When'sa lass time y'seen a white boy in th' Hill? I tole you them mufuckers takin' over."
So went the first words spoken to me in the Hill District this evening. I was taking a bike ride after work, camera in tow, trying to shoot some of the broken old buildings I see every day on my way downtown (none of the building shots satisfied me, but I got a few other pictures that I liked quite a bit). Just passing through the Hill is a real exercise in hopelessness. To think that it once was a major cultural hub, full of jazz clubs where Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith once performed--it's just about heart-wrenching to see what it's become. Half the buildings are gone, replaced by tall weeds and trash, and the other half look like they're ready to fall in on themselves. It's hard to even tell which houses are being lived in; almost all of them seemed to have their windows nailed shut with graffiti-smeared flakeboard.
So I decided I had to take a day and shoot it, as much as I could. What I ended up with wasn't much (I wasn't daring enough to go into, or even close to, any of the really crumbling houses without someone like Mark Rawlings egging me on), but it was enough to make the trip worth while for sure. Even though some guy across the street made a vaguely threatening reference in my general direction. The man he was addressing the comment to, "Blue" I suppose, was walking in front of me down Centre Avenue, and after the heckler was out of sight, Blue apologized to me, saying that the other man was just trying to give me a hard time. I said it was alright and kept shooting, but it had shifted my consciousness to Slightly Concerned, which slid further in that direction as the sun continued to go down, but obviously I'm fine.
In retrospect, what Heckler yelled actually makes me really mad. He made me feel uncomfortable in a place where I shouldn't have had to feel uncomfortable. For the hour or two I spent in the Hill yesterday, he created a divide clean down the concept of race and actually succeeded in making me afraid of "his half" that I began to get concerned for my safety. I think I'm a pretty accepting guy, cool with just about any race, sexuality or religion (except for Scientology, which scares the piss out of me), but Heckler made me into a racist for those two hours, gripping my camera tightly and keeping my eye on my bike when I'd rest it against a trash can to shoot a painting.
Maybe I just should have been stronger than that and let his words roll off me like the jeering of a mean old man, which is all it obviously was (later, I even struck up a brief conversation with an extremely sweet black woman about art and photography), but the way he delivered those two single sentences made me feel like not only did I not belong there, but that there was a reason I should fear hanging around. And I think that's a real shame.
(The pictures throughout this post are selections from the shoot I did today. To see a few others, and more of my portfolio, visit my flickr site.)