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A Tale of Two Gated Communities: An African Memoir
In the summer of 1977 my sister and I — six and eight at the time — flew from Washington DC to Seattle to spend three months with my Aunt Sana, who was the near double of my mother. Due to medical complications Aunt Sana was unable to bear children and so we were loaned to her, sent to simulate the little family she desperately wanted but could never have. And as she was munificent, always lavishing money and bright-colored mall-gifts on us, we promptly played the role, seeing her and addressing her as nothing less than our own mother — if not in fact better than the real thing. This visit, the first of three, not only to introduced me to a new city , Seattle , but also to the over-abundant world of the Nordstroms, in whose Highlands palace my aunt lived and worked.
If, as Fred Moody claims in a his book titled The Washingtonians, the "old fashioned Scandinavian Episcopalian" Nordstrom family "is the Rainier of the Northwest's civic and cultural landscape," then what better introduction could I have had to their corner of the world than this: to sleep, to play, to breath the air of a palace owned by a people whose very name "had come to epitomize the Northwest."
During that initial visit I never really left the royal residence, this "mountain" top, to go down into the city, and so all I can recall of that summer is my free roaming of great halls, lingering in large rooms with dwarfed furniture and in the afternoon picking big strawberries in a sun-dappled garden. Also, it was here in this mansion's natorium, that I was first taught to swim by a very young Nordstrom whose name and face I have completely lost from memory but whose full-figure in a blue and white floral swimsuit I have retained with sparkling clarity. And how thin the air was in that house. Nothing weighed you down. Indeed, with the super-rich there is a divine paradox, the more money they accumulate the less visible money becomes until, as was the state of all the large spaces in that palace, it vanishes altogether. And all objects, all commodities, void of all the hindrances which frustrate the poor, seem to float in and out of one's way without a care.
I never knew exactly how my aunt got to know and work for the very old Great Aunt Nordstrom (as we were required to address her). Everyone I've asked in my family seems to have only vague recollections. It was such a long time go. It had to something to do with a church. You know our Aunty Sana, she just makes things happen. I imagine it actually went something like this: Her former husband (he recently had by this time left her for a younger fertile woman), who was then completing post-graduate studies in Education at the University of Washington, was running out of money for tuition and so my aunt, attending the right church, talked to the right people, possibly dishing them the old story of how she and her husband were students trying to complete their education so that they could go back to Africa and lead their benighted brethren to a prosperity not unlike that which had been accomplished in this country.
Affluent white Christians especially fell for this story back then. Unable to resolve the thorny problems they had with blacks in their own country they compensated by lavishing gifts, clothes, money on seemingly upright Africans. Though this was a great coup for the Africans, it did not help to ease the tension between white and black Americans. It also strained relations between Africans and African-Americans. Since Africans looked down on African Americans for not taking better advantage of white humanitarianism, while African-Americans? (long aware of the festival of wealth here in the West) thought Africans naive in considering white gifts as anything more than mere hand-outs. But no matter, somehow Aunt Sana managed the impossible and found herself living in a cottage the size of a regular house next to a grand mansion in the most affluent and aristocratic neighborhood in Seattle.
In the years to follow Aunt Sana arranged for other relatives to live with the wealthy families of the Highlands — the Nordstroms, the Pattersons, the Isaacsons, the Andersons. This continued until 1993, when my cousin, Placidas Chiro, graduated from college and bitterly left America having not a pleasant word to say about her experiences in that secluded neighborhood. It seems that during her stay she had been mentally abused by the Great Aunt Nordstrom who, if the truth be known on top of being senile, regarded her and all other Africans for that matter as emotionally and intellectually little more than clever monkeys. My Aunt Sana, who came from extreme poverty, was willing to over look these insults for the opportunities that glimmered in the future, but for my middle-class cousin, already in possession of a happy and comfortable past, the humiliation was excruciating.
Towards the end of her stay my cousin moved out of the Nordstrom home and in with the Pattersons, an old industrial family who lived just down the road. The Pattersons were more humane to her and during the holidays, when they were out skiing or yachting or in some other recreation common to people of their status, Placidas would annex a wing of their large home and throw dinner parties for her many relatives and friends. It was during one of these parties that I (in my early twenties this time) last visited the Highlands which had — due to its deep location in the memories of my childhood — by then acquired a ghostly quality.
The Little Church
I arrived at the guarded gate at around 3:30 p.m. An old man with silver hair raised it without a word. It seemed he was excepting me. Though the day was still alive for the rest of the city, here because of the thick and towering firs and hemlocks, the dusk was deep. The little roads which led me further and further into this damp neighborhood boasted cheerful names like White Huckleberry, Spring Drive, Cherry Loop. Hemmed in by the massive evergreens, most of the homes were invisible. One had the sense that they had entered a menacing fairy-tale and might come across lost children or three bears or a lone wolf in granny's clothes. Speaking of grannies, two elderly women who were taking a late-afternoon stroll seemed so frail, so delicate, that when passing I feared the air stirred by the automobile might blow them away like smoke. Occasionally, as I made a turn, a white patrol car would approach and slowly pass by. This was the Highland 's private police, armed and on the lookout for any suspicious elements in the forest.
Suddenly breaking from the trees appeared a massive palace, whose large easterly windows reflected the golden light of the dying sun. Then the palace vanished, consumed by the woods which now seemed darker and thicker than before. Finally I found the Patterson's dipping driveway. The hazy Olympics (reflecting these hazy Olympians), the darkening Sound, and the setting sun were visible above a row of cedars whose tops had been evenly cut to accommodate this glorious sight.
Soon all of the guests had arrived. It was night now and the sliding doors, the windows and the mirrors in each large room reflected our unlikely presence. We were happy as we relaxed and roamed the great house, until somewhere, somehow, we managed to come across a revealing photograph: The Pattersons standing next to a smiling Ronald Reagan. The President had scribbled something an encouraging word at the bottom of their treasured memory. Indeed, as with our mirrored images, when one looks too closely, the truth about this kind of power and wealth is never pretty. We did our best to remain in the haze.
Driving home from the party I chanced to see something stranger than any candy house in a fairy tale forest. Suddenly, after taking a slow turn on a sharp curve, before my headlights there appeared a small, milky, medieval-looking church. It was ghostly the way it stood there against the black woods. So weightless, so unearthly did this building look that I felt it would vaporize before my eyes at that instant. But it didn't, it remained there clinging by some trick of magic to this turning world.
And what was even stranger, more staggering than its spooky sight, was the notion that this gated community had its own private church. A church where residents could worship their own private Jesus, with the assistance of a private pastor and the music of a private choir. Was this a standard feature for all affluent gated communities in America ? A church that promised patrons the protection of a private police force as they sauntered to Sunday mourning service? And did their private pastor promise his faithful congregation a gated community within the great and original Gated Community in the sky?
Recently I called Charity Zuva, a friend who had lived with and taken care of another enormously rich family in the Highlands . She had come from Africa in 1988 and studied accounting at Shoreline Community College . I had more or less lost contact with her after that haunted autumn party and so, after all these years needing to finally satisfy a number of troubling questions that the small white church had inspired in me, I tracked her down.
I called and asked her if she knew anything about the church in the Highlands . She answered no. She had never attended the church. She didn't even know what denomination it was or if it was even used. What about the families who might have used it? Charity explained that most were retired and old, or young and sitting on old money. "The Torrences," she pointed out, "are such a family. They are young but had their house bequeathed to them from their parents who owned two houses in the Highlands ."
"Was there ever a problem with crime in the neighborhood?"
"No, there was never a problem with crime, in fact the house I lived in the people left the doors unlocked all the time."
"Yes, but how can you remember to lock all of those doors, there are so many. You just have to give up and leave them unlocked."
"Is there any inside gossip you would like to spread?"
"Oh, yes," Charity answered mischievously, "when I was there a black American tried to move in but these whites said no way."
"Are you sure about that? How do you know if that's true? Did you go to any of the homeowners meetings."
"No, I didn't."
"Then you can't be sure if that's true."
"Hey, they may act like nothing's going on but people sooner or later start to talk."
"But, still, how could they stop a black person from buying a house?"
"They just made it too difficult for him to move in, they overpriced the house he was trying to buy."
I thanked Charity for the gossip, though I believe it was completely unfounded. I don't think a black person ever attempted to move into the Highlands , but the false story did ave an important function. It served for the Third-World domestic staff as kind of myth which gave form to an unspoken general truth, the barriers at the Highlands (as at all exclusive communities) rise far above the physical fences that surround them . And, ultimately, not all of the people they want to keep out were criminals.
Charity had told me nothing about the church, and so I decided my next move was to call Highlands Incorporated. A women answered the phone. She was the guard in the glass box at the entrance. I asked in a polite voice if she knew anything about that church in the Highlands and she answered, "No. I don't know anything."
"Not even what denomination it is?"
"No, I don't."
"Do you at least know the name of the church?"
"No, I don't know the name because I don't go to that church."
"Could you go if you wanted to?"
"Sorry, I can't give out that kind of information." Ahh, secrecy, conspiracy-intriguing.
"Then, who can?"
"You'll have to speak to my boss, Truck Trader, but he is out for the day and will be back tomorrow."
"Truck Trader, is that a company?"
"No, it is my boss's name."
"Yes and I have to go now," she said and quickly hung-up.
A Tale of Two Gated Communities
The Highlands has been a part of Seattle for nearly a hundred years and is a work of landscape art. It was designed in 1907 by the famed Olmstead Brothers who were responsible for designing the basic park system of this City. The Olmstead brothers' uncle, Frederick Law Olmstead, invented the profession of landscape architecture in America and designed Central Park and Boston Commons . The elder Olmstead was a great advocate for the expansion of public space. He believed the rich could easily flee to the mountains to get a break from the noise and the pressures of the city, whereas the poor were stuck here with only cemeteries ( America 's first public parks) to ease the intensity of urban life. The Olmstead Brothers continued their uncle's legacy and designed numerous parks and campuses around America . Here in Seattle we have them to thank for Volunteer Park , Magnolia Park and the Arboretum, to name a few.
Coincidentally next to the Olmstead's Arboretum is another famous gated community, Broadmoor. Designed by the Puget Mills Company in 1927, it also gates the very rich in an old neighborhood. Yet Broadmoor is very different from the Highlands . It has the feel of new money where the Highlands has the sedative ease of old money. The differences associated with these class conditions can easily be read in the designs of the two communities. When racing down Madison how can one miss Broadmoor and its elaborate brick entrance? It stands boastfully there for everyone to see. The Highlands , on the other hand, is totally hidden; without clear directions one will never find it. Nor could one ever peer over the fence and into the window of a Highlands home, as I did one afternoon at Broadmoor. Not too far from the Arboretum's Japanese Garden , I came to a little alley and peered into a number of protected Broadmoor homes with their sparkling cars parked beside them. (Try as hard as I may I cannot recall ever seeing an outstanding motor car driving around the Highlands ). Lastly, the very location of these communities tells it all: here on the eastside of the city, Broadmoor watches only the rise of the sun, whereas the Highlands , on the west, is witness to its fall.
Near the Arboretum's wetlands, just by the golf course whose $100,000 members can be seen engaged in afternoon activities on par with their rank, I decided to stop by the back entrance to Broadmoor to speak with the watchman in the glass box. He was an old man wearing a blue police cap and, judging by the expression on his face , was unsettled by my presence. The color of my skin sets off alarms in the souls of those who lock themselves up in these lily-white worlds. He at least tried to sound polite.
"How may I help you?" he asked, with his milky-blue eyes darting to the north of my head as if searching for something behind me. They made an uneasy return to the center of my face.
"Well, I'm doing this research on contemporary American Christianity," I tried to sound official, but his face did not respond. "Can you tell me if there is a church inside there?" I pointed at a road leading up to the residential homes.
The guard was now visibly upset by my question, thinking perhaps that I was up to something, that the vapor of some menacing crime loomed all around me, the distinct form of which eluded his scrutiny. Why is a young black man, on this fine Saturday afternoon, asking if there is church in Broadmoor? Is this a stratagem of some kind? A devious way to distract me from my work? Am I being fooled into letting down my guard and exposing my privileged patrons to the dangers of the streets? "No" he said, "there is no church in here. And I have to get back to work."
He let me know in one blow that not only was he a working man, but, also, if I was up to something funny he meant serious business and would respond with necessary force. He then attended to the needs of a sun-glassed man who had just driven up in a sparkling Green Land-Rover.
The Virgin of the Woods
The following Monday I called the Highlands and asked to speak to this Truck Trader chap. My good luck, it was Truck Trader himself who answered!
I asked him if that was really his name.
"Yes," he said rather proudly.
"I swear you have a curious name."
"What's so strange about Chuck Raider," he asked with some concern.
"So your name is Chuck!"
"Yes," he confirmed cordially, "and how may I help you?"
"I want some information on that church in the Highlands ."
"You do. Well, I was just looking for the architectural plans of the church myself a few days ago and it seems they are missing. I'd also like to know more about that church."
"What denomination is it?"
"Is it exclusively for members of the Highlands ?"
"No, it's not," he said a little uneasily. Some of the cheer had now left his voice.
"You mean anybody can attend?"
"Well, I'm not too sure about that, you'd have to call the people at St. Dunstan. They are the ones who run that church. They will tell you how it works."
I thanked him and immediately called St. Dunstan. To my surprise the phone rang only once and I was greeted by a very warm voice, the pastor no doubt. His voice was the kind that saved souls, the kind you wished would list your deeds at your funeral. It had that comforting, glowing quality requisite for success as a pastor. In-fact the way he spoke, the way he almost laughed at the end of everything, made me want to see the light, to possess some of his happiness, the stability a person secures through belief in the riches that await in the other-world. I could never believe in any kind of God, or afterlife for that matter, but if I could would I be as happy, as deluded as this man, whose name by the way happened to be Father Dement?
I asked him straight-out, is the church in the Highlands open to the public?He confidently answered that it was.
"You mean anyone can just drive in and attend?"
"Yes, they can and they do."
"Don't the residents have a problem with this?"
"Some do, but many don't."
"Do any of them attend the church?"
"Yes, once in a while they come in and sit on the front row," he says and laughs.
"But how come a public church was built inside private gated community? Was this some act of atonement by the patrons?"
"No, the church was built before the neighborhood was gated. It was built by Horace Henry, the man who built the Henry Art Gallery . He built it as a memorial for his daughter Florence , who died at the age of 18, while attending school in the east. That's why it is called the Florence Memorial Cathedral. It is a very beautiful church isn't it? Built in the Scottish medieval style."
From here on he went into great detail about the architect, etc., until at last I convinced him that he had told me all I needed to know. I put down the phone. For a moment I considered attending a service at that dead girl's church, but the thought of sitting through a sermon stopped me. And besides, I felt that I now knew the truth, there was no need to dig any further. I had looked into this invisible world and ultimately it had given me back nothing, not even a scandal.
And so the little medieval church was dedicated to a young rich girl who died at the point of transforming into a woman. Is this not the stuff great mysteries are made of? All of the elements are here: an old aristocratic neighborhood, large manors with infinite rooms, doors and mirrors, a dead virgin, and all of those dark, dark firs.
The Nordstrom Visa Card
I heard Great Aunt Nordstrom died recently. I was downtown in the deceased's family store applying for credit. Within fifteen minutes my request was rejected because, as the man behind the counter put it erotically, I was a "credit virgin." I had never officially borrowed money and was nothing in the eyes of big business. Feeling pity for me, he recommended I try the Bon Marche. They might be more lenient and overlook my virginity. As I left the Nordstrom store despondently it seemed suddenly that all of the social and cultural distances between the great mountainous Scandinavian family and my unknown anthill African one had been fully restored. And the accident of our physical proximity, when we once shared that kingdom by the bay, would now be to my memory as substantial as the events of a vanishing dream.
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