What has led us to be afraid of our inner cities, what has led to the poverty, desperation, crime, drugs and sense of hopelessness?
This project has come from many places. I suppose some of the experiences I had as a child and teenager growing up in Philadelphia contributed greatly to not only who I am and how I see and understand the world but also to the work I make. I was 13 or 14 at the time and late one summer afternoon I was walking down the main avenue near my house growing up to rent a video. As I was walking past the Acme and basketball court, 20 kids rolled up and surrounded me. As they started talking shit and calling me white boy etc, I knew what was coming and I prayed that I got out of this one ok. A few of them slapped me around, punched me in the stomach, etc and then I felt hands reaching into my pockets until my wallet was found. Someone took the few dollars I had, my wallet was thrown on sidewalk, a few more punches landed and then it was over. I picked up my wallet and continued my walk to the video store as the adrenaline poured through my body, I was defeated, vulnerable, scared and angry. (more)
I rented a video as I set out to do, probably something like Rambo or Goodfellas and then began my walk home. Instead of taking another street home I decided to walk past the basketball court. It took all the courage I could muster up but I knew I had to show heart and pride, even if that meant another beat down. As I past the court all the kids who jumped me were still there and when they saw me coming they ran to the fence and started yelling and laughing at me, talking more shit, but this time they didn’t beat me up, they let me pass.
When I got home I was angry and pissed off and my mother asked me what happened. I told her that I was sick of getting beat up and asked why couldn’t we move away from this like all my other friend’s families had done when things started to get bad in the neighborhood. That is not an option, she told me, we will get through this.
And we did get through it. Looking back at that situation, I realize there was no real danger, those kids were just taxing me for walking by them. It was the order of things, a rule of the street I suppose, that if this white boy was going to walk by these kids who were tough and this was their corner, a beat down was part of the equation, a natural rule of the world just as the sun rises every morning and sets every night, these kids couldn’t just let me pass, otherwise rules would be broken and the ways of the world thrown into chaos. I am grateful for every beat down I have taken over the years. It has taught me so much about so many things, and more than anything about myself.
Late one night several years ago I sat in my car in a cheap motel parking lot and watched a man slap and push a woman as they argued and fought over something. Just as I was about to get out of my car and intervene, he pushed her into the car and they drove off. I sat there and asked myself why I had not gotten out earlier? Was I afraid?
I sat there for a while and thought about fear. I thought about the things that I am most afraid of, the things that frighten our society, how America has chosen a course of action based on fear. I remembered all of the times growing up when I was afraid of walking down the street, afraid of getting beat up, afraid of getting robbed, afraid of a gun in my face, afraid of what might happen when I turned the corner. I thought about where the last place I would want to find myself late at night would be and why.
This is where Down These Mean Streets began, sitting in a rental car in that motel parking lot one dark rainy night scribbling in my notebook. My fears were probably similar to those of many for concerns about simple personal safety, but the more I thought about this I wanted to know what has caused this. What has led us to be afraid of our inner cities, what has led to the poverty, desperation, crime, drugs and sense of hopelessness?
The camera is a beautiful gift from the gods that allows me to ask questions, open doors to places I would never explore otherwise and to see the world with brave curiosity. Memories of my childhood and questions about why America has allowed its inner cities to crumble without any means to repair themselves are the roots of the bud that was nurtured by the 2008 presidential campaign, economic and housing crisis and a trip to Baltimore that became the tree I call Down These Mean Streets.