Art in the Iron Triangle by Matthew Burtch '82

by Matthew Burtch ’82

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You think you’re cool. You’ve got the vintage Harley Fatboy. The 1.5 Ghz laptop. The 28-speed Gary Fisher mountain bike. The Rolex. The Beemer. The invitation to a Crisco party at Jennifer Lopez’s house.

You’re not cool.

I know this for a fact. Because, word up, the absolute freezing-point Ice-Station-Zebra frozen-Bomb-Pop ground zero of serious cool is located in a scruffy building seemingly constructed of equal parts plywood and White-Out, sitting kitty-corner from a Walgreen’s in downtown Richmond, California. Yes, that’s Richmond, as in blue-collar Richmond, part of the overjuiced San Francisco Bay Area but still a place where the economy runs more to nail salons and check cashing outlets than goateed dot-commers discussing stock options over microbrews. Ride the BART train to Richmond, and you’ll see the complexions getting a little darker as the stops go by. The accents a little less ready for prime time TV. The clothes a little sassier. And when you arrive in Richmond’s Iron Triangle district, the word "gritty" pops into your head like a subtitle.

Then you enter the Winters Building at 339 11th St., and you’re in the coolest place in the known universe.

It’s Saturday morning and a dozen or so teens are meeting for the first time to work out the program for a five-month theatre class. This is real Rainbow Coalition stuff: the students, dressed in everything from Raiders jackets and baggy Gap jeans to well-ironed overalls, are African American, Hispanic, Asian, white, and various permutations thereof.

The class begins by forming a circle in which a variety of stomps, shouts, and claps are passed from student to student. After initial self-consciousness–you can see each of the students evaluating the warmups on a personal Peer Cool-o-Meter–the class establishes a real rhythm, which, sure enough, sounds "street." When that’s over, the students perform a trust exercise: the pupils pair up, with one student falling backwards, eyes closed, into the grasp of a partner. It’s not easy going; some of the students can’t quite let themselves go. It’s clear that for these young people, trust is not an easy thing to give.

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Reed Magazine Feb. 2001
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