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MY FAMILY MOVED TO BENICIA, CALIFORNIA FROM THE NEARBY CITY OF RICHMOND when I was 13 ½ years old, on March 11, 1976. Benicia was a much smaller town then — the suburban growth boom that marked the era in the Bay Area had just reached my new town, and the Southampton development to the north of town existed, but only a couple blocks up from Southampton Road had been built out, and even in the older part of town, my parents’ house up on M Street had almost nothing but fields and horses to its north, all the way to the freeway. Sheep still grazed on the west side of town, where a Taco Bell is now.

We had moved from Richmond. Richmond, California. The city consists of The Flats — that portion west of Interstate 80 on the coastal plain next to San Francisco Bay, where the poorer people live — and The Hills, which overlook the flats. The Flats were (and still are) beset by violence and crime, and were dangerous enough that I have struggled for years with PTSD from my time there.

I remember a few weeks after we moved into our new house, my sister and older brother and I walked across M Street and into fields high with dry early-summer weeds and thickets of rattling anise stalks. We ran through the fields like the children we barely still were, laughing and playing silly games. Looking back I can see we were very much like prisoners released. Moving to Benicia from the mean streets of Richmond was like the end of a war.

Late that afternoon I ran with my face turned up to the sun, my arms out like wings, deep into the fields, and at some point I found myself alone, surrounded by thick brush, my only companions the sounds of buzzing insects and warbling birds, and I was covered in the pungent licorice scent that came from a trail of broken anise weed. I stopped, felt an odd weight in my chest and sat down. The world seemed to lose color, and I put my hand to my face — and suddenly I was weeping in great, gusting sobs.

I wept that day with grateful relief at having survived Richmond — and more than that, at having found myself in a place where I didn’t have to survey the street at every moment to see who might be out, whether they were armed, and what their intentions might be. In my new town, I could just walk out the door and explore its alleys and neighborhoods in complete safety.

I wept with pent-up sorrow, the lid suddenly off a grief I had dared not fully express, or even allow myself to feel, in a place where it might be taken as weakness and thus make me a target.

I wept, too, with sadness for the dear friends I’d left behind. Part of it was selfish — I would miss the company of people I could not remember not knowing — but part of it was something deeper. I had left people I cared about in a terrible situation, and was helpless to help them.

“Why am I in this field, crying with relief,” I thought, “and yet my old friends cannot share this with me?”

Survivor guilt is a common experience in people who have survived traumatic events that others have not, and in that moment in the field there was certainly a pang of that — and I have had occasional bouts of it since.

While excessive or misplaced guilt can be destructive, it is also possible to transform it into motivation to right wrongs and prevent others from suffering what you have. This has informed my writing about my old neighborhood here in this space. My beloved childhood friends in Richmond suffered terribly, and did not deserve the suffering they endured — they were, after all, just children.

I write also because Benicia, and places like it, can play an important part in alleviating the problems besetting Richmond and places like it.

There are many organizations in Richmond that do vital work to help its residents — pastors of churches, workers in nonprofits and other charitable organizations, volunteers who try to offer a constructive alternative for at-risk young people who might otherwise turn to the many destructive and life-threatening ways of coping that can be a powerful temptation in streets that often seem hopeless and devoid of mercy.

This is all vital work, but it is not enough.

An idea I keep coming across in discussions of the problem of urban poverty is that Richmond is Richmond because of a lack of “personal responsibility” in its residents. While it is important for anyone, whatever their location, to take responsibility for improving their circumstances, I can also say that Richmond is not lacking in that particular virtue.

Richmond is Richmond because too many there lack power — the kind of power that comes from economic opportunity. And this is where more prosperous places in America like Benicia can be of help.

I believe we who have more ought to commit ourselves to the task of making sure that everyone in Richmond who wants a job can get one — and not just a “job” that involves minimum wage and little hope for advancement. Richmond has a deep pool of tragically underutilized talent — people who would be savvy, intelligent, charismatic, dedicated employees. They are worth far more than the minimum wage. If the market is not providing those jobs on its own — and it is safe to say that it is not — then we need to act collectively to correct that situation.

I have mentioned before in this space that Richmond is not just a troubled city, it is also a symptom of a wounded society, where too many people dismiss others in different circumstances as “them.”

“We” can shake our heads in little mimes of concern when one of “their” children is gunned down. “We” bemoan the poverty that besets so many parts of this country, but think of it as an immutable characteristic of “them.” And while it may be diverting or engaging to speculate about what might be done, it is at the end of the day not “our” problem.

Unless you and I can take responsibility to bridge that divide — unless “we” can admit that “they” are truly “us” and that “their” children are “our” children — then we are standing in the way of healing that division.

The ongoing emergency in our poorer neighborhoods is our greatest moral scandal. With their grinding poverty and their unconsoled victims and relatives whose bodies and minds have been wounded by violence, Richmond and the many places like it stand as searing indictments of our society's greed and selfishness. The violence and the tattered social fabric of Richmond is a poignant expression of the outrage — more than that, the unutterable pain — of priceless children of God who have been told, with words and the bleeding wounds of a million injustices large and small, that they are People Who Don't Matter.

Why do I care about Richmond, and write about it often? Because I want all the children of the friends I left behind to run carefree through the fields of America, turning their face to the sun — weeping with gratitude, as I did, that they have been delivered from their suffering. I want “their” children and “our” children to be friends and peers and neighbors.

And I want those children’s children to roll their eyes whenever Dad lectures them about how tough things used to be back in the ’hood, just as I rolled my eyes when my father talked about trudging through snowdrifts to school.

Originally posted to mftalbot on Thu Jun 12, 2014 at 07:30 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Very nicely done (13+ / 0-)

    The sooner that folks realize that we all travel the same road together, the sooner that so may seemingly insurmountable problems will simply evaporate.

    I am a warrior for peace. And not a gentle man... Steve Mason, 1940-2005

    by Wayward Wind on Thu Jun 12, 2014 at 08:00:52 AM PDT

  •  Beautifully written and moving. (10+ / 0-)

    There was a jarring note for me, though. I lived in Emeryville, Richmond's poorer and rougher neighbor to the North, on the flats between the projects and the glue factory, choking on the stench of rendering animals. Same year, six months older than you. Only non-black family in who knows how far.

    But somehow I never felt that fear, experienced that trauma you discuss. Yeah, the projects two blocks up had a bad reputation and made me a little nervous walking home at night. Yeah, my uncle and I had to chase down gangs of kids on a couple of occasions to embarrass them in front of their elders into returning the things they stole. Yeah, we'd hear bullets whizzing overhead on occasion. But I can't say I ever felt personally threatened, or didn't do something like go out at night due to fear. They were good people, our neighbors.

    I, too, felt a great relief in my chest when we moved back out into the country. But in my case, it was simply being able to take a deep breath without choking on the smog.

    •  Emeryville can be pretty sketchy... (7+ / 0-)

      ...but I was in a support group for survivors of violent crime. Some of my fellow group members lived in East Oakland, and even they were like, "Shit - you grew up in Richmond??"

      And yeah, some of my neighbors were incredible people. I've written about them before, too.

      The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts. -Bertrand Russell

      by mftalbot on Thu Jun 12, 2014 at 12:26:47 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Beautifully written, powerful, moving. (7+ / 0-)

    Wonderful use of that transformative pain and guilt.  Wise words.

    Not all people are human; not all humans are people.

    by Jon Sitzman on Thu Jun 12, 2014 at 09:35:58 AM PDT

  •  I think that... (8+ / 0-)

    we need to also think in terms of not rescuing kids from places... But in terms of how to transform those places as well...

    This is a beautiful diary...

    Our country can survive war, disease, and poverty... what it cannot do without is justice.

    by mommyof3 on Thu Jun 12, 2014 at 09:39:26 AM PDT

  •  Incredibly moving! (6+ / 0-)

    And I'd like to concur that Richmond citizens are very creative, smart, hard-working people who have been at the forefront of foreclosure reform through the use of eminent domain, and very powerful and effective environmental justice activists working to bring the very dangerous Chevron refineries into compliance with the law and with basic human rights.

    If they weren't weighed down with so many burdens, they'd be as well-known and celebrated as Silicon Valley's entrepreneurs.

  •  Lived in the East Bay (4+ / 0-)

    for 15 years, and worked sometimes in Richmond. Richmond was always tough and so were the bordering areas in El Cerrito.

    Like mommyof3, I'd like to see Richmond transformed, some places have the views, and there's a lot of Bay shoreline.

    The lost blue collar jobs that used to be at the Ford plant or the Safeway warehouse need to come back in some form and hire locally.

    Richmond's problems are deeper than living next to Chevron. Benicia (and other nearby towns) have refineries too.

    “The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” ― Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

    by 6412093 on Thu Jun 12, 2014 at 12:06:43 PM PDT

  •  Beautifully expressed, mftalbot (5+ / 0-)

    Like this diary very much.

    "Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich."--Napoleon

    by Diana in NoVa on Thu Jun 12, 2014 at 12:21:17 PM PDT

  •  Nicely done - but this addresses the effects, (13+ / 0-)

    not the basic cause. It's actually fairly simple, really; here's how it works... Every . Single . Time:

    1. New small business sets up shop in a neighborhood and begins work.

    2. Hard, nose-to-the-grindstone work and long hours starts to pay off. Sales blossom. Production capacity needs to expand, requiring upgraded equipment, more employees. Incorporation, property acquisition, re-tooling for expansion. The word goes out on the street - available employment!

    3. Product really takes off. Demand skyrockets. Business hires consultants to help manage expansion. Temporary local expansion requires many more employees, capital expenditures on new technology to handle output.

    4. Local government enjoys resultant payroll, business and property tax revenue; starts spending spree on new City Hall, cops renegotiate employment agreements for cushy retirements and health care that out-strips the public they protect, politicians give themselves multiple congratulatory salary increases.

    5. New product lines, increasing demand require branching out to multiple locations locally to preserve company infrastructure. Steady growth, thousands of tax-paying employees and a growing Middle Class with clean, safe schools, smooth, pot hole-free streets and pervasive retail centers abound

    6. Original start up owners are now members of board of directors with consultants and middle management. Consultants announce that further growth and market share is unsustainable without cutting operations costs and minimizing tax liability. They propose offshoring manufacturing and the use of tax havens. Original owners are overruled in a boardroom vote and the layoffs begin.

    7. Employee numbers dwindle as layoffs proceed. City coffers begin to dry up as payroll, business and property tax revenues plummet.

    8. City services dry up - roads go to  hell, schools fall into disrepair, enrollment shrivels, police leave for greener pastures after city nullifies their employment agreements - but the city hall staff keeps their handsome salaries to congratulate themselves on successful union-busting. City Hall begins to re-zone vacant land and old unoccupied commercial real estate for foreign investors to build massive condominiums in order to hope for future property tax revenue, although there are no long-term job expansion plans anywhere to be seen and no political will to keep businesses from migrating.

    9. Graffiti starts to blossom on highway overpasses, kids get maimed and killed from stray gunfire, violent crime escalates. Unemployed parents lose hope and self respect. Family units disintegrate. Children become feral and vicious without family structure, discipline and hope.

    10. Original business owners sell their shares in the company they started, move their families to villas in the South of France and never look back. The original business itself now relies on foreign labor, foreign raw materials and foreign production standards to make their products. Revenue goes to off-shore tax havens and hidden from IRS scrutiny through multiple loopholes created by bribed politicians, while the new management lives in gated communities in the U.S. receiving all of the benefits and contributing little if anything to them.

    SO WHAT KIND OF IDIOT THINKS THAT THIS CURRENT CAPITALIST BUSINESS MODEL IN THIS COUNTRY WORKS? What possible benefit does a community get from people without work, governments without money, kids without schools, roads without pavements and people without hope? The only people who benefit from this model are the unregulated capitalists that are destroying our country - town by town, neighborhood by neighborhood, street by street.

    Without these basics in place - jobs, responsible local government and corporate regulations with teeth - any chance to rebuild places like Benecia, Richmond and others is a distant dream.

    •  Absolutrly right (6+ / 0-)

      The antidote to all those things is a revival of the New Deal. Everything in the political economy calls for it, but we are not allowed to do that.

      Liberals are allowed to make progress in the cultural issues they care about, but anything that might restrain the wealth and power of the people that finance the campaigns of both parties is "not this year" or "no one wants that" or "but some Senator in Nebrahoma said somethingt ignorant about some minority group. Let's you and him fight."

      WE. NEED. A. NEW. NEW. DEAL.

      The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts. -Bertrand Russell

      by mftalbot on Thu Jun 12, 2014 at 06:26:05 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Thank you for caring about the impoverished in (5+ / 0-)

    America. Our country has so much wealth but increasingly it's being held by so few. I don't know that things will ever get better.

    I was talking to my wife just tonight about this subject. We were comparing things to Korea and other places. I really like it here and don't want to leave. Too old maybe.

    But thanks for caring.

    “Conservation… is a positive exercise of skill and insight, not merely a negative exercise of abstinence and caution…” Aldo Leopold

    by ban nock on Thu Jun 12, 2014 at 04:38:14 PM PDT

  •  I'm touched (4+ / 0-)

    not only your openness to sharing, but also at your skill in the telling.
    The increasingly difficult bridge of societal mobility and unavoidable climate change appear poised to result in a calamitous future.

    "the northern lights have seen queer sights, but the queerest they ever did see. Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge, I cremated Sam McGee". - Robert Service, Bard of the Yukon

    by Joe Jackson on Fri Jun 13, 2014 at 02:13:17 AM PDT

  •  Very Eloquent! Share It! (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    4Freedom, RiveroftheWest, mftalbot

    This is a touching diary about someone looking back and caring!

    It sort of shames many of the pie fights that occur here over issues that are dwarfed by the simple act here of wanting more for someone else less fortunate than oneself.

    Thanks! a million times!

    This diary needs to be sent to a wider audience, and sharing it on social media would be a very good move.

    Social justice is part of the implication of loving thy neighbor. - Frances Perkins

    by paz3 on Fri Jun 13, 2014 at 09:16:09 AM PDT

  •  This diary could have been written about (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RiveroftheWest, mftalbot

    so many communities in our country. The impoverishment of American workers due to outsourcing has taken a toll on our nation, and Richmond, CA, is but one example.

    Anyone with an iota of caring for their fellow humans knows we have to act to stop this.

    Thanks for the well-told tale that could be replicated in communities across America.

    I'm for truth, no matter who tells it. I'm for justice, no matter who it's for or against. ~ Malcolm X -8.62 -8.36

    by 4Freedom on Fri Jun 13, 2014 at 09:24:14 AM PDT

  •  namaste (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mftalbot

    Der Weg ist das Ziel

    by duhban on Fri Jun 13, 2014 at 10:18:34 AM PDT

  •  I dunno... I'm looking out my window here (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mftalbot

    at 46th and Wall, watching the neighborhood children play happily and ride their scooters and throw the football back and forth in the street. Two blocks over some of them are flying a kite. And soon the ice cream truck will pull through and they'll go mad with sugary frenzy as only kids can.

    I know, this is El Cerrito, not Richmond. Fully 94804 though, no Beirut-esque war zone here.

    "Some of you are going to die... martyrs, of course, to the Freedom that I will provide!"

    by emperor nobody on Fri Jun 13, 2014 at 03:58:31 PM PDT

    •  now their scooter got messed up (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      mftalbot

      and I fixed it with an Allen wrench... still no helicopters, gunfire, prostitution or mention of dangerous drugs. Still light out though... I'll give it a chance to get dark so the atavistic, remorselessly nihilistic mayhem can commence.

      "Some of you are going to die... martyrs, of course, to the Freedom that I will provide!"

      by emperor nobody on Fri Jun 13, 2014 at 06:42:18 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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