Archive for August, 2008

24
Aug
08

Martha Cooper’s Westside Beat

A friend distributes a flyer about a murdered friend. Around the corner we come across kids playing in the alley. This is how the horrific and the innocent idyllic come jumbled together out here in Southwest Baltimore

A woman distributes a flyer about a murdered friend. Around the corner we come across kids playing in the alley. This is how the horrific and the innocent idyllic come jumbled together out here in Southwest Baltimore

 

For decades Marty Cooper has been the eminent documentarian in the graffiti scene, being one of the first photographers to treat the New York subway chasers as artists back in the 70s. Her book Subway Art is considered a primer in the graf scene not to mention her subsequent books on New York. But for the last three years, Cooper has led a kind of second life as a trundling woman padding around with her cameras on one of Baltimore’s more dangerous, desolalate and strangely escentric neighborhoods known as SoWeBo (Southwest Baltimore). 

     Having grown up in Baltimore in a  leafy northwest neighborhood of Mount Washington, Cooper had returned to the city to document a neighborhood in transition, a neighborhood before it was discovered by investors and real estate gamblers, rehabbed and repackaged for its quaint genteelly charmed.  Marty was looking for was what she missed when she first went to New York and chased bombed trains, missing the strange oddness of those places like the Bronx, poor, abandoned by determined to create their own life and culture. It was no accident that the graf and the hip hop scene came from  these streets.  

 As far as she is concerned she missed her opportunity with New York’s borroughs, but she figured Baltimore now that’s a city despite its gold rush development still has neighborhoods out in the hinterlands of poverty.

The neighborhood that she picked actually got much drug dealing exposure in David Simon’s The Corner, the book, and then TV show and surely must have informed his follow-up The Wire.

But Cooper is interested in much more than well trodden prism of cops verses drug dealers, which Simon defty smashes by the way. Cooper takes a much more anthropological look, casting the broadest net as possible with her cameras. To do this Cooper bought a small house as a base of operation in the neighborhood and every three weeks or so she would wade out down the street, wearing her gear and just take pictures.  Then she would come back giving out photos establishing herself as the picture lady, someone who could be trusted.

The neighborhood that she picked was extronarily rich in architecture as it was marred in decay. Southwest Baltimore around Hollins Market and Union Square had been the neighborhood of Baltimore’s still most famous arthor H.L. Mencken. (“A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin.“—- Mencken) The homes were regally built, three story affairs with all kinds of architectural garnishings like 2nd level porches with daylight windows, rooms that sort of  jut out of the rowhome like jewels. They had large bricked patios and gardens that backed up to Alley houses, small tiny two story rowhouses where the servants lived. These houses were also occupied by Irish railroad workers who had jobs at the nearby B & O rail yards and roundhouse just blocks south. In this way, poor and the well off lived side by side. It was Baltimore Gothic at its best, a funky aside to New Orlean’s more astir Garden District.  But the wealthy folk long left the city by mid-20th Century and the Baltimore’s decline just beat these kinds of neighborhood. But left in its wake were both poor white and black, making this swath one of the more racially mixed sections in a city which can  segregate like the best of ’em.

      To make the rounds with Marty Cooper cutting through alleys down once robust mercantile streets like Baltimore Street now mostly shuttered is to see the complex poor world invisible and left to rot by the healthy society just  blocks away adding towers to the skyline.  Just to the east stands University of Maryland’s burgeoning bio-tech park, the tourist trap that is Camden Yards Stadium and the glittering Inner Harbor. Before us stood a mixture of abject poverty and a kind of crabgrass beauty of humanity. It’s like steeping beyond a well tended garden into  the wilds. We came upon a privately made homeless park with an art piece constructed with spickets for showers for people who shun the conventional shelters. We met a woman giving out a flyer of her missing friend, murdered and in the morgue. She wanted to  warn other women of a suspected killer on the lose. We visited a second floor mosque that operated as a fast food joint on the first floor. We met a one man steel fabricator working out an ancient gas station. We came across kids and old  people sitting on steps more relaxed than any vacationer paying top dollar for their Victorian porches in Cape May N.J. There was the ever present sense of danger. Drug dealing is still a key industry and there were some harden faces walking about. I couldn’t help but recall  the time I was held up at gun point ten years ago just up the street and we were just  trying to get some pizza and some sweet potato fries.   

 

Although crabs are crazy expensive, between $45 to $70, they are beloved and a must have.
Although crabs are crazy expensive, between $45 to $70, they are beloved and a must have.

 

   Many that we met that day, Marty had previously photographed. She would hand them photographs, People studied them realizing these weren’t exactly snapshots.

Marty  approached them warmly  as if a former teacher happy to stumble onto former students. She asked if she could take their picture and without the fanfare of a photgrapher adjusting apature, checking the light meter etc …. she merely snapped a picture. But the results are devilishly more astute than what is found in the family album.  Marty somehow gets her people to relax, giving true smiles or just forget her altogether to  capture them digging into their lives. 

 

 

Her pictures become even more poignant when contrasted with what’s being covered in the mainstream press. Even noble exercises in journalism found in the New York Times, such as articles by Dan Barry for example, don’t capture the odd grafting of beauty and sadness or sometimes just painful, sometimes just inspiring, like those kids just going at those crabs, a Baltimore delacacy that now costs a fortune — A dozen crabs can run between $45 to $70. Notice the style of the Obama supporter, how blue his shirt and cap is, how the white of his undershirt matches the piping of his cap. So put together out there among the streets of peeling brick and boarded up windows. Yes there is a sense of resilency out here but there’s also a morbid foreshadowing.

 

 

Best Friends

Best Friends

 

 

 

 

 

02
Aug
08

Carlton Street, Baltimore A visit to the Arabber’s Stable

First thing’s first. The word Arabber is an old world name given to the group of people who make their living selling fruit and vegetables from horse and cart. There used to hundreds of stables working from back alley stables throughout Baltimore. Today, there’s only one working stable and one in a holding pattern literally in tents under a bridge in West Baltimore. 

In July I published a feature in the magazine, The Urbanite. It was the result of a year’s worth of work, some of which I filed with the Baltimore City Paper. You can check out the articles on http://www.citypaper.com and do a search or go to http://www.urbanitebaltimore.com and check out the 20 minutes in video, four stories I did.

There’s a rush you get or at least I get when a story gets published. I still get it and is probably why I’m still in this miserable profession despite having a wife and two kids and doing a terrible job as a provider. (More on that later).

Anyway, after you put out a story there’s this nagging  question what now? I established all this contact and got all this momentum, do I just drop it and go on. Sometimes, most of the times yes. But with the Arabbers, a sub-culture I have been writing about for ten years I don’t want to let it go. I’ve got a line on a story that goes beyond the quaint but sad narrative of people of old timers trying to make a living from horse and cart.

I want to go into their lives and work my way backwards, that is I want to write about their lives on the margins in Baltimore, dealing with poverty and their aspirations and then go oh by the way, he’s walking to his job which happens to be taking a horse out on the streets.

I believe I have this story with Dante, a nine-year old kid, who aspires to be an arabber. 

Today I went down there for the first time since the article came out. The reception was frosty and strange, but that’s what happens. The stable manager gave me grief for mentioning that I someone was smoking pot in the alley. Not an arabber mind you, but a resident who lived in one of Baltimore iconic alley homes, tiny homes built for B & O Railway workers back in the 19th Century. I told him wasn’t trying to besmirch the stables but rather show how the kid’s love of horses kept him away from the teenager offering him to join the party. The kid kept his attention on a horse rounding the corral that was build right there in the alley. It’s a wild sight watching these horse lapping around in the dirt knowing you’re right in the city. There’s a sense of serenity.

I went back there today and Dante had already gone out with a new arabber, a good sign that the culture isn’t quite dead and I hung out with Keith “Superstar” Brooks, his father Brock and “China” sharing some food. Nothing else but the re-affirmation that the story is rich and waiting for me to push on.  

Tony takes Rose, the horse out in the corral in downtown Baltimore

Tony takes Rose, the horse out in the corral in downtown Baltimore

02
Aug
08

Journalism Redux — A visit to the Arabber’s Stable

I have been a journalist for 23 years. I’ve worked for newspapers, dailies, weeklies and then as a freelancer.I have written for the New York Times. I have written for a small town paper.  I  still am a freelancer. But I always have been frustrated with how the news works. “All the News that is Fit to Print.” The funny thing is much of life isn’t fit to print and we’re not talking about decency. We’re talking about stories that don’t necessary follow the journalistic pyramid theme. I’m interested in the feel and the vibe of a story and have struggled many times unsuccessful to inject them in  the story. This is probably due to my limitations as a writer. Oh well. 

This blog is an attempt create a newswire service as well as window into the story making process. I want to share in the experience of piecing the story together rather than just offering a final product. I believe  there is a hunger for this kind perspective and is why blogs and documentaries have gotten so popular. (I also do documentaries, but I’ll get to that later). The world of Journalism is changing or falling apart. The daily newspaper is collapsing around  us and that’s going to have a profound impact on our  country. At the same time blogs and the web offers an even playing field, so I’m going to take a crack  at it.  I’m going to let you into my struggle as I stumble onto stories, most of them strange and a lot in the trenches of some social strife. Baltimore definitely will provide a lot of material. 

02
Aug
08

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