Friends of the Shepherd Park Library
A history of Shaw; a black Ramona, a kinder Robert Cormier, and more
Creatures, welcome! In this edition, a dream city.
Shilpi Malinowski’s Shaw, LeDroit Park and Bloomingdale in Washington, DC: An Oral History does most of what it promises. This slender, photo-heavy book tells the stories of Shaw(ish) residents, from the ’40s to 2020. There are local machers and out-of-towners, gay couples and matriarchs, a developer and a formerly homeless resident. I have read a lot of books about these years in my hometown: about DC’s transition from segregation to home rule, from Chocolate City to the Murder Capital to a gentrifier’s paradise. And I still learned things from this book.
It’s very vivid! You get tales of “station wagons driv[ing] around with one or two people sitting in the front, the back seat pushed down and the entire rest of the back of the station wagon  filled with machine guns and rifles, filled up to the windows.” You get tales of corner boys, hearing that a neighbor’s mom had died, stopping by with condolences and six-packs. There are little details that help piece together the puzzle of how gentrification works and why it looks the way it does. But the most memorable moments are the stories from pre- or early gentrification days, when the people of these neighborhoods knew that they wouldn’t make it if they didn’t find some way to connect with one another. They needed the longtime residents who would sit on the porch stoop looking out for people; and they needed the willingness to just go and talk to drug dealers and other low-level criminals. There are a lot of stories here of the form, “Some people were causing a problem by doing crimes, and I went and talked to them and they at least did their crimes in a way less disruptive to the neighborhood, and people asked me what I’d been thinking but in the end, what else can you do?”
Malinowski’s book does need some context. If you want the voices of corner boys, rather than solely the neighbors of corner boys, something like Ruben Castaneda’s S Street Rising: Crack, Murder, and Redemption in DC would be a better pick. And I could use some comparison between DC and other cities during the same transitional periods. I know we at one point had the actual highest murder rate in the nation; was the decline in homicides similarly impressive, or did Police Chief Charles Ramsey, credited here, mostly benefit from a nationwide trend? I know we had the highest gentrification-driven displacement of Black residents in the country, but I don’t actually know why. Malinowski’s approach definitely isn’t set up to answer the latter question but I do think it could’ve touched on the former.
There’s a lot of talk in the overly-online world about neighborhood, and how we atomistic individualist moderns can embed ourselves in neighborhoods. And it often sounds like it’s about finding a place where you can huddle close to people who are already like you. Good people, nice neighbors, et cetera. But there’s a way of thinking about “neighboring” as acts you perform. That’s sort of what I was getting at in my paean to the bus. And this book made me think back over my own experience and realize that the most “neighboring” I’ve done happened in edgy, tilting, half-gentrified neighborhoods. Care and self-gift become possible when they become imaginable, and they become imaginable when they become necessary.
The Children’s Section
Once more my prayer and reading cycle reached my childhood. I usually spend these weeks revisiting beloved favorites, but this time, I wanted to mix it up a little. So I headed to the Shepherd Park Library to rustle around in the children’s section and see what I could see. I checked out three books, an extremely nonrandom sample which nonetheless do, I think, reflect some changes in what we’re trying to hand on to our children.
My first note is that there’s a big YA wall now, and my brisk eyeball assessment is that it is one hundred percent unadulterated schlock. Dang that stuff looked bad. And my heart sank, for if the YA section is a Wall of Dross, where are kids supposed to find the edgy books for older kids (and younger kids who think they’re older)? Fortunately it seems that the hardening of genre boundaries for YA has returned these edgy, inappropriate books to where they belong: the children’s section.
But the first book I read was the late Eloise Greenfield’s Sister (published 1974). Greenfield’s poetry collection Honey, I Love is a touchstone of Gen X DC public-school childhoods: Eloise Greenfield, Nikki Giovanni, double dutch and “Rockin’ Robin” and those barrettes in the shape of cats playing fiddles or praying hands. I didn’t know she also had this novel—or set of linked vignettes, really, slices of the life of a young Black girl in late-’70s DC.
BD McClay notes that the pendulum of children’s literature swings from more-wholesome to more-raw. We’re now firmly in a Wholesome phase. Sister is a little different. It is aiming at uplift, but it sticks close to the rough material of childhood. I found myself comparing (sometimes unfairly) all three of the books I chose to books from my own childhood; I can wholeheartedly recommend Sister for anyone looking for a Black Ramona Quimby.
Next I read Robin Roe’s 2022 Dark Room Etiquette, which I snap-judged as “Robert Cormier lite.” It kind of is, and that’s mostly good! Cormier wrote these, in retrospect, hilariously grim fables of repressive New England Catholic youth. How Catholic?, you ask. Well, there’s a book where the narrator’s parents leave him alone for a weekend so they can go to Retrouvaille. (I don’t think it works!) Idk, there’s a suicide scene in one of the Chocolate War books that was just more than child me needed in my head. Dark Room Etiquette is about a rich kid who’s just tipping over from entitled-but-okayish to dangerous douchebro when he’s kidnapped and held prisoner by a man who claims to be his real dad. It’s as religious as Cormier (the Hail Mary is prayed quite sincerely!) and more theologically-minded; it’s almost as grim, but in a therapeutic rather than nihilistic vein.
Honestly, this was a page-turner and a pleasure. Roe has a great handle on narrator Sayers’s voice and perspective. You see him make some awful and irrevocable moral choices, and I, at least, felt like I got why he saw them as NBD. Sayers will be too much of a bully to be an enjoyable narrator for some readers; fwiw I thought Roe struck a great balance between “could be a good kid if somebody forced him to it” and “currently is a cruel and oblivious jackass.” And then the story is how that kid gets broken down gradually and almost completely, and what is different for him as he tries to recover: how his own suffering makes it possible for him to make amends to others.
The suspense was great, but this book’s heart is in the psychological recovery—Roe has a psych/counseling background. You can tell what she cares most about by Sayers’s late-in-the-game discovery of a hidden artifact. Some authors would go for a plot twist, but Roe wants to use the discovery to deepen the novel’s relationships and emotional, moral, and spiritual themes.
By the very end there are preachy moments (did u kno you can switch therapists if you don’t vibe with your first one?) and some minor prose glitches, but overall, I’d recommend this thing.
I grabbed Jas Hammonds’s 2022 We Deserve Monuments because it claimed to be about a girl who moves to a small Southern town, and discovers that her family and the families of her two new friends are connected by a terrible and tragic mystery rooted in the town’s racist past. Also she gets a girlfriend! It sounded like Queer Virginia Hamilton and I was highly intrigued.
I ended up mostly critical, even though I really liked narrator “Unsavory” Avery and her family and her girlfriend. There are a lot of misused words or not-quite-right phrases, especially toward the beginning: hair is “tussled” rather than tousled, a river is “an apt description of life in Bardell County” rather than an image of it, stuff like that. Small potatoes but lots of them.
And the three girls are connected by the previous generations’ sins and suffering, but in the last quarter or so of the book, one of them drops out of the story. It’s Jade, the white girl in the trio, whose family kicked off the violent events of the past but who has also suffered a lot from the consequences of that violence. I know how it sounds to be like, “This book should have focused more on the white girl!”, but… the front half of the book really does promise that it will be about the three girls. And that would be a harder story: a deeper reckoning. Make Jade fully confront the past, the cruelty that built her home, and make the other two confront what that past has cost her! I think a lot about Phil Christman’s line, “‘Whiteness’ has not called a people together except to do crimes and bury the evidence,” and this book knows that but doesn’t know what to do with it.
And last… this book shares the weaknesses of “wholesome” culture. It has scripts for how healing and acceptance happen—what the older generation is supposed to say, etc. Whereas imho novels are more real and even more educational for their readers when healing doesn’t follow a script, but is strange, both less satisfying and more transforming than you expected.
I expect there are readers who prefer novels where the kids find a place where everyone knows that there’s nothing wrong with them. But the older, more damaged queer culture, where you find a place where it’s all right that there’s something wrong with you, held also a certain wisdom and comfort—if only because the idea of a place where nothing’s wrong with anybody is a fantasy, whereas a place where wounds are glorified is the Resurrection.
Anyway, so, I’m still in the market for a Queer Virginia Hamilton book, if you know one.
I interviewed Greg Johnson about his very useful history/autopsy of the ex-gay movement, Still Time to Care.
Tiffany, “I Think We’re Alone Now”
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Image of SPK Library via “Farragutful” on Wikimedia Commons, and used under a Creative Commons license. Friends of the DC Library can be found here.