Xavier Nuez photographs alleys.
His candy-colored images of urban decay have been exhibited internationally, including here at the San Diego Art Institute, and featured on NPR.
Ruin is his gig. “History,” Nuez says. “Rust, bent metal, all the garbage strewn about.” He scouts locations in cities across North America and shoots alone, at night, in the “shunned places” people avoid even during the day. Recently in an Indianapolis alley he was “almost clobbered by a street gang.” He’s been held at gunpoint more than once.
But something even worse happened to Nuez last spring in Barrio Logan. The alleys were too good, he tells me. Too clean, too new, and too safe.
I’m interviewing him by phone at his home in the Bay Area. Nuez assures me he can find a “dirty corner” in any city, but, he says, “San Diego falls into the not-so-run-down category, which is great for San Diego” and not so great for him.
I can’t hold back. Passion overrides what little journalistic detachment I possess.
It’s because, I tell Nuez, we’re paradise-in-rehab. Our façade is what’s history. Crispy lawns. No jobs. More potholes than tourists. Alleys are where our life is! They’re like the last frontier —
The demilitarized zone in the people’s eternal war against the city —
Maybe even our greatest seminatural resource —
I mean, really, I ask him — Has he ever seen cooler alleys?
On the other end of the phone, there’s dead silence. I’ve totally blown this interview.
Finally, the closest thing to a national authority on the subject of urban alleys as I can find speaks.
“I agree. I think the word ‘cool’ is the right word,” says Xavier Nuez.
Google/Bing “San Diego alley,” and nine out of ten hits will start with the words “Body found in.” Photographer Nuez eventually admits he’d lined up a police detective who’d promised him a tour of San Diego’s worst alleys, and the guy flaked.
But today this Pacific Beach alley south of Chalcedony is sunny and deserted. Palm fronds clatter softly. Bougainvillea overwhelms low backyard fences. From where I stand in the dark garage, the alley outside is so neatly framed by the open garage door that it looks like a stage set of the perfect San Diego morning.
Jack Whalen hands me a beer. “I’m king of this alley,” Whalen says, then points west. “Down there, the king of that next alley is Tom Sweet. He’s 97.”
Whalen is a laconic, tan man in shorts and a chartreuse T-shirt. He’s been king of this Pacific Beach alley for 20 years, ever since he rented the two-car garage in which we’re standing. By law, he explains, landlords must provide parking with beach rentals, but some rent out garages separately because there’s such a demand for them. All Whalen’s friends rent illegal garages. It’s an alley subculture.
In Whalen’s case, the garage provides storage for his work tools, his mother’s Christmas decorations, and a bunch of stuff he’s picked up shopping in “Alleymart,” including a poster of Richard Nixon, a radial arm saw, and a parachute.
But the real value of “The Compound,” as he lovingly refers to his garage, is its social function. “It’s definitely a vortex,” Whalen says. “Once I open the garage door, they just start coming.” If his blue truck is parked out front, everyone knows the Coors is on ice. Seven days a week, daylight hours only. “I don’t want to piss off my neighbors,” says Whalen.
What exactly does his alley mean to him? I ask. “Privacy,” he shoots back. “The wives are in the house. Police are on the street. In PB, you can’t go out front and drink a beer anymore,” says Whalen. “This is all we’ve got left.” Whalen speaks fondly of his 80-year-old neighbor Ben, who in the last years before he passed away would sneak down the alley to Whalen’s garage to smoke and hide from his wife.
Once in a blue moon, Whalen says, the meter maid makes a stink about his buddies’ trucks parked in the alley. The “drive-by bitchouts” are the worst. That’s when wives drive by, stop outside Whalen’s garage, yell at husbands to get home, then roar off.
“Girls hate the alley,” says Whalen.
My friend Mary Trombley agrees. Growing up in Clairemont, she says, “You just always knew nothing good happened to girls in alleys.”
My Texas friend Barbara copies me on an email featuring a woman at a firing range, wearing a T-shirt that says, “Gun Control: The theory that a woman found dead in an alley, raped and strangled with her own pantyhose, is somehow morally superior to a woman explaining to police how her attacker got that fatal bullet wound.”
But a few blocks from Jack Whalen’s garage, in an alley near Grand and Hornblend, jazz floats from the open door of Alicia Raposa’s duplex, wafting bits of Ella Fitzgerald down the otherwise barren canyon of automatic garage doors.
Raposa, 24, lives in the only rental on the alley, and her front door is always open. “My dad swears I’m gonna get broken into, but I never have.” In four years of living here, the only trespassers have been stray cats who abuse the open-door policy.
A surfing instructor and SDSU double major in literature and furniture-making, Raposa needed something affordable. “When I first saw this place, I thought, ‘Cool. It’ll be cheaper because people won’t like the negative connotation of being in an alley.’ ” It was cheaper. It’s also bright and quiet.
Raposa points to a battered surfmobile just outside the front door. “You forget something in your car, and there it is. This is the best place I ever lived,” she says.
Across the alley, Heather Wilson sorts golf balls into a plastic bag. She’s standing outside an open garage, whose contents spill out and flood the pavement knee-deep around her. Like Jack Whalen, Wilson rents her Pacific Beach garage. She uses it to store the things she finds in alleys, on the street, or in the course of her work as owner of Heather’s Helping Hands, a cleaning and maintenance company.