When veteran photographer, grad student, and university professor Stretch Ledford moved into the Palm Plaza Motel on 14st and NW 1st Avenue, he'd already been producing short video docs in Overtown since 2009. It was when he moved in, though, that he began the process of creating video response kiosks that would show community residents his work at places like People's Barbeque, and the local Wash House, and allow them to record their reactions to them for display on a site he created for the project called Overtowner.com. We spoke to Stretch about his process and want to show you some parts of Overtown life you may not be aware of. Here's what he had to say about the good people he met, how the police made him fear for his life, and fish on Tuesdays.
New Times: How did you get started with the project?
Stretch Ledford: I have been a professional photojournalist for nearly 30 years. In the fall of 2009 I moved to Miami from Virginia and entered the University of Miami School of Communication's Masters of Multimedia Journalism program. One of our first assignments was to create a "visual postcard" of one of Miami's neighborhoods. Of the 12 students in my class, I was the only one who wasn't too afraid or intimidated to do this assignment in Overtown. The result of that first assignment was the piece that is now called "This Is Overtown." It was shot over the course of a few weekends during the fall of 2009.
Were you living in Overtown when you shot everything?
I was not. I only lived in Overtown during my last three months in Miami. It was difficult to find a place there that was not subsidized, something I would not have qualified for and didn't need. Eventually, I stumbled across the Palm Plaza Motel at 14th & NW 1st. It was relatively clean, quiet and very secure. The owner was a straight-shooter, and the tenants I met were genuinely nice people who became great neighbors. I enjoyed them a lot.
Tell us about the video booths you installed.
I made a commitment to myself that as I worked in Overtown I was going to share the work with the people there. I burned and distributed DVDs of the early (2009) stories ("This is Overtown," The Eye of Overtown, and "Bullets Don't Have Eyes") and later began to take the videos around to show to people on my iPhone and iPad. The locals eventually started calling me the "Documentary Man," and I gradually built credibility in the neighborhood.
Fast forward to the winter of 2010/11 when I needed a thesis/capstone project to complete my master's degree at UM. Since I'd been working on and off in Overtown for the previous 15 months or so, it was only logical that my capstone project would continue and expand upon this work. So I decided to formalize the process of showing the videos to Overtown residents and make their feedback an equally important part of my final project.
One of my thesis advisers, Rich Beckman, suggested using some sort of kiosk-type installations rather than iPads. The kiosks provided a way to show the videos to even more people, allowed me to get feedback that wasn't influenced by the fact that I was standing right beside the viewer while they were watching the films I'd made, and gave the project a presence and a brand within the community.
Regarding the technical aspects of the kiosks: The actual hardware is made by a company in Kendall called Pearlson Development Corporation. They traditionally sell them to universities, transportation outfits, or tourist destinations to use for informational purposes. I took their hardware, put in a Mac Mini, and programmed the thing show and record videos on demand and interactively. The entire thing is an experiment in bridging the digital divide and catalyzing discussion both within communities like Overtown and between those communities and communities whose only perception of Overtown or poverty or minorities is what they see on the news.
How did you get down with musician Desloc Piccalo and get him involved?
My concept for getting Pic to do the intros was, again, credibility. Pic has 100% credibility with the people of Overtown. And just like with Bonna, the Eye of Overtown, the fact that Pic endorsed what I was doing went a long long way in legitimizing my work for the people. If I'd been shown in that intro, a middle-aged white boy asking people for their comments, I'd have gotten a lot fewer responses than I did.
You'll notice that Pic's intros were shot in the Rainbow, an apartment complex in OT that's about as intense a scene as you can imagine. The only reason I ended up being able to shoot the piece on the dice players, "Losing to a Friend," is because I first went into the place with Piccalo. It would've been completely impossible for me to gain access to those folks and that game otherwise.
What kind of feedback did you get from the community beyond what was displayed in the movies?
Everyone I met in Overtown was very supportive, completely down with what I was trying to do. The people there are sick of the tired, old image of Overtown that's played over and over and over ad infinitum on shows like "The First 48." I'd continually meet people on the street who would want me to do a video of this or that, usually young guys wanting to shoot a rap video. On the street, what I valued more than anything else, and what I will take to my grave with me, is the way people would acknowledge to me that they appreciated what I was doing.
Cats who would have as hard an exterior image as you can imagine would check out what I was doing and say something as simple as, "That's live, man. Keep it up," and that meant the world to me. I mean, if a 48 year old middle class white cracker with a master's degree and a young unemployed black man with a high school education and a prison record can find even that little bit of common ground and celebrate that, then perhaps... there's hope for the world.
Will the project continue now that you are gone?
The kiosks are still up. Just before I left Miami in early June I uploaded two final videos: "First God, then Michael Jackson," and, "Losing to a Friend." A buddy of mine in Miami is downloading the response vids and e-mailing them to me. I'm in the process now of getting those up on the web site.
"Tuesdays Mean Fish" is awesome, what else do you remember about the neighborhood, would you like to address any situations that may have arisen between you and the police?
Life in Overtown is life without a varnish, without a veneer and without pretense. It's as real as it gets. I felt more alive in Overtown than anywhere I've been in a long time. There were things I hated seeing -- people with grave health problems without hope of treatment, individuals who had been sleeping on the streets for months, generational poverty without an end in sight -- but these things are real. The fact that we don't see them because we live in Coral Gables or Brickell doesn't mean that the problems don't exist. It just means that we prefer to avert our eyes. So I am thankful for the experience of seeing even the pain that exists in places like Overtown because it keeps me grounded in reality.
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I also miss the sheer kindness, pride and direct manner of the people in Overtown. Amidst all the pain, the people of Overtown are beautiful, and most of the folks I met there, like Alfonso says near the beginning of "This is Overtown," "would rather be in Overtown than be anywhere else." That pretty much sums it up.
The only time I felt that I was in danger of physical harm and the only time I was treated in a less than professional way was by Miami's Finest. That's right -- a law abiding, educated, never-even-been-arrested citizen lived in one of Miami's "most dangerous" neighborhoods for three months and during that time lived in fear of one group of individuals -- the police. Very, very sad, but 100% true.