Are people for their cities, or are cities for their people? Is this a question you think about a lot?
Lisa Braxton has.
I grew up in upstate New York, near Albany, where the grand and massive towers of the Empire State Plaza loom over the South End of the city. As an 80’s child, I took it for granted that the plaza had always been there. When you’re a kid, anything older than twenty years is ancient.
In high school, I read author William Kennedy’s “O, Albany,” and learned that before the Plaza existed there was a neighborhood, called “The Gut.” It wasn’t the most upscale of neighborhoods, full of ethnic Italian Catholics, and Governor Nelson Rockefeller was ashamed of it. He swept up forty blocks through eminent domain. (If you’ve read The Talking Drum, you know where I’m going with this.)
Overnight, the neighborhood disappeared, bulldozed into oblivion. Piledriving shoved dirt into the pipe organ in the cathedral next door; it never sang again. The unique culture in that neighborhood was extinguished overnight, and the people scattered. Relationships that were built between families over generations just snapped. Churches were leveled. The community died. My mom’s best friend Maria, who lived there with her family, never saw her friends again.
The neighborhood disappeared so completely I didn’t know it was called “The Gut” until I was thirty-six years old. One of the newspapers I used to work for even had an office there.
Progress, Rockefeller called it.
We have another word for it now: gentrification. Ethnic enclaves ceded to banks and smoothie shops and chain restaurants. Rent that shoots so high the original inhabitants of the neighborhoods can’t afford it. We’ve seen this happen in cities across the country, and it’s at the center of the conflict in The Talking Drum, a wonderful gem of a novel that tackles topics of the immigrant experience, of race, and of class.
‘70s Bellport, a post-industrial city north of Boston, is facing a reckoning. Developers want the city’s Petite Africa section, built of older, wood-frame buildings leveled, so they can build modern buildings like stadiums and offices and condos—but to do it, they’ll have to evict a vibrant community of African immigrants that have built a life there. Into this tinderbox comes Sydney and Malachi Stallworth, a newly-married couple who open a bookstore and cultural center for the local black community.
Sydney grew up in a richer, whiter suburb, so when she moves to working-class, poverty-stricken Bellport, it’s a bit of a culture shock. She’s not used to being part of this kind of tight-knit community, even as she and her husband start a community center. They meet some of the locals—drum genius Omar, an immigrant from Senegal, who wants to found a drumming school; his uncle, a passionate restauranteur; Della, a Southern transplant looking to put her life back together, and more well-defined, wonderful characters.
My favorite novels surround people just being people, and this novel does it so well. There are antagonists here—someone’s burning down buildings in Petite Africa, and it might be connected to the looming building project—but the real enemy is virulent racism, anti-immigrant sentiment and rampant gentrification. From the outside, Petite Africa is old, ramshackle, run-down. But outsiders don’t see the beating heart of the place. They don’t see Esme hanging her clothes on the line or smell Mustapha’s lamb stew or try to understand why Omar is tied to the place. They just see dollar signs.
But Lisa Braxton wants you to see all those things. She helps you see it, painting these characters’ worlds in such brilliant detail that you’ll start to smell the bakeries on the street, too. That you’ll hear the drums in the air and see the bright fabric in the breeze. That you’ll understand that neighborhoods like this are where lives start over, where people can have a new beginning, where the promise of what America should have been from the beginning finally exists.
Which returns us to the question I asked at the beginning.
Are cities for their people, or people for their cities? Gentrifiers would choose the latter, seeing rent-payers and consumers as walking wallets for their investments. Real communities know that cities exist to support the people that live in them, and prefer community-based development.
I would encourage everyone who reads this to not only read The Talking Drum, but to look at the cities they grew up in. Where are the lost neighborhoods, the leveled enclaves, the gentrified areas? Ask yourself: what did we give up to get this?
Was it worth it?
I’m not sure what Bellport looks like in 2020, but I hope there’s a building there where you can still hear the drums.
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