Refined words near the crude oil towers
You can call it the renaissance by the refineries.
Down in Wilmington, Carson and Long Beach, in neighborhoods within sight of the towers where crude oil becomes gasoline, young people are making art and reading poetry and debating their community’s future.
They’re trying to give something back to the places where they grew up.
Among them is Kat Madrigal, a 24-year-old Wilmington native and UC Berkeley graduate who has started an online newspaper called the Wilmington Wire.
She’s come back to her old neighborhood at a time of need, when it isn’t easy for a newly minted college grad to find a good job. So she’s fashioned one for herself that’s low in monetary rewards but rich in purpose.
“When I was growing up in Wilmington, I was taught to be successful and never look back,” she told me. “But I could see there’s so much that needs to be done here. And there’s so much I can do.”
In 2009, Madrigal created the Wilmington Wire and started posting reports on community meetings and commentaries on gang violence, and recruiting other writers to contribute. Soon she discovered that “there’s people doing all these things here I didn’t know about it.”
Among her new friends is Aaron Mallory, also 24. He’s a classically trained bassist who helped start One Imagination, a spoken-word poetry collective in Long Beach.
“You look out your window and you see refineries and ports, and beaches that have a working-class plight to them,” Mallory told me, explaining why he moved to the area. “You see the industrial machinery. The facade of Southern California is whisked away.”
It feels a lot like Houston, where he grew up. And he senses it needs what he has to offer: a passion for words and art and a belief in their power to bring change. He’s helped organize a series of workshops with local youths called “Our Word is Our Weapon.”
“With the economic times what they are, people are taking chances,” Mallory told me. “It frees you from that burden of waking up to make someone else richer.”
I’m an old dreamer myself, raised in Southern California communities that outsiders like to disparage for their crime problems and supposed ugliness. Like Madrigal, I was taught to believe that success meant leaving those places and never looking back.
In my journey last week to Wilmington, I saw how recession and austerity are shaking up that way of thinking for some of our brightest young people. A tough job market has reaped an unexpected benefit. It has brought them back to their roots.
“If there’s anywhere in this big world I can be effective, it’s here,” said Robert Jones, 21, a student at Cal State Dominguez Hills who works as an art teacher for the Wilmington Empowerment Project, training young artists to work on canvases instead of walls.
Jones grew up in Wilmington, and his goal now is to get his teaching credential and return to teach at his alma mater, Banning High. He thinks he can help foster a future community awakening.
“I don’t know if you’ve heard of this guy called Plato,” Jones said to me. “He had this idea of a utopia, where educated people would have their movement. What’s it called? Like later when Da Vinci and Michelangelo had their crew …"
Jones dreams of a salon by the refineries. And in this dream he is not alone.
Oscar Duarte, a 24-year-old painter, joined other artists in 2009 in starting the Wilmington Enrichment Community Artist Network, or WECAN.
“We’d all get together to go to art walks in San Pedro and L.A.,” Duarte said. “And we started wondering: Why isn’t there anything like this in Wilmington?” So they began asking local businesses if they could put up art exhibits, and gradually a small movement was born.
Duarte was raised in Wilmington, the child of Mexican immigrants. Recession or no, he knows his life will be different from that of his father, a construction worker.
“Our parents came here and wanted to buy property and send money home,” Duarte told me. “They were forced to work from a young age. Thanks to them, we get to do more of what we like and discover new things.”
Duarte also plans to be a teacher — which means he won’t have the life of comfort his immigrant parents imagined for him, he told me. But he’ll be true to the code he learned in Wilmington: “a sense of humility and the value of hard work.”
From just about anywhere in Wilmington and the communities that surround it, you can look up and see the hills of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, an island of prosperity floating in the distance and a constant reminder to locals of where they stand in the world.
Sumiko Braun, a Carson native and actress, recently took a group of Wilmington and Long Beach teenagers up to Palos Verdes as part of a “reality tour” organized by members of the One Imagination collective. It was her way of sharing with neighborhood young people some of the lessons she’d learned in college.
“We started off in Wilmington, by the refineries, and went up to PV … and then back down to South L.A. and Watts,” Braun told me. They compared the schools, medical facilities and grocery stores and looked at other measures of social health. “The differences were drastic and extreme,” she said. “When we were done, a lot of the students got emotional about it, because they didn’t realize until that moment how this city works.”
We live in a time of need and ever greater social disparities. But, as in the past, the will to make things better is reborn with a new generation.
“There’s an urgency to what we’re doing,” Braun told me. “Even within our group, there’s college-educated people who are unemployed and can’t find work. We’re struggling. But we’re still free to do what we can to change things.”
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