Ghetto Rat (California)
This chapter explores life in two separate ghettos where I have lived. It highlights the American history of ghetto slums and explains why African-Americans are crowded into them. As a side note, I try to compare cultural differences between white and black poverty. This includes my father’s background with racial violence in Los Angelos.
I had a temporary place to live when I first arrived in Oakland, California. I lived in a youth housing project that closed in preparation for remodeling during the summer. The housing project was in dormitory style with a community kitchen and a shared bathroom. There were about a dozen adult tenants. Most project dwellers were formerly homeless clients who were one step away from recovery. They were finding their way toward housing, employment, or a substance abuse program.
There was also one Americorp volunteer who lived on site. He was a bald-headed man who had taking a vow of poverty. The idea that someone could consciously vow poverty seemed very strange to me. Everybody fended for themselves in this housing project and it wasn’t a supportive environment. Nobody shared meals or chores. It didn’t make sense to create lasting structure because all of us thought of this living situation as short term. Nobody cleaned the housing project because they all hoped they would move out soon. There were stacks of unclaimed mail in the entrance hall for clients that had vanished and never picked it up. Nobody forwarded mail either. I was reluctant to mix with the cohabitants because I was staff. As a VISTA volunteer I would deal with many of them on a professional basis in the future, so I avoided getting too close in terms of friendship. I kept a low profile.
My room reflected hand-me-down poverty. The windows were boarded up with three inch thick plywood because the glass was broken. There was no view outside. On one wall was written “Bitch times three” in bright purple ink. I have no idea what triggered this inspirational thought. My door knob was smashed away from the door, so I wedged a small padlock in it place. However, there was still the round hole of the missing knob where people could spy in. For some reason my room was mysteriously designed with a private door leading outside. I could exit and enter without anyone seeing me, which came in handy for beer runs in an alcohol free household. The thick metal door had a bolt lock that could only close from the inside. With the thick door and boarded windows blocking air flow there was no ventilation. The room stank awfully bad.
Despite these oddities, I was happy to have the roof over my head. I would have been evicted if I stayed in Portland because my rent money would have already gone to student loan companies and credit card agencies. I was lucky to be put up in this place while they renovated. I needed to gather one more paycheck to move elsewhere. I started to make a home out of the situation by cleaning the room and fixing unclaimed furniture.
The kitchen was the only place where you saw the other project dwellers. On my first morning in Oakland the ice was broken with a female tenant when a mouse ran into a small hole in the back of the community microwave. When she tried to heat her frozen macaroni and cheese breakfast the microwave fizzled with an electric jolt that sent a thin streak of smoke into the air. The rodent disintegrated into one unrecognizable mass of fur (that, my friend, is why you shouldn’t dry a wet cat in the microwave). The woman gave me one of her two coffee cups to welcome me to the place. She even filled my cup with instant coffee while she explained the neighborhood to me. An agitated African-American male entered the kitchen and complained that I moved his pot of soaking rice. He didn’t want anyone touching his stuff. About ten minutes into the lecture he realized he never saw me before. “Who the Hell are you?” he later said as it registered. He apologized and helped me find a spare pillow and blanket.
My boss picked me up that morning and drove me to work in Berkeley. I spent my first day painting the office white. The room had just been build for VISTA volunteers. I was the first recruit to arrive. After work I walked home because I wanted to explore the neighborhood. I didn’t bother to bring a map because it seemed easy enough to find my way home – a big mistake. Naturally, I took a wrong turn and ended up lost in Oakland.
In confusion, I accidentally wandered around the living quarters of many African-Americans neighborhoods. Most ghetto houses had bars on every window. This is a problem because families roast in fires when they can’t get out. They are trapped prison-like in their own nests. Businesses had 12-foot-fences guarding their lot, twisted barbed wire lashed out like talons. I had never seen such a large variety of jagged blades. It surprised me to see barbed wire in the city, because I associated it with the rural countryside where it is used to fence in cattle. I even saw a church with a nasty strand of barbed wire strung over its roof. It dripped down like poison ivy with teeth.
Even the neighborhood police station was vandalized with graffiti. Words and symbols scrawled across walls like a mysterious language. I never saw it open. My poverty was bad, but it was nothing compared to African-American neighborhood.
It is rewarding to be lost at night in a slum. You get in touch with your fear that way. This must be what women feel like while walking at night. I was the only white person on the street. I felt like bait. I was a worm on the hook. Nevertheless, on this night nobody bothered me. People drank malt liquor in alleyways. Groups of teenagers sold dope on the street corner. Children played tag. A fire hydrant was busted open like in the movies. There were a lot of surprised faces this night. These were looks of curiosity about this lone white male who stumbled through their poorly lit neighborhood. Conversation stopped abruptly when I passed by. There were many people gathering on street corners. There was nothing else to do because all the shops were closed. There wasn’t even a fast food pound-and-blow around. You had to migrate to the nearest white neighborhood for the luxury.
Eventually, I found a corner market with its light on. Inside was an African-American clerk who sported a mustache that looked exactly like Adolf Hitler’s lip patch. I bought some junk food and a quart of beer, and tried to get directions. I told him my address and the clerk pointed out that my home was one block down the street. I walked past it twice earlier. It was too dark to see due to the lack of street lights. This was my neighborhood. This slum was where I lived. This was my ghetto.
Urban ghettoes evolved from the Great Migration of blacks out of the south into northern cities and the west coast. Nearly two hundred thousand blacks fled the south between 1890 and 1910, and between 1910-1920 more than a half a million blacks migrated northward seeking freedom and employment (Sitkoff 6-8). The latter of the two was one of the largest internal mass migration in United States history. Harsh discrimination under Jim Crow laws, the continued practice of lynching by whites, and the impact of the boll weevil on southern crops pushed blacks into the north.
Heavy industrialization was developing and inexpensive labor was needed. New railroads allowed east transportation of able bodies. Many white workers had begun to strike and form labor unions. African-Americans were seen by factory owners as a cheaper alternative. Racism also existed in the north and migrating blacks found themselves segregated into their own communities. Race riots broke out in St. Louis in 1917 and Chicago in 1919. Some neighborhoods had white-only zoning practices. When blacks finally moved into white suburbs it was called block busting, because property rates would decline and whites citizens would sell property.
The ghetto population began to grow in the next few decades. When factories went bust or relocated these districts went deeper into poverty, and they still haven’t economically recovered today. The shock of black poverty surprised me even as white trash, however this slum was still my home. This ghetto was my community for the time being.
The experience made me feel like John Howard Griffin, author of Black Like Me. John Howard was a Dutch-Irish American writer that darkened his skin so that he could explore the turbulent lives of blacks in the deep south during 1959. To acquire the physical appearance of a black man he accepted accelerated treatments of ultra violet rays and oral medication for vitiligo – a skin disease that causes white spots to form on the face and body (kind of like Michael Jackson). After his transformation Griffin looked in the mirror and wrote, “No, the reflections led back to Africa, back to the shanty and the ghetto, back to the fruitless struggles against the mark of blackness…. I was a newly created Negro who must go out that door and live in a world unfamiliar to me” (p. 16). He lasted less than two months as a black man. Griffin also allowed intermissions when he could become white again. At the end of his experiment he walked back into his white life and launched into a circuit of radio, television, and newspaper interviews to confront the issue of civil rights.
Today, there is an entire industry for white youths to put on black face and emulate Hiphop fashion while copying rap music. It is commonplace to hear urban white boys speaking in Ebonics. They are seeking an identity that transcends their whiteness. Black culture has become cool and white culture sinful or boring. I also walked into the unfamiliar world of the African-American ghetto, but it made me more conscious of my racial difference. When I looked into a mirror I saw a whiteness that would last longer than my year in the slum. At one point Griffin argued, “Negro trash is the same as white trash” (p. 89). However, my poverty did not host the symptom of all that barbed wire. My poverty had a different flavor than the ghetto that I got lost in. And I wanted to taste the sample set in front of me.
The next morning I chose to explore the neighborhood in the daytime. It was different story altogether. Many church choirs sung beautiful music. I could hear gospel being sung. There was so much energy and song in one Baptist church that I had to stick around and listen from outside (I was not adorned in the proper attire to enter). There was a book store that had a sign with the word: Alkebulainian. I saw this word in a dozen places. One shop owner explained that this was the word for Africa before white colonists named the continent. It is also used to show black pride. I never heard it before or read it in a dictionary.
The neighborhood had other surprises. There was a huge weekend flea market nearby at the Ashby BART station - the high speed rail that services the bay area. This flea market is nothing like a suburban shopping mall. This center of trade had a strong flavor of Africa. I was captivated by the smells of food vendors. African, Caribbean, and soul food were sold out of converted trailers. A Black Muslim, wearing an immaculate uniform (dark suit, white shirt and bow tie) sold navy bean pies, fish sandwiches, and Muhammad Speaks newspapers. Brazilian music vibrated as Capoeira artists twisted in colorful movements – I misinterpreted them as dancers although Capoeira is actually a form of martial arts designed by slaves to use while still in chains. An African food vendor noticed me starring hungrily at the cuisine. He smiled, “Have you tried West African food before?”. I told him I had been to a Nigerian restaurant, but that I didn’t have enough money to buy anything at that moment. To my surprise he offered to barter on price. I emptied my wallet of $2 and he measured out the appropriate serving. We talked about African music while I ate. I favored the sounds of Senegal while the cook preferred Nigerian rhythms most. There were seldom price tags at the market and purchases could be negotiated. In fact, the vendors seemed to enjoy debating the price of sale.
The Ashby market had a variety of goods: African masks, kitchen supplies, bars of cocoa butter soap, old magazines, bootlegged political videos, African-American memorabilia. One vendor displayed a table full of white-drawn portrayals of blacks. The pictures have gigantic lips, exaggerated white eyes, and deep black skin. There were books of Black Sambo (adapted from a Danish fairytale) and old bottles of Aunt Jemima pancake syrup (based on a corporate figurehead like Betty Croaker®). There were trinkets with Southern plantation stereotypes, collections of Uncle Remus memorabilia, Amos and Andy etchings, Steppin’ Fetchin’ prints, and comic books with bubbles of grotesquely exaggerated dialect.
The exhibition was Jim Beckwourth’s project – he painfully scouted for each characterization and trapped them to deliver a message about Blackness. The vendor was amused at my shock. He drew me in.
Jim Beckwourth: “Welcome to my outdoor museum”.
Me: “You have an odd selection of merchandise”.
Jim Beckwourth: “You are probably wondering why I sell racist material. I do it because it reflects history. You got to know your roots”.
Me: “But these aren’t the roots I want to remember”.
Jim Beckwourth: “This material belongs to you, too. It reflects your culture. I know you. I’ve seen you walking in the neighborhood at night. Few whites come here unless they are buying dope, and then they usually drive. Go ahead, explore this neighborhood. Don’t be afraid to let the ghetto teach you about yourself”.
Oakland had its poverty, but the face of it reflected black. I was the shade of the space in between the glass. There were hardly any panhandlers. Nobody had coin to spare. Poverty appeared instead in the form of barbed wire, barred windows, littered streets, and eroding housing. It was the poverty of families rather than individuals. There was a different culture to this poverty. It was spiced with the element of race and held the gamy flavor of crime. Yet, there was a sense of community that I could not understand. There was a sense of belonging to the neighborhood or of being bound to it. Residents had a sense of roots in the neighborhood and seldom talked about leaving, while a formerly homeless transplant such as myself persistently found solace in the freedom to flee. Maybe it was only misperception. I was a white rat burrowing into the collective history of an Oakland ghetto.
The next weekend I ventured in the opposite direction to explore Berkeley. This city borders Oakland but it is almost an entirely different country. There is wealth and elitism in Berkeley. It is the location of a highly regarded university. The upper scale University of California–Berkeley is infamous for its Student Free Speech movement and anti-Vietnam War protests. Mario Savio, a Free Speech leader, was hounded and harassed by the FBI for decades, despite no evidence of committing any crime. In 1968, the university used bulldozers to plow a lot east of Telegraph Avenue. The dusty, weed-filled property was reclaimed by students as a public meeting space. Community members and students cleaned it up and planted gardens. This activity lead to a confrontation with police, since the school owned the property. A violent protest ensued, known as “Bloody Thursday”, that culminated in the police use of tear gas and live ammunition.
One bystander named James Rector was killed and other protesters wounded. Future U.S. president Ronald Reagan brought in the National Guard during the same year to crop dust protesters with tear gas dropped from airplanes. In the aftermath of this violence a park was born. People’s Park is preserved as a bastion of freedom in the city. It has now been semi-colonized by the homeless community that lives inside – in racially segregated sections of the park. The campus is more subdued and conservative today, yet there are surprise remnants of a liberal past. Riots erupted in 1991 when the university decided it would clear the homeless out of People’s Park by bulldozing it for a volleyball court. There still sleeps a dormant rage, one that is volatile when shaken with too much force.
In Berkeley wealth and poverty continue to collide and repel. There are extremes on both sides. There was an explosion in homeless population, especially in the early 1970s, that marked a strong contrast with wealthy university students. Berkeley can be characterized by its omnipresent homeless population. The two streets most clogged with sidewalk squatters are Shattuck (in the central business district) and Telegraph (in the university district, near People Park). There is a healthy mix of race, gender, and age. However, there is a visible white presence not clearly seen in Oakland. The concentration of homeless in Berkeley is partially due to its notoriety of liberalism.
Many transients and hippies migrated into the area during the 1970s without having a place to stay. At the same time mentally disabled individual were released from hospitals due to deinstitutionalization. Not surprisingly, substance abuse and mental disabilities promptly mixed together – a combination known as dual diagnostic. This homeless population hit critical mass and started to mutate in form.
The homelessness of the 1970s was a national problem that multiplied across the United States. In 1971 the number of homeless in Berkeley grew at such an alarming rate that the Jewish community formed the Hillel Streetwork Project to deal with the situation. They thought the transient problem would go away after a few years. However, many of the homeless became chronic and never left. In addition, huge flows of vagrants filtered into the city and stayed. The organization continued to expand in response. They acquired new projects as funds came in and needs arose. They added emergency shelters, temporary housing, job training, adult education, and community organization groups. By the time I served in VISTA this organization had 25 project sites in Berkeley and Oakland and underwent numerous name changes.
For the sake of confidentiality, I term the agency’s present incarnation as “CHIEF” (Changing the Homeless Into Efficient Folks). The homeless population soared in Berkeley during 1997 while Congress cut funds for social services. Politicians embraced the new soundbite, “Welfare to Work”, which more or less blamed the poor as freeloaders. Volunteer workers such as myself where brought in to balance strained budgets.
The Berkeley community is socially conscious and invests money into agencies that provide services to the homeless. In results, many impoverished people migrate to Berkeley from less cordial cities. They go to where the services are regardless of where they live or sleep at night. It is easy to spot displaced men crumpled like a newspaper in the shadow of a tree or the traditional wino sleeping in the downtown park. There is also a great deal of homeless individuals and families that remain hidden. An amazing amount of panhandlers have cropped up over the years. The tone of beggars is more aggressive than any other place that I lived in the United States (Eugene, Oregon, takes a close second place). Every few minutes of walking, somebody, often a white teenager, asks for spare change. It is more common to be greeted with inquiries for money or cigarettes than to hear a simple “hello” or “good morning”. There is less inhibition or shame in begging. The homeless in Berkeley have lives that overlap, but most are fragmented into separate groups. On the street the homeless tend to split into age bracket, racial background, and specialty groups. Paths interlock at overnight shelters, soup kitchens, and social service agencies.
Berkeley has a different culture of poverty than in Oakland. A simple walk reveals the difference. The further one walks south the number of panhandlers vanish. The white street punks go extinct soon before hitting Ashby Avenue. Nobody has coins to spare in an Oakland ghetto. Signs of facial piercing and multiple tattoos are replaced with barbed-wired buildings and yards of rusty metal. Political graffiti is substituted with spray-painted gang tagging. Rents get less expensive the further south one walks. In Berkeley rent is nearly impossible to afford on a minimum wage salary without illegal squatting or overcrowding rentals. East of the Ashby Market is a wealthy white district that once had restrictive zoning laws to block blacks from encroaching into their neighborhood.
The option for African-Americans was to continue migrating south into the Oakland ghetto, where there were better odds of paying rent. Both cities have conundrums of poverty. There are fewer social services available in Oakland, and those that exist tend to be of lower quality. Therefore, even Oakland residents may migrate in the morning to Berkeley for food and services because that is where the money is at. The morning tide washes into Berkeley, but at night it retreats back into the Oakland ghetto. Currents of homeless groups nestle in tributaries in between – shelter beds, abandoned houses, public parks, boat yards, old jalopies, and the floors of friends or family. As a white male I was a part of this daily loop. I migrated to Berkeley for work in the morning, but at night I retreated back to the ghetto to sleep.
I lived in the youth housing project in Oakland for six weeks. I had to reside on site longer than planned because I couldn’t find affordable rent in the Bay area. Rents were so high in Berkeley and San Francisco that I couldn’t even produce the income to live doubled up with students. I couldn’t squat in abandoned houses either, because the other tenants would be my clients at the shelter.
As a VISTA volunteer I made less than $600 monthly income (after taxes) in the form of a living stipend. The cheapest rent I could find, even for shared housing, was well over $600. The only option available was to find a shanty in the inner city of Oakland. However, I couldn’t generate money for both rent and transportation. It would have been too difficult to walk 8-10 miles to work each way. When it finally came time to move out my only option was Emeryville – an even poorer African-American district that once almost elected a Black Panther for its mayor. The Black Panthers had community respect because they developed a breakfast program for school children and advocated self-sufficiency. I was venturing deeper into the heart of blackness, carving my pathway into the Emeryville ghetto.
My new dwelling was a converted warehouse located next to a Mosque. Tenants once used the building to fix cars and televisions, but a group of artists squatted in the warehouse and claimed it for living quarters. It wasn’t exactly a safe neighborhood. To enter my fortress one had to first open two heavy duty locks on a twelve foot metal fence. There were sharp jagged strands of barbed wire on both the fence and roof. One cement wall had shards of broken glass embedded on top to keep people from climbing. Once inside the compound there were two more locks to enter my apartment. A heavily reinforced garage door also prevented break ins. Visitors had to call first otherwise there was no way for us to know they were outside. There were no doorbells to ring or accessible doors to knock (nor public telephone outside). The living space had grown into a chaotic maze of multi-tiered lofts, suspended rooms hanging from the ceiling, and split level sleeping quarters. There were even holes cut into the ceiling at two locations, so that we could climb on to the roof – where there was a hidden garden of various herbs. One bedroom had a rope ladder to climb up to get inside. The ladder could have been rolled up if you weren’t in the mood to deal with roommates. My room was painted completely black including the floor. It had a swinging window that opened into the living room but it had been bolted shut. It was a womb more than a room.
In this urban fortress, I had four liberal roommates. They were all white. Two of them were a Pagan couple, a mid-wife and an emergency ambulance driver. One was the woman’s 13-year-old son from a previous relationship. He was a brilliant home-schooled computer hacker. The fourth roommate was a blonde woman with tattoos covering almost every inch of her body except for her hands and face. It was an intentional living household. In other words, it was a type of commune in which everybody adhered to a set of rules.
The food budget was shared and only vegetarian diets were allowed – both inside and outside the apartment. The use of white drugs, cocaine and heroin, would result in immediate eviction (alcohol, marijuana, and hallucinogenic mushrooms were acceptable). A revolving chore list was prepared each month and cooking duties were divided equally. However, the rule that I had most trouble with is that it was a toilet paper-less household. We were not allowed to use the stuff. Believe me, I tried. Stashed rolls of toilet paper were confiscated and disposed of. Tampons were alright, but toilet paper was off limits. The roommates even supplied me with a step-by-step instructions on how to employ a Moroccan ass-cleaning method using biodegradable soap and a water spout. The note was printed on fancy recycled paper. The living arrangement had its idiosyncrasies, but it was founded on the agreement of equality.
The rent for this apartment was $550 including food. My total social budget after rent was $10 per week. It was the best deal that I could find. In fact, it was the only affordable option on my VISTA living stipend. The other volunteers had wealthier backgrounds. Their parents paid their rent and transportation costs. Several even applied for food stamps, because their tiny living stipends rendered them eligible. The wealthy volunteers felt no loss of face for accepting welfare. They felt entitled to this supplemental income. I never understood the sense of entitlement that richer youth have. I paid my own way and walked to work. It took nearly one hour each day and I usually walked home at night. I wasn’t complaining. I was thankful to have the roof.
I was committed to the cause. I wanted to work on behalf of the homeless like I had done for women’s rights at university. I wanted to build something positive. The tight budget and harsh living conditions were the sacrifice that I had to make as a volunteer. I was just another ghetto rat, a human pigeon, that scurried around the city looking for scraps, but I had a sense of direction and self-improvement. I had shelter at least. I was becoming a social worker.