Southern California writer Susan Straight is best known for her many novels and short stories, often set in the Deep South or not far from her hometown of Riverside. A tough working-class neighborhood in the Inland Empire city is now the main character of Straight’s latest project, a multimedia exhibit called “More Dreamers of the Golden Dream.”
It’s a “dream” born of fire.
“He said, ‘My grandmother’s house is burning, it’s burning right now!’ ” says Straight, recalling the frantic phone call she received two years ago from her ex-husband.
The old family house on the city’s Eastside that once belonged to his grandmother, Daisy Carter, had gone up in flames.
Courtesy Douglas McCulloh
Daisy Carter's house on 11th Street and Kansas Avenue, after the fire.
“This beautiful Victorian two-story house, the whole top floor collapsed into the bottom floor in this like spectacular fire,” says Straight.
She says the Carter house helped form the backbone of a rugged community filled with migrants from the Deep South, Mexico and other places. Carter arrived from Mississippi shortly before World War II: a single mom with four young daughters and her own set of golden dreams.
“And it was a place where everyone in the neighborhood could come and everyone could eat a sweet potato pie or spend the night if they needed something,” explains Straight, over a snack of tea and home-baked cookies in the spacious kitchen of her Craftsman-style home in Riverside’s Wood Streets Historic District.
Daisy Carter’s home is now the cornerstone of “More Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” Straight’s exploration of migration and community told through the lens of one neighborhood.
“I looked at communities like Detroit and Stockton and thought about all the similarities,” Straight says. “There are these older neighborhoods with these beautiful histories of migration. And once those houses are gone, is that history gone, too? So this was my obsession.”
She recruited local photographer Douglas McCulloh to help turn that obsession into a focused multimedia narrative.
The two haunted the Eastside for months trying to understand how working-class neighborhoods like it take shape, blossom and are changed by economic forces, gentrification, crime and, yes, fire.
When I meet up with Straight and McCulloh, they are installing the final pieces of the exhibit at a downtown museum just blocks from the community it documents through historic photos, oral histories and in enormous black-and-white images shot by McCulloh.
“What we have is layers and layers of history, of community, family, of individuals and stories. And we’ve tried to look at them so specifically that somehow they leap into the universal,” McCulloh explains.
“If you tell a story of a person who migrates from Mississippi to here because of a military connection, brings their family, that’s the story of hundreds of thousands of people, millions of people.”
People like 89-year-old boxing coach Larry Rios. His Lincoln Boxing Club is among the iconic landmarks depicted in the exhibit.
Walk into Lincoln any day of the week and you’ll find Rios patiently taping up the hands of a young amateur or maybe well-known pugilist. Pro heavyweight Chris Arreola trained here.
Rios himself was once a promising young boxer from Mexico who came to the U.S. decades ago looking for more steady work. Rios is retired now, but he never gave up the ring.
“I work with the kids now, every day coming to teach boxing to kids, Monday through Friday to help the community,” says the soft-spoken Rios.
The boxing club has weathered round after punishing round of recession and redevelopment. Not every place on the Eastside has been so lucky. Clubs and bars vanished beneath the city’s wrecking ball.
The community’s complexion changed in other ways, too. More and more Latinos moved in, more and more blacks moved out. But many old landmarks and pastimes remain.
On an afternoon drive across the Eastside, Susan Straight shouts a greeting out her car window to a group of men sitting on folding chairs in front of the Orange Valley Lodge, a popular destination for wedding parties and prayer breakfasts.
At the turn of the last century, it was a general store and, just like today, a group of men could usually be found outside sharing a joke or the latest piece of neighborhood gossip. We pull over and join them.
Courtesy Douglas McCulloh
Sharing afternoon stories in front of Orange Valley Lodge #13, Henry Glover and Billy McCloud.
“Mr. McCloud here is a big part of the show. They call him the mayor of Riverside, right?” says Straight, introducing Billy McCloud.
“Oh boy, they’re putting a jacket on me I don’t deserve!” laughs McCloud.
He’s among the “dreamers” portrayed in the Golden Dreams exhibit.
Sixty years ago McCloud was a teenage military brat whose family moved out here from Alabama. He says the Eastside is still a good place to live. But it’s a lot rougher for young people now than when he was a kid. Tensions between black and Latino gangs still run high. Shootings are more commonplace.
“I would love to see all that bull cut out, you know? I mean what can you gain by it, all this senseless killing?” says McCloud.
“Poor people are the ones who suffer behind all that, you know? I really can’t explain it,” he says.
Unfortunately, says Doug McCulloh, it’s sometimes the bad news, that senseless violence, that shapes and defines a neighborhood to outsiders and newcomers.
“When there’s confrontation or trouble between groups, then people forget there’s this 100-year history of getting along beautifully in the same neighborhood. And that’s a tragedy,” McCulloh says.
“More Dreamers of the Golden Dream” by photographer Douglas McCulloh and novelist Susan Straight aims to change that, one story and one picture at a time.
The exhibit runs through July 25 at the Riverside Art Museum.