Runnin’ Down a Dream

By Stacy Davies

Posted May 14, 2009 in Feature Story

When photographer Doug McCulloh won the right to name a street during a silent auction at a Riverside charity event 10 years ago, he never imagined he’d soon bear witness to the harsh realities of the free market—from overworked, underpaid laborers to the optimistic homeowners who would eventually fall victim to their desire for a piece of the American Dream. Over the past decade, the Riverside-based artist has seen a strawberry field transform into a brand-new tract of homes, and a community brimming with optimism become a neighborhood just starting to feel the sting of the housing crash.


But at the time of McCulloh’s auction bid, and for a few subsequent years afterward, the housing market was in good shape. The idea of naming a street and photographing it as it sprung to life appealed to McCulloh’s artistic creed, as well as his curiosity. Like most people, he knew nothing about home construction, and seeing the process from the ground up would at least be an education. 


The terms of the auction item were clear: McCulloh would not get to choose the location of his street; the name would simply be put into the mix and pulled out whenever the city needed it. This pushed him in an abstract direction when mulling over names, after all, “McCulloh Street” wouldn’t mean much to anyone but him. He finally decided upon a name that could fit any ideal, location or agenda: Dream Street. It was open-ended, he said. And it was utterly American.


Several years later, Dream Street was selected for a proposed 134-home tract to be built by Young Homes in San Bernardino County near the Ontario Airport; in fact, the developers loved the name so much that they decided to make Dream Street the main drag of their new community.


McCulloh showed up every step of the way—once even before ground had been broken—snapping photos and recording interviews of Young Homes’ employees, workers, contractors and laymen, each offering him glimpses into their lives and the details of their work. They were willing to talk and unafraid of his camera—no one had ever been interested in them before—and since the way homes are built in Southern California is neither a secret nor illegal, they welcomed him and told him everything.


What McCulloh learned about their lives and work, however, would often leave him stunned and unnerved; it also made him all the more determined to tell their story. 


A decade later, that story has come to light in both a 40-image exhibit at the Riverside Art Museum and a forthcoming 164-page book by the Inlandia Institute and Heyday Books—and it’s a story that every Southern Californian must know. Having an interest in construction is not a requirement; McCulloh’s exceptional photography can stand alone as art. But it is his adeptness as a documentarian—his ability to select comments that illuminate the larger issues, stereotypes and hardships embedded in the Dream Street stories—that makes McCulloh’s project resonate so effectively, opening us up to a world of hard knocks and struggle that we might eventually wish we hadn’t seen.


The construction industry in general is but one disturbing example. As McCulloh interviewed various workers and managers, he was reminded that 30 years ago, construction companies built homes from the ground up: A team of workers graded the land, poured the concrete, laid the studs, framed, installed gas and electricity lines, dry-walled, roofed and hung every window and door. But that was back in the 1970s when the unions were in place. Once they were busted, the free market ran amok. Construction companies realized it was cheaper to piece out the work to subcontractors instead of keeping employees on an hourly wage with insurance and benefits. These days, when a construction company is paid by a developer to build homes, the company takes a cut and then hires the cheapest group of men (and sometimes women) to do the actual work. The result is a man who hangs doors—and that’s all he does. He may have just learned how to hang doors, he may never have learned, and he’s paid per door, not by the hour. That means he has to hang a certain number of doors to come even slightly ahead of his materials cost (which he pays himself), let alone make a profit, so he hangs doors as quickly as he can. That can mean if you only get one screw in a hinge, you only get one screw—no pun intended. And the door guy only hangs doors, he doesn’t do the locks—that’s the lock guy. Another man comes in just to do the weather stripping. And so on.


While homeowners may not care that it takes three or four different men to hang a door, or that the door might be slightly off its hinges, apply this philosophy to house framing—where a hurried worker hammers in a two-by-six, instead of a two-by-eight because he doesn’t have time to climb down to get the right board—and potential disasters arise.


McCulloh also tells us the story of the subcontractor who shot a nail through his hand. Apparently, one of the first things to be tossed out on the site is the safety gear—it slows the workers down. McCulloh snapped a photo of the man pulling the nail out from the soft tissue between his thumb and index finger. Once it was removed, he started shooting nails again, blood running down his arm.


And the danger only increases. McCulloh was there the day workers realized that the natural gas lines in a model home were leaking. Because of the rush, no one had checked them before dry-walling the place up. The men spent most of the day whacking holes through new drywall, trying to find gas elbows to soap up and look for bubbles. One worker finally sat at the kitchen counter, his head slumped in frustration. “All installation work is done by subcontractors,” McCulloh writes. “Actual utility employees—gas, electric, telephone—are rare at tracts. I never met one.” He left before they’d found the leak.


The stories and images go on, and each one is visually artistic and textually devastating: men on housing frames staring at corners that were cut too short, a plumber poking his head through a toilet hole as he slashes through PVC pipe that doesn’t fit due to a late change in plans, an unskilled woman—hired from a classified ad—laying baseboard for ten cents a foot. Even children come to the site to play, recalling their clubhouse that used to be there; they steal chicken wire to build new forts. All of these workers—many who make $125 or less for a day’s hard labor—are products of the free market, low-cost machine. They are of various ethnicities, legal and illegal, and almost all of them are perpetually stuck at their level in life due to educational and skill deficiencies, or language barriers. They’re anti-union, but not really sure why, and many of the whites blame immigrant workers for driving down wages, yet also say “the Mexicans” are the hardest workers on the site. More than in-fighting, they all seem to be acutely aware that some rich guy somewhere is making money off of their sweat, buying a new jet ski and other luxuries. But instead of hating the rich guy, they seem more depressed about not being able to change their own station in life.


The workers on Dream Street do not live on Dream Street—as one man points out, “The people who build the houses can’t afford one.” (Ironically, a house painter later tells McCulloh he’d never live in any of the homes he’s painted.) some refer to Dream Street instead as “Nightmare Street.”


They must come for their paycheck of course, but it would be a mistake to think the machine in which they find themselves permanently wrenched is unique to low-income housing—their next job will most likely be in a million-dollar planned community.


What happens at Dream Street happens everywhere in the Sun Belt, McCulloh points out, and everyone is affected.


Lastly, McCulloh includes images and stories from some first-time homeowners on Dream Street, many of whom are lower-income optimists who would eventually be trapped beneath the housing crash. Some are veterans who were helped, at first, by “no money down” loan specials. At the time of his interviews, these families are jubilant—most have children and are thankful to have escaped dangerous suburbs overrun with drugs and gangs. To them, Dream Street is the incarnation of their deepest wishes and most personal hopes for their families and future. They pour more concrete to make room for boats or motor homes they hope to one day buy, and envision Jacuzzis, pools and lush landscaping; they don’t notice the boards on their backyard fences are already starting to warp and twist. And it is here that McCulloh’s project ends. 


When the final family had moved into Dream Street and the workers were gone, McCulloh found himself returning to the community time and again, listening to people talk about more dreams that would come true when their wages increased. Already there was one foreclosure on Dream Street; McCulloh was there the day the new owners arrived. They, too, were overjoyed—the minute they’d seen the name Dream Street, they knew the house was for them. McCulloh said nothing and simply drove away. By his own admission, Doug McCulloh is a conduit not a creator, his artistic practice “appropriates the world’s mode of operation” and relies heavily on chance experiences. He does not inject his opinions into his art—but he certainly has many, and his sympathy and anger are not very difficult to detect or imagine.


By mid-2008, more than 200 houses in the Dream Street zip code of 92316 were in a stage of foreclosure, echoing the pangs of communities around the Inland Empire. Dream Street and its neighbors continue to slug along, tossing out more casualties along the way, propping up dreams that will most likely never materialize. That’s the machine that drives this particular American Dream, and it is alive, if not well. 


Dream Street in the Bobby Powell Gallery at the Riverside Art Museum, 3425 Mission Inn Ave., Riverside, (951) 684-7111; Thru June 13. Panel discussions May 19 & 26 with Doug McCulloh and guest speakers. 


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