‘Tales of the City’ Turns 40: as the World Burns

40 years ago (in 1978), the first of Armistead Maupin’s ‘Tales of the City’ installments appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.

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The ‘Tales’ would eventually be published as 9 novels, from the first ‘Tales of the City’ to 2014’s ‘The Days of Anna Madrigal’. Maupin, who came of age as a young gay man in San Francisco during the halcyon pre-Aids golden age of the 1970s, chronicled a changing city through vignettes surrounding a cast of memorable characters. These characters are archetypes of the San Francisco of-then, and according to Maupin, all bits and pieces of the author’s personality, a sort of dramatized autobiographical sketch. Maupin, hailing from a conservative North Carolina dynasty, found liberation in San Francisco. But alongside liberation, much quirkiness, whimsy, satire, and yes, darkness.

What is most remarkable about the ‘Tales’ series is the way it captures the essence of a vanished world. San Francisco at the turn of the 1980s, just before AIDS decimated gay life in the city and forever transformed the relationship of gay men to urban space. But also, before San Francisco’s first tech boom (which ramped up in the mid-late 1980s) and began the violent cycles of gentrification that continue today in ‘web 2.0’. San Francisco before the murder of Harvey Milk, Mayor Moscone and the mass-suicide of the ‘Jonestown’ cult, (which all happened in November 1978). San Francisco before the neoliberal and growth-friendly leadership embraced whole-heartedly the Manhattanization of downtown and oversaw the replacement of the South-of-Market district from a working-class, artist and LGBT enclave to the dot.com playground it is today. The San Francisco captured in ‘Tales’ is weird and rough around the edges, yet endearing.

In Maupin’s ‘Tales’, sexuality is non-binary and interwoven, with several characters (straight, gay, bisexual) enmeshed in various liaisons. In ‘Tales’, San Francisco is inexpensive and smart phones are non-existent. Dates happen at the roller skating rink or the bath house. There are no Apple Watches or Alexas.

The earnest young gay man, spreading his social (and sexual) wings for the first time, encapsulated in Michael Tolliver or ‘Mouse’. The naïve and white-bread Midwest newcomer, opening up to West coast libertinism and hedonism, in the form of the young woman, Mary Ann Singleton. The mysterious, elegant and avuncular Anna Madrigal, landlady with a secret (and a ready bowl of pre-rolled joints), ultimately one of the most memorable and perhaps earliest significant transgender characters in popular culture. The carefree and bohemian (and bisexual) Mona Ramsey, who takes Mary Ann under her wing.

And a supporting cast of San Francisco types: the WASPY socialite DeDe Halcyon (of Pacific Heights) and her scheming, bisexual husband Beauchamp Day. The lothario Brian Hawkins. The rough-as-tumbleweed Momma ‘Mucca (from Winnemucca), who runs a Nevada desert brothel but has complex ties to the urban characters.

This San Francisco is quaint and small-town, and yet, one can still find these stereotypes around the city, recycled for new generations. Despite the city’s changes, encroaching mono-culture and sanitized urban spaces, it retains a powerful gravitational pull for the adventurous, the queer, the questioning, the naïve, the young.

‘Tales’ was made into a successful TV miniseries in the early 1990s (starring Olympia Dukakis as Anna Madrigal and Laura Linney as Mary Ann Singleton) and is now being again made into a series (with Linney attached to the project) updated for the millennial age, produced by Netflix.

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Characters ‘Mouse’, ‘Mary Ann’ and ‘Mona’ in the TV Series ‘Tales of the City’ (Channel 4 UK, PBS/ Showtime US)

If there is a critique of what ‘Tales’ captures / captured, it would be in the things absent. Maupin had a deep window into white, WASPY and gay San Francisco and dissects that personality spot-on, but there are few to no characters of color and San Francisco’s Asian and Latinx cultures are seen as supplementary appendages and not as the central motifs that they are (alongside Gay culture, WASPY old Pacific Heights, the Hillsborough set, etc.) But Maupin’s world did not extend to the city’s edges nor are ‘Tales’ meant to be a sociological analysis of class, race and ethnicity in the Bay Area. Rather, they are snapshots of a certain time, a certain place, and a certain magic in a city that at least historically has been a place of awakening, self-knowledge, and above all, love and freedom.

The geographic center of the series is ‘Barbary Lane’, the garden-filled mews high on a steep hill, often shrouded in fog, within ear-range of the ubiquitous fog horn, where Mary Ann Singleton, Anna Madrigal, and several other characters live. Barbary Lane was based on the real ‘Macondray Lane’, located in Russian Hill.

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Macondray Lane in Russian Hill, stand in for ‘Barbary Lane’ in ‘Tales of the City’

This collection of characters living together on such a picturesque mews is, too, a relic of history: it is highly unlikely today that such a quirky assemblage of bohemians would be able to afford Russian Hill, let alone anywhere in the city. Mary Ann Singleton after all came to San Francisco from Cleveland without a job! (But quickly found one, thanks to the kind patriarch and advertising executive Edgar Halcyon, father of DeDe Halcyon, but then, I digress into spoilers..).

So, looking back 40 years, and with ‘Tales’ about to be re-released by Netflix, I have mused on what a ‘new’ episode might be like, given today’s San Francisco. I will close with a bit of mock dialogue-cum-fan fiction, of what a synopsis of the episode ‘November Smoke’ might contain.

II. Fictional Episode of ‘Tales of the City’: 40 Years on – ‘November Smoke'” (Courtesy of Jason Luger). wildfires.jpg

Scene: November 11, 2018. The air in San Francisco is thick with smoke and ash particles from record breaking wildfires hundreds of miles away.

Mary Ann Singleton, from Cleveland, arrives in the city with hopes and dreams and some training with Microsoft Office Suite. She is ‘ok’ with Excel, in her words.

Mary Ann has heard about an apartment open house in Russian Hill. The apartment is 400 square feet with a shared bathroom with two other units, but it looks cute in the photos. Mary Ann saw that the price said “$4,500 per month” but assumed it was a mistake – surely it was $450 a month, still more than such a unit would cost back home in Cleveland. She walks up a steep hill and almost doubles-over in a coughing fit – the air is hard to breathe. The smoke is so thick that Mary Ann doesn’t notice the Coit Tower, which would be visible straight ahead on a clear-air day. Mary Ann stops half-way up the hill to take a rest, and notices a woman sitting on the curb to her right. The woman does not appear to be wearing pants, and is furiously scratching herself, and Mary Ann notices there are open sores covering the woman’s legs. ‘My goodness’, Mary Ann catches herself saying aloud.

Upon arriving at the address she has written down on a piece of paper in her pocket, Mary Ann knocks on the door of the apartment, and a friendly man opens it. Mary Ann sees that there are 20 people already inside, taking pictures. All white (like her), but much younger – they seem to be in their early 20s (Mary Ann is almost 30). Mary Ann sees several of the others hand packages to the man (who must be the landlord) – credit histories? Bank statements? Employment references? Mary Ann has none of those things. Dejected, she leaves.

Luckily, Mary Ann has a friend she can stay with – a gay man named Michael. Mary Ann meets up with him, and they head to lunch in a trendy neighborhood (having looked at the menu, Mary Ann isn’t sure how she’ll pay for her meal – but hey, she has just arrived, should treat herself). Michael seems distracted, though. He keeps checking his watch (one of those fancy Apple-watches, Mary Ann notices), and barely makes eye contact with her.

“Let me show you this guy who wants to meet up with me”, Michael says, and shows Mary Ann a photo on his phone of what appears to be a man’s torso – no head. “You can’t see his face?” asks Mary Ann. “Face? Lol.” says Michael, “I can see his 6% bodyfat and I’m interested”. Mary Ann doesn’t know what “bodyfat” is, but doesn’t want to ask since that might make her seem unsophisticated.

After brunch, the two stop at a Cannabis store and buy some chocolate snacks. Mary Ann eats one, and says goodbye to Michael, and goes for a walk to Golden Gate Park. She starts to feel strange: is this what pot makes you feel like, Mary Ann thinks? Time seems – slower, but also faster; the grass seems a bit greener. She falls asleep on the grass, under a Monterey Pine. When Mary Ann wakes up, she is freezing: the fog has come in, blowing away the smoke. She forgot a jacket.

**

A few days later, Mary Ann finds an apartment. Well, not so much an apartment, as a room in an older woman’s apartment. But it is affordable, and she’s told, in a good location. Meanwhile, Mary Ann has found work as a caterer (on the weekends), and a waitress at a Peruvian restaurant downtown. She has not had any replies yet from office jobs.

The woman’s name is Anna Madrigal, and she is kind, if a bit mysterious. She and Mary Ann find themselves sitting in Anna’s living room, which Mary Ann now shares. Anna seems upset.

“What’s wrong?” Mary Ann asks.

“Well -” Anna Madrigal begins, “it’s just that the President – Trump – he’s going after transgender rights again. He is trying to get the Justice Department to basically nullify the definition of transgender as a third sex and thus force us into binary understandings of gender.”

Mary Ann is confused, but listens. Later, she Googles “transgender”.

**

DeDe Halcyon, eldest daughter of business titan Edgar Halcyon, is packing up her last boxes. She and her husband Beauchamp are moving. Having lived in Pacific Heights for decades, they finally decided that she and Beauchamp should make a new start in Nashville, Tennessee (and Beauchamp is from the South, anyway). It will be nice to be closer to family and oh, the things they could do by saving $10,000 a month on rent.

On the way out of the city, crossing the Bay Bridge in their Subaru, DeDe takes a look back at the smoke-filled sky; the new Salesforce Tower standing watch like a sentinel. In Oakland, DeDe notices a tent city under the elevated freeway – she had not seen this before. And further along, a row of what look like tiny dog-houses. She wonders: are people living there, or animals? This is her last thought as the Subaru leaves the urban sprawl and heads East, toward the Sierra Nevada (now engulfed in flames); toward Nevada; toward Nashville.

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*

 

 

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Internment’s rural racializations: an interview with Rita Brogan, co-curator of ‘Joy and Heartache: Japanese Americans on Vashon Island’

“People need to be reminded of the consequences of anti-immigration hysteria.  America is getting precariously close today to repeating the injustices of yesterday.  We cannot allow this to happen.” — Rita Brogan

Suitcases from the ‘Joy and Heartache’ exhibit. Photo by Zack Elway, August 2018

White luggage tags mark a pair of battered, tan hard-cased suitcases. These tags indicate the suitcases’ owner, Tsuma Yoshima. But they also mark something more pernicious: internment, the forced government removal of Japanese-Americans from their homes. “So this was Executive order 9066,” Rita Brogan tells me speaking of these suitcases. “People were given two days’ notice and were allowed two suitcases,” she continues “so that’s why we have these suitcases here.” During World War II, President Roosevelt signed the executive order, forcing Japanese-Americans out of their homes and onto internment camps, and decimating once-thriving communities up and down the West Coast.  “Every family got a number matching the tag on the suitcase and a tag that topin on your clothes so they would know what belonged to what,” Brogan continues. She tells me of a Japanese-American student at Vashon High School who was “the valedictorian in 1942,” but “evacuated 13 days before graduation so he was, of course, never able to give his valedictory speech.” She also describes how “people wore many layers of clothing because they were only allowed what they wore plus two suitcases. It was really hot.”

Rita Brogan is a Japanese-American business owner and longtime Vashon resident, who has been a long-time activist in and around Asian-American affairs and civil rights in the Pacific Northwest and nationally. Brogan recently co-curated Joy and Heartache: Japanese Americans on Vashon Island, an exhibit at the Vashon Heritage Museum, which runs through Spring 2019.

Rita Brogan in front of the entrance to the ‘Joy and Heartache’ exhibit. Photo by Zack Elway, August 2018

Vashon is an island the size of Manhattan with a population of 12,000, and is about two miles and a 20 minute ferry ride from Seattle. In 2015, the island was declared the “most liberal place in America” (many contested this declaration). The rural island is arts-rich, queer-friendly, and in 2017 was described by a Los Angeles Times writer as “one of the region’s experimental laboratories, a place where new strains of environmentalism and progressivism flourish, unencumbered by mainland reality. It presents an increasingly rare constituency: rural but not red.”

A 20th century map of Vashon Island from the ‘Joy and Heartache’ exhibit. Photo by Zack Elway, August 2018

In Seattle, internment wiped out Japanese-American businesses at the famed Pike Place Market, which by the early 1940s, represented 80% of the market’s business. Although internment often conjures an idea of Japanese-Americans removed from West Coast urban centers, Joy and Heartache reveals the rural dimension of the devastating and dehumanizing forced removal of U.S. citizens. It brings to life stories of chickens and strawberries on Mukai farm, of Vashon Japanese-Americans planting cherry trees and curating dances and other cultural programs, and of anti-Japanese violence by white residents. I interviewed Rita Brogan who co-curated the exhibit, to learn more about the central role of Japanese-Americans on Vashon, and to think through the impact of internment, and racialized spatialization, in a rural area.

“Mama-san in the Strawberry Field” (2018), metal sculpture by Miya Sukune at the ‘Joy and Heartache’ exhibit.

JASMINE MAHMOUD: How did you get involved with curating Joy and Heartache? What were some ideas and themes that you wanted the exhibit to communicate?

RITA BROGAN: I got involved because I have many decades of activism around Asian-American issues, Japanese-American issues and Asian-American studies and I had already been doing some pro-bono work with the Mukai Farm [& Garden] on Vashon Island on branding and outreach. The Mukai Farm is on the National Registry of Historic Places and has been called the best existing example of a Japanese-American farmstead in the United States, and it was an important community center. Through this, my interest grew in the larger historic role of Japanese-Americans on Vashon. I wanted to find out more about why Japanese-Americans played such an important role in the economic and social history of Vashon Island but also what happened to them. I got involved because there was a group that wanted to do an exhibit of Japanese-American history on Vashon, but they really felt the need to engage people of Japanese-American ancestry in creating the exhibit.

MAHMOUD: What’s the importance of having this exhibit on Vashon and what does the Japanese-American presence and then displacement mean for the history of Vashon and the Puget Sound area?

BROGAN: We wanted to cover the entire history of Japanese presence on Vashon Island. That presence changed significantly with the disruption caused by internment during World War II. The first Japanese settlers were mostly young Japanese males who were trying to find economic opportunity in America. That period of time at the beginning of the twentieth century and the latter part of the nineteenth century was a period of major economic upheaval in Japan. Many Japanese young men became intrigued by the idea of creating a new life in a new world, but also were being recruited as labor for various projects in America.  

We organized the exhibit around five stages of the Japanese socio-cultural evolution in America, which we called: Hope, Struggle, Trauma, Resilience and Identities. That first phase, when the young men first came to Vashon Island, we called Hope.  They and the picture brides they subsequently brought over, all had great hope for life in the new world. What occurred on Vashon, as was true in other communities as well, but particularly true on Vashon was that the Japanese-Americans community—despite major discriminatory laws such as the Alien Land Law, anti-immigration harassment and anti-immigration laws—began to make a life for themselves. They were very successful in farming. Their families placed a great deal of emphasis on education and on community, both involvement in the Japanese-American community but also involvement in the larger community. By the time that World War II came around, there was a really significant Japanese-American presence in Vashon Island society and Japanese-Americans in many ways dominated the agricultural economy. Of course, that changed overnight.

Image from ‘Joy and Heartache’ exhibit. Photo by Zack Elway, August 2018

People were given two-days’ notice that they were going to be evacuated from Vashon to a place unknown. Besides the clothes on their backs, they were allowed two suitcases a piece. Unlike other Japanese Americans, Vashon evacuees were moved around frequently during the period of internment.  Some Vashon Japanese-American families moved up to five times. Vashon’s Japanese-American community was pulled apart in the process, moved to different locations throughout the United States. Only a third returned to Vashon after the war.

Luggage tags at the ‘Joy and Heartache’ exhibit. Photo by Zack Elway, August 2018

Even though many wanted to come back to farming, their farms had been neglected for four years and only a few could be restored. Also the agricultural economy throughout the nation changed because the interstate system which made it much easier to get produce from California. So even the those who were trying to make it in agriculture were ultimately not successful.

Image of an internment camp from the ‘Joy and Heartache’ exhibit.

MAHMOUD: Why is it important for people who often think about Internment only affecting Japanese-Americans in cities to also think about Japanese-Americans on Vashon and on rural areas?

BROGAN: It’s important to understand that everyone who lived on the West Coast was affected and what the disruptive impact of internment in rural areas was, I wouldn’t say that the rural experience was worse than the disruption for urban Japanese, but it did have a more significant impact for the island economy. It was bad for everyone, but sometimes people just don’t think about rural people.

Map of internment camps. Photo by Zack Elway, August 2018

MAHMOUD: The exhibit had so much great photography, art, and poetry. How you did you think about those artistic aspects? What did this art communicate in the exhibit?

BROGAN: Photographs were particularly telling. For example if you look at the picture of an elementary school class in 1939 there were more Japanese-American students than whites. When you look at the class picture 10 or so years later there are no Japanese students.  This is a poignant example of how the evacuation changed the world for Japanese Americans on Vashon. We also included some of the anti-Japanese cartoons of the period, created by people like Dr. Seuss; a lot of people don’t realize how anti-Japanese he was. I think that the historic photographs certainly help bring the stories alive.

We also had a terrific opportunity to involve visual and spoken art. We asked Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma to create a poem on the exhibit and so he organized his poem around the themes: “Hope,” “Struggle,” “Trauma,” “Resilience,” and “Identities.” [See this video for Pruiksma reading from his poem “Here” written for the exhibit.] His poetry brought so alive the issues that Japanese-Americans were dealing with, both culturally and politically. We also got a grant from King County’s 4Culture, and Miya Sukune, one of the Japanese-American artists on Vashon, was able to use that to develop six metal panels that depict the lives of the Matsuda family on Vashon Island such as having bon odori dances at the Tule Lake internment camp. There arts played a really meaningful role in communicating and message and making a visceral impact.

Image of a Miye Sukune’s metal sculpture “The Dust Storm (Mary and Ardith)” at the “Joy and Heartache” exhibit. Photo by Zack Elway, August 2018

MAHMOUD:  What is the most interesting thing you learned from the process of curating this exhibit?

BROGAN: I would say that I had not really known or even thought about how the internment fundamentally changed both Japanese Americans who were evacuated, but also how it fundamentally impacted the entire Vashon community. Going through the sources really gave me a much more in-the-moment appreciation for the experience.

MAHMOUD: I’m curious what this history that you’ve excavated means for present day Vashon.

BROGAN: This has been the most popular exhibit that’s ever been shown at the Vashon Heritage Museum. It’s gotten a lot of attention on Vashon as well as off-island. There are a lot of people in the larger Japanese-American community who have come to Vashon to see the exhibit. It’s gotten great media attention as well.

This means many things. One is an appreciation for the historic experience of Japanese-Americans on Vashon Island, but a very current message about the continued discrimination against immigrants and people of color in this country.

MAHMOUD: Do you have any other thoughts to add, Rita, or any other closing thoughts?

BROGAN: Well we didn’t really talk about the stages that much: “Hope;” then the “Struggle” phase went through the hardships that people had to endured in order to make their way in America. “Trauma” refers to the evacuation and internment. “Resilience” refers to the period right after World War II where Japanese-Americans tried to reintegrate into society and in doing so tried to become more American than American and more white than white. Many tried so hard to prove that they were not only equal to but that they had to be better than white Americans. And a lots of that thinking changed during the 1960s and 1970s, with the cultural disruption of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and the Third World Movement, where so many younger Asian-Americans were saying “no we need to be proud of who we are.” So that’s why the last stage is called “Identities.”

An excerpt from the program translated in both Japanese and English. In September, Brogan hosted a homestay with the Japan-American Society Grassroots Summit, a U.S.-Japan exchange that brought dozens of Japanese citizens to Vashon and the Pacific Northwest. With the exchange, many Japanese visiting the Pacific Northwest toured the exhibit which was translated from English to Japanese.

The Japanese-American community today on Vashon is very different from the Japanese community before World War II. The Japanese-American population on Vashon today includes few of the original farming families.  Today the community includes people who have moved to Vashon because of the schools; it’s made up of war brides, retirees, commuters– folks who haven’t had the same experience as Vashon’s Japanese-Americans prior to World War II. And yet we continue to face and combat discrimination and racism. For the “Identities” section of the exhibit, we tried to debunk the idea that the Asian-Americans are “model minorities.” We document continued discrimination, but also celebrate the fact that there are some really wonderful ways in which our culture is being embraced by younger generations.

People need to be reminded of the consequences of anti-immigration hysteria.  America is getting precariously close today to repeating the injustices of yesterday.  We cannot allow this to happen.

The Coit Tower, and All it Represents, Turns 85

San Francisco’s Coit Tower, a jewel in the legacy of art-deco architecture and social-realist art, turned 85 this week.

coittowerThe landmark has graced one of San Francisco’s tallest hills (Telegraph Hill) as a testament to art, architecture and design and is one of the most iconic images associated with the city, towering over the Bay and visible from many points around the Bay Area.

In the current highly-divided, hyper-partisan era where once again, right-wing populist and authoritarian movements, imbued with nationalist and nativist sentiment proliferate across many global urban environments, it is worth looking back to the 1930s in a moment of reflection.

Originally opened in 1933 as a monument to those who died in San Francisco’s earthquakes and fires, the tower’s lobby was painted by 27 artists commissioned as part of Franklin Roosevelt’s ‘Public Works of Art’ project, an early New Deal Program (which would morph into the larger Works Progress Administration, from 1935-1943).

Most of the artists were students and faculty at the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA), and the murals are peppered with left wing political motifs and symbols.

Maxine Albro’s mural of California Agriculture and Ralph Stackpole’s ‘Industry of California’ mural depict both the industrial and agricultural dynamism of the state but also hardship and pain, in the style of social realism that was a popular outlet for Marxist artists in the 1930s.

1280px-Coit_Mural_Agriculture(Above – Maxine Albro’s ‘Agriculture of California’)

(Below – Ralph Stackpole’s ‘Industry of California’)

1280px-17_30_126_coit_towerA visit to the Coit Tower, therefore, is both an aesthetic and political experience, immersing the visitor into the ‘structure of feeling’ (to borrow from Raymond Williams, 1977) of the mid 1930s against the backdrop of present-day San Francisco. This is a study in contrasts. San Francisco, wealthy then, but now the golden and somewhat dystopian center of the global technology industry, beckons from the tower’s windows. The murals, however, produce an affect of simultaneous darkness and optimism, and one steps into the uncertainty, dread, hope and electric energy of the 1930s when entering the tower’s lobby.

Of all of San Francisco’s towers, from the Ziggurat-like new Salesforce Tower (the city’s tallest) to the abstract and mid-century Transamerica Pyramid, the Coit Tower arguably has and will age the best. There is a timeless quality to it. It stands as a beacon to the possibility of urban beauty at the nexus of philanthropy, state spending, politics and art. There is nothing banal about it, nor is it vulgar or out of scale. The political questions raised, and arguments made, are as prescient now as was the case in depression-era 1933, with the world facing the rise of dangerous nationalist despots and revolutionary movements.

The Coit Tower also stands as a sort of left-coast mirror to another ‘Tower’ on the East Coast, perhaps the modern equivalent: the 1980s, reflective glass, golden monument that is Trump Tower. If the Coit Tower is an emblem of urbanism in 1930s America, then perhaps Trump tower is emblematic of cities today. But the Coit Tower is more than just an architectural relic: it is a blueprint for a possible return to, or even a new golden age of government-commissioned art in the public realm. At a time of renewed radical politics and hope mixed with despair, a new Coit Tower is needed as an urban, political, and cultural beacon.

CFP Urban Cultural Studies – AAG in Washington DC April 2019

Call for Lightning-Paper Presentation Session Participants:

Session Title: Urban Cultural Studies I & II

Where:  American Association of Geographers meeting in April 2019, Washington, D.C.

Cities have been increasingly at the forefront of debate in both humanities and social science disciplines, but there has been relatively little real dialogue across these disciplinary boundaries. Journals in social science fields that use urban studies methods to look at life in cities rarely explore the cultural aspects of urban life in any depth or delve into close-readings of the representation of cities in individual novels, music albums/songs, graphic novels, films, videogames, online ‘virtual’ spaces, or other artistic and cultural products. On the other hand, while there is increasing discussion of urban topics and themes in the humanities, broadly considered, there are very few journal publications that are open to these new interdisciplinary directions of scholarship. This session is open to scholarship from any and all linguistic, cultural and geographical traditions. Presentations will cross the humanities and the social sciences while giving priority to the urban phenomenon, in order to better understand the culture(s) of cities.

This Urban Cultural Studies I session is affiliated with the double-blind peer-reviewed Journal of Urban Cultural Studies (https://www.intellectbooks.co.uk/journals/view-Journal,id=225/) and the accompanying blog urbanculturalstudies.wordpress.com. Although the journal is open to many specific methodologies that blend humanities research with social-science perspectives on the city, its central methodological premise of the journal is perhaps best summed up by cultural studies-pioneer Raymond Williams – who emphasized giving equal weight to the ‘project (art)’ and the ‘formation (society)’. We are particularly interested in presentations that achieve some balance between discussing an individual (or multiple) cultural/artistic product(s) in depth and also using one of many social-science (geographical, anthropological, sociological…) urban approaches to investigate a given city. Lightning-paper participants will ideally address both an individual city itself and also its cultural representation in a very brief 5-minute talk. Following all of the 5-minute presentations, discussion will be opened to the audience.

If you are interested in sharing a current or future project in this Urban Cultural Studies session at the AAG 2019 in Washington D.C., please contact the Executive Editor of the Journal of Urban Cultural Studies, Benjamin Fraser (Professor at the University of Arizona) at urbanculturalstudies@gmail.com. This session is open to scholarship from any and all linguistic, cultural and geographical traditions. Presentations will cross the humanities and the social sciences while giving priority to the urban phenomenon, in order to better understand the culture(s) of cities. Lightning-paper participants will ideally address both an individual city itself and also its cultural representation in a very brief 5-minute talk.

 

Touring Project Row Houses: Lessons on Arts as Anti-Gentrification Urbanism in Houston’s Historically Black Third Ward

On this block sits a one-story shotgun house with a modest “A”-frame structure. Two parts comprise the home’s street facing façade: a window centers the right half, while the left half indents inwards towards a front door. White paint unites the entire house’s exterior; this paint also covers and accents the horizontal wood beams that adorn this house.

Nine other nearly identical replicas—more one-story white “A”-frames—surround this house. In this near uniformity lies a story about the inception of these homes, and their continued meaning making in Houston’s Third Ward neighborhood.

These homes sit along Holman Street less that a quarter mile from a mammoth interstate intersection, and some two miles south of Houston’s Downtown. They are part of Project Row Houses. Founded in 1993 by artist Rick Lowe, Project Row Houses is, as described on its website, “a community platform that enriches lives through art with an emphasis on cultural identity and its impact on the urban landscape.”

I toured Project Row Houses (PRH) in late May 2018 as part of this year’s Association of Arts Administration Educators (AAAE) conference. What most impressed me: PRH’s unwavering commitment to centering the needs of its mostly African-American community and residents (the majority of whom are marginalized due to race, gender, and income) amidst gentrification threats.

The tour included a welcome from Executive Director Eureka Gilkey and a neighborhood tour by McKenzie Watson, Guest Services and Membership Coordinator. Days later, a plenary at AAAE featured an interview with founder Rick Lowe and Director of Strategic Partnerships Tamika Evans. Essential lessons from them close this post.

Much has been written about arts and gentrification. Notably, sociologist Sharon Zukin researched artists in 1980s New York City lofts in then-fringe neighborhoods and Richard Florida has written about the role of the creative economy in the neoliberal growth of cities. But in these discourses, there is often an unstated link between mostly white artists who move to and make work in mostly non-white urban margins, and the role of that racial difference in sparking gentrification.

More recently, the term “artwashing” was coined to describe “the work and presence of artists and creative workers is used to add a cursory sheen to a place’s transformation,” and to attend to race and racist processes of gentrification involving the art. [More on artwashing here and here.] Journalist Peter Moskowitz has also been more explicit about that link between white artists gentrifying non-white urban areas. He does so through redlining, writing in 2017:

Redlining not only depressed the economies of inner cities, it created an entirely new kind of people in the suburbs—the white middle and upper-middle classes. For the first time in American history, the majority of white people were living largely privatized lives in single-family homes, without many community spaces or diversity, a lifestyle that reinforced the ideal of the nuclear family, with a stay-at-home mom and a working father. When the children of that economic and cultural experiment we now call “white flight” looked around, and decided they didn’t like what they saw, they began moving back to cities. In the 1970s, New York, San Francisco, and every other major urban center began experiencing an influx of a new kind of white person—one raised with the aesthetic, economic, and spatial values of the suburbs.

[…] suburbanization unleashed on cities a deluge of artists who cared more about marketable aesthetics than about art that could create social change.

In the 1930s, the racist process of redlining (whereby government backed home loans provided top rates to whites, and abysmal rates and denials to blacks regardless of financial healthy) racially segregated Houston, as it did in a majority of sizable U.S. cities. [See the unparalleled Mapping Inequality for more.] Through redlining, white bankers and governmental officials marked a majority of Houston’s Third Ward (a mostly African-American neighborhood) in red, that is, as “hazardous”; a yellow mark meant “definite declining” and delimited the remainder of the area. They did so solely due to race, because the neighborhood was mostly black. In redlining, those banks and officials denied mortgages and/or gave black residents the worst mortgage rates solely based on race, and thus divested from black people and black spaces. They also, in lining white areas blue and green, subsidized white neighborhoods with the best mortgage rates and investments.

Texas Map & Blueprint Co. (1930): Street Map, City of Houston, Texas, circa 1930. http://hdl.handle.net/1911/91602.

Through Moskowitz, we can make an argument linking aesthetics and race (as I’ve written about before), about how dense, redlined, and non-white urban areas that were once economically devalued due to governmental racism became, in the late 20th century, attractive to white artists who grew up in green-lined (and thus white and economically valued) suburban areas. U.S. gentrification narratives often narrowly focus on white artists entering non-white neighborhoods. Linking redlining to gentrification—whereby the presence of white artists in non-white neighborhoods attracts neoliberal capital and in turn displaces existing residents of color—then, more robustly animates how aesthetic and racialized values have been differently attached to white and black bodies because of past and continued racialized urban investments, and frames work by existing residents to confront dehumanizing neighborhood change.

Now a neighborhood of 15,000 residents, Houston’s Greater Third Ward currently has a population that is about 64% black. From 2000 to 2013, home values nearer downtown have risen over 176%, displacing many long-time residents. Project Row Houses centers historic and existing black residents, and humanizes those made most vulnerable by contemporary neoliberal development, and past redlining. From my tour, I learned that it does so in at least three ways.

First, PRH uses its resources to respond to the needs of the community, including confronting racial policies that have long dispossessed black residents in Houston. During her welcome, Executive Director Eureka Gilkey told us how PRH centers the question “How can we use our resources to respond to the needs of the community?”

Eureka Gilkey introducing Project Row Houses to our tour group

Some answers in the organization’s 25 year history include:

-Preserving housing stock. PRH started one of the first affordable housing programs in the neighborhood and more recently purchased 20 units from a slumlord, renovating them to become safe and quality places to live.

-Bringing back small businesses along Emancipation Avenue, which runs by Emancipation Park. Emancipation Park is the oldest park in Houston and in Texas. Bought in 1872 by former slaves who pooled together $1,000, the park celebrates Juneteenth, the day commemorating the emancipation of slavery in Texas on June 19, 1865 (two years after the Emancipation Proclamation). In the 20th century, Emancipation Avenue had myriad of black-owned businesses that acted as a refuge for black residents denied entry into mainstream businesses elsewhere in Houston. In the past few decades, real estate prices have jumped from $5/sq. ft to $100 sq. ft. PRH has helped to anchor small businesses including NuWaters Co-Op, a food market.

-Working with University of Houston and Texas Southern University, universities located in the greater Third Ward, to hire residents who live in their zip codes.

-Using the majority of their annual budget of $2.6 million (which is mostly foundation funded) to sustain these structures.

Ultimately Gilkey emphasized how the work of Project Row Houses recognizes the complex the racial and classed effects of gentrification, and fights against how long-time residents have been displaced without recourse and resource. She detailed city policy issues, including the fact that if you are a renter in Houston, you cannot be part of your neighborhood’s civic organization and are threatened by same day eviction. However due to PRH’s community-engaged work, by 2018 some 22% of land in the neighborhood was owned by non-profit and churches, organizations that do not adhere to capitalist development plans.

Second, PRH invests spatially in its community. During our tour, McKenzie Watson revealed how the structures that define Project Row Houses – the row houses, but also homes for single mothers — all invest spatially in the marginalized community. Here are some of PRH’s spatial work:

Young Mothers Residential Program“The purpose of YMRP is to empower low-income single mothers and their children in achieving independent, self-sufficient lives. YMRP has supported roughly 100 mothers and their families, some of whom have gone on to earn doctorates, law degrees and become community leaders and entrepreneurs.”

Murals across from the Young Mothers Residential Program homes

Row House CDC: “Project Row Houses and Rice Building Workshop collaborated to create a series of row house-inspired duplexes to provide affordable housing for people in the community. In 2003, Row House CDC was created to act as a sister organization of PRH to manage the Affordable Housing Program.”

Cookie Love’s Wash n Fold, a laudromat for PRH residents named after a neighborhood resident

Small Business Incubation: “PRH’s Incubation Program provides space, time and/or mentorship to artists and creative entrepreneurs working in the early stages of project development. The incubation program affords creative entrepreneurs the opportunity of operating within a close-knit community of artists and activists in addition to operating on a neighborhood level with members of the Third Ward community and beyond.” Many businesses are begun by former PRH residents.

Inside Crumbville, TX, a vegan bakery owned by Ella Russell (center) incubated by Project Row Houses

Inside NuWaters Co-Op with a member-owner

Inside NuWaters Co-op

Many incubated businesses are near Eldorado Ballroom, owned and renovated by PRH, the historic home where 20th century black audiences, denied from white-only theaters, were able to see traveling black musicians.

-Space for Art: From Public Art, to Residencies, to low-cost studio space, PRH is spatially thread by and led by art.

A stretch of row houses on Bastrop St used for art installations including radio broadcasts

“Neighborhood Fantasies” exhibit

Third, PRH animates an artistic thinking about its mostly black neighborhood. The AAAE plenary featured Rick Lowe (founder) and Tamika Evans (Director of Strategic Partnerships) in conversation with Sixto Wagan (Director of the Center for Art and Social Engagement at the University of Houston). Rick Lowe detailed the inception of Project Row Houses; how high school students visited his studio and questioned the greater goal of his work. As he detailed in 2006:

I was doing big, billboard-size paintings and cutout sculptures dealing with social issues, and one of the students told me that, sure, the work reflected what was going on in his community, but it wasn’t what the community needed. If I was an artist, he said, why didn’t I come up with some kind of creative solution to issues instead of just telling people like him what they already knew. That was the defining moment that pushed me out of the studio.

At the plenary Rick Lowe also made us think about the relationship between art and the community, even admist neoliberal displacement, saying “in a market economy, we exercise our role in the market as well,” “you loose things when you scale up,” “as an artist, you make something and you think about it,” and “having an expansive mindset integral to the whole thing.” Lowe suggested framing residents as artists, as those with expansive and creative mindsets, is integral to the work that Project Row Houses does.

Sixto Wagan, Tamika Evans, and Rick Lowe at the 2018 AAAE Plenary

Tamika Evans, director of Strategic Partnerships, also expansively revealed how through centering arts, “PRH had the capacity to dream” and to “empower people and engage community through direct action.” She also incisively queried, “What does it mean to be a in a community with another human being?”

By thinking artistically, by working artistically in its neighborhoods, Project Row Houses makes an expansive space for its community and confronts the spatial dehumanization of black people. Especially in urban processes like redlining and gentrification, black people aren’t given multitudes of meaning. They are just marked in redlines as “hazardous” or through development as “to be displaced.” By contrast, Project Row Houses has allowed for multitudes of meaning to be re-attached to black residents from animating Emancipation Park, to housing single mothers, to making space for black businesses, financial aptitude, and of course, art.

Unless otherwise noted all images are by Jasmine Mahmoud.