The World Is Upside Down
Most nice afternoons when I’m not on the road, I walk along a stretch of the San Francisco Bay Trail near my apartment in Richmond. I enjoy the changing cast of birds and beasts, the play of light on water, the warm sun on my shoulders, the breeze tickling my ears. If I’m alone, I almost always listen to an audiobook or to my most recent music playlist. Often, on another channel in my mind, I turn over a question or re-examine an experience that earlier captured my attention. My walk makes a refreshing break in a long day at the computer. Almost always, I return home feeling better than when I left.
I usually smile at the people strolling or speeding by on their bicycles, and many of them smile back. “How ya doin’?” “Enjoy your walk!” African American and Southeast Asian men fish from the harbor steps or the beach as their children play nearby. More men each month: unemployment, I assume. Most are young and able-bodied: how else do they have so many hours to fish on a weekday afternoon? They can’t all be working the night-shift. As they hold up their catch, I hope they’ve read the boldface signs posted along the way: bright-colored pictures of fish are labeled “Eat This: Less Chemicals” or “Don’t Eat This: More Chemicals.” (The California Water Quality Monitoring Council lists the following “contaminants of concern” in local fish: mercury, PCBs, dieldrin, DDT, chlordane, and dioxin.)
The route I take most often loops around the inner harbor, then down the coast, returning via a meandering path along a creek. At certain times of year, a Great Blue Heron hangs out where the creek makes a turn. I think it’s the same bird depicted in the series of photos I’ve taken with my phone, but I suppose they could be siblings or just lookalikes. On the harbor across from my place, Night Herons stand motionless for hours. They resemble overstuffed bluebirds; I always want to reach out and stroke their downy backs.
My neighborhood is built on land that used to be part of the Kaiser Shipyards where Liberty Ships were made during World War II. A big piece of this land is still unfit for building on account of industrial waste buried far beneath the surface. Nowadays, with the factories gone, the surface is landscaped and lovely. There are rocky slopes leading down to the bay. Wallflowers, Clarkia, poppies, and other blooms line the walk. Once I counted a flock of more than 90 pelicans flying past. I love the slow way they flap their dinosaur wings, the big plop! when they drop into the water.
There are small monuments and signposts every so often, bearing photographs and testimonies from the mostly African American and Latino workers whose northward migration to work in the shipyards and factories changed Richmond from white and rural to highly diverse and urban. The newcomers were invited here to be part of the wartime workforce, but many of their testimonies speak of Jim Crow practices encountered in local businesses and housing, taking the shine off a promised welcome.
A special focus is “Rosie The Riveter,” paying homage to the women whose first good jobs—for some of them, their last good jobs—were in the war industry. Back in those days, Richmond had a thriving downtown, with shops, clubs, and restaurants. Now it often seems immune to economic development, enduring successive failed schemes to incubate local business in the central-city ghost town. When new acquaintances hear that I live in Richmond, they always ask if it is safe. One central neighborhood has the region’s highest murder rate. There’s a changing population of new immigrants in the surrounding streets: mostly Central American and Southeast Asian now, rubbing up against longtime African American streets, generating the friction that marks every place where the dispossessed and displaced are tumbled together. The higher up into the hills you go, the larger the houses and gardens, the whiter the neighborhood.
On most of my walks I see a pale red-haired woman who appears to be in her eighties pushing an ancient little dog in a pram. When the weather is cool, the dog is tucked up under blankets. Other dog-walkers stop to visit with her: a tall African American woman in her thirties with an even taller hairdo and a tiny Yorkshire Terrier; a Japanese-American couple with two Scotties; an Indian man who never smiles and his Golden Retriever, who seems friendly enough; a middle-aged white guy whose hair matches one of his otherwise identical dogs, Standard Poodles in white and chocolate brown.
Almost all the houses and apartments in this neighborhood were built at the same time: developers were given permission to build in return for remediating the coastline, so it all looks fairly uniform and oddly suburban for the context. It is diverse (more than 40 percent of residents speak something other than English at home) in part because in a region where housing values tend to be sky-high, Richmond is relatively cheap, so people can settle here who might not be able to afford nearby Berkeley. The big family groups I see while walking are mostly Latino, many from the very different neighborhood on the other side of the freeway, full of single-family houses with small yards, but without parks and playgrounds. They come on summer Sunday evenings to picnic on a little stretch of beach; and many times each month to play soccer on a large flat lawn which seems to be the only workable soccer-field in the vicinity.
Families low on the slope toward upward mobility surely recognize that Richmond’s public schools and other amenities are perceived to be substandard. It appears that most of those seeking a place to live around here accept as given that there are good and bad public schools, and you must purchase the privilege of sending your children to the good ones. They understand that homebuyers expect to pay a premium to be near good schools, and if they can’t afford the premium, they live with the second-rate.
This is a defining question for the future of life in the United States: how to build a bridge from the mesmerizing comfort and diversion still possible in private life to facing overwhelming collective challenges? In the personal space of so many lives (including mine), there is scope for pleasure, for beauty and delight, for connection and freedom. Yet right beneath the surface, the evidence of distress simmers and bubbles. It is hard to encompass both realities in a single awareness, but if there is any hope of a livable future, it is necessary.
How can it be done? My answer is that the matrix in which both private and public reality are suspended is culture; the way we comprehend and link both realms is through culture; and the arena for our interventions is culture.
Not everyone knows this yet. I meet people all the time who have lost their way to the bridge between realities, who find themselves perpetually circling one domain like planes that can’t land. I met a man whose life is focused on bees, a profession that brings him into constant contact with environmental threats created and exacerbated by human beings: climate change, the rapid spread of viruses and parasites to a population weakened by pollution. Any conversation-opener—“Seen any good movies lately?”—will cycle back to the same despairing question: we are destroying the life of this planet, and why does no one do anything about it? In some sense, the pleasure of living has been foreclosed: his field of vision is fully occupied by reasons to despair, and without really wanting to, he is filtering out a great deal that might lift him out of melancholy into joy. What he sees is true, but not the whole truth.
I met a woman for whom the little world of friends and family is everything: she ferries her children to lessons and play-dates; shops, cooks, and cleans; relaxes in front of the TV; has Sunday dinner with her siblings and their children, midweek lunch with friends, and most of the time left over is for things like eating and sleeping. When I asked whether the summer’s extreme weather had affected her garden, she said, “Do we have to talk about politics all the time?” The small, happy world of her family begins to feel unbearably fragile as soon as she is asked to see it in a larger context. True citizenship has been foreclosed by the narrow privatization of experience; her refusal to face what lurks beneath the glossy surface of private life makes her an island rather than a citizen. What she sees is true, but not the whole truth.
Pioneering sociologist (and sixties activist) C. Wright Mills wrote of the American proclivity to treat public issues as private troubles. Shame attaches to unemployment or illness, easing our slide into the groove of self-blame. “What did I do to deserve this?” easily turns into blaming others: “What did they do to deserve this?” Meanwhile the larger truth—that fates and deserts are seldom linked by controllable causes—is ignored. The workers who migrated from the deep South to Richmond for jobs building Liberty Ships owed their livelihood to the suffering of war, to industrial expansion, and to the social ferment of the 1930s that produced the North’s somewhat greater willingness to receive people of color. None of their individual shortcomings caused the jobs to go away. But the pain when work disappeared was borne by individuals and their families, and very often regarded as evidence of personal failure. Collectively, Americans seem remarkably committed to the primacy of private life, to keeping a tight enough focus on the little world that many of the ways the big world impinges are blurred into peripheral invisibility.
The brokenness to be read between the lines of my beloved afternoon walk doesn’t lessen its beauty, nor does it obliterate the pleasure my neighbors and I take in the experience. But it points to a common cause, which is the consistent privileging of profit over other values—individual and community well-being, a flourishing ecosystem, access to social goods such as education, decent livelihood, and so on—and a pervasive acceptance that this is just the way things are.