For so public a project, “City of Champions: A Portrait of Brockton” began in a very personal place. I was born in Brockton, as were my father and grandfather. My Irish great-grandparents were among the legions of Western European immigrants who, in the 19th century, came and found work in the city’s world-famous shoe factories. They found a foothold, and established decent lives.
But in the past half-century, the manufacturing that spurred Brockton’s growth has given way. The resulting poverty, white flight, and influx of people from such countries as Haiti and Cape Verde, and the collision between the old and new realities of Brockton, have left the city disoriented, tense, and in a struggle to find a pathway toward the future. Old-time Brocktonians have watched their once-thriving city become tattered, and at times they blame the newcomers. Newcomers have a limited sense of the city’s past, and they lack the opportunities that greeted the immigrants of the past. Headlines emphasize decay and crime, and an entire community suffers.
Photography was a way for me to reach around these narratives of Brockton and try to meet it on its own terms—on the streets, in markets, and kitchens. By meeting the people who were now making their lives there, it was a way to explore what had happened in my hometown. On and off for five years, I photographed. The result is a portfolio of images that reflects the specifics of the place, but that also, I believe, reflects so many struggling American cities.
The idea to exhibit twelve of these photographs on the exteriors of Brockton buildings was sparked by my desire to bring the photographs back to the community from which they had come. I wanted Brocktonians and visitors from other places to reflect on this depiction of Brockton, and to discuss what they saw. And I wondered if those responses might make their way into conversations and connections made in barber shops, in classrooms, or even inside City Hall.
Jill Wiley, of the Brockton Cultural Council, quickly responded to the idea, and together we became transfixed with the symbolism of Brockton’s downtown, a place once alive with commerce and now so depressed. Could we draw viewers to consider the photographs, and the people in them, within the context of this evocative and symbolic streetscape? And could the place and the pictures work together to tell stories about American identities in our post-industrial cities?
Corey Dolgon, professor of sociology at Stonehill College and director of the Center for Community-Based Learning, took our idea and ran with it. He sketched a curriculum around the photographs to use in his Urban Sociology class, and brainstormed some critical questions the work might raise: What is Brockton’s past? How has it changed and why? What are its current challenges? How do people with different histories and cultures experience the city differently? And how could those people come together to make Brockton thrive again?
As a team of three we approached Mayor Linda Balzotti, who gave us an enthusiastic green light. This was a critical endorsement on all logistical fronts: at the Building Department, in City Council chambers, before The Downtown Brockton Association, the first question everyone asked was “Is Linda on board?”
The second question we were asked in every meeting was: “Who will pick the pictures?” We wondered if the work would be censored in its depiction of Brockton, if we would only be allowed to display the photographs that the powers of Brockton wanted. Which pictures would be allowed where, and for what reasons?
Some objections seemed to dehumanize the people who were portrayed: "I don’t want a picture of the homeless on my building,” said one city official. Other objections were all too human, even full of pain: a member of the Downtown Business Association begged me not to include a photograph made at the funeral of a murdered teen. “I can’t live with this picture,” he said. “I live with so much sadness already about the kids who are dying, please don’t make me look at this every day.”
Some photographs were both loved and loathed. The image of the Fourth of July back-yard pool party was seen as beautiful by some, representative of “old-time” Brockton; the same photograph was vehemently opposed by the pastor of the church on which it is now installed: “That picture is nostalgic,” he said, “It is not reflective of who we are.”
In the end, with the critical help of photographer Michele McDonald, I chose the twelve photographs that are on view, whittled down from hundreds of images made over the years. My hope is that, together, they create a humane depiction that has pushed through headline, nostalgia, and stereotype, toward an authentic reflection of a place and its people. I hope that the work reflects the struggles that Brockton faces, as well as an appreciation for the richness and beauty possible in everyday life. Is it possible for art to create social change? I don't know, but I hope that it can at least create connections: between the Haitian baker and the Greek retiree who feels that his city is lost to him, between the old-time Irish politician and the young Dominican musician who is charting a course toward her future.
--Mary Beth Meehan, 2011
To view the expanded portfolio of Mary Beth Meehan's Brockton work, please visit: www.marybethmeehan.com.