This is an edited version of a Multimodal Communications location-based assignment in San Francisco, California.
Evasion is cowardice.
In the heart of Eureka Valley, Victorian houses line the sidewalks while autumn-reddened ivy clings to white stucco. November sun beats down on my shoulders. Past the rainbow flag on the corner of Castro and Market, banners welcome visitors to the Sunny Heart of San Francisco, shading the Castro with the red of lipstick and the yellow ochre of the California hills: Castrolites celebrate their identity.
At first glance, the Castro is a utopia. Its citizens pursue higher education, host rallies, and infuse the district with life and color. The rainbow flag embodies euphoria; tragedy buries itself deep. But today, Castro Street grows lax: its poor and Black and homeless die and its citizens ignore it.
Originally, Castro Street fought for equality. In the 80s, AIDS left young, gay men dying slow and terrible deaths. Men who had lived in the closet were outed. Sickened, they wasted away: they bled, cried, prayed for a cure. None came. The virus infected the district with a gray pall, dulling the formerly golden district. But the people of the Castro persisted.
After their initial grief, they protested for equal rights for those with the virus. Organizations like ACTUp fought for access to treatment for those battling to survive; gay and lesbian coalitions cared for those who were sick.
By this account, Castro Street is free from guilt.
Yet society’s faults often only appear in hindsight, after the structures that shield us from the truth are stripped away. Historians tell us that Berlin, leading up to the reign of the Fuhrer, had signs of favoring a new dictator; that Bhopal had loose industrial restrictions before its citizens were exposed to toxic gas; that Bolivia, before the Catavi massacre, lacked proper laborers’ rights laws. Yet at the time, few recognized it. We remain blind to the suffering that takes place in the present and unaware of that which will take place in the future.
As I enter the rainbow-painted door of Dog Eared Books, I inquire whether they stock the works of Ursula K. Le Guin. Before I investigate the Castro’s current state, I want to understand what makes a utopia tick. The bookstore carries a copy of Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. Four pages long, Le Guin’s short story imagines a city—a utopia—determined not by technology or social strictures, but by its citizens’ moral compass. Omelas has everything—an endless Festival of Summer, choice of religion, and supply of drooz—however, its happiness requires the suffering of a single child.
As Le Guin points out the citizens’ maturity, she reveals that the citizens of Omelas consider the child’s suffering a necessary evil. As the child sits beneath the ground and trembles, Omelas’s citizens look away. Of course, they rationalize their evasion. “[I]t would not get much good of its freedom,” they say to each other.
What makes it worse is that Omelas’s citizens are well-educated: they know better. “They were not simple folk, you see,” Le Guin wrote. “[T]hey were not naive and happy children…They were mature, passionate adults whose lives were not wretched.”
It’s easy to denounce Omelas and the choice its citizens made. We burn with outrage: we would take action if a child sniveled and suffered. But in real life, that’s not the way of it. Omelas’s citizens were like us: intelligent, empathetic, worldly. They understood suffering. They simply refused to confront it.
Outside of the bookstore, a street artist named Brett leans against his Volkswagen. He’s homeless and unafraid to tell it. In his pin-striped overalls and paint-stained work boots, he rocks back and forth while he talks, intense and taut. “Fuck the greed,” he tells me. “People expect low prices. This is capitalism in the trenches.”
Like much of San Francisco and the States, Castro Street prospered on the backs of a financially strapped underclass. As a symbol of LGBTQ liberation, Castro Street attracted tourists willing to spend money. Chain stores opened up, and as they did, they pushed out the original crowd. Meanwhile the poor on Castro Street bore the weight of inequality. Now, many Black, Hispanic, disabled, transgender individuals struggle to pay rent; support their families; sustain themselves.
Brett points at a painting. “I’ll sell it for three hundred,” he says. “That’s all anyone will pay.” Isn’t it awful? remark the people who walk past. But they avoid Brett’s eyes, and they glance away from his art. Do they feel guilty knowing that people suffer from discrimination, struggle to pay rent, and shiver under threadbare blankets at night?
In May, riots broke out across the country. Several Castro businesses amplified the voices of unheard Black and brown activists, and signs still paper the windows: Black Trans Lives Matter. Stop Killing Black People. Racism is a Public Health Crime. They called for change and acted upon it.
In The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, Le Guin describes the Festival of Summer, the sunlit fields, the shimmering flags, the rising sun, the manes of horses filled with white-gold fire. Then she speaks of the ones who walk away. We must ask ourselves, however: isn’t the right choice to stay? To make change?
Willful ignorance exists among all of us. As humans, we like to believe that we’re good: that capitalism, discrimination, power, intolerance, addiction, grief, guilt, and greed don’t exist. But inequality sparks like a match and ignorance won’t snuff it out. Look away from this truth, and we are engulfed in flames, clogged by smoke, and tarnished by soot—Omelas incarnate.
Elise Leise is an American essayist. She has contributed work to HuffPost, MinnPost, and several Southeast Asian technology publications.
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