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Nowtopian moments in Dystopian America

I’m in Philadelphia, having given a Nowtopia talk at A-Space today, and tomorrow I’ll be at Wooden Shoe. Last night in Baltimore I spoke at Red Emma’s. I really like Baltimore! It was fun to walk in to Red Emma’s and feel such a cozy, welcoming space. The audience wasn’t huge last night, about 23 or so, but very intelligent, and full of great questions. In fact, all the audiences so far have been quite attentive and responsive, really rewarding me for showing up. Here’s a shot of Red Emma’s:

Some years ago I came to Baltimore on the Critical Mass book tour and spoke at Black Planet, a now defunct space, and some of the refugees from that helped form Red Emma’s, which is in the city center on Mt. Vernon Hill. The collective seems rather large, 15+ people (?), and all of the folks I met were really smart, engaging, and warm. Such a pleasure to visit a place like this and receive such great hospitality. I even got to stay at a gorgeous old apartment that one of the collective members lives in, overlooking Washington Plaza from huge windows and a lovely balcony.


Getting to Baltimore from DC earlier in the day, I went on a circuitous route. I picked a spot on Chesapeake Bay, more or less at random, which I could get to enroute. Gibson Island called me, a tiny peninsula jutting out very slightly from the coast, not too far to the southeast of the city proper. I thought I might find a boardwalk or a few small restaurants overlooking a some fishing boats, or a beach. Instead I came up to this:

“Can I take a picture just over there beyond the gate please?” I asked the guard. “No” he snarled, “stay behind the bar.”

“What is this place?”

“Gibson Island is owned by a private corporation.” [end of discussion]… hmmmm, I wondered. What goes on out there? CIA plotting? NSA snooping? Extraordinary rendition training? James Bond? On my way back from Gibson Island I detoured again, to Pinehurst Beach, a private shoreline park for residents only, that I brazenly violated.

Not much to it though. Grayish water and hazy skies, bay bridges in the distance, Gibson Island a non-entity. Heading to Baltimore, I drove past the local high school again and noticed this time its name: Cecil B. Rhodes High School… sheesh! Does a pretty black city like Baltimore really have a nearby white community with a high school named after a pre-eminent British Imperialist whose name once hung on Zimbabwe as Rhodesia?…. apparently.

Anyway, I took a bit of a walk around Baltimore, and did not get to see the church that Red Emma’s gang has made its second home (room for 600+ for shows or whatever), but I did see this odd 30s structure:

But that it were!… life that is… monumental… well… isn’t it? Sometimes…

I was actually walking a dozen blocks to see this place:

Gabby was a woman in Red Emma’s whom I met soon after arriving, an energetic Mexicana who just oozed bike activism. She invited me to see the place she’s involved with, and as we talked about it, I realized it was a perfect example of the Nowtopian DIY bike shops I talk about in the book and during my talks… maybe that’s why I felt so welcome and at ease. But in fact, Baltimore had an incredible vibe, a real sense of competency, radical activism, and a kind of rare complementarity among the many people I met that made me feel like the city is a real epicenter for the kinds of initiatives I’m talking about. In fact, as I was driving away this morning I went north through the city and saw some pretty bombed out stretches. Amidst one such stretch on North Avenue, I came upon these folks gardening amidst the ruins:

My audiences have been querying me about lots of things. I love how not-taken-for-granted my argument is. I get a lot of enthusiasm and respect, but I was asked today, e.g., why there can’t be a combination of Nowtopian organizing WITH more typical kinds, like unions of workers, or neighborhood groups, and of course, I don’t see them as exclusive, but imperfectly compatible, depending on hierarchies, budgets, purposes, etc. In general I’ve been able to shift the question/answer dynamic to add on various points that I hadn’t entirely realized were important to me to stress. For one, I want pleasure and affirmative conviviality to be a real foundation from which we can face the challenge of attracting people to join us who don’t already share our values and interests. I’m on a rampage against guilt and admonition! I’ve also been emphasizing the creative engagement with the technosphere, the dead-end of work and the bifurcated life we live. Ultimately I’ve been really urging people to see their common predicament and to let go a bit of their particular and unique position in the multiple overlapping hierarchies in which we’re all enmeshed to see that commonality. I hope that it’s clear that I want to provoke and unleash the political subjectivity and historic agency that lies in the vast majority of people, whatever their race, gender, or age, and yes, that means straight white folks who are not poor too… that’s a hard one for a lot of (white) people, oddly enough…

Another notable fact is that I haven’t been selling a lot of books overall. The past two readings have sold 3 books or maybe 5, altogether… not so hot. I was doing a lot better earlier. I hope it picks up tomorrow at Wooden Shoe and later in NYC…

more to come.

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