The Homeless Population at 289 Derby

 

photo: Claudia Paraschiv

Stumps by Michael Jaros

A series of stumps were brought to 289 Derby by city workers to be used as flexible seating for the upcoming Community Design Events, and we wanted to paint them. But who would paint them? On one of our first days at the site, a group of teens from the On Point Plummer Youth Promise came to help. Paint was everywhere, as the stumps took on a life of their own and a series of strange, otherworldly colors emerged. Some stumps were spackled with multiple colors of paint, some were hand-printed, and some were monochromatic. We quickly realized that we had not logistically thought through a lot of things – we did not have water, for instance, to wash off the brushes and rollers and only a limited amount of supplies. Trips to the gas station and ace hardware solved these problems, somewhat.

When the kids left we still had more stumps to paint. A day or so later, two friends brought their two children to help paint the stumps and the process began again: select a nice color from our many paint-cans, make sure there was actually paint in it, find a brush that was still usable, fill up the water bucket, and so on. The kids painted with a frenzy and excitement that oscillated with mild disinterest.

We’d had some encounters with homeless folks who occupied the side of the gas station next to the 289 lot. A man named John had come forward first and talked to us about what we were doing. He then returned with his friend and wrote on one of the doors we had set up for community interactions, which read “WRITE YOUR QUESTION HERE.” The question he wrote was “Why are the homeless treated so poorly?” The second question was: “Why does the shelter not help anyone?” It was a stark reminder of their presence and of their humanity, something we often willfully ignore or place just at the uncomfortable margins of our sight. They were curious about what we were working on, but also wanted to be involved in what was happening. Understandably, they approached our actions with a deep skepticism.

We’d rolled a series of logs near the water to be used for a drum circle during the first event. I’d noticed a group of homeless had begun sitting there and, as I was once more painting nearby, John came and talked to me. I learned a little more about him. He had three sons. He had worked in a variety of fields from construction to IT. He had not seen his sons in years. They did not know where he was. I didn’t ask what made him live on the streets and he didn’t tell me. He asked if it was ok if his friends sat on the stumps in the circle. I said it was fine. I told him I would be moving over to the circle to paint those stumps soon.

I confess I was somewhat afraid to do so. The stigma around homelessness has also affected me, but this conversation with Barry had made me feel less trepidation. I began painting a stump in the circle and very quickly they began chatting with me; some of them asked if they could help to paint. A woman was clearly drunk, but wanted to help. She kept calling me David, instead of Michael, and told me she thought she was stuck on that name because she’d had a son who had died who had had that name. Another woman joined and painted an entire stump and ended it by placing a heart on the top of it. I didn’t catch her name, but she had “been lucky” and gotten her family and her house back after a spate with addiction. She had merely come out there, it seems, to meet with her friends from her harder times. Another man told jokes and riddles, and kept asking me what I thought of them, why I wanted to hang out there with them. A man named Green, dressed in a green hat, green shirt, and green socks jacket painted an entire stump green.

Eventually I had to be on my way and took the paint back to its place and cleaned up. It was a brief, accidental moment, but I think it was important. Empathy is in short supply these days and it certainly tempered any fear or frustration that I may have had at later events as screams might have rung out, chairs might have been kicked over, or fights broken out on the edge of 289. They are there, they are people with hopes and dreams, and they must be a part of the process.

(note: names have been changed)

Extended – Call for Writers

Salem Public Space Cards: an artful gaze onto our shared public spaces.

Over a dozen local photographers have chosen and photographed a public space meaningful to them. What will their image inspire you to write about a place that you know or discover in your own way?

Cards will feature a public space photo and a poem/ written reflection inspired by the photo on the other. To be launched and for sale at the Salem Arts Festival, 2017. The Public Space Cards will be packaged with a map of all locations. All proceeds will go towards recovering production cost and then divided equally among participants. (Cost TBD)

Call for Participants: Salem Photographers

spsp_call-10-2016

project description:

Salem Public Space Cards are a project to cast an artful gaze onto our shared public spaces.

The cards will feature a photo of a public space on one side taken from the unique perspective of a local photographer, and a poem inspired by the photo on the other, and packaged with a map of all locations.

They will be launched and for sale at the Salem Arts Festival 2017.

Deadline for photo submission: Nov 6, 2016

To participate, contact us!

Walking the Point

It’s hard to go into a place without an agenda. As I begin my walk on a Sunday morning in late April, my agenda is to photograph The Point for “The Beauty of the Point” series, (a fledgling in April). I imagine big beauty to make a big point: the neighborhood is misunderstood and here’s a photo of an ideal tree lined street to prove it.

Perhaps I am still an outsider. Perhaps I don’t see certain things. Or by simple bad luck, I miss all sorts of harmonious happenings occurring just seconds before I happen along. Or perhaps my words cannot carry to you the subtle beauty I do find; small things show joy, activity, striving, an enjoyment of life, a smile for the almost spring day.

The surrounding reality dominates these small things and, while beautiful, they tell a bittersweet tale: no one goes into a “good” neighborhood to photograph “good things.” Of course, people may go there to also set the record straight and show the loneliness of still idealized suburban bliss. Set to capture the suburban banality, the photographer unwittingly smiles at the blooming azaleas. Here, I come in search of flowers and trip over the trash. In both instances, the case for a place is complicated by its own complexity. This is what I found walking The Point in April.

The flower growing between asphalt cracks encourages me to bring out my camera. Still on the edge of the neighborhood, I walk along the path traced by Palmer Cove shore. The southern edge of The Point is not a distinct line, but depends on perception and changes like the tides.

The most popular community garden in Salem, on the edge of The Point, is alive with a half dozen people talking, planning, painting, plotting and potting. Perhaps there will be a version of this garden in the center of The Point and not on the edge, soon enough. My first stop is to look upon the sunflower bud we planted two days ago; it lies as if slain on the nutrient rich soil we brought to help it grow. Across the way in Mary Jane Lee Park, the bulletin board is up and clean but unused. With disappointment at eyelevel, I look up: the street trees relish the day and their young chartreuse buds reach up to the sky to contrast it, and my perception. This is Dow Street.

Flowers are resilient

Flowers are resilient

Community garden volunteers - springtime actions

Community garden volunteers – springtime actions

Some fertile soil, but the sunflower didn't make it

Some fertile soil, but the sunflower didn’t make it

Community Events - waiting

Community Events – waiting

Blooms on Dow Street

Blooms on Dow Street

06_Dow Street sign

I then turn North and walk along Congress Street – a potential bustling business thoroughfare, if you are to believe the musings of an older gentlemen discussing possibilities for the area at The Point Visioning meeting from several weeks before. On the corner of Harbor and Congress streets, the branches of a mature tree frame an old mural placed three stories above street level. Its bright colors convey a favorite message: this is a good neighborhood. A play car speeds down Harbor Street towards me as I cross, and some of the bodegas are open for business.

Dow Street view west

Dow Street view west

08_Harbor Street sign

Harbor Street mural through trees

Harbor Street mural through trees

Toy car speeds down Harbor Street

Toy car speeds down Harbor Street

I keep walking. On the other side of Harbor Street, after passing Park Street, a narrow concrete alley and the least park-like of any of the streets, I happen along two novena candles placed on the sidewalk in front of another sort of mural. This mural, at sidewalk level, is different in many ways from the city sponsored one celebrating community. The unambiguous symbols of “R.I.P” on a gravestone and the candles on the sidewalk speak of the tragedy that occurred on this very spot. The message of the earlier official mural depended on the bright colors more than the content. Here these deeper colors of brown, black, red, and green against the masonry canvas communicate somber remembrance, but the direct message it what stays in your mind.

Park Street is the least vegetated of all these streets

Park Street is the least vegetated of all these streets

The informal mural on Dow Street

The informal mural on Dow Street

Thoughts of this mural occupy me as I aimlessly walk and snap photos: on Prince Street, a shell of an ancient television set provides a tiny shelf for tiny plants to grow; on Ward Street, parked cars perfectly frame the spire of Immaculate Conception, the neighborhood church.

old television set face with new plant growth

old television set face with new plant growth

view to Immaculate Conception, the community church

view to Immaculate Conception, the community church

As I walk back down Congress Street, I come to the northern edge of The Point. Here, a fragment of a park uses a checkerboard pattern to distribute the slight trees, brick-like paving, concrete paving, concrete benches or barriers, all organized along hard lines. This small, sterile park is the threshold to the neighborhood along Congress Street; a descriptive tourist board hints at the neighborhood’s history, but this official place feels incredibly out of place. The park is an attempt at improvement, perhaps, but only symbolically.

A threshold park?

A threshold park?

official history

official history

In this dense neighborhood, space is a premium, and this piece is not useful for play or for parking and so it remains unintegrated and unused. I walk along Peabody Street and I see layers of play through chain-link fences that provide a peculiar layer of transparency and security: the small diagonal frames beg one to look through. Somehow, these fences that frame the intermingling of disparate elements provide a greater opportunity for dialogue than the straight-jacketed park.

at play

at play

Rusted gate to city land of electrical plant

Rusted gate to city land of electrical plant

artificial flowers - layers of paradox

artificial flowers – layers of paradox

layers of nature and industry

layers of nature and industry

An older mural, and the new one on the right

An older mural, and the new one on the right

22_how many sponsors does it take to paint a mural

The edges of the neighborhood certainly show the most outside investment when compared to the central streets. A new official mural, opposite the relatively new Peabody Street Park, is also unreachably high on the third story of the blank brick side of the building. At eyelevel, a plaque highlights the many donors that made this mural possible. The message here too is familiar: this is a good neighborhood. It’s not a bad message, but it must be up high, where the contrasting messages that lie closer to the ground can’t contradict it.

View from Peabody Park, looking towards The Point

View from Peabody Park, looking towards The Point

As I look back towards the neighborhood, I begin to accept the competing narratives of the area, even as much of my work strives to bolster the good – much like the City Officials. But how can this attempt for improvement be robust and not mere lip-service? One truth is that those seeking to improve must first listen – this walk was an attempt to listen.

Are the officials listening to what the community really has to say? How can the official line engage the multifaceted community threads?

How can the community more effectively express their desires?

How could such a dialogue lead official efforts to truly benefit the community they claim to want to serve?

Keep Getting to The Point!

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Get to The Point: Neighborhood Narratives installation in Derby Square at the Salem Arts Festival – view of postcard stories located on neighborhood chalk map.

During the months of May and June, Salem Public Space Project collected stories from Point residents and people who have spent some time in the neighborhood. The good memories shared in the stories encourage people to go to the neighborhood – so close to Downtown Salem, yet perceived as such a distant destination.

During the Salem Arts Festival, Salem Public Space Project shared these experiences through an installation that feature postcards to take and share in turn. On Saturday, June 8th, Salem State University students launched the installation through a dramatic performance of storytelling and map drawing of the little known Salem neighborhood. The stories happened in parks, on stoops, down streets, and through open windows. SPSP snapped shots of eleven of the most compelling stories and locations. Explore them all through the growing interactive map.

Salem State University students perform stories written by Point Residents

Salem State University students perform stories written by Point Residents.

Derby Square provides the perfect stage: Salem's central Public Space hosts stories about the city's more marginalized public spaces

Derby Square provides the perfect stage: Salem’s central Public Space hosts stories about the city’s more marginalized public spaces.

The performers read several rounds of the stories as they fill in the neighborhood blocks with chalk.

The performers read several rounds of the stories as they fill in the neighborhood blocks with chalk.

Some lessons learned for future use: 1. position the installation to allow for a closer audience.

Some lessons learned for future use: Locate the installation to allow for a closer audience.

Another lesson: Performances are better after lunch as not everyone gets up bright and early Saturday mornings!

Another lesson: Performances are better after lunch as not everyone gets up bright and early Saturday mornings!

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The performers filled in the map quite quickly and it could have really been twice the size! (although set up took hours…)

The performers finished chalking in the neighborhood map and began lifting up the paper template.

The performers finished chalking in the neighborhood map and began lifting up the paper template.

The dynamic lifting of the template was a great climax to the steady rhythm of the story readings.

The dynamic lifting of the template was a great climax to the steady rhythm of the story readings.

A flurry of activity.

A flurry of activity.

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Soon, the performers reveal the map they created.

The stands are set back to mark the location of each story, and the performers take their bow.

The stands are set back to mark the location of each story, and the performers take their bow.

The installation stayed up for two days in Derby Square - story #4 "Green Salem, Clean Salem" and Story #9 "Talking Play" were among the most popular of the postcards collected by visitors to the Salem Arts Festival.

The installation stayed up for two days in Derby Square – story #4 “Green Salem, Clean Salem” and Story #9 “Talking Play” were among the most popular of the postcards collected by visitors to the Salem Arts Festival.

If you missed the project, you will have another chance to read stories and collect cards during Salem’s Heritage Week – exact time and location to be determined. Contact us for more info.

(A big thank you to Matt Caruso at Salem Main Streets for all his help, and all the other organizers and volunteers for the festival!)