Donald Strauss, Urban Sustainability Activist
In July 2016, I had the opportunity to talk with Donald Strauss, writer and founder of the Master’s of Arts in Urban Sustainability program at Antioch University Los Angeles. Don is also an urban cyclist who wrote a dissertation–he calls it a memoir manifesto–on how cycling culture has changed Los Angeles. He is an urban sustainability writer of creative nonfiction whose work stems from a deep understanding and critique of traditional nature writing. Don has much to say about the many forms of environmental injustice that affect marginalized communities and is passionate about how to create sustainability movements that make cities sustainable for all people, not just the privileged few.
His willingness to participate in wherever our dialogue took us made him an engaging interviewee: generous with his answers and able to return to the point after passionate digressions. He spoke enthusiastically about what he calls “the problems and possibilities of cities” from the Los Angeles River to the ritualistic 1000-person night bike rides in LA.
Meredith Arena: I want to ask you about the urban sustainability program and your efforts to connect it with the MFA in Creative Writing program here at Antioch University Los Angeles.
Donald Strauss: For the purposes of full disclosure, I want to give [MFA Program Director] Steve Heller the credit. He is the one who came up with the idea of the dual degree. He came into my office and said, “Hey I have an idea!” And I jumped at it. I thought, this makes sense for many reasons. The origins of the program relate directly to what you referred to [before the interview] as the fetishization of sustainability. My background is not only in creative writing, but also in environmental studies. One of the things that I have been most troubled by comes from the American environmental tradition, which starts back with Thoreau and the Transcendentalists and goes through Muir and those people who were referred to as American nature writers, where there was a tremendous amount of racism, overt racism, that emerged. Obviously racism was not the central preoccupation, but it was an unfortunate byproduct of this movement, which was primarily put forward by white males.
…if the city isn’t a habitable pace to live for everybody, then it is probably not sustainable.
Moving forward into the sustainability movement, if you look at the UN’s Brundtland Report that came out in 1983, which was titled “Our Common Future,” it addresses a number of social and environmental equity issues. But [the report] essentially became a document, like so many other things, like The Wealth of Nations and Marx’s Capital, cherry-picked by people who saw particular advantages in particular arguments that the document made. It became an argument for what has become known as sustainable development. It has become a document that serves the larger neo-liberal cause. In cities—where probably by the end of the century more than eighty percent of the world’s population will be living—there is a giant influx of energy and material, generally extracted from other ecosystems, brought into the urban ecosystem, and then distributed inequitably. Those are the issues I wanted to address. If you are going to call a place sustainable, like a forest ecosystem left to its own devices is self-sustaining, what would be the argument for cities not being [sustainable]? There is this whole idea of bio-mimicry, the idea that human beings can behave in a way that emulates natural undisturbed ecosystems. Cities are probably the best place to get started on that project, because that is where we live. In thinking about what makes a city sustainable, for me it has always been—and this is probably some schooling I got in the American nature writing movement and environmental justice movement, which happened in the nineties—if the city isn’t a habitable pace to live for everybody, then it is probably not sustainable. We imposed a human rights frame on the idea of sustainability and are making this argument that if everybody’s human rights aren’t being attended to, then it is not really sustainable.
MA: I like that you begin right there with people. I live in Seattle where the “sustainability” movement is very big and it is great to live in a city where I can compost, etc., but there is also a sense of disconnection. We are using this environmental movement to gentrify the city and exclude poor people and creating systems that attract people from high-income brackets. The city is changing on that foundation. It seems like it should be obvious about the word sustainability. Is it sustainable if people cannot afford to live there?
DS: Not obvious to everybody.
MA: When you spoke on the panel at the MFA residency in June, you mentioned an essay by Rebecca Solnit about Thoreau. She wrote, “Conventional environmental writing has often maintained a strict silence on or even an animosity toward the city, despite its importance as a lower-impact place for the majority to live, its intricate relations to the rural, and the direct routes between the two.”
DS: The way I see it, the background of that thinking is from an essay from William Cronon called The Trouble With Wilderness, for which he was deeply reviled by any number of people from the American nature writing tradition, because of this mass misinterpretation that he was devaluing wilderness. What he was really doing was cautioning us to consider the way that we think about wilderness and what the effect of that thinking is on the places where we live. First of all, he problematizes the notion of wilderness by taking you through a timeline starting with the early Christian traditions through the nineteenth century. Wilderness was a horrible place. It was where the devil lived, it was where savages lived. It was really reviled.
In fact, in our Antiochian tradition, when Horace Mann was originally given the job as president of Antioch College, all his friends in Massachusetts said, “Oh my God, you can’t move out there to the West,” which is what they considered Ohio, “’cause that place is a wasteland. There is nothing but dangerous forests and savages out there.” This was even as late as 1852, also the time that writers began to romanticize wilderness. Thoreau was one of those. That may be true in part, but it is more complicated than that, I think he was also terrified by wilderness, which in some way is more human. Being on top of a mountain when there is a lightning storm is a terrifying thing.
People who can afford to take off and leave their jobs and families, or elect not to have jobs or families, can go off and spend unlimited amounts of time in the wilderness. Or they can pay huge amounts of money to climb Mt. Everest. It has become this place that has been given special status in most people’s minds, which unconsciously or maybe automatically argues: We live in these cities, but they’re just trash heaps. It is okay for us to build crappy buildings and redline and do all these things, these misbehaviors that we have traditionally done in the cities, because if you are privileged, you can escape. If you are the Vanderbilts or the Rockefellers, you can have a big complex in the Adirondacks and you don’t have to worry about the challenges of living in New York City or wherever. That is the big problem that American nature writing tradition produced and annunciated and one that we have to get away from.
MA: I want to talk about gentrification. The city has been reviled, but we are in a rebirth of cities because white people want to live in them again. I grew up in New York City in the seventies and eighties, when New York was down-and-out, and now my city is a totally different place where everyone wants to live. This is happening in many other cities. In my early twenties, I lived in the Lower East Side, and when I think about sustainability and humans, I think about the community gardens that were maintained by Puerto Rican and Dominicans; I think about old Polish ladies sitting on crates and talking late into the night. Street life. And we watched as these gardens were destroyed, literally destroyed, and then we watched the same thing happen in Brooklyn. I am wondering what kind of projects you see around sustainability, specifically in LA, that do not gentrify or colonize or take space away from people.
We imposed a human rights frame on the idea of sustainability and are making this argument that if everybody’s human rights aren’t being attended to, then it is not really sustainable.
DS: Just a little sidetrack, there is a woman by the name of Elly Blue. She is a blogger in Portland who blogs about bikes and wrote a book called Bikenomics. A lot of people got very excited about it and people were having seminars around Bikenomics. There was a big argument for bike infrastructure in cities and at some point, Elly Blue said to another colleague of mine, who has written about bike culture in LA, that she discovered that she had basically written a handbook for gentrification. That is a really important issue. With colleagues of mine in the Urban Sustainability program, we have been doing a lot of work on displacement. The term gentrification is a polite pejorative for what we (people who see themselves as progressives) in urban places oppose as a phenomenon. But it is the outcome of gentrification that we most object to, which is displacement. Even in a giant place like Los Angeles, what you are doing is pushing people out and farther into the margins. We have a huge population here that can’t afford even to take public transportation, so they ride bikes and the farther you push that population out past the place where they have potential employment or are employed, the worse you make their circumstances, the more impossible you make it for them to even have employment. I think that the big push-pull is in land use.
There are a couple of land trusts in Los Angeles. There is an organization called T.R.U.S.T. South LA and one of their main goals has been to set up land trusts that are specifically devoted to housing. The point is to take things off the speculative real-estate market because it is one of the only ways of preserving property for peoples who are at an economic disadvantage. If we don’t regulate that, if we don’t address these things and put them into the general plans of cities, then gentrification is an inevitability. And it is just wrong. It’s insane to make a city a place where nobody who is in the work force can afford to live. It makes no sense whatsoever. It’s a formulation that needs to break at some point.
Look at a place like San Francisco, the ultimate irony: a lot of the people who live there and have driven the housing prices up don’t even work in the city. They take the Google bus up to Mountain View or wherever they are going and the Google bus is using—without paying any kind of tax that I know of—the bus stops. The housing prices have been driven up and there are incremental tax increases and high valuation of property. If you think about it, now the people who live there don’t work there and the people who work there don’t live there. That makes no sense at all. I don’t see any way around regulating that, addressing that problem by virtue of policies. This whole idea of affordable housing is a joke because two people with a combined income of $200,000 can qualify for it. [Often] you can have two people who are making as little as 40k combined. There is an absence of living wages or protections for people who already live in a neighborhood, [coupled with] the unregulated cost of market-rate housing. There is a problem with saying that you can’t build parks, you can’t build bike infrastructure, and other great things because it is going to gentrify the neighborhoods. Essentially that says that wherever you have poor people, that you can’t have nice stuff. They can’t have nice neighborhoods. They can’t have safe streets, which is also insane. I am not an urban planner, so I don’t know the intricacies, but I certainly understand it well enough to know that it is going to be a battleground. It is a battle that has to be waged. There is going to have to be an urban housing policy that protects people from displacement.
MA: Can you think of some writers, ones you work with in the program or other writers you admire, who are moving this cause along?
DS: If I scan that literature, I don’t think there are a lot of people that would fit in the creative nonfiction genre of the MFA program. That really is the intent of the dual degree, to foster those writers. To get writers who are really interested in communicating, not just effectively but beautifully as well, about the problems and the possibilities of cities.
That’s the thing, I don’t want to make it seem like I, or this movement, is only focused on problems. It certainly could be because there are enough problems to go around and not enough people to address them. But it is really important to consider possibilities. There are huge strides being made in addressing housing problems for the chronically homeless, at least in Los Angeles. There is this whole phenomenon of supportive housing that is starting to show some real success in terms of taking people off the street. But not just throwing them into a house without support, it is actually putting people into housing where there are social services, mental health care services, general services, job services. It sounds strange, but that is revolutionary. That is something that has only been going on for a shockingly short period of time.
MA: Your dissertation, Ridazz, Wrenches, & Wonks: A Revolution on Two Wheels Rolls Into Los Angeles, is a really good read, not just a bland presentation of research. You are in the research. You talk about memoir and manifesto as method. You are an observer and a participant. So I see the dual nature of these educational programs begin able to unfold with something like this. Can you talk about how you might guide students to put themselves in their research?
DS: Sure. I do want to jump back and do a shout out to a couple of people who have been huge influences in my writing. Rebecca Solnit is one of those people who is a place-based writer, who gets it, who is doing extremely imaginative things. Her Atlas Trilogy, which began in San Francisco and has extended to New Orleans and New York, is genius. Jenny Price, who has written extensively about the Los Angeles River. Her essay, “Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in LA,” is one of my favorite pieces of writing. And her book, which was actually her dissertation, called Flight Maps, also is an amazing example. I encountered her when I was in the MFA program, and then her mentor, William Cronon, who wrote The Trouble With Wilderness. He was her chair at Yale when she was an environmental history doctoral candidate there.
One of the many unique things about the Doctoral program at Antioch New England [that Strauss completed], is that it actively fostered and encouraged writing in the first person regardless of how hard the science was. It’s an interdisciplinary program, so there were people who were writing environmental history dissertations, which mine is close to, but not quite.
Look at a place like San Francisco, the ultimate irony… If you think about it, now the people who live there don’t work there and the people who work there don’t live there. That makes no sense at all.
There were people in conservation biology, environmental education, environmental policy, but all of us were encouraged to move away from the third-person disconnected narrator, passive voice, academic writing tradition. For me, it was a way of humanizing. I took the bait and ran with it as hard as I could. I bumped up against my committee, except for Jenny Price, who was on my committee, because I think they thought that I took it too far. But once they settled on the idea that I was not going to violate this “memoir and manifesto’” idea just for the purposes of doing some traditional method, they got comfortable with it and they let me go. I know other fine writers who have gone through that program. We have our first two students in the dual degree and they’re doing exactly what Steve and I hoped they would do. One of our first courses is called Urban Sustainability, and that’s a course in which we ground students in a lot of earth-systems science. You can’t speak authentically about a lot of these problems unless you really understand the sources of them. For a lot of us, what comes easy is what we can observe on the ground in terms of injustice and inequity, and the harder issues are the ones happening in the atmosphere that are actually having effects on the people on the ground, particularly in communities of color and people who are suffering severe economic challenges. That was my experience. My experience was I was a writer first and then I became this quote-unquote scholar. It was the writing that inspired me to articulate the things that I discovered through the scholarship in ways that weren’t necessarily always the expected ways that scholars were supposed to be working.
That’s the opportunity with the dual degree and we are starting to see that. Our first students are actually going though the program a bit backwards. The original intent is that you would start in Urban Sustainability and complete the program in the MFA program, which I think is a super powerful way to do it because the students will be propelled by all the content that they encounter in the first year and a half of our program and then go into a solid writing process. I mentor all the dual degree students, so I can start that process with the ones who come from the MFA program first and I am really interested in what the students are going to do when they go back for their final semester in their MFA. So we now have two students who have done two semesters of MFA and they will do three semesters with Urban Sustainability and they will have plenty of opportunity to continue to deploy and hone writing skills with us, and then go back and hopefully produce a really powerful final manuscript in MFA. It is going to be exciting to foster their interest in both writing and sustainability and then propel them into the MFA environment where I am sure they will do very powerful work.
MA: You mention LA historian, D.J. Waldie, and his creative use of narrative technique in telling history. What kind of experiments in form do you see happening with sustainability writing? What potential do you see?
DS: Waldie is unique. His book, Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir, is about 120 pages and divided into 300 and some-odd chapters. There are all these beautiful little bites, about this completely mundane and ordinary thing—the development of the City of Lakewood in the post war era. It’s a housing track with a lot of identical houses in it, but Waldie also looks at the Spanish colonial history of LA and then his own very personal relationship with the Catholic Church. It just takes these elements and braids them together in short pieces that are so lyrical and beautiful and tragic and mundane. It’s hard for me to even describe that book in ways that don’t sound like I have become some kind of religious fanatic. Yes, he is definitely doing interesting things with form. Poets are always doing interesting things with form. Eloise Klein Healy, who is the founder of the AULA MFA program, is very much an LA place-based poet, who writes about the landscape. It is not her primary preoccupation, but she has written very beautifully about it. I certainly attempted that with my dissertation. Jenny Price’s “13 Ways of Seeing Nature” is a revolutionary essay in terms of form and function. It writes very beautifully about the importance of the LA River as a historic and cultural asset that has been forgotten and remembered. I am sure I am missing a hundred people who are doing amazing writing.
MA: Is the Urban Sustainability program also low-residency?
DS: Yes. I am a bit of a low-residency junkie. I was in the second [AULA] MFA cohort in December of 1997, and then the doctoral program in New England is also low-residency. We designed our program to look more like the MFA. We have a six-day and a four-day residency in one semester. The way we distinguish the residencies is that the six-day is like the MFA program [in Creative Writing at Antioch LA, which has a ten-day residency], and then in the four-day residency, we are all living together in the same space for four days and you cook up some very intense working relations in those situations.
I really prefer [bicycle] riding at night. There is something more solitary and intimate, even if you are riding with 3,000 other people, you can have these moments where you are just bathing in this weird urban darkness.
MA: This thing you wrote about your friend telling you to “reindiginate” yourself to a place really resonated with me. You wrote, “… there is ritual that is about place as that which sustains us, that with which we have relationships, that with which we aspire to collaborate and sustain.” I think a lot about creating rituals and how we form relationships to place. Can you talk about how we form that relationship in an intentional way, especially in this shadow of displacement and gentrification? How has that happened for you?
DS: That conversation with Robin Kimmerer occurred on a hike in New England. The whole conversation about being indigenous was, for me, a personal controversy because I felt like I had no indigenous connection to anything, and one of my cohort colleagues got irritated with me when I said that. She said, “Look, we are all indigenous to some place.” It was not a conversation that ended well because nobody convinced anybody that there was a middle ground. Then I had this conversation with Robin, who is somebody whose family has lived in one place for longer than they can even account for. She operates in two knowledge systems, one is the Western-based science tradition and the other is that of the Potawatomi tribe. The temporal scale of how long you have lived in a place is very different from our Western way of looking at things in years. I was decrying this sense of not having an indigenous identity to any place and for her it was just completely natural. She said, “You have to reindiginate yourself,” and I posed this objection, saying, “I can’t stand it when people do that kind of cultural appropriation and everybody pulls out their drums and starts doing something from a culture that they have no connection to and no knowledge of, no guidance or no invitation to do so,” She said, “It doesn’t matter. You have to make your own rituals.” Which was puzzling to me, but it was more comforting that somebody saying, “Sorry, you’re a European invader, so you’re never going to have a sense of being indigenous to a place.” I can’t say that the mission has been accomplished, but I can discuss riding a bike and walking, which I do not do even nearly enough.
I tramped around the Santa Mountains all of my childhood with my friends. We went on these long hikes and when I think about it, there were so many occasions where we could have become food for a mountain lion and I am probably really lucky to be here. I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but I have this real grounding in what the soil of Los Angeles felt like. As I started studying the environmental history of Los Angeles and started teaching about it, I realized that there was this extraordinary ecosystem of a coastal plain that has now been completely paved over. My appreciation of the Los Angeles River has grown through working with my students around that. With Jenny Price, I came to understand that underneath all this, there is something extraordinary, and to not put your feet on it, even on the pavement that is covering it, is a huge mistake. Of course, everybody knows this is a huge car city, so walking and bike riding and particularly bike riding at night, for reasons I am not 100% certain I can explain, became this kind of land-based ritual for me. I would ride back and forth between this wrenching co-op where I was volunteering and researching, or go on a night ride, and I knew what was going on underneath me in a way that I would never have known if I was in a car. In a car, you don’t particularly care if you are going uphill or downhill. In the car it’s all the same, you can use a little more gas, but on a bike you really have to be conscious and aware. I got to a point that when I was riding, I could do this inventory of street conditions for myself thinking, “Okay, I know up here in about fifty yards, there are a bunch of potholes and so I’ve got to ride more out in the middle of the road. Then I turn this corner, there is going to be a little puff of cooler air, so I knew I was in a different microclimate. Of course the topography is something you are always aware of, whether you are avoiding hills or taking hills. My connection to this place deepened through that process. I don’t know that that qualifies as a ritual practice, because I don’t know enough about ritual practice to say with certainty that that is what that is, but I do know that it was something that was ritualized for me. I did it on a regular basis and when I did it, I made something more of it than just turning the cranks on my bike to make the wheels move forward. It really became an exercise about knowing something about where I lived and I am 100% certain that it has deepened my connection to Los Angeles, to the topography of LA. It also has deepened my connection to a lot of different kinds of people who ride bikes. For me, it was something that I was privileged to do. I would spend a few hours teaching people how to repair bikes every week. Sometimes I was riding on the streets with people who had no choice but to ride bikes. One of our mistakes is that we always think that ritual has to connect you to something up there [points above him] and I think it connects us to something right here [points to his heart]. It’s more immediate and I think that is a lot of what more traditional ritual is intended to do.
I was decrying this sense of not having an indigenous identity to any place and for her it was just completely natural. She said, “You have to reindiginate yourself . . . You have to make your own rituals.”
MA: I was smiling a lot when you were talking. It really reminds me of the kinds of mindfulness that we think of as being developed by nature writers, and I think that is possible anywhere and reminds me of a lot of poetry ideas. I have also spoken with several people who have described riding a bike, especially at night, as the most thrilling, free, joyful experience of their lives.
DS: It really is and it is so shocking to most people who don’t ride. They just think, “Are you crazy?” I wrote in the dissertation that my oldest son introduced me to this and I thought he was insane for riding in these night rides. For me it was a huge conversion of biblical proportions because I went from thinking “this is nuts” to thinking “this is life.” The first and the most counterintuitive thing for me was falling in love with riding at night. One of the reasons for me from a safety perspective was that it is quieter, so you can hear a car coming up, you can feel the air change around you, and you can see [the car] even if you are facing away from it because people’s headlights are on. I love riding in the day too, but I really prefer riding at night. There is something more solitary and intimate, even if you are riding with 3,000 other people, you can have these moments where you are just bathing in this weird urban darkness.
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I was moved to share parts of my story with Don. He listened to me talk about the time I participated in the all-night bike race based on the movie The Warriors, my upbringing in New York City, and my studies in Latin America. He told me that I should write about it. “You are the container of a really beautiful, valuable culture. New York culture, bike culture, feminist culture.” He automatically began to curate an anthology about night rides. Finally, I asked him about The Ovarian Psycos. And yes! He has heard about them, knows a few of them, and he was a “huge fan.”