An SFGate.com article from a couple of months ago, about communal living among techies in San Francisco, caught my eye recently. Have a look.
Writing about San Francisco’s changing neighborhoods — a gentrification crisis according to some, a renaissance according to others — has become quite the fashion in recent months and weeks. I can only assume many of these journalists were inspired by my devastating analysis of census data earlier this month.
The subject has been especially popular of late, but change in San Francisco is nothing new. Even change from the tech boom(s), while reaching a fever pitch in the last couple of years, has been going on since the 1990s. And many of us who feel so pained by the loss and/or change of the City’s vibrant communities would do well to remember the variety of incarnations it has been through in the last century and a half, right up until recent decades. When my parents moved to Bernal Heights in the late 1970s, my dad remembers going to a community meeting at St. Kevin’s church on Cortland, in which some participants said they were uncomfortable that many of their new neighbors were gay. At the time, Bernal was a very ethnically mixed neighborhood, with an especially large number of Latinos. My dad reminded people at the meeting of the backlash many Latinos faced a generation before when they moved into the largely Irish Mission. The meeting took a different course at that point, he says.
Change is the only constant in San Francisco, to use an unavoidable cliché, and the City has distinguished itself by its ability to embrace it, while maintaining some sense of continuity.
Sara Brody has some interesting thoughts on this over at The Bold Italic, though I take small issue with the headline, “Don’t Let Gentrification Push You Out of SF,” since in many cases it is only the most privileged vestiges of San Francisco’s old communities that actually have a choice about “letting” gentrification push them out. Most who have moved, at least the renters, left not as a matter of taste because they couldn’t afford it any more. Involuntary movement is a tragedy, always.
That being said, though, Brody raises some excellent points, the most important one for me being the uselessness of bitterness. Bitterness about change is part of an essential paradox of San Francisco, a city more liberal and welcoming than almost any, but with a deep and almost conservative devotion to its history. This paradox is almost never resolved. I’ve met descendants of old-time Irish San Franciscans who moved out of the City in the 1960s and still lament how it will never be the same. On the other hand, there are others who stayed if they could, remained involved in the new communities, and maybe even started calling Eureka Valley the Castro. (For a good account of these diverging reactions, read The Mayor of Castro Street)
So, to get to the (damn) point of this post: I just read John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, the account of a 1960 cross-country trip the native northern Californian, then resident in New York, took around America with his dog. A significant section deals with his reflections on the Bay, noting what was still there, and reminiscing about what wasn’t any longer. Time and again, I found wisdom in Steinbeck’s observations that is deeply relevant — even enlightening — for considering our current times in San Francisco. He is a gentle curmudgeon, one who honors the past while accepting the inevitability of change, especially in our fast-paced times. I think he provides a model for how to relate to the changes in the City. Here are a few excerpts, mostly from his time in Northern California.
On change in mid-century America:
Even while I protest the assembly-line production of our food, our songs, our language, and eventually our souls, I know that it was a rare home that baked good bread in the old days. Mother’s cooking was with rare exceptions poor, the good unpasteurized milk touched only by flies and bits of manure crawled with bacteria, the healthy old-time life was riddled with aches, sudden death from unknown causes, and that sweet local speech I mourn was the child of illiteracy and ignorance. It is the nature of a man as he grows older, a small bridge in time, to protest against change, particularly change for the better. But it is true that we have exchanged corpulence for starvation, and either one will kill us. The lines of change are down. We, or at least I, can have no conception of human life and human thought in a hundred years or fifty years. Perhaps my greatest wisdom is the knowledge that I do not know. The sad ones are those who waste their energy in trying to hold it back, for they can only feel bitterness in loss and no joy in gain.
And on returning to northern California:
I find it difficult to write about my native place, northern California. It should be the easiest, because I knew that strip angled against the Pacific better than any place in the world. But I find it not one thing but many–one printed over another until the whole thing blurs. What it is is warped with memory of what it was and that with what happened there to me, the whole bundle wracked until objectiveness is nigh impossible. This four-lane concrete highway slashed with speeding cars I remember as a narrow twisting mountain road where the wood teams moved, drawn by steady mules. They signaled their coming with the high, sweet jangle of hame bells. This was a little little town, a general store under a tree and a blacksmith shop and a bench in front on which to sit and listen to the clang of hammer on anvil. Now little houses, each one like the next, particularly since they try to be different, spread for a mile in all directions. That was a woody hill with live oaks dark green against the parched grass where the coyotes sang on moonlit nights. The top is shaved off and a television relay station lunges at the sky and feeds a nervous picture to thousands of tiny houses clustered like aphids beside the roads.
And isn’t this the typical complaint? I have never resisted change, even when it has been called progress, and yet I felt resentment toward the strangers swamping what I thought of as my country with noise and clutter and the inevitable rings of junk. And of course these new people will resent newer people. I remember how when I was a child we responded to the natural dislike of the stranger. We who were born here and our parents also felt a strange superiority over newcomers, barbarians, forestieri, and they, the foreigners, resented us…. And we were an outrage to the Spanish-Mexicans and they in their turn on the Indians. Could that be why the sequoias make folks nervous? Those natives were grown trees when a political execution took place on Golgotha. They were well toward middle age when Caesar destroyed the Roman republic in the process of saving it. To the sequoias everyone is a stranger, a barbarian.
And on returning to San Francisco:
When I was a child growing up in Salinas we called San Francisco “the City.” Of course it was the only city we knew, but I still think of it as the City, and so does everyone else who has ever associated with it. A strange and exclusive word is “city.” Besides San Francsico, only small sections of London and Rome stay in the mind as the City. New Yorkers say they are going to town. Paris has no title but Paris. Mexico City is the Capital.
Once I knew the City very well, spent my attic days there, while others were being a lost generation in Paris. I fledged in San Francisco, climbed its hills, slept in its parks, worked on its docks, marched and shouted in its revolts. In a way I felt I owned the City as much as it owned me.
San Francisco put on a show for me. I saw her across the bay from the great road that bypasses Sausalito and enters the Golden Gate Bridge. The afternoon sun painted her white and gold–rising on her hills like a noble city in a happy dream. A city on hills has it over flat-land places. New York makes its own hills with craning buildings, but this gold and white acropolis rising wave on wave against the blue of the Pacific sky was a stunning thing, a painted thing like a picture of a medieval Italian city which can never have existed. I stopped in a parking place to look at her and the necklace bridge over the entrance from the sea that led to her. Over the green higher hills to the south, the evening fog rolled like herds of sheep coming to cote in the golden city. I’ve never seen her more lovely. When I was a child and we were going to the City, I couldn’t sleep for several nights before, out of bursting excitement. She leaves a mark.
And my favorite of all, as we wrap our heads around a city that will be changing, no matter what:
It remained the City I remembered, so confident of its greatness that it can afford to be kind. It had been kind to me in the days of my poverty and it did not resent my temporary solvency.
A sad scene greeted New Yorkers this morning. This …
… had turned into this (photo from the LICPost):
Yes indeed, after a drawn-out battle that seemed pulled from the pages of a break dance movie script (except without the happy ending), world famous Long Island City graffiti installation 5 Pointz is long gone. The owner of the building, who had reportedly done nothing with it for 20 years besides allowing the artists to squat there (so I was told during a tour), is tearing it down to make way for these glorious luxury condominiums. (Photo from Atlantic Cities.)
I only found out about the place a couple of years ago, and it has surprised and delighted each of my NYC guests ever since. It was a true urban gem. I don’t know enough about the legality of the issue to comment much on that dimension of the art’s destruction, but one thing is for sure: the loss of this site is pretty much a major cultural tragedy for New York City. I sort of hope that if there really is 10,000 square feet of blank wall dedicated to aerosol artists’ use in the new development, as has been proposed, it remains mutely white in protest.
Here’s a brief slide show from my first visit to 5 Pointz.
From the beautiful murals that crowd the alleys of the Mission, to the talk show you just listened to on your way home on KPFA, to the jealousy with which it guards its counterculture iconography, San Francisco has a lot of emotional investment in a particular image of the city: caring, diverse, pro-worker, progressive, conscious, sustainable, committed to equality. (Trust me, I’ve spent most of my life in the midst of it.)
As I’ve frequently written on this blog, it feels like the city (the City, if you’re from the 415) is drifting away from these ideals—in the facts on the ground if not in the minds of its residents. So I decided to poke around on the Census website and see what the statistics could tell me. What I discovered was quite stunning: the image of a city behind the curve, with some near-criminal inequalities.
In no particular order, here are the first rounds of what I found. There’s lots of additional data out there, so I hope to expand on this in future posts. Unless otherwise linked, these numbers and images are from the (amazing!) Web site of the United States Census.
San Franciscans are richer than Manhattanites
The median household income in SF is $72,947 to Manhattan’s $67,204, about 8.5 percent higher.
San Francisco may be more unequal than Nigeria
San Francisco’s Gini coefficient (the most common measure of income inequality) was about .52 in 2012 – which, according to World Bank figures, is higher than Nigeria. Here, the city does less poorly compared to others, which I don’t find very comforting. Oakland is about the same, at .52, and Berkeley clocks in at .54. Los Angeles is nearly the same as San Francisco. New York is a bit higher, at .54. Of course, America’s Gini is the highest of the advanced economies, anyway (.476, according to the Census, though different data sources give very different numbers). What is particularly striking to me is income inequality in San Francisco mapped against race, which I describe later in this post.
Fewer kids than other big cities
Persons under 18 years old are 13.5 percent of the population in San Francisco. That compares to notoriously kid-free Manhattan with 14.9 percent. The figure is 15.4 percent in Seattle; 21.3 percent in Oakland; 21.4 percent in San Diego; 21.6 percent in all five boroughs of New York City; 23.1 percent in LA and Chicago; 25.9 percent in Houston.
Not so diverse as we think
“Discover the variety of sites, shops, and restaurants that reflect the City’s great ethnic and cultural diversity.” Thus the Web site of the city of San Francisco greets the city’s visitors. Many San Franciscans do cherish ethnic diversity as a principle, and think of their city as a flag-bearer for it. While that love of diversity is wonderful, in 2013 San Francisco is not looking like much of a flag-bearer, compared to other major cities—regionally and across the country.
More white people
San Francisco is a white-plurality city, with non-Hispanic whites composing 41.7 percent of the population in 2012. (Hereafter, I’ll just use “white” rather than “non-Hispanic white”.) Few would be surprised to hear that this is higher than, say, Oakland (which is 25.9 percent white). But San Francisco is also whiter than California as a whole, at 39.4 percent. San Francisco is less white than Manhattan (47.6 percent), but New York state is far whiter than California, and when we look at all five boroughs of New York, the white population comes down to just 33.3 percent of the total.
And it really gets interesting when you put it in historical perspective: California was 57.2 percent white in 1990; San Francisco 46.6 percent. In other words, since 1990, California as a state has become less white 3.6 times faster than the city.
Still a strong Asian population
San Francisco continues to have a very large Asian population, at 34.2 percent of the total (up from 29.1 percent in 1990). Still, this increase has been slower than the increase in the proportion of Asians in California generally, from 9.6 percent in 1990 to 13.9 percent in 2012. I am sure this observation would be enriched with some data on incomes, which I hope to add in a future post.
The percentage of San Francisco that is Latino (or in the terminology of the Census, Hispanic of any race) is, at 15.1 percent, little changed or even a slight increase in the last few decades. But the city is far less Latino as compared to the rest of the state than it was in 1990. In 1990, California was 25.8 percent Latino; today it is 37.6 percent. In context, San Francisco has become less Latino as compared to the state in general.
Dwindling number of African Americans
The shrinking of the city’s African American community in the last two decades is one of the most remarkable ethnic shifts in the city. African Americans are just 6.1 percent of San Francisco’s population of 825,863 – a 44 percent proportional decrease from 1990, and a 50 percent proportional decrease from 1980.
But this is only part of the story when it comes to the troubling status of black San Franciscans: on the whole, they are far poorer than other groups in the city. The median income of a black household, $30,840, is just 35 percent of the median non-Hispanic white household, $89,140.
The African American community in San Francisco is singularly left behind.
African Americans across the state and across the country also lag behind in median income, but not by anywhere near as much. The median income of black households in California is 63 percent of white; in America in general it is 62 percent of the white median.
The gap in San Francisco is also much larger than it is in other parts of the Bay Area.
In Alameda county the ratio of median black to median white income is 49 percent; in Contra Costa 57 percent; San Joaquin, 69 percent; San Mateo, 55 percent; Santa Clara, 59 percent; Solano, 74 percent; the Bay Area in general (the Census’s San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, combined statistical area), 52 percent.
But in this comparison to Manhattan, at least, San Francisco can take some small, cold comfort: median black Manhattanites (18.4 percent of the population) make just 32 percent as much as median white Manhattanites. Throughout the five boroughs the ratio is 59 percent.
Let’s look at the income of San Francisco’s African Americans in another way, comparing it to other cities in the Bay Area. Darker green indicates a higher median black household income. (These are absolute levels, not proportions.) Starting clockwise from San Francisco, the cities are San Rafael, Vallejo, Richmond, Berkeley, Oakland, Hayward, and San Jose.
Now compare this to the median white income for these cities.
Clearly there is something different going on in each of these cities. But San Francisco really stands out in that it has a very high median white income and an extremely low median black income.
This will not be a surprise for anyone who has spent 20 minutes on Potrero Hill (which is divided roughly 50-50 between gaudily painted restored Victorians and vast rows of housing projects, and whose ethnic and racial make-up is similarly divided).
Many of the aspects of the narratives that San Franciscans tell themselves about their city are flawed at best, and sometimes simply false. The image of San Francisco as a paragon of diversity is no longer true. It is not that San Francisco is homogenous—not by any means—but rather that compared to many other major cities in the state and the country, it is wealthier and whiter.
This doesn’t mean that San Francisco is a racially intolerant city—far from it. I have no reason to think that in this case, income data would perfectly dovetail with biases and opportunity. (Indeed, I have plenty of personal anecdotes to the contrary.)
Most of these inequalities are probably related to the lack of a useful affordable housing plan, without explicit racial overtones (though San Francisco certainly has a history of that), and lack of regional coordination in urban planning.
And the economic barriers to living in San Francisco do not mean in and of themselves that it is a qualitatively bad place to live for poor people. Income is not the only measure of wellbeing. (Though when the median household income for a demographic slice of the population is $31,000, in a city where the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is edging toward $3,000/mo, it is hard for me to see how qualitatively good this could be.)
Still, these statistics show that, when it comes to being progressive, talk is cheap. The numbers are out of whack with the rhetoric in San Francisco. Maybe it’s time to come to grips with the kind of city we really are: unequal with racial overtones, inaccessible to families, a follower rather than a leader in regional demographic trends of greater diversity.
Hm, maybe this could be related to the way we are seen elsewhere…
 It was 10.9% in 1990 — 79,039/723959; 12.3% in 1980 — 86190/678,974. Table 58 page 49.
Of course I enjoyed watching this interview of Russell Brand, which Gawker says may spark a revolution.
Brand is right about a lot of things. He’s articulate and cutting and Paxman gets what he deserves. The questions aren’t very good, and Brand’s shtick is perfectly tuned to Paxman’s condescension. So it’s satisfying to see him practically jumping out of his chair and bringing the heat. And it’s satisfying to see him disrupt the staid and practiced drama of this kind of an interview.
But that being said, I’m really not that impressed. Brand is a celebrity calling for change in vague terms. I agree with many of his positions. Global and national inequality are huge issues. We are indeed destroying the environment at a horrifying pace. The political systems in the US and UK have deep, deep problems. Part of the solution involves looking inward. Good for Brand for pointing all this out, and using his celebrity to do so. But there are people working day and night to advance these same ideas in much more practical and specific ways. It might seem like they’re losing the battle, but can you imagine how much worse things would be if these people were not engaged? We might have a Koch brother as president. (Instead they’re just funding the opposition.)
None of this would be a big issue were it not for Brand’s exceptionally lazy and dangerous attitude about voting. There is absolutely no justification for this. It is a position I can only imagine someone holding if (a) they are so ensconced in privilege that they do not recognize how enormous their privilege is or (b) they are so at the margins of society that they’ve decided to check out completely. Brand is certainly the former, notwithstanding his working class background. Either way, not voting has zero validity as a political strategy. It’s true that our democratic systems have been disgustingly abused and rigged, but if you think, for example, that there is no difference between G.W. Bush and Obama, you must be very rich and comfortable indeed. Our system is not dysfunctional enough to boycott elections. If you think it is, you haven’t seen a dysfunctional system.
Oddly, voting is one of those things with a value that may be hard to appreciate until you don’t have it. Living in and visiting places where people are truly unable to vote or even express their opinions gives one a special appreciation for the privilege of these small but meaningful powers. If you are in a country that has outright vote rigging, I can see the purpose of election boycotting. Brand is not in that position, and he’s lying to himself and everyone if he says so. It’s painful to hear him suggest that he is. People have laid down their lives again and again, in the United States and elsewhere, to obtain suffrage. It disrespects their legacies to shrug your shoulders and suggest that none of us should vote. Yeah, millionaire celebrity Russel Brand, of course you don’t think it matters. But don’t promote your ballot box passivity as a viable strategy for life. People in far more vulnerable positions than you will be the ones who suffer.
One thing I can’t abide is people who don’t acknowledge their privilege, or people who have privilege and refuse to try their best to use it for good. If you can vote in one of the most powerful countries in the world, do so! (But don’t stop there, either.)
I consider myself a bit of a capoeira purist, so I raised a suspicious eyebrow when I saw that a rap song about the Afro-Brazilian martial art had been posted to YouTube and is making the rounds on Facebook. So much could go terribly wrong!
But this comes together quite nicely — and even uses rhythms that evoke real capoeira music. Related to this film, which I’ve yet to check out.
As a Westerner venturing into the wilds of the East, it takes time to appreciate the region’s natural beauty. No crags here, no canyons, no shimmering plains. No sweeping views that some overripe Victorian would have called “both terrible and sublime!”
Today, I took the bike path that follows the Old Put some 45 miles north of the Bronx all the way to Brewster in Putnam County (nearly 60 miles north from my house, which I only point out so that you know what a beast on the bike I am).
Out north of Elmsford, you begin to learn about the spirit of the Eastern woods. It is hard to describe, because it lacks that Occidental splendor factor. Sure, it’s the peak of autumn, so the colors are great — but that hardly gets to the heart of the matter. Mile after mile, it creeps on you. And when I returned and lay down exhausted in my bed, I closed my eyes and, without effort, saw myself projected through deep yellowing forests, the trees like wispy old fingers, a gray sky, a winding path strewn with rusty leaves, going on and on.
Below, crossing the bridge at the New Croton Reservoir.
Back when Rebecca Wolff was a kid, New York was so real, man, you guys don’t even know!
I liked eating this essay in Guernica, but then later I got a stomach ache.
As an expat native San Franciscan I identify a lot with her pining for a realer time — which is why I liked the essay’s flavor. But this writing exhibits what is in some ways the worst kind of it-once-was-realer nostalgia: the self-absorbed longing for the aesthetic of a harsh time, rather than for the lost possibilities that an earlier era held for a now-forgotten segment of the people. Through this privileged prism, being real is defined by running around snorting blow and making out with bouncers. The thing is, for most of the few people I know who were really in the grit of 70s-80s New York, I get a sense of being shell-shocked as much as anything.
Back then was other things, too. It was the taxi driver I spoke to who grew up in East Harlem and used to be scared to leave his house. It was feeling menaced by the evil lurking in the bushes when you jogged across a Queens park on your way home from 8th grade. It was AIDS, it was crack, it was the Son of Sam, it was a lot of people who didn’t make it to 2013 to talk about what a time of creativity it was — so I understand from conversations, and infer from my own San Francisco recollections.
It’s mostly true that all those people running around unironically ironically wearing “Obey” T-shirts in SoHo are Chumps, and probably I am too. But being cool is not really the point. The point is those bodies getting stepped over, which Wolff mentions but which don’t seem to elicit a more political perspective.
I appreciate Wolff’s essay, and it’s definitely worth a read. But the nostalgia to which I pledge allegiance is a different one: a longing for long-gone communities, uttering of the names of those who came before, who lived too fast or too close to the edge to tell their stories.
In the streets outside my house in San Francisco, members of these communities squared off, pulled weapons, revved the engines of rusted El Caminos, repped motorcycle clubs, covered wood-paneled station wagons and front yards with plastic figurines and schizophrenic sculptures, smoked glass pipes in stairwells, serenaded me to sleep with musical worship on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Sundays. It was not always an easy place, but in it was a promise of something greater. Saudades de vocês.
To acknowledge the raggedness of those times is not to give these cities’ current trends of chumpiness a pass. But in both New York and San Francisco, it is partly the solipsism of the reigning brand of nostalgia that has kept us from mounting a convincing counternarrative to those who would argue that the story of these cities has been, simply, progress.
In any case, have a read and let me know what you think.
So yes, it’s true. New York City used to be cool, and now it’s not. It’s not at all. It is boring and dismaying and stymied; everything potentially cool in it is overwhelmed and inflated and parodied and sold. You can’t even love the absurdity of it because it’s too painful and we cannot be allowed anymore to callously love, for their absurdity, systems that oppress and impoverish. New York is a giant sinking pile of crap compared to what it used to be. Literally sinking, now that the waters rise so much quicker, the winds blow so much harder than even scientists predicted. Lately I like to imagine that I will have the privilege of seeing in my lifetime real estate values in the city plunge wildly, freefall, as Climate Events force visitors to admit that they pay top-dollar to perch on coastal landfill.
In New York City these days I see loads and loads of formerly brilliant people—gender champions, visual whizzes, start-up ho’s, crackerjack dancers, actors, journalists, and chefs—who have stayed too long at the Fair, to use Joan’s wistful archaic turn of phrase, are baffled and internally conflicted as to why they can’t admit that New York sucks so hard. Why they can’t draw the proper conclusion: That if they are to work all the time in order to pay super-high rents that make it impossible for them to do their art, if they never have a chance to see the people they came here to see, who are also less brilliant now that they are muffled by the smog of wrongness that hangs over New York (thicker than the smog of smog that hangs over Los Angeles, another city that’s not even half as cool as everyone who’s moving there says it is), if they are living somewhere that is giving them less than they are giving to it, then they should leave. They should find somewhere to live, perhaps collectively, perhaps not individually, perhaps they should try to make sense of this whole living-somewhere thing in a way that doesn’t pretend, as New York City does, that we are all ruthless rock stars with amnesia and aphasia and lifetime amniotic sacs.
Old San Francisco (Bernal Heights 2013)
I complain a lot about the changes occurring in San Francisco, and I stick by those complaints. There is much being lost in the fading past of this “Dungeness crab city,” and certainly not all have benefited from the transformations. Reading this captivating article, however, I am reminded that there is something bigger happening as well. And along with being a time for a lot of greed and silliness and even mourning the losses, it is a moment of great energy and creativity, which seem too big to be stopped. Let’s make the most of it. If there’s any truth to the sentences below, maybe the energy can be harnessed for something bigger than profits… political consciousness, social engagement, new economic priorities… maybe…
In 1966, Hendrik Hertzberg, then a young Newsweek reporter in the Bay Area, wrote about San Francisco’s “new bohemianism”:
The hippies, much more numerous than the Beats ever were, accentuate the positive. . . . Like the Beats, they are dropouts from the conventional “status games,” but, unlike them, have created their own happy lifestyles to drop into. “In a way,” says Jerry Garcia, twenty-four, lead guitarist of the Grateful Dead and one of the cultural heroes of Haight-Ashbury, “we’re searching for respectability—not Ford or GM respectability, but the respectability of a community supporting itself financially and spiritually.”
The youth, the upward dreams, the emphasis on life style over other status markers, the disdain for industrial hierarchy, the social benefits of good deeds and warm thoughts—only proper nouns distinguish this description from a portrait of the startup culture in the Bay Area today. It is startling to realize that urban tech life is the closest heir to the spirit of the sixties, and its creative efflorescence, that the country has so far produced.
From Nathan Heller’s “Bay Watched: How San Francisco’s New Entrepreneurial Culture Is Changing the Country,” in The New Yorker.
Since Saturday, I’ve spent a lot of time talking to my good friend Sachin Gathani about the tragedy at Westgate Mall in Nairobi. This was not only because he is a good friend, a Kenyan citizen, and an insightful analyst of Kenyan affairs. He was also personally affected: his family members escaped from the mall after spending harrowing hours hiding in the parking lot, where they had gone to see a children’s cooking competition. (Sachin currently lives in Kigali, Rwanda, but flew home to Nairobi almost immediately when the attack began.) In light of that, I found particular value in his carefully considered perspectives on the violence, which struck so close to home. We decided to to collaborate on this Q&A so that I could air some of his views.
Q: Your brother, sister-in-law, and 3 year-old nephew escaped Westgate Mall after being trapped for hours during the attack. Can you tell me a little about what happened, and how they got out?
My brother and his family were actually leaving Westgate Mall having taken my nephew to the play area and also to observe a children’s cooking competition. They were in the car park on the top floor when they heard gunshots and instinctively ran with a group of people to a corner where they huddled behind a few cars. They were stuck in this position for a number of hours and witnessed several people who were killed as they tried to escape the indiscriminate hail of bullets and the two grenades that were hurled at others who attempted escape. After about 3 hours, the military personnel managed to fight back the terrorists and formed a protective cordon to enable them to escape through a back entrance of the mall. While I am very thankful that they were unhurt, I know that the searing images of innocent bystanders getting killed in front of them will have left an indelible mark on them. No three year-old should have to witness that.
Q: It is obviously a huge relief that your family escaped, though I am sure they are very shaken up. Four of your acquaintances who were at Westgate on Saturday did not make it out, though. Can you tell me anything about that?
I have a very bittersweet feeling right now. While I am very relieved that my family made it out alive, I know a few friends that did not and were killed immediately during the attacks. I don’t think the details are necessary but as you can imagine it was quite emotional as the news of their deaths slowly trickled in through the course of Saturday and Sunday.
Q: Those of us glued to our computers through this entire episode are seeing a lot of amazing pictures of Kenyans coming together to volunteer, donate blood. I know you’ve been involved in that too. My sense is that you’ve channeled some of the emotional reaction to this tragedy into community action. Do you think the same is true for others?
It has been really humbling to see how the community has come together to volunteer, donate blood, feed the military personnel and medical volunteers, raise money for victims, etc. I can’t recall a similar moment in Kenya’s history whereby I have seen such solidarity except immediately after 1998 US Embassy bombings (which killed at least 212 people), which really shook Kenyans and brought them together as one people. And there are several communities I can refer to here: the Asian community that has mobilized their community volunteer service groups, the Muslim community that has condemned the violence which was purportedly committed in the name of Islam, the broader Nairobian community that responded and waited hours in line to donate blood and our brothers and sisters in cities like Nyeri and Kisumu who also donated blood and money for their fellow Kenyans in the capital. So, yes — and I think it’s an accurate way to frame it – I do think that the Kenyan community has channeled their emotional reaction into community action. My concern is with the aftermath. Once some semblance of normalcy returns to Nairobi after a few harrowing days, how are we then going to channel the lingering emotional reaction of this tragedy? There is a danger of a reactionary response by our government and by our communities.
Q: Kenya has been through so many divisive events in the last few years, among them communal violence linked to the elections in 2007. Do you have a sense of what this moment means for Kenyan national unity? Might the community reaction we’re seeing with volunteers and the like translate into a refreshed sense of purpose for the political class — even a squashing of some differences?
I think it is too early to define this as a watershed moment in terms of Kenyan unity – we have been here before with the 1998 bombings. But let us also recall that less than 5 years ago, our post-election violence pitted neighbors against each other and resulted in over 1,100 deaths. Having said that, there is no doubt that the Westgate tragedy has reawakened Kenya, as one commentator I read put it. The words of President Kenyatta were refreshing when he expressed how humbled he was by the generosity and selfless sacrifice displayed by Kenyans that he felt even more committed to ensure that his government delivers because that is what its citizens deserve. But it is important – and maybe controversial – that we put Westgate into context and examine why this tragedy has had such resonance across the country and the world and what it may mean about a refreshed sense of purpose by the political elites. I am cognizant of the problem of framing this as a tragedy that primarily affected middle-upper income Kenyans and wealthy expats, given the number of Kenyans of various working class backgrounds that also lost their lives. But it is also accurate to say that this tragedy has affected the elite of the Kenyan polity in ways that previous Al-Shabaab attacks in Kenya did not. In 2011, the first known Al-Shabaab attack, was a bombing at a blue-collar bar in downtown Nairobi and at a bus terminal. Other similar attacks occurred through 2012 in the Ngara neighbourhood of Nairobi, a nightclub and sports bar in Mombasa and several other smaller attacks in the predominantly Somali neigbourhood of Eastleigh (Nairobi), Garissa and Wajir (in the north near the Somali border). While Westgate was much larger and more prolonged in terms of the terror inflicted than previous Al-Shabaab attacks, the reality is that the number and profile of casualties inflicted in the past few days (the list includes President Uruhu Kenyatta’s nephew, Ghana’s most famous poet and intellectual leader, a prominent Australian architect and his Harvard-educated wife, a Peruvian UNICEF doctor, Kenyan businessmen, young Nairobi professionals and several diplomats) will definitely result in a decisive action by the political class. How this reaction manifests itself, I am not too sure but it is something we should be wary of.
Q: You also told me you are hearing a lot of “scary, reactionary” comments from people. It reminds me of some of the things that we heard in the United States after 9/11. Can you explain that more and give some examples? As someone who was directly affected by this tragedy — lost friends in it, had a near miss with your own family — can you empathize with such reactions? What do you have to say to people are advocating retaliation?
I understand where these reactions are coming from. I may have been guilty of it too when I first heard of my family’s ordeals and later about my friends. I’ve heard reactionary comments denouncing the Islamic faith for such barbarism, calls for ‘smoking out the Somalis’ from Eastleigh, demanding a final military solution to the Somalia problem, building walls along the border, etc. And this brings me back to my earlier point. I hope that we do not quickly forget the solidarity we have demonstrated and revert to nationalistic jingoism or religious persecution that targets and vilifies people of Somali origins or Muslims. Similarly, I also hope our political class use this as a moment of reflection as they consider a sober and strategic response.
Q: After 9/11, grief-stricken Americans reacted with anger and many supported military actions which later seemed to have questionable effectiveness, or turned out to be huge mistakes, as in the case of Iraq. At the same time, it caused many Americans to become a bit more engaged and aware of their country’s role in global politics, and the way they were perceived in many parts of the world. Do you think there are any analogies to be made with Kenyans — especially as regards to their country’s role in Somalia?
With all due respect, I think Kenyans were already a very politically-engaged people and I don’t think the Westgate episode will have the same effect of political engagement that 9/11 did for Americans. Kenyans, and many other people from the developing world, cannot afford the luxury of ignoring our country’s role in geopolitics because we are probably affected more directly by geopolitical machinations than other Western countries. With regards to 9/11, there is a danger of using history by analogy but the comparison – and lessons learned from the reaction – to 9/11 is fair. Firstly, I do hope there is a better and more nuanced understanding of our role in Somalia and the history of radical movements like Al-Shabaab, starting with the removal of the Islamic Courts of Union in Somalia by Ethiopia/US and the subsequent radicalization of the extremist elements that sought to defeat the intervening foreigners through any means necessary. Understanding the history and context of these problems will allow us to chart a political solution, and not only a military solution. Secondly, what we can learn from 9/11 is that Kenyans need to be more vigilant about the over-reach of the executive on security-related matters, which is understandable and likely given what has just taken place.
Q: What can people do to help at this point, both inside and outside of Kenya?
For people outside Kenya, I would say continue supporting people you know who are dealing the loss of loved ones or are dealing with trauma that they may have faced. I personally have been touched and overwhelmed by the support of so many friends and acquaintances around the world who have reached out to check in on how my family and I are doing. For people inside Kenya, I know that the hospitals and Kenya Red Cross blood banks are at full capacity given the remarkable display of generosity over the past few days. We have also raised more than Ksh 57million [around US$ 700,000 and counting] via M-pesa donations for the victims. Going forward, I just hope that we can remember this moment of what makes Kenyans Kenyan as we enter into this critical period of reacting to Westgate and demonstrate our ability to move beyond reactionary responses.
Q: Any links you want to share to things you’re reading/watching/paying attention to as you follow this crisis?
There are plenty of articles and blogs on the internet and newspapers recounting blow by blow accounts of survivors’ ordeal that demonstrate the horror inflicted at Westgate. But these are a selection of the items that I think are some of the best reflections of what happened and implications for the future:
Kenya Reawakened by Gathara — one of the best pieces I’ve read on our response and patriotism
What Next for Kenyan Policy on Somalia by Ken Opalo — one of Kenya’s best political analysts summarizing future Kenyan policy on Somalia
Senseless [and Sensible] Violence: Mourning the Dead at Westgate Mall by Mahmood Mamdani
Nairobi Westgate Mall Terror Attack, and the Folly of “Otherness” — What Al-Shabaab Revealed about Us by Charles Onyango-Obbo — Ugandan writer on framing the Westgate tragedy
Making Sense of the Chaos in Kenya by Nanjala Nyabola — Kenyan grad student’s initial reflections on the crisis
Sachin, thank you so much for taking time to answer these questions, not all of which can be easy to ponder with the situation so fresh.