05 March 2015

Who Built The Better Ark? A Woman, Of Course: Kea Tawana

I saw The Ark in my youth.

No, I'm not talking about a drug-addled experience.  Nor am I referring to any sort of religious or supernatural vision.  I actually saw The Ark.

Moreover, I saw it in Newark, New Jersey.  Yes, that Newark, New Jersey.

I know it's not a city mentioned in the Bible.  But The Ark was really there, circa 1985.

To be exact, it stood in the parking lot of the Humanity Baptist Church in the city's Central Ward, not far from the Newark Museum and New Jersey Performing Arts Center. Because it was perched on a hill, even in its skeletonic state, it cast an austere kind of majesty to the immediate area.

Like the Biblical ark, it was an attempt to salvage from a land rendered into ruins.  The creator of The Ark began salvaging materials from abandoned and burned-out buildings shortly after the city's devastating 1967 riots.  For more than a decade, the self-taught artist and artisan accumulated wood, metals and other materials and finally began to build the 30 meter (100 foot) long ship in 1982.

The ark's builder, who never went to school beyond the sixth grade, believed that life on land was becoming untenable.  Many other people have felt the same way and have gone to sea in houseboats or yachts.  However, the builder I'm mentioning wanted to have the ability to defend the ship and its crew as well as to be capable of supporting the lives of those on it for six months or more at sea.  

Given what much of Newark was like in those days, it's not hard to understand why someone would be disenchanted with life on dry land.  But the builder also wanted to go to Japan in that boat to lay wreaths on ancestral graves.  

Construction of The Ark continued for several years.  As one might imagine, it polarized people:  Some saw it as a symbol of Newark's fight to save itself, while others saw it as an intrusion, a fire hazard and worse.  Whatever it was, it was illegal.  Its builder, a church caretaker who lived in a self-made shelter on the grounds where The Ark stood, fought for more than a year against attempts to raze it, even signing an agreement to dismantle  and relocate it if a suitable location could be found.  But, of course, the city never found such a location.  Finally, conceding that there was nothing that could be done to keep The Ark standing, the builder destroyed it in the summer of 1988.

(To tell you the truth, I have always thought the city officials' attempts to destroy the ark had more to do with image and politics than fire safety codes.  I think those officials, and much of the public, wanted to forget the riots.  Building something from the rubble--two decades later--was a reminder of that the city hadn't recovered.)

Now, after reading this story, I want you to tell me what you would surmise about the builder. 

I would bet that a lot of you, as enlightened as you are, would say this person had to be a man.   And, in fact, the very first article I read about the Ark--around 1983 and, if I recall correctly, in the Star-Ledger--identified the builder as a man.

Kea Tawana, with her cat, during the time she was building her ark.

But Kea Tawana was born, according to her own accounts, around 1935 in Japan to Japanese mother and an American father who had been working there as an engineer.  According to Tawana, her mother and sister were killed in a bombing raid late in World War II.  After the war ended, she, her father and her brother were brought to "a camp with barbed wire around it" near San Diego, CA.  

She says her father was killed when camp guards fired into a crowd to break up a disturbance.  She and her brother were placed in an orphanage, from which they taken in by a foster mother in Flagstaff, Arizona.  She was bullied in school for being half-Japanese, she says, though I wouldn't be surprised if her masculine appearance had something to do with her difficulties.  Plus, if even half of what she says is true, she and her brother must have been suffering terribly with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  That probably would have made things very difficult for the foster mother, who sent them back to the orphanage from which she ran away when she was twelve.  She never saw her brother again.  

She carried clothes in a burlap bag, ate from farmers' fields and hopped trains across the Southwest and South, and by 1953 found her way to Newark where, she said, she "heard there were a lot of jobs".

Over the years, she taught herself everything from woodworking and electrical systems to how to make stained glass windows and use a gun.  She gained a reputation as a reliable and meticulous, if eccentric, craftsperson.  A few questioned her gender identity, but more often than not, she was taken for a man.

After The Ark was razed, I never heard about Tawana again.  I thought about The Ark for the first time in years after passing through Newark on a bike ride in November.  After that, I began to look for more information about Kea's Ark, as she dubbed her creation, and Kea herself.  I found a few articles about the boat, but nothing about Kea's life after she demolished it.  I hope she's still alive and doing well:  I admire her as much for living in her own gender identity (She said she didn't mind when people identified her as a man) as her attempt to create a new ark in Newark.