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How Many More Homeless Subway Sopranos Are Out There?

A recent viral video of a homeless opera singer in Los Angeles led to a happy ending. But it’s a reminder that capitalism prevents millions of our greatest talents (and everyone else too) from reaching their immense creative potential.

A man busks at a subway station. (Flickr)

Los Angeles’s metro system is better than this famously car-reliant city would have you believe. It’s rarely crowded, and though its reach is limited, it is relatively fast and well-maintained.

Still, the operative word is “relative.” As with most public transit in late-late-capitalist America, riding on it is a soul-suck; your free will stripped away the minute you descend down into it so that you can be shuttled and herded about underneath an indifferent metropolis.

Beauty is the last thing you expect to find down here. When you do, it forces you to stop take note. A police officer’s phone video of Emily Zamourka singing opera on the platform, the transcendent notes of Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” echoing up and down the tunnel, gave us a peek at how it might feel for this buried urban space to feel more human.

Zamourka was dubbed the “subway soprano.” Now her story is being shared as the latest viral American Alger-ism. Zamourka, you see, is homeless. Or at least she was. Within a week of the video being tweeted out by the LAPD, a GoFundMe was set up for her that raked in over thirty thousand dollars. LA City Council member Joe Buscaino’s office stepped in to find her housing. An Italian-American festival hired her to perform for seven hundred dollars. It would appear that Zamourka has a bright future in the arts in front of her.

As with all mainstream news stories though, there is more in what isn’t said than what is. The bulk of the coverage suggests that Zamourka, a woman of undeniable talent, never deserved to be counted among the ranks of LA’s homeless in the first place. Which raises an unsettling underlying question: who does deserve to be homeless?

A still from the viral video of Emily Zamourka, the “subway soprano.”
(LAPD / Twitter)

Here is Zamourka’s story: twenty years ago, she immigrated from Russia. She is a classically trained violinist and pianist. Three years ago, she suffered a wrist injury that left her unable to work. Then her violin was stolen. She was unable to pay her bills or rent, and soon found herself without shelter. Tragic for sure. It is also utterly unexceptional.

The severity of LA’s housing crisis is well-known. Every night around 60,000 sleep rough. Encampments and tent cities of various size are around virtually any corner. Skid Row, with over 5,000 living in tents on sidewalks, gives you a vivid sense of how desperate it can be.

Here, the city has refused to provide adequate public toilets, water fountains, or trash cans. Residents have been subject to sanitation sweeps in which sleeping bags, medication, and identification are confiscated by police. A great many residents are in dire need of addiction treatment or mental health services. But past the stigmatizing, there are also artists, teachers, human beings living here. Indeed, it was Skid Row residents who painted the neighborhood’s acerbic “city limits” mural: “Skid Row City Limit, Population: Too Many.”

In a 2018 interview with Al Jazeera, Skid Row resident Suzette Shaw said that the city’s instinct is to “pathologize poor people. We see them as lazy, we see them as not really trying … Yet we don’t see the resolve that it actually take to sustain out here, and to have hope when there is no hope. I’ve met women [on Skid Row] who are nurses, Stanford graduates … I’ve met people who are connected to celebrities living out here.”

This past spring saw a lawsuit brought by Skid Row residents settled by LA city courts that place legal limits on confiscations during sweeps, a small but significant win for the unhoused. But with that has been the rise of a grisly vigilantism. August and September saw a small rash of fires deliberately set to encampments in the LA area. At least two men, including a beloved Skid Row street musician named Darrell Fields, have died.

Though the city passed a resolution in 2016 mandating a certain number of affordable housing units in each newly constructed residential building, not much has come of it. Developers, backed up by a vindictive NIMBY-ism, have kicked the can down the road and promised to build twice as many units in their next project. It’s a promise they have no evident intention of fulfilling.

Which in practice only leaves the jails, the cops, and the vigilantes as a way to “deal with the homeless problem.” A few weeks before Emily Zamourka’s “discovery,” Donald Trump visited Los Angeles, taking the opportunity to fulminate over the housing crisis, suggesting that police and local businesses should simply raze the encampments, and that the unhoused should be shoved into detention centers.

It’s a chilling prospect, particularly with atrocities in the US’ current concentration camps so well-known. But it’s not substantively different from the punitive way of dealing with the unhoused already employed by the city. The sanctimony of the LAPD’s tweet lauding Zamourka — “4 million people call LA home. 4 million stories. 4 million voices … sometimes you just have to stop and listen to one, to hear something beautiful” — belies that the LAPD rarely treat the homeless as people to begin with.

In her own interview on CNN, Zamourka alluded to this. “I see this police officer walking towards me from a distance and I kind of hesitated because you know how they are … they don’t really want you to make any noises anywhere. And opera is loud.” Busking is legal but highly restricted on the Metro. There are plenty of LA cops who might have heard Zamourka’s song and decided to make an example of her. It’s a common sight on any commute.

Ponder how many other unhoused and poor don’t find their talents put on display for the world to see. How many are simply hassled along from encampment to jail and back again. How many of their songs have gone unwritten? Masterpieces unpainted? Equations unsolved? Diseases uncured?

Now consider how many might exist if our cities, our lives, revolved around radical accessibility and democracy: if housing and health care were treated as rights rather than commodities, if education and the arts were opened to all rather than hoarded and distributed by and for the wealthy, and if the reproduction of public space required participation rather than policing.

It is no exaggeration to say that Zamourka’s story holds both visions, both reality and possibility, within it. She has described the support she has gotten, the fact that she now has a home and a platform, as “a miracle.” True enough. The point, however, is that it shouldn’t be. It should come standard in any sane society.