Disclaimer: I was one of the people photographed as was Katherine McNenny, founder and editor of this blog, and so this article will come across like a Mutual Admiration Society rather than anything approaching journalism.
The images have been done over and over and over: red police lights pierce a foreboding black sky as officers have someone against a wall, someone else asleep on the sidewalk in sunny daylight surrounded by trash, someone else on drugs nodding out, someone else walking down the street wearing one shoe going nowhere.
These images of Skid Row aren’t inaccurate, but as pictures they’re so repetitive, so limited in the truth they convey – they’ve become misleading. The larger truth, the bigger picture, is Skid Row is extraordinarily complex and multi-dimensional.
With an awareness of the many stories on Skid Row, photographer Chuck Hasberger, a condo owner in Little Tokyo Lofts (actually in Skid Row but don’t tell anyone) did “Making Skid Row Better, a photography exhibit this past Downtown Art Walk. Held inside the Downtown Independent theater on Main Street, Chuck’s work was part of the DTLA Arts Collaborative.
Hasberger photographed in his Skid Row studio ten grassroots community improvers and asked them to write up something about what they do. The idea visually was to communicate joy and meaning through the people and the scope of their collective passion – Skid Row representatives in local neighborhood government to sweeping the streets to a mascot named Skiddy Cat for kids in the missions to planting gardens on top of Skid Row rooftops.
An expanded version of the exhibit is set for January in the heart of Skid Row at the James Woods Community Center.
Chuck is tall and big enough to be intimidating, but his quiet and calm presence ends up helping you relax. He’s lived in Skid Row for two years, but is not foreign to the area.
“I lived in the Arts District for two years in the mid-90’s”, he said. “The area has changed a lot since then, but it’s still Downtown.”
A photographer for many years specializing in portraits and food for presentation purposes, Chuck became a charter boat operator for ten years focused on sailing and lived up and down the California coast. Two years ago he went back to being a professional photographer when he moved to Skid Row.
“Making Skid Row Better” was not the first venture in using his skill to improve his community. While living in Ventura, he did an exhibit “Men of Ventura”, a cross section of men of different ages and professions, as well as an exhibit of women who have or had cancer.
As for this exhibit, Chuck explains: “I wanted to be part of Art Walk, heard about the DTLA Arts Collaborative, and figured since I’m a Skid Row resident I should do something highlighting people who do positive things”. He approached Katherine McNenny, his condo neighbor, and 80% of the people he photographed came from her referrals with the other 20% suggestions from the original 80%.
Chuck spent many Saturday mornings himself helping sweep the streets. “Sweeping the streets puts you on the front line and you learn just by being in that environment”, he said. “I’m continually learning about different facets of Skid Row and this project helped me understand the experiences of serious volunteers.”
As for his feeling about this past Thursday night at Art Walk, he said, “My favorite part of the night was seeing folks from Skid Row mingle and talk to people from outside Skid Row.”
Chuck’s vision for this project is ambitious. Next January it will be at the James Woods Community Center and he plans on photographing more community improvers to expand the number of photos and bios from ten to between 18-20 as well as blow up these existing photos to a larger size.
A video documentary is also being developed and for this January exhibit Chuck wants to invite city officials and local business leaders. Chuck is in the process of putting together a Kickstarter-type presentation to raise funding for next January.
In addition to this project, Chuck is talking with Pastor Tim Yee at Union Church in Little Tokyo, immediately north of where Chuck lives, about photographing some elderly Japanese who were in the World War II interment camps in conjunction with a play “Manzanar” set for next Spring inside the church.
While community projects are in Chuck’s immediate future, the long term story of Skid Row is still to be written – “I know I’m flat out curious what’s going to happen with Skid Row in 5-10 years as DTLA keeps changing. See how it all plays out.”
By Tom Grode
Blogger’s note: The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Trees on San Pedro Street Project editrix, Ms. McNenny. This is a Community improvement blog and not faith-based.