October 22, 2014

THE FACE OF GENTRIFICATION: "One City One Story" at 5 Years

Below is the text of a leaflet for Boston Book Festival 2014:

For the fifth year in a row the Boston Book Festival has failed to select a story by an African American or Latina/o author for their flagship One City One Story (1C1S) program. One of those citywide “Big Reads” currently in fashion around the nation, the program prints 30,000 booklet copies of a short story by a local author and distributes them for free in libraries, bookstores, and coffee shops around the region. The story serves as the platform for a number of reading and discussion activities, all leading up to a big Q&A with the author at the festival itself. The program, according to its organizers, is intended to promote literacy and “create a community around a shared reading experience.”

With the selection of Jennifer’s Haigh’s “Sublimation” 1C1S enters its fifth year, and we can now get a clear picture of just what sort of “community” the program has in mind:

The book festival’s idea of “community” is blatantly unrepresentative of the real Boston, which by the 2010 Census had at last become a “majority minority” city, in which people of color make up around 53%:

Black or African American            24%
Latino/a or Hispanic                      18%
Asian                                                   9%
Other                                                  2%
So-called “White”                           47%

Now here’s the breakdown for 1C1S:  2 white men (Tom Perrotta in 2010 and Richard Russo in 2011), 2 white women (Anna Solomon in 2012 and this year’s Jennifer Haigh), and 1 South Asian woman (Rishi Reddi in 2013). That’s 80% white and 20% Asian = 100%!

Boston is at least 42% Black or Latino, but 100% locked out of One City One Story. It’s the “literary” equivalent of a gated community.

It’s not like there’s a shortage of Black or Latina/o writers who have significant ties to the region. If it’s marquee names you’re looking for, there’s Junot Diaz, Jamaica Kincaid, Julia Alvarez, and John Edgar Wideman. Both Michael Thomas and Danzy Senna were born and raised in Boston even if they now live elsewhere. Closer to home we have Laura K Warrell, Jennifer De Leon, Marcus Burke, Iris Gomez, and others. Chapters from Burke’s novel, Team Seven, or Gomez’s Try to Remember would’ve made first-rate One City One Story choices.

Of course it’s not up to us to do the BBF’s homework for them. If you claim to speak for “the community,” you should know what you’re talking about. But of the 45 people listed on their website’s Who We Are page, only 2 are African American and none Hispanic – again a laughable (and lamentably tokenistic) proportion considering Boston’s real demographics. Instead, their Board of Directors is a miniature Who’s Who of the region’s white plutocracy, with a hedge fund banker, a marketing research CEO, a senior investment officer; people with decades of experience in places like Salomon Brothers and Goldman Sachs who push causes like corporate “education reform.”

But even if the BBF organizers are ignorant about the community, that’s not the biggest scandal here – it’s that they don’t give a fuck. They are in fact quite consciously and deliberately constructing the community they want, as part of a process unfortunately familiar to us all: gentrification.

Local literary institutions such as Grub Street, the Boston Book Festival, and others are currently congratulating themselves on the founding of the so-called Boston Literary District, stretching from downtown to the Back Bay. A recent report in DigBoston by Dan Shewan exposed the top-down and closed-door manner in which the project was undertaken, suggesting that it has more to do with commerce than culture and will help property developers and the hospitality industry a lot more than writers, readers, and the community at large. Indeed, even the state body governing the creation of such districts admits that their purpose is to “enhance property values”, i.e., gentrification.

As Boston’s working class people of all races struggle with spiraling rents, Black and Latino/Hispanic youth face additional pressures such as the racist stop-and-frisk policies of the Boston Police Department, revealed earlier this month by the ACLU. The Boston Book Festival and their One City One Story program enact a cultural violence on the same continuum, policing urban space on behalf of the white ruling class and its professional-managerial servants and supporters (the festival’s target audience). But a genuinely thriving culture will never arise from ethnic cleansing and apartheid. Another Boston is possible, and a very different – and more diverse – book festival along with it.