My best friend and sister from another (super)mother, whom I love dearly, says that you can’t know if the work that you’ve done has made an impact if you don’t take a moment to reflect on it. So I decided to follow her advice (for a change) and take a stab at writing down some of my reflections about what became known as the “This Is My Home” photography show.
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It’s been two months since I returned from Oak Park, Illinois, a west suburb of my hometown, Chicago. I hadn’t been back to Chicago in over ten years, and was very excited that I had this great opportunity to share my photography with a new audience. Two installations of over 50 photographs at the Oak Park Public Library and the Oak Park Village hall comprised the “This Is My Home” exhibit. It was well received and sparked some very interesting and thought-provoking dialogue and conversations about how we interact with shared spaces and how those interactions are influenced by race, class and, to be honest, an awareness of the history and evolution of those spaces. I talked with all kinds of people – photography enthusiasts, researchers, community organizers, artists, mothers, fathers, children – and listened as well to what they had to say. And boy, did everyone have a lot to say. At the end of the day we could all agree on one thing, it’s that we all have very strong and passionate feelings about the places we all call home.
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I can’t believe that four years have passed since I began photographing life in northwest Philadelphia – specifically working-class Germantown, where I live, and Mt. Airy, the solidly middle-class community to the immediate north. I look at these images and see how far I’ve come as a photographer, and as an outsider in a community that is fiercely loyal to its deeply historical, blue-collar, gritty roots. Also, it was the first time in four years where I was completely comfortable with calling the City of Brotherly Love my home. Yes, The Windy City will always be my hometown. I love its energy, its food, my family and friends. I made a lot of good memories there. But Philly, with its cheesesteaks, hoagies, soft pretzels, water ice and crazy sports fans, is my home, and I knew I belonged here the moment I stepped off an Amtrak train in 2007 from NYC and walked through 30th Street Station to take me to Center City.
I arrived in Philadelphia to stay, four years later, in the middle of January, 2011. Days later, the city was hit by a pretty bad snowstorm, and I sat in an unfamiliar room, looking out the window and wondering if I had made the right decision to move here from Jersey City, NJ. I could have returned to the Midwest, but thankfully, I didn’t. I was going to make this work and little did I know, my camera would play a huge role in making my one wish come true. What was that wish? My one wish was to settle down and put down the type of roots that would make it virtually impossible for me to want to leave.
Lovett Memorial Library, located in the West Mt. Airy section of northwest Philadelphia, is part of the Free Library of Philadelphia and has been serving the Mt. Airy community since 1885 when it was founded by Reverend Simeon C. Hill of the Grace Episcopal Church, Mrs. Samuel W. (Margaret Ada) Potter, and Miss Louisa D. Lovett. It, like many other prominent buildings in northwest Philadelphia, is surrounded by lush trees, fragrant flowers and immaculate landscaping. I would go there just to sit and think. Other times, I would go there to work on my computer and observe patrons, or wander through the stacks and select a book or two to read.
On April 30, 2011, I found myself at Lovett Library again. I was slammed by some really disheartening news that made me begin to seriously doubt myself and my decision to make Philadelphia my home. Damn, not again, I thought as I sank down on one of the stone benches outside.
Little did I know that moments later, Lovett would become the backdrop of an impromptu photo shoot that I did with a group of kids from the neighborhood. Their smiling faces, curiosity and enthusiasm, combined with the awesome natural light, made for some pretty neat photos. One of the photos from the series ended up being published in Philadelphia City Paper, and the rest, they say is history.
With that experience under my belt, I became more emboldened to seek out people and situations in the neighborhood that I could observe and photograph. For instance, the series entitled “Kids of Ya-Ya’s Place” came to life in the front yard of a West Germantown home. When I think of this series, my thoughts go back to when I was a kid. I think about how fun and carefree my childhood was and how we really didn’t need much to keep ourselves entertained and engaged. I think about how powerful a child’s imagination is and how it can take him or her to faraway places. And I think about how our personalities are formed as a result of our interactions with other children.
I see myself in the expressive faces of these children. I see optimism. I see hope. I see cynicism. I see curiosity. I am reminded of why it’s so important to keep the light of our children’s collective imagination from extinguishing, because it is that which fuels their innate creativity.
Four years later, these photos continue to amaze me because they speak to the easygoing way that kids of all races and backgrounds connect and form bonds of friendship. It sustains my hope that we can all learn to live together and love and respect one another like they do. I believe that Germantown and Mt. Airy had a lot to do with why these children are the way they are.
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Home to me, is about belonging. It’s about carving out a place for yourself in a community and having that act be accepted and validated and seen as a good thing. It’s about love, and laughter, and inside jokes and food and music and art and long walks. It’s about hugs and kisses and warm greetings, and a feeling that you’re wanted, and needed. It’s about fighting fair and making up and being friends at the end of the day. It’s about peace of mind and about action and knowing which is the right thing to do for a neighbor. I actually learned these things here in Germantown. This is my home.
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In late March I received a Facebook message from one of my friends from high school. She said, “Tieshka, I passed by your old house yesterday and it was burned down.” I have to admit that the words hit me in the gut like a sledgehammer. What the hell, that can’t be! But I really wasn’t ready to accept the news, so I took to the Internet to confirm things for myself. Sure enough, on March 1st, the house did catch fire. Damn, I thought, I was in town on March 1st. I didn’t leave Chicago until the 5th (and ironically, when I woke up in Germantown the next morning, I was greeted by one of the worse snowstorms of the season!!).
That night, in late March, after I got the news from my friend, I huddled over my laptop and searched Google Maps to see if there was a picture of the house, and thankfully, there was, from 2012, and not one of the burnt remains. Growing up in that house was pretty tough, and I was glad to leave. Despite the mixed feelings I harbored about many of my past experiences, I couldn’t let my memories of my childhood in south suburban Chicago go, despite the fact that I tried desperately to disengage, once in St. Louis, then in New York and then in Jersey City. I always found myself comparing these places to the one place that I had intense but mixed feelings about. Uprooting myself over and over again was like pulling a scab off repeatedly when nothing else to heal the wound would work.
Finally, in 2015, at 42 years old, I can breathe a sigh of relief and say without a doubt in my mind, that it is okay to let go. Knowing that my childhood home was no more made space in my mind to accept a new reality: That this place – Philly, Germantown – Is Now My Home.