Can a Paradise Be Built in Hell?

Solnit12513 mainRebecca Solnit. (Photo: Jim Herrington)Rebecca Solnit has no patience for those who are paralyzed by despair and helplessness in an age of doubt about the human condition and the sociological/political situation in the United States. To be passive in the face of disappointment is to ensure that injustice prevails.

That is the background for the Truthout Progressive Pick of the Week: the paperback edition of Solnit’s “A Paradise Built in Hell.” In “Paradise,” Solnit illustrates how amidst disasters one can often find “the constellations of solidarity, altruism, and improvisation” that “are within most of us and reappear at these times.” Indeed, this was most recently illustrated in the grassroots response to Hurricane Sandy in Red Hook, Brooklyn, with an offshoot of the Occupy Movement playing a significant role.

After an eloquent preface, Solnit delves into five large-scale disasters to detail “the extraordinary communities that arise in disaster.” These sparks of light, of human outreach during the most testing and grim of times, are what offer us a guide to creating “paradise[s] built in hell.”

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The following is the first chapter of “A Paradise Built in Hell.”

The Mizpah Café

The Gathering Place

The outlines of this particular disaster are familiar. At 5:12 in the morning on April 18, 1906, about a minute of seismic shaking tore up San Francisco, toppling buildings, particularly those on landfill and swampy ground, cracking and shifting others, collapsing chimneys, breaking water mains and gas lines, twisting streetcar tracks, even tipping headstones in the cemeteries. It was a major earthquake, centered right off the coast of the peninsular city, and the damage it did was considerable. Afterward came the fires, both those caused by broken gas mains and chimneys and those caused and augmented by the misguided policy of trying to blast firebreaks ahead of the flames and preventing citizens from firefighting in their own homes and neighborhoods. The way the authorities handled the fires was a major reason why so much of the city— nearly five square miles, more than twenty- eight thousand structures— was incinerated in one of history’s biggest urban infernos before aerial warfare. Nearly every municipal building was destroyed, and so were many of the downtown businesses, along with mansions, slums, middle- class neighborhoods, the dense residential- commercial district of Chinatown, newspaper offices, and warehouses.

The response of the citizens is less familiar. Here is one. Mrs. Anna Amelia Holshouser, whom a local newspaper described as a “woman of middle age, buxom and comely,” woke up on the floor of her bedroom on Sacramento Street, where the earthquake had thrown her. She took time to dress herself while the ground and her home were still shaking, in that era when getting dressed was no simple matter of throwing on clothes. “Powder, paint, jewelry, hair switch, all were on when I started my flight down one hundred twenty stairs to the street,” she recalled. The house in western San Francisco was slightly damaged, her downtown place of business— she was a beautician and masseuse— was “a total wreck,” and so she salvaged what she could and moved on with a friend, Mr. Paulson. They camped out in Union Square downtown until the fires came close and soldiers drove them onward. Like thousands of others, they ended up trudging with their bundles to Golden Gate Park, the thousand- acre park that runs all the way west to the Pacific Ocean. There they spread an old quilt “and lay down . . . not to sleep, but to shiver with cold from fog and mist and watch the fl ames of the burning city, whose blaze shone far above the trees.” On their third day in the park, she stitched together blankets, carpets, and sheets to make a tent that sheltered twenty- two people, including thirteen children. And Holshouser started a tiny soup kitchen with one tin can to drink from and one pie plate to eat from. All over the city stoves were hauled out of damaged buildings— fire was forbidden indoors, since many standing homes had gas leaks or damaged flues or chimneys— or primitive stoves were built out of rubble, and people commenced to cook for each other, for strangers, for anyone in need. Her generosity was typical, even if her initiative was exceptional.

Holshouser got funds to buy eating utensils across the bay in Oakland. The kitchen began to grow, and she was soon feeding two to three hundred people a day, not a victim of the disaster but a victor over it and the hostess of a popular social center— her brothers’ and sisters’ keeper. Some visitors from Oakland liked her makeshift dining camp so well they put up a sign— “Palace Hotel”— naming it after the burned- out downtown luxury establishment that was reputedly once the largest hotel in the world. Humorous signs were common around the camps and street- side shelters. Nearby on Oak Street a few women ran “The Oyster Loaf ” and the “Chat Noir”— two little shacks with their names in fancy cursive. A shack in Jefferson Square was titled “The House of Mirth,” with additional signs jokingly offering rooms for rent with steam heat and elevators. The inscription on the side of “Hoff man’s Café,” another little street- side shack, read “Cheer up, have one on me . . . come in and spend a quiet evening.” A menu chalked on the door of “Camp Necessity,” a tiny shack, included the items “fleas eyes raw, 98¢, pickled eels, nails fried, 13¢, flies legs on toast, .09¢, crab’s tongues, stewed,” ending with “rain water fritters with umbrella sauce, $9.10.” “The Appetite Killery” may be the most ironic name, but the most famous inscription read, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may have to go to Oakland.” Many had already gone there or to hospitable Berkeley, and the railroads carried many much farther away for free.

About three thousand people had died, at least half the city was homeless, families were shattered, the commercial district was smoldering ashes, and the army from the military base at the city’s north end was terrorizing many citizens. As soon as the newspapers resumed printing, they began to publish long lists of missing people and of the new locations at which displaced citizens and sundered families could be found. Despite or perhaps because of this, the people were for the most part calm and cheerful, and many survived the earthquake with gratitude and generosity. Edwin Emerson recalled that after the quake, “when the tents of the refugees, and the funny street kitchens, improvised from doors and shutters and pieces of roofing, overspread all the city, such merriment became an accepted thing. Everywhere, during those long moonlit evenings, one could hear the tinkle of guitars and mandolins, from among the tents. Or, passing by the grotesque rows of curbstone kitchens, one became dimly aware of the low murmurings of couples who had sought refuge in those dark recesses as in bowers of love. It was at this time that the droll signs and inscriptions began to appear on walls and tent flaps, which soon became one of the familiar sights of reconstructing San Francisco. The overworked marriage license clerk has deposed that the fees collected by him for issuing such licenses during April and May 1906 far exceeded the totals for the same months of any preceding years in San Francisco.” Emerson had rushed to the scene of disaster from New York, pausing to telegraph a marriage proposal of his own to a young woman in San Francisco, who wrote a letter of rejection that was still in the mail when she met her suitor in person amid the wreckage and accepted. They were married a few weeks later.

Disaster requires an ability to embrace contradiction in both the minds of those undergoing it and those trying to understand it from afar. In each disaster, there is suffering, there are psychic scars that will be felt most when the emergency is over, there are deaths and losses. Satisfactions, newborn social bonds, and liberations are often also profound. Of course one factor in the gap between the usual accounts of disaster and actual experience is that those accounts focus on the small percentage of people who are wounded, killed, orphaned, and otherwise devastated, often at the epicenter of the disaster, along with the officials involved. Surrounding them, often in the same city or even neighborhood, is a periphery of many more who are largely undamaged but profoundly disrupted— and it is the disruptive power of disaster that matters here, the ability of disasters to topple old orders and open new possibilities. This broader effect is what disaster does to society. In the moment of disaster, the old order no longer exists and people improvise rescues, shelters, and communities. Thereafter, a struggle takes place over whether the old order with all its shortcomings and injustices will be reimposed or a new one, perhaps more oppressive or perhaps more just and free, like the disaster utopia, will arise.

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Of course people who are deeply and devastatingly affected may yet find something redemptive in their experience, while those who are largely unaffected may be so rattled they are immune to the other possibilities (curiously, people farther from the epicenter of a disaster are often more frightened, but this seems to be because what you imagine as overwhelming or terrifying while at leisure becomes something you can cope with when you must— there is no time for fear). There are no simple rules for the emotions. We speak mostly of happy and sad emotions, a divide that suggests a certain comic lightness to the one side and pure negativity to the other, but perhaps we would navigate our experiences better by thinking in terms of deep and shallow, rich and poor. The very depth of emotion, the connecting to the core of one’s being, the calling into play one’s strongest feelings and abilities, can be rich, even on deathbeds, in wars and emergencies, while what is often assumed to be the circumstance of happiness sometimes is only insulation from the depths, or so the plagues of ennui and angst among the comfortable suggest.

Next door to Holshouser’s kitchen, an aid team from the mining boomtown of Tonopah, Nevada, set up and began to deliver wagonloads of supplies to the back of Holshouser’s tent. The Nevadans got on so well with the impromptu cook and hostess they gave her a guest register whose inscription read in part: “in cordial appreciation of her prompt, philanthropic, and efficient service to the people in general, and particularly to the Tonopah Board of Trade Relief Committee. . . . May her good deeds never be forgotten.” Thinking that the place’s “Palace Hotel” sign might cause confusion, they rebaptized it the Mizpah Café after the Mizpah Saloon in Tonopah, and a new sign was installed. The ornamental letters spelled out above the name “One Touch of Nature Makes the Whole World Kin” and those below “Established April 23, 1906.” The Heberew word mizpah, says one encyclopedia, “is an emotional bond between those who are separated (either physically or by death).” Another says it was the Old Testament watchtower “where the people were accustomed to meet in great national emergencies.” Another source describes it as “symbolizing a sanctuary and place of hopeful anticipation.” The ramshackle material reality of Holshouser’s improvised kitchen seemed to matter not at all in comparison with its shining social role. It ran through June of 1906, when Holshouser wrote her memoir of the earthquake. Her piece is as remarkable for what it doesn’t say: it doesn’t speak of fear, enemies, conflict, chaos, crime, despondency, or trauma.

Just as her kitchen was one of many spontaneously launched community centers and relief projects, so her resilient resourcefulness represents the ordinary response in many disasters. In them, strangers become friends and collaborators, goods are shared freely, people improvise new roles for themselves. Imagine a society where money plays little or no role, where people rescue each other and then care for each other, where food is given away, where life is mostly out of doors in public, where the old divides between people seem to have fallen away, and the fate that faces them, no matter how grim, is far less so for being shared, where much once considered impossible, both good and bad, is now possible or present, and where the moment is so pressing that old complaints and worries fall away, where people feel important, purposeful, at the center of the world. It is by its very nature unsustainable and evanescent, but like a lightning flash it illuminates ordinary life, and like lightning it sometimes shatters the old forms. It is utopia itself for many people, though it is only a brief moment during terrible times. And at the time they manage to hold both irreconcilable experiences, the joy and the grief.

A Map of Utopia

This utopia matters, because almost everyone has experienced some version of it and because it is not the result of a partisan agenda but rather a broad, unplanned effort to salvage society and take care of the neighbors amid the wreckage. “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which humanity is always heading,” wrote Oscar Wilde fifteen years before San Francisco’s great quake. The utopias built by citizens like Anna Holshouser are not yet on that map. But they should be. They could change the map of our own beliefs, our sense of what is possible and who we are. Utopia is in trouble these days. Many no longer believe that a better world, as opposed to a better life, is possible, and the rhetoric of private well- being trumps public good, at least in the English- speaking world. And yet the yearning remains— all the riches piled up, the security gates and stock options, are only defenses against a world of insecurity and animosity, piecemeal solutions to a pervasive problem. Sometimes it seems as though home improvement has trumped the idealistic notion of a better world. Sometimes. But utopia flares up in other parts of the world, where hope is fiercer and dreams are larger.

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“There is no alternative,” the conservative British prime minister Margaret Thatcher liked to say, but there is, and it appears where it is least expected, as well as where it is most diligently cultivated. Changing the world is the other way to imagine salvaging the self— and others, for the utopian impulse is generous even when it’s wrongheaded. And utopias of sorts arise in the present, in Argentina, in Mexico, in countless social, economic, and agricultural experiments in Europe, in India, and in the United States; among other places. The map of utopias is cluttered nowadays with experiments by other names, and the very idea is expanding. It needs to open up a little more to contain disaster communities. These remarkable societies suggest that, just as many machines reset themselves to their original settings after a power outage, so human beings reset themselves to something altruistic, communitarian, resourceful, and imaginative after a disaster, that we revert to something we already know how to do. The possibility of paradise is already within us as a default setting.

The two most basic goals of social utopias are to eliminate deprivation— hunger, ignorance, homelessness— and to forge a society in which no one is an outsider, no one is alienated. By this standard, Holshouser’s free food and warm social atmosphere achieved both, on however tiny a scale, and versions of the Mizpah Café sprung up all over the ruined city.

Some religious attempts at utopia are authoritarian, led by a charismatic leader, by elders, by rigid rules that create outcasts, but the secular utopias have mostly been committed to liberty, democracy, and shared power. The widespread disdain for revolution and utopia takes as its object lesson the Soviet- style attempts at coercive utopias, in which the original ideals of leveling and sharing go deeply awry, the achievement critiqued in George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 and other dystopian novels. Many fail to notice that it is not the ideals, the ends, but the coercive and authoritarian means that poison paradise. There are utopias whose ideals pointedly include freedom from coercion and dispersal of power to the many. Most utopian visions nowadays include many worlds, many versions, rather than a coercive one true way. The anthropologist David Graeber writes, “Stalinists and their ilk did not kill because they dreamed great dreams— actually, Stalinists were famous for being rather short on imagination— but because they mistook their dreams for scientific certainties. This led them to feel they had a right to impose their visions through a machinery of violence.” There are plenty of failed revolutions and revolutions such as the French Revolution that lapse into bloodbaths— and yet when that revolution was over, France would never be dominated by an absolutist monarchy again; ordinary French people had more rights, and people around the world had an enlarged sense of the possible. All revolutions fail because they set their sights heaven- high, but none of them fail to do something, and many increase the amount of liberty, justice, and hope for their heirs.

Unpoliced utopian experiments have arisen often in the United States. The ascetic rural Shakers have lasted from 1775, when they arrived in New York from England, into— by the tenuous thread of a few older survivors— the present. Less stable experiments proliferated in the nineteenth century. There was, for example, Brook Farm in Massachusetts in the 1840s, in which a lot of bookish idealists tried, not very effectively, to till the earth to realize an ideal union of mental and physical labor and collective life. There was also the socialist Kaweah Colony in the mountains of California in the 1880s and 1890s (the land they homesteaded is now part of Sequoia National Park, and the giant tree they named the Karl Marx Tree is now the General Sherman sequoia). Many argue that the United States was founded on utopian dreams, from the conquistador fantasies of a gold- drenched El Dorado to the pioneer reading of the American West as an unfallen Eden the woodsman entered as an ax- swinging Adam. Some even include the seventeenth- century New England Puritans among the Utopians, though their regime of sober piety, stern patriarchs, and enforced conformity resembles a lot of other peoples’ gulags. And the Puritans were not social experimentalists; the pervasive utopian preoccupation with sharing wealth and finding a communal mode of dealing with practical needs and social goals had little to do with them, though it surfaced in other conservative religious movements, such as Mormonism.

I often argue with my friend Sam about what has become of the dream of Utopia. He believes it has faded with the end of communist and universalist fantasies; I believe it has evolved into more viable, modest versions. A certain kind of twentieth- century utopian idealism has died, the kind that believed we could and should erase everything and start over: new language, new society, new ways of organizing power, work, even family, home, and more. Projects for abandoning the past wholesale and inventing a whole new human being seem, like the idea of one- size- fits- all universalism, more ominous than utopian to us now. It may be because we now includes people who forcibly lost their language, whether it was Yiddish in Poland or Cree in Canada, that as we lose the past, we cherish it more and look at the devouring mouth of the future with more apprehension. But we have also learned that you can reinvent the government but not human nature in one fell stroke, and the process of reinventing human nature is a much more subtle, personal, incremental process. Mostly nowadays we draw our hopes from fragments and traditions from a richly varied past rather than an imagined future. But disaster throws us into the temporary utopia of a transformed human nature and society, one that is bolder, freer, less attached and divided than in ordinary times, not blank, but not tied down.

Utopianism was a driving force in the nineteenth century. Union activists sought to improve working conditions and wages for the vast majority of laborers, and many were radicals who also hoped for or worked for a socialist or anarchist revolution that would change the whole society and eliminate the causes of suffering, poverty, and powerlessness rather than merely mitigate some of the effects (how viable and desirable their versions of the ideal were is another story). The socialist- anarchist Kaweah commune included many union members, while the French commune Icaria- Speranza, eighty miles north of San Francisco, included refugees from the 1848 revolution in France and the Paris Commune, the populist takeover of that city for two months in 1871.

This list of utopian possibilities leaves off the underground utopias, the odd ways in which people improvise their hopes or just improve their lives in the most adverse circumstances. I once met a young Polish émigré who told me that many Poles were nostalgic, not for the Communist regime that fell in 1989 but for the close- knit communities that developed to survive that malevolent era, circulating black- market goods and ideas, helping each other with the long food lines and other tasks of survival, banding together to survive. In the democratic- capitalist regime that replaced Poland’s communism, such alliances were no longer necessary, and people drifted apart, free at last but no longer a community. Finding the balance between independence and fellowship is one of the ongoing utopian struggles. And under the false brotherhood of Soviet- style communism, a true communal solidarity of resistance was born (as well as an independent Polish labor union, Solidarity, that eventually brought down that system). This nostalgia for a time that was in many ways much harder but is remembered as better, morally and socially, is common. And it brings us to the ubiquitous fleeting utopias that are neither coerced nor countercultural but universal, albeit overlooked: disaster utopias, the subject of this book.

You don’t have to subscribe to a political ideology, move to a commune, or join the guerrillas in the mountains; you wake up in a society suddenly transformed, and chances are good you will be part of that transformation in what you do, in whom you connect to, in how you feel. Something changes. Elites and authorities often fear the changes of disaster or anticipate that the change means chaos and destruction, or at least the undermining of the foundations of their power. So a power struggle often takes place in disaster— and real political and social change can result, from that struggle or from the new sense of self and society that emerges. Too, the elite often believe that if they themselves are not in control, the situation is out of control, and in their fear take repressive measures that become secondary disasters. But many others who don’t hold radical ideas, don’t believe in revolution, don’t consciously desire profound social change find themselves in a transformed world leading a life they could not have imagined and rejoice in it.

The future holds many more disasters because of such factors as climate change and the likelihood of large earthquakes on long- dormant or semidormant faults, as well as increases in the vulnerability of populations who have moved to coasts, to cities, to areas at risk, to flimsy housing, to deeper poverty, shallower roots, and frailer support networks. The relief organization Oxfam reported in 2007, “The number of weather- related disasters has quadrupled over the past twenty years and the world should do more to prepare for them. The report argues that climate change is responsible for the growing number of weather- related disasters— more intense rain, combined with frequent droughts, make damaging floods much more likely.” Disaster is never terribly far away. Knowing how people behave in disasters is fundamental to knowing how to prepare for them. And what can be learned about resilience, social and psychological response, and possibility from sudden disasters is relevant as well for the slower disasters of poverty, economic upheaval, and incremental environmental degradation as well as the abiding questions about social possibilities.

The Mizpah Café was at once nothing special and a miracle, chaos and deprivation turned into order and abundance by will, empathy, and one woman’s resourcefulness. It is a miniature of the communities that often arise out of disasters. In the 1906 earthquake, a Jewish newspaperwoman would find a social paradise, a Chinese boy would find a new life, the country’s leading philosopher would find confirmation of his deepest beliefs about human nature, and an eight- year- old girl would find herself in a community so generous it served as a model for the radical social experiments she initiated that continue across the United States today. Disasters are extraordinarily generative, and though disaster utopias recur again and again, there is no simple formula for what arises: it has everything to do with who or what individuals or communities were before the disaster and the circumstances they find themselves in. But those circumstances are far richer and stranger than has ever been accounted for.

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Copyright © Rebecca Solnit, 2009. Published by Viking, a member of Penguin Group. Not to be reprinted without permission.