03 February, 2008
Rant: East Side till I die.
The East end of Richmond is the land of my teenage years. My parents moved out there so I could attend county schools when I arrived here from Maryland. Evidently the county schools were "better" but I've never been able to tell. My experiences there taught me that people are cruel but I think that's more of an age thing than a location. Varina high school was at the intersection of Wannabe Lane and Misinformed Drive. We were close enough to the city that half the white kids wanted to be gangsters and near enough to true country that The Way of the Redneck was strong and true. It created an interesting hybrid, the jacked up pickup truck covered in rebel flags blasting the emergent sounds of the G-Funk West Coast rap scene. Big Johnson t-shirts with baggy pants. I was always mystified by the racist rap listeners, it seemed they would implode with paradox at any given time. I think all teenagers wear their uniforms with pride, I certainly did. Hot topic before Hot Topic existed. My first wallet chain I bought at Kroger, a dog chain attacked with pliers adorned my one pair of Jincos that I treasured above all else.
So here I grow up in this cultural crossroads, one half country, one half ghetto, confused as any young man and assaulted on all sides by fictional racial tensions. They were a fiction, it required a constant stream of inventions by the believers in it to keep the rest of us even paying attention. Ours is a generation where some of us were raised by civil rights activists, some by flat out dogmatic racists and the vast majority by parents who were ambivalent towards the whole issue. The East End is steeped in it all, the old and the new. It's not really a place to me any more, it seems like a metaphor for so much of what's going wrong in our little slice of the human experience. Really, you can see the same cancers in any neighborhood that you do a MRI on, it's just that the East End is one I've seen a lot of.
There was a phone circuit manufacturing plant on Laburnum Avenue when I was living out there in the mid-90's that has been torn down in favor of a new shopping mall. People in the local media laud it as a "step forward" for an area that has seen some really hard economic times. All I can think of is the people I went to high school with that never graduated due to children, their parents or their own drug problems and all the other myriad issues that arise in modern teenage life. When that plant was open, their entry level positions paid anywhere from 9 to 10 dollars an hour and required little more than a GED and the ability to show up sober and on time. From there workers could get training in one of the technical or supervisory fields the plant required and get their wages up to the 12-15 dollar range. Not excessively high, but something you can survive on, maybe even thrive if you plan and save. The work was boring, but not demeaning.
So now we're going to replace that with a fucking shopping mall? That'll really stimulate the local economy, more low paying go nowhere fucking retail and service jobs. People who make minimum wage aren't going to establish roots in the community because they can't afford to buy the housing built during the manufacturing era. They might be able to rent but in all probability they'll have to live a few miles away and take the bus to work. Especially as he local housing revalues higher due to the availability of nearby shopping and services. It occurs to me that this is not a new problem, urban planners have been watching this trend for years. But the Powers That Be (being capital) have no need for solid community. Solid communities lead to things like demands for better education, labor unions and people who expect something approaching a quality of life.
So we end up with a golden cap on an infected tooth, new construction next to abandoned farm houses. It's like refacing a building who's foundation fell apart years ago and expecting that to fix the problem. It pains me to see this pathos repeated all over our country and the only way we're going to stop it is to start buying back our land from the investment class and building community in only way that is sustainable, from the roots up.