Andrea Gibbons talks to Debbie Humphry about the El Rey Bar, and race and class segregation in the USA.
Andrea Gibbons is from Arizona, USA, and worked as a community worker in Los Angeles, which influenced both her short story, The El Rey Bar (2011)- featured for CITY’s October blog The El Rey Bar by Andrea Gibbons, and her article Linking Race, the Value of Land and the Value of Life in CITY Issue 20(6). Here Andrea talks to Debbie Humphry about the key themes running through both her fiction and academic work. Debbie is CITY’s web editor, UEL research fellow, and photographer, who works on housing, class, social mobility and social justice.
Debbie: What motivated you to write the story
Andrea: Well I’ve always written fiction, but of course my stories are shaped by my history. Because I grew up very poor, and since then I’ve worked in communities of even greater poverty and problems, and I think that sort of experience just fills you with so much frustration and rage and anger. And also love. The two things that really fuel me are fury and love. So fiction for me is the best outlet for that. The story’s by no means biographical, but there are people that I know that are very much in that world. Young people. And there’s always that feeling you have somewhere like LA where homicide and gun violence is so prevalent — you’re always worried about them. So this is me reacting.
Debbie: Could you talk a bit about the social and political context from which the story emerged?
Andrea: I was thinking about riot and rebellion and what that would actually look like in LA if it became more widespread. And there are of course already famous examples in LA. In ’65 the Watts Riots, better said the Watts uprisings. And then ’92. So really thinking about what would happen now. There’s this idea of walls — what’s always struck me most living in LA was the segregation, which is why I’ve also written about that academically. Thinking about the walls between groups that exist, that are implicit, and the amount of fear, and what might grow from that if there was a serious uprising. So combining that macro-level with what would happen at the micro level. Thinking about what I would be doing. I worked for a group called Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE) in South Central LA, so we would obviously be collecting water and helping people and doing all this work. Then what would people around me be doing? When you are part of a community, different realities always sit side by side. People who are politically aware, and then people who are still trapped within these violent worlds. Things happen to them and they take what they can from it and they don’t think about it in a bigger context. So I was thinking through these things. We also live in physical context that works to keep people from thinking too much, that focuses them on just getting through each day. Right across the street from SAJE there was a for-profit methadone clinic, which is just a horrific thing to even exist. So it’s a methadone clinic but they didn’t provide any kind of supportive services, so people would get their methadone and then there was a thriving drug economy right in front of it. One morning someone got shot out in front. So it felt very desolate and apocalyptic already. So some of the bits of this story were just responding to this apocalyptic landscape in front of us that I had to see every day. It’s a landscape of death in a lot of ways, of self-destruction, sitting right next to other really vibrant stuff. I think that’s the reality of South Central, and the reality of a lot of disinvested neighbourhoods, where you have people fighting to make it better, fighting to make community, right next to other people that have given up basically, and are just trying to get through the day. So survival and self-medication and hedonism and finding family in gangs and violent activities. You have these two kinds of reactions side by side and they inter-mingle. And you love people that are involved in both of these reactions. It’s a very difficult place to live and to thrive. And everyday there were visual reminders of these contradictions in the landscape of disinvestment and despair.
Debbie: What were you doing at the community centre?
Andrea: It was a popular education centre, so working with people to solve their own problems. We did community work, organizing and bringing people together to name their reality and to change it. The principle issues were displacement and slum housing. We were working right on the edges of downtown, where properties were being bought up as downtown was gentrifying. So for ages this area had been severely disinvested with white flight, with beautiful Victorian houses cut up into smaller apartments, and absentee owners just milking their tenants for money. Collecting rents but never investing anything back in. So we worked with families with rats and roaches everywhere. One of the doctors told us they had to pull roaches out of kids’ ears three times a week on average. And there were stories about rat bites, roaches nibbling children’s eyelashes. And rashes, mould and lead poisoning.
We saw that under development pressures the slum conditions were getting worse, as owners let buildings deteriorate to force people out. Then they would be redone and rented to students or turned into boutique hotels. So most of the work I did was around environmental justice issues. We were fighting to improve the housing, but preserving people’s right to stay in their own housing. We were also fighting huge levels of harassment, and owners coming by at 3 am to harass tenants, or threatening them with immigration or child protection services. Taking them to court over and over and over again. So we formed Tenants’ Unions. We worked very closely with families, primarily with women’s circles. So a lot of stuff would come out just in talking, having a circle of women talking about their housing and then that would come round to domestic violence and problems with their kids, around drug use. So we were completely immersed in the issues the community were facing and trying to solve them together. The other thing that became clear to me was that we won pretty much every campaign that we w
ere involved in, but it wasn’t enough to win in the long term, particularly the fight against gentrification and displacement. Nothing we were doing was really tackling that.
Debbie: So it’s like winning all these battles but not winning the war. I’ve thought that myself with campaigning, especially when you’re up against money, capital.
Andrea: Yes exactly. So that was the stuff I was tackling in my PhD thesis, this bigger picture of development and why was it that all the money had left the neighbourhood and now it was all coming back in. And it’s inexorable the way it comes back in. So thinking about how to have an impact on that level is what drove me to go and do my thesis. So indirectly my nonfiction, but especially the fiction comes out of all of these stories and what I felt, the frustration and the rage, and the love as well. Because some of the most amazing people I’ve met have been there fighting and fighting and fighting. But these huge impersonal forces are still coming in.
Debbie: When Bob Catterall referred to your short story in his editorial he was talking about the use of fiction in sociology, about different ways of telling the socio-spatial story. The style in your CITY article is obviously very different to the story, but it touches on some of the same issues. So I wondered how you felt about the two different ways of speaking about social issues, and the divide between fact and fiction.
Andrea: For me they are two very different ways to think through the same issues. For me fiction is more about the story. It’s about the emotions and the character and the thought trajectory. I knew that story was done when the twist at the end came to me, when they found the vicodin , which was probably stolen off the friend that was killed. I mean the goal of the story writer is to write a good story. To write a believable story that really brings someone into a world and makes them feel something. And then the goal of the academic is to wrestle with an issue and illuminate it through a lot of thoughtfulness and connecting it to theory and thinking about what’s happening. So for me they’re very separate in how you approach them, and I think probably for me fiction will always remain separate. That said, I think exploring how we understand reality through reading fiction really helps you understand things that you’ve never experienced. I think for academics that’s really important. Particularly given the way that academia is set up to really privilege certain kinds of experience and background. So I think to use stories as windows into experience, I like that idea. I’ve found – and this is speaking very generally of course – that many people in academia don’t always realise how removed their way of thinking, their theory is from practice. For ten years I’d been in practice, and the difficulty of relating to people in that first year of my PhD was striking.
Debbie: The CITY article that comes from your PhD uses historical documentary evidence, and doesn’t focus on people’s stories.
Andrea: So I used documentary evidence because I wanted to contextualize my own stories, and the stories of the people I worked with to try and change LA. For me the question was, what was the bigger context that we were fighting against? I was grappling with how property markets worked, looking at David Harvey’s work and Neil Smith’s work. But in some ways that didn’t relate to the situation in LA because these critics don’t really deal with race and segregation. So the thesis was a moment for me to step back and grapple with all these issues, to understand the larger forces at work shaping the neighbourhoods we lived in, how they were related to race and class because I knew those two things were fundamental. Now that it’s done I think I’d really like to go back more into oral histories and interviews, allowing people to tell their own stories, to me that’s really powerful. So the thesis was laying a groundwork. And I like that tension between those two very different worlds.
Debbie: The two worlds of the structural and the everyday voices?
Andrea: Yeah. Exactly. And how people understand their own reality. And how that’s shaped, and how that shapes bigger contexts. Because I think having been engaged in struggle for so long I always felt that when you’re fighting you keep hitting these walls. Power’s a very real thing when you’re engaged in a struggle, a campaign. So for me theory is most exciting when it illuminates those walls, and shows you ways to think about them and how to get over them, how to smash them or break them
Debbie: I’m thinking about what the wall is. What I think you’re talking about is the structure. So you did your thesis to understand the structural underpinning of what was stopping your campaign, despite winning the battles. So the structure of the property development machine and the speculative housing market. So I guess it’s a different wall to the story but it’s still about people in power putting structures in place that allow them to perpetuate their own privileged resources, positions and discourses. So visible and invisible walls.
Andrea: Yes so I think there’s all this stuff bubbling, subconscious and conscious. I think the beauty of fiction is it allows you to let it out without controlling it in the same way, in following up an initial idea you often don’t even know what will come out when you’re writing fiction. The thesis is a different journey, though surprise is still a part of it. Theory helped me to understand, helped me to make sense about how change can happen. Fiction helps me get to that same point but in a very different way, and there’s lots in there that I don’t need to explain. It’s a very different process but I think they’re complementary.
Andrea: It was very emotional writing the thesis and working through all of this stuff, learning about the long, long history in LA of struggles over land and walls and segregation. So stuff about the KKK, which was a force in LA with over 18,000 members. They practically ran a suburban town in South LA, Anheim, where Disneyland is. They had a majority there on the council for a while — someone coined the term Klanaheim, which I love because it is still a conservative place. I had no idea about the level of bombings and arson attacks and the killings. So the story explores my sense of that reality, even before I had started thinking about it very analytically, it is the lived result of all that history. It’s interesting just how much history impacts you even if you don’t know it because of the ways it is built into the city itself and the relationships that fill it, and that the story still holds up even with knowing more about the history and larger context now. And actually it makes more sense in a way. It shows what your intuition or your lived experience feels like, that illuminates this longer history.
Debbie: Yes because when I was reading the story it made me think about all kinds of things, academic concepts such as capitalism and consumption, Angel as the flawed consumer. Then gender divides, intersectionality. And I started thinking about Black Lives Matter. So not only did you bring this stuff to your story without necessarily being aware of the wider context, but as a reader you bring your own understanding. So I was thinking for example about control of space, the military police control of space that was such a big theme of the analysis of Athens in the film, Future Suspended, in September’s blog.
Andrea: I think that’s one of the unifying aspects that we’re seeing around the world now is this military control of space.
Debbie: And the issue of ‘crisis’, which is caused by this structurally induced plundering of resources by the rich, which means that the poor are getting poorer, whether that’s austerity or unfettered capitalism. The ‘crisis’ is that the people who are in poverty are then rioting, erupting, looting, whatever means of survival. And then in the name of ‘crisis’ they are then over-policed, which just exacerbates even more the unequal divide. And with the Future Suspended film in my mind, I think these issues played totally into the themes of your story.
Andrea: One of the books I read recently that I liked the most was Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow. She writes about this moment that we’re in where actually a whole community’s been written off. It follows on from this Marxist idea of the surplus of labour, that you keep this proletariat that can take on jobs and then get fired. But there’s been a whole population now in the U.S., and I think in a way the EU has done that to all of Greece, you’re not even seen as a proletariat or future workers, you are all disposable. The only thing that’s left is for us is to cut our losses and keep what we have and the rest of you, we’re just going to let you go. Just do whatever you do.
Michelle Alexander talks about how that’s been the major change, that whole communities are just written off, it’s not even worth keeping them around as surplus labour. So we’re just going to put them in jail, or let them live in these areas that have been completely, completely devastated and do our best to forget they are there.
Debbie: So push them out of the city, which is what’s been happening in London.
Debbie: To where housing’s cheap. Why’s it cheap? Because there’s no employment.
Andrea: Exactly because there’s nothing there so you keep them penned in to a ghetto or you’re penned outside, into marginal areas. That’s the pattern in Latin America where you have the favelas. So there’s different spatial expressions of that, but I think it is really an expression of disposability. And that’s another thing that was in the story, if uprising did happen wouldn’t they just write you off? Like wouldn’t they just stop sending ambulances to certain areas? I’m quite interested in is dystopian fiction because I think that’s really exploring some of these issues.
Debbie: In the story you were talking about they wouldn’t send an ambulance, and it made me think about New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.
Andrea: So just knowing that the first people who came into Katrina were armed soldiers and police, and they were there to shoot people. And it’s the same thing that happened to Haiti I think, and again it’s a military response rather than a humanitarian response, because you have these disposable communities. Less than human. To me that’s the beauty of fiction, all that stuff can bubble up and you don’t have to be aware necessarily, you don’t have to process it analytically – you don’t want to process it that way. Whereas if I was going to write about that academically I’d want to think about that deeply and be analytical and clear.
Debbie: It’s a bit like everyday life, it’s all happening all at the same time and you can suggest that in fiction. You can do academic analysis of everyday life, but when you analyse it you end up dissecting bits out.
Andrea: You kind of have to, but how do you knit that back together?
Debbie: Intersectionality is way of trying to do that, of trying to deal with everyday complexities.
Andrea: It is, and that’s something I struggled with. In my academic work I didn’t do gender nearly enough because its just a whole other level of stuff to think through. So in the story I think it comes through really clearly, but in my academic work it’s a whole other literature and lens. So there’s a book coming out where I’m working through more of that better. The one thing that’s similar with both writing fiction and non-fiction is that you’re still telling the story, that explains in different ways.
Debbie: So I was thinking about Black Lives Matters that started in 2012, and I wondered how your story relates to current issues and contexts.
Andrea: I think what the Black Lives Matter stuff has really succeeded in doing is really bringing out a lot of the stuff that I’ve been struggling with, bringing it really right into the open. The whole time I was in LA the killings, the deaths in custody, the police killings of people, that has always been there. And always been under the radar of people outside of that community. I was so filled with rage so often in urban planning at UCLA, because there were a lot of people really removed, again going back to the segregation, whose life experiences were so completely removed. The amount of violence, particularly from the police, was always a huge part of our worlds. And it really struck me that one of the dividing lines in our society is attitudes to the police. I come from a world where the police are always dangerous. They’re always the bad guys, and they’re not safe, and you don’t call them when you’re in trouble unless you have absolutely no option. And when I was teaching at LSE and we were talking, it just struck me that I’m talking to a room of people for whom the police are good guys. And I think that’s one of the major dividing lines in society. And I think that had always been in the background for me, coming from a poor area, that’s just your status quo is that the police aren’t there to help you. Whereas for other people that’s not true. So I think the Black Lives Matter has really been able to bring that stuff up to the surface and make that an issue. Particularly with kids like Trayvon Martin. The reaction of the entire press and a lot of the white community was to vilify the kid that had been shot, and they couldn’t see him as a kid. And for me I think Trayvon was the first one where that was just so gut-wrenchingly obvious, if only because for the first time it seemed to me mainstream press paid attention to it at all. The fact it got publicity, because for so many years these things hadn’t got any publicity at all, like nobody in other communities even knew that people were being shot by the police. Occasionally before something would break through — like Rodney King — but recently there’s been this huge slew of people capturing on phones the murders of kids, alongside the inability of white media to recognise their humanity, or recognise they’re kids. It’s just so horrifying. And I think Black Lives Matters really succeeded in highlighting how horrifying it is. But in doing that it’s made visible dividing lines in society that are really ugly. Revealing the ugliness of white privilege that’s tried to stop the conversation. It’s so abhorrent.
Debbie: It’s impossible to think about these issues now without reflecting on the recent American election, and I was particularly struck by parallels between the image in your story of building a raced and classed wall, and Donald Trump’s threatened Mexican-US border wall.
Andrea: I think Donald Trump is just another reflection of those dividing lines. In my academic work I explored LA’s segregation and it has always been about putting up walls to protect white privilege, socially and spatially and economically. It’s about preserving white supremacy. These walls were maintained in the courts, in policy and practice, and through an extraordinary level of violence from both police and white communities. Trump taps into this, talks a lot about walls. His world is divided between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and it is terrifyingly obvious who ‘us’ is – white, mostly middle-aged and older, with something to protect and afraid of how the world is changing. It’s an enclave mentality, a circle-the-wagons mentality that is going to continue to pillage and gather all the resources possible while there are still resources to gather – because I think they are all afraid of global warming even as they deny it with their last breath – and deny the humanity of everyone outside those gates. It is a familiar mentality. We’re seeing it all play out again in the military actions against Native American struggles for water at Standing Rock – they are fighting for all of us and the land itself and yet the government has brought in tanks. And so Trump’s election has not surprised me, yet it has also hit me with an almost unbearable level of existential dread, because everyone I love is outside those gates. One thing, though, there is a good thing about walls in that just like barricades, those with more privilege can choose where they stand. Being on the right side – and there is clearly a right side here – and supporting the struggle of those who have long been fighting there, because they don’t have a choice, is a choice that people can make. And hopefully we will see the alliances come together that we need to change how things work. Hopefully we will see a great diversity of people taking their stand to bring down those walls from the outside.
Debbie: You can see how the race-class divide is embedded in spatial segregation. That’s what’s really scary about London right now. Because London still does have a certain amount of social-spatial mixing, but gentrification and government housing policy is leading to the social cleansing of lower income groups from the city. Ok so the social mixing is not perfect. Some people send their kids to private schools and they exist in privileged enclaves, but lots of people of different classes send their kids to state schools, and live next door to each other. It’s Paul Gilroy’s notion of conviviality. Ok they might not be friends, they might have parallel lives to some extent, but they’ll talk to each other in the shops, they’re not totally alienated from each other. A diversity of parents mix in the playground and the humanity is visible, tangible. Much as you can pick it apart, and not negating that privilege does reproduce itself in these common spaces, I still think there’s something to be said for not being totally segregated. And this is one of the things that’s so scary about what’s happening now with social class cleansing from places like London. We’re in quite a good place at the moment but we stand to lose it.
Andrea: Yes I completely agree. That was my finding in a way. One of the real keys to solving this problem in the United States has to be ending this physical segregation. It has to be people growing up together. There’s no other way you can explain half of the country looking at a 16-year-old kid and seeing a thug. In fact segregation in the U.S. is worse now than it was in the 60s. Because of the way that sprawl has happened, with people just wanting to keep their neighbourhoods white. But I have to say, because I lived in Brixton when I was writing my thesis, it was so healing in a way. It was such a relief to walk outside around Brixton and, whilst there’s problems and there’s obvious issues around race and the police and stuff, but you can look around Brixton and see people mixing. There’s more inter-racial couples than not. And you just get this feeling that this can work, it doesn’t have to be like it is in the States.
Debbie: But we need to keep it in London. I remember going to Brixton recently after a few years gap, and going into this trendy bar and everyone seemed to be white, and I was just so shocked.
Andrea: Yes Brixton’s really under attack. It’s starting to shift.
Debbie: To go back to your story, the police issue is really clear there, because what you’ve got basically is police protecting property and they’re not protecting the people.
Andrea: and that comes directly out of, there was this horrible building that we were working in. There were 110 units and we heard that the owners wanted to empty it out and sell it. The Morrison hotel. There was a rumour that one of the tenants was thrown out at gunpoint, that there was a physical throwing out. That other people got pay-offs, ranging from 25 dollars to a 1000. So they did a brilliant job of emptying out this building. And we had rights as tenant organisers to go in. But the police showed up, and we had the copies of the civil law. But the police said, ‘As police we’re not here to enforce civil law, we’re here to protect property’. And they barred us from going in. What could be more clear than that?
Debbie: To link back to Black Lives Matter, when you go on their website what’s really clear is that they’re highlighting state oppression. And obviously the police is an arm of the state. And that whole thing about institutional racism is in the story. So the structural underpinning is suggested in the story. And what Black Lives is trying to do is get these personal stories, this emotional stuff about kids being killed, and yet its trying to reveal the bigger structure.
Andrea: Yes absolutely. The thing about Black Lives Matter is it’s making something public and putting in words something that was just experiential knowledge. Its been enormously influential, not just trying to show the white community what they’re not seeing, but also trying to help educate within communities of colour to see these bigger structural patterns.
Debbie: Because otherwise you can get that intra-class fighting.
Andrea: Exactly. So it’s just opening up all of that. Especially stuff around all the shootings, but also stuff around imprisonment. A lot of elderly people that live on their own, are quite fearful about the levels of crime and violence in their community, and so those folks often will blame the youths themselves, without understanding the bigger things as well. So I think what Black Lives Matters is also doing is a lot of really important work around educating their own communities. Why are so many of our kids in prison? And it’s actually not because they’re criminals, it’s because of these other issues. I think they’re doing amazing work on both fronts, educating the white community and then their own communities of colour around these issues. Then you throw in immigration and there’s a lot of tensions between Latino and blacks and Asians and Koreans. Like what happened in ’92 with the Korean shops getting burnt out. So there’s so much work that needs to be done to look at that the real problems are the structural issues and not these kids that are out shoplifting or whatever they’re doing.
Debbie: I think the emotional element really matters. Because what we’re discussing really is how these divides are played out emotionally on the ground. You can see that coming through the American elections. You know that people’s emotions are being played on. So actually emotions are a really important part of the political story.
Andrea: Yes it really is. I think it’s so important to pay attention to emotion, but it highlights the desperate need for critical thinking, for the time and space and practice of reflection– what am I feeling, and why? What do I really think about this? It is naming your reality and then working to change it. Respect for how we feel and reflection on it are what is needed, and this has to happen collectively and this is exactly what isn’t happening. Instead we have a media that ceaselessly promotes fear and angerwithout critical reflection, and people like Trump who are building it further and channeling it. The same can be said of Brexit I think. Both have highlighted just how irrational ideologies can be, how people can believe multiple contradictory things and the destructive ways that works.
Debbie: So I think it’s interesting to move between these two different texts, the story and the academic interpretations. In my own work I’ve looked at how emotions are played out through class divides. I mean how can you talk about anger and violence without considering the emotions? So actually its just connecting these things up.
Andrea: And I think its very tricky. I think the composite of the kids I knew who formed Angel in the story, they’re kids who are doing bad things. Those are kids who are getting stopped by the police not without reason. But they’re still kids that you love. And they’re still kids that we need to take care of, and we need to try and figure out what’s going on with them, and we need to try and shift that. And you don’t want the response to them to be a policeman shooting them. So I think that’s another aspect of it, how do we deal with these issues? And it means we have to figure out what’s actually happening with kids, and what is the larger context of that? It definitely doesn’t mean anyone should choke the life out of them. So we’re thinking about how do we solve this from a place of love? These are our people, these aren’t those people. These aren’t criminals. These are our people and they’re suffering and they’re doing bad things sometimes. It’s like what’s going on there? How do we fix that? And it’s a really conflicted posi
tion to be in. and so it’s a very hard thing to deal with. As people we want hard lines sometimes, because it’s even harder to take the complex way, like loving someone and dealing with addiction and crime and violence and all of that stuff. But that is what we need to do.
Debbie: Yes and in the story you could address the complexity. I loved the fact that at the end it was this guy who we were about to make into a romantic hero, you know he dealt with the situation and he lit the candles for Angel but then it looks like he stole from the dead body. And it stops it being sentimental, and it deals with reality because his reality is both, that he did all this stuff in the church for his friend with love, but at the same time he’s got to survive, and he survives by selling the drugs. It made total sense to me, and it stopped you having a simple moral position. And that’s really important that you don’t take a hardline moral positions, because that’s what leads to the newspaper articles writing them of as ‘just criminals’. So I think the moral complexity’s really important. We need to be challenged not to make the simple binaries.
Andrea: Yes its’ funny I don’t really think about my writing like that, I’m just telling a story I need to tell. But in the thesis one of that groups I look at is called LA Can, and they work with people in downtown Local Authority, and they’re fierce and amazing. Their key position is that these are our people. And we don’t pretend that they’re different to what they are. We don’t romanticize it and we don’t cover it up. There’s all these issues going on and we love them just the same and we’re going to fight for their right to be human, to live in this neighbourhood, and to find a better life for themselves. And I think that’s really where all these conversations need to start. And they’re not starting there, ever. Which is so frustrating.
Debbie: When I read your academic article, about the construction of community, then went back to the story, one thing I picked up from the story was the solidarities. So Angel couldn’t go to his mum so he had this other family, the gang. Then she and Angel had the solidarity because they had the childhood thing. Then there was her and her mates. Then I thought in your academic article that was about the construction of community that excludes black people . Whereas the story was about bringing the value of a different sort of community. And I thought the hope in the story was all about solidarities. Because we’re clear at the beginning that she’s working for some kind of group to help. It was like a fable of solidarity. That can be invisible to some people.
Andrea: One of the things that I’ve looked at in the literature is it talks about the ghetto or inner cities. Like Waquant . I really like his work in general around structure, but he just misses the amount of solidarity and community that exists there, and that’s part of what helps people get through. In good ways or bad ways. These intense relationships of trust, and the amount of people who are fighting. People from outside look at these areas as wastelands, as horrible places you would never want to go, that you’d just want to get out of. Whereas in fact there’s all this stuff that’s there that is vital and beautiful and I think is often much more real than what happens in the suburbs.
Debbie: Where people don’t need those relationships because they’ve got money. So they’ll pay for their plumber, they won’t go next door and see if their mate can help them fix the leak.
Andrea: Exactly. So in some of the buildings I worked in people had these intense relationships all over. So they’ll have someone who will pick their kid up from school, that will bring them food if they’re ill, there’s all these solidarity relationships that you need to get through the day, working below the minimum wage. And so I think that’s completely missed in a lot of the literature around poverty or poor areas. People are so amazing that they can survive like this and that they can do all the things they do. The struggles we had growing up were nothing compared to what the people in LA were facing. But having grown up also in these very densely networked communities of people who were there to support you, and do all kinds of stuff when you need it. So there is so much dystopian fiction of the suburbs that is almost entirely about the emptiness, the drinking, the absence of that kind of community. But in terms of real estate, or in terms of the political debate, the suburb is what’s held up as community. It’s crazy. I don’t want to romaticise poverty, these are often solidarities of survival, and what you want instead is a world beyond, a world where people can thrive and grow. But there is a vibrancy there that I have not found elsewhere.
Debbie: So the bit that isn’t community is held up and the bit that is community is totally ignored. And not recognising that that allows people to talk about ‘sink estates’ and justify erasing it.
Andrea: Exactly. In my thesis I was interested in what make it possible for a larger community to say see Trayvon Martin as a thug and not care about that death at all. And I think its part of the construction of this ideal community, and it’s a certain colour, they speak a certain way and they live in certain kinds of places, and that tinges so much of the media and political debate and people’s perceptions. But also academic work. Why is it not appearing in the literature? I think a lot of its about the class difference, about who’s writing and where their starting point is when they look at. Because if you’re in these places for any length of time you immediately get a sense of the really amazing networks people build up to survive. I think we need to write more, fiction and non-fiction, academic works and literature, from a place on the right side of the walls that we are facing.
Debbie Humphry www.debbiehumphry.com