The West Ward is an area of contradiction. If you want photographic evidence, the two properties pictured are directly across from each other on Walnut Street. In interviewing the denizens of the ward, I have been asked repeatedly, "This ain't a police thing, is it?" or other similar questions. Even when I tell them I'm just a journalist/blogger, potential subjects grow even more suspicious of my intentions when they see my camera. Because our realities are dictated by the space we inhabit, I'm finding that the opinions of the residents are quite varied. Over the next few weeks, intermittently, I'm going to bring you interviews of the West Ward. Let me know what you think.
I met this man doing construction on a building on Ferry and Walnut. This was his last day in the West Ward; he was moving to South Carolina the next day. I asked him what he thought of the area.
"Even with the Weed and Seed program, there is still a serious crime element around here. This building for example and the one next door and a couple others I know of, regularly you'll see high traffic in and out of these places. Basically as you go past the Probation Center it starts to get better, and about three blocks that way (south), it starts to get better. But this general area, especially around the prison, it's not very well. And the other problem that you have is this place here, when you had the exodus of the middle class way back when, they took this thing (he indicates the building), butchered it and made it into an apartment. And these are low quality apartments."
"So what do you think is the answer? What could make it better?"
"Well, the first thing I think, the City has started to do it, but they still have work to go, is that they need to start enforcing the codes. Like this (points to new circuit board for smoke detectors), this is where they start to enforce the code. Before, we had an interconnected smoke detector system which met the letter of the codes but it didn't meet the intent. So that's why this is going in. Similarly, if you take a look at the block (we go outside), there's all this…stuff…that detracts from the appearance. But, really, just getting the codes enforced would be good. I met the code inspector here about a year ago, a new breed of them, and they're doing much better, but they don't have enough people. I don't think more police is going to do them much good because you can already tell when you go down the street exactly when a cop's coming. It's like telegraph; certain people disappear off the street. Most everyone here wants to be good people. I mean you've got the normal issues with a low economy and things like that. The low skill work in this area is almost basically gone. So, it's a challenge all around. "
Me: "What makes a family stay a healthy family?"
Father: "Be supportive of each other"
Mother: "We eat together, we travel together. And communicate with each other."
Me: "Do you think the use of screens and devices, like smartphones, has been detrimental to communication?"
Father: "With our place in life, it actually is mostly helpful because we can do print text to all our kids in other cities, so at this phase in life it's very helpful to be able to text and email and phone whenever you want."
“I like down time—relaxing. I play poker. A friend of mine, we go to the West Ward and we play every Thursday night. It’s a nice way to spend an evening. We go to tournaments in Atlantic City—there’s one in November out in Las Vegas and we’re gonna do that. “
“Is the experience of playing poker more than just the poker?”
“Oh, sure, you sit with your friends and you have some laughs and you spend a nice evening.”
"I’m passionate about writing (I’m a writer), I love helping people, and I’m a recent import here from Paterson, New Jersey. In October it’s gonna be a year, and I just want to make roots in this community and do good here like I did in my original hometown, so this is my new hometown and I want a foothold here.”
“What is it about Easton that appeals to you?”
“I was out here four years ago and I see the growth that has happened. To put a Lexus dealer on the circle, that’s also a kind of growth, and why not?“
Him: “We went to high school together, or even before that I guess--
Her: “—Middle school.”
Him: “Middle school. We’ve known each other for a long time. And that’s kinda it, really.”
Me: “What’s the secret to a good relationship?”
They look at each other and laugh nervously.
Her: “I don’t know…”
Him: “Ummm… Maybe if we knew, we’d… Uhhh…”
Her: Yeah, I don’t know…”
Then things got awkward and we parted ways.
“One of my sisters, it was her long-time boyfriend, and he passed away in a motocross accident. We had known him probably fifteen years, and they were together quite a long time—freshmen in high school to sophomores or juniors in college.”
“So what made you decide to get the tattoo?”
“It was just a design I liked, and I had drawn it up probably about a hundred times on myself with markers and whatnot, and when that happened, I figured, y’know, I never knew what cards to put in the hand, and these spelled out his name.”
“Parent your children. Don’t parent your children and they’re not going to grow up to be good adults. The secret is structure and discipline. Not crazy discipline, but there has to be boundaries and there has to be, you know, ‘break the rules and you get in trouble.’ That’s what happens in the real world.”
“My passion is finding something new and exciting to do every day, something to learn about all that life has to offer, and whatever comes my way, I’ll be able to tackle it. I hope that I instill that in my students: that they never want to stop experiencing life and what it has to offer. The good the bad and the ugly. That’s what I’m passionate about. I teach seventh grade science.”
“What made you want to go into teaching?”
“I think part of it was just to be with younger people and help mold them along the way, but also to learn from them and make connections through different age ranges as they go through, and I go through, life. Experiencing things from a new perspective as well.”
“I always stay positive, you know what I’m saying? I always stay positive. Even when I’m feeling bad, I know good comes around like a cycle. Like the time when I was homeless. People helped me out and I got back on my feet. I didn’t really have my own house and people let me stay with them. My parents helped me out a lot too.”
Him: “We met at college—how many years ago was that? Fourteen years ago? We were friends for twelve of those years, and we started dating…
Me: “How did you know she was ‘the one’?”
Him: “I think I just reached a point where I kind of wanted to meet someone and she was right there.”
Her (sarcastically): “Gee, that’s sweet…”
Me: “Well, how did you know HE was ‘the one’?”
Her: “I don’t know… I just knew… I’ve always wanted to be with someone who knew me really well like a friend, and, I mean, fourteen years ago it would have never crossed my mind, but I guess it’s also about timing.”
"You have to see where it is that you want to go, even though you may not be there and it doesn't look like where you want to be at this particular point in time, you have to envision where you want to end up and you have to have a positive attitude; otherwise, you won't get there. So whatever you call out to the universe, that's what comes to you. If you call out negativity, that's what you're going to attract. If you call out positive and your karma's correct, that's what comes to you."
"So how about you? Where do you want to go?"
"Well, I would love to, in five years, or two years even, just be in my same spot and be self-sufficient. I want to get to the point where I can actually hire someone at a living wage. That's my goal with the business: that even though I'm still dong the day-to-day and all that, I have enough business where I can hire a person to come in and I can tell them, 'Hey, not only can I give you health insurance, but I can pay you enough that you're not working two and three jobs. *That's* where I'm going."
Sharon Reuss works in stained glass, from butterflies to birds to electric guitars.
"I've been in art ever since I was a little girl, and as far as the glass, my brother was in the glass business for over thirty years and there's a big age difference between us. So, ever since I was a little girl, I would be cutting glass with him, and then when I got older, I just always drew; it was a medium that I loved, and it's been thirteen years."
"What's the most difficult part about working with glass?"
"All of the precautions, you know, because of working with the lead, doing the stained glass, you got to make sure that you wear your respirator and that everything is ventilated and gotta get tested every three years for lead poisoning, so that's the most difficult. Making sure you're always being safe and not slacking in that aspect."
"I come from Kenya, and most of the paintings I do reflect our way of life; the way we live our culture is from our forefathers--that's how we maintain our culture. Most of the paintings I do is realism, our way of life, like the women working, the ones in charge of the home. Most of the paintings are of the way we love, the way we eat, the dancing, the ceremonies we all are celebrating for life, for weddings, it is here."
Hal Murray creates metaphor through art (or art through metaphor if we want to get into a chicken vs. egg debate…).
"Well, these bowls are vessels, because they're a useful object and they can carry things, just as much as *you're* a vessel: you carry the DNA, the feelings, the losses, the hurts of your life. And so I make bowls that exemplify that. (He holds up a damaged bowl.) This is a tremendous example of a bowl that blew apart, so somebody who's just completely fallen apart, to drugs, alcohol, whatever, and then (He shows me the repaired sections of the bowl) through patience and a lot of time and effort, you're able to put it back together. And, if you look at the inside of the person, you'll see that it's not smooth, but now they're back to being a useful vessel although you can still see that they've got some crags in them, but they're useful. This is an example of somebody who's gone through great physical or emotional pain and they've lost something, something very vital to them and that's perhaps the most interesting part about them."
"Tell me about the inspiration for your art."
"It's repurposed--it's all vintage or stuff that I find, whether it be trashed-and-dashed or in the garbage somewhere. I just try and think of uses for it so it doesn't end up in a landfill."
"How did you start out?"
"I've been doing art for a long time. I went the the College of Visual Arts in Manhattan, and I'm actually a painter--one thing progressed to another and I branched out to other things. Art is something I *have* to do. I live and breathe it."
"I'm from Ghana, so I paint according to my surroundings. I paint around day-to-day life. The way we live. That's what I used to paint.
"How does inspiration happen for you?"
"A lot of time I believe in dreaming, so when dreaming occurs, creation occurs. Other times when I'm painting, my canvas and my brush directs me to what to do."
"I've had to live in the moment many times. An illness of a sibling, for example. A terminal illness. I was grateful for every moment that I had."
"Can you pin down one moment?"
"So, you want a pinnacle moment that I lived in the moment? I think the fact that I recognized that life is short and so you can't take any day for granted. So, if you're mindful of the present, and you don't worry about the future or the past, every day is a gift."
Riverside Festival of the Ars
"Where does your poetry come from?"
"It comes from rhythm, from deep inside, and I've found a way to connect it with images. It's emotional. It's a personal kind of transformation that I go through every time I write. So I try to find a way to connect the subconscious with the conscious world."
"Is there one poem that you've written that you most deeply connect with?"
"Wow… There are a couple. I want to say this: the first time I really knew I wrote a poem that hung together was in, like 1983, and it's called 'Orange Slice Ships' and the imagery and simplicity of the moment and the journey I took in that poem all hung together and it slipped out whole, which doesn't happen very often. Within the past, when the economy crashed, I wrote about five poems from 2010 to '11 that all resonated one another and the way that situation was affecting me and the world. There are two poems specifically: One is called 'I Will Be Who I Am,' and the other one is called 'Glossy Americana,' where I sort of find a way to come out of any sort of tribulation. It's kind of mining the depths, you know, despair and looking for 'the cure is in the wound.'"
If you want to check out Danielle's poem "Orange Slice Ships," you can watch her read it on YouTube at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IxzBH5NAcZ0.
"I got fired from my job recently, so I was like, 'Well, it's not the end of the world. I'm gonna find something else soon. It's not over or anything like that.' I'm trying, and that's the point. Don't let other people shoot you down, basically, like the craziest dreams you have, they're not impossible."
"Do people try to shoot you down?"
"I think it happens socially with everyone. They don't really believe in themselves because from a young age everybody tells them, 'Oh, no, you gotta do this, you gotta do that.' They don't let them become who they are. And then they leave it as a dream. They don't go after it, they don't chase it. But you gotta remember that it's not impossible."
"I want to become a mixologist, but my parents always push it down, like, 'Nahhh, that's not a good job.' It just seems like a fun idea, like something I could do, because everything else seems too hard and not fun enough."
"I dropped out of school twice already and they were the worst two mistakes of my life. I should've learned the first time, but I didn't. I didn't listen to anyone when they told me to stay in school 'cause it would be important. So now I'm out looking for jobs at restaurants when I could be working somewhere else."
"So what happened?"
"My first time, I got kicked out of school for partying, and then my second time, I just slacked off. I stopped going."
"So what do you see in your future?"
"I'm going back to school. I'm going back to school! I'm not going to work at a restaurant anymore. I don't want to. I want to be in an office building and be an accountant."
"Do whatever you can to become engaged in your community where you live and get to know the people who are around you. The greatest part of my life has been living in Easton and getting to know the business owners and the people who live here across the whole community, and it makes life rich every single day, walking from place to place. I'm the executive director of the Nurture Nature center, which is a center for community learning about the local environment and works really hard to bring people together to think about the topics that really matter. But I think that's the way to live everyone's life, not just for the Nurture Nature Center."
Watch out folks; he's got a camera...