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.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

On Places That Vanish

Baltimore(Day 2)

Our guide, Charlie, is a nostalgic. Though saying it like that might give you the wrong impression. Yes, the man does love the city -- loves it with an incredible love; and yes, he remembers its past -- remembers it beyond his own memory. For when he tells you about Baltimore in 1862, it's as if he is talking about his childhood (oh this house used to be so wonderful then, the windows were draped in red, and it smelt of grandpa’s cigar). But Charlie’s nostalgia isn’t the kind that is content to just daydream. There is serious knowledge underpinning it; academic degrees too; and years of struggle that have been worthwhile, that have seen parts of the city change for the better. And also, behind the nostalgia is a pragmatism that doesn’t waste time being optimistic about the bits of the city that are slowly dying, and that cannot be stopped from dying. Though this is what fascinates me – just the fact of it - that sections of a city can die, and can begin to vanish.

I have seen places like Baltimore before – but they were never cities. Last summer I found myself driving around Jamaica and visiting villages tucked away, behind the red bauxite roads. The new industrial roads exposed them, but they had always been there, deep in the mountains of St. Ann. And some of these villages had fancy names like Alexandria or Thebes, as if they once had the ambition to be somewhere worth mentioning. But their names were a mockery, for I understood then that villages (just like people, and just like entire species of animals) die. To drive through the vanishing villages of Jamaica was almost the same as sitting by the bed of your uncle whose skin has turned grey, who is now on a high dose of morphine. The dying has already set in; you cannot stop it.

In those mountain villages in Jamaica, there were houses that no longer had people to live in them. Perfectly good houses -- but they were boarded up and had begun to rot. And this is what West Baltimore is like. Boarded up houses. Emptied. Dying. The statistics are staggering. 15,000 empty houses in the city. I thought before that the problem of urban centres was ALWAYS overcrowding. People living on top of people; everyone living on top of diseases. I never knew before that those people could just up and leave with no one else to move back in - the city, waiting on a population that is never coming.

I cannot think about Baltimore without thinking about the villages in Jamaica that so moved me – that made me nostalgic, that made me remember them beyond the thirty year limit of my memory. One day soon, I want to write a book about them – these villages that are not only tucked away in the mountains, but that will soon be buried there, to be discovered maybe a thousand years from now by a bright archaeologist. And I imagine in this future that someone will be surprised, just as those who walk around any excavated temple or palace is surprised, that entire places really do vanish, going deep down under the earth like the rest of the dead. I’m not asking for these villages to come back or be renewed or be gentrified (if villages, like rotting cities, can be gentrified). I just want to write a proper eulogy for them – and to say that the things that will be buried with them, those little bits of our culture – anansi stories, rolling calf stories, the recipe for dukkunu, a real nine-night service that doesn’t become a street-dance complete with tall loud-speakers stealing electricity from JPS – it isn’t foolish, or backward, or unhealthy to be a little sad that they are going the way of the villages.

I’m glad that Charlie is here to be sad for Baltimore -(not wailing in sackcloth and ashes, not histrionic or anything, just a little bit sad) - for the parts of this city that are vanishing. I am glad that he is here to mourn the crumbling Victorian architecture, the cornices, the high windows. I want to be sad for it too, but I can’t really. Because these bits of concrete suddenly seem to me, no more real than the other things I’m thinking about – the bits of peasant culture that we let die every day. Part of me feels that cities ought not to protest their deaths, for the life of every city has caused the death of a hundred or so villages. And that’s just the way of things, goddammit. Places die. They vanish. Everything that rises, falls.

-Kei Miller