Monday, December 7, 2009

Crossroads: 14th St. and Cedar Ave.

Jordan and Kelsey Walton, 8 and 10, usher congregation members into the New Hope Baptist Church at the start of a Sunday sermon. The Church is the spiritual center of the community.


The intersection of E 14th St. and Cedar Ave. in East Austin, TX is the crossroads for the community around it. A convenience store, a welding shop, the Free Angola Capoeira Society, and a network of other business unify new and old members of the community outside of their homes.


Congregation members socialize in the parking lot of the New Hope Baptist Church following Sunday services.


Celester Fowl and the congregation of the New Hope Baptist Church wait for the collection basket as they listen to Pastor Roy F. Jones II during Sunday morning services. Throughout the service, Jones and a chorus of singers led the church in songs that brought congregation members to their feet.


Adam Calloway and Jason Rittman moved into their Cedar Ave. home in May 2009. “I think this is a great neighborhood,” Calloway said. “All these people have been here for ever and once you get to know them they are really nice but at first it’s kind of weird.”


Al Mak, owner of the Shopper Stop Food Store, tends to customers while “Dolfus,” an employee answers his cell phone. Mak has managed the convenience store for 10 years and knows most of his customers personally.


Sarah Cheatham holds her son Django at the Austin Metal Authority’s open house during the East Austin studio tour in November. “More development that’s the biggest change,” said Brady Foster, a blacksmith at the shop. “More newer houses and more businesses have opened up and I do think it will continue to change and it will continue to change quicker.


Barbara Massington has lived in her house on Cedar Ave. since she was born 1954. “Born and raised here, I’d like to do some traveling but I’m just like Dorothy,” Massington said. “I click my heels and say there is no place like home.”

quotes compiled by Tamir Kalifa and Erika Rich

Reflections on the photo essay.

I was standing in line at the RBM food mart on Manor road holding a loaf of bread, eggs and a gallon of milk. I shop at this convenience mart because my house is conveniently located two minutes away from all the shopping I ever need for twice the price I pay anywhere else. It’s nice and tame. Junk you don’t need, lots of beer, joose, four loko and fading posters of buxom blondes holding beer in a can that hasn’t been produced in five years. The craziest thing that ever occurred to me while shopping was when the guy at the register offered me a free lighter with my dad standing next to me. Otherwise it’s mostly smiles and sweatpants. That’s why when the black man behind me in line said “Fuck you white people,” I was caught off guard.

“Fuck you white people.” I thought about it for what seemed like the time it would have taken me to pay for groceries, walk to my car and drive home. I conjured an impassioned response about the evolution of race relations and why such an accusation level against me was unwarranted because, among other things, a) I didn’t do anything to him and b) neither did any of my family because they were busy having their houses burned and weddings crashed by the Russians in Poland 100 years ago. Even if I did say anything to him (which I did not) I definitely would not have said those things. What came out as I signed another fraction of my life with their pen shackled to the counter, was most likely no than a squeamish sigh. My heart beating anxiously and my face most likely red, I opened the door and walked to my car feeling guilty and somewhat pissed I didn’t think of anything better to say.

I felt like Moses parting my cheerios in the ceramic bowl later, too frustrated to consider closing the parted walls and spoil my non-appetite. “Fuck you white people” loomed on my consciousness like a curse. This occurred as I began photographing the neighborhood around the intersection of 14th and Cedar in East Austin, a predominantly black community that is seeing new smiling white faces like mine move in next door on a regular basis.

The last thing I wanted was to make another documentary that shows pictures of poor people because they are poor and do things that poor people do like not take care of the family, drugs, argue and feel sorry for themselves. If I wanted to do that I could find any middle class neighborhood in America and do my project on a Caucasian family struggling to deal with the monotony of the suburbs.

In a nutshell, I was having a difficult time dealing with race because of the societal pressure and the enormous psychological weight placed on it by every educated person you’ve ever talked to. My run-in with the individual at the RBM Mart only exacerbated that. Previously, I felt a genuine discomfort taking pictures and talking to people at this intersection because I felt like an intruder.

I returned to the intersection with a friend and parked in front of a group of women socializing and styling another woman’s hair in their front yard. As I got out of my car an elderly woman left to go home and I built the courage to talk to her. A subtle wave somehow elicited the reaction “Why hello darling! How are you today?” Not what I expected. I reluctantly introduced myself as a photographer from the University of Texas doing a story on the community at 14th and Cedar and the impact the property tax increase was having on their neighborhood. She hooked her arm under mine and walked me to her house three doors down and across the street. We talked for half an hour and by the end of the conversation I learned that Barbara Massington, born 1954, grew up on Cedar Ave, lost her mother at age 13, drove a school bus for 20 years, got laid off, was a drug addict for 17 years and has been clean for 8, loves her grandchildren and four dogs and the people across the street and down four houses moved out because they couldn’t afford living there.

Before we parted, she said something that shook me to my core. “Thank you for listening to my story. People need to hear about my mistakes so they don’t have to make them.”

I’m white (I guess). So what? I didn’t choose to be this way, how can I feel guilty for something I have no control over? Barbara put things in perspective for me without anger and without animosity: Race is an issue.

In a na├»ve and idealistic way, that’s why I decided to focus my project around this intersection. I wanted to show people being human beings. In comparing different members and parts of the community, I tried to convey a sense of family and general community that is experienced by anyone and everyone, regardless of what little circle they bubble in on Federal forms under the box that reads ethnic background.

As a society, we will see race, no matter how hard we try to ignore it. Maybe, if we put it out in the open and talked about it, we wouldn’t be so afraid of it.

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