African Americans, California, and Place

An article titled “Black Population Drops to 3.9% in San Francisco” in the February 4, 2011 in the San Francisco Bay View National Black Newspaper, got me thinking.

The percentage of African Americans in California was never very high even when I lived in Los Angeles more than a decade ago. My sense was you were either very poor or extremely rich. A handful of us lived somewhere in the middle. Where you lived and the type housing you lived in was and is defined by your socio-economic status.  Not so nice neighborhoods were more concrete than grass and trees. Nice neighborhoods had more access to recreational amenities like local and state parks, and even the ocean. This dichotomy was true for African Americans living in that sprawling city I once called home.

Director Michael Mann made even the gritty poorer neighborhoods look good soaked by electric lights, stars, and the moon in the story of a white hit-man played by Tom Cruise and a cabdriver portrayed by Jaime Foxx:

Based on the article, I considered  African Americans in urban/suburban place/environments. For example, people across ethnic lines yearn(ed) for suburban McMansions, as noted in the article, where African Americans have been increasingly migrating from San Francisco to places like Antioch to sprawl out on larger tracts of land. In another example, gentrification has long redefined cities including those in California for impoverished blacks. Historically, they have been forced out of the only places they have known, their cities of concrete, asphalt, a few struggling trees, and some patches of crabgrass. Upper middle-class people often come in and replaced the former occupants of  public housing.

Socio-economic status does define where you live, the meaning of place, and what your urban and suburban environment look like. I am constantly reminded by this issue of social justice when it comes to these landscapes and African American people.

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The Walking Dead Roadtrip: Disease, Environment, and Humanity

SPOILER ALERT

Ok, there are black people in The Walking Dead! I was glad to see the British actor Lennie James, who was fabulous in the canceled TV show Jericho. Lennie plays Morgan James who is central to the first few episodes of The Walking Dead. In ensuing episodes when the two have parted, Rick Grimes, the lead character, played by Andrew Lincoln frequently invokes Morgan, the first person he met in the new world of flesh-eating monsters.

Rick travels on leaving behind bread crumbs or sign posts (i.e. notes on cars) for Morgan to follow Rick and his rag-tag of survivors of the zombie plague. Their travels show the familiar trope of film and television of the buddy road trip–this is the horror show version–traveling across many terrains. Transforming the trope, a group and not a pair of buddies travel across the land as the group bonds and develops. I have already seen forming and storming. I am wondering if the series will get to norming, performing, forming and mourning in the midst of living dead chaos.

The backdrop to the character development is disease and the landscape.  The disease that triggers the transformation into zombies and the defunct Center for Disease Control (CDC) condemns healthcare system and perhaps even reform in the United States. The plague is winning, and modern science and medicine are losing.

In one of the first scenes is in a hospital. Rick wakes from a coma, stripping off the monitors to the machines that kept him alive; pre-plague, a suspect shot him while on duty as a police officer. He walks the corridors of the hospital stumbling about encountering the first of many zombies to come.

Looking at the environment, the telling landscapes are in the Atlanta Metro area are a grassy “plain” dotted with trees, the Bellwood Quarry, the empty streets of Atlanta, and the CDC.

One of the first times Rick kills a zombie is on a grassy slope, probably a park. I am assuming the scene is somewhere in Atlanta although I cannot name the place.  A mangled zombie drags herself, half of her body gone below the waist, seeking to chomp on a human. Rick watches the futile efforts and then kills the zombie.

Rick’s humanity slowly seeps away, as he becomes less and less human and more and more dead like the zombies he shoots and bludgeons.

That rag tag group was already forming and living near a quarry while Rick was in his coma in the first episode. The location is Bellwood Quarry in Atlanta. The  place is abandoned, unproductive, non-working–much like the people simply surviving in what is essentially a post-apocalypse. No one is planting crops. Great paintings are no longer being created. The 21st century War and Peace or Beloved are not being written. Civilization no longer exists like a quiet rock quarry that is no longer producing slate for kitchen countertops and outdoor walkways.

Before finding his new and struggling community, Rick makes his way to Atlanta in hopes of reconnecting with civilization–which ultimately serves as condemnation of Atlanta and more broadly dying urban life. The empty streets of asphalt and the sidewalks of concrete are an echo of what once was. The buildings tower, almost close in on Rick. Rather than being greeted by “society” he meets swarms of zombies during this first visit. Atlanta once Rick’s place of hope is now hopeless. The city in 2010 is full of empty condos and houses that will not move in the stagnant real estate market. Like many an American city, particularly downtowns, it is a bleak city. Atlanta is a metaphor for modern issues of poverty and crime overcoming ailing cities in the United States with more zombies than humans wandering around. Dead cities, dead people.

You would think the beacon of hope would be the CDC, another of Rick’s stops. Not. They do not use the real CDC which is on Clifton Road in Atlanta. Security did not allow for access, I’m sure. Pike fences surround the real CDC, which is closed off from the street.

The small group led by Rick arrives on the edges the alternate CDC on open terrain still searching for civilization, along with answers. They find dead bodies scattered on the campus; not a good sign. And the undead are lurching about as usual.

When they get into the CDC after much drama, one man, a scientist still remains trying to figure out what went wrong. Why does this disease vector trigger an illness that transforms people into zombies? He does not have the answers sought by this band of gypsies. And the unspoken question: was the CDC responsible for the plague? There’s no answer for that question either.

Without fuel–perhaps an allegory of 21st Century reliance on fossil fuel, the CDC begins automatic shut-down and goes into self-destruct (so the cache of viruses and diseases that remain in the building are not released)  much like the survivors. When the scientist locks them in with him, locks them into his hopeless and futility, they fight to leave and survive.

The band, the cobbled community are still holding tight to their humanity in the midst of the dehumanizing plague. They still have free will, Christian theology for some, choosing to die with the scientist or continue to live on through the journey. The members of the community leave the CDC without a cure, without the answers to spoken and unspoken questions. Others stay behind choosing to die and give up on the journey, a cure, and their community. No matter the choice, there is free will.

Running across the grounds of the CDC dodging the undead, the survivors leap into the RV and other vehicles to continue their twisted frightening road trip.

What new place is next? Will the disease further strip the group of their humanity? As someone who loves show for the tortured troubled relationships, the struggle to create community, and maintain their humanity–not the zombies and many variations on clubbing and shooting them–I look forward to seeing what happens in the city, on the farm, and in the woods.

Pittsburgh: Where the City Meets Nature

Pittsburgh is a walking city. I love that kind of city. Washington, D. C., Philadelphia, and Chicago are much the same. Even Los Angeles has pockets of great walking including beach cities like Venice and Santa Monica. Downtown Los Angeles has some wonderful spots for strolling–Chinatown the garment and business districts, Little Tokyo, Pueblo, and the Staples Center to name a few places–though some might disagree because of crime and safety issues.

Back to Pittsburgh. I traveled there for the weekend and realized I had left my trusty digital camera behind at home. I made due learning how to use my Samsung Eclipse camera phone:

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City→(Earth to water to sky to vegetation to food to animals to people)←City.

Photos by Dianne Glave