A Place and an Idea
Transom is working with the Association of Independents in Radio and producers from their Maker’s Quest to bring you behind-the-scenes reports. We’re starting with THE CORNER from Jenny Asarnow in Seattle. She writes, “The Central District is a lovely, lush neighborhood. But 23rd and Union is a ghost corner… I wanted to know why this place is the way it is. And I wanted to invite everyone who knew the neighborhood to collaborate in telling its story.” Jenny is a talk show producer at KUOW, but she wanted to find new ways to tell stories using sound, image, phone, web, and a public installation. Come see and hear what she did and how she collaborated. Get details on the things she learned, to wit: Go Multi Media, Go Public, Share Ownership, Embrace Your Role, Embrace Failure. Jenny is taking your questions.
A Place and an Idea
The corner of Twenty–Third Avenue and East Union Street is near the geographical center of Seattle. For decades it’s been a hub for Seattle’s Black community. But that’s changing. Like other neighborhoods in the city, the Central District is in flux. Upwardly mobile folks – many of them white – have moved in, and housing prices have gone up. Now neighbors, old and new, are struggling to find their place here.
The Central District is a lovely, lush neighborhood. But 23rd and Union is a ghost corner. Boarded up buildings and vacant lots exist there. So do memories of violent drug deals and police shootings.
I wanted to know why this place is the way it is. And I wanted to invite everyone who knew the neighborhood to collaborate in telling its story. So I created The Corner: 23rd and Union.
In June, The Corner opened up a phone line and asked neighbors to call in and share their stories about 23rd and Union. Callers left more than 200 messages. They shared memories, desires, hopes and fears. They sang, yelled and prayed. Callers’ stories collectively depict a rich and complicated place.
How All This Came About
I moved to Seattle five years ago. 23rd and Union is where I wait for the bus to get to my job at KUOW 94.9 Public Radio, where I’m a talk show producer. The corner always seemed strange to me. People avoided eye contact there. I was warned not to walk there at night. I did anyway.
When I started to learn more about 23rd and Union, I was shocked by how thoroughly its history had disappeared from the physical landscape. The corner was for many decades a vibrant, bustling commercial and cultural center. There were two big grocery stores, a meat market, a drugstore, churches, doctors and lawyers offices and a Black-owned bank. The Central District was never homogeneous, but it was the only Black neighborhood in Seattle. Because of racially restrictive real estate practices, it was one of the only areas African Americans could live. Since the slow process of gentrification started 30 years ago, the black community has dissipated. Now there is no geographical center for Seattle’s black community and people really feel the loss.
But I didn’t know all of that when I started out. I was just confused. And that made me curious. And I probably would have remained idly curious. But then at last fall’s Third Coast International Audio Festival I heard about Maker’s Quest 2.0 (MQ2). It was conceived and developed by the Association of Independents in Radio with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and NEA.
I asked colleagues to nominate me and to my happy surprise I was chosen to submit a proposal. That’s when the idea for The Corner was born.
Making The Corner Happen
I wanted to know if there was some way to talk about gentrification that was creative, respectful, and uninhibited. I wanted everyone to collaborate: newcomers and old timers, wealthy and poor, black and white, young and old, angry and hopeful … everyone. Really. Everyone.
I bought a vanity toll free number (877-R23-UNION) and set up a totally automated hotline. Messages people left became outgoing messages other people heard, and if you left a message it showed up on our Web site, without us having to lift a finger.
I wanted to create something big and visual and public on 23rd and Union that would make people want to call in.
The first and most important step was to find collaborators. I found a project partner in photojournalist Inye Wokoma. He and his extended family have lived a few blocks from 23rd and Union his whole life. If I represent change in the neighborhood, he represents continuity. We worked collaboratively to find people to interview and photograph. We were crafting the documentary, and we were also setting the stage for others to join in the conversation. So we sought out recognizable people who would lend The Corner legitimacy and inspire their communities to join in.
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Inye took a series of beautiful portraits of neighbors standing on the corner. I made 16 sound portraits. We put the sound portraits in the phone line before it went live, as outgoing messages.
The owner of an empty lot that covers a whole block on the corner said we could put an art installation there. I hired two visual artists, “Scratchmaster” Joe Martinez and NKO. They blew up Inye’s photographs – they printed the biggest one on an 8’x8′ panel – and built a village of gigantic picture frames out of found wood and metal.
NKO painted colorful signs that announced “This is a powerful corner. Call the story hotline.” We put up posters and papered the neighborhood with postcards.
It’s a strange and wonderful thing to see your neighbor walk by a larger than life image of himself. The neighborhood was reflecting back at itself in a very public way!
Next, we had to celebrate. Barbecue!
Ms. Helen’s soul food restaurant used to be where the installation sits. I found Ms Helen living at a nearby retirement home. She graciously agreed to cook shrimp creole and peach cobbler for our barbecue.
The minute the installation went up I got calls to be on the local TV news, the Seattle Times, popular blogs, magazines, and of course, KUOW. Which was perfect because we wanted everyone to know about the project so as many people as possible would call in.
Making The Corner Radio
I set about making radio out of the many messages people called in.
My goal was to capture the depth of emotion people feel for 23rd and Union and broadcast it out to the larger Seattle area. The conversations happening in the Central District were so much more complicated than the majority of news reports which focused solely on crime or development.
I started by podcasting the sound portraits I’d made, and the best messages we received. Then we broadcast a bunch of those segments on KUOW (on All Things Considered and on the local talk shows) and on Hollow Earth Radio Seattle’s online-only freeform radio station. In every broadcast we’d prompt listeners with a question like “what needs to happen on 23rd and Union?” and invite them to call in.
Then I wove together the interviews I did with the calls we received and created three radio features.
Jim Gates edited the features. Central District MC Yirim Seck was our narrator. The stories aired on KUOW.
These stories are not the only ones that could be told about 23rd and Union. They’re simply the stories that came out of my collaboration with the people who chose to participate in The Corner.
Lessons From The Corner
1. Go multi-media. The Corner exists in multiple public spaces, physical and virtual. It’s a public art installation, a radio broadcast, a platform that entices people to confess, tell stories and sing, and a forum that sparks discussion about race, class and home. It’s on a street corner, on two radio stations, on its own beautiful Web site, RSS feed, and Facebook. It’s on your phone. It’s on a poster, and on a postcard you can hold in your hand. Every platform we used was an extension of the project’s mission, which was to spark conversation and deeper understanding of a place and the people in it.
2. Go public. My advice to you: Install a public art installation on the nearest vacant lot. Throw a party. Have a barbecue. Free food = community fun and gets your project attention.
3. Share ownership. Encourage people with conflicting interests to take a stake in your project. Give them a tool that’s fun to use. Listen to what people have to say and give them the benefit of the doubt. Take them seriously.
4. Embrace your role. I put myself in the uncomfortable position of covering a story I was a part of. As a young white person, I represent change in the Central District many residents resent. One person called the story hotline repeatedly and yelled vicious things at me. I had accept that anger was a part of the story of 23rd and Union, and that it was important to include it in The Corner. I also realized it was important for me to explain to people where I was coming from if I wanted them to open up.
5. Embrace failure. MQ2’s staff made clear from the beginning that it was okay if The Corner failed. Knowing I could fail gave me enormous freedom. It’s a freedom we station producers don’t have, simply because we have to get a show on the air … right now! But that freedom is crucial if your goal is to create truly innovative work.
It was scary to do something so big and so new and so public. I didn’t know if anyone would call. Whenever we try something new, we very well might fall flat on our faces. That’s terrifying.
But to move ahead, to find and create new ways of making public media, we must try!
Collaborators and Tech Notes
I’ve been privileged to spend the last few months working with an amazing group of multimedia artists:
Inye Wokoma collaborated through most of the process, and took photographic portraits of neighbors standing on 23rd and Union. Sound artist Anna Callahan built The Corner’s beautiful Web site. Joseph Sheedy created the software behind the automated voicemail system. “Scratchmaster” Joe Martinez, NKO, No Touching Ground and David Rauschenberg created the artwork on 23rd and Union. Yirim Seck hosted the voicemail and the radio broadcasts. Many, many volunteers helped along the way. I’m grateful to all my neighbors who made this project succeed by offering candid criticism and generous goodwill.
Thanks to Inye Wokoma for providing all the photos used on this page, except for the BBQ photo which was taken by Karen Reagan.