Tower Tribe

The Tower Tribe (n): the homeless young men and women who are struggling to find their way in Fresno’s Tower District. 

“The more you embrace the weird crazy things about you, the more you find your tribe.” – Jinx Monsoon

It began with a camera and an inquiry. Who were these kids that hung out on the backstreets? Due to the recession and lack of funding, I had recently resigned from the best job I ever had. While trying to figure out who I was without my role, I bought a used Nikon D2X. While I was trying to learn about aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, a project grabbed me that changed my life.

The neighborhood I was living in was experiencing an uptick in crime. There was a Neighborhood Watch Facebook page to rally those of us in the Tower District to look out for each other. Comments from vigilantes began populating the site and claiming they would use their pitchforks on the homeless kids in the area that they assumed were the culprits. They called them Tower Rats. Not knowing what the real story was, I stopped a couple of beat cops and asked them. No, they told me. It wasn’t the kids, it was local gang members.

I had been running an arts alliance where I advocated for the cultural arts in the Central Valley and had recently learned about JR and his work using photography to elevate communities. I began envisioning a neighborhood photography project where neighbors would photograph the street kids. When you photograph someone, there is a connection. They know, that you know, who they are. I wanted people to get to know and learn about each other.

A month after I got my camera, a Neighborhood Watch meeting was scheduled at the Starline Grill, a local Tower District pub. I was nervous. Alcohol and hateful people are a dangerous mix, and I was afraid they would think my idea was crazy.

On the day of the event, with my camera hanging from my neck, I walked the half-mile down tree-lined Wishon Avenue to Fern and the bar. I hoped for a civil gathering. I hoped to recruit them for the project. Fortunately, when I arrived, there were no vigilantes, just neighbors interested in a safe neighborhood. I shared my idea and while they thought it had merit, and I should do it, no one was interested in joining me.

As I left the meeting, across the street were 15-20 of the kids hanging out in the Dollar Tree parking lot. It was my come-to-Jesus moment. I was either going to walk across the street, talk to them, and enroll them in being willing participants, or I was going to be all talk.

I gathered myself up and approached them. They were cautious and uncertain. I’m sure they were wondering why this middle-aged woman with a big ol’ camera was getting into their business. I told them what was happening, about the Facebook page, the Neighborhood Watch meeting, my conversation with the police, and that even though they weren’t the source of crime in the area, they were the ones the neighbors blamed. As I shared, they wrapped around me. It was as if they were hungry for someone to listen to them and treat them as human beings.

The next morning I was out on the street. It began a year-and-a-half photojournalism project. I’d sit out on the sidewalks with them, ask about them, listen to their stories, and photograph them.

At first, they were not sure who I was or what I was doing. It was hard to get anyone to say much beyond surface talk with me. Some thought I was an uncover cop and wanted nothing to do with me. I worked to be respectful and patient. Finally, a couple of southern boys who were traveling through began opening up. They shared with me why it’s better to have a partner so that one person keeps watch while the other sleeps so belongings don’t get robbed. As they told me their stories, others began, little by little, to open up more and more. When I assembled a Blub photo with their pictures and showed it to them, even the most skeptical began talking with me and wanted their pictures taken.

The project culminated with an exhibit. The locals called the kids Tower Rats, meant as an insult. Based on how they looked out for each other, I called them a tribe. When it was time to name the exhibit, they said to call it “a rat’s eye view”. To honor them, I named the project The Tower Tribe, a Rat’s Eye View.

It started as an inquiry and turned into a peace project. I came to deeply appreciate the distinction compassion and the Gold Rule. I learned that violence is way more than brute force, and perhaps the worst kind is what we say about or to another person, and what we say to ourselves.

Spectrum Art Gallery, a fine art photography collective, was instrumental to the success of the project. Located on Olive, in the heart of the Tower District, Spectrum’s mission is to advance photography as an art form. I am very grateful to Steve Dzerigian, Edward Gillum, Terry Haydn, Rich Millhorn, Paul Mullins, Gene Weiser, Mary DeWitt, and a host of other extraordinary photographers who provided encouragement and countless hours of support.