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tearing the rag off the bush again
On the Eve of Kelo v. City of New London PDF E-mail
Looters. Anarchists. Gangbangers. Communists. Terrorists. Felons.

1. Their paces quickening, our boys turned into the alleyway behind St. Francis and hopped the fence into the parking lot. Raul scattered the contents of his nickel bag before he jumped -- a stratagem that ensured their escape, for when the police dog rounded the corner of Main and Walnut, it encircled the ground and howled and howled. The irritated Officer Daily made no effort to sweep up $5 of marijuana, his night shot because the opportunity for a forcible arrest had slipped by. Our boys didn’t know that Crazy Louie had sold them a baggy of dud buds, more seeds than weed. Within a year the seeds would take root and a gentle stalk would stretch skyward, and this is how the cannabis plant came to grow beside the church on Main and Walnut.

2. The first years were tough. The cannabis plant was blocked from sunlight from the east by St. Francis and from the west by Jackie Robinson, a mental hospital named after the great baseball player. But our cannabis plant grew on the south side of town, the ethnic side, the misunderstood, misappropriated, and much maligned side, and she was a survivor. When it stormed and overflowing sewage drifted by, her young roots held tight onto the soil beneath the pavement, into which she was making ever greater incursions. When patients escaped from Jackie Robinson and defecated atop her, her good-natured stalk strained to straighten itself, anticipating the nitrates that would pass into the soil as fertilizer.

3. Passing the corner one day, Raul saw that a young cannabis plant was growing beside St. Francis, and he noted that that must have been where he cast off the baggy years ago. So he did what any savvy South Sider would have done: he marketed it. He plucked a small batch each time the leaves regenerated, selling a nickel bag here and there, usually below market price to young boys whom he would personally smoke up. Raul met his match in Sandy, the only open transvestite on the South Side. At fourteen, Sandy was nearly beaten to death by his father when, arriving early to a parent-teacher conference, his father went to urinate and found him naked in a unisex bathroom with Mr. Onasis. At sixteen, Sandy had survived two years on the streets while other boys were going to school and playing basketball. Raul fell for Sandy right away. He gave Sandy free joints, which taxed our cannabis plant as she struggled to keep abreast of production.

Sandy wanted to know the source of this good bud but Raul was mysterious about it. When he threatened to leave Raul, Raul relented and told him there was a plant that he harvested his weed from. “Harvested?” Sandy shot back. “Do you take me for a child? Fairy tales about Jack and the weedstalk?”That night a distraught Raul tried to uproot our cannabis plant to show Sandy he wasn’t lying. Only he tugged too hard and she sheared in half, midway down the stalk. He was about to unearth the rest of her when a policeman screamed, “Freeze!”Raul bolted for the fence but halfway up he felt a tear at his leg and he fell backward, neutralized by a madly howling German shepherd. Arresting him was Officer Daily, who didn’t recognize this bearded junkie as the prankster he’d chased down four years ago. Raul was taken to the station for a lineup, where a nearsighted waitress IDed him as the suspect in an armed robbery twelve miles away, on the North Side.

4. The cannabis plant survived Raul with a diagonal scar. After a couple months of new growth, the near-fatal experience was behind her. She also survived Reagan, the recession, the crack epidemic, the Bloque Crew moving into 55th and Main, and the ensuing gun battles when the 55th Street Crew tried to take their corner. She survived one shootout where a stray bullet ricocheted off St. Francis and grazed several of her leaves. She survived the disrepair that St. Francis fell into during early Clinton, when times were good and the neighborhood stopped going to Mass. She survived the police sweeps by Officer Daily, who had been promoted to Anti-Gang Task Force and commanded a virtual paramilitary, bloated by War-on-Drugs funding.

The recession came, and neighborhood fell into disrepair. But our cannabis plant flourished. She was, after all, a South Sider, a survivor.

5. Then, suddenly, there was commotion ten blocks to the north. Our plant, downwind from it all, took in the noise and the grit with each inhale, and during photosynthesis she could taste excitement in the carbon dioxide. Miracle of miracles, there was construction along Main Street!

A friendlier-looking police force moved in five blocks from where the paramilitary was roughing up addicts. Homeless people were arrested under stepped-up loitering laws. Local schoolboys were scattered after school hours by police per anti-gang ordinances. Open beverage containers were outlawed, as were jaywalking, loud car stereos, and streetside offers to wash car windows. Quality of life laws. The police abandoned squad cars for bikes. Then they abandoned pants for shorts.

6. The new mayor, elected on a platform of urban renewal, shut down Jackie Robinson. Crimefighting and redevelopment go hand-in-hand, and mental institutions are hotbeds of violent offenders, repeat offenders, sex offenders. Overnight, Main and Walnut teemed with mental patients. They banged their heads against brick buildings, defecated at random, rocked back and forth on other people’s lawns. They mingled with the growing numbers of South Siders above 50th Street who were being resettled further south to make way for luxury condos. At night, dispossessed South Siders and displaced mental patients made love in the alleyway shadows, their union too shameful for the streetlamps. Our cannabis plant bore witness to their love. Most people mistook her for an unkempt shrub. Even the neighborhood hippies, who stayed on as the area turned ethnic through the decades, did not finger her for cannabis. The ganja they cultivated grew dwarfed in hydroponic stations. Our plant, however, was big as nature.

7. Like dominoes the tenements north of 50th Street were falling to luxury condos: this area, where the numbered streets gave way to the streets named after trees, marked the edge of the receding shadow. When construction hit 50th there was stasis. Below the 50th Parallel, classic South Side structures still stood. Factories-turned-tenements with brick window arches and rooftop gargoyles. Above the Parallel, a fleet of prefab luxury condos and Le Corbusier-style high rises. The two worlds faced off, mutually skeptical, for the South Siders below 50th Street would not sell, no matter how much the developers offered. Cranes stood half-raised to the sky; unmanned jackhammers and bulldozers lay discarded like beached seals.

On June 23, 2005, the mayor proclaimed war on blight. The sole weapon in her arsenal: eminent domain. At fair market value, decades-log residents were cashed out. Suddenly the whirs and pounding and drilling of construction resumed.

8. When the city declared eminent domain on St. Francis, the neighborhood decided enough was enough. Crackheads, street gangs, the mental patients they molested, and old-time South Siders chained themselves to the church, shouting “Fuck the yuppies we won’t go/Even if they pay us mo!”(Behind the bullhorn was a self-published poet.)The dyslexics and dropouts, bless their hearts, made signs that read: “Imminent Domain by Force!”So great was the spirit of resistance that they continued into night, smashing pawn shops to repo their belongings.

Police in riot gear tear gassed the protestors and dispersed the most recalcitrant ones with rubber bullets. They were led by Officer Daily, whose Anti-Gang Task Force was slowly being absorbed into Bike Patrol. This would be Officer Daily’s last meaningful street engagement. On the evening news, the police were filmed in all the splendor of gleaming face shields. The mobs of dark faces were filmed throwing stones. Looters. Anarchists. Gangbangers. Communists. Terrorists. Felons.

9. The day the demolition crew came to Main and Walnut, police cut the chains linking the last of the diehard protestors to St. Francis. The boot of one S.W.A.T. team member crushed a god chunk of our cannabis plant but did not kill her. Nor did she die when the wrecking ball tore through the church, knocking its steel guts all over her. Over the next week, she would bend her stalks around through crevices in the fallen concrete to stretch skyward, the way the gnarled backs of grandmothers negotiate gravity and osteoporosis. What finally did her in was when the bulldozers moved out the brick carcass of the church, tearing our plant from her roots. Plants grow best in the first earth where they germinate. Severed from Main and Walnut, our cannabis plant died in the mouth of a bulldozer en route to the landfill.

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