Anarchy 84/Notes on poverty 3: Kropotkin House, Duluth

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Notes on poverty

3: Kropotkin House, Duluth


I remember that monday night when first I stum­bled up the grey, over­sized steps of the old house. (Contro­versy was fresh and flag­rant: it was not long after we had distri­buted over a thou­sand copies of a broad­side—entitled “Blast!”—through­out the city of Duluth on May Day of last year; because of the confu­sion and excite­ment, I was invited into the Univer­sity and several high schools to speak on Anar­chism.) I had rented the house from Slum­lord Over­man without even seeing it. It was the cheap­est ghetto-dwel­ling he had avail­able. It was dirty, dis­inte­gra­ting, Victorian, red-brown brick buil­ding; it leaned unas­sum­ingly on another buil­ding which was exactly like it (which in turn unas­sum­ingly leaned on another just like it: the three gave the impres­sion of being one huge rock mound.)
  When I tried the key, it jammed in the lock and I cursed quite assum­ingly. On the side­walk below, a small child in a blue dress was prat­tling in French-Canadian and an old man with one leg (known locally as “the Polish Fascist”) was surrounded by three barking, leaping dogs. Finally, I opened the door and bundled my few pieces of furniture and baggage into the house. The smell was pier­cing and pungent: cheap paint, rotting wood, and broken toilet. I felt lonely, appre­hen­sive, tired, and stunned.

  A weird, unver­balized, and dis­torted collage leaped through my mind: I thought of the Diggers in San Francisco (I had been there in Febru­ary when the police tried to destroy them); I thought of Dorothy Day’s Chrystie Street House of Hospi­tal­ity in New York and her farm at Tivoli (I had been there in the bitter weeks of early Janu­ary and the Christ­mas season); I thought of Emmaus House and Ammon Hennacy’s Joe Hill House; and I thought of a sug­ges­tion by Herbert Read: “The General Strike of the future must be orga­nized as a strike of the com­mun­ity against the State. The result of that strike will not be in doubt. The State is just as vulner­able as a human being, and can be killed by the cutting of a single artery. But the event must be catas­tro­phic. Tyrrany, whether of a person or a class, can never be des­troyed in any other way.” I sighed. I opened a window and, without further ritual, named the house: Peter Kropot­kin House of Hospi­tal­ity.

  Since the early part of April, when I had returned to Duluth from the West, I had dis­cussed with friends and acti­vists the idea of someone opening a house in Central Hill­side, the ghetto of Duluth, and using it as a place to inject a liber­tar­ian per­spec­tive of social prob­lems into the area (I was parti­cu­larly enthu­sias­tic about Herbert Read’s con­cep­tion). Now, it seemed, my desire was to be actua­lized (because I had sud­denly decided to actua­lize it myself). I had taken a job as a laun­dry­man at a local hos­pital in order to provide a finan­cial basis; and, without further promise of aid or assis­tance, pro­ceeded to open the house.

  During the first week of my resi­dency, the nights were spent in cleaning the house. Gary Moland, a paci­fist friend, swept and mopped the floors. Kelene Koval (an Anar­chist), Bob Pokor­ney, and Jim McCaf­frey exuber­antly scrubbed the walls and cei­lings. Neigh­bours, timidly at first, but with growing confi­dence, pro­vided mutual aid (even “the Polish Fascist”). Propa­ganda was not needed; their curi­osity (and their lone­li­ness) brought them. A great crowd of stu­dents (most of whom had heard me speak on Anar­chism at their res­pec­tive schools) came, bare­footed and wearing cut-offs, eager to talk and work but mostly to talk (about God mostly and the State—and some­times Capi­tal­ism). I pro­voked one young fellow into reading Kropot­kin’s Memoirs of a Revo­lu­tion­ist; and a Univer­sity student read Maximoff’s anthology of Bakunin’s writings.

  Most of the old people who came from the neigh­bour­hood to work at the house were ex­treme­ly aggra­vated by the young people. One wrin­kled woman, an alco­holic, told me that she was afraid of a Red Guard riot. I told her that she had no reason to worry: the stu­dents are quite conven­tion­al and mostly middle-class; they would be more
likely to riot for Hubert Humphrey than for Mao. In either case (said I) it would be defi­nitely reac­tion­ary. (I was perhaps too brutal; many young minds were just awa­kening to a com­mit­ment against segre­gation and the war in Viet­nam.) The poor woman said she couldn’t under­stand and deci­ded to go out and get some­thing to drink.

  By this time, about half a dozen people were staying more or less regu­larly at the house. Someone had given us a bed; someone had given us a sleeping-cot. We began to make prepar­ations for a series of “gatherings” in Cascade Park (on the edge of the ghetto).

  I do not wish to give the impres­sion that life at Kropot­kin House was all gentle, beau­ti­ful, sensi­tive, serene, and un­ruf­fled. I had to stay up all night once with a raving “druggie” who couldn’t find enough money to pay for his parti­cu­lar escape. All that this friend­less creature of para­noia wanted was to find someone who would talk with him. (I actu­ally fell asleep on my feet in the laundry the next day; but, ever since, I have had little pa­tience for crude Calvin­ists who call for more laws and stric­ter punish­ment against drug-addicts.)

  About a month after the house was opened, Kai Johnson, an Anarchist and pacifist, brought some paints and pro­ceeded to paint murals on the walls of two of the up­stairs rooms. I painted the door of my room black with bril­liant red panels. The Bene­dic­tine Sisters of the Sacred Heart (a local convent in the ghetto) disco­vered the house and, even though they did not approve of me, were quite im­pressed with the idea and donated two desks, seven chairs, an old French writing-table and a Bible. Nina Garber, an Anar­chist, baked bread for the always hungry people of the house; and, one night, Esme Evans, a folk-singer of some renown in the Upper Midwest, arrived with a massive meal of beef stroganoff, salads, and wine (by this time, and until its closing, there were usually over fifty people in the house every night). Many of us became sick from the good food.

  A few days after our “gather­ing” on July 19 in Cascade Park in honour of the Anar­chists in Spanish prisons, a <span data-html="true" class="plainlinks" title="Wikipedia: Mexican-Ameri­can">Mexican-Ameri­can homo­sexual, a <span data-html="true" class="plainlinks" title="Wikipedia: manic-depres­sive">manic-depres­sive of sorts, decided he wanted to commit suicide in the house; al­though the attempt failed, there was still a con­sider­able amount of chaos, con­fusion, and angry people.

  Some of the teenage boys in the neigh­bour­hood saw Kai pain­ting one day and they pa­tient­ly waited until no one was in the house and then climbed through the second-storey window (even though the door was always open, they always showed a prefer­ence to enter through the second-storey window) and painted a hideous mural that covered all of the walls and ceiling of the “Mrs. Murphy”. They were quite proud of their work. Their own parents objec­ted. The boys were confi­dent; they merely quoted one of the regu­la­tions of Kropot­kin House: “This house is dedi­cated to pro­vi­ding the pos­sibi­lity for anyone to ini­tiate creative activity.”

  One night, a pros­ti­tute was beaten bloody and thrown out of a moving car in front of the house. She refused to go to the hos­pital; she wanted to stay at the house until her wounds were healed: she stayed at the house until her wounds were healed: she stayed until the house
was closed. Several people of the house were con­tinu­ally de­noun­cing her as a thief; she would quietly respond: “It will all come out in the end.” Last week, the police found her bloodied body. She had been mauled and aban­doned in a gutter again.

  The hippies came in pro­ces­sion one evening and pre­sented me with great bunches of red roses and lilacs and named me: “the Digger”.

  When I finally lost my job (I was most impru­dent: they caught me dis­semi­nating infor­mation about workers’ control and the war in Viet­nam) and we needed money for the house, we sent an appeal for support to over 500 people (human­ists, as it were) in the area. I quote from it to give some idea of the simple and basic prin­ci­ples we tried to acti­vate:

  “Central Hill­side, Duluth, Minne­sota, is a com­muni­ty facing enor­mous human prob­lems: poor housing and high rents, social and emo­tion­al iso­lation and anguish, insuf­fi­cient income and infla­ting prices, deteri­ora­ting family life, vio­lence, lone­li­ness, frag­mented edu­ca­tional and cultural at­tempts, and racial in­jus­tice. Central Hill­side is a symbol of urban man’s suf­fer­ing and des­pera­tion—and of his hopes.

  “Now the ter­rify­ing paradox of the whole thing is this: Central Hill­side, and every person in it, is a living con­dem­na­tion and exhor­ta­tion of the city of Duluth. For it is here, in Central Hill­side, that we find a new situ­ation of urban man, with its envi­ron­ment of iso­la­tion and dehu­mani­za­tion, which is begin­ning to shape the desire for new struc­tures, new pat­terns, new forms of renewed and acti­vized life. There is talk now of ‘turning Central Hill­side inside out’, of a burst of new energy and life as the commu­nity dis­co­vers ideas and forms that are rele­vant to the vast shapes of need and strength, of hope and despair. Both the world of Central Hill­side and the power of love and joy are forcing the city of Duluth to face the need for radical and creative renewal and refor­ma­tion. Peter Kropot­kin House of Hos­pita­lity is a sign of new shapes and values in the commu­nity of Central Hill­side and in the city of Duluth.

  “Peter Kropot­kin House of Hos­pita­lity is a gather­ing place for those people who are con­cerned about the prob­lems of Central Hill­side and desire to contri­bute to its social and emo­tion­al growth and refor­ma­tion. The house is named in honour of Peter Kropot­kin, the great writer and acti­vist of the anar­chist move­ment, who taught the neces­sity of per­sona­lized and func­tion­al commu­ni­ties as means of enjoy­ing life and resis­ting blatant tota­litari­anism (as in China and the Soviet Union) and creep­ing cen­trali­za­tion (as in England and the United States). We are a group of neigh­bours and friends who seek to be avail­able in their commu­nity day after day, day in and day out. Our gather­ing of friends and neigh­bours is flex­ible, plura­lis­tic, ad hoc, and dis­pen­sable. We do not desire to estab­lish the same old forma­lized struc­tures and pro­grammes. We do not re­ceive money from any insti­tu­tion. We do not re­ceive money from the Govern­ment. We do not re­ceive money from any cor­pora­tion. We believe that the people of Central Hill­side must solve their own prob­lems through direct action.

  “Peter Kropot­kin House of Hos­pita­lity is always open and ready to welcome anyone. It is a place where indi­vidu­als and fami­lies in need
come to stay for a while; it is a place where persons inter­ested in this kind of action may come and see and talk for a time. Here, the muti­lated, the addic­ted, and the healthy, the afflu­ent and the poor, black, red, and white, un­poli­ti­cal and radical come to­gether and realize that they must link them­selves in mutual aid, and to­gether in friend­ship seek out a pattern of living which is more just, more cre­ative, more per­sona­lis­tic, and more rea­lis­tic for our commu­nity of Central Hill­side in the modern world.”

  One young girl (who, like other black people I have met in the ghetto, was pas­sion­ately com­mit­ted to working for human rights and equally con­vinced that Ameri­can troops should be with­drawn from Vietnam imme­di­ately) spent two hours one after­noon trying to per­suade me that I should orga­nize riots in Duluth during the summer; she did not succeed.

  In the latter part of July and the begin­ning of August, I was in Canada and Min­nea­polis to fulfil several spea­king engage­ments. When I got back to Duluth, there were rumours of im­pen­ding riots. (Duluth is the only city in the Midwest that allows “the Job Corps boys”—who mostly repre­sent the minor­ity races—to enter and walk upon its sacred ground.) The SNCC agi­ta­tors were agi­ta­ting the riots, said the rumours. Bilge water, said I. A meeting was called of all “Humani­tari­ans” to discuss what should be done. At the meeting, I ex­pressed doubt that there had been any agi­ta­tion (not that I wouldn’t put it past SNCC, which has a rather per­verse view of revo­lu­tion: there just weren’t any SNCC agi­ta­tors; and the black people in the ghetto, al­though angry, were orga­ni­zing for pos­sibi­lity and not futi­lity. The Revo­lu­tion is the Revo­lu­tion: It is the at­tempt to use mutual aid insti­tu­tions, labour syn­di­cates, and revo­lu­tion­ary co-opera­tives to create a new society while de­stroy­ing the old; it is not an ado­les­cent spree for loot and booty that places the res­pon­sibi­lity for the reor­gani­za­tion of society on the greasy finger-tips of the leaders—whether they be poli­ti­cians of “black power” or poli­ti­cians of “great society”). They were a little late (said I) in worry­ing about the black people now; they could have done some­thing con­struc­tive and fra­ter­nal about the segre­ga­tion situ­ation before the summer, but now—basically—they were only worried about the threat to their “private property”. I said that it would be bar­bar­ous to call out the mili­tary. Someone de­nounced me as an ob­struc­tion­ist. She wanted a “firm” policy. I have since won­dered whether she was disap­poin­ted: there weren’t any riots in Duluth during the summer. Later, however, there was a new rumour: “the Anar­chists were the ones who had agi­ta­ted for a riot”.

  Kropot­kin House was closed in Sep­tem­ber. We had gone into a con­sider­able amount of debt (our appeal failed: the Chamber of Com­merce had for­mally and unin­vi­tedly opposed us; we were not worthy of aid), we had no support (moral or other­wise) from other Anar­chists in America, and there were dif­ficul­ties (sani­ta­tion, sedi­tion, etc.) with the Depart­ment of Water, Gas, and Sewage Treat­ment—and other govern­mental bureaus. Our accom­plish­ments are rather intan­gible (all that I could defi­nite­ly des­cribe would be some small assis­tance in the cam­paign
of the resi­dents of the ghetto to resist City Hall by buil­ding an illegal play­ground for their chil­dren). Our fail­ures are many: lack of under­stan­ding, lack of soli­dar­ity, lack of propa­ganda (there are still a few people that refer to Kropot­kin House as “the Com­mu­nist Whore­house”), lack of endur­ance, etc., etc. I am con­vinced, however, that there is a defi­nite need and a neces­sity for Anar­chists in America to deve­lop similar or con­tras­ting (and, hope­fully, better orga­nized and more cohe­sive) “pro­grammes of thought­ful action” (rent strikes, etc.) in the ghetto and twi­light areas of this conti­nent (espe­cial­ly making use of the com­muni­ty-con­cepts of Kropot­kin, Mala­testa, and Alex­ander Berkman); these seeds of com­mu­nity could act as a means of provi­ding hope and presen­ting the pos­sibi­lity of direct action to “the people of anguish”. They could also present the pos­sibi­lity of a sub­stan­tial, posi­tive alter­na­tive (Anar­chism) to the horrors of Capi­tal­ism and the ponder­ous, un­work­able bureau­cracy of “the Great Society” (i.e., the Government). It is Capi­tal­ism and the State that vic­ti­mize the mili­tant and awa­ken­ing under­classes in Ameri­can life today—and they know it.