A Conversation with Stefano Bloch

The whole of a conversation — its nuances, inflections, and depth — simply cannot fit into a single article. So we at BlogDailyHerald designed BDH Outtakes to feature the voices of the people interviewed by The Brown Daily Herald for its daily print coverage. We think our sources have great stories — and so we want you to hear them!

BDH Outtakes interviews were conducted by current and former Herald reporters with the permission and understanding of the source. They have been edited for length, clarity, and the BlogDailyHerald audience.

In September of 2016, I sat down in a café with then-professor of urban studies (and campus superstar) Stefano Bloch. At the time, nearly 400 students were enrolled in his course URBN 12:30: “Crime in the City,” and word had escaped that Bloch had a story The Herald couldn’t ignore.

What I thought would be a brief interview became nearly an hour and half of conversation, stories, laughter, and near tears. I published the story Bloch’s graffiti research inspired by childhood” in the Brown Daily Herald over two years ago, but I still haven’t gotten this conversation out of my head. If I were to share the entirety of the interview’s transcription, you would be reading over twenty pages. So here is just an essence of the research and character of Stefano Bloch in his own words.

Herald: Tell me a little bit about your research.

Bloch: So it really falls into the category of the production and creation of identity and particularly subcultural identity — how members of subcultures who identify as members of subcultures navigate the city. And by subculture, that could be affirmative subcultures and that could be a subculture that was thrust upon a marginalized group. So either way, a group with a particular non-normative or transgressive identity and the way that they navigate the city, contribute to urbanism, are policed or excluded from the city, their relationship with the city given their identity and status.

How did you become interested in this topic?

You know, going through Grad school, often you become a big theorist. Theory is the blood of Grad school. Often you’ll find Grad students who are uncomfortable with all of these big meta narratives and theories that they’re applying to the world that they already know, given the fact that they’re from those life worlds. So there came a point late in my graduate school education where I realized, why don’t I speak to that which I know? Why doesn’t everyone speak to that which they know? While everyone should explore other life worlds and systems that they’re not familiar with, some of the best data we can generate as scholars comes from our own observation, our own perspective, our own epistemological view of the world.

So I decided to start relying on that which I was most familiar with, which was the way that marginalized groups navigate the city, given some of the neighborhoods I’ve come from that are economically, ethnically, racially, and in terms of of just a preoccupation and occupation, the most marginal and vulnerable groups in society. And I became increasingly fascinated with how those groups move through the city as opposed to dominant groups. You know, powerful groups, wealthy group, heteronormative groups, property owners, members of government, business owners who all have a very interesting way of navigating the city as well. But I was interested in an elusive, transgressive state of navigating the city because I saw it with my own eyes.

And what were some of those neighborhoods that you grew up in that inspired this change of perspective?

You know, growing up in the way I did … my mother was undocumented, starting with the Reagan administration as an undocumented person and particularly during the Clinton administration. Starting with the Reagan administration in the early ‘80s and particularly during the Clinton administration during the ‘90s when I was kind of coming of age, you know, a teenager as an undocumented person, you couldn’t get welfare, you had to be on emergency welfare, which at the time was called AFDC aid. In the past, you could just be on welfare and depend on your check on the first and the 15th as well as your food stamps. But from Reagan to Clinton, you had to constantly re-apply for welfare benefits every single month.

So every month, we found ourselves in the incredibly crowded welfare office waiting rooms and not having a dependent check and there always, always being a delay in the release of benefits for undocumented people. We were often not able to pay the rent and always being evicted. So my mom finally realized that being evicted was kind of a blessing in disguise. She could get evicted from a property and it would take four months under California law to evict someone when you go through the court process. So what we would do was she would get her emergency welfare benefits and she would pay first and last month’s rent at a property, then the first month rent, second month rent, and then get evicted, which will take two more months, four months. So we lived in every apartment and house for four months. So that is at least three places  a year, and sometimes we, we’d move out faster than that because they were just horrible conditions, like a hostile landlord or for whatever reason we would move.

So, some of those neighborhoods I lived in is all of the neighborhoods in Los Angeles, particularly those that would allow someone with terrible credit, no social security card, no ID, with children, no sign of income to move in. And those neighborhoods happen to be the most economically disenfranchised neighborhoods. Economically disenfranchised neighborhoods are also often the most violent, the most chaotic, the ones that people, oddly enough are also most willing to invite you into. So we always had a community waiting for us. So oddly enough, some of the neighborhoods that are most dangerous are always in also the neighborhoods that are most inviting often. So we’re always invited into these neighborhoods. So in 1992, Los Angeles we lived in, we lived in Pacoima, Panorama city, North Hollywood, Pico, Union, South LA, downtown Hollywood, east Hollywood, East LA.

And so we were always on the go and that movement around these neighborhoods was always punctuated by homelessness. And most of homelessness is a cyclical move in and out of homelessness. It’s not a constant state. So we would move in and out of homelessness on our way to finding new places to live. And that gave me a view of the city and neighborhood identity of different communities and of police repression, but also acceptance that I value so much and rely on today. So my data is very autoethnographic. It’s autoethnographic data that was generated by for good or for bad — often for very bad, sometimes for very good — being thrust into these new situations that were scary and violent but also warm and inviting. And as a vulnerable person, I think you’re forced to take in your environment because it’s such a heightened experience. So I actually appreciate the vulnerable existence that I had that for so many people is so violent and scary. But I have no choice but to get to appreciate the viewpoint that it gave me.

And so how did you get out of it and end up in college and ultimately here (at Brown)?

Most of the people I was around, most of my siblings were involved in gangs. Most of the people I was around were involved in drugs, including my parents before my father died. There was lots of street violence, lots of violence at the hands of the police. People were always fighting and dying. I mean, literally, always fighting and dying. I’ve seen many people killed right in front of me. Many people. My father shot himself in front of me — my second father. My first father died of AIDS. My birth father was stabbed 18 times. You could frame that in a certain way, but I’ve seen stuff, you know what I mean. The way I stayed out of it was I think I’m just a natural coward.

And what I mean by that is as a coward you’re forced to find innovative ways to protect yourself and to find positivity in otherwise very trying circumstances. So that’s my definition of what a coward is. I think it’s very positive. So that made me run to the nearest sanctuary once I was old enough to kind of be on my own to some degree. And the nearest sanctuary was a Community College was this place that I didn’t really get. Where I come from, one one went to college. College was a place people when to become doctors, lawyers and football players. That’s it, that’s was college was. So there was this place nearby and it was like, what is that collection of space there? What is going on in there? And so one day I just walked into that space. And the space of the college was a place where I had never felt safer or freer. I never left — simple as that. It was kind of easy. I just walked onto campus at Los Angeles Valley College. As much as people disagreed and debated and argued, everyone was accepting of everyone else’s right or the reality of them being there. And that just felt so good coming from where everyone was trying to challenge my right to be there, my right to be in public space, my right to be in an apartment unit, my right to be in a space where my ethnicity or my race or class was not invited. I was always being disinvited from spaces of the city. And on a college campus, you’re always being invited by somebody. You always feel invited and safe, and I appreciated that.

And so then after that you decided you wanted to go on to Grad school?

So I studied literature. I don’t remember why, but I studied literature, and I’m happy I did. And I hadn’t told anyone in the years about my background as a graffiti writer. It was something that I was scared of — having been engaged in this elicit subculture was something that I kept private. And as a graffiti writer, it’s a very cryptic and guarded subculture. So as a member of a cryptic and subculture, that stays with you even when you’re in legitimate circles or in legal circles. And I never told anyone because from the time I started community college, my best friend in the world and writing partner was murdered. And other friends I had who weren’t as close were dying, were getting killed by gang members and I was scared of the outside, but I was also scared to reveal my identity on the inside.

So I fully embraced the identity of a college student despite the fact that my other identity is what I was known for. I was a very well-known, prolific graffiti writer. One day — I hate starting things ‘one day,’ nothing’s ever one day — but one day I was in class with a professor named Christopher Connery and he started talking about the idea of spatial consciousness. And it was kind of a esoteric theoretical term that I didn’t quite understand. And a member of the class turned to me and he did know my past because he was from LA and recognize me. He turned to me and he goes, “Oh my God, everything the professor’s talking about is actually you.” He was talking about graffiti writers navigating the city and spaces that are not supposed to be accessed. And I was like “they’re describing my lived reality. And so I went to Christopher Connery’s office hours and I revealed to him my secret that I was a very well known and prolific graffiti writer from Los Angeles. And it was like I had just told him what my astrological sign was. It didn’t phase him. And he was just like, “Great. Write about it.” And him just not reacting …, it was like the weight of the world came off my shoulders. For the first time in my life, I felt not aggressively accepted —because I had been aggressively accepted and romanticized in my life — but I felt like “Great, you experience of the world and identity matters.” And that validates you as a human being when you’re otherwise believed to be marginalized identity is validated, you just feel like, “Wow. I belong like everyone else and my experience is just as good of data as anyone else’s.”

So I wrote about spatial consciousness and the ways in which members of a subculture see and traverse across the city, and (the professor) entered that into an undergraduate research competition for the UCs. I ended up winning the top prize for undergraduate research. So winning that right before graduating, it kind of validated me, but also validated what I was starting to realize was research. So I came home to LA… and I said “Okay, what am I going to do now?” and I was sitting in a coffee shop and there was a book called “Barrio Logos.” And the title struck me because, you know, I’m from the Barrio. So I opened it and it was dedicated to, or actually they quote, um, Edward Soja at UCLA. So I walked over to the, to the Internet kiosk, which is a thing, and I put a dollar … into the Internet kiosk, which gives you 10 minutes, and I ‘Altavista’ed Edward Soja and I sent him an electronic mail, and I told him that I would like to study with him. He sent me an email back instantly saying, “Yes, please apply to UCLA Department of Urban Planning.”

I applied not knowing that Edward Soja was the preeminent urbanist and spatial theorist in the world and I started Grad school at UCLA and I got a masters degree … And I applied to graduate programs in geography, because geography’s is very spatial discipline and I got accepted to what was at the time, you know, the top cultural geography program, which is at the University of Minnesota…

So you’ve mentioned about how you were a prolific graffiti writer now. What exactly does that mean? What was that time of your life like?

Being a graffiti writer about is about engaging with the city but in a way that kind of feeds your ego, but also gives you an identity to hold onto. When everyone is always tearing at people’s identities, being a graffiti writer gives you a very affirmative transgressive identity — fighting for your identity is one of the hallmarks of that identity. So it’s a very kind of aggressive identity that I subscribed to because it gave me fame and the ego that everyone wants but it also gave me the opportunity to fight against those who were otherwise already challenging my belonging, my ethnicity, my intersectional identity. I was always being challenged for not looking the way that people believe I should look in this group or belonging to this group or living in this neighborhood or speaking a certain way or acting a certain way. And I said, “Fine. I’m then going to have an ethnicity or an identity that I’m going to throw in your face.” So it was an ethnicity that I could put in people’s faces and say “As much as this is directed at you, it’s not for you. It’s mine.” So it was a very aggressive identity without the violence of being a gang member, which is what the majority of people where I come from, that was the identity that they subscribed to, the gang identity. And I was always just turned off by — rightfully so — violence. Being a political graffiti writer is about accessing the city and putting your name on it in systematic and stylized ways for the larger community of graffiti writers but also the community at large. You’re placing yourself in a city that is otherwise hostile or alienating, and by personalizing it, you’re making it familiar. So I spent every night for about a decade doing that — saying I’m gonna personalize the hell out of this city. And I don’t think that for me being a graffiti writer was about wanting to be an artist or not wanting to be a gang member. So I’m not negatively defining my identity as a graffiti writer against being a gang member, but I’m also not defining it romantically as being an artist. Being a graffiti writer is about being … An affirmative identity need not be romanticized or negatively defined against other alternatives.

So how does that play into your research with graffiti now?

Often when people study cryptic, elusive, elicit subcultures, they approach the study of that subculture as necessarily outsiders. Outsiders are not afforded the same type of access and are therefore not given the same kind of trust or respect that an insider would have. But because of the structure of our society, members of elusive, transgressive, marginal subcultures often aren’t the ones doing the research on those subcultures because they’re often the ones who aren’t afforded the opportunity to go into academia and become researchers. So as a former recognized member of this subculture, but now also as an an academic researcher and a scholar, I’m afforded access that has otherwise not been afforded to scholars. So I study graffiti because I have this opportunity to rely on access, respect, insider status and insight. That just allows me to further the discussion about subcultures. It doesn’t make me an expert, it just means I’m more privy to the nuances of the identity of members of that subculture.

 

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