Streetopia, Edited by Erick Lyle, 320 pgs.

Mar 23, 2017

Dystopian lit and film are in vogue—stores and libraries are having a hard time keeping 1984 and Handmaid’s Tale on the shelves. But as Streetopia editor Erick Lyle notes, the flip side of the coin is the idea of utopia, which questions “when does the nonfunctional and intolerable status quo, endured for years, suddenly become an emergency that must be dealt with immediately at all costs?” In other words, when is enough enough and what can be done? Resistance isn’t the question; how to resist is. What works? What doesn’t? And what counts? Monitoring social feeds for petitions? Leaving your phone at home and masking up? Deleting an app from your phone? Making calls?

Think piece after think piece have clotted webpages and newspapers since the election, arguing efficacy and viability of all the above and then some. Perhaps the real solution can be seen in this anthology edited by Erick Lyle, the longtime editor of Scam zine (the new issue of which I’ve reviewed elsewhere herein).

Lyle was a longtime resident of Miami before moving to the Bay Area years back. Both towns suffered the same sort of gentrification (one that’s now spread to Las Vegas): in an effort to attract money, cookie-cutter “arts districts” with unaffordable rents that pushed communities out of longtime neighborhoods. In San Francisco, the Tenderloin was the focus of this redevelopment.

How best to resist this? Lyle and his vast cohort of artists, writers, musicians and community activists decided to show the value of the Tenderloin and its residents by starting a free street festival/art show in a local gallery showcasing their talent. It’s difficult to succinctly summarize the full ambition and drive involved in the anti-privatization, anti-gentry extravaganza that followed as anything less than inspirational: five full weeks of exhibits and showcases demonstrating the diverse talent and vision of the neighborhood’s residents.

I’m an ex-restaurant guy, so the chapter that resonated with me the most was with Sy Wagon, who for five weeks ran the Free Café, serving donated food to as many as ninety Tenderloin residents a day. Her section highlights the efforts of ordinary neighborhood people coming together to do something beneficial. After all, what’s more communal—more utopian—than a bunch of people eating meals together?

Much of Streetopia is a series of interviews with the festival’s principles. If this book has a weakness, it’s the occasional disjointedness of repetition, as different writers cover the same introductory points. This is easily overlooked, though, as they’re a diverse and talented group with a wide range of opinions and talents, the idea of utopia connecting them all. Artist Brontez Purnell, writer Rebecca Solnit, and musician Ivy Jeanne McLelland all make appearances.

The message of Streetopia is a powerful one: the best resistance is to harness and nurture community. In the dark days following the election, this book was (and is) soothing and deeply inspirational. –Michael T. Fournier (Booklyn, 37 Greenpoint Ave., 4th Fl., Brooklyn, NY 11222,

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