On July 25, Mechanicsville's Rosa Burney Park became the unlikely setting of a sprawling work of public art some three years in the making. Under a blazing sun and amid the pulse of blaring hip-hop, Neighborhood Planning Unit-V's Photovoice Project: Taking It to the Streets stood as the latest installment in an ongoing photography project documenting large swaths of the district, which comprises Mechanicsville, Pittsburgh, Adair Park, Summerhill and Peoplestown. Since 2007, residents have steadily documented the area’s blighted, abandoned properties in hopes of making visible a quality-of-life problem invisible even to many within the communities it affects. According to the Neighborhood Data Advisory Group, 42 percent of NPU-V's properties sit vacant. The event was both a celebration of the work as well as a call to arms to change the character of a neighborhood.
The Dirty Truth Campaign — a grassroots community organization devoted to improving the neighborhoods' physical conditions — has been developing Photovoice since the project's inception. The group distributed cameras in schools and to neighborhood groups and cultivated the results. Working with artist Lisa Tuttle, the event’s organizers lined Rosa Burney Park's tennis courts with dozens of large-scale photos snapped mostly by neighborhood middle and high school youths. The photos told the often tragic, always dispiriting stories of tires strewn across front lawns and burned-out shells of homes claimed by garbage and weedy overgrowth. Many are near Parks Middle School in Pittsburgh, where the photographers pass them daily on their way to and from school.
Each photo sits above a lengthy sort of caption in which the photographer has named himself or herself and written a rationale for the photo: why it matters, why community residents shouldn’t take these conditions as a given.
In Atlanta, the phrase "public art" all too often refers to some big, poorly sited chunk of bronze (or cinderblock) treated shabbily by its surrounding neighborhoods. But there's another kind of public art less concerned with objects and more with creating interactions between people. It’s this strand of social sculpture exemplified in ongoing projects such as Houston’s Project Row Houses that Taking It to the Streets taps into. Like the Houston project, Streets draws little distinction between art and community engagement. In both cases, the artistic is the political.
Campaign volunteer Ronnie Galvin stresses the importance of emphasizing both the action and the object. “The photography is one part of it, but the camera is the other part of it. What the camera does is it gives folks the chance to revision the community... . It gave folks a chance to say, ‘Oh yeah, we kind of forgot that was here. And you know what? We can’t tolerate that.’”
The Dirty Truth Campaign started in 2007 as an outgrowth of a partnership between the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Georgia State University's public health department under the auspices of project manager Unique Redwood. The Campaign’s Photovoice project got legs in large part because of a single photo by Mechanicsville resident Jamal Wolfe. Walking to the corner store for a soda, Wolfe noticed people smoking crack inside a boarded-up, run-down apartment building — an unavoidable obstacle between himself and the store. He called the photo “Crackhead Haven.” The document helped convince the campaign to focus on vacant properties as the connection between a number of the community’s ills.
Rob Welsh, the campaign’s current board chair, saw empty homes as an obvious first line of attack. “This vacant property issue is an assault on the family,” said Welsh at the July event. “Memories are created [in homes]. Experiences are created there. You take that away and you have vacant properties that are being squatted by prostitutes, folks with addictive diseases, disabilities or mental health issues. That’s a very serious problem and it tears the community down. It’s tearing our city apart.”
No one knows that better than Chandra Gallashaw of Pittsburgh. Gallashaw’s daughter was raped on the porch of an abandoned house shortly after the two moved to the neighborhood from Covington. She was in high school at the time. Gallashaw became an activist for the abatement of distressed properties the next day and is now a volunteer with the Dirty Truth Campaign.
The Photovoice Project makes the problem of vacant properties visible through photography. By extension, poverty and criminally unequal economic development throughout the city come to light.
If the Photovoice project lives up to its potential, it will not only serve as a way for the community to see and understand itself, it will also catalyze a range of discussions beyond NPU-V's borders. Semira Ajani, a volunteer initially working through the Annie E. Casey Foundation, echoes this sentiment. “What I admire most about this process is that residents have the courage to show these things as issues in their communities. They’re actually able to name these challenges. We who don’t live inside the community, we drive by every day and we’re like, ‘What are these people doing over here?’ But they look at these [abandoned houses] and say, ‘This is not what I want for my community. These are not the things that I would do to my community.’”
The coupling of the artistic and the political will become even tighter in a symposium the Dirty Truth Campaign will mount in October. The symposium is designed to serve as a forum for project participants and other community members to voice their concerns to elected officials. The photos will again be on display, and organizers hope that they will jumpstart dialog in ways that words alone have previously failed.