View AjA Project Speak City Heights Land Use Map in a larger map
What is safe? For Oscar H., age 14, it is a path trekked by school-bound children in backpacks. Kenia P., 12, identifies a safe area as the blue plastic-coated tables of an elementary school. For many, safe is simply an un-cracked section of sidewalk, a crosswalk or a grassy space.
Beautiful. Ugly. Scary. Safe. Unsafe. Words that describe places you go, or try to avoid. Adjectives to map your neighborhood by—which is just what young people living in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego did recently with the AjA project. By identifying, photographing and discussing how they feel about the many parts of their neighborhoods, these young people created a dynamic map of San Diego.
Ugly and unsafe stand in direct opposition to their safe counterpart: cracked masonry and pavement, abandoned furniture lining a block. Eleven-year-old Cristal G., points her camera at a puddle, sitting stagnant and pooled amidst broken concrete. Orange and brown fungus grows out of the water. A battered neighborhood watch sign is shot from the below — a child’s perspective.
Scary runs the gamut from childhood fears to legitimate frights: a tall tree that could only be climbed with great trepidation; a set of stairs that you imagine would be intimidating after dusk; scrawled graffiti. Lit with sun, everything seems more approachable. But in the night even a pile of garbage in front of a home sends an ominous message.
The little things abound in the beautiful section: flowers, tidy fences and sunlight streaming through stalks of grass. One photo stands out to me from the others. It is a shaky, sideways-leaning shot of a faded crosswalk leading up to the doors of a school. In front, a few parents mill with children. It’s not a perfect image but it doesn’t need to be, it harkens back to elementary school days and warms me. It reminds me of spring mornings walking to school holding my mom’s hand, looking forward to whatever the day had in store for me. Wondering, would it be a sunny day or would it go gray? My eye wanders to the top right corner of the picture where a tiny patch of blue sky peeks in, revealing a glorious sunny day.
[Headquartered in sunny San Diego, the AjA project provides photography-based educational programming to youth affected by war and displacement. The dynamic projects they facilitate – mapping, murals, documentary photo projects -- encourage students to think critically about their identities, develop leadership qualities and find their own sense of empowerment. The project highlighted in this article was a collaboration with Speak City Heights, initiative aimed at amplifying the voices of residents in one of San Diego's most diverse neighborhoods.]