Friday, February 05, 2010

The Lure of the Local, Pt 3

Fifteen years ago, we spent a semester of middle school English reading Sandra Cisneros' amazing novella "The House on Mango Street." The book is a hyper-local look by a (presumably) pre-teen girl at her neighborhood, from her vantage point. Readers learn about her neighbors, her stoop, her shoes, etc. After we studied the book backwards and forwards (apparently, based on my notes in and around the text), learning about similes, metaphors, and different types of narratives, we wrote our own "House on Mango Street," about our own streets, neighborhoods, and attachments to the local. Though it's been fifteen years since I read this book, I think about it daily, and about my childhood home, and that book I "wrote."

Obviously, I grew up in Oakland. I think of my childhood house in Oakland as my home. I knew some of my neighbors, but not many. We walked a lot in my neighborhood- to a commercial strip that was exactly 3/4 of a mile away. There was a place in the sidewalk where tree branches pushed up the sidewalk, and that was the halfway point. When we roller-skated in our strap-over-the-shoes Fisher Price roller-skates, that was both the exhilerating and terrifying moment. There was the house with the lions out front, and the Baskin Robbins that was usually our destination. We also walked a little further to the local library, and there are many stories of me bumping into poles on the way back, because I was so engrossed in my book. This was my home. Lippard encourages people and artists (and people who are artists and artists who are people) to start to understand their homes and places (not necesarily the same, though often intersecting) by "simply learning to look around where you live." I did not, and do not, know a lot about the exact place I live. When I was growing up, there was a stream underground by my house that came up a few houses down. I know there used to be a train that ran over our street. But that is all I knew- I didn't know any more about the ecosystem of the stream, or the history of the train. I knew that the freeway that ran right by our house was relatively new, which was why trucks weren't allowed to go on it, and which is why it had divided the neighborhood: though the houses on "our" side were the same as on the other side, "our" side had become the "right side" of the tracks. Maybe none of this is accurate, but it's the history that was handed to me, and became mine.

Even though I didn't know my neighbors, I felt deeply connected to Oakland. I went to (private) school in Oakland, and ate in Oakland, walked around in Oakland, worshipped in Oakland, and generally developed a deep sense of attachment. When farmer's markets became the place to go, we went. I always loved the A's and rooted for them through the Bash Brothers era. Though Cisneros' "Esperanza" feels a need to escape Mango Street, I've always come back. I left Oakland for college, knowing I'd return, and I left for two years in Santa Cruz, and I'm still shaking my head about why. My parents recently left Oakland for Emeryville, which is another mystery to me. I live in Oakland again, in a new place- with a different creek in my backyard, and I do know my neighbors now, at least on a "hello" basis (Lippard calls this a "dehumanized urban ambience").

Lippard writes "the search for homeplace is the mythical search for the axis mundi, for a center, for some place to stand, for something to hang on to." In Esperanza's changing life, with people unreliable, Mango Street, though leaving a lot to be desired, was a constant. It was a homeplace, a center. Oakland is a home, a center. It's gritty and dirty, and disrespected, and maligned. But it's a center. A multicentered center- home of my childhood, my adulthood, sometimes my employment, many of my friends, my family. I'm proud of the inland lake and of the racial diversity. The inland lake that stinks, but looks pretty; the racial diversity that is both beautiful and so troubled. The politics that are so progressive and so horribly corrupt and disfunctional. Lippard writes "Everybody comes from someplace, and the places we come from- cherished or rejected- inevitably affect our work." My homes affect everything I see and do and think, Esperanza-style.

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