A Story by Charles Haddox
by Charles Haddox
The red brick tenement, its morning side whitewashed and painted with beer advertisements, seemed as monolithic as Ayers Rock. At that time there were a number of sooty brick tenements nestled among the single-family houses in the eastern part of the barrio. They lay in the shadow of San Diego church, a symbol of the community life that existed in the neighborhood. It was that community life which we wanted to save, the sense of pride and warm neighborliness that had grown up with the trees planted long ago whose leaves were like green turquoise, and the snapdragons and marigolds that reseeded themselves year after year so that nobody knew who had originally planted them in tiny front yards. The area, though somewhat poor and run-down, was home to almost three thousand people. Like a bowl of soup that’s been sitting in the fridge for a week but can still provide comfort when it’s heated up, our community of janitors and bricklayers and bodega owners was a place that made you feel happy just by knowing it was there.
In those days we went from one battle to the next to protect our neighborhood from the city and developers. The mayor had initiated what he called the “tenement eradication program,” an attempt to condemn and demolish all sub-standard housing in the barrio. The motivation for his program was hardly humanitarian: land values in the neighborhood had been steadily increasing. Rather than attempt to build better housing in the area, the economic and political powerbrokers wanted to see the residents of the area driven out. We knew that there was plenty of federal money available for rehabilitation of bad housing in the barrio, but eradication, not redevelopment, was the official city policy.
On that hot summer day we had gathered at the red brick two-story tenement to protest its pending sale to a company that wanted to build a chicken processing plant on the site where it was standing. The demolition of the tenement would not only mean that families would be displaced—it had far greater implications. It would mean the beginning of industrial development in the midst of the neighborhood, and would provide justification for further displacement of residents.
We forcibly entered a vacant apartment on the ground floor of the building, and ten of us held a sit-in. The media had been notified, and it wasn’t long before a crowd of vans from the local television stations as well as cars belonging to stringers from the local daily were parked outside of the building. Someone noticed the commotion, and notified the real estate agent who managed the property for an absentee owner in California. An elderly gentleman always dressed in a white suit and blue tie; he arrived behind the wheel of a silver Cadillac, red-faced and out of breath. When he had recovered sufficiently to be able to talk, he began verbally abusing us and threatening to call the police. We responded with angry, overlong chants, and shouted “slumlord!” When he realized that he was not intimidating us, he left to call the police and have us arrested for trespassing.
Someone had brought a chicken in an old rabbit cage to the demonstration, for use as a visual prop in the making of our case to onlookers and the media that the city and the landlord were putting chickens ahead of people. (The logic of our prop was admittedly not impeccable.) We were fond of such theatrics in those days, and they never failed to add interest to the endless cycle of demonstrations that we would hold in protest of one injustice or another. The chicken was a well-fed, attractive bird, with smooth golden feathers and a small white head where two filmy, red eyes glared with fixed curiosity.
Police arrived, and all of us were arrested, including Jelly, the man who had brought the chicken. The city’s Animal Control Department was also on hand, and they took the bird into custody.
There was a kind of euphoria associated with being arrested. It not only provided us with telling evidence of the corruption and injustice of the system we were fighting, but also created a kind of comradeship among us that superseded the petty factionalism and differences of opinion which are typically a part of any political movement. After a few hours of incarceration together in the same “tank,” MALDEF lawyers bailed us out with money from sympathetic middle-class supporters. We all went to a party at La Señora Medina’s house, where there was barbeque topped with fresh onion slices and frijoles en olla and Schlitz beer, and music and dancing that went on into the night.
It wasn’t until two days later, when we met for our regular weekly meeting in a room donated by San Diego and converted to an office with the help of a few folding chairs, a donated desk, and a file cabinet “borrowed” from a city agency during a previous sit-in, that we remembered the chicken. I was giving a report on the sit-in and was describing our arrest, when somebody asked what happened to the bird.
“¡Chingao!” Jelly, who had brought the chicken to the sit-in, yelled, jumping out of a folding chair ready to collapse under his bulk. “That was my mother’s chicken. Nobody’s gotten her out of the pound?”
We immediately appointed a little delegation to visit Animal Control and rescue the chicken. El Jelly offered to pay any fine that might be pending.
They returned an hour later, right at the end of our meeting, in a somber mood, even though they had stopped on the way for quarts of beer. The authorities at Animal Control informed them that all unclaimed stray animals were euthanized twenty-four hours after their capture. We felt guilty for our negligence toward the chicken, but from then on we preferred to think of her not as a comrade we had abandoned to a terrible fate, but a martyr to the cause.
Fortunately, she did not die in vain. The absentee owner, having been charged with attempted arson for hiring an undercover cop to firebomb one of his own buildings, sold the tenement for almost nothing to a local community organization, and they were eventually able to rehabilitate it with Community Development Block Grant money. The mayor was not reelected, and the “tenement eradication program” died along with his political career.