around my way: River East musings

So yeah I live in Anacostia…well Hillsdale to be exact, but most folks don’t know the difference (including myself when i first moved here 5 years ago). I am under no delusion..i am a gentrifier (Racialicious guest contributor M.Dot from ModelMinority has great piece on gentrification, that partialy inspired this post read it here…when i first moved to Anacostia, i tried to convince myself that i was otherwise, but i had a rude awakening to realize the actual distance between where and what i thought my sensibilities were and the reality of where and what my sensibilities are. Another realization is that part of that reality is how you are perceived by the members greater community in which you choose to live, it was made very clear that we (the people who live in my condo complex) we seen as outsiders. Over time though, I can honestly say that i think we are being seen less as outsiders because we have made great efforts to become part of, become visible and engage in what is present in the community before we started to make our gentrified commandments and decrees about what must change.

But that is only part of what inspired this post….the other inspirations came from a few other blogs that i check on a regular basis… Southeast Socialite (SS) and Washington’s Other Monuments (WOM)…I find it interesting how both of these blogs examine the same topic, the comparision is not totally fair because professional photographer Lloyd Wolf devotes a who blog and body of work to the phenomenon of “shrines” as he calls them, while SS only has one post dedicated to “street memorials” as The Debutante calls them. While the space each blogger gives to this phenomenon is not ultimately super-important for the purposes of this blog, i think the language is. Shrine or monument vs street memorial definitely give two totally different kinds of connotations.. As your read both of their blogs too, the the difference in the treatment that each gives to the subject becomes even more clear…i am not going to quote either of them at length here, but i invite you to go and check out their respective blogs to note it for yourself.

So i am probably saying to yourself, what is going on in Fred’s head? Gentrification, shrines vs street memorials, etc.. Ok Fred is a Looney Tune..well that may be true, but i promise i will try to make it all make sense or at least explain myself.

After reading SS’s diatribe about how street memorials must stop i was a little disturbed and I took her comments as a bit insensitive (the kind of insensitivity that will immediately make you be seen an outsider or perhaps even a target for harassment or worse) and lacking understanding about the cultural idiom out of which these “shrines” come or as they are called in the Low Country and Sea Islands, “bottle trees”. Because my family on both sides is from Low Country South Carolina and Georgia I very much identify with the idea and reality of the “shrines”. Furthermore, as many regular folks, academics, intellectual, artists and curators do, I understand that cultural significance of these “shrines” and the significance of claiming (if possible) the space where your ancestors blood has been spilled.

What I like about Lloyd’s blog is that he not only shows inner city shrines, he also shows middle class communities where these same type of shrines are constructed. Additionally i am sure that some of you who are reading this may have been driving through Maryland, Virginia or other states and seen “shrines” for people who have died in car accidents and many times the state gov’t allow them to stay as matter of respect. Right here in the city at Dupont there is a shrine to the biker that was killed by a street sweeper, should her “street memorial” be removed?
Before i go any further i should say that i don’t totally disagree with The Debutante… i do think some of the “shrines” are unkempt and if mourners want to properly honor their dead they should keep them up, so that vermin and the like don’t take up residence and to keep them from becoming an eyesore.

To simply say that all shrines must stop is no the solution, nor is suggesting that all of these street memorials are for those who are just “hanging out becoming targets for violent crime” tell that the mourners of the Peters’, or to the widow of Lt. Col. Bennett, Cynthia Bennett or the DeWitt or Lofton families..sadly the list goes on…

I guess what I am getting at with all of this is that as gentrifiers when we move into our “new” neighborhoods, be mindful that this is someone’s “old” neighborhood that they probably care about it just as much as you do regardless of how much money they spent on their homes. Additionally, understand that there are customs and folkways at work in these neighborhoods that have roots beyond the city blocks where they now manifest..it is these customs that give the neighborhood the character and richness that draws us in the first place..that is not to say that there are problems to be solved or improvements to be made, but that does not mean that throw it all away because we don’t understand all the dynamics at work or because our gentrifier aesthetic tastes are a little bruised by what we might see..why not figure out a way to maintain them them as a part of a collage for the future vision of the neighborhood… The logical end and very real danger of not trying to make this neighborhood collage is the disrespect and annihilation of a whole culture, just like in the wonderful documentary The Language You Cry In and Family Across the Sea…check here ,here ,here, here and here. I think there is a scene in one of these docs that shows what happens when the gentrifier does not value their “new” neighborhood and the culture there; Emory Campbell walks us through a family cemetery that is now in the center of a private gated community. in addition to the docs i have my own family has had to deal with the reality of family cemeteries where a strip mall or hunting resorts have been constructed over our monuments to our ancestors and the dead.

Before i shut up…i want to share two anecdotes about folk art and cultural, which is the continuum that these shrines fall under and if we are not careful some kid with a Ph.D from Harvard is going to end up as high priced art consultant to the District gov’t to tell and show them how to construct a proper cultural correct shrine..how’s that for your tax dollars at work?

Anecdote #1
Nellie Mae Rowe was a self-trained fine folk artist from Georgia, after the death of hear second husband she started to make art as a medicine for her loneliness. She used a wide range of materials that she had access to:paper, Styrofoam, cardboard, and wood, colored pencils, ink and felt tip pens, gouache, found objects, marbles, glitter, chewing gum. She created and entire world with her art, unfortunately is an ancestor now but her art lives on and is being studied and exhibited all over the world, like this piece Big Eye Sea You going for $6000 at Ginger Young Gallery. Clearly someone sees the value in her paintings and bubble sculptures.

Anecdote #2
I was blessed to go to an amazing exhibit at the Addison/ Ripley Fine Art Gallery in Georgetown, DC. It was an exhibit of prints made by the quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend, this is a family of women who have passed down the form, function and beauty of the quiltmaking tradition and are now enjoying the critical and monetary success as fine artist, but it took the compassionate eye of newcomers or outsiders to understand and add the beauty of these quilts to the great collage of American Fine Art.

more links ( i will add more later):
Bottle Tree
Bottle Tree in the film Daughters of the Dust

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