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Labor & Economy

The Dixon Family Chronicles: “You Gonna Step Up?”

Gary Phillips

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Illustration by Jeffrey K. Fisher

Juanita Evers and Hank Dixon walked into the Mercado La Paloma on Grand at a little past one in the afternoon. The main building had been a garment factory but was now turned into an open space of mom and pop shops. There was one featuring Oaxacan handmade curios, a sports gear seller and various ethnic-style eateries. The place had been developed by a nonprofit.

“How about over there?” Juanita said, pointing to a stall offering Thai food tucked back in a corner of the expanse.

“Okay by me,” Dixon replied. “I could stand some spicy chow.”

They ordered and sat at a nearby table. He said, “You really think the congresswoman can help us?”

“She’s very interested in what the university does and wants it to do right by her constituents.”  Juanita was a field deputy for Congresswoman Karen Nelson, whose district included the Eden Arms where Dixon lived.

“But they’re private and can do what they want, Juanita. They always do.”

“Yes, that’s so, but they do receive plenty of public money for various programs they run in the community. Like the minority medical track outreach to magnet and charter schools. And they’re very sensitive about their image.”

He caught himself and didn’t swear. “Far as I can tell, the only thing they’re sensitive about is the money they generate.” She smiled, causing pleasant memories to flood through him. Dixon focused. This was now and their thing was of a time and place he’d likely not get to again.

Soon their order was called and they brought their food back to the table. They continued talking and eating. Dixon asked, “Your boss thinks she can shame them into leaving our building alone?” He wrapped some of his pad thai noodles around a plastic fork.

“It’s that whole block they’re looking to develop,” she said, deftly using her chopsticks.

“What do they want to build? They’re already redoing the shopping center they own on Vermont.”

“I have my spies but so far the university’s been hush-hush on what exactly they have in mind.  Though my suspicion is it might be a partnership with SubbaKhan.”

“They’re the ones who tried to build the stadium?”

“That’s right.”

He shook his head. More than a billion in money and tax breaks and who knew what all else had been lined up to build a new football stadium in downtown L.A. The Payton Arena was to have been a state-of-the-art facility complete with all the bells and whistles to lure the faithful to the shiny shrine of gridiron and excess. Problem was, after much chest beating and pronouncements about a team just about ready to move to the city or the NFL doing a so-called market assessment, nothing came of it. Dixon tuned back into what Juanita was saying.

“Look, Hank, there’s no way Karen or anybody else can guarantee your building won’t be razed.  Obviously we’d help you get the best deal in re-lo money possible. But the reason I wanted to talk to you is to convince you to get out in front of this. With combined efforts from the community and the legislature, what comes of their plans can be changed so as to include the concerns of folks like you and me in the process.”

Recalling his recent conversation with Alma Gutierrez and Larry Wardlow, he said, “You mean making sure they build some affordable housing units?”

“Exactly. And maybe even more could come out if it. A sure enough community benefits agreement.” She paused, regarding him in a clinical fashion that made him suspicious.

“And you expect me to do what?  Join one of them organizing outfits?”

“You can be one of the community leaders in this fight if you want to be, Hank.”

The past wouldn’t leave him alone today. “We ain’t in our twenties anymore, Juanita. I’ve been too many other things, made too many mistakes since then.”

“The struggle has no time limit, homie. You know damn well the Man don’t take no days off.”

They both chuckled. “I like my life now, thank you very much. It damn sure isn’t much but it is comfortable.”

“But it could all come crashing down if you sit and do nothing and you know that. The cold truth is you’ll have to step out of your comfort zone one way or the other.” Like the beak of a bird, the ends of her chopsticks pecked at her food, but she didn’t choose any of it.  She continued, “It’s going to be hard, often unrewarding work, with all sorts of moving pieces on a constantly shifting landscape.”

“Don’t sugarcoat it,” he cracked.

“Come on, Hank, what do you say?”

“Karen’s running for reelection soon. She gonna stick or cut and run if the university offers her some kind of deal?’

“What did FDR and Obama tell y’all?” Juanita challenged. “You better keep my feet to the fire.”  She regarded him with tawny-colored eyes that offset her caramel skin tone. “Well, Hank, you ready to step up or get stepped on, brother?”

The answer caught in his throat.

To Be Continued-


 The Dixon Family Chronicles appears every Wednesday. See also:

Chapter 1: “The Sink Man”
Chapter 2: “SOL”
Chapter 3: “Time Is Tight
Chapter 4: “Early in the Morning
Chapter 6: “Esoterica”
Chapter 7: “Which Side Are You On?”
Chapter 8: “A Little Past Seven”
Chapter 9: “No Justice …”
Chapter 10: “Live for Today”
Chapter 11: “The People United”

Watch Gary Phillips talk about his webserial.

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