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The Spirit of North Shore

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Nuestro Lugar: North Shore is the first resident-designed, culture-driven, community development project in the rural, migrant community of North Shore, California. Over the course of a year, Artbound will chronicle Nuestro Lugar's various physical improvements, economic activity projects, and multi-faceted arts and culture initiatives that will use North Shore's assets as catalysts for change.

For those who don't live here, the Salton Sea could seem like a stink, a fish kill, an unheard prayer.

To many outsiders, the Salton Sea is the dead sea.

Most people don't know about North Shore, a community left off many maps, here on the banks of the Salton Sea. It's a struggling town, once envisioned to be a resort, now a broken dream, a sun-scorched heartbreak.

But 10-year-resident Eulalia Dominguez knows otherwise. When she bites into a juicy mango grown in her yard, she tastes the good life.

Where others see desolation; she sees magic.

Yes, the lake suffers from heavy pollution. It ranks as an environmental disaster. But at night, when she steps onto her porch, the stars, freed from light pollution, dazzle.

For Dominguez, the desert sunsets are a drive-in movie, the breezes a Saturday night dance, the easy conversations with neighbors a touchstone of home.

She likes living here. She feels safe. But she knows things could be better. She wants North Shore to stand to its full height, reach its full potential. She is willing to work to help it get there.

Enter the band of advocates/artists from Kounkuey Design Initiative, (KDI), a Los Angeles-based non-profit, dedicated to collaborative community development. They are also willing to help.

They are a design team that believes in an artful approach to community transformation. Collaboration is the watchword.

They've witnessed first-hand the frustrations of communities when an outside group steps in to makes changes the community isn't on-board with. To KDI it's clear: the community must be in the driver's seat.

Their approach works. KDI has done successful community-building in Kenya, Ghana, Haiti, and other hard-hit places. For this project, they've decided to do something closer to home, said Jessica Bremner, KDI's project director.

About a 150 miles southeast of Los Angeles, about 10 miles south of Mecca, lies the North Shore community at the edge of the Salton Sea. It numbers about 3,400 people. Some 90 percent are Latino. Many work in the surrounding agricultural fields where dates, lemons, grapes strawberries, corn, bell peppers, okra, watermelon abound.

Most are low-income families, but modest housing prices in North Shore make it possible for them to afford a roof over their heads.

In the 1950s, when developers saw potential for profits at the Salton Sea, they put in infrastructures for water and sewer, mapped out suburban-like communities, planted palm trees, created a network of streets with nautical names. But the boom never materialized. And today weeds overrun many of the lots.

The people who populate North Shore are resilient. They stick together.

Isabel Torres and Jessie Heneghan | Photo: Gordon Johnson
Isabel Torres and Jessie Heneghan. | Photo: Gordon Johnson.

An evening of food and family

On a recent fall evening, as the sun drops behind western mountains jagged as a dog's teeth, about 30 North Shore residents mingle in the shady side of Isabel Torres's house for a tamale dinner, a computer workshop on newspaper paste-up, and a convivio of locals telling their stories.

Tamales -- pork and chicken -- are kept warm in insulated ice chests. A salad, crispy with fried Chinese noodles, is spooned from a plastic bowl. Isabel makes yogurt cups with fruit and cold cereal. Also for dessert there are unique tamales made with a date filling invented by Maria Gomez.

The prevailing language is Spanish, the talk is spiced with laughter. Kids play in the street. They walk by with novelty lights in the heels of their running shoes flashing in the dusk. A young boy carries a very young Rottweiler pup, as a trio of interested German shepherds stand on hind legs against the wire-mesh fence. A young girl sings a Mexican folk song as if it's a song of grace, and people begin eating.

Shaking hands, sharing small talk, subtly directing activities are KDI's Jessie Heneghan, program coordinator; Evelyn Serrano, co-artistic director, Shannon Scrofano, co-artistic director.

Evelyn Serrano, an artist and teacher at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia has organized the convivio as a way to involve older members of the community. After they eat, each attendee stands and gives a short speech about themselves, about their hopes, about their circumstances.

They are initially hesitant, but warm to the process. One woman speaks of the importance of education. As a young woman in Mexico she was denied a chance at education. It's a major regret for her. As a consequence she yearns to bolster education locally.

There is no school in North Shore. A local school is high on the list of improvements, one that would surely help solidify a sense of identity.

North Shore shares a zip code with Mecca, which takes the lions share of tax revenue -- so no local school, no road crew at the ready to fill in pot holes, no street lights, no public health care. North Shore residents hope to remedy that situation as well.

Another speaker, a man of indeterminate years in a straw cowboy hat, offers a lengthy prayer of thanks, and sings a blessing song. He's extremely thankful for the opportunity for the community to unite.

"There's a lot of need here, but a lot of potential," Serrano says. "They want people to see them for exactly who they are -- a strong community."

"There's a high level of interdependence here, because they need each other to create change. I'm constantly surprised by their ability to come together. They are very ready to create change," Serrano says.

Each convivio participant who spoke was recorded and will be archived on the project's website as oral history.

Shannon Scrofano | Photo: Gordon Johnson
Shannon Scrofano. | Photo: Gordon Johnson.

Meanwhile, inside the house, at the dinning room table, Shannon Scrofano, KDI's co-artistic director and also a Cal Arts teacher, leads a computer workshop on newspaper design.

The community now boasts a bilingual broadsheet newspaper, El Progreso, that encourages locals to contribute. Eulalia Dominguez writes a column called Eulalia's Corner. At the bottom of her column is a poem that sums up her vision of the North Shore project:

The city of North Shore is not just any place.
It has a great future and a dramatic past.
While the changes we need will not come easily.
If people who want change come together, it can be achieved.

Scrofano, using a Mac laptop projects a newspaper mock-up on the dining-room wall, demonstrating to a handful of teens the key strokes needed to lay news copy into justified columns.

Scrofano sees the newspaper as a way to involve residents, and promote community identity, as well as apprising the community of goings on. The first issue rolled off the presses at the end of September and already local businesses are inquiring about buying advertising space.

The newspaper is just one way to get locals thinking and writing about their community, Scrofano says.

Mary Gomez and Evelyn Serrano | Photo: Gordon Johnson
Mary Gomez and Evelyn Serrano. | Photo: Gordon Johnson.

The art agenda

Heneghan says the North Shore Project emphasizes a tri-level approach to community development: physical design, economic development, and a social/cultural layer.

The North Shore Project's physical centerpiece is the design of public space for a five-acre park. Since last year, KDI has held two dozen community meetings which encouraged residents to steer every aspect of the park's development.

Right now, the park is a parcel bare of everything except weeds. But the land, donated by Desert Alliance for Community Empowerment, is on it's way to becoming a flull-fledged, community-inspired public space complete with soccer fields, a playground, a bike repair station, and other amenities.

Cost for the park is estimated at about $1 million to be paid for by a blend of federal, state, and privately donated funds.

Bremner says park planners and landscape architects are currently steeped in the permit process, jumping the hurdles to get clearance from local government to build.

"It's an ongoing battle with small victories," Bremner says. Two steps forward, one back.

Heneghan carries the banner for economic development. She's starting with small, realistic, sustainable business concepts. She's helping local entrepreneurs with business plans, outlining steps to get from the raw idea to the far shores of accomplishment.

Currently, she's forging the way for a local farmer's market called Delicias Laguna Azul to be set up at North Shore's Yacht Club parking lot. Once the park opens sometime next year, the farmer's market will relocate there.

Residents sitting down to some chow | Photo: Gordon Johnson
Residents sitting down to some chow. | Photo: Gordon Johnson.

The community's new business leaders have been meeting twice a month for about a year to perfect their products, generate business plans, and get the necessary permits in place.

Foodstuffs like tamales, empanadas, tortas, nachos, fruit and yogurt, iced coffee frappes, raspados, aguas frescas and other favorites will top the list of offerings.

There's also a boutique in the works offering fashionable hair products and other accessories.

Many community members cultivate gardens so local produce will also be a market mainstay.

Another exciting development, Heneghan says is the "Biciteca," a bike library. They intend to establish a lending library of bicycles that youths can check out and ride, like they would with books at a lending library.

Part of the program is setting up workshops for youths to learn bike repair. Transportation in North Shore is difficult, especially for the young, so bikes are good alternative.

Isaac Camarena, 17, a local bike mechanic and BMX enthusiast, says youths are excited about the prospect. They have established a group called Desert Riderz with idea of bolstering cycling in the neighborhood.

Long-term, they hope hope to increase bike safety by working with government officials to create bike lanes.

According to Heneghan, this is just the beginning. Sustainability is the project's battle cry, so more feasibility studies will be launched to determine what businesses make economic sense in the region.

Evelyn Serrano and Shannon Scrofano, both artists, are at the vanguard of incorporating art into the project's cultural layer.

In the beginning, Bremner says KDI considered itself primarily an instrument of design, putting into play cutting-edge approaches to design of public places.

But as KDI evolves, Bremner sees KDI morphing toward social practice art. It's called many things: socially engaged art, community art, new-genre public art, participatory art, interventionist art, and collaborative art.

But the main idea is art as a communal activity instead of a solitary pursuit.

"Community engaged art is something essential in our work now," Bremner said. "We don't call ourselves an art organization, but I think we are."

Salton City | Photo: Gordon Johnson
Salton City. | Photo: Gordon Johnson.

As an artist, Serrano felt isolated. She created alone, and never felt connected to her audience. So she gravitated toward social practice arts, where exploring the art becomes context for the meaning. "Co-creating the meaning with others invigorated me," Serrano says.

Now she thrives on collaborative energy. And she's constantly surprised by what expertise the locals bring to the table.

"They might not call themselves artists, but what we are creating is artful and unique," Serrano says.

Serrano and Scrofano, maybe by example, maybe by proximity, maybe by osmosis, have been cultivating an artistic mindset in North Shore residents.

It's about paying attention, about opening up the senses, about looking for beauty in your surroundings.

They are leading art groups, setting up poetry workshops, promoting the plastic arts, setting up a local art gallery where young artists can see their work go on display.

The group has launched a cultural mapping project that will be posted to the North Shore website where oral histories, photographs, artwork, and sounds of the landscape will be recorded.

Locals head out into the landscape equipped with tape recorders to capture endemic sounds -- sea birds squabbling over the carcasses of dead fish, rubber tires crunching over a sandy bike trail, dogs barking at yowling coyotes.

Alfredo, a man of no artistic training, yet an artist by nature, took a group down to the shore, where the beach consists of desiccated fish bones. He wanted people to listen, really listen, to the sound of footsteps on crackling fish bones.

Then, with work hardened hands, he burrowed into the fish-bone detritus, scooping it up, letting it fall, the resulting sound both chilling, yet somehow beautiful -- the sound ecological devastation, decay, and perhaps, rebirth too.

The stuff of poetry. The poetry of hope for a better future.

Salton City | Photo: Gordon Johnson
Salton City. | Photo: Gordon Johnson.

Visit North Shore to meet the community and participate in these upcoming events:

One Night Gallery Art Exhibition and El Progreso's Issue 2 Celebration
November 1st
98960 Avenue 68, North Shore, CA 92254
This exhibition, featuring art, music and delicious food, celebrates the creativity of the North Shore community. El Progreso Issue #2 arrives.

Delicias Laguna Azul Grand Opening
November 6
3-6 pm
North Shore Yacht Club parking lot.
The culinary arts are on display with delicious food from local cooks including unique tamales, raspados ,nachos, gelatinos, yogurt parfaits, empanadas, and other original recipes. Accessories and other creations also for sale.

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