On The Street

by Maria Theresa Maggi on January 16, 2016

borage flower on tree trunk by MTM

In the short time I’ve lived in my neighborhood, it’s given me a lot of vivid lessons, both in its history, and in the now of its very sharp contrasts. Earlier in the year I expressed some preliminary insights into the experiences I was having in a couple of previous posts. Here are a few excerpts:

“Wherever we live, and  perhaps especially in a neighborhood like the Alberta Arts District, where some houses are worth half a million or more, and others hark back to a not-so-distant time when the area was exclusively relegated to poverty, disenfranchisement and the violence that comes with those conditions, there is just no getting away from the tragic and the beautiful being all mixed up together. Perhaps that borage flower and message I drew for the garden was really for the intense tapestry of the whole neighborhood, and for me, too. I was happy to see when I got brave enough to return to the garden that it’s still up on the bulletin board.”

One of the things I haven’t mentioned on the blog is that my desire to help plant borage in the Emerson Street Garden “blossomed” into a full blown desire to render a stylized drawing that could be made into a street intersection painting at the corner closest to where the shooting I wrote about had occurred. To this end, I was directed by a neighbor I visited with on the street to find an organization called City Repair. As it turns out, one of my former students has worked wtih them, and was happy to bring me to a free workshop about how to become a “placemaker” in my neighborhood, with any number of the projects City Repair empowers people to create: straw bale structures, perma-culture gardening, free libraries, and, as I keyed into, street intersection paintings. Here I am, courtesy of his candid photographs, participating in one of the workshops, feeling right at home with all the young people eager to make positive change.

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I saw my first street intersection paintings earlier in the Spring as I walked with Romeo and explored further afield from a few blocks around my son’s house. I was enchanted wtih the idea of public art in a street intersection and it lifted my spirits to walk across such exuberance. When I saw on facebook that my student had photographed a neighborhood party where a fading painting had been restored, I was thrilled, since it was one I walked over on the way to Mike and Kelly’s, and I immediately hoped we could figure out how to have one in my new neighborhood. That’s how I learned about City Repair. To give you an idea of what these can look like, here’s an amateur photo I took of the repainted one further down Emerson Street.

Street Painting Haight and Emerson

As it turns out, the quest to interest and organize people to be place-makers with me has been frought with highs, lows, and the sobering realization that since it’s really about building community, it’s going to take more than a turn of one year to begin to realize such a dream. The City of Portland is repairing street sewers in our neighborhood this coming year, so the few of us who are on board opted to wait until that project is complete.

But that isn’t the only challenge. Another difficulty is that I had somehow found myself “in charge,” despite the fact that I don’t really have the stamina for that role, and had said so.  Most important of all, though, is making sure there are enough long-time African American residents involved. Otherwise, I would become just another white newcomer telling everyone what is best.  I had a sharp lesson in this when we had our first meeting in a public place, and the only African American person actively involved at that point could not make it at the last minute. Thus, there we were, several white people sitting at a table in a coffee house frequented by many long time residents, one of them an activist who we invited to sit down with us. She proceeded to give us a history lesson in redlining and displacement, and many good resources to learn the history of the neighborhood, suggesting we might want to collaborate more actively with the long time residents before settling on my design, lovely though it was.

That made sense to me, and in a way I was relieved because there was not enough  involvement to move the project forward as it was.  Because of my academic career, I have done just enough reading and developing of university curriculum and teaching of students of color in the past to know this is all very necessary and worthwhile if we are ever going to  have more equity, mutual understanding and compassion. I knew I was only offering an artist’s vision and couldn’t be in charge of organizing all aspects of the project. Nevertheless, I listened to the recommended living history tapes of the neighborhood, and to my neighbors, and committed to myself to meet more of them as naturally as is possible in the next year, and see what develops from my efforts and the efforts of two other women I have come to know and respect who live very close to me. One has lived here for decades and the other is new, like me. To give you an idea of what my particular vision was,  here is an artist statement I wrote to go with the sketch that is at the top of the blog post, which only a couple of neighbors and some folks at City Repair have seen:

“I chose to draw a giant stylized version of a tiny borage flower because in flower essence lore, it provides emotional courage. In my own years of working with and making my own flower essences, I have found this to be right on the mark. In our neighborhood with its stark and beautiful contrasts in transition, and its history of shared troubles and triumphs amidst displacement and gentrification, I feel an artistic evocation of emotional courage would do all our hearts some good and help bring us together.  I also tried including a tree trunk and branches of color, holding up the borage flower, because it is the people of color who have lived in this neighborhood the longest who know its joys and violent sorrows most deeply. I tried to keep my design streamlined enough for it to be enlarged and painted by many hands.”

borage sketch for city repair by MTM

In one of the very valuable local discussions presented by the Oregon Bar Association on race and gentrification issues in my section of Portland I got to watch online, one of the panel members gave a very simple gem of advice to the mostly white people attending the panel of mostly African American experts: “Just say hi.”

In a sea of overwhelmingly complex social dynamics, this is something I can, and like, to do. When Romeo and I are out walking, I sincerely enjoy greeting whoever we pass on the street. I’ve had many happy exchanges with people I would not meet anywhere else, whether they are walking their own dogs, strolling with a baby, waking up from sleeping in the eave of a storefront, waiting for the bus, or asking me if I want to buy Street Roots, a newspaper advocating issues surrounding homelessness. It’s one of the great joys of my daily life.

So it is with the utmost irony that I come to a gray rainy morning last week when Romeo and I were making our way back toward home, on a street we sometimes take as a short cut home from Safeway Market.  As we rounded the corner I saw ahead of me on the sidewalk a middle-aged African American man in a jacket and cap, looking down intently at his cell phone. He was turned sideways toward the house in front of him and seemed deeply lost in thought.

My policy of always saying hi tends to exclude those of whatever gender or color who seem clearly engrossed in a cell phone transaction. For one thing, they don’t hear me, because their attention is elsewhere. For another thing, I find it’s not really all that friendly to interrupt a stranger to say hi. It has to happen more naturally than that. So I usually don’t disturb someone in this stance.

I had my umbrella up, which limited my vision a little, and was a bit glum about walking around for 3 days in a row in the rain, so  perhaps my perception wasn’t as clear if it would otherwise have been. I made the decision not to disturb this man and began to walk around him, not crossing the street to do so, but just circling behind him onto the grass next to the sidewalk. As I did so, he started to back up. I thought he was lost in thought, but he was actually trying to block me from going around him. I looked up at him inquisitively, and he exploded.

You white bitch who do you think you are kind of thing, treating me like I don’t exist because I’m a black man kind of thing.  He screamed I am not invisible! You can’t make me invisible! The rage erupting from his interpretation of my behavior was deafening.

I was stunned. I tried to process what he was saying. He hadn’t looked like someone under the influence to me, and I still don’t know if he was in an altered state or not. Others I’ve relayed this to seem to think so. But whether he was or not, he was fighting mad. He started to make a lunge as if to assault us, but thankfully must have thought better of it. Or maybe it was just show. In any event it felt like a close call.

By this time, I finally was able to get out of my mouth a heart-felt I’m sorry. Because I was, and still am. Not for trying to walk around him because I didn’t want to interrupt him, but because I had inadvertently triggered that enraging feeling of invisibility I knew was all too real for black men on the street. No one likes to feel invisible, or irrationally feared or avoided because of their appearance.

The instant I looked at him and said those two words, I felt all the angry energy he was spewing in my direction collapse and soften. It was astonishing how quickly it evaporated. For a few brief seconds, we both knew something had changed.

By this time he was headed farther down the sidewalk in the opposite direction from me, and I was waiting for him to give me a signal we were done. To accomplish this, he ratcheted up the verbal abuse and rage again, making sure to call me an old white bitch (hah!), and to say I’d sure be sorry to see him again, etc. etc. He continued this monologue to himself as he walked up the street with his back to me. Then I knew it was safe for me to leave.

When I think back on that parting, it’s the only piece of it that makes me think he might have been high or out of it in some way. It reminds me of a similar encounter with a woman I had under the influence about a month ago who was displeased with the answer “no” that came out of my mouth when she demanded of me whether the house we were standing in front of was mine, or if I knew a person named Joy (who might have been her). My ignorance enraged her, too, and she, too, said that I would know Joy and I would be sorry I did, me and my fancy dog. Or something like that. But she had been standing in the middle of the street, clearly out of it. This man had seemed, for all practical purposes, “normal,” whatever that means.

I noticed I didn’t shake as I walked away like I might have when I was younger. I wasn’t sick to my stomach or an the verge of tears. I think I was still in a state of incredulity. About a couple of blocks away I started wondering if I should have explained that I thought he was busy and didn’t want to interrupt him. In fact, part of me foolishly wanted to run after him and tell him so. But I also realized the wisest part of me knew to keep it simple and from the heart. The I’m sorry I got out was all that was necessary to be witness to the general and particular pain he was evoking, and dissipate the rising negative energy.

The most unsettling part of the experience is that I don’t know if I’ll see this man again, and if I do, if I’ll recognize him. And will he recognize me? Was he out of it enough to never remember it happened, or will the sight of Romeo and I set the whole thing off again?

Until that moment on the sidewalk I knew that there was resentment in the neighborhood and that displacement, poverty, addiction and whatever else plays into those painful experiences is not an easy bridge to cross. But I had never had it thrown in my face like that before. It was as if I stood for all of it, because in that moment, for that man, I did.

A woman who is always kind to me at the co-op said maybe it was a good thing it was you he picked to yell that to. At least you knew what he was talking about and did not react defensively or as if he was crazy, even if he was. And my African American friend said, “Maria, just be yourself and keep painting your wonderful paintings, and know God is taking care of you.” And the next day she said, “I feel so bad for you that happened. If you want me to walk with you, I will.” Her generous spirit brought tears to my eyes.

I’ve had countless pleasant exchanges with other African American men–and women– on the street in my neighborhood. They all are interested in Romeo and his lineage and one who was outside raking his leaves even said to me how he loved his cats better than people because they don’t lie to you. We bonded right then and there.

Some folks take the trend of gentrification in stride, some are relieved by the improvements in safety it brings, some work to share the history and keep the neighborhood grounded in its roots, some are resentful and angry, often righteously so, and others are dispossessed both by those circumstances and the demons of substance abuse or mental illness.

I thought it was necessary to stand there and hear this man out, both for my own safety and for the truth that lay within his rage, however inappropriately expressed. The hard part will be going on with the uncertainty of whether I’ll see him again, and what will happen if I do, and the inevitable questioning that follows about whether this is where I can ever belong or not.

No less of a challenge is how to keep my heart open wide enough to even begin to grasp the huge polarities in my experiences of the last week. One minute I was walking on the beach with my son after 22 years away from the ocean, marveling beneath a rainbow. A few days later, this. How to accept and integrate it all is the work before me. A friend who has been posting  daily gratitude quotes shared these words from Joseph Campbell the day of my encounter: “The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.” This quote echoed the compassionate words of my neighbor, and seemed like the perfect thing to appear on my screen that day.

But just who is this “me”? Apparently the one who is witness and participant in all of this.  Some would even say at some level I have created the this I now try to make sense of. The breadth of contrasts is simply staggering, beyond any kind of justification about whether I deserve any of the good or bad of any of it. It simply just is. And that’s cause for both celebration and grief. To say the least, I am overwhelmed and humbled, and hope this will be a post that honors such mysteries, not one that elicits reassurance that I didn’t do anything wrong. That is far from the clarity I grapple to discern.

I don’t know if the street painting will take place next year, or if it does, if I will be here to see it. But I do know so far I have loved this neighborhood, laughed in it, cried in it, been scared to death in it, been ready to flee from it,  and felt joyful to be here in it, however imperfect my learning curve about it may be.

One of the young staff at City Repair told me I was a true “place maker.” That did my heart good, since the project is still mostly only a vision at this point. It’s a good thing I believe in dreams and visions. This week I learned just what hard and heartbreaking work being a “place maker” can be. I also noticed most of the borage growing in the neighborhood has even survived the snow. Small and mighty, and surely an example of emotional courage, I gave it a pet when I stopped at the Emerson Street Garden yesterday to calm my spirit. And now it’s time to go back out for another walk–one step at a time.

Maria (moonwatcher)

PS: The morning after I posted this entry, a dear friend of mine shared this beautiful video in honor of Martin Luther King’s birthday. Yes, yes, and yes, however imperfectly we may reach for it. Yes.



Leave a Comment

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Nicole O'Shea January 17, 2016 at 10:35 am

wow, Maria, what an experience, in entirety. Thanks for being you! xoxox Nicolionoolio


2 Maria Theresa Maggi January 17, 2016 at 11:18 am

Dear Nicole, thank you so much for reading this post, and for taking the time to comment in the way you did. I know it’s not my “usual” fare here, but it was really important for me to try to articulate it. Thanks for being YOU. 🙂 xo


3 Nicole O'Shea January 17, 2016 at 2:18 pm

it is a very complex, difficult and important issue to think, act and communicate about. thank you for doing so! xoxo N


4 Maria Theresa Maggi January 17, 2016 at 3:02 pm

Yes. You’re welcome, Nicole. xo


5 Silvia January 18, 2016 at 8:24 am

Dear Maria,

I loved to read this post. Thank you for sharing.
And I really enjoyed the video.
Both give hope that sharing and non violent communication are indeed possible.

Greetings from Silvia in Germany


6 Maria Theresa Maggi January 18, 2016 at 9:21 am

Thank you Silvia, your encouraging and hopeful comment mean a lot to me. <3


7 Donna Betts January 18, 2016 at 11:47 am

Bravo!! My courageous friend… although a shocking experience –
thank you for sharing and asking the questions we all have to ask ourselves. No easy answers — we have to keep trying to mend our broken fences… I bless your dear heart…


8 Maria Theresa Maggi January 18, 2016 at 1:21 pm

Thank you, Donna–and bless you back for the beautiful sentiments in this comment. I am fortnuate to have such wise and compassionate readers like you.


9 Sheila Z January 18, 2016 at 1:37 pm

I’m glad you have Romeo with you when you walk. Dogs have a way of disarming some people. Peace be with you.


10 Maria Theresa Maggi January 18, 2016 at 3:10 pm

Thank you, Sheila. <3


11 Veronica January 18, 2016 at 4:42 pm

Your time in Portland so far seems like such a roller coaster! I think many of us have had similar experiences, and confusion that follows. People of every type are such a complex mystery to me, what things have happened to make them who they are, respond/react how they do… And regardless of the words he spoke, you tried to look from his perspective, of not wanting to be ignored (even if that wasn’t your intent). No one does. And as you mentioned, the simple act of understanding and compassion softens the situation. Something we all need to do more of.
It reminds me of a song from Chicago – Mr. Cellophane – “you can look right through me, walk right by me, and never know I’m there.”
Anyway, I hope you continue finding your place. And the borage picture is so bright and lovely!


12 Maria Theresa Maggi January 18, 2016 at 7:35 pm

Yes, Veronica, it truly has been, and is, a roller coaster. Thank you for your kind words and understanding of the complexity of the situation for all concerned. And so glad you enjoyed the borage drawings! xo


13 Lee at Veggie Quest January 20, 2016 at 10:53 am

I love the words of your wise friend: “Maria, just be yourself and keep painting your wonderful paintings, and know God is taking care of you.” I hope your street painting comes to pass and that peace is on the increase in your neighborhood.


14 Maria Theresa Maggi January 20, 2016 at 12:54 pm

Thank you, Lee, really appreciate the good thoughts. And yes, my friend is indeed wise. I’m glad I know her.


15 Gena January 21, 2016 at 8:53 am

Dear Maria,

This post is so full of experience, feeling, and complex material that I read it twice in order to process a helpful comment. First and foremost, I think you’re doing wonderful things to participate actively in the health and wellness of your community, while also respecting and showing deference to tradition, culture, and the experience/perspective of people who have lived there for a long, long time. You show a sensitivity that activists, I think, sometimes lack, which is that passion for change and commitment to social justice need to be tempered by a very sensitive awareness of the delicate balance we call “community.”

I love the note you wrote with the flower, and in general I love that you can tie human experience to phenomena and lessons we learn from the plant kingdom. As plant eaters, I think we sometimes get so wrapped up in promoting the diet and our activism that we forget to look to the plant world we value so much for wisdom and knowledge — and it has so very much to offer us!

As for the encounter, I’m glad you’re unharmed and that it was diffused, even though I’m sure it was enormously jarring and unsettling and sad for you to experience. It’s always so hard to know how to treat strangers — do we take a chance on friendliness and extending warmth, or do we try to show respect for their privacy and selfhood and space by keeping to ourselves? Here in NYC, I never entirely know how to navigate this in outdoor, public spaces. You were clearly thoughtful about this and made a good choice, and so I’m sorry that the interaction became so fraught. As always, you contextualize and analyze it beautifully for all of us here on this blog.




16 Maria Theresa Maggi January 21, 2016 at 9:16 am

Dear Gena, I can’t tell you how much your comment means to me. As someone who has been “active,” I think you hit the nail on the head. It’s sometimes, sadly, the case that activists rush in with more of a vision, often quite positive, but less of a tendency to listen. In some of my more disappointed moments in that arena, I have wryly remarked that we activists use the word “community” like conversatives use the phrase “the American people.” It’s a long, hard road, requiring patience and deep listening, and we are all imperfect at it.

I so love, too, that you picked up on and resonated with the magic of tying human experience to phenomena and lessons we learn from the plant kingdom. I guess you could say more than anything that’s how I came to this way of life–my sensitivity to the plants growing in my garden and what they gave me, always.

And of course, thank you for your kind words about the encounter. It IS always hard to know if a judgment call about how to treat a stranger is the correct one in the moment. It helped me to write about it here, and to gain a little more clarity from the muddle of questions i was mired in. But each day forward is a work in progress.



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