What was the recent past is now becoming the debris of now, eroding into the dust or waiting for the two hour demolition wrecker to come and sweep it away, laying waste to the last of the industrial age, smoothing a pad or a field to a bald table upon which will be laid The Grid.
The Relics of Light and Shadow series is an ongoing project since 2010.
From the very beginning of my life in photography I’ve always spent a lot of time “out there,” in the backlands of America. One of my first published pieces (October 1969) was for the Christian Science Monitor (I was their Midwest photographer, based out of Chicago, from 1969 thru 1973). It was a piece I did on the coming of the fallow harvest times of the Midwest, showing images of the solitude that comes with the coming of winter, locking down hearth and home, the time when “it,” the harsh wintertime, is coming and all you can do is get yourself ready for “it.”
You were texture. You were identity. You were muy macho. You had cajones. Your candy stripe shaft spewed your acids and we ran for cover. At least we were moving. You were not vanilla. You were not something else. You were, well, ASARCO, un madre. You were definitely not bourgeois, pro seguro. On dark nights, down on Paisano, huge trucks dumped your excrement and giant flames roared into the sky, lighting up I10 like a festive firecracker.
Now you are a bald pallet awaiting “The Grid.” They fiddle before they drop the hammer, just enough time for one to build trust in the untrustworthy. What should go on the ground that has your blood? Should it be a Western Town? Giddy up! Should it be an amusement park? Ice cream! Maybe it could be a “multi use” nothing (Ha! What else do you think they will do!)? We need more apartments and strip centers! Maybe we can just let UTEP spread its, its…well…it could just spread whatever it is that UTEP has.
I will politely clap. I am not lamenting the inevitable any more than I do on The Day Of the Dead.
Yes you were a cancer dispenser, a reminder of danger, vulnerability and of the sweat and blood of working men. Oh yeah, you were one bad hombre. Oh, and how the gerentes avoided your gaze. You were so not sheik. How could we sell this bipolar berg as the cultural and artistic epicenter of the great southwest with your giant schlong sticking into the sky, having intercourse with the eyes of every passerby? No no no, you had to go. You were so, well, nasty!
I drive my old routes. Camera on the passenger seat or my lap. As always, these days it usually stays there, untouched. There are things along the way that spark memories. Object that aren’t there anymore. Gorgeous commercial signs constructed by craftsmen in the 1950s and 60s (not the least of which from the Jimenez Sign Company) were carted off to other cities that were twenty years ahead of El Paso in their bourgeoisie ambitions.You can drink under some of El Paso’s “Motel, Vacancies,” signs in various bars from Austin to Houston to Baton Rouge. There’s a withering away now, aging and weathered, but mostly not endearing anymore, not worth stopping for (to make images). There came a year, a month, a day when the treasures of El Paso were either gone, carted off or just left to rot.
There are whole swaths of this incredible and authentic city that are gone, at least for the long gaze of a photograph: Alameda. El Centro (downtown). Segundo is shrinking fast, bordered by El Paso Street on the west (with nasty tentacles of them all over it) and Cotton on the far east, with old residents living out their days, youth getting out fast and them with their bulging eyes all over it. Off of Delta there are condominiums and some revamped industrial buildings, residents living an almost urban lifestyle (sans humanity). Even the Gay Bars have fled, a sure sign of urban renewal/removal.
It’s not my job to do anything about any of this. My job, as I saw it, at the beginning, in 1980, was to give face to a face that was not known and I have tried. As The Grid lays out its future in the city with two hearts, it’s clear to me that my mission isn’t to pick sides in land rights, power exchanges, or to watch -or judge- the inevitable blandification. But blandification has come. Oh happy day. Some loudly exhale and go, finally! The city is becoming presentable to visitors again. It’s cleaner. It’s newer. There’s baseball. Soccer is coming (watch out Chamizal! The final blow that started in the mid 1960s is finally here). There are restaurants with the preface Le with Foo Fo thing-a-ma-jig dishes with little portions of things that look like they squiggle -vegetables- on top of things it’d be hard to identify below. Fancy. Plates of Foo Foo. There are young people downtown again, well, the kind of young people that look like they’d also be comfortable up in Kern Place on Cincinnati and the upper Westside.
Finally, there’s a Starbucks downtown near the Plaza and the Westin. The kids from the ‘hood can serve the hipsters that come in from outer Zaragosa Road and beyond.
Boring? Not to everyone and I wish them the best. I am not part of this. I left this scene in three other places I lived before this very long stretch here. It’s the same message: you’re in the gentry or you’re equitied out of the gentry.