Thursday, October 26, 2006

Victims

As I read Naylor’s novel, I tried to figure out whom the real victims are. Are they the mothers, the children, or is it the community? As I have stated in my previous blogs I am a sort of a feminist. I concern myself more often than not with women and children; I hardly feel any sympathy for the men in novels (sorry guys). In Naylor’s novel the focus is obviously centered on the women of the Brewster community. As we travel through each chapter we get to know each of the women and the trials through which they live, but we also realize the connections between these women and their community.

Each woman’s story is a testament to the importance of the community. Although they may not realize it they are all connected to one another and they all need each other. This is especially true of Lorraine. Lorraine has a basic human need that is never fulfilled in the novel; it is the need for acceptance. What makes up a community? Is it the lines drawn by a city board or is it something else?

How important is the “community?” What defines a community? That is an essential question that we must ask ourselves especially when we think about the city we live in, Baltimore. What are we doing to make the community a community? What are we doing to make it safe? As Jacobs points out safety within cities is deteriorating and we must ask ourselves what we as a community contribute to safety or lack there of. What role do human relationships and acceptance play in communities? I can’t pretend to know but, I do know that they are important.

Mattie versus Etta

In The Women of Brewster Place, the first chapter "Mattie Michael" reminded me a lot of a conversation we had during our discussions over Calvino's book, Invisible Cities. I remember we talked about what cities mean for different people, and how certain cities become traps to an individual. Some people are capable and allowed to leave cities and others are trapped, either by their ties to the past, by poverty, or various other issues. The opposite individuals who move freely through cities, see cities as opportunities, and stay only for as long as they wish. I saw the embodiment of these two opposing individuals in Mattie and her friend Etta. As Mattie was leaving her family on the Greyhound, Naylor writes, "Mattie sat in an aisle seat and tried to ignore the melting of familiar landscapes. She didn't want to think about the strange city that lay ahead or even of her friend Etta...And she didn't want to think about the home that had been lost to her...But just then the baby moved, and she put her hands on her stomach and knew that she was nurturing within her what had gone before and would come after. The child would tie her to that past and future as inextricably as it was now tied to her every heartbeat" (pg 24, 25). For Mattie a city represents something foreign, something she dreads because it is unknown. She is a young girl coming from a country and so the idea of a city was probably very foreign to her. Moving to the same city could be seen as an opportunity for anyone else, but for Mattie it was more like a punishment from her father. After her son Basil is born she frequently longs for home, because her apartment in the city is so cold and rundown. I thought it was interesting that Mattie thinks of her baby as the tie that binds the past and the future together. I can see with so much baggage that Mattie could only view her entry into the city as negative – a binding trap.

Mattie’s friend Etta on the other hand seeks out cities, for their opportunities, hopping from city to city in search of the hot spot place. Etta says, "Honey, New York is the place to be! All those soldier boys are just pullin' up to the docks with pocketfuls of combat pay and lookin' for someone to help 'em invest it. And there's a place called Harlem with nothing but wall-to-wall colored doctors...With all them possibilities, you bound to find Basil a rich daddy" (pg 26). Mattie goes on to lightly criticize Etta saying she was always moving to new cities from New York, to Chicago, to St. Louis in search of something she hasn’t yet found. Etta has no responsibilities, but Mattie is bound to her son. Because of this difference Etta is able to fully embrace the excitements of city life, and she can move from city to city as she pleases.
This made me curious to the idea of what a city’s purpose is. If someone has no responsibilities what is the point of seeking out opportunities? Maybe this is why Etta is constantly moving to different cities. Although if you are bound to your responsibilities as Mattie is, then you become limited to the opportunities you can seize, thus establishing the city as a trap. In thinking more of the city as a trap, I can connect to the people at Beans and Bread. So many of their stories share a common pattern of attempting to better their situation, only to fall deeper into poverty because of the city’s limited opportunities. I remember last semester when I volunteered at My Sister’s Place, the homeless women were able to set up personal mail addresses in the building, so if they went on interviews they could receive mail. Many of these letters, piles upon piles, were never properly distributed to the homeless women because of limited staff at My Sister’s Place. The women were stuck in the same place without room to make much improvement in their lives. I found the concept noble, but because it was not executed the city remained a trap for those who could not help themselves.

Loneliness and Interdependence

The story of Mattie Michael shows the loneliness that can be found in people who are too busy for the community of a city. Mattie has greater concerns than finding community as she drags her child across the city, trying to protect her son from unsafe living environs. However, as noted in other posts, this protection quickly turns into a dependence on her son’s affection. With so little to hope for, working two jobs at times and trying to save some money for the future, Mattie’s life becomes lost in the grind of the city and her only focus, outside of work, is Basil. The time jump used by Naylor on page 40 makes Mattie’s aging process all the more shocking, as suddenly one day, “She looked up from the sink and gasped as she caught her reflection in the windowpane – but when had she grown old?” (42) Even Sergeant Manchester refers to Mattie as “this old black woman” (46). The city has taken her life and left her with nothing besides Basil. When Naylor writes, “God had given her what she prayed for- a little boy who would always need her,” (52) the reader understands that the situation is one of interdependence- Mattie has made Basil reliant on her as well, so that she would never be alone.
This section made me ponder whether situations like Mattie and Basil’s exist in Baltimore. The more common belief, with regard to single parent homes, is that children can be neglected due to serious work demands. However, Mattie’s situation seems quite plausible- when everything else is falling apart, the single parent could be drawn to the security provided by her own blood. When life is hard and there is little relief in sight, the support of family- the one constant in a harsh world- could help stave off loneliness and despair.

Humanizing the City

In all of the literature that we have examined throughout the semester, the city has played a role of vast importance, even to the point where it can be considered a character. And as we have seen, regardless of the location of the city, be it in Sub-Sarahan Africa or in the South Pacific, we have observed that the city, in general, is connected by many of the same elements. There is this humanizing element of these novels that create a metaphor, connecting the city to a living, breathing human being. In Black Rainbow, there is a connection between the streets in the city and the veins in a human being. "The city throbbed around us. We were in one of its veins. (Wendt, 28)" This passage gives the feel of a beeting heart, and gives the city importance on a level other than as a place to live. The city is, in fact, a place that lives. The Women of Brewster Place is the latest example of such a metaphor. Very early on in the novel, on page two, in fact, the reader obtains that imagery: "...it seemed as if Brewster Place was to become part of the main artery of the town."

As I read the descriptions of Brewster Place, my mind could not be redirected from the image of two iconic housing developments in the Lower East Side of Manhattan: Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town. These are two examples of middle class housing projects -- not upper middle class, not lower middle class, simply middle class. The neighborhoods have been making headlines lately, as MetLife has just sold them to a private real estate developer. Residents fear that this sale could eventually lead to the destabilization of rent, or even find themselves homeless, if the developer decides to re-draw the Manhattan skyline. To these people, Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town are much more than bulidings, they represent their familis, their lives and in turn, have become part of their families. Much like Brewster Place, Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town have transcended the typical definition of "city" and have become human.

The idea that a city can take on human traits is important, especially as we explore and discover Baltimore. Oftentimes, it is easy to write something off if we do not know anything of it, yet it becomes that much harder to do that when we take the time to get to know of it. I have uncovered more of the City of Baltimore in this one short semester, than I have in the previous three years that I have spent atttending school at Loyola. I believe that I am begining to see Baltimore on a more intimate, individual basis, rather than generalizing and drawing conclusions based on that. Ether way, we must asknowledge that Baltimore is a living, breathing entity that is hurting for our help.

New York, New York

Having reflected on The Death and Life of Great American Cities, particularly in light of The Women of Brewster Place, I've come to the realization that a prospectus of American cities based on New York City is, at the very least, slightly flawed.

Simply put: there is no city in the world, much less in the U.S., like New York.

Having never been there (and yes, I realize the shame and ridicule this fact opens me up to), I can only imagine the seemingly endless urban valleys where the sun sets an hour early. The countless neighborhoods that only barely resemble one another. Every other aspect of the sprawling metropolis that separates it from every other American city.

I have been to Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Fransisco, Washington D.C. and a handful of other large American cities, and while its clear that each has its own identity, the common threads that unite them throughout each are not, to the same degree, apparent in New York. Instead, NYC is the financial, legal, and migration capital from the United States. In that it lacks the governmental center, as cities like London, Paris, and Moscow have in serving the big-city role for their respective countries, New York has been able to grow in such a way that it can serve its citizens unabated--that is, despite the fact that it happens every day on a small scale, New Yorkers on the whole have never been steamrolled out of their role as findamentally determining the fate of the city by the system, as has happened in so many other places.

This admirable revelation harkens scenes from Black Rainbow, because in New York, unlike possibly anywhere else, the street kids have been able to choose the town's path.

Parents and their children

The constant and unwavering love and support for a child can be detrimental. Throughout the Women of Brewster Place, the relationship between Maggie and her father and Maggie and her son are similar. In these relationships the parents nurture and care for their children so much, that the child becomes spoiled. Maggie’s father cherished and supported her. Even after Maggie discovered she was pregnant, her father did not believe it was Maggie’s fault. Maggie could not do any wrong. Maggie felt the same way about her son. Maggie spoiled and loved her son to the point that his conviction was questionable, not her son’s story . The parents in these situations loved and cared for their children, so much that the child did not fear the consequence of his actions. The child always had support from his parent.
Maggie’s father got fed up, and sent Maggie away. He could not take the hurt of giving his child everything, and knowing that she had defied him. Unlike Sam, Maggie did not give up on her son. She constantly supported him financially and mentally. Maggie had only her son, and he only had her.
The children in both situations are ungrateful. Maggie defies her father in the only way she can. She sleeps with a man her father hates, and gets pregnant. Maggie’s son constantly hurts her while he is in jail he states, “‘when I am getting out of here? That’s what I want to know’. And he snatched his hand away…”(48). He does not appreciate that his mother is trying everything to get him out of jail.
The news constantly covers stories relating to children who do unimaginable acts of defiance. The problem sometimes is not that the child was unloved, but that the child was loved too much. A child does not understand the difference between right and wrong if the parent always believes he is right. However, the parent cannot stop loving his child too much because he doesn’t believe in too much love.

The Effect of the Men on Brewster Place

The women of Brewster Place seem unable to establish true independence, in the sense that they constantly rely on men to satisfy their desires, rather than seeking satisfaction from more permanent and nourishing sources. The male figures in this novel weaken the loving and ambitious emotions each woman possesses deep inside of her being.

When speaking of the child she has with Butch, Mattie says, “This baby didn’t really belong to him. It belonged to something out there in the heat of an August day and the smell of sugar cane and mossy herbs” (22). Mattie’s passions overrule her reason in regards to her relations with Butch. His good looks and suave manner win Mattie over and persuade her to partake in an action in the heat of the moment, without much thought for her own desires or future. Rather than supporting Mattie, Mattie’s father violently reacts to the news of Mattie’s pregnancy, thereby leaving Mattie without a truly loving, supportive male figure in her life. Similar to Mattie, Etta Mae sleeps with a pastor whom she barely knows purely to satisfy her desires, which reflects her lack of strength and independence, as well as his corruption. The pastor does not respect Etta, and Etta does not respect herself by allowing him to feel this way about her. He says, “That’s the nice thing about those worldly women. They understand the temporary weakness of the flesh and don’t make it out to be something bigger than it is. They can have a good time without pawing and hanging all onto a man” (73). The pastor is comfortable with the fact that he can have a one night stand with a Brewster woman, which shows the lack of respect men have for these women in general, but more importantly, the lack of dignity these women have for themselves. Kiswana’s situation is very similar to Mattie’s and Etta Mae’s, in that she also sacrifices some of her individuality and dignity for the pleasures of being with a man. When her mother stops over to see her apartment, she is astonished to see her daughter’s polished nails. She says, “ ‘Since when do you polish your toenails?’, she gasped. ‘You never did that before’”(87). Kiswana sacrifices her own tastes in order to satisfy the sexual desires of the man she is with. These Brewster women have desires and want them fulfilled, but they seek fulfillment in the wrong way by consummating with men that are selfish, superficial, and weak.

What strikes me about these women and their relationships is that their part of the city seems to be a trap, in a way. These women cannot seem escape negative relationships. Rather than making a name for themselves and becoming strong, independent women, these women make poor decisions by submitting their will to men of no worth, and thus continue this cycle in Brewster Place. It is amazing how generation after generation can continue in the same manner, even if there are lessons to be learned. Sometimes the city can be a trap, rather than a place of thriving opportunity. I specifically recall the city report which included a clip from “The Wire”, as it relates to this subject. This clip pertained to the unending cycle of drug use that is prevalent throughout the city of Baltimore. In the same sense, the women of Brewster Place seem to be caught in an additive cycle that takes away from their opportunities and directs their ambitions towards unfulfilling ends, in my opinion.

The Call to End Ghettos

When visiting my brother in Dallas a few years ago, he told me a story of how he found an article from a local paper dating about 30 years ago. He said the article spoke of the anger of the citizens of a small area of the city because a black family had been permitted to move into the area. This was kind of funny, he stated, because now the area was a run-down almost entirely black community. How did this happen, and in such a short time? And, also, it seems that this little section of Dallas is not the only place where this has occurred. How do these little towns of affluence change so quickly?
It seems that a lot of this had to do with the time period around which the article my brother mentioned was written. As integration became more and more a required thing rather than suggested in United States living, the areas in which these men and women were living were strongly affected by it. However, although the laws might have forced to change, the refusal to accept these changes could not be changed by any amount of laws or ordinances. And so the whites moved out, taking whatever wealth and power they had with them, and leaving struggling black families in the white men and women’s place. As time has proven, people with wealth are attracted to living situations with people of similar wealth; and people with no wealth have little choice in where they live. Because struggling does not equal wealth and wealth is one of the driving ingredients in creating a community, as the wealthy men and women left the area, the poor and those with nowhere else to go replaced the wealthy, creating a small ghetto of underprivileged men and women, similar to that small area that the article my brother read referred to.
This movement that created and still creates these sections of cities is a major problem in our society, creating invisible walls in cities that should be united. Even in Baltimore, there are clear examples of this separation, the east and west side of York Road and the small areas of varying wealth within Baltimore (Govans, Canton, etc.) being clear examples. There have been many efforts made, either by the government (section eight housing, Department of Housing and Urban Development, etc.) as well as by the cities themselves (mixed economic living areas with different priced homes to fit different people into the same community). And I would hope that these initiatives, although now somewhat unsupported and in need of stronger leadership and less bureaucracy, will become forces that create blended communities and put an end to the wealth-evacuation of mixed towns. If the wealthy would only stay in their area, it could create an environment not based on wealth or power, but based on humanity. The invisible walls would begin to fall, creating a true city of strong relationships built on our individual characteristics, not on traits that we sometimes have no control over.

Dependency and Companionship of the City

The ideas of companionship and dependency have been constant through all the novels we have read and is even more clear in The Women of Brewster Place. Throughout the first half of the novel, many of characters are interweaved throughout multiple stories, much like the line of women in Danticat's Krik? Krak!. Although these women aren't (always) related by blood, they offer each other companionship and share stories and wisdom. Mattie received shelter, comfort, companionship and wisdom from Eva and Mattie in turn gave such things to Etta Johnson while they lived together in Brewster Place. Kiswana, who receives help and support from her own mother goes on to pass those teachings and support onto Cora Lee who has the burden of caring for many children.

This dependency of women, or other people in general, sheds light on the purpose of the city and the role it plays in the lives of these characters. The city, because of it's tight knit structure and large populous automatically allows many people to come together and help each other. As Jacobs explains in her text Death and Life of Great American Cities, cities are kept safe because of the dense amounts of people living in them. Because there is such a high volume of people living in the same place, there is always going to be someone walking outside or sitting on their stoop or looking out their window and these people offer security to other people walking around the city. The people that are around outside are there to witness or see any mysterious behavior and therefore deter a lot of crime from happening in their city.

Just as the many women in Brewster's Place offer their help and support the city also offers it's support in form of protection from heinous acts that could occur on empty dark streets. Brewster's Place is often times described in Naylor's novel as full of people and children walking around or sitting on their stoops. They offer the protection in that town. And inside those buildings women offer protection to their friends and families. The city in Naylor's novel and Jacob's text offers it's occupants protection, companionship and something to depend on either through a small group of women sharing stories, advice and wisdom or the larger organism of the actual city offering it's protection from crime and loneliness.

In or Out

In Mattie Michael's story, the first of the seven woman's stories Naylor chronicles in "The Women of Brewster Place", the reader meets Miss Eva. A strong, proud, "old yellow" woman, Miss Eva represents a stability that Mattie was desperately in need of as she wondered through the city that day with her child in her arms and no place to go. When Miss Eva appears from behind the fence, and offers her indefinite shelter and care, I could not help but be reminded of the Housekeeper in Wendt's "Black Rainbow"; "The young black woman, and the old yellow woman sat i the kitchen for hours, blending their lives so that what lay behind one and ahead of the other became indistinguishable."(34) Miss Eva's unexpected willingness to discuss her most inner secrets, "and without even realizing she was being questioned, Mattie found herself talking about things she had buried within her,"(34), is reminiscent of the Free Citizen and the Housekeeper, willingly, unabashadly, and seemingly unconciously sharing the stories of theri pasts with one another.
The connection that the two made ran deep, and lasted for the several years that Miss Eva was still alive and Mattie remained at the house. However, we begin to see that departing from reality and remaining in the safety of the haven of the house has its drawbacks, just as in "Black Rainbow". By precluding herself from the outside world, and thus avoiding danger, content with her surroundings in her home, Mattie missed out on crucial opporunities and experiences; it can be argued that her son mirrored that inexperience with trials and tribulations when he constantly retreated to the safe haven of his mother rather than facing his problems head on. When the Free Citizen left the house, he faced many trying situations, but the point is that he faced them, learned from them, and grew as a person, despite some of the serious consequences. I believe that that is the purpose of living in a city--to strive for the opportunities despite the face of adversity, rather than hiding from the inconvienances. Everyone can find that special place tucked in a nook of a city that serves as a personal cache from reality, and where you return to for support (just as Etta returned to Brewster Place to find Mattie waiting up for her). But you must balance that comfort and stability with unpredictability, the diversity of experienc--that is how a city makes us grow.

Night and Day both literally and figuratively

In Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities she illustrates how alive each part of the city is. In the portion we had to read she discussed how the sidewalks must be patrolled by the strangers that walk it in order to maintain safety. I thought that it was very interesting that she said the sidewalks are nothing without its surroundings. I wish that she would delve into the fact that the sidewalks change from day to night. She discusses the safety that must be maintained during the day especially but fails to mention nighttime. The failure to distinguish the two reminded me of the Achebe novel in which there is a large distinction made between the Lagos at night and the Lagos during the day. Night, especially in the city, maintains a sense of secrecy, seduction and sexuality. Night does not obey the laws of day and I believe that is reflected in the characters of The Women of Brewster Place.

Each woman has a side that they make visible to the public and they also have a life, which they only become in private. Sometimes the situations are long and drawn out but other times they are short. In the case of Mattie Michael, she exposed herself to her family as a well-mannered proper girl. In her private time she disobeyed her father and got pregnant by the one man he strictly warned her against. Later, when she boarded with Miss Ella she put up a front that she had everything in control. She acted as though she knew the best thing to do in every possible situation, when in actuality she knew that she was only raising her son to be severely dependent on her.

Later, when Etta comes back into town she acts like she is a good-natured Christian woman in Sunday mass. When she sees the Reverend Woods she immediately reverts to her private self that lusts for a life with the Reverend. During her time in NYC she hid herself away from the public, only working during the night, due to the fact that she was a prostitute. Kiswana severely displays a sense of night and day in the expression of her self. She, as a black power activist, wants other black people to feel that she is in every way African, poor, and can sympathize with their situation. In actuality she is from an upper-middle class, well-educated black family. In addition to hiding her family situation she also hides her personal life from her mother in order for her mother to somewhat accept of her new lifestyle.

This culture has unspecified definitions of what is and isn’t acceptable. Everyone has the ability to personalize those definitions, which the readers see happen in the book. The rules give us guidelines to live by and also rules to break. The distinction between night and day, even personally is the fact that during the night, or in private, it is easier to break those rules as opposed to when you are out in the day, in the public’s eye.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Diver-City

During our last class meeting, we spent a lot of time commenting on diversity at Loyola, how we define diversity as students, and how outsiders like The Princeton Review view our student population. I'm still not so sure myself whether or not the Loyola College student body is diverse. To argue that it is, I could say that we each have a different story, regardless of the color of our skin or our place of origin. However, anyone who doesn't have the time to get to know Loyola College students can see that many of them are white and wear clothing that doesn't deviate much from the current fashion. Our nation's response to this superficial lack of diversity is affirmative action, but this response is just as superficial as the diversity it tries to encourage, because the real problem is not in the diversity of the people but the diversity of the environment. For Jane Jacobs, in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, diversity is defined foremost as an economical condition, capable of thriving in cities because of the high concentrations of people. As she writes "City diversity itself permits and stimulates more diversity." (145).

One would think that, because Loyola College is located in Baltimore, the city would attract a more diverse population to the school. However, most students at Loyola College experience and live the suburban features that Jacobs mentions: "Towns and suburbs, for instance, are natural homes for huge supermarkets and for little else in the way of groceries, for standard movie houses or drive-ins and for little else in the way of theater." (146). Until recently the Colltown Shuttle stopped as far south as MICA and as far north as Goucher College. There are no movie theaters or grocery stores at any stop south of Loyola so any freshmen or sophomores who didn't have cars and used the shuttle did grocery shopping, etc. in Towson. Before I had a car on campus, which wasn't until my junior year, it was difficult to imagine myself living in a city. Now that I have a car and commute twice a week to my internship downtown, I finally feel as if I'm living the city life I had hoped to live when I came to Loyola.

During freshman and sophomore years, I was miserable here and desperately wanted to transfer. My hopes of living in a city were not fulfilled. It wasn't the lack of diversity on this campus that bothered me, but moreseo the lack of access to diversity in commerce and entertainment; "...wherever we find a city district with an exuberant variety and plenty in its commerce, we are apt to find that it contains a good many other kinds of diversity also, including variety of cultural opportunities, variety of scenes, and a great variety in its population and other users." (148). I knew that once I had access to the "mom and pop" restaurants, the clothing boutiques and quirky theatres, I would no longer feel bored by the sameness here. I would like to think that a college-age person is more open-minded and curious than seems to be the case with many first-year students on this campus, who don't make any efforts to look around. My desire for newness and exploration was a source of great frustration and deep sadness for the greater part of two years.

Another point that Jacobs makes that really resonated for me was actually about Baltimore specifically: "Consider the problem posed by the street with the pretty sidewalk park in Baltimore...Mrs. Kostritsky is quite right when she reasons that it needs some commerce for its users' convenience. And as might be expected, inconvenience and lack of public street life are only two of the by-products of residential monotony here." (144). Early in my sophomore year, I was determined to figure out the Baltimore public transportation system. I set out early one Saturday morning and rode a bus downtown to a subway station. I was profoundly disturbed by the stillness of the city, which seemed like an evacuated place to me. Even in the downtown business district, where men and women walk around in business attire, making and breaking deals during the week, I was afraid. Other parts of the city are like that too. Two of the only neighborhoods you can visit on a weekend during the day are the Inner Harbor (which is swarmed with people who aren't even from this city) and Hampden because both have lots of commerce concentrated in a relatively small area. Actually, I feel so safe in Hamden most days that I was shocked to read in the City Paper about a murder occuring, on more than one occasion, during the day on the Avenue...

Formation of a city according to Jacobs and Naylor

There are many aspects to consider when constructing a city. One must think about the size of the population, the needs of the residents, and the purpose of the area. One must also consider the lives of the residents in these neighborhoods because they correspond to reality. In her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs points to the importance of actually living in a city in order to determine its needs and highlights the negative aspects of changing a city without consulting the residents. Gloria Naylor also reflects the failures that could arise if one haphazardly constructs a neighborhood when she describes the setting of her novel, The Women of Brewster Place. Both of these works point to the fact that one must actively participate in and analyze a region instead of blindly erecting an aesthetically pleasing city.

Jacobs begins her book by stating that she will describe cities based on what she has seen first-hand through her experiences in the city, citing the need to see “how cities work in real life” (Jacobs 4). She acknowledges that one must be realistic in determining what will answer the desires of the current residents of a city. She notes that there have been many failures in constructing cities because those involved in the process did not live in the cities before attempting to change them; they based their decisions on idealistic conventions and on stereotypes: “Instead the practitioners and teachers of this discipline (if such it can be called) have ignored the study of success and failure in real life, have been incurious about the reasons for unexpected success, and are guided instead by principles derived from the behavior and appearance of towns, suburbs, tuberculosis sanatoria, fairs, and imaginary dream cities—from anything but cities themselves” (Jacobs 6), and, “The pseudoscience of city planning and its companion, the art of city design, have not yet broken with the specious comfort of wishes, familiar superstitions, oversimplifications, and symbols, and have not yet embarked upon the adventure of probing the real world” (Jacobs 13). Those who do not live in the city attempt to design a neighborhood that will answer their needs instead of the needs of those who are actually living in the region – an outsider is attempting to uproot the lives of those who currently inhabit these environments. The city planners do not care about the consequences of their choices; they are simply carrying out business transactions – they do not have any ties to the lives that they will alter by making these changes to the city: “Bankers, like planners, have theories about cities on which they act. They have gotten their theories from the same intellectual sources as the planners. Bankers and government administrative officials who guarantee mortgages do not invent planning theories nor, surprisingly, even economic doctrine about cities” (Jacobs 11-12). Bankers, planners, government officials, architects, and other involved in the process of building a city do not have any bonds with the citizens of the area and are not influenced by their concerns or by their desired functions for the city; these professionals only take into account the requirements of their positions and completing their tasks. In this estranged bubble that the professionals construct for themselves, they demonstrate their ignorance of the needs of the residents when they base a city’s construction solely on its appearance. Because of this isolated stance, the builders seek to recreate what they have seen and what they expect to be a utopian area, most often abhorring the sight of well-traveled streets:
The street is bad as an environment for humans; houses should be turned away from it and faced inward toward sheltered greens…The presence of many other people is, at best, a necessary evil, and good city planning must aim for at least an illusion of isolation and suburbany privacy. The Decentrists also pounded in Howard’s premises that the planned community must be islanded off as a self-contained unit, that it must resist future change, and that every significant detail must be controlled by the planners from the start and then stuck to. Jacobs 20
The city planners view their task of creating a city as creating a city that they themselves would enjoy, not a city that the actual citizens would enjoy. Thus, they completely ignore the benefits of the street and see it as a breeding ground for violence and for unsightly appearances; they do not see that the street is the meeting place for neighbors and children. Because the city planners do not base their decisions on the reality of the needs of the residents, they seek to create a utopian environment that is based solely on aesthetics.

In the beginning of her work, Naylor describes the creation of Brewster Place as a simple business scheme that was based on political agreements and on monetary desires:
Brewster Place was the bastard child of several clandestine meetings between the alderman of the sixth district and the managing director of Unico Realty Company. The latter needed to remove the police chief of the sixth district because he was too honest to take bribes and so had persisted in harassing the gambling houses the director owned. In turn, the alderman wanted the realty company to build their new shopping center on his cousin’s property in the northern section of town. They came together, propositioned, bargained, and slowly worked out the consummation of the respective desires. As an afterthought, they agreed to erect four double-housing units on some worthless land in the badly crowded district. Naylor 1
The founders of Brewster Place were only concerned with their own interests in the project and did not consider the needs of the citizens nor the effects that the community would have on the surrounding area. Instead of building the neighborhood with the interests of others in mind, the men only thought of themselves and of the benefits that they would receive. Because the men created the community without properly considering the growth that would occur or the preferences of the residents, a wall had to be erected, thus isolating the street from the rest of the area: “The boulevard became a major business district, but in order to control traffic some of the auxiliary streets had to be walled off…So the wall came up and Brewster Place became a dead-end street…Cut off from the central activities of the city, the street developed a personality of its own” (Naylor 2). If the city planners had lived in the area of their proposed project, then they would have realized that there was not enough space to foster a community that would welcome everyone. Furthermore, the neighborhood’s wall separates it from the rest of the city and prevents its benefiting from what the rest of the city has to offer, thus leading to its eventual degradation: “The brightness of the unclouded sky seemed to…[highlight] every broken stoop railing and missing brick. The afternoon sun glittered and cascaded across even the tiniest fragments of broken bottle, and at that very moment the wind chose to rise up again, sending unswept grime flying into the air, as a stray tin can left by careless garbage collectors went rolling noisily down the center of the street” (Naylor 76). As Brewster Place was left to determine its own destiny because it was secluded, it fell into disrepair because its location was undesirable and no one bothered to integrate it into the rest of the area.

There are many similarities between Jacobs’ and Naylor’s observations, all centering around the necessity to encounter a city firsthand in order to determine its needs. First, both Jacobs and Naylor cite the fact that outside professionals who focus on their own agendas without taking an interest in the wellbeing of a city are not the best candidates for city planners. Second, they note the possibility of failure that could arise if an idealistic planner constructs a city instead of having an actual citizen undertake the job. Third, the authors highlight the aesthetic aspect of a street as a determinant of the neighborhood’s success. It is depressing to think that cities are still being built in this manner, when it is obvious that it will lead to disappointment for the residents.

Women in Brewster's Place

Gloria Naylor’s book, The Women of Brewster Place, explores a community through the lives of several women—or perhaps it explores the lives of these women through their experience in the community. The novel is divided into seven stories, which are connected by their characters’ residence in Brewster Place. Each story focuses on a different woman, but they do overlap. Mattie and Etta knew each other growing up in Tennessee, and Cora Lee and Kiswana meet in Brewster Place. Lucielia is the granddaughter of Eva Turner, who took in Mattie and Basil. The interconnectedness of people in communities is shown through the overlap in the stories, but the separation between the stories shows that every woman has her own story that is both unique and connected to those of the women around her. Some characters in this novel, such as Mattie, end up in Brewster Place at the end of their lives because of unfortunate events, while others, such as Kiswana, live there during an intermediate period in life on their way to something better. The female characters are resilient despite hardship that threatens to break the spirit. Of the women of Brewster Place, Naylor writes, “They were hard-edged, soft-centered, brutally demanding, and easily pleased…They came, they went, grew up, and grew old beyond their years. Like an ebony phoenix, each in her own time and with her own season had a story” (5). Phoenixes live and die to live again. Like phoenixes, these women continue living after hope seems to die. Mattie continues to love after her son leaves her in her interactions with Etta and Lucielia. Lucielia is nearly broken by the constant presence of pain in her life, but Mattie baptizes her (105) and she lives again. Mattie “knew that [Lucielia’s] tears would end. And she would sleep. And morning would come” (105).

The women’s stories are connected by their common residence at Brewster Place. This emphasizes the influence of place on the relationships that one forms. Mattie Michael and her friend Etta Mae Johnson sacrifice everything, though in different ways, but both end up far from where they once imagined they would be. Mattie stores all of her hope in the future of her son, who selfishly abandons her to live out her old age alone in poverty. Etta chases all the wrong men into her twilight years to find herself staying in Brewster Place with Mattie, just as she had once given shelter to her friend thirty years before. These women do not have much left, but they do realize that they have one another. Perhaps in lieu of husbands, they are each other’s soul mates. Etta is comforted when she discovers that “someone was waiting up for her” (74). The theme of women helping women is prevalent in this novel. Mattie renews the life in Lucielia by making her confront her pain and Kiswana challenges Cora Lee to provide better for her many children. Kiswana’s mother wants only the best for her daughter and gives her money (88) and wisdom.

This novel demonstrates the importance of remembering that communities such as Brewster Place are not hopeless. The people who live in such communities are often vital and energetic, and those who are not (such as Cora Lee) may only need to be helped to see past the seeming hopelessness, lethargy, and stagnation of their situation to be motivated to change the community. Many communities in Baltimore are similar to Brewster Place in that they are no longer places to aspire to live in, but rather they are places to escape. While Jane Jacobs demonstrated in The Death and Life of Great American Cities that city planning is important to creating flourishing and safe communities, it is also important for residents to live fully and actively contribute to the life of their community.