When artist Bettina Hubby started bringing her camera down to the construction site at the foot of her street on Rowena, the team working there wasn't surprised, just cautious. At that point, the project, officially the L.A. Department of Water and Power's River Supply Conduit Improvement Project, had been underway for about a year on a stretch of street that butts up against Ivanhoe Elementary, right across from Camelot Preschool and the Edendale Grill. The project would restore a pipeline, built in the 1940s, that brings water to from the L.A. reservoir to neighborhoods in South Central. It hadn't even pushed past its deadline yet -- the project was supposed to last just over a year and has now lasted three -- but Silver Lakers were already unhappy, and some would come around with cameras to document the source of their unhappiness. Some others would give the finger to the on-the-job mechanics and engineers as they crawled past at work-zone speeds.
Just this past December, heated debates between concerned parents of Ivanhoe students and the LADWP about the dangers of particulate matter almost led to a shut-down of the project until summer, and the crew put in 14 hour days on weekends while they waited to see what would happen. Hubby understood her neighborhood's frustration -- "it's been a hardship for everyone involved," she says. But directing animosity toward the site itself and the contractors working at it didn't make sense.
Hubby often does projects about the weirdness of community life -- she opened the temporary Rock and Eagle Shop in Eagle Rock last summer, which spoofed the city's name by selling only objects related to rocks and eagles -- and she decided to use the Rowena site as material. For nearly two years, she photographed it, not entirely sure what she'd do with the images. "I went from there to wanting to make pieces that could be installed at actual construction sites and on the fences," Hubby explains.
She edited her photographs together so that they looked like Rorschach blots, mirror images of cranes and hardhats bleeding into each other, and displayed them this fall at University of La Verne's Harris Gallery in "Site," a show curated by Associate Professor of History Jon Leaver. There, Hubby used clamps and tape to hang the silk prints on chain link fences temporarily installed in the gallery. She knew she also wanted to share the images with the workers, maybe in the form of a special dinner. "That became more and more important to me the more aware I became of the neighborhood tensions that the workers have to fend off," Hubby says.
This past Saturday afternoon, she hung the prints on the chain link fences that surround the Rowena site. Then she set up heat lamps and tables, some of which had photographs of the construction site printed on their tiled tops. At 5 p.m., with help from members of the construction crew, she suspended a disco ball from the upright arm of a bulldozer. Saturday night, the contested Rowena project site became a party site.
"I didn't know what to expect regarding attendance," says Hubby, who passed out fliers up and down Rowena earlier in the week, "since so many people are so upset with the construction." She laid out pizzas and taco fixings donated by local business, bottles of wine, balloons and table settings in construction-zone orange. Musician Chris Stroffolino had his piano van onsite, and was playing from inside the open door. Hubby's mother and sister were there to explain the project in the affectionate way only family members have ("We're just celebrating what's happening on the street," her mother told one passer-by), friends of the artist came, and so did a some representatives from the neighborhood -- like Jerry, self-appointed sidewalk supervisor, who has watched the project from the beginning, knows the contractors by name and can detail what's happened at community meetings.
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The contractors and city reps were the guests of honor, but none wanted to be quoted. They either asked specifically not to be or moved out of the way at the sight of my notebook; after the trouble they've had with community PR, they didn't want to be in print saying anything that could be used against them. That they came, ate, talked and stayed felt as much like generosity on their part as the party did generosity on Hubby's, like by participating they were acknowledging the weirdness of their role in this neighborhood and agreeing to let their guard down for the night. They left the disco ball up until morning.