The Art - Photography


Beginning about 2003, for years we lived between the city's largest homeless shelter and its largest soup kitchen, which meant we were surrounded by a not insignificant number of people experiencing predominately long-term homelessness. The Pine Street shelter could house 700 individuals at night, often those who couldn't find shelter elsewhere as they were "hard to fit", people no one else would take. The apartment was our home while the streets were their home during the day, and home as well to the many who didn't utilize the shelter at night. These were our neighbors, almost all men. In the fall, as temperatures turned cooler but before true cold set in, transients would appear for a time as they followed the weather to more hospitable climes, but many of the faces were permanent fixtures. "Billie" was one of these individuals, and I use quotes around his name as this may not have been his legal name, instead one that he adopted for use on the street. Billie never spoke around us, avoidant socially to the point of being an intentionally absent individual even while he was daily present. The full extent of the story I had of him, given by our landlord, was that Billie had once worked as a waiter at an upscale restaurant in the area, had lost his job and became homeless due severe epilepsy. Even this bit was sketchy. I didn't know if Billie, who appeared to be in his sixties but was likely in his early fifties, may have worked at the restaurant as recently as within the last three years or the last twenty. The restaurant had either been The Abbey or The Mansion, both a block away in the direction of the shelter. The Abbey, where waiters wore monk's robes, would close about 2005 and be returned to its original vocation as a church, St. Paul's (now Ponce) Presbyterian, but was Ponce de Leon Methodist Episcopal when built in 1915. Or perhaps Billie had instead worked at The Mansion Restaurant, which had been right across from The Abbey, was owned by the same person who owned the Abbey--and even if one didn't know this the places felt like dizygotic twins though The Abbey was Gothic Revival, while The Mansion was a Queen Anne Victorian built in 1883 as the home for Edward Peters, a real estate developer whose father, Richard Peters Jr., was a founder of Atlanta, and of course came from wealth. His father was a Pennsylvania attorney and a founder of the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society, established in 1816, the first savings bank in the United and States, which in 1917 was the largest savings bank in the United States. A railroad executive, Richard Peters Jr. had relocated to Georgia from Pennsylvania in the 1830s-1840s due his part in engineering the construction of the Georgia Railroad, after which he became supervisor. As the RR superintendent, he was instrumental in the changing of Atlanta's name from Marthasville to Atlanta, as Marthasville was too long for easy recording in RR log books. Midtown was essentially created from Richard Peters' land, he giving the streets the names of trees so to be in harmony with Peachtree Street, while Penn Street referred to his Pennsylvania roots. Both The Mansion and The Abbey were structures left standing when a corridor of many blocks was dynamited--first along Pine, and Boulevard, then Ponce de Leon--to create the firebreak that prevented the Great Atlanta Fire of May 21st1917 from storming northwest of Ponce de Leon. Both structures having survived the fire, in a way they were psychic twins. The Mansion, aka Ivy Hall, had closed in 2000 due a fire, became a home for vagrants until 2005, then would reopen as part of the SCAD campus (Savannah College of Art and Design). It somehow made more sense to me that Billie might have worked at The Mansion and so I used to picture him there, though instead of picturing him there I instead pictured Hal, a pianist I used to know who had for a long while held a job playing at The Mansion, entertaining customers in the bar. Billie was so mentally and physically compromised that I had a difficult time envisioning him ever having had the ability to cope with the stress of being a waiter, which is a demanding job. I wondered if instead he had been perhaps a dishwasher or bus boy and his position had been upgraded by either himself or the landlord because it was a more genteel occupation, considered a more "real" job, and supposed a once stable history, or if only because "waiter" was a more compact word, two syllables, whereas "dishwasher" was three, and "bus boy" was two words and not as conveniently said. Sometimes what is more elastic in speech is all it takes to change a story.

If I've spent a seeming inordinate amount of time on The Abbey and The Mansion it's because they would have formed a significant amount of Billie's psychic geography, if he had worked at one of the restaurants and afterward, unhomed, remained in the neighborhood. I don't know if being in proximity of where he had worked might have been both distressing and comforting. And I've wondered, too, if he may have sheltered in The Mansion between the time of the fire that closed it, and its acquisition by SCAD.

The building we were in had opened in October 1917, a news article remarking on how all the apartments in the building had rented out in record time, which illustrated Atlanta's great demand for housing. That demand had been, if not in full consequence of, profoundly exacerbated by the great fire of May 1917 that consumed 1900 structures and displaced over 10,000 people, devastating the 4th ward neighborhoods of low income as well as thriving middle class African Americans, then consuming the "fine" homes of White Atlantans along Pine and Boulevard and moving in on Ponce de Leon before the dynamiting of homes on North Avenue and Boulevard began for the firebreak that saved the majority of the Midtown that Richard Peters had established (link to 1917 fire map). I wish I could say exactly where the dynamiting occurred but reports are too condensed for me to get a good idea of this. The Sunday after the fire, on 26 May, from the pulpit of the unscathed Methodist Episcopal church, the pastor James H. Elder preached on "The Secret of the Untroubled Heart" in the morning, and in the evening, "Lessons from the Great Fire". It would be difficult to imagine how one could preach on an "untroubled heart" subsequent the fire, except that there was only one death, a woman who went into shock over the dynamiting of her home. Still, 10,000 people displaced by fire, losing all their possessions, is less troubling than traumatizing.

Our landlord had been landlording there since the 1970s and had known Billie a while, but it was never clarified how long or how they happened to become acquainted. But he had befriended Billie and granted him access to the fenced in area back of the apartment building, providing him several trash cans in a corner where he stored the few trash bags that held his belongings and the many trash bags filled with cans he collected for the recycling money. The homeless shelter was stressful for Billie, as it is for many, and every day for the first several years we were there he would arrive early in the morning, about 6:30, to take a couple of hours refuge, resting on a yellow plastic lattice-weave lawn-chair that must have made its way to the apartment building in the 1950s. He liked this time as it was quiet, no one coming and going. I quickly learned he would always refuse any offers of food, water or coffee, simply wanting to be left alone. Because all Billie wanted was a time of peace, to be left alone, we were mindful to stay away from the back when he was out there.

Eventually, Billie became seriously ill. The landlord would occasionally pay him to do small chores. I never saw Billie perform any chores around our building, but I gathered he had in the past, and the landlord had other properties as well. One afternoon, he was giving Billie a ride over to one of these other properties and Billie fainted in his truck. After spending time in the hospital then in a half-way house in Decatur, Billie returned to the neighborhood's streets as he felt the halfway house too restrictive, which is not unusual. People don't like halfway house rules. He was back behind the building again in the mornings. Then he disappeared altogether, but it was impossible to say when, because it was a gradual absenting. For us, and this was intentional on his part, he was like a barely-there shadow. He didn't want others to speak with him, and you had the feeling he didn't want you to look at him either. If you glanced in his direction, he'd vanish, so you didn't look at him in order to not frighten him off. His face was like a blur, only vaguely present. He was a small person, so skinny his clothes wore him, and yet not even this stood out about him. Nothing stood out about him, neither with his features, nor his attire, he so effectively disappearing into himself. One day he was still sometimes coming around, and then one day we realized he probably hadn't been there in a while, and then we realized he hadn't been there in a long while. His bags of recyclable cans and some of his few belongings remained in the corner that had been reserved for Billie's things, then after about a year or so the landlord disposed of them. Billie, it seemed, had been back in a half-way home--and one wished things were working out for him, but we would never know. What we did know is he had a history of things not working out that way. For Billie not to show up again at all meant either good news for him or very bad news.

I never took any photos of Billie, just as I didn't take photos of the other homeless, though they were ever present. I felt it important to not use their faces and hard times for photo opportunities. If I chronicled their lives on the streets, it would have been of no benefit to them. I was sometimes out photographing the area and I also didn't want them discomfited or agitated by my camera, so I never turned it in their direction. One could argue that I was instead not photographing what was actually there, and thus hiding the fact of homelessness and its impact--and I understand that there are people who remain not fully cognizant of homelessness, who aren't daily around it--but I would have felt I was invading their home, what little privacy they had left to them on the street. Therefore, though we were close neighbors, I only have one photo that gave a glimpse of any of the homeless, that one not of any individuals but outside the nearby homeless shelter.

I did however take a couple of photos of Billie's chair, during the time when he was still using it regularly. He would often leave something on the chair, such as a towel or a shirt, as if that item was his way of claiming that space. But it didn't feel like possessing so much as like a reassuring anchor. And no one used that chair ever except for Billie.

The Peachtree-Pine Street shelter was closed in 2017, about the time we moved out of the area, driven out by gentrification that emptied our building so it would be refurbished as "luxury" apartments, and new construction of "luxury" apartments transformed the neighborhood entirely.

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