My mother was still in high school, when Carl Mydans photographed her neighborhood -- Capitol Hill, in Washington, D.C. At the time, Mydans was attached to the federal government's Resettlement Administration [RA] and was there to investigate conditions in the city's slums. Talented and ambitious, he would soon leave the RA, join the staff of Life magazine, and go on to become one of the best known photojournalists of the twentieth century.
Mydans wasn't looking for families like my mother's. Although her parents had fallen on hard times, like so many other people during the Great Depression, they remained proud of their respectability and fiercely determined to see that their children attained the middle-class status that had been snatched out of their grasp. They believed that education and hard work were the keys to success, and, sure enough, they were just that for all of their children. But there was another reason for Mydans to ignore my mother's family. They lived on a street, not in an alley.
Carl Mydans: No caption. [Caption to similar photograph, taken at same time, from a slightly different position: Typical slum area. Note dome of Capitol, Washington, D.C. 1935.] All of the photos in this post are from the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information collection, at the Library of Congress. Click directly on any of the images to see larger versions.
Washington's alleys and the people who lived in them had been a matter of public concern for at least two generations. Outsiders, especially middle- and upper-class outsiders, saw alleys as little more than incubators of crime and disease. The alleys and their residents seemed especially threatening because they were dispersed throughout the city's central neighborhoods, even the wealthy ones. Periodically, the city's great and good tried to so something about them. Just a year before Mydan's visit to Capitol Hill, Congress, which had the final say in governing Washington, passed the Alley Dwelling Act, hoping to eradicate criminality and infection by razing the people's homes and providing new housing somewhere else. Like all previous efforts, it failed.
Carl Mydans: Slums near the Capitol, Washington, D.C. With the Capitol clearly in view, these houses exist under the most unsanitary conditions; outside privies, no inside water supply and overcrowded conditions. 1935.
In truth, Washington needed both the alley dwellings and the people who lived in them. The homes were built as working-class housing, in the nineteenth century, and working class housing they remained. For the working poor, there were few alternatives.
Mydans seems to have understood that the reasons for the poverty that he found in the alleys had more to do with social injustice and inequality than with whatever personal failings alley dwellers may have possessed. This is apparent in both his framing and his captions. In many of the photos in this series, he has included the Capitol's dome in his composition and has drawn attention to it with his words. The message wasn't subtle, but it was right on target: The nation has failed to honor its promises of justice, equality, and opportunity. (Sadly, this particular framing quickly became a photographic cliche.)
Carl Mydans: Backyard of colored home near Capitol, Washington, D.C. 1935.
Most of Mydans subjects are African-American, and the conditions in which they live are clearly rough.
Carl Mydans: Slum backyard water supply, Washington, D.C. Backyard typical to a group of houses very close to the House office building, showing only available water supply. 1935.
But there is no sense of condescension in Mydan's photos, no hint that he wants to blame the victims for their misery. In fact, several of the photos give viewers a sense of the hard work that it takes to keep body and soul together.
Carl Mydans: Alleyway inhabited by black and white near the Capitol, Washington, D.C. 1935.
Contrary to modern expectations, the alley dwellings and the Capitol Hill neighborhood, as a whole, were racially mixed. Black alleys and streets alternated with white. Very occasionally, blacks and whites lived side-by-side.
Carl Mydans: Slum children at play, Washington, D.C. Children in their backyard near the Capitol. This area inhabited by both black and white. 1935.
Saying that the area was racially mixed is not the same as saying that it was racially integrated. Friendships and neighborliness, even among children, rarely crossed racial lines.
Washington, D.C., was a southern city, with a distinctly southern pattern of race relations. Schools, parks, and hospitals were segregated. African-Americans knew that salesmen and sales women at Garfinkle's and other downtown department stores would not wait on them, that downtown theaters would not let them in, and that downtown restaurants would not serve them. Black job applicants faced overt discrimination in both the private sector and in the federal government, the city's largest employer. (In the mid-'30s, 90% of blacks employed by the federal government were in janitorial positions.)
Carl Mydans: Negro backyard near Capitol, Washington, D.C. Negro children have just discovered the cameraman and are concerned at his presence. 1935.
Clearly, there was little reason for these black children to trust the intentions of a white man with a camera (as Mydans had the grace to recognize).
My mother grew up on a street of black families (Heckman Street, now gentrified and renamed Duddington Place) that was surrounded by streets of white ones. Her youngest brother, my Uncle Teddy, doesn't remember any racial tensions in the neighborhood, but he also doesn't remember anything that could be called inter-racial friendship. Children went to school and played separately. Adults socialized separately and rarely held similar jobs. On Capitol Hill, as in the rest of the city, blacks and white lived in separate and unequal worlds.
Carl Mydans: No caption. [Near Capitol Building, Washington, D.C., 1935.] Remember, you can click on any of the photos to see larger versions.
Constance McLaughlin Green called her 1967 account of race relations in Washington The Secret City. In doing so, she was calling attention to the ways in which African-Americans had created a parallel universe that whites knew almost nothing about, with its own churches, schools, a university, social clubs, civic organizations, banks, insurance companies, theaters, and restaurants.
Carl Mydans: Front yard and playground, Washington, D.C. 1935. [Hey! There's a weird black circle in that photo. Sure is. Somebody punched a hole the negative. See below.]
Mydans' photos show viewers only thin slice of the "secret city." Exploring the black universe was not, after all, what the RA asked him to do. Still, I can only regret that Mydans didn't notice, during his time on Capitol Hill, that people like my mother's family were also worthy of his attention. (The "secret city" was, however, the heart and soul of the photographic studio that Addison Scurlock opened in 1904. For much of the twentieth century, he and his sons photographed daily life and extraordinary occasions, ordinary people and luminaries in black Washington. Much of the Scurlock archive is available online from the Smithsonian Institution.)
It's worth mentioning that a few years after Mydans photographed my mother's neighborhood, photographers working for the Farm Security Administration [FSA], the successor to the RA in which he had been employed, produced a comprehensive study of Chicago's "secret city." You can read about a 2003 exhibition that showcased the work, here (opens a PDF file).
Carl Mydans: Outside water supply, Washington, D.C. Only source of water supply winter and summer for many houses in slum areas. In some places drainage is so poor that surplus water backs up in huge puddles. 1935.
And what of the alley dwellers themselves? In his ground-breaking study, Alley Life in Washington, James Borchert refuted the slurs that were so often hurled at them. Instead, he found that in the face of "the most dehumanizing experiences" alley residents "were able to maintain stability through their primary groups of family, kinship, neighborhood, community, and religion...." They managed "to create meaningful worlds that permitted both survival and a sense of identity and belonging."
Carl Mydans: Slum section near the Capitol, Washington, D.C. 1935.
The photos that Mydans made during his brief foray into the alleys of Capitol Hill can't hope to supply the sort of detailed understanding that Borchert's book provides. But they can provide a starting place, as Borchert himself knew very well. Photographs, he wrote, were "a crucial source" in his research, and many of the best were Mydans'.
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A note on the black hole: In the early years of the RA/FSA documentary project, Roy Stryker, the director, punched holes in some, not all, of the 35mm negatives that he thought were unworthy of being printed and circulated. (Larger format negatives were simply labeled as "killed.") Not surprisingly, the practice outraged his photographers. They protested, and he soon stopped.