why i'm cleaning up two vacant lots

so as to inform those that have asked, clarify my work in my own mind and tell of a very validating experience i had today, i present the following: (you can skip to "part three" if you just wanna know about the lots.)

Part one: Neu Beige

New Bedford is a serious amalgamation of folks--100,000 of them. Something like half its population speaks Portuguese. Some of these Portuguese speakers are actually from Portugal. Some are from Cape Verde (pronounced Verd), a group of tiny islands off the coast of Africa, colonized back in the day by Portugal. Some of these Cape Verdeans are purely of African decent, some are mixed. New Bedford also has a population of 10,000 Puerto Ricans and 6,000 Guatemalans. The remainder are white or white-ish. The town council has 11 members--6 white men, 3 white woman, 1 "black" man and 1 "black" woman. (*see comments section for an addendum)

As long as i'm doing numbers i might as well add that the city itself is 3 miles x 13 miles, running north/south along the Acushnet river. The reason that almost anyone is from here is because their family was once in the whaling industry. The movie Moby Dick, starring Gregory Peck, premiered here because the book actually starts here. I live within walking distance of the chapel with the ship's prow for a pulpit.

Okay. So the two most populace groups in this city are white people and these Portuguese speakers. I wanted to go back to that becuase that's the most important aspect to this story. Why? Well, first off, if you're just plain ass white, then you rule the roost. Next, if you're Portuguese, then you're almost as good as white--meaning empowered. If you're mixed Cape Verdean (light-skinned), then you're almost as good as the Portuguese, and therefore vaguely empowered. If you're just plain black (either un-mixed Cape Verdean or African-American--as in freed slave, not immigrant)then you're not only un-empowered, but you also have a beef with the light-skinned folks because they think they're better than you. (I'm not sure if the non-immigrant African-American has a problem with an un-mixed Cape Verdean African-American).

Got it?

Okay. Long about 1973 the roost-ruling white folks decided to chop this little town up. Much like Crosstown in Charleston--and intentionally or not--white New Bedford used roads to sequester/disrupt the ethnic groups of this city. Previously happy, harmonious communities that had been stable for 80 years or more, and made up of largely single ethnicities, were torn apart practically overnight.

Add into this mix an economic depression due to outsourcing. Yes, of course, whaling had ended back in the twenties, but Neu Beige (as many locals call it), weathered that storm with textile mills. Those have been closing by the dozen for the past twenty years. The fishing industry is also big here, but because of our messed up seas, that, too, has slowed considerably.

So what we have is a town filled with previously tight communities--torn asunder and scattered around by a minority of powerful white people. There are many here who are out of work.

The answer? Drugs. New Bedford has the proud distinction of having the purest heroin in all of the US of A. I've seen some and it's pretty dang good-looking stuff. Oh, and sure, we also have crack. And gangs. And a DA (white) that won't prosecute murders--51 murders in 30 years (35+ in the past ten years) and 42 of them are unsolved.

Wait! There's more! About 8 years ago the powers-that-be decided that the downtown area of the city they'd destroyed and then abandoned for the suburbs was actually worth something. Look at all these magnificent Sea Captain's homes! Look at all this history! So they named the downtown area (except for the Cape Verdean part) a National Historic Urban Park. They wrote grants to regentrify all the pretty houses. They found out that pretty soon a commuter train service was gonna come here because even wealthy Bostonians couldn't afford to live in Boston anymore. Houses in the remaining downtown ethnic encalves were bought, and then left to wait and rot, until every person of color was dying of old age--or had shot each other because of a lack of work and an excess of drugs.

In short...well folks, it's a clusterfuck.

Part two: I arrive

I got here in September of 2003 and moved my fancy, yet unfinished, toolbox into The Star Store--the name for what had been America's first department store but was now reborn as the Umass graduate arts building--and smack in the thick of downtown New Bedford. In the month of October--while 4 young men died in shootings within walking distance of the school--half of the buildings around me were under construction for upscale loft living. Coffee shops were trying to open on every corner. The "city" was glad to see that its plan for rejuvenating downtown New Bedford as a place-to-be was going so well. Not helping matters was that not a single one of my fellow graduates was of a person of color--or even gay, for that matter...well, one is--he just won't admit it yet.

As i delved into my artwork (fancy-ass furniture, at the time) i became more convinced than ever of two things: one: that capital "A" Art had become a bloated, market-driven, substance-less slob dedicated solely for the consumptive pleasure of wealthy white people, and two: that whiteness, blackness, out-sourcing, wal mart, home security systems, private schools, suburbs, the war in Iraq, rednecks, homophobia, the cloud of pollution over China, SUVs, soccer moms and high gas prices were all exactly the same problem. Driven by despair, afraid of my neighbor and weary of the irony of postmodernism, i sought a Real form of Art that wanted to spiritually rise above this fray, and then hopefully do something about all of it.

I found, on a road trip with my sweetie, an answer: The Interventionists. Alison, nor i, understood the show we drove across the state of Massachusetts to see. It had wierd un-museum-like things in it: videos of people pulling jokes on the World Trade Organization, a remote control car that spray painted messages on the sidewalk, a traveling factory that ground up stereotypel images of black people. Even though i didn't understand, for some reason, i was driven to buy the catalog that went along with the exhibition. i read it and it all started to make sense.

Very reductively, Art wasn't about producing pretty things anymore (need pretty? go to IKEA), it wasn't even about producing ugly things anymore (like it did to the horror of art lovers in the 1980's). It was about helping spur a new kind of beauty: humanization.

Part Three: My project

The working title has been The Beacons Project, but i don't even care about a title anymore. The focus of this work has been saving beautiful pieces of junk from the dumpster--put there by the people who are re-building all those fancy downtown New Bedford buildings--and then turning that junk into "political memorials" for the kids that have been murdered since i've lived here. One for each of them--16 in all...15 for those already dead, and one for the person yet to die. Each one is an old 2 by 12, or part of a gutter, or a piece of vault door and carries a roman numeral--I through XVI. They also are inscribed with the Portuguese word conscientizacao, which is defined by Paulo Freier roughly as "coming to understand economic and political contradictions and doing something about them."

I've gone into the two seperate parts of town--the Westside and The Southend--that were the most torn up by that roads project (and the sites of ALL of this violence) and found two vacant, trash covered lots that i can convert into a temporary "gallery" to house these memorials. The accompanying installation at the school's gallery will function mostly as a challenge to the white, art-loving audience to go out into these neighborhoods they fear and look at these memorials.

In the meantime, i've done what i can to become a member of the community of people cast aside by the selfish, greedy powers that control this city. I try to eat at their restaurants. I go to AA meetings in their part of town. I visit with the parents of the slain children. I go to neighborhood organization meetings. i try to learn about their history. I'm trying, most of all, to change myself.

Part Four: My Validating Experience

The kids in these neighborhoods are not without blame. They have choices--not many choices, mind you, but they do have choices. They don't have to shoot each other. They don't have to carry on a stupid Westside/Southend feud that's based, stupidly, on gang territory and drug corners and skin color. But they do. These neighborhoods are still fairly violent places to be.

I've spent the last week cleaning up these two lots i've mentioned. The lot on the Southend, owned apparently by a person that lives in Arizona, is actually the site of one of the murders. That of Dana H---d, age 31 and killed on July 4th, 2005. He had quit using drugs and was starting a youth basketball league when he was shot in the head by some old enemies. Like a lot of these locations, there is a memorial already at the lot. I had tried to contact Ms. H---d about my project and to seek permission to remove the current memorial, but found out through a third party that she was still too sad to talk with anybody. I took the memorial down this Tuesday and put it in the bed of my pickup truck for safe keeping.

Kids came by all day as i worked on the lot and asked where Dana's memorial was. The guy across the street came out and asked where it had gone. I told him i took it down. He said, "good. i was tired of lookin at the fuckin thing---but if i were you i'd get outta here before it gets dark." I had heard that it wasn't wise to mess with the H----d clan.

I started noticing people driving by real slowly and kinda giving me the evil eye. Older people, too, and not just kids. I also think i'd become a little bit of an adversary to the woman who ran one of the meetings. She was the one i blogged about just the other day. She is not a person to be crossed. Well, i saw her drive by, too. I don't think she gave a rat's ass about Dana's memorial, but was probably perturbed that i was disrupting her strangle hold on all the grief. (i'd gone to her previously for help, information, and photographs of victims--she produced nothing and coyly let me know my assistance wasn't needed).

Well, today i was at the Westside lot moving rocks around. I look up and see a young man and woman walking up.

"We were wondering what you were planning with these graves?" they asked. It was a genuine question, but there was a little pre-determined judgement in their voices. I was nervous. I had decided early on that if this project was gonna make anybody hurt worse, then i'd change it---and it's getting a little late for that.

They turned out to be Derek, Dana's younger brother and engineer visiting home from Virginia, and Jessica, who works for one of the non-profits here in town. I'd met her before and liked her. We talked for a while about the project. They wanted to know if what i was doing was mean-spirited or ugly. They didn't think that an outsider could understand the situation. They'd heard they were "graves" and didn't want anybody in the community to put up with any more damage than they'd already sustained. I told them they weren't graves per se and asked "you guys are real concerned about it, aren't you?" They said yes, and just wanted to make sure they approved of what i was doing. I asked if they had time to come down to the school to look at the pieces. They looked skeptically at each other, and then agreed.

One of the walls in my studio is the "research wall." i needed a big place to write all the information i'd collected: to keep track of names and dates, to pin photographs of locations and draw what their monument would look like. There's also a map of New Bedford with numbered, brass thumb tacks marking the site and order of death of each of the victims.

They looked and started talking about the locations. "No, that's not the place." or "Yeah, Clinton was killed right there in front of that house." (Clinton was a local football star and a victim of mistaken identity.) They said they knew almost everybody on that list. They were amazed at the tiny area of the city where all these murders had taken place--they'd never put that together before. And then they started crying. They told me that the wall was beautiful. And heavy.

I took them back to see the monuments. They said, "no these don't look like graves." And then Derek asked, "which one is Dana's?" I had to go look because i couldn't remember if his was XII or XIII. When i got back i pointed at XII and they both said "Oh, that's my favorite one!"

I was so scared. I've been trying so hard to do a respectful job of all this. I wanted these to skirt such terrible territory--they were, after all, pieces of stuff that had been thrown into the garbage. They were anonymous markers i had made for people i'd never met--and for the families of people that had been through a terrible loss. But it was very important that they speak not to just one, but two audiences: those who hurt inside and those who had the power to hurt other people. I'd worked on these since last fall and never really known if they'd be understood or not.

Derek asked me why i used the old materials. I told him it was because of the connection i saw with the downtown buildings and all these killings. He said it made perfect sense. He asked me what i was gonna do with all the pieces when the installation was over. I told him i didn't know, i figured i'd just throw them away. I said i'd thought about maybe giving them to the family members, but then figured that they wouldn't really want them--being old pieces of junk and stuff.

He said he'd be honored if he could keep Dana's. Of course, that was the part where i burst into tears.


This whole thing is yet to go up. I've still got to build big billboard things on the lots for some graffiti artists to do their thing on. I know that the monuments aren't really gonna appeal to a younger crowd (although Jessica says she doesn't think that's true), so i wanna put something of interest in there for them. I haven't installed anything in the gallery yet either. Several of the families still might not know what it is i have in mind. And lastly, i still haven't had to defend my own thesis yet.

I wanted to bring that up because i don't want all of this to come off sounding arrogant or too self-assured. i need to keep focused and trying to do the right thing for all involved. But, at this point, it sure meant a lot to have probably one of the toughest critics come in and say that he really approved of what i was doing. They both thanked me for what i was doing, and that means so, so much in these moments when i'm tired and feel sometimes like i'm swimming in a tide, blindly. Thanks, Derek.


The Mom said...

Walter, I wish I knew what to say to let you know how much what you wrote here touched me. I feel so much right now that it almost feels as if putting it into words would lessen it. I am really looking forward to being there next weekend at the opening and getting finally see this work you've been doing the last 2 1/2 + years. See you soon...

Walter said...

thanks. keep in mind, though, that i've only been doing THIS work for a year...really just this school year.

i guess what i'm really wantin' to say is "don't expect much."

Alison said...

Yes, well, OF COURSE you want to say "don't expect much." That's a well-worn Biffle reaction to people being excited about what you do.

And also a pretty understandable reaction from someone six days away from his master's thesis exhibition.

I think what mom says here is quite beautifully put--I am so moved by what you've written here that I don't really know what to say. It has made me cry twice now. I think you've got to put the wall in the gallery--it's so good, and I've always thought so. And I can't wait to be there in a few days and see all of this work come together.

Anonymous said...

Did you get my earlier comment about this post? I don't really care if it appears on the blog so much as wanted to make sure you received it.

I can sum it up by saying--what a beautiful and painful project and what a moving description. Now this, to me, sounds like art.

Walter said...


no. evidently we missed that one. it must be floatin' out there in cyberspace somewhere. and...thanks.

Walter said...


my facts are off. i'm unsure, for instance, of the exact ethnic breakdown of the council--i was told once, but failed to write it down.

everything else is more or less accurate, give or take a few percentage points.