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From any perspective other than the robust prosperity of the 1%, San Francisco is a city in crisis. In the past five years, reported evictions have increased 54.7 percent. The number of homeless children has doubled since 2007. A recent study compiling data through 2013 reports that black people are 7.1 times more likely to be arrested in San Francisco than white people, 11 times more likely to be booked into jail and 10.3 times more likely to be convicted. Meanwhile tech millionaires are newly minted in droves and housing prices skyrocket.
As politicians and the media glamorize the transformation of working class neighborhoods into trendy high-income housing, it’s important to hear voices from the other side of the barricades. In his new collection of poetry and prose Cool Don’t Live Here No More: A Letter to San Francisco writer/activist Tony Robles addresses contemporary urban realities head on. Published by independent small press Ithuriel’s Spear, the book is a defiant affirmation of one man’s refusal to buckle under to capital.
Raised in a black/Filipino family, Robles is committed to honoring the legacies of his forebears and to affirming the power of the communities that have nurtured him. He writes from a passion for social justice, which makes his work a bracing contrast to the over-privileged, navel gazing memoirs that clog today’s bookstores. As a board member of the Manilatown Heritage Foundation, where he has long advocated for the rights of seniors, and through involvement in ongoing anti-eviction battles, he has paid his dues fighting the good fight.
Robles writes about a world that is rapidly being wiped out by the tsunami of Silicon Valley money that’s flooded the Bay Area. He recalls stories from his uncles, who regaled him with memories of gang life in the Fillmore district of the 1950s and 60s. The Fillmore was “the Harlem of the West Coast” and “The sound of jazz was everywhere — the music made of words buried deep and kept inside for too long — black and brown fingers walking the keys, black over white.” As “redevelopment” hit the neighborhood, long term residents were forced out, “leaving behind empty lots and memories … My father watched as the rich antique dealers descended on these places, extracting fixtures and cleaning places out — hauling out banisters and intricately designed mantles to resell in their shops in Marin County.”
Robles describes leading a job training program for people with mental and physical disabilities in which he has the attendees read Langston Hughes, Charles Bukowski, and Raymond Carver. Those authors speak to the lives of the poor and working class; through those writers’ words, Robles helped the students see their own lives more clearly. Hughes, Bukowski, and Carver provide a good frame of reference for understanding Robles’ style: from the gut and through the eyes of the underdog. That’s true of both his prose and his mostly bare-bones poetry, which never aspires to be highbrow or overly ethereal. He sticks closely to a maxim his uncle Al Robles, also a poet and activist, shared with him: “The best part of our struggle is our poetry, and the best part of our poetry is our struggle.”
Though Robles’ subject matter can be pretty depressing, he always maintains his sense of humor, about himself most of all. In one of my favorite prose pieces in the book, he contemplates communicating with “ghetto raccoons” at the apartment complex where he works as a security guard. Struggling with the prospect of applying for a writing fellowship “at a large prestigious university,” he asks the raccoons for feedback. They reply, “We’re struggling to survive on dumpster scraps and all you can think about is a pansy-assed writing fellowship?”
Given the plight of poor people in San Francisco, every voice that rises in opposition to the status quo is worth supporting. At a launch party for this book, Robles said, “I would hope that people, particularly those that are born and raised in San Francisco, that are forgotten, people that don’t get listened to, can read this book and get inspired to write or to do their own creative thing and get their voice out.” Buy Cool Don’t Live Here No More and help keep such a culture of resistance alive.