Wednesday, December 20, 2006

walk through the 20th ward

In the much publicized debate over the aldermanic race of the 20th Ward (Cherokee Street) between Galen Gandolfi of Radio Cherokee and the incumbant, Craig Schmid, many issues seem to be getting lost in the hustle. I keep thinking about these, but the other night I set them aside. I was driving a friend home in the wee hours of the morning, and we sat in the car talking. Restless, I decided I needed a walk, and so walk we did. In the cold, in the middle of the night, we set off down the west side of Cherokee. It was impossible not to notice all the Gandolfi yard signs and signs in the windows. It was impossible, too, not to notice the handwritten signs in the flower shop on the corner of Comptom, the owners writing about how certain people were trying to ignore and legalize prostitution, their claim against Gandolfi and in support of Schmid. What I noticed most though, at that quiet time of night, in the 45 minutes we walked through the neighborhood, was how many buildings sat empty or run down. I couldn't help but notice that Cherokee was like a ghost town. I often see people walking home late at night, and friends who live around there mention anecdotes about the prostitution, and I see officers rolling through in their squad cars every ten minutes or so like clockwork. But what remains is a neighborhood that seems half-used.

If Schmid doesn't want bars to open and is looking to set a precedent restricting the type of businesses in the neighborhood, it seems to reason that he is restricting the possibilities of the same place he is trying to protect. Cherokee is this amazing district, filled with diverse people and a huge helping of Mexican-American culture, in one of the few truly culturally vivid areas in our city. It is filled with families, and lately with an influx of younger people because of the cheaper rents (not to mention its accepting artistic vibe). Looking at those empty buildings as I walked, and then looking at the few businesses that weren't Mexican-American, I got a feel for Schmid's vision of the west side of the street. The businesses that aren't food or tiendas or arts oriented are all about rent-to-own, taxes, and paycheck loans. In a place where people are trying to create a community, the other businesses that do exist seem all about making sure that the people who live along there are temporary, their working class seemingly exploited. Schmid's fight over the liquor laws seems counter-productive, to progress, but also to the facts as they exist. Any neighborhood where people are visible, where businesses want to draw others in-- any place where there is foot traffic to retail and services, where certain spots act as an anchor bringing others in-- this is a good thing.

It sure was peaceful walking down those streets the other night, but peaceful in a shadowy way. I just kept thinking there should be more buildings closed for the night, instead of permanently closed up.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Creating Global Leaders

This afternoon I went to see the Springboard to Learning International Dance Festival at the Botanical Gardens. I have wanted to go for years, but the lunchtime show was always an issue with work. I cut out of class a little early today and made it just in time for a packed house. There were 10 dances from 8 countries, and 10 schools were represented. It was fantastic, so much so that there were a few points that I was overwhelmed.

3rd through 8th graders performed in the hour-long show and it was truly stunning, even more so considering that eight of the ten groups had no formal dance training and had learned these fantastic routines in one hour each week during this semester. Many of the dances had students who acted as percussionists, blowing my mind with what they had learned. The highlights for me were the Colombian Dance, which will luckily be performed again at the end of the year at Bunch Middle School. The dancers were elegant, poised, and the movement (especially its sophistication and articulation) was amazing. the costumes were gorgeous. The African dance and music presented by Mark Twain Elem. School had everyone in the house clapping and moving, as the students beat their drums wearing shirts with Africa emblazened on them and the slogan "Born Again". The finale was a swing dance in the purest style. The talent of some of those kids was obvious, evident, and astounding... and I just kept looking at their faces. Some of them were living in those dances and just embodied the movement so naturally. There was such pride, and for many, a true passion.

As I watched kids of all races perform dances from countries that they likely had never heard of before this September, I kept thinking, "This is what it's all about." It was education at its finest: learning, passion, excitement, engagement, understanding, as if borders no longer existed. Those kids didn't care if they were the only African Americans to ever do an Irish jig, or if they would never see Guadalupe for themselves. They just danced, and it made me see proof that giving kids new experiences literally gives them the world.

Sadly, this performance only happens once a year, and likely, you have missed it. But watching it today, I was kept thinking if there is truly to be a renaissance in this city, it will be them to make it happen. It will be them to dissolve the divisions and bring everything together. And sometimes, as you watch things, there is a moment of grace, where you see what can happen. Today, I saw those kids from all over the city understand the world in a new way. Hopefully they will take with them some understanding of another culture, but if nothing else, they learned that people will watch them and listen to them and that each of them has a talent. It seems a lesson we can all learn; the possibilities are as big as we allow them to be.

Maybe I'm a sucker fo the symbolism, but there is nothing like watching people dance.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

'Tis the Season: Plug for Educational Organizations

Usually I like to imagine winter as if I am in a snowglobe, glittery flakes falling all around me, everything placed just so. But there's something to be said for this 65 degree weather as well. I have my tri-weekly weather conversations with the lovely bellringer at the Schnuck's on Arsenal. I hop through there a few times a week, and each time I stuff my change into the little red Salvation Army pot, I keep talking to this lady. We often have the same conversation when I come out again, but it dosn't matter. Her, "Oh, baby, ain't this weather something. They say it will be like this 'til Monday. MERRRRRRYYYYYY Christmas indeed! Yeah, baby!" was filled with such genuine warmth I could hear it over and over without tiring. Even last week, in the bitter freakin' cold, as everyone had heads tucked against the wind into hoods and scarves, she still rang that bell something fierce, smokin' her cigarette, and smiling and blessing all who passed. Every season I have favorite bellringers, and those are the places I will make sure I hit a few times a week. This year, she's my favorite. So if you need a red pot for your quarters and dimes, the Schnuck's on Arsenal is my suggestion.

There's been a lot of recent buzz about giving, as there is this time every year. In a recent report, John Stossel on ABC did a special on who gives and who doesn't. He seemed somehow shocked by the fact that the poor give more than the rich, though anyone who works in a restaurant knows that those who make less are always the quickest to give to others. In STL though, I see us give every week. In recent weeks, I have seen people come out in droves to support the STL Effort for AIDS with Dining Out For Life, and a recent benefit at the Royale to support Reporters Without Borders and an upcoming documentary film in Darfur showed me that we will continue to reach into our pockets and that a little at a time from a lot of people will go a long way. In St. Louis, we give to PBS and KDHX. We even have some great coporate donors in this city, continually making our museums and our zoo better (and always free). We, seem to be, without doubt, a giving city.

So, if you're looking for one more place to give, I have two suggestions that are near and dear to my heart. As you might know, I'm a teacher, and every day I teach, I wish I had more resources to give my kids, and that they had more to work with. We do well with what we have, but with education, you can never have too much funding. Each year in the fall, people, especially parents are reminded that not everyone is fortunate enough to be able to afford school supplies. We take for granted that kids will have pencils and erasers and notebooks, but many don't-- and where I work, most don't. So there are organizations like KIDSmart to make up the difference. Located in Bridgeton, KIDSmart is a virtual superstore for teachers at low-income schools. It's a warehouse full of donated school supplies where teachers can go shop and get the things their kids and their classrooms need. Over the years, I have organized supply drives bringing carloads of donations, and it's one place I can always find money for.

You can go to their KIDSmart website to donate money. Or, even better, through partnerships with over a hundred merchants, you can go to the KIDSmart site, click a link, and shop with their partners, where a portion of your purchase will be donated to the KIDSmart cause. A recent perusal turned up partnerships with iTunes, hotels and car rentals, Restoration Hardware, REI, Omaha Steaks, Old Navy, and 10% (!!!!) of purchases through going to the organization. So, buy some shoes, and let your purchases help an organization that needs it. In the middle of the year, people somehow forget that kids still need supplies.

Or, if you want your money to go more directly to education, especially in the public school system, Springboard to Learning is an organization that's very important to me (and in full disclosure, one which I am affiliated with...). Springboard to Learning furnishes the public schools with arts and cultural professionals who go into classrooms for a semester and share their knowledge and experiences. There are dance programs, math and science enrichment, cultures of other countries, music, art, storytelling, and writing programs. You ca check them out online, get more info. and donate money. $50 will give a Springboard specialist enough money for school supplies for 120 kids for their program, or will give that Springboard teacher the money they need to bring in ethnic foods or create projects with the kids. Springboard has been around, in the city schools, since 1968, and it's largely due to the support of the community that these amazing programs continue. (Trust me when I say this: Springboard is a program that works, and one that matters. It greatly widens the horizons of the kids it serves, and it seeks constantly to inspire and motivate them to be more curious about the big world that surrounds them.)

So if you feel some pennies jingling or have some loose change, these are places where even $5 or $10 can add up and make a huge difference. At this time of the year, I know everyone thinks about toys for kids and the basic home necessities for the 100 Neediest Cases-- both of which I support-- but I just wish more people remembered that helping kids have a great education is one of the best ways for them to not be on those charitable lists later in life. 'Tis the season. Thanks for any help you can give, and seriously, go see the bellringer on Arsenal. She might be one of the best parts of this season.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Notes on Weeks Past

So I've been sick, and busy, and grumpy, and working... not all in that order. But you get the picture. Here are some quick notes on what I have done in the last week:

- bought not one, but two, Christmas trees at Ted Drewes (while eating ice cream... when it was still seventy degrees out)

- watched the first snow fall as I walked down my street in the middle of the night

- surveyed the wreckage of the ice storm in my neighborhood

- had drinks at O'Connell's, the Jade Room, Garavaglia's, and Tim's Chrome Bar (see post on Down, Out, and Hip)

- enjoyed, honestly enjoyed, drinking late at night at Mangia because the lack of power and the cold kept most out, but those who came were treated to the whole place lit by candlelight and quiet, except for the hum of voices

- attended Tavern Night at the Omega Center on the Northside, where I was flanked by my entourage of four men in suits, and treated to a feast of Imo's pizza, red hot chips and crackjack's while we drank beer, champagne, and caramel vodka. I wore a dress, laughed like I have not laughed in months, and was astounded by the lady singing with the Oliver Sain band.

- celebrated the repeal of prohibition, despite having a cold, at the Royale

Okay, and I worked. I guess my point to myself is that even in a normal week, when I feel like nothing great is going on and I am slightly uninspired, even then, this city still provides for me. If nothing else, in the middle of the storm, I was treated to a huge outpouring of community, some tasty cocktails, and a whole lot of laughter. Sometimes it's nice when things slow down just a little.

Friday, December 01, 2006

The moment things happen

I am a little bit OCD. I like everything just so... snow without tracks, the silence of it falling, the quiet. It's like some sort of beginning. And I love the moment that things happen, the exact moment that they change. So often in life, we just see what has happened, too late. I like marking these things. It's why I love the very beginning of fall, those first leaves turning color, the first ones to fall. When I was a kid, I always noticed when things happened. I paid better attention, or had more time, or perhaps less patience. As an adult, I often miss it.

The first flurries fell today while I was on the Northside teaching. Like a child, I ran to the window and opened it, wanting to stick my head out, catching them on my tongue. But I was high up in a building, and instead settled on writing a quick haiku, then was vastly dissappointed when my next class got canceled and I couldn't watch the snow with the kids.

The rest of the day became an ice storm, a fairly violent one of sorts, leaving stoplights out and people without power. Then there was the rain. I listened to people tell me of coming and going, but then after work, as I was just about to leave, the snow started, big wet flakes-- those kinds of snowfall you only get in early winter or late spring, thick with possibility, and somehow thick with a certain sadness. Before I knew it, I was skipping to the window, coat on, ready to head out, so excited, but needing to mark the moment, to say to someone, this is the first snowfall this winter.

So I did, and then I drove home, not passing or seeing another car. All the tree limbs down on Arsenal, snapped like old white ghosts with the weight of the ice from earlier. I slid into my parking space, my car more sled than wheels, and then noticed a big tree down across my front lawn, covering my steps. But as I stepped out of my car, it was so quiet, only the faint sound of snow falling-- and it is always only the wet snow you can hear, like quiet sleigh bells. Yes, I'm romanticizing it, but it was a beginning moment, and sometimes, I need those. Sometimes I just need to say, I know when it started, and then I can literally, let the rest fall where it may.