One Barrel at a Time

President Trump has taken steps to erase the Obama administration’s environmental record in an effort to buoy the struggling coal industry. But the move risks running afoul of public opinion, with majorities of the public in support of several rules that Trump is focused on dismantling.

Trump’s sweeping executive order includes rewriting rules curbing carbon emissions, lifting a moratorium on federal coal leases and removing the mandate that federal officials consider climate change impacts when making decisions. Trump already approved two major oil pipelines, rolled back other limits on extraction and burning of fossil fuels and eliminated a system that would have made energy companies pay more in federal royalties.

Above are two paragraphs pulled from this Washington Post article.

These two paragraphs play an instrumental role in communicating a sense of urgency and anxiety to its audience. However, the way these paragraphs do so is quite subtle.
I’d like to draw special attention to the general diction of these paragraphs. In the first, President Trump creates an “effort” to “buoy the struggling coal industry.” By describing the coal industry as something that needs to be saved and describing Trump’s reaction as merely an “effort,” the author indirectly asserts that such an effort wasn’t successful. Instead of describing Trump’s attempt as a “valiant” or “great” effort, it’s just an effort.
The next paragraph reinforces this notion that such efforts weren’t successful. But then, the question becomes, “Who were they successful for?” The first two sentences list all the actions taken to aid oil companies and other big industries. Ultimately, they are the recipients of such good fortune. The last sentence, however, suggests that such a victory isn’t one to be celebrated. It asserts that there are certain corporate responsibilities that companies have towards the people and are now not required to fulfill them. So, while Trump’s effort is to help America, once again, it is merely an effort.

The (De)Construction of Shaw

Run-down building guarded by fence
A run-down building next to the Howard Theatre. Photographed by me.

This is one of three buildings directly to the left of the Howard Theatre. The buildings on the left of the theatre all look run-down and something directly out of a post-apocalyptic novel. I may be exaggerating this slightly, but I think it’s important to understand why these buildings may look out of place.

The area surrounding the Howard Theatre looks relatively new. The houses are beautiful and painted. The cars surrounding them are glimmering. Even the Theatre has been reconstructed. It appears as if Shaw has been undergoing rapid transformation and has become “the next big thing.”

These buildings, however, have been lost in time. The last time I was here, I didn’t see the long fence around them. I didn’t see the windows removed on the upper stories. Because everything inside had been stripped away, I’m not sure what the buildings have been used for. I’m unsure if this particular building was where someone lived or if it was a hair salon persay. It just seems so out of place.

Southern… Efficiency?

"Southern Efficiency" painted on a window with cherry blossoms behind it.
Window to a restaurant called “Southern Efficiency.” Photographed by me.

So here’s a window of the restaurant many people in Shaw were waiting to get into today. My initial thoughts were, “Wow, the design is nice. It looks so inviting.” The logo of the restaurant clearly alludes to an older style and revokes nostalgia of a previous time period. I especially liked the cherry blossoms in the background of the window.

Although the window is gorgeous, I wanted to know more about the restaurant. I was not going to wait for several hours in a line to find out, so I decided I’d go to the restaurant’s website. Interestingly, I looked at the menu and did not find anything unique. I didn’t even find prices so the assumptions I’ve made in my previous post were probably

The question then becomes, “Why?” Why was this place so famous? What was going on? Why were so many people willing to sacrifice the time I wasn’t? It was clearly an important social scene. Unfortunately, I didn’t ask the people what they were waiting in line for. I should have, though. It would have provided me with valuable insight.

That Cool Place in Shaw

A long line of people waiting for a restaurant
A long line of people waiting to enter a restaurant called “Southern Efficiency” in Shaw. Photographed by me.

As soon as  I exited the Shaw-Howard U Metro Station, I was immediately greeted with a line that spanned almost the entire block. I was really confused at first because I didn’t understand what the line led to. However, since it was my second time visiting the area for field work, I took note of the type of people waiting. They were young, they were primarily white, and it was clearly a type of social setting. Turns out, they were all waiting to go into an eatery called Southern Efficiency. Although I was extremely confused at first, I soon concluded that the new residents of Shaw are indeed looking to fully integrate themselves into their community. By going to local restaurants, this is just one way they are doing so. Still, if the line is composed of people primarily of one ethnicity and of a similar socioeconomic background, there must a reason why. Perhaps the eatery is a little too expensive for everyone to enjoy.

Walking Through Fire

Block quote in corner of walls
Interior wall design in a cafe called Uprising Muffin in Shaw. Photographed by me.

 

This quote is painted in a corner of a cafe called Uprising Muffin in Shaw. The quote reads:

“I’ll walk through fire if this is what it takes to take me even higher then I’ll come through like I do when the world keeps testing me.”

This is the same cafe that I’ve written about in an earlier post. I think that, although the cafe seems like it may appeal to the typical hipster millennial gentrifying Shaw, the quote may speak to the residents.

Think about it. Long-time residents in Shaw, who have largely been categorized under low- or fixed-income, have consistently been overpowered by developers in the area as well as newer residents. To walk into the cafe and glance up at such an inspiring phrase may mean that life is characterized by struggle and that’s okay. However, the nature of the quote also suggests that they should not be passive about their status in society. Rather, they should actively shape the course of their life.

Keep Ya Head Up

"Keep ya head up" on a wall with other phrases
Interior design in a cafe called Rise Up in Shaw. Photographed by me.

This is one of the many sayings in the a cafe called Uprising Muffin located in Shaw, Washington, D.C. I’d like to draw attention to the way it’s written both artistically and in relation to grammar. Visually, it stands out. It’s big, bold, and in an easy to read font. It’s almost as if it’s supposed to grab a person’s attention from across the room… Weird, right? Second, I think it’s equally important to point out that this phrase is written in slang. It could have easily been “Keep your head up.” Instead, it’s “KEEP YA HEAD UP.”

But what does any of this mean? How does this relate to The Howard Theatre and Shaw? Glad you asked.

It’s not uncommon for highly populated areas to develop a preference to speak colloquially. In many cases, speaking in slang can better get your point across to a large group of people. This is especially true if the group you address isn’t exposed to academic prose often, or maybe just has a preference against it. Point is, it delivers the message.

The message this delivers is one of empowerment. The phrase communicates that no matter how wonderful or devastating things may seem, one should always keep moving forward. Given the history of Shaw and especially The Howard Theatre, the phrase is characteristic of the various narratives that have shaped the area. And so, it makes sense for such a piece to be in a cafe a block away from The Howard Theatre.

Who We Are is Where We Are

A sign reading "No Human Being is Illegal Here"
Sign on one of the resident buildings in Shaw, photographed by me

In the eighth chapter of City of Rhetoric titled “Toward a New Sociospatial Dialectic,” David Fleming argues that space affects a given person’s behavior in relation to their environment because there is a clear link between environment and opportunity. To make this claim, Fleming splices this chapter into two parts. The first part of the chapter focuses on what was previously said. It reinforces previous concepts Fleming has introduced such as the relationship between suburbia and a feeling of bland conformity, or an urban jungle that by nature breeds hostility and paranoia. The second part, however, explains why certain spaces are allocated to certain types of people, whether they be separated by race, class, or both.

Fleming makes an interesting choice to reinforce the previous examples he has introduced mainly in Part Two of his publication. He revisits the examples in his previous chapters from Cabrini Green to 1230 North Burling Street. He revisits why the structures in Cabrini Green were overrun by gang activity while 1230 North Burling Street witnessed the creation a relatively executive board. Not only does he summarize the points he makes in these chapters, he explains why this matters. The first part of this chapter is essentially a summary of Part Two because Fleming is preparing to explain why it matters. So why does it matter? Fleming then argues that it matters because how engaged citizens are in their surroundings ultimately defines the success or failure of a commonplace.

Citizen engagement, however, is only one aspect to Fleming’s argument. He develops it further by contextualizing it into a broader conversation regarding the relationship between environment and opportunity. Essentially, Fleming explains the success or failure of his aforementioned examples in relation to how easily citizens of a given area were able to interact with one another. In the latter half of the chapter, Fleming suggests that the architecture of an environment deliberately either unifies or separates people. It may also encourage individuality of conformity within them. These effects, in concert with an individual’s demographic characteristics, determines how much opportunity that person has in relation to their environment. Once this is determined, we can begin to understand their level of involvement in their environment.

By making this argument, Fleming indirectly asserts that by changing the structure of one’s environment, we can influence the way people behave for better or for worse. By design, we can create a more or less inclusive environment for the people that live there. Although Fleming acknowledges that human beings are too complex to directly influence for specific outcomes, the deliberate restructuring of an environment can distribute influence and voice more equally among people. In doing so, we create what Fleming says a “strong republic.” Of course, this ties back to the quote Fleming introduces in the beginning of the chapter by George Eliot in Middlemarch. The quote reads:

“For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it.”

The quote only reinforces the notion that what we do is characterized by where we are.

The Single Narrative and Inner City Residents as Rhetorical Agents

A handcuffed person.
RALF-FINN HESTOFT/CORBIS. Obtained from Time.

In the seventh chapter titled Home of his City of Rhetoric, David Fleming explores the relationship between narrative and inner city residents as rhetorical agents . Fleming sections this claim by first explaining the single narrative given to the residents of inner cities is a harmful one. He then develops this portion by analyzing the various effects that the single narrative has, especially effects that turned out to be adversarial to the black community in these inner cities. Then, Fleming introduces the narrative that people of the inner cities wish to demonstrate instead. This portion is expounded on by disclosing what residents think of their community, of their buildings, and their relationship.

Fleming points out that the existence of a single narrative suggests that it is unrivaled. As a result, this narrative is echoed by visitors of the community to major newspapers. In the case of Chicago’s Cabrini Green, the single narrative purposely pauperized and disempowered residents. For example, in 1998 the Chicago Tribune described the architecture of Cabrini Green as “Hellish highrises.” In similar example, an architectural critic by the name of Blair Kamin related Cabrini Green to a concentration camp. In both instances, the community is seen as a backwards area where chaos and disparity rule the streets. Ironically, this argument also furthered the single narrative that thrived off of stereotyping.

Furthermore, Fleming suggests that if the residents of inner cities had the power to recreate their environment, it would accurately reflect the existing social dynamics of their community. He begins this part of his argument by introducing a narrative a resident of Cabrini Green had tried to further. He writes, tenant Barbara Moore said in an 1999 interview, “We want to be thought of as human beings. We are not the worst of people. We are people.” In doing so, Fleming asserts that the residents of Cabrini Green are indeed rhetorical agents. This suggests they do have the power to reclaim this narrative. One way that Fleming proposes they do so is by creating community organizations. The example Fleming provides is particularly of 1230 North Burling Street. In this particular highrise, residents have created a board of directors that oversee the maintenance and security of the building. In doing so, residents have created a sense of community, opportunity, and responsibility within their own environment as they deemed fit.

When people aren’t given the opportunity to express themselves how they deem appropriate, they are stripped of their status as rhetorical agents. They are stripped of their power to define their liberties and boundaries. However, people are rhetorical agents and therefore have the ability to create an entirely new and organic system of interacting with the environment around them. However, because this is an inherently provocative and rebellious act against the standards modern institutions have set, they are demonized and receive pushback. Yet, the residents of Cabrini Green just want one thing. As Fleming enumerates, they just want “to secure a competency and live on their own surrounded by their families.” Nothing more, nothing less.

Public Citizens and Discourse as Democracy

Picture of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren on graphic with rally information.
Twitter graphic obtained from Public Citizen.

The groups involved in the effort launched a concerted campaign to oppose Clayton’s nomination to be chair of the SEC, citing Clayton’s massive and unavoidable conflicts of interest and cozy relationship with Wall Street that raise grave doubts about his commitment to protecting investors. Clayton’s nomination signals that President Donald Trump is putting Wall Street ahead of hard-working Americans in what amounts to a hostile takeover of our country’s future. With Clayton’s nomination, Trump has proven once again that his campaign promises were empty, and instead he is putting the economy back in the hands of the very people who caused and profited from the financial crisis.

This particular paragraph of a post on Public Citizen’s website mainly informs the audience, loyal visitors and constituents to Public Citizens along with other left-of-center leaning American citizens, about the issues with the current Trump administration. It informs the audience that  attorney Jay Clayton has been nominated for chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission.  It further informs the audience that Clayton is tied to Wall Street.

But how does it inform? The diction utilized by Public Citizen clearly inspires strong sentiment in the audience.  Not only does the paragraph state that Clayton has been nominated and that he is tied to Wall Street, but this relationship will create “unavoidable conflicts” because of how “cozy” it is.  If the post’s visitors don’t already agree that this is a negative aspect to the Clayton nomination, the next half of the sentence reinforces this idea by describing the ordeal as “grave.”  To dispel any doubts, the following sentence ties Clayton to President Donald Trump and describes the conflict of interest as a sort of “hostile takeover” of the United States and its future. By now, the audience may feel threatened. Public Citizen then capitalizes on this opportunity by saying what this threat may be: making everyday liberal Americans a lower priority than Wall Street, where people seemingly profit at the expense of others.

After reading a paragraph crafted in such a way, it’s difficult to imagine someone that fits the characteristics of the target audience to not feel threatened and inspired to protest. The language used in the paragraph is indeed meant to unite people. Some may argue that such intense language may inherently seek to force people into a hostile mindset that alienates others (like conservative Americans). I disagree. I argue that democracy is essentially a commitment and a promise to continued discourse, so the very existence of this paragraph is a success of democracy.

The Howard Theatre, the Theatre’s Website, and the Future of Shaw

A worm's eye view of the Howard Theatre front
Photographed by me.

Although the Howard Theatre’s website cherishes the black roots of the community, it is beginning to reflect the dangerous trend of gentrification in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington, D.C.  The theater, built in 1910, became a venue through which a vibrant black narrative emerged. It allows African American culture to flourish in Washington considering it has hosted entertainers like Duke Ellington to activists like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  Although the theatre has venerated its history, the theatre’s website clearly shows it evolving to serve another audience, and in doing so, its role in Shaw is constantly evolving due to the larger demographic shifts. Unfortunately, this development is hurting older residents of Shaw and therefore must be addressed.

Inside the lobby of the Howard Theatre there are pictures of black singers, subtle light fixtures hanging from the ceiling, and a man at the booth asking for show tickets.
The inside of the Howard Theatre, the lobby, photographed by me.

The very existence of the Howard Theatre has been a political statement in the realms of culture and will always be. It was first established in 1910 on a vacant lot by a man who made his name by selling furniture in Shaw. The birth of the theatre was especially groundbreaking because it was the first theatre in all of Washington to serve blacks in an era plagued by segregation. Because of its purpose, the theatre consistently drew more and more black crowds. Eventually, it also drew black residents. As a result, “white flight” became commonplace in Shaw, and it left behind a largely African-American community in the nation’s capital. This ultimately led to the theatre’s most common patrons to be the “black bourgeoisie.” The Howard Theatre soon boasted events like musicals, occasional circuses, testimonials, church and organizational meetings, and everything in between (Garner and Bettye Thomas). This reinforced the notion that the theatre was built for and used by African-Americans exclusively due to its location and thus served a plethora of purposes all of which further strengthened community ties. Unfortunately, after the assassination of one of America’s greatest civil rights leaders Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., riots ensued and patrons no longer visited the Howard Theatre. Subsequently, the hostility of these events in Shaw resulted in many black elites fleeing the area. The many businesses that budded in the midst of the excitement the theatre created had closed down. Shaw was devastated and the Howard Theatre was crumbling.

State of Duke Ellington playing a piano and sitting on a treble cleff
A statue dedicated to Duke Ellington, photographed by me.

The history of the Howard Theatre, as told by its website, does not deny this rough past and imbues hope for its future. It cherishes the difficult past it experienced and preserves it in digital amber by presenting images of past artists and show time advertisements of the twentieth century. The website of the Howard Theatre also reflects that it was dubbed the “Theatre of the People” by the Washington Bee, a well-known local newspaper. It further boasts that it has been attended by dignitaries such as President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Additionally, artists like Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holliday have had the pleasure of performing there. The rhetorical significance of such a statement further bolsters the theatre’s cultural influence. These descriptions also issue a clear message to whoever finds themselves reading it, and that message is the theatre once had prestige and still does.

A signed guitar on display in the Howard Theatre lobby.
A guitar on display inside of the Howard Theatre, photographed by me.

The last sentence of the digital history on the Howard Theatre’s website, however, is arguably the boldest statement. In contrast to the description the theatre offered regarding the wide range of artists and theatre attendees in the past, the last sentence makes a statement on the theatre’s current standing. It reads, “Today, The Howard Theatre is enjoying a rebirth and is entering a new era in its long and prestigious history.” This is an especially loud proclamation because it acknowledges the existence of change in today’s world. It acknowledges it is part of that change and it acknowledges that it is ready for this change.

Sign of the Howard Theatre
The sign outside of the Howard Theatre, photographed by me

By making such a proclamation, the Howard Theatre is indirectly recognizing the alteration in demographics of Shaw and its contemporary American identity. Due to restoration efforts and increased community development projects, Shaw has slowly been rebuilding itself. However, this does not come without a price. The arrival of tall glass buildings, a restored metro center, and several quasiethnic brunch sites also prompted the arrival of richer, white young urbanites with newer, more globalized tastes, and a lust for life. As a result, the Howard Theatre has modified its web content to welcome this new audience. For a venue that once held church services and Sunday concerts, the option to transform it into a nightclub is nevertheless there.

Screenshot of the Nightclub tab on the Howard Theatre’s website

When you click on the “Nightclub” tab, which is conveniently placed in the header of the site, the first images you see are of white DJs and artists. The images of black performers are seen further down the page. Why would a theatre, essentially built for black entertainers, place them second? Fundamentally, the theatre is just conducting business as normal. After all, why should the Howard Theatre market itself in accordance with a seemingly outdated era? However, this important business decision is rooted in something much larger. It’s rooted in the influx of the younger, wealthier, and whiter residents coming to Shaw. The Shaw neighborhood then becomes a space where they can build their own narrative. Although it may be unintentional, this narrative runs counter to one that was purely owned by African-Americans in Washington, D.C. Therefore, the images shown on the Nightclub page, are signs of a larger battle of cultural influence that older residents of Shaw may begin to lose.

Screenshot of the Menu tab on the Howard Theatre’s Website

Similarly, on the “Menu” portion of the website, the theatre’s dishes are listed and contain everything from appetizers to brunch to wines. While normally one can neglect or overlook such a simple feature, the ultimate impact isn’t so simple. The biggest difference I came across when evaluating the Howard Theatre’s menu was its lack of prices. The lack of prices on the Howard Theatre’s menu clearly indicates that the menu caters to those that probably don’t even have to worry about money. Unfortunately, that’s not a luxury many old Shaw residents can have. Many old Shaw residents are fixed or low-income residents. Unlike their counterparts, these residents must learn to live with a tight budget. By not displaying prices on its website, the Howard Theatre is making a decision to prevent older residents from walking into its doors and sitting in its seats. While this is not the same case for most of the site’s pages, it is still worth discussing.

An bar/venue, deli, and another building. The area looks run down.
The buildings and area immediately to the left of the theatre, photographed by me.

One can argue that the demographic shifts are a great thing because they’re restoring Shaw to its former glory. This can be seen in the restored livelihood of Shaw. After all, there must be a reason why businesses are once again blooming. There must be a reason why the theatre is being a restored. There must be a reason why Shaw has been becoming an attractive site to move to and start a family. However, my criticism of this argument is that the demographic shifts and community development projects that were taking place in Shaw have begun to contest the rich and vibrant history it already has. Because of gentrification, the costs of living in Shaw have subsequently increased. The adverse effects of such a trend causes older residents, who are usually African-Americans with low or fixed income backgrounds, to essentially be gutted from the narrative of change that Shaw has been experiencing. As Shaw former resident Curtis Mozie has put it, “It’s a shame that I survived the war zone era here but now I’m being forced out. Changes in this neighborhood are for the better in terms of quality of life, but I feel I should be able to be included in that change.” No community member should be forced out of their homes because of gentrification. Unfortunately, the only way to stop gentrification is to encourage residents to increase their local political activism and hold their elected officials accountable to the people who already live there. Additionally, elected officials must be pressured to stand against the selling out of Shaw.

What’s at stake here isn’t just a home or a few, but an entire culture and its history.

A sign reading "No Human Being is Illegal Here"
Sign on one of the resident buildings in Shaw, photographed by me