Portrait of a Neighborhood: Macarthur Boulevard

'Bout one year ago, I embarked on a new project, amazing in both its scope and value, entitled the MacArthur Boulevard Portrait Project. Somehow, I conceived of an idea to photograph the dusty noirish strip of bars, nail salons, neon lit burger joints, real estate offices, Christian bookstores and laundr-o-mats that make up MacArthur Boulevard in East Oakland. I specifically chose that district based on its sheer time capsule value (some of those craggy stone wall facades and musical instrument window displays haven't budged in three, four decades) and its proximity to the project's sponsor and my trusty alma mater, Mills College.

Some years back, Mills College landed a really handsome grant from the James Irvine Foundation with the purpose of re-connecting with the college's surrounding neighborhoods through art and history. A rather terrific oral history project was conceived, a radio course was developed, and the English department began inviting all manners of Oakland artists to perform and teach on-campus. The photo project idea sprang directly from the forehead of all of this activity.

Why not, I mused, capture a visual sample of what a particular neighborhood looks like? And why not focus on that most ordinary yet character-driven part of a street; the myriad businesses that inhabit the boulevard and the people behind those storefronts? What can we possibly learn by looking at what kinds of stores serve this particular neighborhood at this particular time? What architectural gems are worth recording and saving? How do people relate to one another on the sidewalks, in parking lots, milling about in stores? What messages are being posted up and down the avenue, and by whom? Most importantly, how much of this will remember in years to come, as the area develops and moves into an entirely different economic bracket?

Beginning in April of this year and continuing through the end of June, three marvelous photographers were then set loose on the street with their digital cameras. Heike Liss took on the challenge of shooting portraits of the business owners, Bob Hsiang photographed storefront signage, window displays, and architectural details of the buildings, and Johnna Arnold set out to capture the culture and movement of the streets by looking at the things we see and yet don't see on a daily business, peering in doors, staring at walls, taking note of pedestrians and transportation that clutter the street.

The final photographs were culled down to about 75 shots, which will live permanently in the Mills College library archives and the Oakland Public Library's History Room. An exhibition of 45 of the photos will be hung at Mills Hall on the college campus in September, and we hope to launch a number of related public programs (slide shows, discussions) in conjunction with the show. Stay posted.

Photos by Heike Liss, Johnna Arnold and Bob Hsiang