I wanted to send an email to some folks who make decisions. Decisions about changes in my neighborhood. I didn't intend to write an essay, but that's what happened.
Lawrence Arts Center Board of Directors and Executives, Lawrence City Commissioners, Lawrence City Manager and Lawrence Cultural District Liason, Cultural Arts District stakeholders, all ye Powers That Be, this essay is written to you.
Pour yourself a cup of coffee and pretend we're having a chat. And feel free to stuff your mouth with scone, because I'll talk more than you do.
I like stories. I have a degree in liking stories. So, sometimes, when I am trying to understand something, or to express a feeling that is difficult to articulate, I try to think of a story I’ve read. I try to remember some book or character I’ve consumed that is like that thing I want to understand. I remember it and I think about it and sometimes I re-read it, that story, and then I can almost always find the right words.
I have been long in forming my opinion of the Cultural Arts District and the 9th Street Corridor. When the pros and cons of the issue are laid across a scale, I find myself on the side of favor. I am in support of the Cultural Arts District and 9th Street Corridor in East Lawrence. I am excited at the prospect of renewal and repair that the Cultural District designation dollars can bring. I want new sidewalks and safer lighting and renovated limestone curbs and bricks in my streets. I want the businesses in my neighborhood to thrive and prosper and have the funds to reinvest in my community. I want an economic base that can support an East Lawrence or Downtown grocery store. I want my daughters to grow up in a vibrant, thriving neighborhood that supports the arts and creativity. I am personally invested in positive outcomes for the Cultural Arts District.
There remains a sense of unease when I think about what will happen as the Cultural Arts District and 9th Street Corridor develop. I cannot shake the feeling of anxiety, of foreboding, of "ick" in my belly and bad smell wrinkle in my nose. And this time, it isn’t a downdraft from the wastewater treatment plant or the river. It’s the aftertaste of cultural co-option. But what does that mean, you say? I can’t explain it to you without the help of Alice Walker. Here’s where the story comes in.
The situation with the Cultural District reminds me of Dee and Maggie and the butter churn and the quilts from Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use”. A short story written in the early 1970s, “Everyday Use” follows a few hours in the lives of Mama, and her two daughters, Dee and Maggie. Dee is beautiful, intelligent, and educated. She left the dirty rural Deep South as quickly as she was able. Maggie is not as pretty as her sister, nor as bright, burned and scarred as a child, and timid. She has remained with their mother in their three room farmhouse, continuing to live the way their family has for generations. On this day that we watch from the pages of a story, Dee has come home to visit. Flashy, fabulous Dee, over the years since she left home, has come to esteem her black heritage, as is evidenced by her afro hairstyle, tribal patterned clothing, and newly adopted ethnic name. She further demonstrates that she values her family history, her heritage, when she praises the beauty of the things in her mother’s home that her aunts and uncles and grandparents made. But it is clear that Dee’s appraisal of these items is insidious when she takes the top and dasher from the butter churn to take home and hang on her wall, leaving the milk and butter in the churn to spoil. She wants too the quilts her aunts and grandmother and great grandmother made to put on display. These same quilts Maggie would use to cover beds in her new home with her soon to be husband. Knowing that Maggie was promised the quilts and looks forward to using them, as memories of the women who taught her to sew, Mama doesn’t let Dee take them. As Dee is leaving, getting into her car, she is angry about the quilts, and tells Mama and Maggie that they will never understand, that they don’t understand their heritage.
Indulge in an analogy with me, please. I promise to explain myself. I am Maggie, and you are Dee. I, representative East Lawrence resident, single mother, underemployed, striving artist, descendant of immigrants and poor Kansas farmers, am Maggie. Mama is East Lawrence, the location, the source of cultural assets. The butter dasher and the quilts are East Lawrence’s cultural capital, the energetic, quirky, richly storied community with unique housing stock and a small town feeling. You are Dee, you investors and stakeholders, grant writers for the Cultural District. You, like Dee, have more resources, opportunity and glamour than I will ever have. You, Dee, can see that the things in my everyday life – my butter churn, my walkable community, my handmade quilts, my vernacular architecture – are things to be valued. You prize them and you want to see that they are preserved. But you also want to profit from them, the way that Dee wants to display that butter churn on her wall to authenticate her identity to her (presumed) friends, and perhaps gain some social clout. To be blunt, you want to co-opt my culture for profit. And it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
What’s wrong with profit, with economic development, you say? I said I wanted it, you say? Well, here’s the problem. When Dee takes that butter churn top and dasher, what’s Mama to do to make butter? When you buy up the affordable housing stock in my neighborhood, and turn it into upscale apartments, where are my (probably as economically disadvantaged as myself) children supposed buy their first home? How will they stay near enough to me that my grandchildren can walk down the street to visit their granny after school? When Dee takes the quilts her aunties made, what will Maggie do to keep warm at night? Maggie will make more quilts, as best she can, but the new ones won’t have that small square of Great-Great Granddaddy’s Civil War uniform. When property taxes rise high because of the trendy new Arts District and I am priced home, I will find a new one, but it won’t be in the house my children were raised, two blocks from the house my youngest daughter was born in. (It costs $30,000 to give birth in a hospital, only $2,000 and some change to bring your baby into the world in a squalling home birth. Just so you know.)
I am Maggie, but this time I won’t slink off to the corner and tell Dee she can have those quilts and that butter dasher, those things that are my birthright. I have literally bled, sweated, cried and begged for what is mine. I have worked hard and sacrificed to be able to own a home and give my children the stability they require. Don’t take that away from me, price me out of my home because you find my neighborhood quaint, my made from scratch and scraps housing style adorably quirky. My friends and neighbors, they too have labored intensely to provide for themselves. For generations. I am Maggie, but there will be no shuffling of feet here. This time, me and Maggie are asking for what we want. What we need. And don’t go telling us we don’t know our heritage. Because we do. And we know it’s worth. It’s worth your grant dollars.
Perhaps I have over extended this analogy. I was not born and raised in East Lawrence. I moved here from Southeast Kansas, leaving my own family rural way of life, in favor of the culture and opportunity of Lawrence. I moved to the east side because it was affordable and close to downtown and KU and I, like you, saw something special in the funny artsy way people in East Lawrence make their homes. And, as I said before, I am in support of the Cultural Arts District and the 9th Street Corridor. I am invested in positive outcomes for Arts District projects. AND, some pithy, insightful Internet meme recently said, “Criticizing without offering a solution is called whining.” I don’t want to whine. I will offer a solution.
If you are going to co-opt my culture for profit, let me in on the profit. I, unlike unfortunate Maggie, have skills, wit, and talent. As do my neighbors. We are a working class neighborhood. Let us work. Let us put to use in Arts District projects the skills and assets that built the quirky homes and art, the vernacular housing that is touted in your very grant proposal. Let East Lawrence contractors pour the new sidewalks. Let East Lawrence artists paint the new murals. Let us make the stained glass windows, decorate the galleries, repair the chimneys, and write the visitors guides. Give East Lawrence craftsmen and women every opportunity to make money and art and earn the grant dollars you will spend on the Cultural Arts District. Put East Lawrence representatives on your design and hiring teams. Publicize in our channels of communication any and all calls for proposals. Give East Lawrencians precedence over other applicants. Follow these instructions, and you can make my reservations, my “ick” go away. You don’t have to be like Dee if you choose. We can write another story that is all together different.
If you want to have a real cup of coffee with me, call me, email me, social network me. I'm not hard to find. I'd be happy to discuss Cultural District projects and protocol, or Alice Walker, with you sometime.
Here’s a link if you’d like to read “Everyday Use” in its entirety. Thanks for the words, Alice.