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Photograph by Nita Winter

Community Building: Nita Winter's 'Faces of the Canal' series includes Angel and his son Benjy.

A Picture's Worth

Nita Winter's banners celebrate Marin's diverse communities

By Stephanie Hiller

When people come here, they fall in love." Jeannette Sotomajor has set aside her lunch to talk with me at the front desk in the Pickleweed Community Center in San Rafael, where she works as an administrative assistant. "Sometimes people ask me if it is safe here. But once they're here, they fall in love."

It's true. The Canal District of San Rafael, on the spit of land north of Interstate 580 near the Richmond Bridge (known better for San Quentin than for park space), captivated me immediately as I drove past square, green lawns and tidy buildings on the way to Pickleweed Park.

Inside the typical block-style community center, the atmosphere is welcoming and the building hums with life. In one classroom, a group of Latinos study citizenship. Down the hall, Vietnamese adults practice their English. Bridge players from all over the Bay Area gather around a buffet before their tournament. Mothers come through with their children on the way to the playground.

And then there are the banners. In jaunty, varicolored letters, "Faces of the Canal" adorn the light posts in the parking lot, inviting us to look into the smiling faces of the people who live in San Rafael's poorest neighborhood. Down the hall, a huge display case teems with more pictures. Many are children.

"I have friends from everywhere, and it's the same thing with everybody here," says Sotomajor, a woman bringing up her two small children on her own in a foreign country. Sotomajor came here in 1985 from Nicaragua. This year she was named Woman of the Year by assemblyman Joe Nation.

"We have no problem communicating with everybody," Sotomajor says. "If the Vietnamese have a big celebration, we're all invited. At the Dia de los Muertos, thousands come. You see Latinos, African Americans, Vietnamese--all kinds. Teens organize parties for the Kids Club.

"When we make a memorial celebration," she adds, "we try to make it very general. If we're going to pray, we try to do it in a way that God is recognized in every religion. Jewish, Christian, Indian--no problem at all."

Documenting the Faces

Bay Area photographer Nita Winter--the woman responsible for the "Faces of the Canal" project--moved from Corte Madera to Marin City with her partner, Rob Badger, over five years ago. Friends wondered why. But despite the picture others retained, Winter and Badger liked living there.

Marin City is a pocket of poverty in otherwise affluent Marin County. To change the negative image of the community she loved, Winter decided to photograph the faces she saw around her and display them to public view. "Faces of Marin City" was her first project, in 2000; "Faces of Novato" came next. "Faces of the Canal" is her most recent, and she's working on "Faces of Vallejo."

Communities of color acquire bad reputations. White Americans share a fear of the dark. A little crime in a black neighborhood goes a long way to convince whites that the place is dangerous, and they stay away. While the neighborhood changes unseen, the negative image sticks like a tarnished decal on an old car window.

Turning her camera's eye on misrepresented neighborhoods was not new to Winter. When she lived in San Francisco's Mission District, she photographed people at the Bay Area Women's Resource Center for the Women's Foundation's annual report.

"They really liked the work, so they asked me to do the 'Children of the Tenderloin,' which included two major exhibits and a book. It was the first to educate people, decision makers, about what a community is really like, rather than what they thought it was like." The second exhibit was called "Children, Children Everywhere, and Not a Place to Play." At the time, there were no schools in the neighborhood. The exhibit inspired the creation of a playground and an elementary school.

Later, in San Rafael, Winter did a photographic display at St. Vincent's Dining Hall, which, under Sue Brown's direction, was serving 300 free meals a day downtown. The city was trying to move St. Vincent's out--there was that image problem about the hungry. "Where there's an image problem, call in Nita," Winter smiles.

The exhibit included 60 images up to 40 inches by 60 inches. As with the "Faces" series, they were captioned with first names only. Portraits of staff and volunteers were intermingled with those of the clients who frequent the dining hall. Viewers didn't know who was who. "It made people really think about what their image of the hungry is," Winter says. "One 82-year-old woman went there because it got her out of the house and among people she knew. She was afraid without that, she might end up in a nursing home."

Winter says the display changed peoples' images of those who needed the dining hall's services and created community pressure to put the brakes on what the city was up to. "The exhibit confirmed my belief in the power of the photograph as a powerful tool for change--changing self-image, the image of the community, and creating a sense of community."

That sense of community is so important. "Wherever I have lived--in the Mission, in the Castro--I always knew my neighbors," says Winter. "It's something we have lost. Now with automatic garage-door openers, people never have to get out of their cars to see their neighbors.

"If you have strong communities, you don't have many of the problems we are faced with now."

Winter originally got the idea for creating photographic banners from an article about a New York City photographer who had enhanced a construction site with poster photos of people passing through Times Square. Using a storefront at the new Marin City shopping center for her studio, she took thousands of photos. The 7-by-3-foot banners were hung throughout the shopping center, and large prints were displayed in empty storefronts. Eight 4-foot square light boxes with photos still stand outside Long's.

"There was a great deal of appreciation," Winter says. "One person told me she was afraid to shop there, but when she saw the photos, she felt welcomed. A vocal few felt I was trying to turn it into a white community. For me it was a celebration of the people who had been there, as well as a welcome mat for new people."

Soon, Marin City was in the papers again, but this time the news was quite different. The San Francisco Chronicle did a front page story in its Metro section on the banner project. The Marin Independent Journal also covered it, and Wayne Friedman did a two-minute spot on the 6 o'clock news.

With her banner project in Marin City, Winter shed light on the murky picture outsiders hold of what goes on in diverse communities, a living reality often obscured by rumors and fears.

Mr. Man's Celebrity

The truth is, communities of color are all about kids.

"Two little kids, a small Latino kid and his American friend, they saw my picture," says Man Phan, who is depicted in the "Canal" series. "They came running, 'Mr. Man! Mr. Man! I see your picture.' That made me so happy."

Phan, a Vietnamese language instructor and respected community activist, moved from Saigon with his wife 12 years ago to a house across the street from the Pickleweed Community Center, where he lives still. "In Vietnam, I worked with the U.S. Army from 1965 to 1972. American soldiers helped me to speak English."

Phan was in the army for 21 years. He then spent six years in a communist prison. "That was terrible," Phan recalls. "But God loved me and God got me here, so that's why I have to share with everyone.

"I love the language," Phan continues. "The language is the most important for the people. That's why I have ESL classes. It helps." Language is the ticket to jobs. But the Pickleweed Center also offers Vietnamese language for the kids, in order to help them remember their native culture. Mr. Man, as he is known to all, is now on the center's advisory board.

The Pickleweed Center has grown so busy that it is getting ready to embark on a remodel that will expand its facilities. Dr. Tom Peters, director of the Marin Community Foundation, which has contributed generously to all of Winter's banner projects, said the center used to be a tomb. "If you had come down five years ago, people in the community would say [they] don't know who runs it or what it is for." He credits the community and the involvement of city officials with the area's transformation. "It does illustrate what can happen when a city is mobilized and supported."

Nancy Rosa of the Canal Ministry, an interfaith ministry in the neighborhood, has lived in the Canal for 34 years. "A lot of us really like the Canal. We want to live here." The Canal Ministry runs a leadership program, Canal Healthy Neighborhood, now in its third year. The program did all the recruitment and organizing for Winter's photo shoot.

"It's really been a source of community pride," says Rosa. "Residents spend 10 to 15 minutes looking at the pictures. People come to see them and start talking. Perceptions change about what this neighborhood is."

Picturing Novato

Annan Paterson, school psychologist for the Novato Unified School District, saw "Faces of Marin City" at a Martin Luther King celebration in 2000. "I thought, 'Oh my gosh, this is such a powerful visual message.'" A volunteer with the city of Novato's Multicultural Commission, she suggested a banner project for Novato.

"I moved to Novato in 1995, the same year a hate crime occurred against an Asian-American man," says Paterson. Then there was an incident at the high school when a student yelled "nigger." "It was a huge incident. Initially, people couldn't believe that could actually happen here. It was painful for our community to realize that, yes, it did." The city responded with sensitivity and diversity trainings.

"I saw the banners as a way of showing that Novato is not just a white community," Paterson says. "It is about 80 percent white with a mix of Asians, blacks, and Hispanics. I'm a mom, and as a school psychologist--and as a person--I think it's just vital that we recognize the diversity in our community."

With funding from Marin Community Foundation and the Institute of Noetic Sciences, and a budget of $45,000, Winter set up studios in schools and the city council chamber for one afternoon. There are at least 500 photos on the two-sided banners that line the downtown street of Grant Avenue. Since the banners are taken down for holidays and then rehung, they show up in different locations. "Kids will say, 'My banner used to be by the bakery and now it's by the bank!'" says Winter. The whole project engenders a spirit of civic pride.

But there's a down side to all this. "The saddest part," says Rosa, "is that those who are able to buy a home . . . have to go to Richmond or Vallejo. So you're losing your leadership people all the time."

"In the Canal," says Peters, "we have participated in the effort to stem the tide by supporting the city and its redevelopment agency by purchasing some building to hold rents lower than they would be. But the hand of the market is a strong one," he adds, describing "a dilemma that is faced time and again." When a neighborhood improves, it becomes unaffordable to the people whose spirit and dedicated effort improved it. Redevelopment projects in Marin City and San Rafael have contributed to the improvement, and, Peters admits, the "unintended consequence" is rising rents.

"Marin City has got all the potentially developable features," Peters says, with its proximity to the big city, its views of the bay, and county median house prices at $700,000. Though the Marin Community Foundation, a coalition of 300 families, 98 percent of them local, draws from $1 billion in assets to support neighborhood projects, it is not enough to hold back what Peters sees as the "significant upward pressure" that south Marin faces.

Eastern Expansion

It's logical to assume that when Vallejo is "discovered," the same process of rising rents will occur. But for now, the diversity and vitality of that Solano County city is still a secret.

Gail Manning wants to let the world know that Vallejo is a "wonderful community" with old heritage homes and a widely mixed population in which "whites are the minority." She saw the banners in Marin and invited Nita Winter to set up her studio at Vallejo's Unity Day last year, an annual cultural event on the waterfront, with music, ethnic food, and performing artists in celebration of diversity.

Manning and her family moved to Vallejo from the city. She owns a pilates studio downtown, the Vallejo Movement Center. "People just buzz by on the freeway," she says. Outsiders seem to view it as "the armpit of the Bay Area. People kind of got a complex about living here. But there's lots to be proud of."

Manning's plan is to pay for the banners through fundraising, but unlike the other cities, she expects most of the funding to come from downtown businesses, and to that end she will display the name of each sponsoring firm. The banners cost $600 each; she is asking $750 so the extra money can go back into the fund. Her focus is the downtown area, but the city also wants to put them along Highways 37 and 29 to improve the highway corridor.

Some of the people moving to Vallejo are seasoned community activists from places like Marin City, the Canal, and Novato. They bring with them their positive experience in their previous communities.

But when Vallejo's prices go up too, will there be one more unknown Bay Area city to receive the immigrants? Or will the market drive out all but the lucky few who benefit from its relentless expansion favoring the hardy and the well-to-do?

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From the February 27-March 5, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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