Berkeley Talks transcript: Berkeley artist Mildred Howard on the impact of gentrification in the Bay Area

Leigh Raiford: Welcome to our post screening conversation with Mildred Howard and Larry Rinder. I’m Leigh Raiford. I also just want to thank Lauren Kroiz and Rebecca Ulrich one more time and a special thanks to Pam Uzzell for this really lovely portrait of what’s at stake for us in, for those of us especially who are South Berkeley residents, new, old but also very much committed to the community. Thank you so much Pam for your film.

So we’re going to just have a short conversation and then we’re going to open it up to audience questions and we’ll conclude here at about 1:15 p.m. But I also want to mention that when we conclude, please, if you can, if you haven’t already, take time to go downstairs to see About Things Loved and to see Mildred’s piece, “Safe House,” live and in person.

And also our students who curated that show have put together a beautiful and free catalog booklet about the show, about our process as well. And those will be made available.

But I want to start Mildred by asking you to talk about “Safe House.” So, “Safe House” is one of the centerpieces of About Things Loved. We chose it, in part, because it speaks to questions of the kind of fragility of home. And the question you say in the film that the idea that home is never really settled in certain ways and so can you just talk to us a little bit about the work “Safe House” and what it means to you in this moment?

Mildred Howard: When I did “Safe House,” I did it based on a story. Because home is supposed to be someplace that is safe — where secrets are kept, where you grow and you mature and all of those things.

But I heard this story about this young woman who was, there was an attempted rape. And what saved her is that she pretended that she had passed out. And when she woke up, she got up and she threw a butcher knife and it stuck in the wall.

But also when Fred Wilson was working on one of his pieces and he was, Fred Wilson is an artist, if you’re not familiar, his work is part of the UC Berkeley collection and he’s exhibited all over the world, including in the Venice Biennale.

He discovered in his research that the same people who made all these silver objects that we leave in our cabinets, and maybe we’ll pull it out on Thanksgiving or holiday, they also made shackles. So, and why do we put such monetary value on these objects? Because they’re just things. And that’s one of the reasons why I covered that floor. So they go from tarnish to polish to the knives in the wall.

And so at this point in my, I just, I still question what is home. Because if you look at today and see what’s happening throughout many urban environments, the demographics have shifted. And it’s sort of like, are we really going backwards again? And even though there communities that are diverse, there is still segregated in terms of where people live.

Larry Rinder: So I know you’ve been working with the theme of the house or home for many years, since the 90s I think. We put together some slides, various of these works, just a few of them to give some examples of works related to “Safe House.”

So I’m hoping that you can just talk a little bit about your engagement with this theme, this image, and also maybe given the film that we’ve just seen, could you tell us if any of these works that you did with the image of the house actually related to your experience in South Berkeley and the changes there?

Mildred Howard: All of them do. Because at one point in my life I lived in one, two, three, four, five houses within a block and a half. Well, in five five houses within four blocks, two blocks. Because I moved next door, then across the street, then across the street, then next door.

So while doing these houses, I really love to like fantasize about what if. And the house, the red house that you’re seeing. I think it’s, what is it? 1922 or 24?

Larry Rinder: It was 1924.

Mildred Howard: Okay. I lived at 1924 Fairview. I lived at 1922 Fairview. So I lived across the street. I lived on Dover, which is up the street. And all those houses. If I could build the house that expanded to meet my needs. So the red one was built so that you could slide it open and have space to work or have parties and things like that.

Larry Rinder: It has moving parts in it. And this was in the collection of SF MOMA. Isn’t that right?

Mildred Howard: All of them are in collections except for maybe one.

Larry Rinder: How about Blue Bottle House?

Mildred Howard: Those are both, in the one on your left also expands, but those are all in private collection. The Blue Bottle House, which is you’re coming up to it. On the left, that belongs to someone in Atlanta.

Larry Rinder: But would you say that these three that we’ve looked at are in a way dream houses, I mean you’re fulfilling some fantasy of a home.

Mildred Howard: Well, I just like to make up things. They make up stories, they have great imaginations and all of these are about the what if. Or what if I could change this to make it this way and how, what would that be.

Larry Rinder: And how about this last one here, the “House That Will Not Pass For…”

Mildred Howard: “…Pass For Any Color Than Its Own.” Long title. That was commissioned by the Sacramento Airport and in fact, it’ll be in Battery Park City next year for Juneteenth. And I worked with a fabricator in Germany to do the glass.

Inside this structure, there are fragments of letters that were done during the gold rush and the fragments are mirrored so that if you’re standing in the space, because you can go into it, you’re actually standing in the present. But you’re also see yourself in the reflection, which is a metaphor of what was and what is.

Leigh Raiford: Actually, can we go back to the bottles for a minute.

Mildred Howard: The little ones?

Leigh Raiford: Or, any of them. I just, can you just, I know that also the piece, the “House That Set the Derosa” is also made with bottles. And if you could just talk a little bit about the significance of bottle houses and bottle trees.

Mildred Howard: Right. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Rosa Art Service up in Napa. And I have, my very first bottle house was done there at the Headland Center for the Arts. And I had read James Weldon Johnson’s autobiography of a colored man where he talked about going into the front yard and digging up the bottles. And he got in trouble for doing so. And what he didn’t know that in the South, bottles were placed in your garden or in your trees to keep the bad spirits away.

So the next morning I had this great idea to do a house out of bottles. And for me it was about the the bottle as a vessel for information, the house as a container that holds information, all of those.

But in addition to that, I was working at the exploratorium, teaching the integration of art and science. So the physics of light going through what happens when you place several different bottles together and project the light. What happens when you have multiple sources like what’s happening right here, what happens that, so all of that I was grappling with when I did that piece.

Leigh Raiford: That’s beautiful. I want to ask a question of Larry. Given that artists are often on the front front lines of gentrification, of processes of gentrification, either moving into a neighborhood or being pushed out of a neighborhood. What are your thoughts on the role of the museum and particularly the Berkeley Art Museum in gentrification? What is our role here at the Berkeley Art Museum, in terms of the kind of growing crisis around gentrification in Berkeley?

Larry Rinder: Well, one thing I will observe that I feel very blessed to be here in Berkeley despite all the problems that this film has drawn our attention to. Blessed by the fact that the university is preserving, relatively speaking compared to other communities in the bay area, a relatively more diverse population because of the student body, which thank goodness is diverse. And I hope that the university continues to attract and support a diverse student body, but that, I don’t know what percentage of the population of Berkeley is UC Berkeley students — a third, a quarter, something like that.

And that continues to refresh year after year. Whereas in other communities, that diversity is really being pushed out by the forces of gentrification. So I’m just grateful that that dimension of our audience is being preserved.

As far as what we can do about gentrification. I’m not sure we can do much as an institution. We certainly have an obligation and an opportunity to represent diversity in our programs and collections. But that’s a different issue. It’s related, but different from gentrification per se, and stopping it.

I think that dealing with gentrification is, I mean obviously it’s an economic problem, but the solution is political, at least in communities. A community can choose to pass laws that protect people with lower incomes. It can choose to pass laws that, rent control and so on.

So these tools are within our hands if we choose to use them. But we have to do that as a community democratically and elect people who will do those things. The museum can’t take a position per se on something like that obviously. But that’s my own personal view.

Leigh Raiford: I know one of the, I mean certainly one of the challenges for us in the post-Prop 209 and the ending of affirmative action is that, for example, the black community at UC Berkeley of students, has pretty much held steady at 3%.

I’m literally one of maybe 25 black women faculty in a faculty body of 1400. And so sort of coupled with the decreasing numbers, changing demographics. And I think also we have to consider the rise in homelessness, right? In our houseless population in the area. And I think one of the things that’s been great about the museum moving closer to downtown is that it does give us an opportunity to think more creatively about how we welcome people into the museum. And I think that’s been really exciting.

Larry Rinder: I think the university has to do a better job and I think the university knows it has to do a better job of not only being a more welcoming place for students of color and faculty of color, but looking that way. You know, walking the walk and showing the walk. There are ways that you can signal through the way you look, through the things that are in the environment that this is a place of belonging for everybody.

And you know, one of the things that the university I think struggles with and this museum does and museums do kind of institutionally, is the baggage that we carry with us from the past that’s embedded in our architecture, in our design, in the very words that we use to name our institutions that are fraught with exclusivity.

And so, it’s not just about saying, “Oh, well now everything is different. Everyone’s welcome.” You really have to, in a way dismantle stuff. Right. And some of these signals about belonging and not belonging are built into architecture. How do you dismantle a building? I mean, it’s difficult. So it’s a step-by-step thing, but there are things that can be done in museums, as houses of images and houses of representation have a powerful role to play in the world and in this university and can move faster than the campus. I think in changing the tenor of the imagery that we present.

Leigh Raiford: Just why it’s, I think it’s so great that we have been able to foster, at least for me, continue to foster this relationship with you, Mildred. As a longtime Berkeley resident, as part of the permanent collection here. These conversations are increasingly important. Thank you so much for being here.

Mildred Howard: Thank you.

Leigh Raiford: I know Larry has one more question…

Larry Rinder: I do have one more question. Mildred, if you could please talk about the difference between art and activism, for you.

Mildred Howard: Oh God, that’s a hard question. Well, first of all, as an artist, I’m multi-dimensional, as we all are. And I don’t go out to say, “Oh, I’m gonna make this piece just to deal with this.” Once in a while I will. But normally, you have the same principles in making art.

I mean, you still have to deal with the same basic principles of line and form and all those things. Art is a discipline. You have to study. It’s like everything else, you have to study it. And I’ve said, excuse me if you guys have heard this before, but back when they had typewriters, it’s not like a, s, d, f, g space, semi-colon, l, k, j, h. Once you know the keyboard, you know it.

Art, you have to study. And so, in terms of social activism, I think as a black woman in the United States of America, it is in my DNA. Because on this day, Juneteenth in 1865, two and a half years later, where the majority of my family, except for me, I was born in San Francisco, but my nine siblings were in Galveston. My mother was born in the county right next to it, which was a slave port. Because we only think about slave ports on the East Coast. And so, some general of the union rolled in with 2,000 of his troops to announce that it was a emancipation proclamation.

So I grew up on Juneteenth thinking that everybody had it, but they didn’t. How many other Juneteenths are there? And I’m glad that now that this one is recognized everywhere because it’s not just the black problem or a African American problem, it’s a problem of the United States of America.

Leigh Raiford: We have time for maybe three or so questions. I want to start with Margy Wilkinson, who is part of Friends of Adeline and was featured in Welcome to the Neighborhood.

Audience member 01: Thank you. I don’t actually have a question. I just want to say that Mildred Howard’s being forced out of South Berkeley, literally around the corner from where I currently live, was like the opening gambit of a war that is continuing to this day. Because it had to do with the fact that the city of Berkeley announced that it was going to revitalize the Adeline corridor and that revitalization has sped up the displacement of African Americans in South Berkeley.

So, and Friends of Adeline is around, I want to introduce my colleagues: This is Marie Mendunson who’s also from Friends of Adeline and Willie Phillips, who you saw in the movie. And we’re here. We’ll be happy to talk to anyone who wants to talk to us after this is over and I have a couple of pieces of information.

Friends of Adeline is having a forum this coming Sunday called “Housing is a Human Right” and the subtext is race in housing. And we invite you all to join us to talk about this very important issue and I have copies of our vision statement which you saw Willie refer to in the film. Anyway, thank you Mildred. Once again, we appreciate you so much and no matter where you live or where you go, you’ll always be part of South Berkeley as far as we’re concerned. Thank you.

Audience member 02: Hi Mildred. Two things. I have a question, but I just want to say in answer to your question about art and activism, I think that Mildred said as a black woman in America, the actual act of making art is activism. It’s revolutionary and I think not just because of the subject matter that you use, it’s just the fact that you take the time and the spirit and the sacrifice to make art is her activism.

I wanted to ask you a little bit about the influence of literature on your work. Mildred, I noticed there words are sprinkled throughout your work and I wanted you to say a few words about that.

Mildred Howard: Well, I grew up with tons of books around, including cleaning the volumes and volumes of old antique books that my mom collected and National Geographic.

And my parents, and my older siblings, who were educated in the South had a great memory. And they would recite poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar, Jacob Lawrence, and passages from things. So that was very much a part of me. And because words take me to other places, it sparks this other part of me that takes me on a journey.

Sometimes I know where I’m going, but other times I just want to follow that path. And even though I may take a left turn or a right turn, it all comes back to those words.

Audience member 03: You said somewhere in the film you want to make sure your mom was remembered as somebody who moved from San Pablo and Oakland to San Pablo and Ashby in 1970 and went to Longfellow School. I’m curious about what year that bar fight was, but we, the elders and my neighbor had mentioned your mom’s name to me as a reason why Berkeley isn’t cutoff from the rest of the town, like we experienced over on Grant over on Grove. Now MLK for y’all, when the bar came in.

So, as oral history, that knowledge is being passed along from folks who grew up in this area. And so I just wanted to, just this theme was so powerful and I’m trying to, it really pierced my heart. There was something that film. They said something about the culture that the black working class folks who generally came here from Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas. It was so powerful and influential and has continued to be the soil from which so much art, activism and political thought has come forth.

And I just wanted to thank you for the work you do and the impact it’s had on me. And I’ll stop again and just kind of ask as a fact-based question, because I don’t remember the fight, the underground…

Mildred Howard: It was the late 60s when it began, and in fact, the architect whose firm did the bridge was a part of that team at that time. Because I remember going with my mother to meet with him and then going up to his house. I think he lived in El Cerrito Hills or something like that. So that was the late 60s. And Adeline Street was filled with black businesses. As was Sacramento Street.

So those were, because there was a red line you could not. So even though Berkeley, the population of African Americans, Asian Americans and Latinos were more than it is now, it was still segregated by race because it was a red line.

Audience member 04: I was teaching in the 50s and 60s and in Berkeley…

Mildred Howard: Where were you teaching?

Audience member 04: I was the school library, actually. But one of our main sayings was integrate in ’68. And I just wondered if you had something to say about the, there were talking about integrate the schools. And I thought, I was wondering if you had something to say about that. I’d be really love to know.

Mildred Howard: Well, I went to Malcolm X, which was then Lincoln. And it had one of the first African American teachers. I guess there were four that were in all the schools. And those probably were all the ones that were in the whole school district at the time. But, what was the question?

Audience member 04: Well, I mean the students were segregated…

Mildred Howard: Well, when they had the desegregation people were bused in. But then you go back to your communities and the communities were segregated. When I went to one from Malcolm X to Willard, it was like a whole other story.

And then you were tracked. Or you were not allowed to take certain classes. I mean, that actually happened. Because it happened to me. But fortunately, later in life, it may have been to my advantage. Because if you look at what’s happened now, I would say, “How come they get to take those classes and I can’t?” And then when I went on to college, I realized they’re no smarter than I am. So I don’t know what the problem was, but the problem was racism.

Audience member 04: Thank you. When I think about it, it horrifies me. Just the memory.

Leigh Raiford: I think what Jeff Chang said in the film is really pertinent that we live in a community that is rife with contradictions, that is sort of the best of what we hope for.

And also living through and with the legacies of segregation, of institutionalized racism, etc. And it’s my hope that we will, that this Juneteenth today gives us an opportunity to work harder for the best of our community. I want to thank Larry Rinder and Mildred Howard.

Larry Rinder: Thank you, Leigh. Thanks Mildred.

Leigh Raiford: And again, Pam Uzell.

Milred Howard: Thank you, Larry.