In the last two years, the financial distress and misery induced by widespread foreclosures in the United States have become an urgent national concern. At the time of writing, there is much public discourse on how to solve a problem that has decimated communities, threatens the entire financial system and seems to dis-credit the American dream. The smart money is still unsure whether and when the US can recover sustainable economic growth; lots of foreclosure, and not much closure. This is a story that deserves to be told and understood in its many aspects.
The concept of home summons warm images of family, friends and success. Realtors sell only houses, yet the conflation of house and home is a standard part of good salesmanship. I found it fascinating that by the end of 2008, brokers, bankers and media alluded to the millions of “homes” for sale- abandoned, even lonely homes eagerly awaiting new owners. A home is surely a richer, more personal entity than a house, and maybe it would be less stressful for it to become just a house again.
With so many willing subjects, I thought it would be of interest to photograph the “after-home.” The after-home is a provisional object. It is found empty and often over-empty: people may have removed semi-permanent fixtures such as faucets, balusters and doors. I approached Kirk Crippens, whose work I have enjoyed and admired for some time and under his acute eye, the project expanded to include images of mortgage banks, roads, auction sales and other associated elements.
We chose to focus on the town of Stockton in the Central Valley of California. It is a town of about three hundred thousand people, within commuting distance of Sacramento and San Francisco. It has an European history dating back to 1849 and a Mediterranean climate. It is racially mosaic. It has an enviable transport infrastructure by land, sea and air. It is surrounded by farmland that has often served Hollywood as a depiction of the grassy mid-Western plains and contributed greatly to Stockton’s historical prosperity. In 1999 and in 2004, Stockton received an All America City award from the National Civic League. In 2002, it was named Best Tree City by Sunset magazine. It enjoyed a spectacular housing boom from 2000 to 2006. Sadly, it has become one of the foreclosure capitals of the country. In the first quarter of 2009, one in every twenty-seven housing units in the area received a foreclosure notice against a national rate of about one in one hundred and fifty-nine. The unemployment rate is now over sixteen percent. Stockton’s renewal may depend on renewable energy: it has ethanol and bio-diesel plants, wind and solar power potential, and has declared a strong interest in developing green sustainable industry. Stockton seems to manifest America in its unreserved sense of possibility and its commitment to be open for business.
I first came to Stockton cynical about people who desired the stability of American home life so much that they confused it with a share of America’s housing stock and overextended themselves to buy it. But walking through the quiet, spotless neighborhoods outside made me wistful as they evoked schematically illustrated children’s books - apple-pie ordered houses, unblemished blue sky and lime green gardens- and one could feel the pitch…In the early morning light, the after-homes behind the compound wall seemed to me like closely packed cows poking their heads up over a farm fence. “Safe as houses,” the English like to say. Maybe they mean to say: “stable as homes.” But these houses looked vulnerable, as if seeking help from willing new American dreamers. They stood embarrassed amongst still financially functional homes. I tried to picture fresh faces and new sounds within the empty rooms and hallways, but the after-homes resisted.
Everyone knows how to turn a house into a home but how does an abandoned home unwind back into a house? Kirk’s photographs capture a slice of that in-between world and provide a glimpse of the origin and promise of the homes that were. This collection is not a social commentary on Stockton, but the scale of its foreclosure problem affords a rich diversity of pictures of the after-home and of the adjoining farm landscape that had to make way to make possible the manufactured landscape. As often happens in art, the images have cast off the question and become beautiful objects in their own right.
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