Missing voices

Written by Diana Nelson Jones on .

During a conversation I had recently with Sukhdev Sandu, a British writer whose work “Night Haunts” is part of "The City and the City," an exhibition that opens Friday at the Wood Street Galleries, 601 Wood St., Downtown, I had one of those slowly dawning “wowwwww” moments that very thoughtful and insightful people provide me from time to time.oldwindow

It touched on the sentiments of a resident of Lawrenceville who expressed his frustration to me concerning a proposed redevelopment near his home.

He invested in his property some years ago and, like his neighbors in the blocks off Butler Street, has experienced a drastic increase in the number of people who are parking in the neighborhood. Many of them are visitors who drive to Lawrenceville for its bars, restaurants, the Arsenal Bowling Lanes, etc.

I’ll call him Joe. He said he has been to community meetings to discuss the redevelopment and that the people who think they have more right to be right are the ones who know the lingo and all the articulate ways to say what the leadership class “gets,” while people like him struggle to say what they feel in a way that doesn’t get them dismissed as cranks, nimbys or anti-progressive.

Joe made me think hard about a feeling I have had at community meetings where people drag into rooms looking a little bamboozled already because they do not understand the process or are suspicious about the plans and their own power to alter them.

“It sounds like it’s already a done deal,” said one woman at a recent community meeting. While the plan was anything but, her comment betrayed a sense of helplessness in confronting or even just understanding how the process works. It works very slowly most of the time but to a lot of people whose voices are bypassed, even if not intentionally, it all works against them in the end.

Here’s what Sukhdev said after I asked him to expound on his interests as a writer and conceptual artist on the subject of place:

“I am eager to visit Pittsburgh because I have a compulsion for places like Sheffield and Darby [in England], places defined by toil, labor, grit and a kind of hard-earned memory and tactility... a relationship to the factory, the plant, the mine, the pit, the landcape... and a sense of place you understand in mood.

“For the last 20 years, there’s been this race among smaller cities to reconvert port space, create galleries, be the BoBos in paradise, with cookie-cutter gentrificatory urbanism. And it is often imposed upon a city by the managerial class of designers, curators and real estate speculators, and what gets lost are older memories of people who are not so educated or articulate (as judged by the planners), people who are products of their landscape.

“You can tell it from the rhythm in their voices, like a muscle memory passed down. It can also be the silences. There are all sorts of ways in which we create stories and develop memories about places.

“My own work has been about hanging out with people who will never appear in literature and will never be asked their opinion. They don’t feel honored if asked and they don’t feel they need you, and yet they are treasure troves and crucial to the life and spirit and possibilities of a place. Otherwise so many cities want to turn them into one big uber gallery about play and fun and nightlife and grooviness.”

The movement toward vibrancy has been of a scripted type. It all looks great and feels great — thriving lifestyle centers, revitalized retail corridors amid new housing, riverfront developments, mixed-use retail/housing/office and trails and marketplaces.

But for a healthy, compelling city to be itself and not every other city, it needs to jealously guard its authenticity and protect the voices that made it special to begin with.

Sukhdev’s work will be at the Wood Street Galleries with the exhibits of six other writers and artists. “The City and the City” will run through the end of the year.

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