Tag Archives: race

Racial Demographics in the US

For the past few days I’ve been playing with an amazing map developed by a team at UVA attempting to display census data in a more accessible way. Take a look at Richmond:

Racial demographics in Richmond

Chicago:

Chi Town

New Orleans:

NOLA

Houston:

Houston

St. Louis:

St. Louis

The Bay Area

Bay Area

NYC and surrounding region:

NYC Region

And the Whole Shebang:

USA

Advertisements

Start at the Edge

As a resident of Richmond for the past five years, I have had the privilege of living through an exciting and dynamic season of change. It seems that after about 60 years of condescension and loss, it’s becoming a good time to be an American city. It’s a good time to be Richmond.

So, with that in mind, I was a little surprised when I read three editorials recently published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch addressing the “issue” of the view of Richmond from the highway. As I read each article, I felt that importance had been placed, not on the city, but on the opinions of passersby. This editorial is a response to those articles and perhaps generations of similar articles that have come before them. I believe that before we have a conversation about Richmond, we need to have an understanding of how the city changed during the twentieth century and more importantly what changed about the way we talk about cities in general.

My undergraduate education on the urban crisis in America presented changes in the city as a process of politics, prejudice, and technological advancement. More recently, I have come to understand the urban crisis as a gradual shift in investment and perception that took the American city, a source of pride, and turned it into a mark of shame. Furthermore, I understand the urban crisis as a rhetorical war between old and new. The goal of the war, as with any, was to frame the other as “backward” and the self as “progressive.” While Richmond attempted to maintain dignity, new technologies seemed dissatisfied with older cities: You’re too compact, too dilapidated, too prone to riot and rot.

As each new suburb was developed it became yet another statement to the American people pointing toward the promise of new, more civilized places with room to roam and play. Within this promise there was also a clear distinction being made from the archaic, dark city where most Americans at the time resided. As with all major shifts, the new way of doing things had to work to undo the more traditional ways of life. Many believe that the post-war zeitgeist of modernization, on a national level, did much to shift popular opinion. But on a local level, citizens of the Richmond metro-region still had to prove to residents that there was a more abundant life to be lived on the other side of the city limits.

This was accomplished through a series of events: The celebrated opening of Willow Lawn Shopping Center (1956), the construction of the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike (1959), the failure of plans for consolidation with Henrico (1967) and other semi-related moments along the way. Each of these also had their corollary effect on the life of the city exemplified by events such as the closing of Miller and Rhodes/Thalhimers, the destruction of urban neighborhoods, and the political isolation that conclusively trapped and humbled this once-proud American city.

As money and people continued to migrate to the suburbs, local officials turned their attention from annexation to urban renewal. “If we can’t have the suburbs,” I imagine them thinking, “we have to do something about this city.” But rather than invest in what already existed, they fixated on dreams of what could be. “We get it” they tried to say “and we’ll fix it,” just don’t move your family to the suburbs.

As Silver writes, the city then “embraced urban renewal with a sense of urgency unprecedented in Richmond … Consolidation would have afforded vast new areas for growth and would have enabled the city to continue its policy of neglect toward inner-city areas” (254). Now left to embrace the demands of reality, Richmond’s city fathers sold out and destroyed much that today would protected as historical. They were always looking to what the city could be rather than accepting the city as is.

To me, this moment of urban renewal was a sign that the suburbs had won the war. This was the point in the story where it was finally decided that new was in fact better than old: Look! Even the city hates the city. In the decades that followed the tumultuous 60s and 70s, much has been said of the potential of cities, but almost all of it with the understanding that cities have something to prove. To this day, the standard to which Americans hold their cities is strangely high while their commitment to funding urban institutions and infrastructure is remarkably low. As Kunstler might argue, this is because we are no longer a nation of citizens; we are a nation of consumers.

Additionally, it seems that many of us have a powerful aversion to cities because we’re still trapped by the negative stigma established all those years ago. While local boosters proclaim, “Richmond is a city of art and great food!” critics reply, “Parking lots! Potholes! Prostitutes!” And regardless of their merit, these conversations do little to change the paradigm.

In this sadly familiar conversation, the subject is always “the city.” The place that needs to change is the city. The place that we want to love is the city. But this is not the perspective of an insider. Instead, we need to recognize that this critique is one of suburban condescension. The suburbs are still trying to prove their worth and their legitimacy and they are still quick to do so by orienting themselves against the “corrupt” and ” inefficient” locality they are ashamed to call neighbor, but delighted to visit for a basketball game.

We cannot have a productive conversation about Richmond until we move past the negative stigma that outsiders have placed on the city and begin to see Richmond as good once again. We should welcome visitors to come and enjoy themselves in the city, but our ultimate concern must be with the needs and desires of existing residents. Developments in Richmond should be for the city, not at the city’s expense, because that is what we can sustain and appreciate. And no longer should we consider developments for someone else to enjoy.

We have nothing to prove and everything to gain.

Movement and Moment

Over the course of the past year, I’ve been writing my way through a bunch of different thoughts and ideas and the result has basically become the entirety of this blog. At the same time, I’ve also been gradually trying to connect the dots with one underlying theme: that life is all about circulation and significance, the movement as well as the moment.

Since my words don’t always make a lot of sense, I’m constantly trying to find new ways to explain myself and share what I think is interesting about the world: examples of circulation and significance in our daily lives. Most of these places are either what I consider Highways (circulation) or Hallowed Halls (significance). Today, I get to write about a place that embodies both of these characteristics and the tension that exists between the two.

I recently visited the Negro Burial Ground just east of downtown Richmond in Shockoe Valley. My approach to this site was across a VCU parking lot and through a tunnel under Broad St. As you walk through the tunnel, you emerge onto a huge empty field of beautiful grass that was once yet another parking lot in downtown Richmond. In recent years, the asphalt was removed and this area was designated “A Place of Contemplation and Reflection.” I appreciate this area mostly because it’s a complicated place. There aren’t physical buildings that most people would consider “historic,” but what happened on this one piece of ground (the public execution and careless burial of enslaved and free people) is considered enough to make the place significant today. Once a place of fear and violence, it has been restored to the people of Richmond as a place of silence and careful thought.

While I think the site itself is certainly worth visiting, what I really care about is a place located just above the actual burial grounds. From this vantage, you can see that less than 50 yards away from this place of contemplation is Interstate 95 in all of its glory. The cars and tractor trailers fly by on this crazy asphalt slingshot that shoots cars straight through the heart of my city. Like all highways, it’s a totally anonymous no man’s land where you don’t walk, you don’t slow down, and you don’t typically notice the historic burial grounds nearby. When you’re on a highway like this, you don’t care much for where you are because you’re more focussed on where you’re going. That’s essentially the nature of movement.

To get the photo above, I climbed up a little hill to the foot of the Broad St. bridge I had previously walked underneath. For a while, I just sat up on the hill and watched the disinterested movement of the highway next to the contemplative stillness of the old burial ground. I realized that we need both the movement and the moment, but I think sometimes we feel like we have to make a choice: You have to be either ambitious or thoughtful, motivated or lazy. When I experience a place like this, it reminds me that we should be aware of both aspects of life. It also makes me a little more hopeful that my writing is still relevant. What I have learned through writing this blog is still teaching me and making the world a more interesting place.

While I was looking out on the scene, I realized that photos and words are limited media for describing ideas such as movement and moment. So I filmed a brief and simple video (below) that might help to further explain this relationship. It’s much more about the idea than the video itself … and I recommend muting the video sound and listening to Lisbon, OH by Bon Iver while you watch it.

As always, more to come.

P.S.  to Gwarlingo for the movement/moment pairing … it used to be found in their explanation of the meaning of the word Guarlingo which is Welsh for the sound a grandfather clock makes before it strikes on the hour, “the movement before the moment.” Of course, my blog is about the movement and the moment, but I thought it was an interesting side note.

C is for Cemetery

Cemeteries are memory personified.

They are the tangible outcome of the human desire to be remembered. The desire to last beyond our death. They are the pyramids of the masses; each grave a person’s last chance to make their case for God and men. Cemeteries are also a halmark of civilized society … not everyone receives the dignity of a headstone. And because not all headstones are created equal, they’re also a tangible and public investment in the future of the family name.

In his book, The Language of Towns and Cities, Dhiru Thadani writes an entry for cemeteries that includes two photos of Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond. “Authentic towns and cities have cemeteries,” he writes, “and space should be planned to accommodate this essential component when designing new towns.” When I read this, I appreciated Thadani’s attention to the value of cemeteries in modern life. I also considered it a bit of a coup for Richmond considering the other noteworthy cemeteries in America. Then again, it’s completely justified.

There is something so basic and yet remarkable about the time and care that was taken in the planning and development of Hollywood Cemetery. It’s no wonder Richmond’s aristocracy used to picnic on the hills of Hollywood overlooking the James River. They escaped the smoke of the city, tidied up their family plot, and caught a cool breeze on warm summer days. Since the cemetery was first planned, it has been maintained, improved, and today remains a destination in this old American city. A brick walkway was added to create “President’s Circle” where two former US presidents are buried. The cemetery stands, in part, as a testament to the longevity of power and tradition in American society.

Another remarkable cemetery in Richmond, one that is not highlighted in Thadani’s epic, is Evergreen Cemetery. I visited Evergreen four days before I visited Hollywood and, as anyone would tell you, the difference is stark. Where one has improved, the other has declined. Where one is prominently placed on the hills overlooking the James, the other is beside a highway in Church Hill. Where one is a testament to power, the Other is a testament to the longevity of systemic stigmatization and shame.

At one time, Evergreen Cemetery must have been a place of prominence in the black community. At least a generation of leaders, their family and friends were buried in this place. The most noteworthy resident is of course the famed Maggie L. Walker: the first American woman to “charter a bank in the United States.” Her grave, like many others, is now shaded in the canopy of a forest that has grown where there was once a field. Mausoleums have been raided, pathways are hidden by brush, and the lives of black Richmond are gradually being lost to time.

With cemeteries, it’s always difficult to understand who is responsible for upkeep. The children of the deceased, the businessmen who sold the plots, or the society at large. The more fascinating question to me, of course, is not who, but why? At its most fundamental level, the maintenance of graves is actually a maintenance of one’s personal identity and heritage. In the case of Hollywood, this is both American and Confederate heritage. In both cases, the members of these groups seem totally unashamed of their pride. They live boldly in their past and work tirelessly to maintain the vestiges which prove it’s legitimacy.

In contrast, the people who would have maintained a place such as Evergreen were a vastly more manipulated and displaced group in the twentieth century. The successful class of black Richmonders, once confined to the city, were proud to erect monuments and sustain traditions that defied the white power structure’s condescending narrative of black inferiority. Once segregation was overthrown, however, many left the city behind and perhaps coincidently left behind their heritage as well. Of course, this is true of nearly every American who left the city in the twentieth century. And yet, one cemetery shines and the other is being slowly eroded by time.

“Segregated at Death” was a title that I considered for this post, but I decided that  it wasn’t the message with which I wanted to lead. I decided that it would be more worthwhile to simply present these two cemeteries and hopefully develop more of a holistic understanding of both (and cemeteries in general) in the context of the other. Thadani’s omission of Evergreen is unfortunate, but not unexpected: his work is often more concerned with aesthetic than politics. For me, I believe that if if we’re going to talk about cemeteries, we ought to at least consider both sides of the American color line to get the full story.

If anyone else wants to start tearing down trees at Evergreen let me know! I still think it can be saved and I would love to be a part of clearing the brush from old Richmond graves. The task is daunting (if you’ve been there, you know), but I think would be worth it.

Perhaps the more we work the more we will know why.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

This post is a part of a series I’m putting together on my RVA page.

Race in Tyler: A Pie Graph of Color

This is a response to a map of race in Tyler recently produced by Christopher Groskopf (@onyxfish) using the brand spankin’ new 2010 census data. He posted his analysis on the Web site hacktyler.com  titled “2010 Census: Racial diversity in Smith County.” Check it out:

In some ways, what I always knew makes much more sense after looking at this map. I now see that the original El Lugar is in the middle of the most Hispanic section of Tyler. Texas College and Martin Luther King Blvd are in the heart of Black Tyler. South Broadway, the site of most new development and big business in the city, is the backbone of White Tyler.

I think Groskopf’s work compliments thoughts that I and others have had on Tyler and gives me more of a context for the city over all.  Somehow with the language of the internet (which is beyond me)  he has illuminated my city in a way I have never before seen. Granted, some racial realities are not surprising, but the overall experience as a resident looking through this map is remarkable.

When I first looked a the map, my eyes immediately went downtown (pictured right). That black, vacuous space in the middle of my city. It may seem strange to be drawn to an empty space, but it’s because I have a different vision for downtown. In an earlier post, “C-T-D: Thoughts on Downtown,'” I tried to understand the idea of “downtown.” What is it supposed to be in relation to the city? If we understand the idea, then we have a standard of comparison for the reality. Here’s my standard: The first element of downtown is density, the second is urbanity, and the third is a creative economy. Looking at the black space of our downtown reminds me that it is still primarily a place to work and park your car. What would it look like if it was a place to live? Downtown could be the place where all three major pieces of the racial pie meet each other. It could be the center of city life and it could be a place where everyone feels welcome. I know there are dreams for the old King Chevrolet location and other vacant lots downtown … I hope we share these dreams with the rest of the city.

From downtown, my eyes zoom outward. I follow the three pieces of this pie from their smallest points to their largest and I’m amazed at the simplicity of the settlement patterns in our city. Groskopf mentioned the racial segregation in Chicago because in my experience that city is a patchwork of race. Tyler is more of a pie. The white population in Tyler is certainly the most homogenous, but there are some clear demarcations between the Black and Hispanic regions as well.

Here are specific observations:

Physical structures divide urban communities. The clearest example of this for me was the section of Paluxy just south of the Loop (pictured right). This photo is special to me because the black community to the right is in the middle of the huge white piece of the pie. The community also looks clearly sectioned off by Paluxy to the west (left) and other, smaller roads to the N,E, and S. On Google maps, this section doesn’t look any different. I have to admit I haven’t driven around these streets on either side of the color line, but I have this urge to go there and learn more about why the communities have settled in this way.

Invisible lines divide rural communities. I was really unaware of the racial breakdown of rural Tyler before looking at this map. It’s partly because I haven’t spent as much time in rural Smith County and it’s partly because it’s just a bigger amount of space to understand. I think it’s so interesting that north of Tyler the two pie pieces of Black and hispanic communities stops at this invisible line (pictured left) and then White communities continue all the way to the county line. BUT, to the east, there is no imaginary line and the rural Black population is sustained to the edge. I wonder what historical legacy or communal understanding has created these invisible lines? While roads and buildings sustain separation in the city, segregation in the rural areas of Smith County is a little more difficult to comprehend.

There is so much more to learn from this map. I have already spent over an hour looking at the dots on this black field and I’m still amazed at what they have to teach me. I will certainly be referencing this map until the next census and I look forward to thoughts and responses from my fellow Tylerites.

Check out my other Tyler projects at my Tyler, TX page.

Singing from Whiteness

*Warning, this post is about race … including white people.

The other day I was driving through Tyler listening to some country music on a local station tryna get in touch with my white roots. As I listened, Eric Church’s incredibly catchy song, “Homeboy,”  came on. If you haven’t heard it, the first verse of the song reads,

“You were too bad for a little square town
with your hip-hop hat and your pants on the ground
Heard you cussed out momma, pushed daddy around
You tore off in his car
Here you are runnin’ these dirty old streets
Tattoo on your neck, fake gold on your teeth
Got the hood here snow, but you cant fool me, we both know who you are”

“Hip-hop hat?” “Pants on the ground”? “Fake gold on your teeth?” As I tapped my thumbs on my steering wheel, I wondered to myself, “What is he even talking about?” And the the name of the song is “Homeboy”? Anyone who’s seen Antoine Dodson’s intruder speech (and the requisite autotuned followup) doesn’t have to check Urban Dictionary to know that “homeboy” isn’t really the most white thing you could call someone. So I started thinking about race and how people of different races refer to the other. In other words, how do white people say “stuff Black people do” without really having to say it for fear of sounding racist.

Since I usually write about actual spaces, in honor of Church’s song, I want to get a little more academic and talk about rhetorical spaces. The song constructs two spaces in particular: White (rural) spaces and Black (urban) spaces.

First, I want to talk about the rhetorical space of whiteness as the location from which Church is singing.  Basically, Whiteness is the space from which white people often (albeit unknowingly) speak and operate. Whiteness is often compared to a black hole in the sense that you can feel the power of its influence on society, but cannot often determine its characteristics. The blog, “Stuff White People Like” is important regardless of it’s limitations because of its noteworthy purpose: To essentialize Whiteness. When I first saw the blog four years ago it was the first of its kind. Honestly, I don’t think I had even heard the phrase, “White people _____,” in any context. Lots of white people object to the blog (i.e. “I’m not like that” or “That’s just hipsters, not white people!”), but I think that’s partially the point: There are no essential characteristics to a race. It’s also just plain funny.

The objections from white people are interesting because it seems the majority is uncomfortable being “pinned down.” Of course, this is minor in comparison to the experience of African Americans as essentialized minorities. In this world, there are a multitude of examples of Blackness: Stereotypes associated with the black race. These represent the rhetorical space of Blackness. In his song, Church is pretty blunt about his references to Blackness. The song is just full of references such as the ones listed above. As far as I can tell, the song is written about a white guy performing Blackness … basically some guy’s younger brother gets too good for the comfortable, white country lifestyle. Then he starts to cuss, become more physically violent, rebel, become more likely to be thrown in jail, feel entitled, and waste money.

But isn’t that a strange leap? What is it about a tattoo and gold on someone’s teeth that makes them more violent? The reason is this: Blackness, in contrast to Whiteness, is a very defined rhetorical construct.

As a the minority population, black people have often been associated with each other by members of the majority.  In other words, for centuries members of the Black Diaspora have been saying, “Hey, I’m not really like that” or “I’ve never seen a black person that actually actually acts like that.” But many white people don’t usually get the chance to feel “called out” for their Whiteness in the same way. If you are white and you’ve been called out for, say, drinking so much milk, you may feel angry thinking about the experience. I usually just laugh. Unlike Blackness, Whiteness is relatively undefined and uninterrogated AND it isn’t historically associated with political oppression. Blackness, in stark contrast, has been constructed over the years with clear political and economic motivations.

The best description I ever heard basically said that Whiteness is an elusive center. It’s relatively undefined and often subtly powerful. In operating from the elusive position of Whiteness, Eric Church seems to be making two statements at the same time. The explicit statement is that there is value in the country life and honoring your family. It’s true: We shouldn’t mock our families or disobey our parents. The implicit statement, however, is that city life is morally inferior and that urban culture or Blackness will lead you down a self-destructive path. There’s a few problems. The first is that rural life is not a white experience. The second is that the WSJ recently reported that city life is in many ways healthier.

As a fan of flat-brim hats, Mike Jordans and doing “The Jerk,” I happen to disagree with the notion that urban culture instills rage or disrespect. In fact, I’ve seen people do some pretty dumb things in Topsiders. Maybe I’ll write an autobiographical counter to Church’s song titled, “Frat boy.” That way, I could engage the ethos of the song which is “Family first” without falling into the pitfalls of race. At this point, I think it’s always important to ask yourself, “What are we trying to say?” As a member of the majority, I think a new kind of thoughtfulness (not merely political correctness) would be appreciated.

 
Works (loosely) cited:
McKerrow, Raymie E. “Critical Rhetoric: Theory and Praxis.”
Nakayama, Thomas K. and Robert L. Krizek. “Whiteness: A Strategic Rhetoric.”
Also, if you’re interested, here is a link the lyrics to the song I referenced