THESE PHOTOS ARE OF SOME PEOPLE, MOST OF THEM DRUG ADDICTS, who were kicked out of a tiny park in a bad part of West Oakland in the spring of 2017. For 40 years the park had been a scary-looking hot spot where the police apparently decided to let drug using and dealing go on. The space was tiny, about the size of a large living room, but it was crammed with people, all poor, almost all black. The police won't say why they neglected this spot for so long, but maybe it simply made sense to stop moving the dealers around.
It was skyrocketing property values and neighbors wanting their neighborhood to improve that finally forced the city to close down the park and create a new one. The space had gotten ugly with people sleeping in it and trash accumulating, and the city got a state grant of $470,000 to make it beautiful. Officials asked a neighborhood group to help design the new park (now called St Andrews Plaza) and they came up with a plan: an iron fence with a gate and a key, a cement pad surrounded by maybe a dozen ordinary plants, and a few new trees, and no benches or chairs to sit on. The neighbors, the city hoped, would help keep it open. But as of this writing (November 2017) the Plaza is complete, but because the addicts are still there, sitting on side streets, it remains unopened. How it cost almost a half a million dollars to build remains a mystery to most folks.
I don't have a photo of what the space looked like before the city closed it down because when I went there no one wanted their picture taken. There were some benches and tables where people in the neighborhood played chess and dominoes, but there was also a lot of drug dealing. A white guy in a nearby Motorcycle Club said that when he went to check out the park he was chased away by a man coming out of a house across the street with a gun.
It was after the park closed that I started photographing some of the regulars. They were sitting on the sidewalks of Filbert Street, across from the old park, waiting for the new park to open. I'm now in the process of recording some of their stories because as a former journalist I don't think many photos are worth a thousand words.
Dorothea Lange wrote this in l954, to describe why she chose to photograph people she called "The Walking Wounded," and I think it also explains why I have chosen to photograph the folks on Filbert Street in 2017.
"I am trying here to say something
About the despised, the defeated,
About the wounded, the crippled,
The helpless, the rootless,
About duress and trouble
About the last ditch."
The something I want to say does not help the city's problem with these addicts, and I sympathize with the neighbors who want to get rid of the crime that goes along with them. I haven't seen any violence on Filbert Street but I have seen a constant drumbeat of petty squabbling and yelling; mostly people trying to deal with "the crazies" and the addled among them. A lot of the addicts are mentally or physically ill and most grew up in hopeless situations made worse by drugs. And yet, when I ask them what is the most important thing in their life, they say, like we do, their husbands or wives, their children or grandchildren.
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Eddie Franklin, after I suggested he "dance." He has a degree in engineering and once worked at Xerox Park.