There are Trees in the Future, Or, A Case for Staying

Lupita Limón Corrales

Cover Art: Angel Alvarado, Untitled (study on Jack Pierson, “as if he belonged. No-one,” 1991), 2020

“How can you understand change when you’re always on the move? The most radical thing I ever did was stay put.”

Grace Lee Boggs

 

One unexpected day, my mom decided to pack up her little red car and move hundreds of miles away from our rented rooms in Los Angeles, where we’d spent decades spinning through revolving doors. Though she misses her kids and the golden views and her old smoke shop on Whittier Boulevard, she loves having more space and a slower pace and cheaper rent.

As immigrants, we are committed to our moves, and we also know everything’s provisional. A year later, hiking high above the basin, Jo, Shabina, and I share stories about the parts of L.A. where our families have lived, about loved ones who left or kept getting pushed out. “I love L.A., and I feel loyal to L.A. too,” Jo says as I count at least eighteen former homes across L.A. County. “But why struggle so much to stay?”

People I know have been moving away. For many, L.A. stopped being worth the price and trouble when social lives and careers were put on pause against an apocalyptic backdrop of illness and wildfires. (“L.A. has become unlivable,” one friend sighs after sharing the plans of her move. “And I don’t see that changing soon.”) Some are unemployed now, having lost their livelihood and thus their anchor to the city. Or they have the privilege of working from home, with the freedom to call anywhere with Wi-Fi their workplace.

No matter your job, “work from home” flattens space into an email inbox and a Zoom room. I wasn’t outside to watch the world change at the start of the pandemic, but I could see it creep into my home. Sam and I transformed a living room corner into a shared office with an ergonomic chair, good lighting, and an uncluttered backdrop for video calls. “What time are your meetings today?” We checked in every morning to coordinate. Consumed by all things daily and domestic, our home became my world.

It turned out everything could happen online. In one afternoon, I could meet with my boss, then immediately lead an art workshop for my students without moving from my chair. After work, I would tune into a poetry reading or an organizing meeting or a deportation defense training while sprawled comfortably in bed. No more traffic—in fact, no more distance. Sitting in a room with friends and strangers in other time zones, the sun shining into each of our spaces from a different point in the sky.

Undeniably, the necessity of moving everything online increased access to working, organizing, and socializing by removing many physical and financial barriers. At the same time, this move shifted our collective relationship to space, severing some of the ties that connect us to and ground us in a particular location. When companies like Facebook and Twitter announced plans to allow “work from home” indefinitely, for example, employees rapidly spread across the country, moving away from the cities. For those whose connection to place is tenuous or circumstantial, and for those who have the resources to choose where they live, the pandemic provided new reasons to simply relocate.

Why struggle to stay? The question returns when our landlord puts our single-family home in Eagle Rock on the market less than two months after I’ve moved in. Somehow, I am paying only $650 a month and have access to a veranda, a yard, garden beds, and fruit trees. Why struggle to stay? I ask myself weeks later when the new owners email to say we can stay until June 30th, the date that the eviction moratorium is scheduled to end. Spending hours on calls with other organizers and attorneys, it’s clear that fighting the eviction would be another stressful, violent process, and our exhausted household would rather give in. Why struggle to stay? My friends and family are moving away and my favorite restaurants and bars have closed. It feels like I’m always starting over, like every home I try to build gets wiped away. I’m losing my anchors. Scrolling through listings for $1,400 studio apartments, I consider running away.

After months of legal research, strategizing sessions, threatening emails, and lost sleep, we negotiate a contract with our new landlords that includes a small financial settlement in exchange for an agreed upon move-out date. We cooperate by letting their vendor take dirt samples from our backyard, where six decades ago, a botanist planted trees that now bear sapotes, lemons, oranges, and pomegranates. The bicoastal white couple (who tell us the pandemic has financially hurt their event planning and interior design work, too) bought the house for $1.5 million. They plan to dig the yard up and build a swimming pool.

During the sale of the house, one person in L.A. County dies of COVID every 8 minutes, evictions continue illegally, historic businesses shutter, and a Zoom room remains a Zoom room no matter where you go. Outside of my bedroom window, the world I know slips away. What is a city without its people, its history, its intimate relationships, its land and public spaces? If every place becomes any place, what difference does it make?


Priscilla Delgado

When the pandemic began, downtown Los Angeles transformed—beloved restaurants permanently closed, storefront windows newly barricaded, and office buildings frozen in their mid-March abandonment. One summer afternoon, we ride our bikes side by side through Chinatown’s empty streets. Was it another lifetime ago that I sat at my desk in Little Tokyo each weekday or swayed tipsy on this sidewalk waiting for a Lyft at 2 a.m.?

When we arrive at City Hall, the landscape has changed yet again. Grand Park is now filled with hundreds of people who rest their feet, pass out sandwiches, sanitize their hands. Hundreds chant, march, dance, and grieve through the streets while helicopters circle overhead. Later that week, someone spraypaints STOLEN LAND in red across City Hall’s pale brick facade. By the end of the summer, the Junipero Serra and Christopher Columbus statues have fallen.

The Safer at Home emergency order issued in March 2020 emptied L.A.’s streets. As the weeks passed, it became clear that solidarity was all we had. Rent was due month after month despite mass unemployment, sickness, and death, with no substantial relief other than what we could provide each other. In late May, the police murder of George Floyd shattered the stillness. Amidst a chorus of chants, breaking glass, burning cop cars, dispersal orders, sirens, and fireworks, public space shifted again.

In Hannah Black’s essay for Artforum, “Go Outside,” she describes the possibilities illuminated by 2020’s riots, emphasizing a return to social life and public space. A riot, she writes, is “just something that can happen when a lot of people are outside in the same place.” She continues: “By providing new uses for public space—by uprooting street furniture, smashing plate-glass windows into piles of jewels, and pedestrianizing highways—the riots demonstrated that all objects can be transformed by collective play.”

Across L.A.’s streets, thousands reached towards another future, experimenting and learning as we went. We left the isolation of our homes, risking sickness to dream up a vision of Black liberation and collective safety. We created a new economy by exchanging water bottles, energy bars, money, rides, and care. As each night pushed past the city-issued curfew, hundreds were kettled and arrested, packed into buses and driven to impromptu jails. In encrypted group chats, we scrambled to locate each other in the dead of the militarized night.

One of these jails was located on UCLA’s campus, inside of Jackie Robinson Stadium. Over the course of a few months, the stadium was transformed from a baseball field to a COVID-19 testing center to a pop-up jail void of social distancing measures, where protestors were detained for violating an imposed curfew that was later ruled unconstitutional. In a public letter to UCLA’s Chancellor, concerned university faculty pointed out the “cruel irony” of turning a COVID-19 testing center into a COVID-19 hotbed—using a stadium named after “an icon of the long and unfinished struggle for Black freedom” to facilitate the criminalization of protest against racial injustice. Space is malleable. Layers of meaning compete.


I haven’t driven in almost three weeks, and now my car won’t start. Since I’m working from home, I don’t have to leave the house every day. When I do, I hop on my bike and ride safely through the wide streets, now free of L.A. traffic. Olivia and I meet halfway near the Fletcher Drive entrance to the river, and it feels like a childhood summer—I stand as I pedal as we weave across traffic lanes.

Shabina drives over to help me jumpstart my car. My neighbor lends us the cables. When it still won’t start, Jesús calls his mechanic friend to see if he’s free to swing by. After they’re introduced at the hood of my car, Shabina begins dropping off fresh produce and diapers for Jesús and his family, part of their weekly mutual aid deliveries. During those first couple of months of the pandemic, my neighbors and I offered one another our services, dry beans, handmade masks, and joints; we removed our landlord from the group chat to share info about tenant protections.

On every signpost on our block, bilingual flyers from the Los Angeles Tenants Union read “Tenants, Organize! Don’t Lose Your Housing” above tear-off Zoom links. Across the city, CANCEL RENT has been spray-painted on cement walls and banner-dropped from freeway overpasses. Everyone deserves access to secure housing, always. During the pandemic, the need for homes becomes especially pronounced; with the Safer at Home ordinance, L.A. acknowledges this but does not provide them.

The pandemic drove many to leave, but many others are still fighting to stay. Though the virus increased precarity and isolation, it also catalyzed mutual aid and rapid response networks that ensure loved ones and strangers alike have what they need to survive, including a place to live. Organized by efforts like LATU’s eviction defense actions, StreetWatch’s blockades against encampment sweeps, and many others, masses of people gather to obstruct the violence of displacement. Sometimes, these efforts are successful. Sometimes, people are able to stay—at least for the time being, at least until the next threat. We feel the adrenaline rush, the life-affirming reminder: with enough people, this is what we can do.

Six months after the start of the 2020 uprisings, I attended the Community Action Team’s (CAT-911) month-long rapid response training. Although the training, like much of CAT-911’s work, was conducted online, a sense of place and an emphasis on the hyper-local were very much present, with teams organizing autonomously around the needs specific to their region of Los Angeles. Throughout the training, facilitators from different teams shared techniques on organizing eviction defense, practicing harm reduction, and de-escalating police interactions, focusing on the importance of building trust and relationships.

For the final training, Shabina begins with an icebreaker, prompting us to answer their question in the chat: “What sights, sounds, and sensations do you imagine in a future free from policing?” Immediately, the chat goes off, a cascade of visions shared by hundreds of abolitionists throughout the region and country. In a future free from police, we hear silence—no more helicopters or sirens polluting our soundscape. In a future free from police, we take naps in the park without fear. In a future free from police, public benches are spacious and comfortable, because architecture is no longer designed to police our presence. In the future, space has been reclaimed.


It turns out not everything can happen online. Monday through Saturday, my mom stands in a crowded factory hours up the California coast breaking apart the frozen spinach that travels past her on a conveyor belt. My dad shows up for work day after day in yards across L.A. County, pruning, planting, and removing trees while his clients take Zoom calls indoors. Since homeowners are taking advantage of the pandemic to invest in repairs and realize home projects, his business is doing better than expected. When he gets COVID, I beg him to stay home; his voice is strained and he is struggling to breathe. But he doesn’t have paid time off.

Whenever I tire of taking my Zoom calls indoors, I play hooky from work to meet up with Shabina at the Solano Community Garden, where we unofficially volunteer. We walk past the raised garden beds and the sign-in sheet near the entrance, then up a hill covered in a forest of nopales, medicinal herbs, and fruit trees. Daniel cares for all of them on his own. Though he’s eighty years old and vulnerable to COVID, he continues to take multiple buses from South Central to the garden six days a week, just as he has for the last 16 years.

As we tend to the land together, Daniel teaches us how to double-dig to nourish the soil, how to terrace a hillside in preparation for a future orchard. He shows us how to hold a shovel correctly and how to weed more efficiently. We take breaks from the sun in his makeshift office: discarded chairs and tarps hung between shady trees. Shabina shares snacks and fresh juice while I translate jokes between the three of us. When we’re ready to head out for the day, he gifts us bundles of fresh Santa Maria, nabo, and papalo as a thanks for our work.

One day, Daniel asks us to review a packet of papers he’s received from the garden council. A few months earlier, the council had begun rebuking him for using too much water and refusing to track his hours or his production numbers. Long before the pandemic spurred renewed interest in gardening—and before gentrification made this garden desirable for young white volunteers and grant funding—Daniel was one of the only people who showed up every day to keep the plants alive. The new garden manager estimates that over the years, Daniel has added over $100,000 of value to the space with his unpaid labor. Still, the packet from the garden council, written only in English, outlines a plan to redistribute most of Daniel’s acres to the new volunteers.


In the Dani McClain short story “Homing Instinct,” the U.S. president has just issued Executive Order 3735, which requires Americans to commit to one location for the rest of their lives. In an effort to curtail the effects of climate change and natural disasters, the order bans most plane, train, and automobile travel, demanding that the public “stop living in the fantasy of the infinite” and register to a permanent location within 90 days, with only 20 miles of travel allotted for each person per month. For many, like the narrator with self-described “wanderlust” who made a life in Oakland but has family and roots in Ohio, the decision is complicated. At a press conference, journalists challenge the President: “Won’t the people who need food and shelter sell their mile allotments to people who can afford and want them? Aren’t you making mobility a luxury item?”

Through the pandemic, faced with a similar question as McClain’s characters—“Where and with whom should I be?”—people have left, returned, moved somewhere new amidst the crisis. These choices, of course, affect more than just the people who make them. The Los Angeles Times reported that the “remote work revolution” brought on by the pandemic, for example, has quadrupled interest in second homes and led to a real estate surge near outdoor vacation destinations like Lake Tahoe and Palm Springs. What do we make of this trend when so many people do not have any safe and stable shelter? Long-term, how will this affect residents who already called these destinations home year-round, who now must adjust to inflated prices, housing and labor shortages, and congested traffic overnight? Confronted with our innate interconnectedness, we can’t pretend that where we live and how we move doesn’t affect the people and ecosystems around us.

Like a great science fiction story, the pandemic has revealed the absurd injustice of our current arrangements, while hinting at the possibilities and dangers that might accompany new ways of living. As we witness a reorganization of social life and space in real time, nothing is certain. All our best- and worst-case scenarios alike are possible. Hasn’t this realization—that the future can be anything at all—been the source of our collective hope and despair, our conflicting presence and anxiety? Maybe rather than asking “Should I leave or should I stay?” we should ask, “In which versions of the future can everyone have a choice?”

For many people—like those of us who are unhoused, undocumented, poor, disabled, incarcerated, Indigenous, Black—autonomy over housing feels impossible. Despite that, we keep working to create it. Together, masses of people keep ICE officers from snatching their neighbor, or block a landlord from changing the locks to someone’s home. Together, people and histories conjoin and transform, creating pathways to freer futures. The first step in winning a new world is to stay around long enough to fight. In moments of exhaustion, I think of Daniel’s tireless work, his unswerving loyalty to place and to the future: “I’ll stay until I know someone will be here after me to take care of the trees.” ♦

 

 


Lupita Limón Corrales (she/they) is a poet, educator, interpreter, daughter, archivist and cashier living in Los Angeles. Talking to her friends is her favorite type of research. She’s committed to the future and the sea.