Take a walk through the streets of Brentwood, Stockton or Modesto, and you could be forgiven for thinking life has returned to normal. Back in 2007 and 2008, these Northern California cities were at the center of the foreclosure crisis. The neighborhoods looked like models of suburban tranquility — sunny weather, new homes, asphalt smooth enough to walk on barefoot — and yet it seemed every other house was for sale. Bright yellow “Bank Owned” signs fronted houses with dead lawns, boarded windows and mildewed stucco. Something was wrong.
Three years later, the turmoil of the Great Recession is not so apparent. Most of the foreclosed homes have been bought up, often by large investors swooping up 50 to 100 properties at auction. Prices are stable, though stagnant. Many former homeowners now rent, some in the same house they once owned, or on the same block, which gives the neighborhoods the look of normalcy and continuity. Some people have managed to refinance; some cities have received federal aid. Life goes on.
But if the crisis is no longer as visible, it’s still not over, and the pain is not gone. At 12.3 percent, California’s unemployment rate is the second highest in the nation, and things are even worse in the Northern San Joaquin Valley. In the region’s three main counties — San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Merced — the unemployment rate is more than 18 percent. 1 The rate is higher yet for the young, the old, people of color, the working class. Long-time homeowners fortunate enough to have stable jobs are trapped in houses worth a third to half of what they were five years ago, unable to move or retire. Maintenance on urban infrastructure like roads and streetlights has been quietly postponed by cities hemorrhaging property tax income. Credit profiles are ruined. Families are doubled up with relatives. In classic suburban style, the problem has not gone away; it has merely gone inside.
You can look at patterns in the figures and do the math … but the numbers can only tell part of the story. What interested me was the remainder.
— Paul Reyes 2
The pain and absurdity of the foreclosure crisis has been captured brilliantly by Paul Reyes in two Harper’s articles and a new book, Exiles in Eden, in which he writes about working for his father’s “trash-out” company in Florida’s west coast foreclosure zone, about cleaning out homes for banks and holding companies. Reyes describes in excruciating detail what has been left behind — toys, stuffed animals, bibles, family photos — and what has been stripped away — cabinets, plumbing, light fixtures — anything that can be sold for scrap.
Three thousand miles away, in California, these are the kinds of homes that Douglas Smith photographs. He focuses mostly on interiors and backyards, private spaces that tell us more about the human side of the crisis than the facades we can see from the sidewalk. Smith lives in a now much devalued neighborhood in Modesto, the foreclosure capital of California, where 1 in 14 housing units was foreclosed in 2010. After months of trying to get inside foreclosed homes, including some in his own neighborhood, Smith finally gained access through a realtor friend, and he has since photographed more than 50 properties throughout the Northern San Joaquin Valley. The former owners are known only to neighbors and tax records, but we see in Smith’s images reminders of the people who lived there, traces of the stories they accumulated and the tokens they stored in shoeboxes, the pursuit of touchdowns and goals and salvation.
Smith’s work attests to the deep influence of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, whose photographs documented the domestic toll of the Great Depression. His work, like theirs, straddles the line between art and photojournalism, between beauty and realism, exemplifying Susan Sontag’s argument that “to photograph is to confer importance.” Smith has taken the time to show us that stick-on stars and cut-out hearts on a pink wall are relevant to the American story.
But Smith’s images also connect to a deeper and more tragic thread in American photography. “Succeeding the more buoyant hopes for America has come a bitter, sad embrace of experience,” Sontag wrote in the 1970s. “There is a particular melancholy in the American photographic project.” 3 Sontag traces that melancholy from Alfred Stieglitz through Walker Evans to Diane Arbus, and in Smith’s work we find the post-Arbus: The missing flatscreen television standing in for Arbus’s Xmas Tree in a Living Room, 2009 for 1963, the Central Valley for Levittown.
Writers like Christopher Leinberger and Timothy Egan have been quick to point out the suburban locus of the current crisis. Just as burned-out housing projects in inner cities were the iconic images of the mid-1970s recession, trashed-out tract homes in California and the Sunbelt are the signature images of crisis in post-millenial America. There is a real danger here that if we envision our suburbs as slums and ghettos, as we once did our inner cities, we may spark a new self-fulfilling prophecy of abandonment and ruin.
Still, it is impossible to ignore the data showing that inland California remains an epicenter of crisis. Smith’s recent photographs stand in uneasy relation to Bill Owens’s classic 1972 monograph, Suburbia, which marked the historical moment when the suburban archetype moved west to California from the Eastern Levittowns of the Eisenhower era. Owens’s photographs may represent Anytown, USA, in our collective imagination, but they were taken in the particular suburb of Livermore, California, just west over the Altamont Pass from Stockton and Modesto. 4
Today, Livermore turns the idea of a “suburban” foreclosure crisis on its head. Livermore’s old tract homes were not stripped en masse, and its swimming pools did not become clandestine skate parks or algae experiments. To be sure, housing prices declined, as they did across the country, but the city was never in real crisis. In 2008, at the height of the subprime implosion, Livermore’s foreclosure rate was one-fourth to one-eighth the rate in the Central Valley cities of Stockton, Tracy and Lathrop. 5
This is no accident of geography, no tornado that destroyed one town and spared another through an act of god or a stroke of luck. Over three decades, a series of economic booms fueled by the tech and real estate industries in the San Francisco Bay Area provided jobs for many and affordable housing for few. Livermore’s professionals work in the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory or commute to good jobs across the Bay. The population is almost 70 percent white; the median household income is almost $100,000. Meanwhile, 40 miles east, Stockton’s population is 75 percent people of color; its median family income is barely half that of Livermore, the poverty rate three times higher. It is the middle- and working-class families who fled east over the hills and into the former farm towns of the Central Valley in search of the American dream who are now enduring the “largest loss of wealth for people of color in U.S. History.” 6
Set against the backdrop of this new geography of inequality, Smith’s project is remarkable for its open-minded treatment of the absent subjects. His photographs do not say whether an empty house was owned by a hardworking family duped into a risky loan by a conga line of realtors and mortgage brokers, or by a naïve speculator who anticipated quick riches, or by a couple who used their inflated home equity as a credit card. Smith admits to being voyeuristic and unafraid of beauty (traits he shares with many Californians). He knows he doesn’t have the permission of the people whose lives are on display here, and he is acutely aware of the long and troubled history of voyeurism in art photography and photojournalism. But his aesthetic lens has social purpose. Though he toes the line of a suburban version of what Detroiters call “ruin porn,” he uses the titillating power of imagery to show what deregulated capital, bad policy and unsustainable “dreaming” can do to the American home. His work is an act of witness that perhaps warrants a touch of sensationalism.
Perhaps the greatest aspect of the work is how its sparseness and lack of hyperbole refuse to make sense of this tragedy for us. Smith forces us to do the brutal work of making sense for ourselves, to come up with our own stories for missing cabinets or sports posters left behind, to cradle the one image that strikes home more than any other, and to reflect on the larger stories we tell one another about the social and economic forces driving the Great Recession, the worst crisis in urbanism in recent history.