Money and Meaning
Wednesday, February 15, 2006
If you can, catch PBS's recently broadcast July '64. It's a terrific documentary that starts with the reading of Langston Hugh's poem, "A Dream Deferred," a pungent portrait of the connection between value and identity, and the violence that can erupt when such ties are ignored. A film about the 1964 Rochester race riots that sparked the first National Guard intervention in a northern city, the documentary's elegant simplicity inspires thought about race, class, cultural assimilation (or its opposite), and even film making or media. But ultimately it had me mulling over the powerful human relationship to money that is less about objective "things" than about what those things provide, namely meaning.
Composed primarily of basic interviews (head shots) with survivors of the riots, it's only other narrative is periodic sprinkles of archival news footage. And beyond the film's poetic beginnings that frame the post WWII northern migration of rural southern African-Americans as well as some 1960s footage promoting Rochester's economic vibrancy, this is a film whose power is rooted in listening to story tellers who speak with authority. There are genuine visual fireworks just in watching the emotion in the eyes of the folks who lived this tale. Here are the basics of their story.
It's the early 1960s. An economically vibrant Rochester is busy selling itself as a city of stable, clean industries and stable, clean people. Kodak, Bausch & Laumb, Xerox, are a few among the many that make Rochester the Silicon Valley of its day, a center of new-tech thinking and progressive brands. But political pundit Jack Germond, who started off in this city, tells the film makers that along with the success came a pervasive smugness - an overwhelming sense that nothing could go wrong in Rochester because there was absolutely nothing in wrong in Rochester. Everyone's kids were supposed to be pretty and grow old living pretty (remind anyone of Palo Alto and Redmond, or the American tech brands and China?).
As other of the film's narrators recall about 1960s Rochester, life was not so good for everyone. In 1964, there were fewer than 9,000 black people in this bustling upstate New York city, an amount so small that one participant remembers being greeted by an Episcoplian priest her first day in town with "hello, you're new here, aren't you?". But for all its unemployment, there was little welcome for these African-American newcomers from the vibrant industries that surrounded them. Ultimately, with little money for housing, they found themselves segregated to a few "wards," exploited by market-savvy real estate landlords, who got them into one family homes suddenly divied-up to make room for multiple dwellings. Again, watching the film's story tellers share their memories, soft and gentle voices belie eyes that generate enormous amounts of emotion: sadness, anger, and confusion.
A man whose father worked as a garbage man, remembers being a teenager repeatedly trying to get a job at Kodak. Initially stonewalled, he was finally told to go away. Constance Mitchell, a lifelong activist who remembers a warm relationship with the then-police chief, talks about the epithets tossed at her by other policemen when she tried to visit him after he was injured. It should be said, such emotion is across the board, whoever is talking, white or black (including musician Chuck Mangione and his brother, whose father owned a small grocery store in the poorer section of town). If Rochester was thriving, a growing population within it was not taking part. Well, as they say in the claustrophobic backstages of the theater, "murder lurks." One very hot night in July, things exploded.
The logistics were classic. A party doesn't end. Someone gets drunk. Cops show up. Comments are made. Someone reacts a bit too much. And then... bedlam. In the violence that breaks out, you can see something characteristic of all such explosions. The word that captures it is this: glee. Whether it's the wards of Rochester, the back alleys of the West Bank, or the suburban ghettos of Paris, initially it's always the same. Not so much the clear sadness of poverty. Rather it's the momentary esctasy of a mob who has suddenly found a way to cut psychic chains bestowed by a simultaneously abstract and specific unaccoutable authority - (ex. "whites," "Jews," or "the French"). Energy unbound. Passion liberated. The joy! In the news reel footage of Rochester (which includes whites rioting as well as blacks), except for grim faced cops what we see is the excitement of the rioters. Such violence, whatever the logic, rationale or pathetic excuses, ultimately is self-destructive. But at that moment, life (judging from a lot of the film footage) is an adrenline rush. Even if the aftermath is the opposite, in this movie showing stunned, sorrowful middle-aged white shopowners, one of them bursting into tears.
Whenever someone repeats the old maxim "it's all about money and marketing," I cringe because the "it" suggests that by dint of being born we are slaves to such conditions, and it's far from true. Riots are testament to the intrinsic need not for money or object but to belong and be acknowledged. Such violence ultimately defeats itself, because it robs all involved of dignity and worth. And it does so in piercingly long term ways, whether it's among black and white Americans or Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq. As the film points out, conditions for African-Americans in Rochester have only gotten worse. Of course, the conditions for whites, working and middle class, have also suffered. Much of the city's problems are due to the changing nature of global business and technology. And perhaps that is one of the areas where the film is especially pertinent. Kodak and Xerox may continue to be strong brands, but not in Rochester. Economies change. So does the culture. Did the riots impact these businesses? Probably a lot less than they impacted the populace, whatever color, who were left when the big companies moved on.
A few of the speakers point out that African-Americans continue to be unseen. That their dreams will constantly be deferred by a system that can't acknowledge them. The larger challenge to me (indeed the global question) is less about confronting racial barriers than those involving class and culture. An illustration. A few hours before watching the film, I talked with Ray Montoya, a friend in Albuquerque whose family has roots in New Mexico dating back to the Spanish land grants and to Geronimo. When a Montoya gets married, they sometimes have to hold the wedding at the Convention Center. Some of Ray's cousins are cops. Some of them are outlaws. Most of them are just hard working New Mexicans.
I met Ray working on a building crew in the 1980s. He taught me how to frame houses. But his real love was classic cars. He drove a '55 Chevy that he had restored to give to his daughter (now a mom, herself). Ray had left school at age 16 to work in New Mexico's uranium mines. After five years he returned to Albuquerque and bought a piece of land on Coors Blvd., off of the old Route 66, and a mile from the garage his dad owned where Ray had grown up.
Ray built himself his own garage, and then he started rebuilding old convertibles, cars he'd find anywhere between the flats of West Texas and the mesas of eastern Arizona's Indian reservations. Ray scouted the land for ancient cars with the same pleasure some of his Apache anscestors hunted. And with equal reverance for that which he hunted and the land on which it lay. Behind Ray's own property lay empty miles of land, acreage on which he had raced horses and hunted as a child. As time went on, builders started developing those lands. The suburban developments raised property taxes. The state started to try to kick Ray off his land to widen the road outside his house. This part of Albquerque, the so-called South Valley, was traditionally Chicano, while the Anglos took the more California like eastern edge of the foothills. "Jonathan, they're trying to get all us Chicanos out," Ray told me a few years ago.
Last night Ray told me he was finally ready to move on. He'd traded some cars for acreage in a rural area down around the Plains of Saint Augustin. Recently, his dog Raggy (who is half-wolf) had gone after a dog-catcher. When the dog catcher went after Raggy, as Ray remembers, then he "went after the dog catcher, and then the cops came after me, and then my wife went after the cops, and it was looking like we were gonna have a good old party when I forget what happened but we decided to let our foolishness die down and just pay a bunch of damn tickets." I asked him about what he'd do with his car business. "There's things more important than money" he told me. "You can't just live around here and be who you are. Time to move on. A lot less people down there."
As That's Capital explore today's post-Rochester world, specifically our post-Katina America, it will be useful to look at where money and economics plays out racially and culturally as groups confront dangers, opportunities and change. The memories of those who experienced Rochester's 1964 riots, and Ray Montoya's experience as a Chicano in a modern Southwest city may be years and miles apart. But they both point to the way dignity and meaning are rooted in a tapestry of parts - whether it's decent jobs, refurbished American cars, or just the ability of us, our children, and our dogs to roam free.