Sunday, July 2, 2017

A year in blight


On Father’s Day, Sunday June 19, 2016, NBC 25 aired a local news segment that showed a group of Mott Park residents as they cleared brush, cut dangling branches, boarded up windows, and mowed overgrown grass at a vacant house in the neighborhood.  Six volunteers, including an eager three-year-old helper named Jack, worked fast in the bright, increasingly hot, sunlight because one Mott Park resident, Bobbi Wray, put out a call to friends asking for help to clean up a vacant house next to her on Marquette street.

A crew came together organized by Steven Major, Mott Park resident for the last seven years and reserve officer for City of Flint Police. Home Depot and the neighborhood association donated materials and friends loaned tools.  When TV 25 reporter Miranda Parnell asked why, Steve said, “We’ve just had enough.”

The Mott Park’s Blight Squad had burst on the scene.

Bobbi Wray, retired tv5 reporter (and the first female TV reporter in Michigan) recounts a backstory all too common.  Sometime in 2011, her neighbors---a couple in their sixties---got underwater on their mortgage and were unable to take out a second to finance roof repairs.  Finally, in desperation, they left and the house reverted to bank ownership, a warning notice later tacked on its storm door that indicated the property belonged to “M & M Mortgage Services.”

Clean-up of more properties followed the first June action and the group adopted the Blight Squad name for their Facebook page and Steve Major became its director, working closely with the Mott Park Neighborhood Association.  The core Squad members drove the neighborhood, checked properties, reached out to neighborhood residents through the MPNA Facebook page, and gathered leads on addresses showing evidence of squatters.  Donations came---bags and compost from the Genesee County Land Bank “Clean and Green” program and paint from a neighborhood owner of a paint store. Neighbors loaned tools and brought cases of water, leaf bags, and work gloves wherever Facebook announced the crew was working.

During one late August 2016 clean-up a 1945 Chevrolet coupe made in Chevy-in the-Hole Flint was found covered under brush---the paint in fair condition protected by overgrowth.  Online research showed it was a Fleetline AeroSedan, one of Chevrolet’s first vehicles when it returned to civilian carmaking.  Other vehicles have been found, but sadly, less interesting. 



Meantime, the Mott Park Neighborhood Association worked closely with Kettering University and Tom Wyatt, project manager of “Renew the Avenue,” a Department of Justice program whose Byrne Grant reduces crime by engaging the community (currently Stevenson Neighborhood, Mott Park, Sunset Village/Glendale Hills) to decrease blight.  Byrne grant funds helped provide tools, board up materials, and motion-activated LED solar security lights. Kettering University has provided student workers as well.

Toward the end of the 2016 and with a dozen properties cleaned up, the Blight Squad began to decide strategically where to work.  They found a target at the triangle of Perry, Woodbridge, and Joliet streets meet---a small cluster of old commercial buildings whose renovation could have a big impact.

  





Online research showed that the three buildings had once been the Woodbridge Market, a Plumbers’ Union, and a Pure Oil station (including building plans). Steve dubbed the site the Mott Park “Historic Business District.”  The middle structure, the Woodbridge Market, turned out to have an owner who decided to refurbish the building himself.

The buildings on each side of the old market were the Plumbers’ Union (the initials “J.B. CO” embedded in its façade) and the Pure Oil building.

The exterior for Pure Oil was “English Cottage” style, one of the first company attempts at a chain look for gas stations.  At present, with the exterior renovation nearly done, the neighborhood association plans to purchase the Plumbers’ Union building.  The Pure Oil building is slated as studio space for Mott Park resident and artist Ryan Gregory.

After the “Historic Business District” clean up, the Blight Squad did small jobs, often illegal dumping, but with the approach of fall weather a new challenge emerged: squatters.  A gruesome knifing incident occurred in late August in one squatters’ house in a row derelict structures on Chevrolet near the Flushing Road intersection. The squatters were cleared and the houses boarded up in early winter. 

By the end of December 2016, ABC12 and NBC25 had aired four news reports about the Blight Squad’s efforts. Over the winter into 2017, their work changed. The Blight Squad adopted a off-season pattern: assess now and then secure, install security lighting, and decide how to maintain.  Tom Wyatt’s “Renew the Avenue” at Kettering University supplied wood for board ups, four cordless drills and the loan of a generator---essential where power has been cut.  The Blight Squad could obtain security lighting, purchased in bulk and tax-free. Winter work was a combination of networking with local groups and organizations and board ups.

In early January 2017 a group of sixteen people, Blight Squad members and others, met at Kettering University to plan for the coming summer season.  Now at the close of March, their plans for the first large-scale spring project are underway. The target?  Joliet street which runs from Kettering University at Dupont to Blair St. deep into the interior of Mott Park.  Sunday, March 26, a Blight Squad crew began the clean-up of one burned out property on Joliet.  Wall remnants were knocked down, concrete blocks heaved into the basement, and charred wood and debris loaded into a 20-foot dumpster.  NBC 25 and ABC 12 stopped by to film the day’s crew that included Eric Bumbalough, Steve Major and son Kenny, Tony Coleman, Bo Cummins, Greg Harmon, Bobbi Wray, Chad Schlosser, Joe Shingledecker, Tony Coleman, and Rashonda Magee from Flint Urban Safety Corps. Rain cut the work day short; a squatters’ house next door to the burned site will be cleaned out and boarded up later. 

Posted on Facebook, full-scale plans for Joliet St. announce work dates for April 15 and May 13 when the Blight Squad will lead teams comprised of Bahá’í youth volunteers, Kettering students, new Flint Police Reserve Officers, Flint Urban Safety Corps, and Joliet Street residents.  Teams will work the full length of the street according to task---clear brush, clear trash, mow, and board-up.  An equipment and materials station will be positioned at the at the center of the long street. The last squatter home will be boarded up.  Steve Major expects 50 to 100 volunteers.  

The good news for summer of 2017 is that a program of AmeriCorps, the Flint Urban Safety Corps, (a partnership between Genesee County United Way and UM-Flint)), will be in Mott Park working on clean-up and board-up. In Flint on a three-year program, the Urban Safety Corps works in a residential swath extending from University Avenue to McLaren hospital.  Their clean-up of the Stevenson Neighborhood  has just ended and according to Tom Wyatt, “Renew the Avenue” Project Manager (headquartered at Kettering) “the results are positive---a 25% reduction in violent crime and a 51% reduction in property crime.[i]  

Steve Major explains that the Urban Safety Corps will help recruit Blight Squad members, seek donations of perennial plants for roadway medians, especially Chevrolet Avenue, patrol the streets picking up trash, and seek funding for increased lighting and camera systems in the park and recreation area.  A long, ambitious list, but the Corps will allow the Blight Squad shift gears and concentrate on ridding the area of graffiti and maintaining cleaned properties.

And the maintenance challenge is substantial.  About 60 vacant properties need solar security lighting installed; their front yards will be seeded with “alternative lawns” (ground cover like a white clover perennial used by the Land Bank) that reduces mowing and watering.  Rototillers can be rented at Flint’s Neighborhood Engagement Hub Tool Shed.

Blight Squad Enforcement is now in effect in Mott Park.  Two uniformed safety officers work with Flint Police to monitor residential code enforcement in the neighborhood.  As Steve puts it, now the Mott Park “ship needs to be tightened.”

As houses have gone derelict, graffiti or tagging has boomed.  The Blight Squad goal is to paint over all tagging as quickly as possible. Alert to the geographical pattern of tagging, the Blight Squad monitors the movement of gang-type activity in Mott Park.  Several Blight Squad participants have formed the Mott Park Public Safety team to patrol the neighborhood during late night hours.  They alert police to break ins, count windows out, and check for squatters.  Summer will bring an uptick in this work---more street activity, more people outside late at night. 

Summertime also brings problem houses, technically termed “nuisance houses.”  Last summer, the Blight Squad and the Mott Park Neighborhood Association worked with Kettering and neighborhood police officers to monitor a property on Frank St.  A record of complaints, police calls, and neighbors’ phone videos led to action with the Neighborhood Association able to notify the owner that the residence has been listed as a nuisance house and civil action will be taken.  What seemed to be a “party house” was in fact an “illegal rave.”  Eventually the renter was arrested.

Deep and pervasive social and economic problems form the bedrock of residential deterioration. According to Realtor.com, the burned-out house on Joliet was built in 1920.  Zillow lists March 2015 as the last date it sold---$3,500.00 Rental companies, many from out of state, buy up such properties. Renters need economical housing, but few are able---for whatever reason---to maintain properties as home owners.   Mott Park, once a middle-class district, today is struggling for its life.   

Is the Blight Squad ready for another year of struggle?  Steve Major says “the work is like household chores.  You dread doing it, but you see that you must.  You work as a team and the camaraderie is great.  After it’s done we feel good, even if we are exhausted.”  

At the March 26th clean up I asked Blight Squad veteran and seven-year Mott Park resident Bo Cummins how he felt after a year of doing this work.  He says, “This is like a disease on the body---you have to attack it wherever it turns up. Am I discouraged?  No, I love this. When I don’t do anything---that’s discouraging.” 

Steve Major is optimistic too.  “Do I think we can save the neighborhood?  Questions come, sometimes I feel like we are losing the battle.  My wife tells me that’s just because now I know more about what was always there.  Recently, power at the Plumbers’ Union building went out and there was a break in.  We have to go back and re-do the work.  But the City is more responsive to our neighborhood now.  The culture in Mott Park has improved, the Facebook posts are more positive.” 


Today the Blight Squad is part of Mott Park life, maybe even its beating heart. Other organs---the Neighborhood Association and the Mott Park Recreation Area are healthy and functioning.  But the heart is special; residents are enormously proud of the Squad’s work. Each time photos of a newly cleaned up property are posted on Facebook, neighbors pour out their gratitude and admiration. The Blight Squad Facebook banner photo (taken by Steve’s son, Kenny) is a black and white shot that has a “noir” quality about it.  Men with determined expressions and crossed arms as if to say---as Steve said at that first clean up back in June 2016---“We’ve just had enough.”


If readers are interested in donating to the work of the Blight Squad, the Mott Park Neighborhood Association website provides a link where contributions earmarked for the Blight Squad can be made. More information? You can reach the Blight Squad by email mpblightsquad@gmail.com





[i] Data from Michigan State Police who capture all Flint Police Department data.  Michigan State Police provides data to CORE Community ComStat, a group of law enforcement agencies and security groups who meet monthly to review area crime statistics. 

For more essays go to East Village Magazine online at http://www.eastvillagemagazine.org

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Jazz Night

Tuesday night in downtown Flint and that means jazz at Soggy Bottom.  On this cool April evening a gust of wind propels several people through the front door just as the smiling drummer John Hill grabs the mic and announces over his drum set, “We’re going to do some spring songs!” Together with Pat Cronley on the keyboard and Jack McDonald on the bass, John opens the first set.  The sticks go down and John looks radiantly happy.  I think he is the happiest jazz drummer I’ve ever seen.
Jazz Night at Soggy Bottom has been going for nearly three years. It was the brainchild of Andy Sartuell, the Soggy Bottom’s premier bartender.  Andy was good friends with Jack McDonald (a Linden High School grad now studying music at Western).  Good friends, they played indie music around Flint.  Andy pitched the idea for jazz night to Soggy Bottom’s bar manager Ken Laatz and he agreed.  Andy called Pat Cronley and Jack contacted John.  
The Jack McDonald Jazz Trio was a go.    
According to John, the first couple of jazz nights the audience was thin; when he looked over to the raised seating area, he says, rolling his eyes in untypical distress, hardly anyone was there.  But attendance grew.
You’d never know there’d ever been a sparse attendance night now.  
By the second set the bar is packed, clusters of standees clumped behind the stools; newcomers enter, heads pivoting in search of a place to sit.  Sidling along the bar to the back they glance into the backroom pool table.   Barely visible through a glass door is a patio where hardy smokers sit under the umbrella tables, overlooked by a Kevin Burdick mural on the building’s back wall.  Climbing a couple of steps to the raised seating area that overlooks the bar and band area, the newcomers poke their heads round to the side room. Tables with club chairs (and a second pool table)---all full.   
Soggy Bottom is packed.   Some sigh and leave, but mostly they make another standing cluster and eye the bar for departures.   
Various trumpet and sax players join the trio for Tuesday jazz.  Two frequent crowd pleasers are trumpeters Walter White and Dwight Adams.  A surprise one night was Ukrainian trumpeter Yakiv Tsvietinskyi, who had met Jack McDonald in Kalamazoo at  Western Michigan University.  A new foreign music student at Western, Yakiv showed up at the WMU Union jazz jams and met Jack.  Jack invited Yakiv to come to Flint (new to Michigan, Yakiv had no idea how far away Flint was from Kalamazoo).
I talked to Yakiv, a veteran of European jazz fests with his own modern jazz trio, “LLT”.   Between sets we chatted about Ukraine (Yakiv is from Dnipropetrovsk) and his coming marriage to his love, Marianna, an opera singer, who will join him in Kalamazoo.  
Some nights Nick Calandro is on the bass. Nick once took a class from me at UM-Flint (he remembers this better than I do). That’s how Soggy Bottom Jazz Night goes---you never know who you’ll run into. Former Mott Park neighbors who’ve moved to peaceful glades of Flushing or Fenton return to the city for jazz.  
The repertoire varies with the soloist, but “Caravan,” “In a sentimental mood,” “Song for my father” are frequent.  John introduces the musicians and the numbers---“We’re going to do a ballad,” he says. Or we’ll get some education about composers and styles. Or jazz trivia: “This was the only piece Charlie Parker ever wrote in a minor key.  Do we know that?” he implishly queries Pat Cronley.   Pre-break signature is a jazzy version of “The Flintstones” theme song.
Late on a full night, people take to the floor to dance.
John is a music educator with 23 years experience in public schools. He taught percussion for 6 years at UM-Flint and he’s also taught 10 years at Mott. Now he teaches music at Oxford high school, and all instruments---piano, guitar, theory, jazz.  But not band.  
Maybe that’s why John started the bi-monthly blast known as Big Band night.  The idea for Big Band night grew out of a jam session music teachers do for their students on Honors Band Day. Each year in January under the auspices of the Michigan School Band and Orchestra Association, music educators and their students gather for Honors Band Day.  The tradition began about eight years ago.  The students practice all morning and then the teachers (20 different band directors) get together in the afternoon and play for them.
For Big Band night John turns to his music educator colleagues to serve as section leaders (trumpet, sax, trombone) and the section leaders pull together their players.  John organizes the music and gets it ready.  If John can get another drummer, he’s free to conduct and you’ll hear instructions to the players, something about the measures or the coda.  
Musicians drive in from a twenty-mile radius and form 20-piece band.  It’s all pretty spontaneous after that; ninety percent of the time they have no rehearsals.  Different musicians will take a solo.  
By 5pm the place is packed.  Cars fill the adjacent lots---the Local Grocer and the former Jag the Haberdasher area.  The trio will play a first set, allowing time for all the brass musicians to arrive.  They gather in the side pool room where John has laid out music sheets on the pool table.

It’s all fun for John.  He comes in smiling, even late or rushed, and heaves his drums around chatting with people the whole time.  Music fans cluster at the front end of the bar and friends hang over the railing from the table area to talk.  John radiates optimism, and a good thing too. He has a non-stop schedule with teaching and his family of four kids---one entering college, two teenagers, and a four-year old.  All except the youngest are involved with music.  Along with his three eldest, John played in church at Holy Redeemer on Easter.
Big Band night takes place the last Tuesday every other month. Check the Events list on Soggy Bottom’s Facebook page---other nights and special events are listed there.
Support jazz---celebrate International Jazz Day, Sunday, April 30, with the Soggy Bottom musicians and many others from around Michigan. The music takes place 1 to 5 pm at the Atwood Stadium Parking lot. Hear some of Michigan’s finest musicians and vocalists at this free concert.  More information on this Flint celebration go to  
http://jazzonwheels.org and its background at http://jazzday.com




Saturday, March 4, 2017

Indivisible San Pedro




It’s February 16th and a big rainstorm is predicted for California tonight.  It is also day 27 of the new administration of the 45th President of the United States. I’ve come out for the first meeting of San Pedro, California, residents interested in a movement to resist the Trump agenda called “Indivisible” (https://www.indivisibleguide.com). I live in nearby Torrance this time of the year, so I’ve turned up too.

Indivisible emerged from the experience of former congressional staffers who saw first-hand the methods of the Tea Party in 2009 that successfully pressured congressional Republicans to block the Obama agenda.  After the Trump election these ex-staffers coordinated to produce a nuts-and-bolts guide to the tactics that they knew from experience worked. 

Ezra Levin (former staffer to Texas Democratic representative Lloyd Doggett) together with some 30 others collaborated on a 26-page document called the "Indivisible Guide" that explains how to organize by Congressional districts and influence senators and representatives.  Initially a Google- doc in mid-December, the Guide went viral in January when it was publicized by Robert Reich and George Takei, and featured in an opinion piece in the New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/02/opinion/to-stop-trump-democrats-can-learn-from-the-tea-party.html).

 The Guide became a website (https://www.indivisibleguide.com/) that now lists a network of some 7,000 groups across the country organized to resist the Trump agenda. Local groups emphasize actions recommended by the Guide’s authors to influence their members of Congress or MoC.  Citizens show up en masse to Congressional district offices and events, they flood Congressional phone lines, and they write letters.  The goal? Let the members of Congress know that the constituents are watching; challenge elected Republicans about their wrong-headed policies, and support or stiffen the spines of Democrats. 

I’m 10 minutes late for the 7 pm start and the parking lot is full.

The room is full too---it’s one of the former Army barracks atop the bluff of San Pedro that overlooks the Pacific Ocean. Constructed in 1941 to house draftees for the anticipated war, it survives---sturdy and serviceable---from the administration of the 32nd President.  Today part of Angel’s Gate Cultural Center, this barrack, Building H, is a large open space that is used by dance and yoga teachers. Its golden oak floor is still in good condition after 76 years.

I estimate 90 to 100 people are seated, some brought their own chairs, a few sit on tables at the side, or like me, just stand against the walls.  It’s a kick-off meeting; for political old timers, much of the agenda is predictable (the Indivisible Guide Toolkit provides a template).

Meeting organizers announce this group’s name “IndivisibleSP”---“Indivisible San Pedro.”   Introducing themselves, they explain their functions and call for volunteers to assist---an overall coordinator (Mark), a news/media relations contact (Peter), social media/membership (Samantha), film/recording actions (Melanie) and a secretary (Erin).  White sign boards across their chests state their functions and four have names of the four California members of Congress that this Indivisible group will track: California Senators Feinstein and Harris, and Representatives Lieu (33rd District where I live in Torrance, whose district includes part of San Pedro) and Barragán of the 44th District which dominates the rest of San Pedro.       

The speakers emphasize the approach recommended by the Indivisible Guide: demystify advocacy, be inclusive, focus on your MoCs or members of Congress. The routine is weekly organizational and planning meetings and some action that members can do, whether from home (write letters, make phone calls) or events to attend like the swearing-in roadshow at San Pedro High School of newly elected Nanette Barragán.  Future “actions” will be held at their district offices and effort will be concerted since over 50 Indivisible groups exist within a 20-mile radius. Congressman Lieu and Senator Harris are active on social media like Twitter and update their followers, but Feinstein is less visible and we need to see more of her---she has four offices in the state and we will show up there. 

Mark (coordinator) urges using https://www.congress.gov/ to follow our representatives, what bills they are working on, and track their schedules for town halls and other events when they return to their districts---return to us.  Shake hands and when appropriate, tell them “You are doing a great job.”   If the member doesn’t take questions, then we shake hands and make a statement---and we all use the same statement.  The goal is a relationship with MoCs and their staffers, to let them know their constituents are watching; photos and filming is welcomed at events to spread the views of these electeds.

Peter (news/media relations) elaborates: “Publicity, releases and video about our actions will go out to news media and be spread directly to the public through social media.  Indivisible relies primarily on defensive tactics that oppose what Trump and Congress is doing, but we will also be undertaking some  offensive gambits that will include pushing for Trump to release his taxes, calling for Congressional investigations into Russian interference and collusion in the election,  as well as pushing Democrats maintain a 60-vote threshold for Supreme Court nominees.”

As the formal part of the meeting winds up, a basket is passed around for contributions to defray the cost of room rental.  Samantha (social media/membership) explains the final part of the meeting routine:  break into small groups to talk and get to know one another. 

Mark reminds us that form letters to Feinstein and Harris urging a vote against Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch are out in the entry way---typed templates with a brief text.  Tablets are there; you can quickly write out a personalized letter with your name and address.

Someone calls out a reminder that the Pruitt vote for EPA is tomorrow, Friday.  Get on the phones!

Tonight’s agenda is done. As people leave, some cluster in the entryway to copy the letter text provided---just tearing off the sheets from ruled tablets and rapidly copying the four-line paragraph, adding their own views or taking a picture with their phone so they can write later from home.  I’m not a California resident so I get a photo of the template too; I can change the header and use it in Michigan. I’m already signed up for Indivisible meeting in my home county, Genesee, in March.

It’s only 7:40---less than an hour has passed. Citizen action proves disarmingly simple.

“This effort will require commitment and it will take place over many months,” says the media coordinator Peter. “But remember: There are more of us than them. We have been going forward for the past decade and Trump wants to take us backwards on voting rights, civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, immigrant rights, the environment, sustainable energy, so many things. We have fought too long and too hard and we don’t intend to stop supporting them.”








Wednesday, February 8, 2017

An old friend, two mothers, and a march


I haven’t seen Judy for fifty years, but here she is on Facebook, standing next to a sign that reads: “I can’t believe I’m still protesting this shit.” Her face not really familiar to me but it triggers the memory of another face---her mother.  Of course, I might not recognize Judy herself after so many decades and never seeing her as a grown up.  But when we were kids our mothers were in their prime.  I remember their adult faces very well, those female models in our child lives, sometimes adversaries or rivals, subjects of our intense interest about their mysterious world of grown women and their secrets which we were beginning to intuit. And so it was Judy’s mother who jumped out at me from the computer screen, there at the Women’s March in San Francisco on January 21, as if from another world.

Image may contain: 2 people, people standing, crowd and outdoor

I last saw Judy when we were in the fifth grade, she with tousled black hair and the heft of a tomboy who could be rascally, her antics hovering at the fringe of legal elementary school decorum.  We grew up in northern California and lived on the outskirts of our town where our school was nestled at the dead end of a valley. Classes were small, the postwar baby boom having just barely begun to swell the numbers of children. 

When I commented about recalling her mother’s face, Judy (now Judith) responded that when she was six years old her mother took her to a march against nuclear war. The year must have been 1951 or 52, six years after Hiroshima. My mother was not as daring. Judy’s mom was probably the most radical woman my mother knew during my grade school years and I suspect that my mother was awed by her.

So here we are on Facebook, Judith and I, sharing pictures of our respective marches, she in northern California and me near Los Angeles; bolstered by seeing others, we’ve powered through a fortnight of demonstrations. 

For the first one, the Day of Action to Save Health Care, I went downtown to LA General, officially the Los Angeles County/University of Southern California Medical Center.  Founded in 1878 and one of the largest public hospitals in the US, the old hospital (Mary Pickford laid its cornerstone in 1930) stands on a hilltop in an area called Boyle Heights, once a wild mix of Jewish, east European, Hispanic, Portuguese, and Japanese.  Today it’s Latino east LA. The site reminds me of Hurley hospital in Flint, with its current “old” building up high and new additions grafted onto it below. Around the bus stop at the foot of the hospital hillside several bundles stowed under benches await the homeless who gather at night around the exhaust grates that belch gusts of warm air from the hospital.

Some 800 or 1000 people stand on the steps of the new entrance to the medical center that slopes down to the street. There’s a podium, yellow tape, and a small tent to our right where security men are visible between the flaps. The first speakers are women who tell their stories of severe, chronic conditions, of how they survived without medicine until the ACA came along.  Then white coated staff from the hospital are introduced and the first one stuns me.  He is an African American psychologist in the Emergency Department---LA County is a Level I Trauma Center like Hurley. He announces that he was raised in Grand Blanc, Michigan.   He rises today, he says, to speak about Flint and the suffering there due to lead contamination. People listen in hushed amazement to this horror story from far away. 

Finally, Kamala Harris, California’s new senator, recounts her first 48 hours in the Hart Senate building, as old timers scurried through the halls for the late night “vote-a-rama” marathon that culminated with the repeal of the Affordable Care Act (http://www.rollcall.com/news/hoh/vote-rama-watch-young-brings-reporters-snacks).  She tells about her parents who met in Berkeley in the 1960s, in another era of movements and marches, and then closes quoting Coretta Scott King: “Struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won, you earn it and win it in every generation.” Do not give up hope, she exhorts us.  

The following Saturday I joined a small "sister" march in the LA area.  Redondo Beach organizers offered an option for families with children, a less than two-mile walk, accessible as the organizers emphasized, for little legs.  For old legs too, I thought. The crowd gathered slowly, women greeting one another with happy surprise, as if slightly amazed that the event was going to come off.  Morning on the SoCal coast and only in the high 50s, the hand-held megaphone no match for the gusty ocean air and women glad for the warmth of a pussy hat.

Discipline from marches past came back to me as we walk: close up the spaces and don’t leave gaps in the march, link arms only if there’s danger, signal politely to drivers who try to exit through the line of marchers. But this is a very relaxed, suburban group---middle aged and younger. What would they know of civil rights or antiwar demonstration drill?  People seem happy to be doing something, conversations are lively.  Word passed through the crowd that the organizers here got a permit for 30 people---half way through the march someone ran by us shouting the count: 1800.  

No chants in laid back beach land or what I miss most, singing---civil rights marches swelled to the lyrics of black church hymns, spirits rose on the resonant African American voice.  Folk song buoyed antiwar marches; Woody Guthrie optimism pierced with the scratchy laments of Bob Dylan, the quaver of Joan Baez, the solo voice as tenuous as the concept of peace.  Anthems will come; it’s early days yet.

Meantime, other work continues. Coming up on the LA January calendar is the annual Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count takes place from January 24 through 26, a mission to count those on the streets and in shelters---in 2016 it was year the largest homeless census in the nation.  For three evenings volunteers in yellow vests will head out with clipboards---a metonymy bequeathed to us in Obama’s Chicago valedictory speech (http://www.theycountwillyou.org/homelesscount). The tallies provide data to support a tax for services to homeless. 

Judy’s mother would be 104 this year, my mother (who finally got political during Adlai Stevenson’s second presidential campaign) would have turned 100. We carry our mothers’ experience and our own, over six decades worth.  Yes, we are still protesting. Believe it.

Read more essays like this one at East Village Magazine online at http://www.eastvillagemagazine.org



Friday, June 17, 2016

Pulling weeds by moonlight


I got home late, a bit after 9 pm, coming back in June to my house in Flint after a several months’ sojourn in the south bay beach cities west of Los Angeles.  My partner Dennis---an LA native---won’t arrive until July.

I’ll be on my own in Michigan for a while.

Dennis lives in Torrance, just over the hill from the Pacific coast.  It’s usually warmer than at the beach, but when I hike up the steep hillside behind his house I can see the ocean in the distance. This part of SoCal (as the media call it) is about as perfect a late winter getaway as a Michigander could have.

The climate is “temperate,” also termed Mediterranean.  What could be more perfect? Locals lament the lack of rain (or the threat of mudslides if rain comes), the sirocco-type winds called Santa Anas, and the long allergy season that starts in February. Potential earthquake drama lurks in the background, although people don’t fret about it much. I heard on public radio that someone’s developing a mobile app to sense tremors---users will know what area’s shaking the hardest.  Just check your cell phone as roof and walls collapse.

So the region has a climate---but not weather.  At least by Midwest standards. The term “outerwear” is unknown and no one has a coat closet at the front door. Gutters and eaves troughs hang unattended; no one seems to clean them. Screen doors are optional.  The weather crawl rarely runs across the bottom of the TV screen.

The Torrance population boomed in the 1950s as the postwar aerospace and petroleum industries grew. New homeowners planted fruitless olive and pepper trees for shade. The small yards of two-bedroom houses accommodated citrus trees---lime, lemon, orange, or plum, avocado, and pomegranate.  Water was no problem as the city utility grid expanded along with the population.

Today few residents tend the trees laden with abundant fruit in winter despite the last five years of drought. Plums, lemons, and limes fall into the street to be mashed by traffic or roll under the cars parked on the pavement after everyone returns from work.  Garages were long ago filled with stuff or turned into extra rooms.

Along walkways to old apartment buildings tree roses still thrive. In a neglected corner against a faded stucco house, I’ll see a blooming pink camellia bush, thick with glossy green leaves above patchy, jaundiced grass.  Brilliant cerise bougainvillea drape their vines of papery flowers over collapsing fences.  Mexicans bent beneath shoulder pack leaf blowers propel the dry olive and pepper leaves from one yard to another with the fervor of Zapata’s army. Brittle and desiccated, the leaves never rot.

Landscaping in drought-era SoCal is all about native plants.  Nurseries and websites educate gardeners; some water departments give credits for purchasing rain barrels. At area conservation sites guides explain native flora to hikers and birders.  I’m trying to learn the varieties of sagebrush, toyon, blue elderberry, and lemonade bush.  But I have to say none of them seems very distinctive to me. Small spots of color come from lupines, sunflowers, poppies and primrose, and manzanita with its red bark.  Subtle shades---or wan, depending upon your view---in contrast to the florid tropical imports.

In southern California, land of sand and clay, the dirt is a creamy tan color.  Where bulldozers have gouged away hillsides, no striations of color or texture emerge in the carved earth.  Its dry, light consistency sheds a powdery dust everywhere that natives seem not to notice.

Gardeners plant in pots, but the squirrels rummage in the container mix, scatter the ersatz soil. It’s a hard go. Two years ago Dennis’s landlady capped her sprinkling system pipes, poured pea gravel into the box hedge borders and then sprayed the gravel with a plastic coating.  The shiny pebbles never move.  Finally, last year she abandoned the lawn struggle and laid down a carpet of AstroTurf in her front yard.

In the alley behind Dennis’s house there’s a prickly pear cactus: opuntia ovata, one of the few naturally thriving plants and now some six feet high.  A tight right turn with the car and you can break off some of its flat spikey pads, the cladodes, or in Spanish, nopales.  I backed into the cactus myself once. Only an elderly Mexican lady respects the cactus dignity; she trundles down the alley to pick its fruit when its yellow, orange, and pink blooms fade in late spring.

Stretching my legs after a five-hour flight, I walk up to my Michigan house and sense that it must have been a perfect day here, perhaps in the mid-70s.  I’ve returned to a perfect Midwest evening---still and mild. No jacket needed; the air warms my skin like velvet. I breathe in the continental air, not yet humid, but heavy compared to the bracing Pacific coast. It’s three days until the summer solstice.

Above my front porch the photocell outdoor lights flicker and hiccup, hesitant to commit to their nighttime task.  It won’t be really dark for another hour.

In the eerie half-light I can see the shrubs flourishing---an incandescent green sumac, spirea beginning to flower, phlox erect at attention but the blossoms not yet open.  Against the garage siding the peonies lay prostrate on the grass, collapsed beneath the weight of their blooms.

Friends messaged me that May had been cool in Michigan, some rain but no sudden heat waves. Great weather for gardens. In the new front yard flower bed clumps of feathery wild barley grass (hordeum murinum) rise over a foot tall.  Their mandorla tufts glow in the light of the not quite a half moon.  Silent invaders in my absence. Days of weed-pulling are ahead.

Lugging my roll aboard up the front steps onto the porch, I pass the window box with its wilted leaves---remnants from Home Depot’s paltry assortment of tulips, daffodils, and hyacinth.  I resolve once again to order really big bulbs from Holland for next fall.  Read up on late blooming tulips at the Michigan State Extension website.  

The twist of my key in the door lock and clatter of the suitcase wheels across the loose metal doorsill that should be repaired---all sounds I’ve not heard for months now.

As I prop my suitcase up in the hallway, through the kitchen windows I can see the back yard.  The orange poppies have come and gone, and now seed-filled rattle heads dangle from the crook of their tall stems.  The lilac is finished too, its conical clusters of blossoms deceptively intact, but dead. Another loss.

But at the edges of the security light beaming from my neighbor’s garage I can see the roses, twelve of them lined against the retaining wall.  Three bushes are a decade old.  Last year I battled black spot and mildew, sprayed their leaves with dish soap and baking soda. Wept when one of them developed twisted leaves and thorny stems, symptoms of the bizarre rosette virus. It was a summer of struggle.
Now midway through their first June blooming time, the roses have flourished in my absence.

My SoCal winter getaway spared me several months of cold and ice, of dreary days of Great Lakes overcast.  But I have missed early June and the moist black earth of the Midwest where the worms are as thick as my little finger.

I’m on Pacific coast time of course---my body says it’s only six o’clock.  The gardening gloves are still on the kitchen table where I left them in March.  I pick them up and turn back to head out the front door.

I can already feel the give of the soft earth against my tug when I will grab a first handful of that barley grass.

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Sunday, May 1, 2016

Water

We sit in a rectangle of tables, old manila file folders halved and then creased so we can write our names and prop them up in front of us.

I’ve found my way to the basement of the Unitarian Universalist church for the meeting of a group called Communication/Publication. It’s something to do with water and print media.

Jan has asked me to find out what’s going on.  Is there a role for East Village Magazine here?

I am clueless, but diligent.  Ready for an hour and a half meeting on a cold Monday afternoon in late March.  

Around the table are some 25 people from non-profits, grass-roots organizations, churches; many greet each other and chat---it’s clear that they’ve been working together for some time.

Jamie-Lee, tall and strong-voiced, in a Live United tee shirt convenes what I now understand is the Communication Workgroup, one of six workgroups that together form Flint Water Crisis Community Partners.  All around the table people introduce themselves, say whether they represent an organization. In fact, just being a Flint resident or concerned citizen suffices----the group is open to all.  Every meeting begins this way, I learn later.  Every meeting someone new comes.

I’ve styled myself as an observer from East Village Magazine, glad to seem useful. And I live in the city of Flint.

Scanning the manila cards scrawled with first names and organizations, I decipher the initials:  EPA, HHS, ARC/LWV, and AARP are clear to me.  Some I am learning:  CBOP (Community Based Organization Partners) and CAC (Communication Access Center)---services for the Deaf. Two signers are here.

Present too are Salvation Army, Genesee County Health Department, Michigan Works, the Genesee County Medical Society, Save the Children (they target the over 5000 children not in Head Start), Valley Area Agency on Aging, and two uniformed National Guard officers---presumably from the Mayor’s office.  They listen, sometimes answer questions. 

The Unitarian minister, Deane, contributes her pastoral insight and experience with clergy who advocate for the people of Flint. 

A few people strike me as old hands at community organizing: Joe King from Flint Neighborhoods United, Jane Richardson from Salem Housing and the paper, Flint Our Community Our Voice, and Jane O’Dell from the Flint’s Community Resolution Center.

A regional organization, Crossing Water, is here in the person of Michael Hood, acerbic and outspoken.  Devoted to disaster relief for vulnerable communities, Crossing Water coordinates with social services and mobilizes teams of volunteers who go house to house, install, fix or change filters. Check if young children (under 6 years) or pregnant or nursing mothers are in the home.  The reports from the front is discouraging.

But after a winter of blaming and castigation, suspicion and aspersion, MSNBC exposés, presidential candidate slogans, and Congressional hearings, I am cheered to sit in a group where local staff from EPA, Health and Human Services, and the Genesee County Health Department respond supportively to questions, text queries to their superiors, and take notes to get more information from their offices.

And it’s clear from the discussion that answers do come back. These folks see one another every Monday; they evince the ease of people going at a common problem for a couple of months together.   
As a veteran of decades of academic committees, I can see the picture emerging.  First order of business is a review of “open issues.”  Who has answers for the list from last time?

The Communication group works steadily  through questions about organ and blood donation (various reasons why lead transmission through blood transfusions would be low; organs also low since majority of lead is stored in blood and bone rather than organs), the effect of heat on plastic water bottles (EPA doesn’t anticipate problems since the kind of plastic is stable), getting a flow chart that shows the official entities involved in Flint water recovery efforts (Jamie-Lee is getting this; word is that a unified document is in the works but will take months).  The community needs a single source of information; this is a traumatized population.

Discussion moves to today’s concerns. First voice at the table comes from the Genesee County Medical Society about problems with calling 2-1-1 to report skin rash issues and get to free screening with dermatologists; why is there a 40-60% no show rate? 

The deaf community representative notes that those using the “relay” ID complain that they are often denied service (a problem in general with doctors). Someone mentions that a lead screening program was also put in place right away and it’s not being used. 

Then there’s the media and conflicting information. Water Defense (Mark Ruffalo’s group) hasn’t shared their data on why not to bathe in the water with EPA.  The EPA stance remains the same: except for young children bathing is ok.  Both EPA and CDC continue to test.

What about people with pacemakers and metal implants?  It goes on the list.

Back to the media and how to hold them responsible for accuracy? Corrections after the fact are useless.  What about a press conference with media? (This is voted down). Sometimes the headline is inflammatory while the whole article body not. Local radio does the same.  Media expand the context of misinformation while the real news is that there is conflicting information.

Then there’s the issue of uniformed National Guard at the points of distribution for water---the PODs.  Some populations (such as the undocumented) are wary of uniformed presence.  Fire stations are phasing out in favor of community PODs, C-Pods, one in every ward in the city.  More education---verbal information and flyers---can take place at C-PODS.

I check the time; the hour and a half is nearly up and the group has not yet broken out into its two task groups to work on the website and print publication.  The issues that have come forth today have swamped the meeting.  

Although it’s too late to work today, the two task groups report:  website people have made progress  and a shell is ready. It’s a measure of our computerized society that the website seems an easier task than the print challenge---up-to-date material in simple language for a range of different groups unlikely to use the internet (senior citizens, homebound, illiterate, vision impaired, homeless, undocumented, and non-English speaking are some of the 19 categories).

The print people also have a list of 50 trusted sources to communicate print information. How to cover printing costs, especially high because color graphics are needed. EPA has produced an effective flyer with simple language and graphics, but it bears the EPA logo.  So the next question is who are the people whom will these populations trust?  Who are the individuals and organizations who can get reliable information to people on the other side of the digital divide, mistrustful, wary of endless conflicting information, worn down by changing conditions?  

I am a print person, happy to find myself among those struggling with paper and text and distribution. It’s 5 pm and people are packing up.  The publications task group is frustrated. They assure me that today’s meeting was a exception; next Monday the break out into the two groups will happen first. 

For me, for now, I take home what one participant leaned over to me and said as today’s session ended, “you come to one meeting and you are no longer observer; it is your meeting now.”

Note:
This was the first of a series of meetings of the Communication Workgroup of Community Partners that I attended on March 21, 2016.  I’ve continued to attend their Monday meetings.  The website has now been launched; find it at http://flintcares.com The publications task group has developed a print flyer using simple language and graphics called “The Bottom Line.”  Information comes from the website where accuracy is vetted; content of “The Bottom Line” will change according to current need.  First issue deals water resource sites and using and changing home filters.  Next issues will deal with nutrition and Legionella.

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Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Bernie makes it Better


The March 6, 2016 Democratic debate is over. That it was held in Flint seems more amazing now than it did the Sunday I stood in a line that snaked around the Whiting parking lot---students, Flint old timers (“I walked to Flint Central fifty years ago!”), guys with union hall physiques and no topcoat, proper ministerial types, politicos in snug-fitting silky suits.

I got a ticket through Flint Neighborhoods United---my name went into a pool of people who posed questions for the candidates.  None of my questions were used, but I got an email with two attachments:  one pdf for parking and one explaining times and logistics and behavior (“no noisemakers!” no “light-up attire!”).  
  
You’ve heard the clips and spin on that 7th debate.  If you are a political junkie like me you’ve now moved on to subsequent debates, town halls, and the primaries.  But what fascinated me at the Flint debate was the “pre-game” show---the hour warm up with the locals before broadcast that TV viewers don’t see. 

Young volunteers checked my ID on a smart phone list and handed me a green admission card that placed me up in the second balcony; those with purple went to the first balcony.  The lucky stiffs with gold cards headed down to the main floor---the first rows of the orchestra designated for the Michigan Democratic delegation who mostly just mill around.

Here in the balconies excitement was palpable as the camera boom would swing toward us and then a communal sigh as it sailed away to more important panoramas below.  I spied Mayor Weaver working the main floor. 

Up here, people chattered, leaned over the railing looking for friends, peered out intently at the CNN set up on the stage.  To my left sat an elderly gentleman, shepherded to his seat by a young woman; he could not hear well but his face is a beatific glow.  To my right was an Indian couple---she in hijab and madly clicking on her phone.  The second balcony has some faithful Democrats, behind me were several who work for Lansing legislative committees.  Dayne and Carrie Walling are here, and Deb Cherry too. 

I could hear the muffled voice of Wolf Blitzer somewhere beneath us. At 6:55, with some scattered vacant seats remaining in the balconies and the Michigan delegation on main floor still swarming, a CNN warm up man comes down stage at house left:  the pre-event routine begins.

Dressed in black and equipped with a multi-mic headset (one mic for us in the audience and one for the stage crew), he calls for everyone, especially the swarming, to take their seats.  Then he coaches us on what to expect and what not to do---it’s the live show drill. 

At 7:03 the white shirted Flint children’s choir files in to the box seat area and sings “America the Beautiful”---their sweet voices unaffected by lead or politics. 

Next comes a roll call of welcomes and thanks to the locals (including an energetic welcome from UM-F Chancellor Sue Borrego).  Debbie Wasserman Schultz, DNC chair, introduces the phalanx of Michigan Dems and reminds the audience why we are Democrats.  But the pre-debate welcome crown goes to Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha from Hurley Medical Center.  She strides out to a standing ovation.  In her melon-bright shirt and with her dark hair swinging, she speaks smilingly and without a single note---she is our heroine.  I think I can see Dr. Mona’s dimples. The Flint audience adores her.

Mr. Multi-mic reappears: “Are we ready to have some fun tonight?”  (I’m not kidding; this is in my notes).  He gives us our cue—five, four, three minutes to live and clap---and Anderson Cooper turns round to face the audience and Don Lemon settles into his swivel seat on the opposite side of the stage.

Once Anderson Cooper introduces the Democratic candidates (Hillary’s applause deepened by the party faithful) we stand for the brisk, bracing rendition adult voices of Flint City Wide Choir’s national anthem. Their powerful voices are directed by Darnell Ishmael, a conductor of heft and brio.
  
Cooper sketches the context:  CNN and Democratic Debate is here in Flint, land of successive plagues---most recently, lead in the water.  Number three if you are counting back through the loss of auto jobs in the 1990s and the great recession of 2008.

And the debate begins, shaped by questions from eight local or at least regional folks. The first questions focus on repair of the lead problem and the possibility of candidates using the issue for their campaigns.  Then one question each about education, gun control, bringing jobs back, and racism (from Don Lemon).  The final two questions concern fracking and a two-part wild card typical of America today---is God relevant?  Do you pray?  To whom and for whom? 

Watching live makes me alert to candidates’ one liners and rhetorical strategies. Out the outset Hillary strikes pay dirt with her “amen to that” (Sanders’call for Governor Snyder to resign).  Her take away line, “It’s raining lead in Flint,” is so deft that people (around me at least) don’t seem to realize this is the first time she’s called for Snyder to go.

Bernie’s works the audience with his powers of concision and irony (“I hate to break it to you . . . ). His line, “We will devote a lot of funds to mental health.  Maybe the Republicans could use this” prompts hearty laughter and applause.  Alas, his more icy jabs seemed less well grasped, at least, up in my balcony. “While you were in Europe you may have noticed health care.” “Why should people trust government?  I suppose they should trust corporations, maybe Wall Street.  I will trust government.” 

Bernie’s been called “handsy.” And his hand gestures warrant anthropological research.  I’d wager they come from Jewish life in Brooklyn sixty years ago, but as I say, the scholarship on this awaits. 

Hillary has her verbal ticks.  You can count on her to open with “Well you know, or “Well, let me start.”  She works what I call “the litany” ---the list of what she will do, or “I will do more”, or “I have a comprehensive plan.”  Sometimes she pads the list with even improbable items: “I will commit to 5 years and lead in soil and in the houses.” 

Really? Lead in our soil?  Makes water seem easy. 

She promises thoroughness: I will “double, triple check all work when [the water] is fixed.”  I’m a bit OCD myself, but even I grow weary.  Alas, instead of building audience enthusiasm, Hillary’s approach comes across like a list of chores.

The depth of Hillary’s machine appears when she’s able to include in the list a last minute initiative (brokered at Mott Community College earlier Sunday afternoon): Flint Waterworks which will pay Flint people to deliver water.  Great applause.  No surprise---Mayor Weaver had broached the idea earlier. (See http://www.mlive.com/news/flint/index.ssf/2016/03/hillary_clinton_partners_with.html)

This 7th debate shows Hillary strong, empowered; she now talks over or through moderator Cooper.  She interrupts Bernie who, justifiably irritated, says “Can I finish please” and elicits some boos. But no one seems perturbed. Throughout the debate applause seems keyed to the issue and boos signal the intensity of audience attention to local pain---especially an issue like NAFTA. 

I was impressed by how much the candidates teach about how bills and legislation work, while at the same time using the tactic of skewering the opponent for voting for or against a bill.  Bernie was the first to do this.  He reminded the audience that bills have bad and good provisions; if you voted for this, then you voted for that.  What was the most important provision in the bill determined whether to vote for or against.

The 1990s provides contested legislative ground: Hillary recites a litany of good economic stats; Bernie retorts that the decade deregulated Wall Street and passed NAFTA---a lot of good, a lot of bad.  The 1996 Welfare Reform Bill scapegoated the poor, increased extreme poverty (Bernie); the bill’s best provisions were stripped out by George W. Bush and Republicans (Hillary). 
 
I found myself taking notes---what to look up about the candidates’ positions, past and present. 

The final two questions crystalized the rhetorical contrast between Hillary and Bernie.  To the question about fracking posed by a UM-Dearborn student Sarah Bellaire, Hillary set out her list of conditions:

“You know, I don’t support it when any locality or any state is against it, number one. I don’t support it when the release of methane or contamination of water is present. I don’t support it — number three — unless we can require that anybody who fracks has to tell us exactly what chemicals they are using. So by the time we get through all of my conditions, I do not think there will be many places in America where fracking will continue to take place.”

But Bernie’s weapon of concision wins the audience: 

“My answer — my answer is a lot shorter. No, I do not support fracking.” A burst of applause. “We have gotta be bold now. We gotta transform our energy system to energy efficiency and sustainable energy. We've gotta do it yesterday.”

No wonder the students love him.

The announcement of the final question devoted to religion elicited some audience groans (including mine).  Its two-part format---is God relevant, why or why not? (addressed to Bernie) and to whom and for whom do you pray (addressed to Hillary) suggested some assumptions.  Did the questioner (Denise Ghattas of Flint) assume that Christians pray and not Jews? Or, perhaps Jews only deal with the big theological stuff?  The question opened a back door for Anderson Cooper to interject a follow-up to Bernie---was he keeping his Judaism in the background? 

On the relevance of God Bernie responded

“Well, I think -- well, the answer is yes, and I think when we talk about God whether it is Christianity, or Judaism, or Islam, or Buddhism, what we are talking about is what all religions hold dear. And, that is to do unto others as you would like them to do unto you.”

And from Hillary? Five paragraphs on her personal prayer habits. Once again, a list.  Well, I was not surprised.  The candidates’ responses epitomized their favored rhetorical patterns.

Getting my coat at coat check, I chat with people whom I don’t really know, but in Flint so many faces are familiar we all think we’ve met somewhere.  The garderobe system at Whiting remains an old world experience of community.

A short, rumpled Columbo-type guy passes our line; it’s Mark Ruffalo, smiling and waving at the people who’ve recognized him.   

I’m high on politics and so I’ve decided to head over to The Torch to get a beer and a burger.  It’s after 11, but the place is nearly full---friends are at the end of the bar waiting for take-out.  

The Torch alley sign light is inexplicably out, but this is Flint.

* * *

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