first summer in Brooklyn.  I finished it in 1999 while living in Toronto, but couldn’t find a publisher and so set it aside (you can read a chapter here).  The manuscript needs work, and I may try to do some editing this weekend, but mostly I just want it to exist.  I want to leave behind a body of work—what if your life ended unexpectedly?  What would be visible and accessible, and what would be buried on your hard drive or tucked away in a drawer? We’re doing a self-publishing panel on 4/21 in Toronto and I’d like to have proofs of One Eye Open to share. I’m a better writer today, but still feel proud of my first novel and want to quietly welcome it into the world sometime this spring.

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I just lost my entire post—grrrrr.  This mac is acting nutty, so I’ll keep this short: had to share this beautiful drawing sent to me by my niece, Maya.  How did she know that I read “Millie Eckstine the Singing Swine” during my poetry workshop this morning? I love that Maya gave her earrings…

There’s a lot going on this weekend.  The poetry workshops I lead are sponsored by the Brooklyn Public Library.  Those of us who value libraries and librarians will be out in force on Saturday for a 24-hour read-in.  You can contact your local elected officials by going here, and you can also donate funds to help keep books on our shelves.  This is what’s at stake:

Mayor Bloomberg’s Executive Budget for FY’11 calls for a reduction in funding of $16.9 million for Queens Library, $20.6 million for Brooklyn Public Library, and $37 million for New York Public Library. This represents a cumulative 30% decrease in funding since 2008. If enacted, the budget cuts will result in the closure of 40 libraries citywide, 30% of library staff will be laid off, and library service hours for many branches will be reduced to 2-3 days. Unless the City Council votes to restore funding, libraries’ ability to provide New Yorkers with job search help, afterschool tutoring, computer access and instruction, English classes, and research assistance will be sharply reduced by July 1, 2010.

Book culture is also alive and well in other parts of the city: if you’re free Monday night, come hear me read from Wish at Franklin Park (I’ll be on last).  Other artists include:

Matt Gallagher, author of the Iraq war memoir Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little Warm, hailed for being both humorous and harrowing; and poet Hila Ratzabi presenting, “The Apparatus of Visible Things.”Aimee Norwich, an experimental artist who performs with her own specially made instruments, will round out the night with “a piece about Michael Jackson, God and swimming goggles.”

The reading series starts at 8pm, but you could come a little early and stop by LaunchPad to see the portraits of community members interviewed by the teens in the Crown Heights Oral History Project.  They celebrated their accomplishments this past Wednesday, and I’m planning to go back so I can listen to the other interviewees.  You should, too!

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Remember when I told you I was interviewed by the Crown Heights Oral History Project?  Well, they’re hosting a celebration next week that will feature some of the interviews they’ve recorded—I already had my portrait taken (!!)—and can’t wait to hear the voices of some of the elders in our community.  If you’re in NYC, I hope you’ll stop by and support these impressive young women.

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I think The Rejectionist summed it up best, but BEA is hard on an HSP (highly sensitive person) like myself.  Shmoozing and mingling and networking aren’t my strengths, so I only lasted an hour at yesterday’s Book Blogger reception.  I did get to meet some nice people, including author Melanie Hope Greenberg and author/blogger/radio host Lesley Etheridge-Gist.  I’ll be on Lesley’s show next weekend, and it was great to also meet Christopher Herz since we’d only talked via email and on blogtalkradio before.  Christopher’s a pro at “working a room”—or he should be since direct sales is what won him the attention of big chain bookstores and AmazonEncore.  Writing from 5-7am every day before work, Christopher finished his novel (The Last Block in Harlem) and then printed 1,000 copies, quit his day job, and hit the streets of NYC trying to persuade people to give his book a chance.  You can read more of his story over at Publishers Weekly.  Andrew Xia Fukuda was not ready for his close-up, so our Flip interview will have to wait—maybe I’ll catch him next week at his reading at the Queens Public Library.

Do you review middle grade fiction?  If so, let me know because I’ve got two ARCs of a new science-based book called Sweet Farts.  It’s by Raymond Bean, a NYC 4th Grade teacher (and fellow AmazonEncore author).  I’ll send a book to anyone who’s interested in writing a review…

Did you know that YOU can nominate titles for YALSA‘s 2010 Best Fiction for Young Adults?  It’s a quick process, though you do need the book’s publisher, a summary, and your reason for nominating the book.  Edi over at Crazy Quilts reminds us that books by and about people of color often don’t make the list, so NOMINATE!

Lastly, you know I’m not fond of heritage months, but this is Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, and there was a major conference in Singapore: the Asian Festival of Children’s Content.  Want to learn more about it?  Tarie did a fabulous guest post over at Multiculturalism Rocks! Could YOU pass this test?

1. Name three Asian authors of children’s books.
2. Name three Asian illustrators of children’s books.
3. Name folk heroes or folk stories from three different Asian countries.
4. Name three African authors of children’s books.
5. Name three African illustrators of children’s books.
6. Name folk heroes or folk stories from three different African countries.
7. Name three Latin American authors of children’s books.
8. Name three Latin American illustrators of children’s books.
9. Name folk heroes or folk stories from three different Latin American countries.

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This has been a busy week!  Part of me wants to crawl under a rock and not emerge for several weeks, but another part of me feels so blessed to have these opportunities to connect with book lovers.  On Tuesday night I was invited by Karen Alford, VP for Elementary Schools at The United Federation of Teachers, to give a talk to NYC educators.  Since both my parents were teachers, I feel really at ease around other educators and had a great time talking about how & why I became a writer.  What’s amazing about teachers is, they always have a little more to give…even after teaching all day, trudging through the rain, and listening to me blab on for more than an hour, they patiently waited in line to have their books signed and then took a moment to share words of encouragement with me.  I love teachers!

The next morning I went over to WNYC for the Brian Lehrer Show.  If you missed the show and want to listen in, you can find my segment here.  I was pretty nervous, but everyone there was very nice and boy, are those folks efficient!  It felt like a blur while I was on air, but Brian was easy to talk to and folks actually called in…thanks also to everyone who emailed me afterward with supportive comments.  I went home thinking I might have offended folks with my remarks about race versus culture, but I think listeners understood what I was trying to say…

Two hours later I got back on the train and headed up to the Bronx to give a book talk to the Literacy Group at the West Farms branch of the NYPL.  Many thanks to the two educators who set up their Smart Board despite having no advance notice…we untangled the wires and were up and running in no time.  The teens were responsive and engaged, but there were no copies of my books at their branch so we’ll have to work on that…

Back on the train…headed back to Brooklyn but got off in Park Slope so I could attend the “My Brooklyn” teen panel on gentrification.  Was very glad I went, though it felt a little strange being in my father’s old place of employment (John Jay HS).  The students were *very* impressive, and clearly articulated their feelings about the changes to their neighborhoods.  I even met Genna’s double—a feisty Panamanian teen who lives in Crown Heights!  I handed out some flyers, talked to the organizers, and then dragged myself back to the train.  My feet still hurt this morning, but it was a great day and I’ve got this morning to relax before I head out once again…

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The thing about being a teacher is that you can’t look at anything, really, without instantly thinking of ways you could use it in the classroom.  I’ve been telling you about the gentrification exhibit at MoCADA, and how I think about gentrification a lot, and now I’ve just finished a middle grade novel that would be an excellent introduction to the issue of housing/human rights.  In fact, I’m not so secretly hoping that Gbemi and I can work with MoCADA and their teen partners!  I did a writing workshop a couple of weeks ago in Bushwick and one bright female student said, “Adults never listen to us, so it doesn’t matter what we think.”  And I immediately told her about the students protesting the MTA’s proposed elimination of student transit passes, AND the courageous way Ari at Reading in Color publicly voiced her outrage over Bloomsbury’s whitewashing of book covers.  The kids seemed really impressed, and I wrote Ari’s blog address on the board…you never know what might happen if you plant a seed in a young person’s mind.  When I started reading 8th Grade Super Zero, I had a few doubts.  I didn’t know the book had a strong religious current running through it, and right from the start I questioned the authenticity of the lead characters; when discussing the upcoming student election, best friends Reggie and Ruthie have this exchange:

“It would be nice if those two didn’t rule the school this year,” I say.  “If we were all about looking out for one another instead of hierarchy.”

“Yuck, ‘rule the school,'” says Ruthie.  “That’s so…Western, so imperialistic.”

I’ve taught in NYC for years and I don’t know *any* black kids who talk like that.  But THAT is precisely why this is such an important book—kids like Ruthie and Reggie DO exist, and their voices desperately need to be heard…there ARE black kids who attend schools for the academically gifted, belong to their church youth group, and have mothers who buy free-range chicken at Whole Foods.  This debut novel is full of surprises as Reggie confronts almost daily tests of his moral fiber—why does God let bad things happen, and what are we supposed to do about it? why do kids throw their support behind jerks who act cool instead of kids who want to change the world? why don’t we stand up for those who are weak instead of shying away to protect ourselves?  Reggie builds character as he forges relationships with residents of a nearby homeless shelter; he embarks on an oral history project for NPR but soon adopts a “little Buddy,” recruits classmates to transform the shelter’s common room, gives the so-called geeks at school a chance, and realizes self-respect matters more than being popular—or even powerful—at school.  In this age of “extreme makeovers” it’s refreshing to see a group of kids who are less interested in name brands and more interested in building an integrated community—if adults want kids to “talk the talk,” they should also support kids’ efforts to “walk the walk” (which is much harder).  And in the end, Reggie finds his true love—the girl who watches too much PBS (there’s no such thing as TOO MUCH PBS!).  Many characters in the book are racially unmarked, and though race isn’t a dominant issue, the author still inserts reminders of race’s impact on Reggie’s life: he’s hassled by a white cop while waiting for his friend to use the ATM, his father loses his job for taking a stand against racism at his job, and Reggie’s loyalty to his white friend is challenged by Joe C.’s interest in DJ culture and racist Italian father.  At this point you’re probably thinking, “Man, I gotta read this book!”  Well, if you’re a blogger willing to commit to writing a review, be the first to leave me a comment and it’s yours (this is a signed copy from the author!).  Also, stop by The Rejectionist to read a fantastic interview with Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich.

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My friends and I talk about gentrification ALL the time, and have for years…but as MoCADA founder Laurie Cumbo points out in this great NY1 interview, gentrification is often a topic that gets discreetly avoided “in mixed company.”  Two years ago I moved into my friend’s apartment here in Brooklyn and immediately noticed that the building had changed—there were many more white residents, and those who owned their co-op apartments sometimes seemed at odds with long-time renters (who were primarily people of color).  Within a few months, our beloved Caribbean doorman was replaced.  The elevator got a stylish renovation.  Then the custodians were also replaced.  Has the building “improved”?  One African American man who has lived here over forty years says absolutely.  There are security cameras throughout the building.  You can now get soy milk at the corner bodega, along with some organic products I would have had to trek to Park Slope to find in previous years.  Sometimes I get on the elevator and wonder who’ll talk to me today—some of the white residents are super friendly, others drop their eyes and exit as quickly as possible.  Some will chat you up in the laundry room, then walk past you on the street the next day without saying a word.  Some long-time black residents will also cut their eyes at me or offer a grudging “hello.”  I wrote a ten-minute play about gentrification shortly after moving in—it’s called Quality, and features a young, professional black woman who knows she functions as “a wedge”:

COLLEEN (white, sincere):  It must feel strange, watching the neighborhood change so much.

EVA (black):  I was bitter at first.  But then I realized it wasn’t all bad.  There’s a new internet café, and I can finally buy the Sunday Times at the bodega.  This building’s also a lot nicer than it used to be.  And let’s face it—I’m part of the problem.

JANE (white, snooty):  You?  I don’t believe it!

EVA:  I’m what they call “a wedge.”

COLLEEN:  A wedge?

EVA:  Yeah.  When I left for college, I never imagined someday I’d be back in this neighborhood.  But then my grandmother passed away—

COLLEEN:  Oh, I’m so sorry.

EVA:  And we had to decide what we were going to do with her apartment.  My mother wanted to let it go—she lives in Orlando now.  But it just didn’t feel right—I practically grew up in this building.  So I moved in while I finished graduate school, and then once I got a job, I bought it!

JANE:  So how does that make you a wedge?

EVA:  Well, I’m the kind of black person white folks don’t mind living next to.  They come, check out the building, they see a young black professional like me (so clean and articulate!) and they figure it can’t be that bad living in the ‘hood.  One or two move in, then three or four, and next thing you know—I’m in the minority!  [She laughs gaily, but the other women only smile weakly...]

My play has a happy ending (of sorts) but how does the gentrification narrative really end?  If I had to leave my friend’s co-op apartment, could I afford to find a new apartment in this neighborhood?  Word is they’re building a glass skyscraper at the end of the block that will overlook Prospect Park—and price most current renters out of the market.  Then there’s the new basketball stadium slated for construction in downtown Brooklyn…gone are the days my optimist friends and I used to paint murals about keeping “unity in the community.”  Now the new white residents paint murals in my neighborhood—and some of them are quite beautiful.  Can we imagine a community where blacks and whites get along, or does class now determine who your allies are?  In A Wish After Midnight Genna says,

I’ve spent my whole life here in New York.  But in this city, people are separate.  Blacks and Latinos mix sometimes, but Asians mostly keep to themselves.  Whites might live near us, but they don’t live with us.  At least that’s how things used to be.  When I took the train, most of the white people used to get off before me.  But these days more and more of them are staying on the train.  Mama says they’re pushing deeper and deeper into Brooklyn.  So far no white people have come to live in our neighborhood.  Mama says that’s the only good thing about living in such a crappy building.  White folks are too scared to move in.

Today I went to the artists’ talk at MoCADA and afterward filmed this *great* interview with my good friend, Rosamond S. King.  Unfortunately, it was really loud in the gallery so I hope you can hear her answers because they give all of us a LOT to think about.  Here’s part of Rosa’s installation, “Gentrification is…”:

And here’s Rosa:

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