Monthly Archives: October 2015

Art + buses + community = life (part II)

My former coworker, Kate, bus (and bike) mama extraordinaire, moved from Tacoma to St. Louis over the summer. Kate and her crew are so far enjoying the transit life in a city that offers service after 7 PM (ahem) and have wasted no time integrating themselves into their new community.

Last Saturday, they attended a birthday party for the Gateway Arch and painted a bus.

Bus painting in STL

[O]n Saturday, October 24, children and adults [transformed] a 35-foot MetroBus into a rolling work of art that will travel on routes in St. Louis County and the City of St. Louis over the next year.

You guys. You guys.

How cool would it be to see a bus you helped paint rolling through your neighborhood? How cool would it be to ride on one? What a beautiful way to foster feelings of belonging and build community!

Transit agency/arts organization types who are reading: Make this happen in your area.

Respect to those who came before, part V (Or, Why we need Indigenous People’s Day)

Last Thursday, I heard a story on my local public radio station about the “remaking” of Seattle. The host interviewed geology writer David Williams about his book, which details a series of landscape-transforming projects — razing hills, filling in tide flats, and cutting a canal between two lakes — undertaken by white settlers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. According to Williams, Seattle’s forefathers chose the site for their city based on its useful deep water port, but they found the actual landscape — hilly, and covered with rivers and trees — to be unworkable for their purposes. So, they decided to change it.

During the interview, Mr. Williams described these settlers’ actions as “bold,” “naïve,” and “ambitious.” He even called them insecure, based on his belief that early Seattleites wanted their city to be considered “world class” but weren’t sure it quite measured up.

I paid close attention to Williams’s version of the story, because, only a few weeks earlier, I had seen the documentary Princess Angeline at an event at the Duwamish Longhouse. The film addresses these very same projects, but from the perspective of the Duwamish people, who were the original inhabitants of the land that became Seattle. Far from improving the “habitability” of their homeland, the landscape-altering projects completely destroyed the Duwamish way of life.


But there was not a single mention of the Duwamish people — by Mr. Williams or by the host — in the entire seven-minute interview. There was no talk of violence, greed, or racism, despite the fact that the rivers the Duwamish had used for sustenance and travel for thousands of years were either filled with dirt from the razed hills or poisoned by all of the rapid “progress.” Instead, the interview encouraged listeners to imagine brave, industrious settlers taming an empty (and troublesome) landscape.

This kind of revisionist history, this kind of erasure, happens again and again in the ways we talk about our city — and our country. It reinforces the myth that the United States was founded by pilgrims and pioneers who discovered an empty, resource-rich land and built an exceptional nation. We rarely trouble ourselves with the inconvenient fact that the land was already inhabited when these adventurous, freedom-loving pioneers arrived. Nor do we consider that their descendants continue to live among us.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a talk by one of my favorite writers, Isabel Wilkerson. Ms. Wilkerson is the author of The Warmth of Other Suns, a history — viewed through three first-person accounts — of the Great Migration of former slaves from the American south to northern cities. The Warmth of Other Suns is easily the greatest work of nonfiction I have ever read, and Wilkerson is an extremely thoughtful and sensitive scholar and writer, attuned to the stories of people who are discounted and marginalized.

And yet, at the end of her talk, she emphasized that each of us in the audience, by virtue of the fact that we were in Seattle, were the descendants of migrants, people who had come from somewhere else in search of a better life. She was doing so to illustrate the parallels between the participants in the Great Migration and immigrants who came from other lands. But her statement involved a basic assumption: that no one in the audience (and by extension, no one in the city) was a descendant of the people who are native to this region.

When we receive — and repeat — these kids of messages, we are reinforcing the idea that Native people either never existed or are a people of the past. It is easier to believe this than to face the truth. But we must face it. We must learn as much as we can about what happened, what was lost, and how we can forge a more just path forward.

Duwamish people in canoes on the Duwamish River

So I am beyond pleased that we have decided as a city to honor, celebrate, and especially, to hear the people whose land we now occupy.

Happy holiday, everyone. See you at the celebration?

On cars and community

My love of the bus has always had its roots in a deep craving for community. I have written extensively (here and here and here and here and here, for starters) about how my family’s bus-based life has enriched our sense of community and our connection to our city and neighborhood.

And it’s not just about sharing the ride. Living without a car has forced us to participate in our neighborhood in a way we never would have if zipping* all over the region was as easy as jumping in the car. Out of necessity, we play at local parks, attend the local school, shop for groceries at the local store, and get our check-ups at the local clinic. (Our church is the outlier at exactly one mile from home.) We frequent the library, community center, and city pool. And, we regularly socialize with our neighbors. Instead of spending our energy searching for something “perfect,” we focus on enjoying — and occasionally, improving — what is available. This way of living has added a richness and sense of belonging to our lives that is nothing less than magical.

But for all its community-building benefits, our carfree life also has a disconnecting influence. We have a network of family and close friends that spans the entire region, and we don’t see them nearly as much as we’d like to. Traveling long distances by bus is fine for adventures, but it’s not something you “fit in” to your day; it is the day. Almost as soon as you arrive at your destination, you’re figuring out how you’re going to get back.

So, we rarely eat Sunday dinner with my youngest brother and his family in Tacoma, or spend a spontaneous afternoon with close friends in Renton or Kirkland. We skip most birthday parties that are held at transit-inaccessible venues — in other words, most birthday parties**. We leave evening gatherings earlier than everyone else, because waiting for a transfer with two small people after dark is not my idea of a good time.

It is very important to us  to be connected to the Black community– both for our own social well-being and to foster a strong sense of identity in our children. While we are definitely connected to Black folks through family, church, and neighborhood friendships, we don’t participate in some of the organizations and institutions — specifically, those aimed at connecting Black families — we would otherwise be a part of. With Seattle’s small Black community now so dispersed — “automobility” is essentially a requirement.

Of course we know about (and occasionally use) carsharing, but, with car seats to schlep and no cars nearby, it’s not especially convenient or desirable for us. More than anything, the need to use a car regularly to feel connected reinforces how integral cars are to the way we practice community in the United States in 2015.

I don’t see a path to changing the way of life in this country so radically that cars (or for that matter, airplanes) are no longer necessary for maintaining relationships. Our culture is too mobile and often more focused on opportunity than community. But certainly, we can all work to build connections with the people we share our neighborhoods with. We can think of the places we choose to live as more than just access points to all the other places we want to go. Rather, we can think of them as the places where we build our lives.

As the late activist (and Bus Chick shero) Grace Lee Boggs said, one of “the most radical things [we can do] is stay put.”

* I should note that traveling around this region by car involves very little zipping—hello traffic!—but you get the point.
** Having a few friends over for cake (ahem) apparently does not cut it anymore.