New Work


ST ANDREWS PLAZA

THESE PHOTOS ARE OF SOME PEOPLE,  MOST OF THEM DRUG ADDICTS, who used to hang out in a West Oakland drug hot spot that was pretty much left alone by the police. It was a triangle the city called Andrews Plaza, and it was on aneglected part of San Pablo Avenue. The space was small,  the size of a large living room, but it was crammed with addicts and dealers from the neighborhood, almost all of them black. I don't have a photo of how the space looked before it closed because nobody wanted me and my camera around. And I'd heard that some white people who tried to enter the Plaza to check it out were chased away by a man with a gun.  I was able to approach the people in these photos only after some of them ome of these folks after the , hanging out on a side-street,  when I saw that a group of old-timers hadn't gone away.

I was drawn to these people, in this place, because everyone I talked to was trying toget rid of them, and my heart has always gone out to those who seem to be thoroughly despised.  Everyone has a voice. Everyone is much more than their label. Dorothea Lange would call them The Walking Wounded.

Most people say the drug dealers and users moved into the Plaza during the crack epidemic of the '80s, which hit West Oakland hard. They took over, some say, when West Oakland's homeless population began to get out of hand and people started sleeping in the Plaza at night. At one point the police apparently made a decision to "contain" the drug activity; let it concentrate in one spot. The Plaza had little street traffic, could be easily patrolled, and the police were probably tired of just moving the dealers around, cycling them in and out of prison.  

What closed down the drug spot was neighbors protesting and rents soaring. In 2014 the city got a large grant to tear the Plaza down and build a new one with input from the neighborhood. What the neighbors and architects came up with is a tiny, gated park, kind of an outdoor room with a key. An island of plants and trees with a small cement pad for standing and two boulders for sitting. 

But the plan has run into problems. As of now (June 2017) the Plaza has been closed for six months and many of the same people are still there. The dealers are in front of the liquor store and the donut shop, and the addicts are sitting on side streets getting high. They are waiting for the new Plaza to open, just like everyone else.

I HAVE NO SOLUTION TO THE CITY'S PROBLEM with these people, and I sympathize with the neighbors who want them to leave, who think something should be done to break up this concentration of misery. I haven't seen any violence on Filbert Street, but I have seen a constant drumbeat of petty squabbling; mostly people trying to deal with "the crazies" among them. A lot of the addicts are mentally ill and most grew up in hopeless situations made worse by drugs. And they haven't done better by their own children. Everyone I talked to has tried to get off drugs — many many times. But, like a lot of us, they can't. The best they can hope for right now is having enough money to buy their drugs, get high, and sit down comfortably with friends.

 

 

Eddie Franklin has a degree in engineering. He once worked at Xerox Park.

I'VE TRIED TO THINK OF A GOOD NAME FOR MY SUBJECTS: the untouchables; the lost; the hopeless; the feared; the ones whose feet Jesus would have washed. But as with all human beings, a label doesn't fit. To get a better idea of them I've started to record some of the stories they tell, and I'm liking these as much as my portraits.

THE HISTORY OF THE PLAZA is not written down anywhere, but it's a tiny space on a main thoroughfare the size of a large living room. Records show that in 1948 it was a gas station, and when the gas station closed it was briefly a parking lot. In 1957,  St. Andrews Church, across the street, got the city to turn the parking lot into a "Park" with trees and a fountain. When the city added tables for playing dominos and chess It became a place for poor people to get out of their crowded houses and apartments.

More later.