New Work: St. Andrews Plaza
THE PHOTOS IN THIS GALLERY ARE OF SOME PEOPLE, MOST OF THEM DRUG ADDICTS, who, in October 2016, were kicked out of a tiny urban Plaza in a bad part of West Oakland. It wasn't hard to find them because they didn't really leave; they just retreated to the sidewalks and waited for it to reopen. I'd walked through the Plaza before it closed to confirm the obvious: I was an intruder; it was a drug hot spot. I wasn't welcome. But after it closed and I saw some of the same people sitting on Filbert Street, I realized we had something in common. Not drugs. Not race. But age: We were older. We have wisdom and stories to tell. I was accepted as "The Picture Lady" after I kept coming back to give people beautiful black and white portraits of themselves. Later, when I began recording their stories, I found out that almost all of them had grown up nearby and were children during Oakland's terrible late '80s crack epidemic. They are the leftovers; the children who didn't make it; the adults who need the most help. Most have been through prison and rehab, but for reasons that are unknown, even to themselves, they haven't been able to stay straight. They say that what they want now is a new life, but they have settled for a lot less: a place to sleep, a day in peace, and enough money to get food and drugs.
When it opened in the 1950s, West Oakland was almost all black and the Plaza was a place for neighbors to get out of their crowded houses to socialize and play chess and dominoes. But after the crack epidemic it was gradually taken over by dealers (called "grinders") and over the years crack has remained the drug of choice. The space is tiny, the size of a small back yard, but by 2016 it was spilling-over crowded and homeless men were sleeping in it at night. The drugs were run out of a house across the street and the grinders who lived there ran the show. Most observers think the police made a decision to let the drug dealing go on in the Plaza because they were tired of arresting people and just moving the drug spots around. But a policeman I talked to gave me a bigger picture: "The issues in that area are not just the burden of the police. There are historic socioeconomic challenges that have faced that area for decades."
It was skyrocketing property values and activist neighbors who finally forced the city to close down the Plaza and, with a grant from the state, build a new one. City Administrator Joe DeVries asked the neighbors to help design the new space (called St Andrews Plaza) and after many meetings they came up with a plan, mainly to keep the bad guys out: an iron fence with a gate and key, a cement pad surrounded by some small, tough plants, and three small, uncomfortable rocks to sit on. The uses for the new Plaza would be...well... "creative." The activist neighbors would somehow make it work for them. But as of this writing (March 2018) no one has stepped up, probably because the homeless and the addicts have not gone away. It may be that a new "Community Grocery Store" being built a block away will become the tipping point. No one, even the addicts themselves, want dealers to be around mothers with strollers and children.
I don't have a photo of what the space looked like before the city closed it down because no one wanted their picture taken. And it was dangerous. A white guy wearing a Motorcycle Club jacket told me he was chased away by a man running out of the drug house with a gun. And one of the dealers who called himself "The Mayor" of the park was recently shot and disabled. And now, on January 16th, I was robbed and mugged. My camera was yanked off my neck by a young guy I'm told is now in jail. He pulled so hard on the camera straps around my neck that I crashed to the ground, breaking my two front teeth.
This is the brand new Plaza that cost $460,000 to build but has yet to open.
Click on this photo to enter the Gallery. To see captions, hover over the photos.
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.
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 solve it's problem with these addicts, and I sympathize with the neighbors who want to get rid of the crime and the drumbeat of petty squabbling and yelling that goes along with them. A lot of the addicts are mentally or physically ill and most grew up in hopeless situations made worse by alcohol and drugs. And yet, when I ask them what is the most important thing in their life, they say, like we do, their families, mostly their children and grandchildren. These people may be defeated and despised, but there is almost always someone who loves them.
I'm now in the process of recording some of their stories because most photos are not worth a thousand words. The portraits, I hope, will show why I first kept coming back to Filbert Street: visually I love their faces.