In April 2011, the International Writing Program launched " Writers in Motion", a study tour of the Mid-Atlantic and the American South, where eight international writers are exploring the theme of "Fall and Recovery." The writers are traveling to Gettysburg (April 3-5), Baltimore (April 5-6), New Orleans (April 6-8), the Gulf Coast (Morgan City, the Achafalaya Basin, Lafayette, April 8-11), Birmingham, AL (April 11-12) and Washington, D.C. (April 13-15) to examine some of the challenges presented by historical crises and upheavals, both natural and social.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Found Words: James Baldwin and the Lost Homes of San Francisco

Last week, in Washington DC, I gave voice to the questions that still confounded me: How did a country go from the civil war and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address to the derelict poverty of West Baltimore? How did America move from Jim Crow to the catastrophe of the flooding of New Orleans? Our travels through America opened up so many questions, applicable not only to that society, but to my own.

Last night, unable to sleep in Montreal, I came across a documentary about James Baldwin. In 1963, Baldwin went to San Francisco and began a study tour of the city. He wanted to know about the state of race relations in a so called progressive city. In Baldwin's San Francisco, I found a window into the Baltimore that Charlie Duff tried to help us see, the city that was destroyed, that city that was "recovered" in the 1960s through mass evictions and demolitions and the use of fire breaks to separate the races.

from Take This Hammer, James Baldwin's study tour of San Francisco, 1963

Boy: They trying to tear down our homes, brother.... Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, let me tell you. Now they talking about better jobs, jobs right here. You want me tell you what kind of jobs they gonna give us? They're gonna let us tear down on own homes. That's the job we're getting. And you know what they gonna pay us? Let me tell you want they're going to pay. They're going to pay you $2 an hour... I mean, what does that end up gaining you? That's not gaining you a thing. You won't get anything. They'll help you tear down your own home. It's a job, temporarily. And then what you going to do? Where you going to live? You're not going to live anywhere. They not even in the process of trying to tell you where you're going to live. All they're talking about is tearing down your house.

TV Reporter: How long have you been in San Francisco?

Boy: Well I've been in San Francisco about 18 years. Ever since I was a year or two old.

Baldwin: And you live around here, too.

Girl: Yeah.

TV Reporter: In temporary housing?

Girl: No, city projects. Ain't no temporary housing no more, they're tearing 'em down. Ain't no more. Ain't going to be no place when they get through. We're going to be living out on the streets.

TV Reporter: Does that make you feel bad?

Girl: Yeah, make you feel bad. Won't be no place to go. We'll be living out here on streets in tents.

TV Reporter: And where would you like to go if you could?

Girl: I'd like to stay up here on top of the hill.

TV Reporter: You would? How long you've been living on top of here?

Girl: Ever since I been born.


Man: And then this is part of a redevelopment also.

Baldwin: What do you mean? You say redevelopment meaning what?

Man: Removal of Negroes.

Baldwin: Uh-huh. Yes. That's what I thought you meant.

Man: In other words, a lot of the Negroes who came because the Japanese were pushed out, now are now being pushed out.

Baldwin: In effect, San Francisco is reclaiming this property to build it up, which means Negroes have to go.

Man: That's right.

Baldwin: Where are they going to go?

Man: Well, they're going out to Hunter's Point, and to the Haight-Ashbury area, and also into Ocean View, wherever they can find reasonable rents. South of Market, and all those other places. Wherever they can find cheap rent. In other words, going from one ghetto to the other.

Baldwin: Yes, yes. So, this is the Negro housing project in effect.

Man: Yes.

Baldwin: Uh-huh. I know a lot about housing projects in New York. But I am sure this isn't different at all.

Man: No, houses there have some of the same problems although the buildings, the exterior looks--

Baldwin: Oh, the exterior looks marvelous, that's the whole point. But I know what goes on inside. Correct me if I'm wrong... Better housing in the ghetto is simply not possible. You can build a few better plans but you cannot do anything about the moral and psychological effects of being in the ghetto. This is the point. Everybody living in those housing projects is just as endangered as ever before by all of the things that the ghetto means. By raising a kid in one of those housing projects I would still have, at the front door, or probably right next door in the housing project, all the things I was trying to escape. I mean, even such things as dealing with insurance companies if I want fire insurance, you know, to the fact that, in the playground, my boy or my girl will be exposed to the man who sells narcotics, for example, to a million forces which are inevitably set in motion when a people are despised. You can't pretend that you're not despised if you are. We were saying yesterday that children can't be fooled. But I could be fooled, and be glad about having a whatever it is, a terrace, a garage. But, my kid won't be. It's my kids that are being destroyed by this fantastic democracy.

It isn't only what it's doing to Negro children which is, God knows, bad enough. It's what it does to white children who grow up believing that it is more important to make a profit than it is to be a man. And that's the way that society really operates. I don't care what society says, this is how it operates and these are the goals it sets. And these goals aren't worthy of a man.

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