Stray Shopping Carts
Today our seminar interviewed (via conference call) artist Julian Montague about his book The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification. The book is quite unique, and offers a different perspective on an item (shopping carts) that we have been considering in conjunction with homelessness.
To create his field guide, Julian spent a lot of time biking around cities like Buffalo and Cleveland, photographic shopping carts. From those pictures, he developed a scientific method of stray-cart classification. Julian is, he explained to us, interested in exploring the ways scientific classification methods can impact art – an unexpected combination.
We have officially taken over the space in the Dean Johnson Gallery! After a much-needed Spring Break we headed to downtown Indianapolis. Our impending opening on April 6 felt very real as we organized the potential spaces where will soon install our work.
Friday morning we visited the Getty Center. We took a couple hours to look around, and then met in the outdoor café to talk about our experiences. Wes asked us to consider what we found powerful or poignant – the things that punched us in the gut.
Diana found herself thinking about her own reaction to Skid Row:
“I can walk through horrible conditions, seeing and realizing the extent of poverty's impact on a person's existence. This moving experience, however, will not truly change the way I live my own life. I will still spend my money on frivolous things and drink my $4 cups of coffee… there is a disconnect between my actions and my ability to rationalize how these actions affect the world as a whole. I have realized that the junkie at homeless health care, the illegal immigrant trying to cross the border, the architect designing for those without homes, and I are all part of the same system.”
Amanda had a similar reaction:
“The trip to L.A. has made me realize how uncomfortable I feel with my own reactions to homelessness; I make eye contact with a person of the streets and don't know how to respond. I walked past a homeless person, I look down nervously, not prepared to interact. I stare from a distance, but I ignore when the sitiuation is in my face. By pretending to ignore I isolated myself and the other person. As I walked through L.A., I tried to take in all the glamorous and beautiful sites, but I would stop and stare at a person living on the street. I wonder what put them on the street, why they can't make it in the world, and why I stare but don't do anything; All these questions build up, am I afraid to admit something about myself? Am I afraid of my reactions to them or theirs to me? I want to listen, but I dont know how.”
Crossing the Border
Today we crossed the border. Instead of going to the touristy Tijuana, we drove a couple hours east to Calexico, to cross into the Mexican city of Mexicali.
On our way, we stopped in the desert and Wes read aloud from The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto. The passage was about what it was like to die in the desert of heat stroke, something that happened to hundreds of Mexicans trying to illegially cross into the United States last year.
It is a graphic description of a tortourous death, and was a powerful thing to hear, sitting on sand with the sun beating down on my head.
We took a few minutes to photograph the desert, then it was back to the vans and on to Mexico.
Describing Mexicali is about perspective. I could say that it was dirty and run-down. I could say it was vibrant and colorful. I will try to stick to facts. Mexicali had a smell: heat, bodies, grease from street-side deep fryers. Mexicali was busy; we saw a toddler peddling chicklets, old men shining shoes, bored-looking teenaged prostitutes standing in a stairwell. Meg and Mona ate lunch, and said it was delicious. Adam, who speaks Spanish, helped Bre buy two pairs of (really cute!) shoes.
We spent an hour in Mexico, and then crossed back into the US together. Based on what we learned yesterday, most of us believed security between Calexico and Mexicali would be tight. We were surprised at the relative ease both Americans and Mexicans seemed to have walking into the US. I put my purse through the X-Ray machine, but the man who was supposed to check it had his back to the moniter.
We were set to drive back to LA, but first Wes (our professor) had two “desert surprises” for us our group.
We had no idea what we were going to see. Wes turned off of the highway (and the second van followed) into through a dusty, isolated little community called Niland. We did not stop, but continued through, putting the tiny houses and trailers behind us. Up ahead, around a bend in the road, we saw some rocky hills, like small mountains. One stood out against the brown California landscape. It was red…and blue, yellow, purple..
“It” is Salvation Mountain, created over 25 years by Leonard Knight. As soon as we got out of the vans, the artist himself approached our group and offered a tour. We happily obliged, and Leonard showed us his mountain.
The base of the mountain is a lake. A “yellow brick road” leads climbers past Bible verses and adobe flowers. Atop the mountain are two telephone poles rigged up to form a cross, and red letters proclaim “God is Love!”
The best thing about Salvation Mountain is Leonard. He’s got to be at least seventy, and he lives in the middle of the desert, creating this beautiful piece of art just because he wants everyone to know that God loves them. He isn’t preachy; he doesn’t judge or even question your beliefs. When large churches have asked to use his mountain for services, or even to pay him for use of the mountain, he politely tells them no.
“God’s love belongs to everybody,” Leonard told us.
If our first surprise was this heartwarming, lovely thing, our second surprise was quite the opposite. We drove toward the Salton Sea, and through another tiny desert town called Bombay Beach.
Bombay Beach was built in 1929 as a lakeside resort, but storms in the seventies submerged a large part of the development. Today, the water has receded, and the ruins of the town are again visible.
When we arrived, the sun was just dipping into the horizon, washing the rotting wood and rusty metal in gold. The air smelled salient and fishy. I couldn’t hear anyone further than a few feet away, because the wind and waves were so loud. It was eerie.
After yesterday’s powerful experience on Skid Row we put Los Angeles behind us for a couple days.
Our first stop today was San Diego State University, to see the Salk Institute. Yesterday, Neal Matsuno from Moore Ruble Yudell, shared a quote by Charles Moore (the founder of Moore Ruble Yudell) about the Salk Institute,
“They stick pigs there.”
Regardless of politics, it is an important building
We took some time to explore the institute, then drove on to the Department of Homeland Security to meet the US border patrol. As young adults from the Midwest, most of us did not know a lot about the border.
We packed in to a van and an SUV driven by two border patrol agents. We spent more than an hour listening to their perspective on border security, often ideas that we had not before considered.
Bre remembers feeling sympathetic to illegal immigrants before, but being struck by something Matt, one of the agents, had to say. “If they are crossing illegally, chances are they are trying to avoid the feds for a reason,” he said. Both agents had been talking a lot about drug lords, criminals, and murderers. “Do we really want these people crossing into our country?”
It was something to think about, especially since tomorrow we will be crossing the border ourselves, from Calexico to Mexicali.
A Needle for a Needle
We drove downtown today to check out some LA architectural landmarks, like the Disney Concert Hall, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, CalTrans, and Pershing Square. After a morning of stature, wealth and beauty, we had a 1:00 appointment on Skid Row
We were scheduled to meet with Mark Casanova, the executive director of Homeless Health Care. An introduction was provided by James, who told us about the various services offered, including wound care, counseling, detox assistance, STD testing and needle exchange.
It is the needle exchange on which much of our attention was focused. At this facility, anyone can bring in used syringes to exchange for clean ones. It is one way to help curb the spread of infection and disease.
It is, as one might imagine, a controversial service. My purpose in blogging is to relate to anyone who cares what happened; I am not here to render judgment or attempt indoctrination. But perspective is important. I really struggled with the kind of place that would provide drug paraphernalia and call itself “healthcare.” It sounds like a contradiction, like validating and endorsing destructive drug addiction.
Mark offered me (and maybe those who think like me) another perspective. “What we’re doing,” he said, “shouldn’t really be all that controversial. He talked about places in Europe where addicts were offered not only clean needles, but a sterile room in which to use them. “They’re going to shoot up anyway. This is about harm reduction. When they’re ready to detox, we’re here and they know that.”
James agreed. The services provided by Homeless Healthcare are available to anyone, whether or not they are sober. “I don’t care about drug use,” said James. “I care about providing services.
James and Mark also offered us the chance to observe the counter where individuals were coming in and out to use the public restroom, speak with the doctor, or exchange needles.
The experience and information from the needle exchange would have been enough to show me that I had no idea what life was like on Skid Row. However, after James and Mark finished speaking, we left Homeless Healthcare for a walking tour of the area.
Our group was led by Michael Lehrer, an architect who had designed two buildings in Skid Row. He showed us those buildings, the Downtown Drop-In Center and the James M. Wood Community Center, and explained to us how they were conceived, paid for, and used.
I feel quite powerless when I try to relate what it was like to walk down the street in Skid Row as a young, white, middle-class American woman. What I felt was kind of like these words: invasive; conspicuous; guilty; bare.
Matt also tried to put it in writing. “I felt very awkward and ashamed to even look at the residents,” he wrote. “One man approached and angrily accused us of being ‘fucking tourists.’ I was more than uncomfortable that I was strolling around a neighborhood where I was obviously not wanted. To further complicate things, we weren't there to meet the people--we were there talking about the "architectonics" and "beauty" of a shelter designed by a renowned architect..”
I was grateful to one woman on Skid Row. I do not wish to assume anything about her, but when I looked at her I remembered that a lot of people who live on Skid Row have from mental disabilities. She watched us, like everyone was. Unlike everyone else, though, she spoke to us. I wrote a poem about it.
We did some other stuff today. Cool stuff, whose importance I do not wish to discount – the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), two more architecture offices called More Ruble Yudell and Suisman Urban Design – but I think, for most of us, this will be the day we went to Skid Row.
First Day in LA
Out first stop today was Cannon Design, an Architecture firm on Avenue of the Stars. There we talked with Craig Hamilton about Cannon, and about Los Angeles in general. “LA,” he told us, “is filled with people doing things.” Such a simple statement, but it made me think about some of the other places we’ve traveled. No one would say that about Flint.
After meeting with Cannon, we drove to Culver City to see some architectural achievements by Eric Own Moss, one of which was the first new project completed in Central Los Angeles after the riots in the early nineties. We also stopped at a great Japanese pop culture store called Giant Robot.
To complete our first full day in LA, we met with Kelly Kent from the Corporation for Supportive Housing. CSH is a Los Angeles organization similar to Partners from Indianapolis, except that CSH is more a facilitator than a supplier of supportive housing.
One thing Kelly mentioned is that the groups working toward permanent, supportive housing in Los Angeles that do not require individuals to be sober before offering services.
After explaining CSH, Kelly told us a little about Skid Row. Skid Row is a concentrated area of addiction and homelessness in downtown LA. It exists because of the containment policy from the 1970’s, when city officials chose to centralize all the resources for the homeless into one area. Inevitably, once people came to the area for the services, they stayed – whether they traditional housing or not. Thus, Skid Row: as one of the staff members of our hostel commented early this morning, “fifty blocks of wall-to-wall homelessness.”
There is a lot of controversy surrounding Skid Row. Kelly told of one story he’d read in the newspaper, where “hospital workers had dropped off a paraplegic in Skid Row, while still in his gown and wearing a colostomy bag. They left him there in the middle of the night.”
He also spoke of recent efforts to “clean up” Skid Row. I say “clean up” because no one is really doing much cleaning – it is more like relocating the homeless people somewhere else – often the outskirts of the city, or jail.
Today we landed in LA and made our way to the hostel, where we immediately noticed just how stark some of the contrasts are in Southern California. We are staying in Santa Monica, a couple of block from the Pacific in one direction and the Third Street Promenade in the other. We sought lunch on Third Street, walking past scores of shoppers, street performers, and homeless people. Just outside high-end fashion shops like Diesel and Armani Exchange sit dirty, bedraggled men and women asking for my change. It is a jarring experience.
Allow me to...