I KNOW SOME PEOPLE THINK A WHITE WOMAN should not be attempting to document a group of older, black crack addicts, but I'm doing it in this gallery because it needs to be done; people living in misery should not be hidden. Even though I cannot walk in a homeless person's shoes, even if I have never seen the shoes, I am capable of understanding and empathy. As an outsider I may not see all sides of a story but if I take enough time I will run head-first into a lot of them. A more difficult problem, I think, than cultural appropriation, is the bias inherent in all documentary photography. How can we keep insisting we are telling the truth when we know most truths are socially constructed? When we know truths change over time? I was a magazine writer and editor in my former life so I know that "shaping" a story, whether it's literary or visual, is not that much different from "spinning" it. We cut things out because a story can't be too complicated. We add things in because we need to make some kind of point. We create narrative arcs because stories need to have a beginning, middle and end. We insert particular photos and paragraphs simply because we like them.
I STARTED THIS PROJECT after the city closed down a tiny urban park where the addicts and dealers of West Oakland's "Ghostown" had hung out for more than 30 years. The city ripped up the old cement tables and chairs and spent $460,00 to build an ugly new park it named "St Andrews Plaza." It turned out to be a park that a private developer could have built for $30,000. The Plaza is a triangle about the size of a large living room that lookslike a kind of jail. It's surrounded by an iron fence with a gate and key and inside is a cement pad, some trees and a few plants, and no place for anyone to sit. Outside are piles and piles of trash. The neighborhood "community" that agreed to come up with cool things to do in the Plaza abandoned it when it turned out the addicts and dealers had no where else to go. I found them, waiting to return, hanging outside, on the sidewalks.
I APPROACHED THE OLDER ADDICTS on the Filbert Street sidewalks because we have our age in common. In my experience elders, even old gangster elders, are tired of fighting and aggression. I photographed a few folk who seemed friendly, and came back to give them some black and white prints, and then I kept coming back because visually I fell in love with their faces. And after awhile it was fun to be in a new and alien world and welcomed as "The Picture Lady." It wasn't a great scene — I heard a lot of arguments and craziness — but it wasn't all misery. People are often happy when they are high. I had a dream that felt very real of saying "yes" to an offered crack pipe.
After a year or so of taking portraits my journalistic background kicked in and I remembered I never did believe a picture was worth a thousand words. So I got out my recorder, announced I would pay $20 for a story, and started hearing things I could not make beautiful with the right light and a smile. Addiction is ugly. Abuse in all of its forms is ugly. Guilt is ugly. Deep poverty is ugly. Addicts are ugly parents. But we are all innocent when we are born and many of the addicts insisted they were happy growing up simply because someone — a mother or grandmother — took care of them. Their mother could be an alcoholic and get crazy at night; their father could be in and out of prison; they could have seen family members shooting up and smoking crack; but if they were clothed, fed, and taken to school like the other kids, that was enough. Things changed when they were teenagers. Most ran away from their homes, often for reasons they still can't explain. The boys needed money and thought they could get some by being cool and selling drugs and the girls fell hard for their cool baby daddies. But coolness usually doesn't translate into money or power and so it is that most of the people on Filbert Street are penniless and have been living for awhile on the streets.
I'M SAYING MOST, BUT NOT ALL of the families of these addicts were dysfunctional. If you were a poor, black, working mother in West Oakland and your kid didn't do well in school it was hard to keep him or her off the street. Maybe you had three kids who turned out OK and just one who couldn't make it. Maybe you got your son into the military, or helped your 13 year old daughter raise her baby; maybe you prayed as hard as you could. And still, in the end, you had to kick your own child out of your house.
I have no solution to the city's problem with the dealers and addicts and I sympathize with the neighbors who want them to leave. I felt completely safe for the first year I was on Filbert Street, even with my expensive camera hanging on my neck, but in March of 2018 I was mugged by a young man I never saw. He dragged my camera off me so hard I fell down and broke my two front teeth. Then, six weeks later, I was mugged again, this time in a nearby homeless camp I knew could be dangerous. Still, the interviews and the people who comforted me remind me that we human beings are mostly the same. We all want to love and be loved. We all want to be understood. We all want to have dignity and some kind of independence. When I ask the people on Filbert Street what is the most important thing in their lives, they say exactly the same things: their children and grandchildren. And all are important to someone who loves them and prays for them and will take them in if they get clean. The bottom line is no one wants to be an addict.