My Iron Tri-Angel: An Urban Neighborhood Seeks to Tell Its Own Story

19 05 2010

My Iron Tri-Angel:
An Urban Neighborhood Seeks To Tell Its Own Story
By Jordan Simmons (an excerpt from the full article)

My iron tri-angel,
You have with your damaged wings swept the white chalk from where
Syetha’s body’s outline lay quickly sketched on the pavement.
And whenever she laughs now, all the tears of the saints
Are close by. Still, what did she leave us?
I hit the spring-board and somersault up to the basketball net, legs wide
Open, and facing down before I dunk, I pray:
Little girls everywhere, little sisters everywhere,
Be careful when you cross the street.
Be careful when they shoot.
Be careful.

—From “My Iron Tri Angel” a new work-in-progress of th
Iron Triangle Theater Company, Richmond, California

community art“Just because you’re poor, it doesn’t mean you’re spiritually dead. Art comes from within. Soul: sometimes we lose touch of it in day-to-day struggle. We can help people come back to themselves. It is the easiest way to express that one is alive. When you create a piece, something that people can relate to or react to, it acknowledges that you are alive. “ — Anthony Allen, resident of Richmond’s
Iron Triangle Neighborhood

Here is an introduction to the Iron Triangle Legacy Project, a collective work led by East Bay Center for the Performing Arts and a ten-member advisory committee of neighborhood residents and activists. The work of the project is to tell the story of Richmond’s Iron Triangle, a neighborhood whose tale has been told by others in the media often enough, and deserves to be told by its own residents. The arts play an important part in the telling of this tale, and in the crafting of the project.

The Iron Triangle is a neighborhood in Richmond, California, of about 18,000 residents. Richmond’s overall population of 110,00 is rich in culture and heritage, and yet it has suffered from disproportionate urban blight and economic depression since its industrial heyday as a WWII shipyard, loomed over by one of the largest oil refineries on the West Coast and divided by railroad lines — hence the “iron triangle.” In 2004, both the local school district and the city made national news with their near bankruptcy. Since then, local public schools are regularly threatened with closure for failing to meet minimal national and/or state standards. “The Triangle,” as it is commonly referred to in Richmond, once a vibrant immigrant portal, is now a historical icon, marking the post-WWII migration of southern African Americans to the West Coast (many finding work in the Kaiser shipyards between 1941 and 1944); a destination neighborhood for California’s Mexican-American newcomers since the 1960s, and, since the 1980s, for refugees from the Southeast Asia Indo-China conflicts, especially from Laos.
Headline in the San Francisco Chronicle about violence in Richmond/Iron TriangleClick here to enlarge

For some time, Richmond as a whole has been ranked among the most dangerous cities in the country based on FBI crime statistics. The Iron Triangle District stands out as an epicenter of reoccurring violence. With 27 percent of the city’s population, the East Bay Center’s neighborhood suffers 42 percent of the city’s violent crime, and most of its murders.

More recently, during the housing bubble, our neighborhood endured the flight of blue-collar families. Unfortunately, the recession has left current residents experiencing massive foreclosures while, simultaneously, new housing and civic construction projects stall or face slow-downs.

Part of the story of the Triangle has gotten widespread attention. In October/November 2009, the national news media were grimly focused on a brutal gang rape at a local high school following a homecoming dance. Floods of reporters and outsiders questioned how something like that assault could happen with a large crowd of bystanders doing nothing, even as others wrestled with the ironic image of affluent individuals and adjacent communities — and the nation — passively consuming, day after day, the repeating media story from the sidelines.

These particular kinds of intense media events have brought into focus a recognizable, historical question: Who defines the nature of a community? And — while acknowledging the realities of crime and poverty as well as legacies of systemic violence and oppression — who will envision what the neighborhood will be like in the coming years, how residents can speak for themselves, tell their own stories and interpret the trajectory of stories like the ones above in more than hit-and-run interviews?

As the years have passed, numerous dialogues among coalitions of community leaders, service providers and residents have been established, seeking answers and priorities for the Triangle. Over and over, the issues of basic safety, access to health services for children, effective pre-K-12 public schools and the resources to address those aspirations return as cornerstone themes, while sub-themes like disproportionate minority contact with the justice system (notably among youth) emerge as interwoven burning subjects of concern.

As the coalitions and service providers — themselves struggling to find resources to improve their work — try their best to improve the area, another recognizable issue, perhaps best posed as a question, runs alongside: Why do we let it be this way? Or, as neighborhood resident and community organizer Richard Boyd put it:

What is the problem that doesn’t get officials down here? Are we not allowing them (to ignore us) by not asking them or fighting to get them down here? Here, to 8th Street. Are we used to it? We need to inspire them not to be afraid to come. You cannot accept not having cleaning on your street.

Background to the Legacy Project

In May 2004, the Koshland Program of The San Francisco Foundation began a four-year partnership with the Iron Triangle neighborhood of Richmond. Twelve community leaders were chosen to receive an award for their previous community work and to form an advisory group that was charged with spearheading a community planning process and determining distribution of money used to fund efforts that promoted civic unity and improved the quality of life within the community. During the next four years, a directory of community services was produced, neighborhood events were sponsored, and more than 30 small grants were given out for projects in the community. These projects ranged from elder respite care to support for young expecting immigrant mothers, an environmental-themed mentorship program for young African-American youth, Guatemalan dance classes, youth organizing efforts, money-management assistance for seniors and a project aimed at reaching out and providing support to incarcerated men from the neighborhood about to be released back to the area. As successful as each of those projects were, as the Koshland project time period wore down and many of individuals in the advisory group were called to other priorities, the steering committee looked at two questions: How could the learning, relationships and continuity of the group be extended, and how might the work take on more collective focus and impact?
Break-dance statue in a park in the Iron Triangle at Harbor Way and Macdonald Avenue Click here to enlarge

Ultimately, the group decided on transferring the responsibility for future grants and program development to East Bay Center for the Performing Arts. One of the Koshland fellows (myself) was the artistic director of the Center, and the Center had administered the neighborhood grants over the four years, hosted gatherings and committed to raising the resources that would be needed to continue the work. Based on the experiences to date, a revised focus was established: telling the story of the Triangle. The artistic/cultural work to be produced and presented was envisioned as embracing as wide a variety of expression as the interests of the roughly 18,000 neighborhood members might bring forth: photo exhibits, essays, short films (animation, documentary, drama) and plays, dramatic interpretations from interviews with residents of the neighborhood, dance works and dance theater, poetry and fiction readings, poetry slams, musical and song compositions, Web site art work, paintings, sculptures, documentation of site-specific art installations, cultural ceremonies and rituals.

In this work, the current advisory committee anticipates actively involving more than 250 community members and a dozen professional artists through hands-on workshops, self-determined mini-grant projects, production committees, technical/artistic assistance and performances, as well as drawing 2,500 local audience members to site-specific events timed to the Center’s Winters Building month-long reopening series in early 2011.Read the rest of this article

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