Friday, June 15, 2012

Defining people by residence

@TwitterSF, @BazelonCenter and @ahreport used labels in poignant contrast to each other over the past several days, all related to where people live, all in different ways.

From the Bazelon Center, a law office advocating for people with mental disabilities, came this item captioned, "Olmstead decision freed artist to create." It's about an Atlanta newspaper report on a folk art show by artist Lois Curtis. Ms. Curtis once lived under the label of "inmate." She was the "L.C." in the groundbreaking Supreme Court case of Olmstead v. L.C. and E.W. That case freed her, and many others, from what was effectively incarceration at a mental hospital. It established the principle that people who receive public services for disabilities are entitled to receive them without unnecessary segregation. Today she's defined by what she does -- "Artist" -- and not by where she lives.

Then, from the Affordable Housing Report, there's this item about "A mixed-use, transit-oriented development featuring 50 workforce-housing apartments..." The item is here, derived in turn from this at Multi-Housing News. It's ordinary housing business journalism and I don't mean to pick on it specially, but doesn't anyone find "workforce-housing" insulting? People don't live in order to work. People aren't defined by their work. Defining a property as "workforce housing" for a certain stratum of lower-middle-class functionaries is a form of segregation in its own way -- a way of playing Monopoly (Sim City?) with lives: "Let's put some postmen, teachers and librarians here." Doesn't that bother anyone?

And then yesterday, on the @TwitterSF channel that Twitter uses to express neighborliness from its new Market Street "nest," we got something captioned, "a message to our new neighbors." Instead of introducing the new company in town, it set out to tell us who we were, and got it wrong.

The "message" appears in this text on a company site. It's earnest and benevolent. It assumes baldly that the new Twitter building on Market Street is in the Tenderloin. (It isn't.) It assumes everyone around here is either desperately poor and needy, or a service worker or activist helping the desperately poor and needy, or a prosperous newcomer like themselves. (We aren't). It assumes that the appropriate form of neighborliness for arriving Twitter people is to dispense gifts and services downward. (That's not how friendship works.)

They're trying. Oh, how they want to be seen as trying:
"We most recently filled the Cutting Ball theatre (@cuttingball) with employees to see Tenderloin so they are informed by the voice of their neighbors, and to ensure we’re doing our part to build mutual respect and understanding."
So, I'm glad they went to see this worthy stage drama about the poverty and social service campus in the heart of the TL. As far as it goes, that's great. It's a wonderful start that they're making efforts to see poor people as people. But are they "informed by the voice of" the bigger neighborhood here that includes people of all classes? Do they understand that center cities are never fully segregated economically, that very poor people live in the same world, on the same streets, as very middling people and a few of the very rich?

This whole notion of Downtown as Object of Charity leaves out most of South of Market and some strata of the Tenderloin. In its own way, although it's presented as an effort at understanding, it's distancing and colonizing because it focuses on the existing neighborhood residents who have least in common with Twitter's high-paid young tech workers. There's this impression that Twitter is the one doing the welcoming -- welcoming us to our own neighborhood. And I suspect it's easiest for them to sustain that sort of attitude with very poor people who have strong practical incentives to swallow their pride and accept what's offered.

Implicitly, it labels us as "natives" or "townies" who have to be condescended to with appropriate simulations of respect. It bypasses the existence, here, of a long-term local middle class created by many prior waves of settlement. Just for example, have they met South of Market organizer Jim Meko? Or is it that they did meet him and decided to go looking for someone more grateful?

I mean, I think I understand. I worked in social service for years, I still volunteer from time to time. I understand that the sense of doing good is a powerful drug. But it is not a basis for a relationship. Not with a person, not with a neighborhood.

If you want to be my friend do not start by telling me who I am and what that means you are going to do for me.

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