A Shack of One’s Own
Thanks to Wes Enzinna [“Gimme Shelter,” Letter from California, December], I finally understand why millennials hate baby boomers. In many ways, my own experience has been not entirely unlike the one he describes. In 1980, after ditching a job at Ms. magazine to go freelance (and having left a boyfriend who occupied his loft illegally), I spent six months on friends’ couches and floors before landing a 280-square-foot apartment in Alphabet City.
A third of the block’s buildings were burned out, some of them occupied by squatters. A building next to mine served as a shooting gallery, carefully policed by dealers who kept the block free of the violent offenses that might have attracted law enforcement. My earlier postgrad years, in 1970s Manhattan, were a far cry from my sheltered childhood and adolescence as a member of Oakland’s black middle class. But nothing I faced then compared to my brief stint of homelessness (and subsequent tenement life) after Manhattan housing prices blew up in the 1980s.
It took another thirty years, a Ph.D., two marriages, and sojourns in several other cities before I wound up where I am today, in a cramped but cozy condo near the base of San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill. Given the wide gap between my Greatest Generation parents’ income and my own—they were in their twenties when they bought their first house; my first husband and I couldn’t afford a condo until I was fifty—I’ve always found it difficult to feel guilty about being a boomer, and I still don’t feel personally responsible for the plight of younger generations. But Enzinna has helped me to see just how much worse things have gotten since my own darkest days and how desperately we all need to find our way out of this nightmare.
I moved to the Bay Area the same autumn as Enzinna. My current home in Berkeley is about three and a half miles from the part of Oakland he writes about and less than a mile from the tents that grace the cover of the December issue. Which is to say that I’ve thought quite a bit about the topics Enzinna discusses.
One under-acknowledged source of California’s housing, infrastructural, and educational woes—something not mentioned in the essay—is the state’s unjust property-tax system, commonly known as Proposition 13. This law sets a property-tax rate at 1 percent of the purchase price; once established, the rate can only be increased by a maximum of 2 percent per year, even if the property’s value has risen at a much faster pace. In the 1970s, the law was sold as a way to enable retirees to remain in their homes, but the principal beneficiaries today are white professionals and businesspeople. And as a result of more recent amendments to the code, these people can pass on their properties to their children, who can retain the favorable tax rate.
Now that California is a majority-minority state, it has become clear that Proposition 13 is effectively racist. Most Californians looking to purchase homes are people of color. And yet the white people who have pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars as a result of the tax system, many of whom are nominally liberals or progressives, wonder why a racial wealth gap still exists in this state. There are hypocrites everywhere, I suppose.
Not so long ago, a water leak in the ceiling of my apartment in Potrero Hill caused me to leave San Francisco for Oakland, where more water—this time from the fire department, which was extinguishing a blaze in the apartment above mine—forced me to move again. My Potrero Hill apartment had been an odd place, with dead rats and worms and no heat, but it was cheap enough for a struggling writer. I try to keep in mind that my life will always be this way, marked by abrupt changes, never with sufficient time or resources to choose a new residence very carefully.
At eighty-two, I have known many places like those Enzinna describes, where poor artists or intellectuals have had to carve out space for themselves, unable or unwilling to prioritize making money. Were I still in my youth, I might have known the Ghost Ship and some of the people who died there. There have always been such places in the Bay Area. I have often wondered whether census takers can count everyone in the tent cities and the repurposed abandoned buildings.
In retrospect, I am glad I was part of the so-called lower class when I was that age, still a stranger to the Bay Area. I and so many other readers could write you the stories of our desperate years, but you would have more accounts than you have pages to fill.
The Rustle of Language
Lionel Shriver unintentionally validates the imperative to develop and deploy progressive language [“Lefty Lingo,” Easy Chair, December], especially language that works to describe or reverse the tone-deaf perspective of white privilege that we have inherited.
She mocks those who choose not to use the term “slave” as a noun (preferring, for instance, “enslaved people”), writing that this gesture “taints any noun that refers to a person” and arguing that, by this logic, bakers would be called “baking people.” In drawing this comparison, she seems to assume a universality of experience that many would reject. She appears to feel no obligation to understand or accommodate those who have been disadvantaged by slavery’s legacy.
To many of us, the phrase “check your privilege” is a straightforward call to think outside of ourselves. To Shriver, the phrase translates, she says, to “shut the fuck up.” She feels victimized and baffled by contemporary terminology. In her mind, antiracism is just posturing, and those who acknowledge their privilege are only doing so cynically. Her column brings to mind another new term unexplored in her piece: “white fragility.”