Tag Archives: envision Cambridge

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

14 Jun

‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’: Occupying family home doesn’t get it back

Image result for the last black man in san francisco


Given efforts to address the widening socioeconomic chasm in Cambridge and matters of diversity and affordable housing, there might not be a more apt fable to heed than that of “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” – even if that city’s affordability and economic divide, with its long list of tech startups and horde of nouveau millennials, far outpaces ours. This Spike Lee-sque work about a forlorn young man looking to return to the stately family home where he grew up hits all the right (dis)chords, though. The house, in what was once known as the “Harlem of the West” (in the Fillmore District) is now a tony enclave perched quaintly atop a San Fran hill, streetcar stop and all, that looks right off the Travel Channel. The specter of gentrification is in every frame of this Sundance-winning film, though never directly named.

So what does Jimmie Fails (played by Jimmie Fails, can you dig the meta framing?) do to gain back the the periwinkle-gray Victorian manse? Well, he just shows up and starts cleaning, raking the yard and painting the windows sills – which doesn’t sit well with the current white owners, who themselves are in a financial pickle and forced to move out. That’s when Jimmie and his pal Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), who’ve been in a less desirable part of the city with Mont’s blind grandfather (Danny Glover – again this week after “The Dead Don’t Die”!), decide to move in. None of that is on the up and up, which gives the film its teeth; the stakes climb even higher when the “witch hat house” goes on the market for a cool four mil. Jimmie, a caregiver at a retirement home, and Mont, who works in the local fish market, don’t have a chance in hell of buying it.

The resolution is ultimately beside the point. It’s more about the subtle portrayal of race, the impact of gentrification and the grim prospects for young men of color who have either unwisely stepped outside the law or been passed over by the system. “Blindspotting”(2018) moved in similar waves, but not quite as engrossingly or with such inventive nuance. The film, directed by Joe Talbot (who is white) and conceived by he and Fails, swings for the fences, evoking at points Godard’s “Weekend” and Lee’s “Jungle Fever” and succeeds for the most part, even if the premise feels razor thin, contrived and unlikely.The gathering of tough lads who sit outside Mont’s grandfather’s house and drop the N-word more than the article “the” (if it’s ever even used) become a captivating Greek chorus (one’s a dead drop-in for Radio Raheem) and a reality check on the American dream, not to mention a harsh reminder of the irrational suddenness of street violence and the improbability of making it off the street once you’re there.

Fails–the character, not the actor–is saddled with a lot: mom and dad are absent (due to circumstances it’s hard to have complete empathy for) but remain present in the corners, framed as impactful forces. He’s also spent time in juvie. But somehow his mission and character profile, while palpable and moving, isn’t as intriguing as Mont’s, a complex, multilevel eccentric, an aspiring intellect in tweed, a younger, emotive David Allen Grier. It’s a mind-blowing performance that pretty much makes the film – or I should say, holds us in place. Some of the dreamlike, absurdist scenes orchestrated by Talbot are a wonder to drink in. Boots Riley went this way with “Sorry to Bother You” (2018, also starring Glover as the golden “white voiced” black salesman), and while not every one of that film’s surrealist experiments landed, the sum was visceral and far-reaching in ways far beyond that of a more conventional approach. Same can be said here, about a film whose title says it all. A title change to “Cambridge” would work just as well.

How Big is Too Big

16 Jan

Groups’ rankings set climate as top priority, but forum discussion still turns to housing


Upward of 150 people gathered Saturday for a citizen-run community forum at the Citywide Senior Center. (Photo: Charlie Teague)

Though affordable housing was the most talked-about topic at Saturday’s “How Big is Too Big” public forum, it was climate issues – the environment, trees and parks – that were identified as Cambridge’s top priority by vote of participating neighborhood groups.

Close behind, tied with seven votes each from neighborhood group, were the topics of “sustainable planning/development” (including zoning and questions of the pace and size of development) and “quality of life” (seeing some overlap with climate issues, this covered concerns over parks and open spaces, light and noise, garbage, street drugs, homelessness and a diminished arts scene).

Housing, as its own topic, was officially third tier – tied with the topics of “city responsiveness” and “neighborhoods” (referring to preservation and civic engagement issues) with five votes each. Advance publicity for the event suggested housing might be key, as organizers noted concerns about figures estimates from the citywide planning process Envision Cambridge that under current zoning there will be 20,800 more Cantabrigians by 2030, and certain zoning changes could raise that to 24,300. That bigger figure is a 21.5 percent increase over the current 113,000 population, and its 12,300 residential units added to the current 44,000 is growth of 28 percent.

Also participating were citywide organizations focused on housing, including A Better Cambridge, which circulated a pamphlet about the city’s “Affordable Housing Zoning Overlay” with data about equitable distribution of affordable housing units throughout the neighborhoods. The Port has the highest amount of the city’s affordable housing units at 34.5 percent, the group noted, while West Cambridge has the least at 1.3 percent.  

The two-hour forum, held at the Citywide Senior Center across from City Hall, drew upward of 150 people – including five city councillors – as drawn together by the the Livable Cambridge discussion group and organizers shared with the Harvard Square Neighborhood Association, including Suzanne Preston Blier. Ahead of the forum, Blier said its key moments would be when participating groups presented three to four issues each considers vital for a more livable Cambridge, which could be used to prioritize politically. 

“We all share many of the same concerns,” Blier said, “and we believe that by working together not only will our citizens have a stronger voice, but Cambridge itself will be stronger.”

Big event

The forum was laid out job-fair fashion, with neighborhood associations hosting tables with fliers boosting causes – groups from the Cambridge Highlands and East Cambridge, for instance, served up a stark flier opposing a proposed Eversource power substation at Fulkerson Street. Refreshments were close by.

The meeting kicked off with HSNA member Nicola A. Williams speaking briefly to the desire for socioeconomic, ethnic, cultural and age diversity in the city and asking all to join her in the mantra that “all opinions are valued” and a reminder to “respect differences.” Blier, a preservation activist and architectural historian, ran through a slideshowilluminating the surveyed goals for a “Livable Cambridge” from the approximately dozen neighborhood associations in attendance. Affordability, sustainability and the need for more green open space were highlights.

Comedian and former candidate for lieutenant governor Jimmy Tingle spoke to close the Saturday event. (Photo: Tom Meek)

About an hour in, representatives from the neighborhood associations were summoned to talk about their organizations and goals; the Cambridgeport Neighborhood Association seized the opportunity to announce that its Thursday meeting would discuss congestion and noise from the Boston University Bridge rotary, which worsened with completion of the Commonwealth Avenue Bridge project in August.

A brief audience Q&A focused on affordability, inclusion and high rents, residential and commercial, with the tripling of rent that shuttered Crema Cafe in Harvard Square still a raw wound.“Development can’t be market driven,” speakers said several times. Transportation was another major topic of conversation; trees and the diminishing tree canopy – the top polled priority of the neighborhood groups – registered a distant third in the conversation.

Not quite the end

Comedian and former candidate for lieutenant governor Jimmy Tingle spoke to close the event, and people filed out abuzz, with some wondering what had been accomplished. (Organizers referred to the Saturday forum as “setting the table for more interaction and discussion.”)

The event’s meaning remained somewhat open to interpretation. In a follow-up discussion online Sunday, Blier underlined that there was “a big message [in] this input and insight from current residents in our different neighborhoods” – but where some heard a conversation still dominated by the need for affordable housing that suggests the need for more development, she saw an answer to “the city … moving willy-nilly in the Envision effort to upzone to add more and higher developments for commerce and for housing.”

“Note climate and overdevelopment are at the top,” she said, pointing to the formal tallies of issues from neighborhood groups.