In the 1940s, Dorella Anderson was assigned a family history project at school. She went to the Riverside Public Library and asked to see the Negro history section. A librarian handed her an envelope with a small piece of paper inside that said "No Negroes have been born in the city of Riverside." Anderson was livid. She stole the piece of paper and still has it to this day.
"I was born here," she told Riverside author, Susan Straight. "Others were born here."
Now Straight and photographer Doug McCulloh are telling Anderson's story, and the stories of other residents of Riverside's diverse Eastside in "More Dreamers of the Golden Dream," which opens at the Riverside Art Museum on April 26th. The show features large scale black and white photography by McCulloh and text by Straight, some of which comes from their joint KCET.org project, Notes of a Native Daughter, although most of the work is original to the exhibition.
"It's a big deal to me that Dorella's legacy lives on in this way," says Straight, who fictionalizes the Eastside in her acclaimed novels -- including her latest, Between Heaven and Here -- set in Riverside's doppelganger, Rio Seco. She finds the neighborhood misunderstood by the rest of the city.
"The other day, a student told me 'I drove through the ghetto.' He was all scared," she says, "and I said, 'Did you say hi to my cousin?"
Straight has a long history with the Eastside; her ex-husband, who she started dating as a teenager, grew up there, and his grandmother Daisy Carter's house was the heart of the neighborhood. "Everyone hung out in her driveway," she says. "More Dreamers of the Golden Dream" was inspired after Carter's house burned down in early 2012.
"I called Doug and asked if he could take pictures of the house," she says. "It all spiraled out from there."
Straight drew a map of the Eastside on the cardboard back of one of her notebooks for McCulloh, showing him how a whole world of stories could be found in the rectangle formed by Park and Victoria Avenues between 11th and 14th Streets, which includes landmarks such as Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, built in 1929 so that the 450 Spanish speaking families in the area wouldn't have to walk all the way to St. Francis de Sales downtown, the Park Avenue Baptist Church, where Straight says every Eastside funeral is held, and the Irving School, the first voluntarily integrated public school in the nation.
It took a while for Eastside residents to warm up to McCulloh, an eminent photographer who exhibits internationally. He is one of six artists who transformed an old F-18 jet hanger into the world's largest camera to take the world's largest photo. His most recent curation, "Sight Unseen", focuses upon blind photographers, and is currently showing in Seoul, Korea.
"He had to get to know everybody before they'd let him take their picture," says Straight, which was fine with McCulloh, who finds it important for photographers to know their subjects ("It's a personal hobby horse of mine," he says.) Now Eastsiders refer to him as "Susan's tall white friend."
"The people are awesome," says McCulloh. "They're formidable characters." None more so than Donella Anderson; McCulloh says all the guys in the neighborhood, even the big tough guys with criminal records, are scared of Mrs. Anderson. And formidable characters call for formidable photos; the photo of Anderson is five by five feet.
McCulloh is having the photos printed by AA Flag and Banner in Los Angeles. "Artists are glomming onto the fact that places like this have incredible imaging equipment, and you can scale up for an affordable price" says McCulloh. He also loves how the flexible poly fabric is a perfect fit for digital photography. "The weave of the cloth fits the ephemeral nature of digital," he says, "and I like how it gets away from the 'precious object in a frame'."
Finding old photos of the neighborhood to enlarge was more of a challenge. "If you want to do a show on White establishment Riverside, you can find material, no problem," says McCulloh, who said that local museums and libraries were apologetic when he tried to find archival photos of the Eastside. "There's a real gap." They turned to local residents, who went through boxes and albums to find photos that show the Eastside's history. The photos brought Straight and McCulloh full circle -- the final section of the exhibition, titled "Driveway: A Love Letter" includes 30 years of photos taken in Straight's former in-laws' driveway, right around the corner from Daisy Carter's house, the site that launched the whole project.
"More Dreamers of the Golden Dream" is divided into ten different sections, each with text written by Straight with the same lyricism and compassion and tender attention to detail found in her novels. A phone number is printed beside each essay that visitors can call to hear Straight narrate the story herself.
It took a while for Straight and McCulloh to figure out how to best utilize the rectangular gallery space. They knew they didn't want people staring at four flat walls; they wanted to create a more dynamic and immersive experience. McCulloh finally created a scale model of the room out of foam core and strung intersecting wires across the space like clothesline the photos could hang from. As visitors move from one section to another around the giant banners, they'll notice that some people, like Anderson, show up in several stories.
"Everyone on the Eastside is connected," says Straight.
"Monolithically," adds McCulloh.
In their year in a half of working together on this project, Straight and McCulloh have developed a comedy-team-like rapport. When Kathryn Poindexter, a curator at the museum, tells them that four portable walls need to stay inside the gallery, McCulloh envisions complicating the entryway. "I like spaces where I'm thwarted," he says. Straight shakes her head. "Three hundred black ladies aren't going to like it."
McCulloh listens and laughs as Straight describes their different approaches: "Doug says 'I'm doing what I want'; I say 'I'm doing what five hundred people want.' Doug says 'I always choose art"; I say, 'I always choose Mrs. Anderson.'"
Straight is excited for the subjects of the stories and photos to see the exhibition; they've told her "There's never been people like us in an art museum before." She thinks a lot about Lareanz Simmons, the 14 year old who was killed on the Eastside in 2012; Simmons had been related to Straight's ex-husband, and was shot in a driveway near the lot where Daisy Carter's house used to stand. The tension between the black and Latino communities on the Eastside breaks Straight's heart, especially when she looks at the communities' shared history. "Their parents could have eaten together at Zacateca's," she says, noting the storied Eastside restaurant that will cater the exhibition's opening reception. "They could have gone to church together. I want young people to realize our stories are entwined."
"More Dreamers of the Golden Dream" runs April 26-July 23, 2012. Opening reception, Friday, April 26, 7-9pm. Riverside Art Museum, 3425 Mission Inn Ave., Riverside CA 92501, (951) 684-7111
Top Image: Taped hands at Lincoln Boxing Club, 2013.