This Old House

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Years ago, before I moved to (then) working-class Somerville, I lived in an historic district in central Connecticut; most of my neighbors lived in lovely, expensively-preserved, eighteenth century homes. I did not. But even though I did not own an old home  I somehow absorbed enough knowledge of Old School architecture to be able to spot historic houses in my new, gritty, densely-populated neighborhood.

Back in the day, I could also easily spot whenever one of my Somerville neighbors did any kind of home improvement. It was easy! Just as carefully as my historic-district neighbors worked very hard and spent lots of money so as to not reveal that anything about their historic house had been changed and that every colonial detail had been carefully preserved, my new neighbors made darned sure everyone knew when a window or porch had been replaced by not making the slightest attempt to match style or color or materials. “I’m brand-new!” these home improvements seemed to shout.

Nowadays, Somerville is upscale—which means, among other things, that plenty of people with deep pockets have bought homes in the ‘ville and, you guessed it, have spent oodles of $$ to restore their homes to look like what they’d looked like when they were new. (In most cases, the 1860’s) And, yeah, It seems I’ve retained an authentic and historically accurate sensibility from my Connecticut days because, I admit it, I admire what these folks have done.

But: there’s an old, old house around the corner from me, probably built about 1825, that is currently being renovated and, I’m guessing by the sloppy workmanship—leaving windows open or broken for weeks, propping sheets of plywood against holes in the walls, for example—is owned by people with not much money and who’ve spent no time at all researching that house’s history. (I could be totally wrong about this, of course.) And those homeowners will, I’m guessing, put in fancy new windows and doors, paint it in a color never seen in the 1825, make it into the home they want, a home that reflects their 2014 taste. (Or, perhaps, what they imagine will sell in the current super-hot real estate market in this neighborhood right now.) So who cares what it looked like when it was new?

But maybe that history—American history—never did and never will mean much to these homeowners. Besides, history does not equal holy. Let’s not forget that when that house was built, for example, slavery was the status quo. Indeed, a block away from that house is “Bleachery Court,” now a park and skating rink, but in 1825, that land was covered with a factory that bleached, yes, cotton. (The North has plenty of slavery-related history, of course.)

So, yes, I’m sad that an historic house has been gutted and its charming roofline radically altered and its story, to to speak, silenced. I’m sad that a daily reminder of the people who lived in my neighborhood so many years ago has been destroyed. I think reflecting on that past every time I walked by that house made my own life a little richer. I also know how expensive preservation is. And that holding on to the past simply because it’s the past is nuts.

So I’m hoping that, like a pay phone turned into an art installation, something just as delightful as that historic house will take its place.

(But I’m not counting on it.)

 

 

 

 

 

“Dear White People”; Part 1

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[Climate March, NYC, September 21, 2014]

An overheard conversation between two white college-aged men in Davis Square Friday night after a protest march re the Eric Garner and Ferguson grand jury decisions—an eight-mile, thousand-people-strong march organized by Tufts students: “Yeah, well, if you’re going to be an ally, be an ally!” Exactly!

Last week, thousands of Americans took their collective grief and rage at this nation’s pervasive, insidious racism to the streets. And the media/social media responded. On Friday night, for example, four news-channel helicopters whirled over Somerville and Cambridge taping the march! Four! (Although maybe one helicopter held the police?) Today’s New York Times features a photo of a “die in” at NYC’s City Hall. Tweets? Facebook posts? Hell, yeah.

Okay: Let’s talk about what happens after these protests are no longer the flavor of the month. Let’s talk strategy. And, dear white people, let’s talk about being allies.

Okay, so here’s the moment when I risk being: a) Preachy  b) Patronizing  c) Smug  d)Holier than Thou  e) All of the above plus other unattractive and off-putting characteristics so much a part of who I am that I can’t even see them

Here’s what I want to tell other white people about being an ally:

Be humble. Prepare to be horrified at how often you’ll mess up, no matter how much you try, you care, you’ve read and discussed and understand.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Dear White People”; Part 2

Show up. Strategically. Be that white face in a black crowd, especially when it really, really matters. Sad But True: when I showed up at a racial-profiling trial for a group of Somerville teenagers, one of the defense attorneys told me that my presence had an impact on the jury. Horrifying? Yes. Absolutely. But, hey!  If we’re to dismantle racism, brick by brick, let’s use the tools that work!

Be in community with other white allies. Don’t do this work alone. And don’t ask your friends of color to hold your hand or give you advice. (Or, for that matter, thank you.) Download soon and often. And, supported and cherished for the wonderful person you truly are, keep on keepin’ on.

Be in community. Work local. Work one-to-one. Keep in mind Mother Teresa’s “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” (Love, compassion, forgiveness; they’re in our dismantling racism tool boxes, too.)

Here’s your homework: Connect the dots. How are Racism, War, and Climate Change inexorably intertwined? (Hint: it’s complicated. And fear and A strongly held belief there’s not enough are definitely involved.)

Got it? Feel it? Great. Now: let your deep and powerful understanding fuel your passion and guide your actions, especially in those moments when you’re overwhelmed.

We shall overcome.

 

Limited Visibility

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Sunday, waiting for a bus in the New York City Port Authority’s (poorly lit and oppressive) waiting area, a scruffy young man dragging a long-handled suitcase approached me to ask for money. I turned him down. “Happy Mother’s Day,” he sneered. “Thank you very much. Have a nice day.” And immediately walked over to another woman and went through the same routine; so did she.

After he’d moved on, a third bus traveler who sat next to the second woman—from her accent I’m guessing this third woman is Haitian—spoke up: “He only asked you two,” she noted. “He didn’t ask anybody else.”Just the two white women in the waiting area, she meant.

Reader: I hadn’t seen that.

Last night, as a potential ally,* I sat in on a parent meeting at Mystic Housing, a Somerville public housing complex, to listen as a racially diverse group of mothers grappled with the best way to begin recycling at their complex. (Single-stream recycling bins available to households throughout the rest of the city had not been distributed at public housing. After much pressure from Mystic residents, especially children from the Mystic Learning Center, the housing authority agreed to begin a pilot project there, starting this summer.)

Reader: I’d forgotten what it means to live in public housing ( For many years, back in the day, I’d taught GED classes at Mystic Housing’s community center). I’d forgotten how debilitating, how oppressive it could be if your neighbors scrawl graffiti onto freshly painted walls or defecate in the hallways—stories told last night. I’d not anticipated how a bright and shiny idea like “Let’s recycle!” might land on poor, overwhelmed, working-multiple-jobs mothers.

Sadly, how I “see” race and class sometimes looks a lot like last Friday at Brooklyn Botanic Garden: my daughter, two grandchildren and I sampling different scents from different lilac bushes on a pea-soup foggy and drizzly afternoon as La Guardia-bound jets flew right over our heads, close, loud—yet invisible.

 

* Somerville’s Mothers Out Front wish to connect with the women in public housing; I embodied that wish.