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Can a Paradise Be Built in Hell?

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Rebecca Solnit has no patience for those who are paralyzed by despair and helplessness in an age of doubt about the human condition and the sociological/political situation in the United States. To be passive in the face of disappointment is to ensure that injustice prevails.

That is the background for the Truthout Progressive Pick of the Week: the paperback edition of Solnit's "A Paradise Built in Hell." In "Paradise," Solnit illustrates how amidst disasters one can often find "the constellations of solidarity, altruism, and improvisation" that "are within most of us and reappear at these times." Indeed, this was most recently illustrated in the grassroots response to Hurricane Sandy in Red Hook, Brooklyn, with an offshoot of the Occupy Movement playing a significant role.

After an eloquent preface, Solnit delves into five large-scale disasters to detail "the extraordinary communities that arise in disaster." These sparks of light, of human outreach during the most testing and grim of times, are what offer us a guide to creating "paradise[s] built in hell." 

The following is the first chapter of "A Paradise Built in Hell."

The Mizpah Cafe

The Gathering Place

The outlines of this particular disaster are familiar. At 5:12 in the morning on April 18, 1906, about a minute of seismic shaking tore up San Francisco, toppling buildings, particularly those on landfill and swampy ground, cracking and shifting others, collapsing chimneys, breaking water mains and gas lines, twisting streetcar tracks, even tipping headstones in the cemeteries. It was a major earthquake, centered right off the coast of the peninsular city, and the damage it did was considerable. Afterward came the fires, both those caused by broken gas mains and chimneys and those caused and augmented by the misguided policy of trying to blast firebreaks ahead of the flames and preventing citizens from firefighting in their own homes and neighborhoods. The way the authorities handled the fires was a major reason why so much of the city- nearly five square miles, more than twenty- eight thousand structures- was incinerated in one of history's biggest urban infernos before aerial warfare. Nearly every municipal building was destroyed, and so were many of the downtown businesses, along with mansions, slums, middle- class neighborhoods, the dense residential- commercial district of Chinatown, newspaper offices, and warehouses.

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