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. But after it closed and I saw some of the same people sitting on chairs and crates on the sidewalks of Filbert Street, I realized we had something in common. It wasn't drugs; it wasn't race; it was our age: we were older. Older folks have stories to tell and respond positively when someone is interested.  I was accepted at first as "The Picture Lady" because I kept coming back to give people beautiful prints of themselves. Later, when I began hearing their stories, I found out that almost all of them had grown up nearby and were children during Oakland's terrible 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 they just couldn't kick. 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 of the '80s 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. 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, probably because they were tired of arresting people and just moving the drug spots around.

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 beautiful new one. City Administrator Joe DeVries asked the neighbors to help plan the new space (now called St Andrews Plaza) and after many meetings they came up with a design: 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 (January 2018) no one has stepped up probably because the homeless and the addicts have not gone away.  Someday the Plaza may seem like a good idea, but I think there will never be a good answer as to why it cost almost a half a million dollars.  

I don't have a photo of what the space looked like before the city closed it down because no one in it wanted their picture taken. And it was dangerous. A white guy in a Motorcycle Club a block away told me that when he walked over to check the Plaza out he was chased away by a man running out of the drug house with a gun. (And breaking news --  on January 16th I was mugged. My camera was yanked off my neck by a man who pulled on the straps so hard 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,
The alienated
About the wounded, the crippled,
The helpless, the rootless,
The dislocated.
About duress and trouble
About finality
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 that goes along with them. I haven't seen any violence on Filbert Street (OOPS, other than my mugging) but I have seen a constant drumbeat of petty squabbling and yelling; mostly people trying to deal with "the crazies" among 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 husbands, their wives, their children and grandchildren. These folks may be down and out but there is 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 the faces.