Unveiling of State of Pennsylvania’s Historical Marker Honoring Albert M. Greenfield (1887-1967)

This week in North Philly Notes, Dan Rottenberg, author of The Outsider, provides his remarks from the April 21, 2016 unveiling of a historical marker honoring Albert M. Greenfield, the subject of his book. The marker is located outside the Philadelphia Building, 1315 Walnut Street, which Greenfield built in 1923 and occupied for more than 40 years. 

This is an especially appropriate time to honor Albert M. Greenfield. We live in an age characterized by pessimism and fear— especially fear of the future, and fear of immigrants.

The Outsider_smAlbert Greenfield was both an immigrant and an optimist. In his 79 years on this planet he demonstrated what a difference a single individual can make in his community, his country, and his world.

In Philadelphia he put up high-rise office buildings and new hotels. He revived the city’s derelict historic district as Society Hill, a model urban community. In the process he drew the upper-middle-class back to Philadelphia’s downtown from the suburbs. He helped reform the city’s political system. He played a role in the creation of the state of Israel.

In this election year, when presidential candidates and European leaders talk of erecting walls to keep people out, it’s worth recalling that Albert Greenfield spent his life breaking down walls between people. First he got the German Jews and the Russian Jews to stop fighting with each other. Then he got the Jews and the Catholics to stop fighting with each other. Then he got whites and blacks to stop fighting with each other. He even broke down barriers between men and women. Ultimately got all of them together to challenge the entrenched Protestant Establishment that had dominated Philadelphia since its founding.

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The obstacles to human progress that Greenfield opposed—pessimism, timidity, prejudice, fear of immigrants, resistance to change— still persist. This is a good time to recall the Mayo Clinic’s definition of an optimist: “Optimism is the belief that good things will happen to you and that negative events are temporary setbacks to overcome.” That was Albert Greenfield: a man who wasn’t afraid of change and in fact delighted in it.

We can’t all follow in his peripatetic, hyperactive footsteps— the world would be a madhouse if we did—  but we can resolve to follow his example in embracing the future with a stout heart, courage and good cheer, just as Albert Greenfield did.

 

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It’s Not (Only) About Transgender: Bathroom Bills and the Politics of Fear

This week in North Philly Notes, we repost a column by Finn Enke, editor of Transfeminist Perspectives in and beyond Transgender and Gender Studies, that first appeared April 2 on myhusbandbetty.com, about bathroom legislation and the climate of fear these bills produce.

In 2015, 21 different anti-trans bills were put before legislatures in over 12 states. In the first 3 months of 2016, politicians have brought us another 44 bills in still more states. Most of these bills focus on public facilities that are sex segregated; most criminalize transgender and nonbinary people for using public facilities; most suggest that these bills are necessary for the “safety” and “privacy” of “the public;” most include a definition of “sex” as that determined by birth assignment and confirmed by birth certificate, and chromosomes. Many focus on public schools. In their rhetorical conflation of transgender with perversion and predation, and in their legitimation of excessive surveillance, they disproportionately impact people who are already most targeted: trans and queer people of color, trans women generally, and nonbinary people.

Whether or not they pass, these bills produce a climate of fear and suspicion, and they have already contributed to an increase in violence in and around bathrooms.

As a white transgender person who doesn’t “pass” well in either bathroom, I am more nervous than ever every time I need to use a public restroom (roughly 1,500 times a year).

These bills don’t originate from public concern or from any documented problem, and protests against them show that many people aren’t buying it. After all, trans people have been around forever, and there is no record of any trans person harassing anyone in a bathroom, ever. Plus, the bills themselves are staggering in their fantasies that sex could simply be flashed at the door with the wave of a birth certificate. Most people know that these bills don’t make bathrooms safe and only marginalize trans people, even making it impossible for us to use any bathroom.Transfeminist Perpectivessm

We know we are political fodder. The GOP made a sudden “issue” out of our access to public facilities in order to galvanize a crumbling party. It wouldn’t be the first time the GOP has created a political platform around vilifying already-marginal communities. As John Ehrlichman explained in 1994, Nixon advisors designed the war on drugs in order to derail the Civil Rights Movement and the Viet Nam Antiwar Movement. In the midst of the Cold War, the GOP also consolidated itself around anti-abortion platforms. And from the 1990s on, the GOP turned gay marriage into the fuel behind their campaigns rather than addressing economic and environmental crises.

But even more specifically, the rhetoric surrounding these bills relies on a very old trope of white women needing protection against sinister intruders. In Wisconsin during a 9 hour public hearing about its bathroom bill, we heard from quite a few men who didn’t want their daughter or granddaughter to be vulnerable to men preying on girls in the locker room. One said, for example, “we don’t allow exhibitionists and child molesters to hang out outside of school buildings, so how can we even be talking about letting them into girl’s locker rooms?”

North Carolina State Senator David Brock shared a similar concern in response to the state paying $42,000 for an emergency session to pass SB2 which criminalizes trans people for using public facilities: “you know, $42,000 is not going to cover the medical expenses when a pervert walks into a bathroom and my little girls are in there.”

Or we can look at the campaigns against Houston Proposition 1 during 2015. Prop 1 was an Equal Rights Ordinance barring discrimination in housing and employment on the basis of gender identity as well as sex, race, disability and other protected statuses. These are rights that should already be guaranteed under the Civil Rights Act of 1963 and elaborated by Title IX and the American with Disabilities Act. Refusing to affirm these rights, those who opposed the bill claimed that the bill would allow men into women’s bathrooms. They created TV ads depicting large dark men intruding on white girls in bathroom stalls. They rhetorically turned a housing and employment nondiscrimination ordinance into a “bathroom bill,” and they succeeded; Prop One failed to pass.

And let’s not forget that the North Carolina bill also contains unchallenged sections that discriminate against workers and veterans. Against the more graphic iconography of predatory men in women’s bathrooms, the rights and workers and veterans are easily lost from view.

This is not the first time that demands for equality across race, sex and gender have been resisted with the claim that public accommodations will become spaces of unregulated danger against innocence. The face of the intruder may change slightly, but across centuries, the victim is ever and always a young white girl.

It’s also not the first time we have seen white women used in the service of sexist and racist and transphobic violence. Feminist historians have conclusively shown that the 19th and 20th c. trope of protecting young white womanhood was foremost about securing white masculinity, domesticity, and white supremacy.

Though they cause real violences, these bathroom bills are not primarily about transgender people or bathrooms. Nor have lawmakers, for all their concern about young girls being molested in bathrooms, shown similar concern about the most common forms of sexual violence and assault against girls and women (across race) that take place outside of bathrooms.

As mean as these bathroom bills are, something much larger is also at stake.  The North Carolina bill is designed primarily to strip the right of local municipalities to set their own anti-discrimination and protection laws.

We have lost all semblance of constitutional, democratic process.

These anti-trans tactics work because they succeed in directing fear away from the corporate demolition of democracy; they succeed by making people believe that the reason they are struggling and vulnerable is because some other group of people is dangerous and taking away something “we” worked hard to earn.

How, then, can we best address the fact that these bills increase everyone’s vulnerability and directly make the world less safe for people of color, people who are known or perceived to be trans, nonbinary, queer, or gender non-conforming?

While politicians vie for corporate favors at the expense of their constituents, and as more and more people struggle to maintain jobs, health, and life, we can still refuse to perpetuate hatred. Our only hope may be to refuse the rhetoric that pits people against each other. As politicians and corporations dismantle democracy, it is more crucial than ever to organize across race and class and ability, across queer and feminist and trans and straight; and to be brilliant in our resistance to cooptation.

Something to be Proud Of

In this blog entry, Jamie Longazel, author of Undocumented Fearswrites about the pride, shame and legacy of his hometown of Hazleton, PA.

People talk a lot about being proud of where they’re from. Understandably so: It’s nice to feel connected, to be able to associate with a place and call it ‘home.’

I’m proud of where I’m from. I was born and raised in Hazleton – a hardscrabble, former coalmining town in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Like anywhere else, we have our own dialect (we say “youse” instead of “you all”), cuisine (you ought to try the cold pizza!), and ways of doing things that folks from other places probably wouldn’t understand.

Undocumented Fears_smMy book Undocumented Fears is about my hometown. And I can say with confidence now that pride is what drove me to write it. Part of me knew this all along. At first, though, it felt like my pride was either backwards or upside-down. What I now call pride actually felt like the opposite in the beginning. Shame, perhaps.

I was not proud of what my hometown did, you see. Certainly not in the way we traditionally think about pride and place.

Back in 2006, Hazleton was getting national attention when it passed the Illegal Immigration Relief Act. This was a local ordinance meant to punish landlords and businesses who rented to or hired undocumented immigrants. It also made English the official language of the city.

The ordinance came at a time when Hazleton was going through some significant changes. The decent-paying, long-term manufacturing jobs that kept the city afloat for several decades were on their way out. Warehouses, distribution centers, and a meatpacking plant – with lower paying, temporary, and sometimes dangerous jobs – were on their way in.

With these economic changes came demographic changes. Many Latina/o immigrants relocated to Hazleton over a very short period. Ninety-five percent White at the time of the 2000 census, the city was approximately 36% Latina/o by 2006.

Change can be confusing. Sociologists have long known that in moments like this, communities tend to come together and try to make sense of it all. We grasp for explanations. We seek to redefine who we are.

I get it. The poverty appears starker each time I visit, and it breaks my heart to see my city and its people go through that. This is why I have been so committed to figuring out what is actually going on.

When I think of home – especially since learning more about Hazleton’s history – I think of anthracite coal. In its ‘heyday,’ European immigrants toiled in mines in and around Hazleton facing notoriously low pay, disturbingly high rates of disease and death, and mine bosses who mastered the art of pitting ethnic groups against one another. To me this legacy is central to who we are.

In 2006, however, politicians started warning about undocumented immigrants who were committing crime and draining all the resources. Following their lead, people started blaming immigrants for their troubles.

Chalk it up to ignorance if you’d like, but also keep people’s yearning for collective identity in mind. I describe in the book how debates over the ordinance introduced degrading myths about who ‘they’ supposedly were (e.g., illegal, lazy, transient, noisy) – stereotypes that Latina/os troublingly have to endure in their day-to-day lives. At the same time, these myths provided the established, predominately white community with a contrast against which they could articulate a fresh conception of ‘us’ (e.g., law-abiding, hardworking, rooted, quiet).

What prevailed was an image of Hazleton as ‘Small Town, USA’ – which, like the idea that Hazleton is being ‘invaded’ by undocumented immigrants, just plainly is not true.

This is not to say that Hazleton and its people are undesirable or unworthy of this designation. The point is that ‘desirability’ as it is presented here relies on demonization and is fed to us from above. We’re pointing our fingers in the wrong direction. We’re being told who we are rather than deciding that for ourselves.

The form of industry changed, but in Hazleton, and across the country, for that matter, there is a wide gulf between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’ It is as if the coal barons of yesteryear are still around today. They do not want us to know that, of course, for if we did we might carry on the legacy of our mining ancestors and rally against low pay, brutal working conditions, and unfair treatment.

The ‘pride’ we often see in nostalgic yearnings for the ‘good ol’ days’ in ‘Small Town America’ in this sense isn’t pride at all. It’s detachment. It’s a decoy….It’s a dream.

I learned something about my city while writing this book, and I learned something about pride. Real pride requires authenticity. It requires confrontation. Pride is what keeps you from backing down when someone challenges your identity.

I show off my pride today by choosing the gritty reality of a post-industrial city over idealized and racist myths offered by opportunistic politicians.

Don’t get me wrong: I’d prefer prosperity. But we can’t just close our eyes and imagine a time when it supposedly existed. We ought to see ourselves as poor and working people who are part of an ongoing struggle in which immigrants are allies, not enemies.

If we want our poverty to end, we need to know who is actually perpetuating it. Then we need to rally together across our differences and demand changes in the way we are treated. That would be something to be proud of.

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