On Sacred, Marginal Spaces (and the Blackest Moment in La Jolla)
By Ramla Bile
The "Messy as F**k" episode of Insecure spoke to me on a personal level. I found myself hollering as Issa arranged a school-sponsored beach clean-up for students in the ‘We Got Y’all’ program. Despite a 10-year residency in San Diego, which has more than 70 miles of coastline and is home to some of the nation’s top beaches, I only went to the beach once. And that one time was a struggle. My school, Horace Mann Middle, also offered a supervised beach clean-up. We were responsible for our own transportation, so I lied to my mom and told her the school bus was picking us up. Instead, my ass walked to the nearest shopping center and hopped on the city bus. I recall seeing a Ralphs or Vons across from the bus stop. A few stops later, my friend hopped on the same bus and guided us to our transfer and final destination: Mission Beach. (Consider the level of planning and commitment it took a coupla young people to perfectly time such a commute in the pre-cell phone era!)
As I stepped onto the sand, I spotted a crinkled bag of LAY’S chips, several cigarette butts, a consumed Mountain Dew bottle, and a torn condom wrapper: remnants of someone’s good time. Once I got past the things littered across the shore, I was drawn to the ocean. My hijab billowing around me, the fierce rolling of the waves engulfed me. I didn’t clean up much that day – the dustiest San Diego beach had me mesmerized. I’ve since discovered that Mission Beach has a reputation for not being “maintained” as well as others.
Which brings me to something David Wilsey, a development professor at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Affairs, said: “Our most sacred spaces are also marginal ground.” He used that line to talk about the ways some of our most precious and celebrated spaces also harbor deep inequity. Why is it that some of our most revered parks, trails, beaches, and other public spaces are inaccessible? They’re often inaccessible in terms of housing costs, transportation challenges (e.g., parking expenses, availability of busing), special permit costs/needs, etc. Then, there’s the reality of the privilege that goes into how spaces are experienced. For example, parks are spaces for some to walk, socialize, and play. But, they are also places where some folks sleep.
The environmental context of poverty is suffocating, leaving people landlocked in dense, urban spaces with few trees or flat suburban communities (which are part of the changing landscape of poverty). And yet, a critical piece of our physical health and emotional well-being requires being outside – whether it's in the woods or along the shore. Interacting with nature is proven to:
Increase focus and productivity
Increase immune function
Improve short-term memory
As middle-income adults, my siblings and I experience the city differently now. We beach hop every time we return to San Diego. We hit up the bougie spots we never dreamed of seeing like Torrey Pines Beach and La Jolla Shores Beach. A few winters ago, my sisters and I took the Ho Chi Minh Trail – experiencing its gorgeous sandstone formations to Black Beach – something many locals didn’t even know was possible (don’t mind the indelicate display of brag!).
Parts of the trail were a bit dicey, particularly the ending, which has a rope to guide hikers down. The most adventurous sister went first and hopped down the slippery sandstone to get to the beach. Her hands firmly around the rope, she used her body to bounce against the crumbling formations before taking a final, massive leap that ended with a harmless tumble. The other sis and I took a laissez-faire approach – letting our bodies slide all the way down. Muddied and adrenaline rushing, we took selfies as seasoned surfers prepared to ride the aggressive waves. There was something magical about being there as black women who are visibly Muslim – occupying a space not always accessible to people who look like us. It was an adventure – and every kid – whether they live in East San Diego or Del Mar – should have an opportunity to experience the city’s beauty.
In San Diego and beyond, we must be willing to bridge gaps in these sacred spaces to make sure that people of all income and racial backgrounds can enjoy the places that make our world remarkable.