In case of death: Janet Delaney, Lydia Chàvez discuss recording local history, preserving community in San Francisco’s Mission District

In case of death: Janet Delaney, Lydia Chàvez discuss recording local history, preserving community in San Francisco’s Mission District

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Chi Park/Staff

In response to the opening of an exhibition covering his work, longtime Mission photographer Ted Pushinsky voiced his gratitude: “I look at the gallery and I say: ‘Wow. They’re there. Thank God they’re there.’ If there’s a death of the Mission, well, it’s prolonged because we have them.”

Though Pushinsky passed away in January of this year, the record-keeping of the Mission continues. And Janet Delaney is one of the individuals doing this work.

In the 1980s, enamored with the thrill of urban life and the weight of a camera in her hands, Delaney began to photograph her neighborhood, San Francisco’s Mission District. Wary of wasting film yet dedicated to capturing the spirit of change she felt building around her, Delaney turned her lens toward the streets — documenting the area during Ronald Reagan’s presidency in all its teased hair, shoulder pads and oversized sunglasses.

Now, more than 30 years after the fact, Delaney, who is now a Berkeley resident, is showcasing those photographs at an exhibition at the Mission District’s Euqinom Gallery. Showing in conjunction with the release of “Public Matters,” a printed collection of Delaney’s Mission shots, the gallery showcases 40 photographs focused mainly on residents of the area. Together, the pictures provide a collage-like view of the streets that Delaney fell in love with decades ago. The photographs offer a unique perspective on community and belonging in the Mission District, posing questions made even richer when considered in relation to how much the Mission has changed today. One must take into context the neighborhood today.

Though viewers may seek greater meaning from the collection, in the artist’s mind, the photographs’ basic purpose remains simple.

“It is really just saying, you know, here we were. This is how it was,” Delaney said in an interview with The Daily Californian.

And when shooting the photos featured in “Public Matters,” Delaney did not consider her weekends with camera in hand a means toward the production of a collection to display. Her desire to take photos was borne more out of sheer wonder for the space around her — and a desire to document it. Having grown up in the suburbs, Delaney took in the vibrancy of city life with gusto, savoring the random meeting of strangers from all walks of life. “I was and still remain an enthusiastic supporter of urban life,” she said.

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“Public Matters” undoubtedly provides an understanding of what, exactly, urban life felt like at the precise moment of documentation — from the jubilant energy of Cinco de Mayo Parade shots in which you can almost hear the music to which a lady clad all in red dances, to the frustration of the first Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade in which marchers gaze solemnly ahead.

In many ways, Delaney’s focus on preserving moments in the Mission by photographing its residents parallels contemporary efforts to do so, including journalistic ones. Mission Local, a neighborhood newspaper headed by UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism professor Lydia Chávez, aims to document the rapidly changing district by highlighting stories from its community. As a Mission resident herself, Chávez founded the newspaper in 2008 as an opportunity to learn more about her neighborhood — the rapid changing of which provided plenty of stories for her journalism students to take on.

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Mission Local aims above all else to produce balanced coverage of the Mission District. The newspaper is committed to doing so while also considering the resonances of local happenings in the neighborhood’s residents.

“We’re there at a time of change and we’re trying to do a really good job of recording what that change means to different communities,” Chávez said in an interview with The Daily Californian.

In addition to Mission Local’s more traditional local coverage, which typically includes news about housing, jobs and places to eat, Chávez has introduced a series of features meant to amplify the voices of Mission residents. One of such elements, “The Mission Wakes Up,” has amounted in photo essays covering most every Mission block, consisting of reader submissions. Modeled on Brandon Stanton’s “Humans of New York,” Chávez’s “People We Meet” section attempts to capture residents in candid moments.

It’s here, in these direct interaction with subjects, that Chávez’s work differs fundamentally from that of Delaney. Though the latter’s work creates a feeling of closeness to its subjects, who at times gaze directly into the camera, the individuals photographed remain nameless. Interrupting the moment before taking a shot to ask for a name, Delaney explained, would have completely altered the photographs. It’s her artistic license that allows her the freedom to do so. “I didn’t ask people for their names because I’m not a photojournalist,” she said. “ … As an artist, my brush is broader.”

The naming of residents proves essential to Chávez’s vision as a journalist for Mission Local. This much applies for residents both alive and passed. Mission Local’s obituaries, Chávez noted, often garner appreciation from the local community. “We do obits on anyone, almost anyone, (who) dies in the Mission that we know (of). … No, they’re not well-known particularly, but they had a life. And we try and capture it in some way,” she said.

Preserving and creating a record of local history have implications for the present-day Mission community, namely in bridging the gap between longtime and newly arrived residents in the rapidly changing district. “History (is) sort of a meeting point for older residents and new residents,” Chávez said. “Because old residents want to talk about their history and new residents (are) interested to learn about that history.”

In the same vein, Delaney termed “Public Matters” a “family album” for locals whose residency in the Mission has spanned a range of timeframes. She noted that many recent arrivals come to the neighborhood, the city’s oldest, with little knowledge of its existing community. “Perhaps this book can inform them about, you know, what’s come before,” Delaney said.

Through both art and journalistic reporting, writers and photographers alike forge forward to establish the sense of place that the Mission undoubtedly deserves. According to Delaney, through art, “we name where we are.”

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And where are we? Where are the Mission residents, those newly arrived, those of long-term occupancy, those who have found themselves forced out of the neighborhood that they have for decades called home? If the cover of “Public Matters,” a 1986 shot of a crowd looking out in anticipation of an approaching parade, can provide any insight into such queries, it’s this — we’re waiting. “Look at their faces,” Delaney said. “You can sense that waiting, that the parade hasn’t arrived yet.”

And so we wait, tapping our feet, anticipating changes to come, unsure of what the future holds for the Mission District and its community. And until some clarity emerges, we may as well pick up our pens and our cameras and record it.

Ryan Tuozzolo covers visual art. Contact her at rtuozzolo@dailycal.org.

The Daily Californian

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