Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Summer I Was Twelve

The summer I was twelve, my family left the suburbs, and with them, the good opinions of just about every friend, neighbour and relation, and moved into the inner city. This was a very strange thing for ostensibly middle-class white people to do in Columbus Ohio in 1976. Even if they were missionaries.

Our new neighbourhood was a forgotten place bounded on four sides by lately built freeways and freeway ramps. Those rushing from one end of the city to another no longer had to pass through our streets with their depressing and neglected tumbledown houses, and the yards full of junk, chickens, children and dogs. And so increasingly they didn't, unless they were looking for trouble or cheap sex and drugs.

The roar of traffic was constantly with us (I liked to imagine it was the sound of the universe expanding); so were police sirens, helicopters, fires, gunfights, afterhours joints, longhaul trucks leaking toxic sewage, and churches.  That year I counted 84 places of worship within an eight block radius of our house. 

The only sites more plentiful than places for prayer were vacant lots; in 1968, after Martin Luther King, Jr., had been shot, this neighbourhood, like so many other poor segregated zones in the country, burned for months with rage and riots. In later years, its houses continued to burn and tumble thanks to faulty wiring, old gas stoves, depressed or stupid people smoking in bed, murderous feuds, and general neglect.

There were no trees in the neighbourhood, save for the one across the street in the church yard, from which hung an old tire swing.  Those hardy trunks we called "stink trees"--or less often, "trees of heaven"--like the other populous residents, roaches and rats, required almost nothing to survive in cracks in the pavement or garbage heaps.

The people who lived there were treated like their human equivalents: fearsome pests, for whom no respect or care was required.

Our stories were rich, but lives in the neighbourhood were short, rotten and rough.  In fact of those I grew up with, almost no one survives, save those who joined the military or wound up sentenced to life in prison.  Killing, it seemed, was about the only way out.


I took most of these photographs in the near East Side of Columbus Ohio in April and May 1977 with a little Kodak 110 pocket camera. The photos became a part of my first attempt at photojournalism, a 25-page essay entitled "The Inner City," a final grade 7/8 anthropology/English project.  

Watching Richard Roy's Frisson de Colline, a recent nostalgic-melancholic film about a season in the life of a 12-year old boy in rural Quebec in 1969 made me think about my own experiences at the age of 12. I've barely begun, and already it's almost too much. Hard as life could be there then, for America's poor, it is much more brutal now still.  

1. Me, at the age of twelve on our porch, crocheting. I'd tie-dyed my own shirt of course. I think my sister Lisa took this picture.
2. Man turning from 22nd street onto Main.
3. JP's Rib Joint, where in 1977, a whole slab of bar-b-qued ribs would set you back $4.95.
4. The Camel Bell Bar.
5. Laundry.
6. Larry with a balsawood airplane on the steps of First English Lutheran.
7. Back yards of houses on MacAllister Street.
8. Waiting for the free lunch program to open up and playing on the jungle gym in First English Lutheran yard. Sweet Meat [Sabrina] struggles up the "swinging bridge"; her older sister Dede looks at the camera.
9. Webby does Amanda's hair on the church back steps. With her, left to right, are Dede, Sweet Meat and Michelle.
10. Sue sits on her porch and laughs.
11. Next door neighbours Missy and Michael "just goofing" as I said in my 1977 essay. MacAllister Street and afterhours houses in the background.
12. The ice cream truck (Billy and Lynn).
13. Theresa, Mrs. Wallace and her baby.
14. Roger, Sue's son, and Billy, Larry and Theresa's brother.  I wrote in 1977, "I told Roger I would take his picture when he didn't expect it."
15. Michael, eating a piece of cheese, with another friend, also--I think--named Michael.

1 comment:

  1. Great pictures of a time gone by. Things have changed in so many ways, yet many stay the same.