Submitted as the final project for a “Prose Nonfiction” class on the theme “Traveling, Thinking, and Writing” at UC Berkeley on December 13th, 2013.
Protest marching is a sort of traveling with no real destination, at least in physical space. Winding sinuously through city streets, the point is to inhabit and occupy a place – and maybe cause a few traffic jams in the process. This is how Pittsburgh and I got to know one another.
The pretext: I joined activists from Pennsylvania and all over the U.S. to protest fracking – “hydraulic fracturing” — a new and certainly terrible method of extracting potent dead stuff from deep in the ground. It has a high potential for contaminating ground water, it produces a lot of toxic wastewater, and it makes us burn more methane gas that warms the climate. It’s catching on all across the Marcellus Shale (map attached) – in Pennsylvania, Ohio, an itty-bitty corner of Maryland. New York has issued a temporary moratorium on fracking, waiting cautiously to see what happens to the other guys first. Basically New Yorkers want to make sure their tap water won’t set on fire.
I am not a Pennsylvanian. I am from Maryland, but not the rural part, and I live in Berkeley, California now. Specifically, in North Berkeley. Specifically, in what is affectionately known as the “Gourmet Ghetto” – due to its high volume of tasty and “bougie” restaurants (which are all tantalizingly out of my price range). My shared house on Walnut Street is nestled somewhere between UC Berkeley’s Student Organic Garden and Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’ highly acclaimed, sustainable, and very expensive restaurant. I am a university student. My walk to school lasts about ten minutes, and as I go I get to listen to the squawks of the eccentric neighbor’s parrots, smell carnations and rosemary bushes, pop my head into the organic garden, maybe get a hot chocolate at Yali’s if the morning is brisk. The air that I breathe is generally clean and I don’t worry too much about walking home alone at night. My neighborhood gets street side compost pick-up, making it easy to divert waste from the landfill. Likewise, Berkeley is wonderfully walkable, and where I can’t walk, I can use my student bus pass to travel for free. My tree-hugging self is blessed with a bounty of urban nature: twice I have slept in the redwood grove off the fire trail in the hills, which is walking distance from campus, totally secluded, and only theoretically illegal – the cops would never know. While West Berkeley will bear the brunt of sea level rise in coming years; up the hill where I live, I don’t have to worry about that.
But recently, I left this world that begs to be referred to as a “bubble,” and traveled to Pittsburgh with some fellow Californians to join the climate justice movement at its bi-annual conference, Power Shift. The point of the trip was not to explore another city. I spent most of the weekend inside the convention center exchanging ideas with people from all over the U.S. This was sort of a virtual traveling adventure in itself – I heard activist stories from coalmines in Appalachia, tribal reservations in North Dakota, prisons in Florida, rooftops in Oakland. Within the walls of the Pittsburgh Convention Center, Power Shift created its own world. People from around the country gathered, every room filled with important conversations about fighting environmental racism, addressing classism, intersecting systems of oppression, effective organizing tactics, divestment as a tool for change, eco-feminism. We talked about taking the climate justice movement away from the bounds of traditional environmentalism, away from the whiteness and the privilege and the John Muir look (no offense to John Muir). It became clear that this was a justice movement at its core. But even with this push to change demographics and values, I heard a lot of criticism about the way Power Shift was run. A $50 attendance fee, not including food, housing, or travel, made the event inaccessible to many. An “Open Letter to Power Shift” pointed to the oppressiveness of non-profit culture within the Energy Action Coalition, Power Shift’s host. Not everyone got scholarships that should have. People were left out; there was an inevitable “us” and an inevitable “them.”
Embrace the irony, I kept telling myself. I told myself the same thing every time I passed the giant electricity-sucking Jumbotron blaring the words “Power Shift.”
Outside of the convention center virtual reality, the weekend was a romance with a new physical place, as traveling always is. After two days of workshops, speakers, and networking amongst ourselves, Power Shift and I took to the streets on Monday morning. As I followed the crowd, chanting “the people united will never be defeated!”, I also found my eyes wandering up buildings, absorbing their architecture – this is Gotham city after all. I watched people, peered into shop windows, smelled restaurant lunches, noticed city birds, read street signs, listened to the rhythms of traffic and October wind. Most importantly, I interacted with Pittsburgh’s People.
“Seriously? You’re here to protest fracking? Do you even fish? Our fish are fine. Go home to your parents and take a shower.” That older fisherman who stopped us was among many locals who did not appreciate our presence. It’s true that some of us had messy hair after a weekend of organizing in the convention center, and it’s true that we hadn’t fished in Pennsylvania’s rivers. I’d never been to an Alleghany County park. What was I doing here?
It’s easy to be an environmentalist, living in a place like North Berkeley, attending a progressive school like UC Berkeley, and living within a safety net of a privileged economic background. No matter how many times I complain about having no free time, due to my schedule of school, meetings, conference calls, events, and blogging, I still see it. I see that it’s easy. That my personal world has been an incubator for environmentalism and that’s what I’ve naturally grown into. A large part of me never wants to leave Berkeley. Despite the fact that I am technically a foreigner, I feel like I have nestled into the city and made it my home. I feel like I fit in. After growing up in a quiet, wealthy suburb of Washington, DC, I was ready to escape. My high school wanderlust pointed me toward Berkeley; it became my North Star, and my parents helped me make that happen. Now I have confidence that when I graduate with my degree in Forestry and my experience in environmental activism, I will be able to find a job that does not sacrifice my ideals – my living will never have to depend on the fossil fuel industry nor any other “dirty” industry. That is a privilege.
But even from my idyllic nook, it’s easy to notice that uncomfortably nearby things are not so dandy. Every time I travel north of the Bay, I can’t help but stare at the magnificent machinery of the Chevron refinery in Richmond. At night it has this spooky orange glow, making all the pipes and tanks and towers look almost otherworldly. And it is another world. Another reality I don’t have to face, except when my Amtrak scoots past without a stitch. Oil is the Bay Area’s biggest export. My friend Wendy lives in Richmond, and her mom has cancer. This is people’s lives. Ignoring that reality is not an option for me: I may have privileges, but that doesn’t mean the privilege to ignore.
I don’t know enough about Richmond and I’d like to learn more. I didn’t know too much about Pittsburgh, either, and I still don’t. Before I went, a couple of friends told me that they’d been and loved it, that “the people are so nice” and “it has really revitalized over the years.” Everyone mentioned the bridges, and sure enough, there were a lot of them. I wish I had been able to walk across them all. Not everyone was “so nice” to me, probably given the circumstances, but I did sense that Midwest charm that I wasn’t sure I’d find in Pennsylvania. Taxi drivers and diner servers seemed to smile more genuinely. One van driver went out of his way to help us out, gave us a cheaper fare because we were young and wearing backpacks. That made the New Yorker in the van angry, but it made us happy. Even if I was visiting Pittsburgh as an Activist with a Purpose, I was still a meandering, sensing, clumsy tourist. I was collecting impressions of a city I had never experienced and fumbling to make approximations of the place in just a few short days. I returned to my house on Walnut Street with stories, but mostly questions.
Some questions can be answered with good old-fashioned Internet research. Upon return, I wanted to know how Pittsburgh’s economy developed and what shape it is in now. So I read. I read op-eds and histories and economic reports. This informed me on some things that native Pittsburgh folks have always known without ever having to consult an online text. But in the digital age, we can travel anywhere we want with the click of a track pad.
Pittsburgh has long been known as a “blue collar town.” As the Pittsburgh Quarterly’s “A Very Brief History of Pittsburgh” describes, “Favorable geography, unique natural resources, and a super-abundance of entrepreneurial talent lifted Pittsburgh to a position of national and international prominence never seen before or since. Pittsburgh’s growth is a story of heavy industry, specifically steel.” The city grew big and strong with its abundance of steel and coal, two industries that supported one another for decades. Without coal, the steel industry would not have been able to flourish. Without steel, the city of Pittsburgh never would have become. Big industry and famous entrepreneurs like Andrew Carnegie built downtown into the Gotham-style skyscraper labyrinth that I spiraled into, picket sign in hand.
The 1940s brought an increased awareness of Pittsburgh’s degrading environment, as the Quarterly noted, “the sky was often black at 9.AM” due to industrial exhaust. And according to “Explore PA History,” a political push to improve air quality transitioned Pittsburgh away from its dependence on coal. By 1950, natural gas accounted for two thirds of Pittsburgh’s energy usage. When I was in town, the sky was clear at 9AM, because coal is out of the picture. Today they’re fracking for natural gas, the “cleaner” fuel. Now, they’ve got a new problem to face: radioactive fracking fluid. According to a recent Duke study, some western Pennsylvanian streams which feed into the water supply have become alarmingly radioactive – whether the fish have started showing signs, or not. This blue-collar town and its natural resources are locked in a dangerous dance that has lasted for centuries. The streets and skyscrapers of Gotham City have always sat atop the Marcellus Shale, and in the spirit of Andrew Carnegie, someone’s got to go at it when the time is ripe. And someone’s got to be there to try and stop ‘em. Cue the activists.
Over the weekend, ten of us from Berkeley stayed in the backyard of an urban farmhouse north of the Ohio River. The family had put their space on the Power Shift Couchsurfing list and welcomed us in with cranberry scones and hot showers for a modest $15 a night. None of us actually paid anything, because our scholarship money from UC Berkeley covered the cost. We traveled to and from the convention center by bus during the day and by taxi after our late nights at the one bar we kept going back to (the only bar that allowed our underage friends to enter). Each time we traveled between the farmhouse and downtown, we crossed the Ohio River. The view changed each time.
My boyfriend and I arrived in Pittsburgh later than most of our friends on Friday night, the opening night of Power Shift. By the time we met them at a bar downtown, it was 1AM and they had a story to tell. Apparently in their journey from the airport to the farmhouse, they transferred onto a bus going the wrong way. Once someone’s smart phone figured out the mistake, they got off and waited to head the other direction. “We were the only white people there, and everybody was looking at us weird,” Victoria explained to me and Steve. Police were circling the streets and stopped to talk to them. “What are you doing here?” “We’re waiting for the bus,” Victoria responded. “No: what are you DOING here?” Zen explained that they were in town for a conference and were trying to get to where they were staying. “This is the most dangerous neighborhood in Pittsburgh for drug trafficking and gun violence. I suggest you get out of here.” The policeman drove off. The flustered college kids with no drugs in their pockets got on the next bus and made it safely to the farmhouse, which turned out not to be all that far. Clearly we were foreigners in a strange land.
Police in front, police in back, Pittsburgh’s working class on both sides. We the protesters marching through. I looked behind to see the damage. We were clogging the concrete arteries of downtown Pittsburgh – for a cause. For a purpose. We wanted to be seen. As I crossed the Ohio River on foot for the first time in my life, I hoped that maybe my shouting and marching would help keep the Ohio River clean for the people of Pittsburgh just like I wanted the Sacramento clean for Californians, just like I wanted the Potomac clean for Marylanders, and all the streams and watersheds in between. That cliché of a motive, general and abstract as it sounds, has its roots in those childhood summers I spent swimming in the Potomac to keep cool and the wondrous occasions when I found crawfish scuttling along the bottom. I couldn’t say for sure that other girls like me who grew up in Pittsburgh had experiences like that, but I imagined that some did.
Besides keeping waterways clean, there was climate change to think about. We may spew greenhouse gases locally but climate change spews back disasters globally. Anyone can list them – typhoons, fires, draughts, floods. The nature of the beast demands action beyond the local. That’s why I left California to fight someone else’s fight. Because it was my fight, too; at least I believed it was. That genuine motive gave me a ground to stand on, a ground that we all stood on together. So I marched.
Pittsburgh unfolded to me in particular ways because I was marching. I received annoyed, curious, supportive, and resentful looks from business people and drivers on the streets that my outsider body was helping fill. I had never walked these streets before and now I was helping block them. The more bystanders I passed on the street, the more I felt I had to break off from my homogenous horde and interact, to break the dichotomy between us and them, because if not, what was I doing? So I diverged to talk to a group of bystanders in dark suits outside a tall office building. “Do you know what this is about?” A few offered cynical nods, while the other few just stared. I went ahead anyway: “We’re all here in solidarity with Alleghany County residents who don’t want fracking in their county parks.” They nodded and stared some more. I felt uncomfortable and awkward so I hopped back in the street with my environmentalist friends, where I belonged. I didn’t know anything about those business people but I knew plenty about the people I was marching with, so I opted for the familiar. All those conversations we had inside the convention center about reaching across boundaries and breaking dichotomies disappeared in the blink of an eye. I should have talked longer; I chickened out. Or maybe my old habits just die slow.
Our trajectory took us from Alleghany Landing on the north side of the river, across the 6th Street Bridge, through downtown to City Hall. Pittsburgh was sparkling in the warm October sunshine. I was standing up for what I believed. It didn’t matter where we were going, as long as we were seen. As long as we were seeing. Soon I saw the counter-protest, floating in the middle of the Ohio River: mounds of real coal with a big sign that said, “SUPPORT AMERICAN ENERGY, SUPPORT AMERICAN JOBS.” Crossing the bridge meant walking past several old men defending their industry, the coal industry. I was wearing my new turquoise Power Shift shirt. I kept walking toward downtown and avoided eye contact. Did they know I was protesting the system, not them as people?
Sometime later, after already chanting, “Hey Fitzgerald, we don’t want our parks in peril!” I turned to an elderly woman marching with two hiking poles. “Who’s Fitzgerald?” She explained that while Pennsylvania does not allow fracking on state lands, the Alleghany County Executive, Rich Fitzgerald, has opened up some county parks to be fracked. When I told her I came from California, she was amazed. I explained that politicians in California are starting to open up some of our public lands to fracking, and that I thought our fights – in her state and in mine – formed part of one larger fight. “Thank you so much for joining us – we’ve never been able to have such a large protest before.” Her gratitude warmed me up from the cold looks and snide remarks I had received from others. She reminded me why I was there and what ground I had to stand on. It was enough to keep me going. What separated her from the people who hated our guts? I’m not sure. I wish I had asked her out to coffee to chat after the march.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be an environmentalist and I’ve wanted to save the world. But the more growing up I do, the more I realize something surprisingly hard to grasp: the world is made up of places. I am from a place, I live in a place, and I travel to places. Places have situated realities, histories, that have evolved like biological species over millennia. And to go in and take a stand, that is complicated. The mantra of “ask the community what it needs and wants” is not a panacea – subconscious notions and agendas interrupt the purest intentions, or lack thereof. I think sometimes I travel just to confront myself and my landscapes of contradictions head-on. Sometimes I travel just to travel and the confrontations happen anyway.
I probably know my ground in Berkeley far better than I know any other ground, even more than the place where I grew up. I think I started to learn what it means to truly inhabit a place when I came to Berkeley. My relationship with the place where I live isn’t perfect, but it’s a relationship four years old, and that’s something. Lately I’ve spent a lot of time walking Berkeley. This is a very pleasurable thing to do, and important. One such walk brought me along Strawberry Creek’s path from the fire trail to the marina, east to west. Other walks have taken me crisscrossing the city from north to south on various streets… Milvia, Acton, 5th. On my walks I get snippets and vibes of the city; it’s an act of collecting, an act of dwelling. Burrito joints and bus riders and squirrels and lightbulb manufacturers and pickle shops and weird smells and the sound of the Amtrak chugging by; the place comes to life this way. How much could I learn and understand about Pittsburgh after just one weekend, and maybe some supplementary Google searching? Not much. But what sort of environmentalist never leaves her bubble of free compost pick-up, clean air, fresh produce, drinkable tap water, and like-minded comrades to organize with? Not a very realistic one.
One of my first memories I have of myself “displaying environmentalist tendencies” was when, at around age eight, I frantically tried to toss all the beached jellyfish I could find back into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Delaware. I thought I could save them. Maybe they had already died but it didn’t matter; I had a mission, a clear vision. Saving the world has gotten a little more complicated since then.
“Whose parks? OUR parks! Which parks? ALL of them!” At first I felt funny yelling those words, as if I was bending the truth a little bit, faking something. This weekend for me was wrought with contradictions, ones important for me to face as an activist and a traveler. Maybe I did have ground to stand on, albeit slippery. I marched on the ground that there were people in Pittsburgh asking for our help and that we were all collectively fighting for communities against corporations. But that abstract ground I kept pushing against didn’t necessarily connect to the physical ground below me – I was standing directly atop the Marcellus Shale. That has implications, unfamiliar to me.
Bloomberg published an article in 2012 called “Pittsburgh Rebound Sparked by Spurned Gas Frackers.” In it, Romy Varghese asserts that “fracking operations in the countryside nearby [Pittsburgh] have helped bring in jobs and boost demand for office space in Pennsylvania’s second biggest city.” How many of the people I interacted with on the streets in business suits had livelihoods invested in this “revitalization”? The Bloomberg article cites Wells Fargo economists calling Pittsburgh a “logistical hub” for the fracking industry, and that there is a projected 14% growth rate in Pennsylvania jobs tied to gas. Varghese goes on to say that the city now emphasizes schools and hospitals as it moves away from the steel industry, and natural gas extraction is a “future key” in that transition.
It’s important to note that the per capita GDP in Alleghany County is $29,549 and in Berkeley’s Alameda County it is $34, 937. For the city of Pittsburgh, it’s $25,619 and for the city of Berkeley, it’s $36,498 (US Census). While numbers are no substitute for firsthand experience, broad brushstrokes can convey some reality.
And now I see how I looked. Many people, especially Pittsburgh’s student activists, warmly welcomed the presence of so many outsiders joining them in standing up against one of the scariest industries out there. But many locals must have seen me as a privileged and misguided Berkeley girl trying to stop their city from growing prosperous enough to create good hospitals and schools. Maybe this was inevitable – given the circumstances. I know one thing: I’m not going to stop putting myself in these “awkward” situations. Something tells me they are the most important.
Protest marching is a sort of traveling with no real destination. It wasn’t about getting to City Hall. It wasn’t about knowing the answer and proving it to some abstract general public, either. Like our sinuous route through downtown, my personal sense of place and purpose was a winding and ever changing conversation. “There are 446 bridges in Pittsburgh,” explained our final taxi driver who dropped us off at the bus stop before we got out of town. What to make of that?
Dietrich, William. “A very brief history of Bittsburgh.” Pittsburgh Quarterly. Fall 2008. http://www.pittsburghquarterly.com/index.php/Region/a-very-brief-history-of-pittsburgh.html
U.S. Census on Pittsburgh, Berkeley. http://www.census.gov
Reed, Gregory. “Pittsburgh’s Energy Partnerships.” Energy Biz. April 2013. http://www.energybiz.com/magazine/article/303965/pittsburgh-s-energy-partnerships
“A Perspective on Working for the Energy Action Coalition.” 25 October 2013. http://pshiftopenletters.wordpress.com