Tuesday, September 23, 2008

today SF decides how to Remember.

If History IS "Time," as it claims to be, then the uprising is a moment that springs up and out of Time, violates the "law" of History.  If the State IS History, as it claims to be, then the insurrection is the forbidden moment, an unforgivable denial of the dialectic -- shimmying up the pole and out of the smokehole, a shaman's maneuver carried out at an "impossible angle" to the universe."
-Hakim Bey, Waiting for the Revolution

This week the New York Times reported on the confession of Morty Sobell, the Ethel and Julius Rosenberg case's only living defendant.  In an interview, Sobell admitted that he and Julius had worked together for the Soviet Union.  According to the Times, his confession has prompted the Rosenbergs' sons to themselves acknowledge that their father was a spy.  For all of the possible implications of his testimony, his simple and understated re-writing of history brings a much larger issue to the fore:  How Much Does It Really Matter?  That is, when does History stop attempting to be "objective" and get on with the reality of memory?  And in this case, the collective [leftist] memory is one of sympathy for the Rosenbergs.  Whether that sympathy is a result of the lamenting of an unfair trial, an anti-death penalty political stance, or a deep-seated belief that the Rosenbergs were innocent, Sobell's confession may not do much to shake the decision, made long ago and cemented in leftist gossip and propaganda, that an injustice was committed in 1952.  

The anti-climactic quality of Sobell's interview gets at other issues of memory versus History, admitted subjectivity versus assumed objectivity.  Today, right here in sunny San Francisco, the Board of Supervisors is considering legislation to give reparations to those [majority black and Japanese American] residents from the Western Addition / Fillmore neighborhood whose homes were demolished as part of "redevelopment."  In the 1940's, 60 blocks were slated for redevelopment, as they were considered "blighted."  Unfortunately, and as is often the case, the neighborhood was not a blight at all.  In fact, it had been hailed as the "Jazz Harlem of the West" (says Ross Mirkarimi, District 5 supervisor), was home to the SF Japanese American cultural center (Japantown), and rows of ancient Victorian homes and community owned music venues, restaurants and shops.  (By the numbers: 883 businesses and 4,729 households were forced out. 2,500 homes were demolished.)  The Redevelopment Agency offered those whose homes were taken through imminent domain and other illegal means certificates for replacement housing.  However, poor records were kept regarding who had lost their home, and the replacement homes themselves were too few and incomparable to the beautiful Victorians that had been owned by most residents.  What is on the table today is that descendants of all of the displaced will be [re]offered certificates that will be transferable to any SF housing program.  According to Mirkarimi, this effort is about "access to capital" - an interesting challenge, considering the fact that the homes that do still exist (but have been lost by their original owners) are now worth millions.  In any case, the Redevelopment Agency will officially close shop in the Western Addition this January.

There is a greater challenge at hand here: how can reparations be made to accommodate a stolen sense of community?  When stable communities are razed and pathologized, the repercussions are deep and whatever apologies come after must acknowledge that.  Considering Redevelopment's interests in the Mission and Bayview, it seems that the Agency's current attempts are mostly lip-service.  (About 1,300 acres of Bayview are about to be turned over to the Redevelopment Agency.)   The real question now is: sixty years after the label of Blight was given to Fillmore and the Western Addition, fifty years after the first demolitions, who in the neighborhood remembers what it used to be?  There is a successful jazz club called Yoshi's and an Ethiopian restaurant, but who living there truly remembers what came before?  

Victoria, BC social practitioner Lauren Marsden completed a project last summer with the Hogan's Alley Memorial Project in Vancouver to commemorate and advocate for another lost community: Vancouver's first and last black neighborhood Hogan's Alley.  In the 1970's, the Georgia Viaduct interurban freeway was constructed, effectively demolishing all of Hogan's Alley (as well as cutting Chinatown in half).  To see it now, it looks like how one would expect a freeway to look.  Like road and empty lot.  Marsden and the HAMP's project was to plant a welcome sign out of flowers for passersby and residents of the new high-rise condos under construction across the street.  "Hogan's Alley Welcomes You" the flowers read, in giant five-foot letters, and one is forced to do a double-take.  The statement is simple but massive.  Someone else still lays claim to this land; you, newcomer, are welcome here but only because someone else came and went before you.  

Historicization is a powerful tool, and Marsden and HAMP wield it quite well.  We live in a time period where the State uses History as a geopolitical weapon, making empty lots where there were once neighborhoods, building highways where communities once thrived.  Yes, History can be a powerful process of erasure.  In the case of Sobell and the Rosenbergs, it seems that the authoritative voice of History has become meaningless: the people (including Howard Zinn) have decided for themselves that the collective decision to memorialize, regardless of court decisions or official interviews, take precedence.  The question is how to make that privileging of alternative storytelling the instinctive act when one reaches for history?  How to replace History with memory as the preferred conduit of collective awareness - without institutionalizing it and allowing it to be, yet again, swallowed up by the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy?  

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