Marginal Territories: Farewell Gables Trailers Park

On its way to becoming a megalopolis, Miami is an atypical city, not only within the United States but within the entire continent: a multiethnic and multicultural urban space, as fascinating as it is complex, whose development, demographic and social growth are crossed by challenging paradoxes and more than a few contradictions. The vertiginous rise in property values in Miami-Dade County in recent decades has brought with it a substantial increase in real estate investment, along with massive evictions and gentrification of certain areas of the city destined to become new housing complexes and commercial, cultural, and tourist infrastructures. Without a doubt, we live in a city where economic and cultural practices are constantly emerging and transforming. But what is the nature of these changes and how do they affect the lives of the city’s inhabitants? How to visually map them and build an iconography of the city that also investigates the social implications of these transformations in marginal spaces? And, above all, how to represent precariousness without turning it into another record of that extensive iconography of suffering, so common in documentary photography throughout its history?

Today, perhaps few places in Miami encapsulate this contradiction between development and conservation —or between creation and destruction— in such a dramatic and obvious way as the small settlement known as Gables Trailers Park, a community of caravan houses (or trailers) located in the city of Little Gables. Having emerged in the early 1930s during the Great Depression, the space still survives and is home to nearly ninety households mostly occupied by retirees and immigrants, low-income families who cannot afford better properties in other areas of the city. In the last four years, Gables Trailers Park has been at the cusp of a debate between Miami-Dade County and the border city of Coral Gables, whose project to annex the area where this community is located does not yet envision a concrete solution for its inhabitants, who will be unable to assume rent in the real estate complexes that are projected to be manufactured in the area.

In this space of daily survival but also of dignity, human warmth, and an ingenious urbanism of self-construction that responds to the logic of improvisation and necessity, photographer and filmmaker Sebastián Elizondo (Paris, 1959) has built from his inquiry into human geography, an iconography of otherness. His archive meticulously records the details of this other city in the bowels of the great city, with its subsistence architectures, its narrow streets, and its unique inhabitants. An invisible city for passersby, half-hidden by the trappings of urbanism and its furniture, but a city as real as it is endearing to its residents. Trailers (2020-2021), the winning series of one of the Ellies awards granted by Oolite Art (Miami), could well become, given the result of the annexation proposals, the last record of a space with almost a century of existence: the photographic documentation of a habitat and a way of life on the verge of disappearing.

In recent years, Sebastián Elizondo has shifted his focus to areas and social groups usually excluded from representation and, therefore, from the archives that now make up the established historical and affective imaginary of the city. His documentary work moves through the hurtful margins of human conflict, among those groups displaced by the voracity of the system and its contradictions, be they economic, cultural or moral. His Calle Ocho series (2017-2020) records the lives of the homeless and jobless who roam the well-known artery of Little Havana, a settlement of Latino immigrants in the heart of the city. Calle Ocho imposes itself as a revealing record that does not evade the precariousness of life or its drama while rescuing the dignity of common people from everything that builds them as an affective and photogenic subject in their own right. On the other side of social conflict, the series Pride (2018-2019) documents the LGTBQIA+ festivals that take place every year in Wynwood, Miami’s well-known art district. In this space of unrestricted freedom offered by certain events of mass participation like carnival, the photographer maps another zone of effective resistance, right there where the counterculture of a way of life spontaneously expresses itself through its most genuine manifestations.

Sebastian Elizondo. From The Series Trailers, 2019-2O21

With precise measure, Trailers resumes as well as amplifies the approach the photographer used in his previous visual essays. The series combines the resources of a direct portrait, with a naturalistic accent (the leitmotif of Calle 8 and Pride), with other close-ups, and panoramic views that draw in unison a reflective topography of the place: a story that manages to sketch beyond the anecdote, the social and affective dimension of precariousness, as well as the human modes of resistance on the other side of hegemonies. Armed with a wide-angle lens —with its peculiar and invasive vision of space and three-dimensionality— the photographer seems to inhabit the Locus of the dilemma, ignoring the traditional distances and the comfortable shelters of the fourth wall. This feeling of excessive proximity to the subject, of a detailed description of his phenotype, of his mental condition and environment, gives his portraits the charisma of a realism that is at times disturbing. In these cases, the portrait is not a mere exercise of voyeurism through the viewer, but an internal process of complicity and exchange of roles: that which allows us, as spectators, to “wear someone else’s shoes” and start walking. It is impossible to distance oneself from the emotional charge implicit in these portraits or from their achieved aesthetic production. Nor is it possible to ignore the moving force with which Sebastián Elizondo affirms the authenticity of the subjects he photographs. Perhaps it is precisely this empathy that turns his portraits into revealing instances, images that question the homogeneity of Miami’s ethnographic, picturesque or traditional archives, and their long chain of omissions and, possibly, stigmas and stereotypes.

If the portraits give a visible face to the residents of the place, the panoramic shots open a space of knowledge about their culture and way of life. Using Long Shots and Close-Ups, the photographer documents the resistance strategies present in architecture and, in general, the modes of creative action on the environment and its physiognomy. Hence, Trailers can be understood not simply as an author’s essay, but as the documentation of a collective intervention carried out over the years from the experience of inhabiting: a living and continuous action that modified the cultural and geographical identity of the territory, altering their appearance from canons that represent— for the non-inhabitants of the place —an experience of otherness. As Walter Benjamin understood, the need for shelter is enduring and originated both architecture (one of the first forms of art) and interventions in spaces that we inhabit and perceive familiarly as a tactile experience[1]. In Gables Trailers Park, the alternative of transforming the vital enclave to turn it into a space that welcomes life, and its drives acquires the dimension of a highly creative exercise that produces, not just functional elements but a complex symbolic universe, crossed by multiple representations.

Sebastian Elizondo. From The Series Trailers, 2019-2O21

As Flavio Dalmazzo and Pablo Pulgar comment in Materials for an Aesthetics of Marginality (2018), marginal spaces establish “the historical and sociopolitical framework where certain subjectivities —marginal subjectivities— find their structural physiognomy. The center/periphery conflict finds in it a node that allows the codification of social grammar as an ecology of knowledge, that is, as an organic whole that distributes knowledge in a heterogeneous way, outside colonial axes.”[2] “The margin as an eminently open and permeable space —affirm the authors— is also a creator and reproducer of reality,”[3] a space where it is possible to find “signs, artistic patterns that, in the light of the public, without clear authorship, are reproduced in a viral logic: they appear and disappear, arise and are erased/crossed out, they happen anarchically in the middle of a social field alienated from institutional norms […] ”[4].

In this small neighborhood, many of the old caravan-houses have lost their original wheels —ymbol of nomadism and a bygone way of life— and are now based on stable structures and supports, with added walls, extensions, and other arrangements that bring them closer and closer to the physiognomy of a common house. Each house reproduces, according to the possibilities of its owners, the usual spaces of the traditional home. Small patios adorned with orchids and other tropical plants abound, as well as portals decorated with varied objects, witnesses of an irreverent eclecticism resistant to any classification. Both in the exterior and interior spaces, effigies of Buddha, and commercial reproductions of Michelangelo’s David or Ingres’ Fountain coexist in apparent complicity with family portraits and all sorts of objects that are part of the affective memory of the residents. The exterior walls of the houses are also spaces for decoration. These can be intervened with personal objects —such as trophies from sport fishing or Christmas items, for example— or painted directly, in an intense chromatic game that constructs, at first glance, the physiognomy of the place: from the colors and the textures of the semi-rusted sheet metal of some original “trailers” to an unpredictable palette of highly saturated hues ranging from Chinese red or intense fuchsia, to green and almost neon blue. In addition, national flags abound (mostly American and Cuban), which ratify the intersection of various nationalities and the legality of an immigration status that is proudly displayed as a key to family identity and a sense of belonging.

Sebastian Elizondo. From The Series Trailers, 2019-2O21

For the artist Ernesto Oroza —who has studied the transformations of living space in Havana’s popular neighborhoods, as well as in other communities in South Florida— such processes can be described from the idea of an “Architecture of Necessity.” In these cases, Oroza points out, form follows need. The inhabitants of the city “are aware of their real needs and driven by the inevitable, they transform under a new order: the Moral Modulator. To the order established by human scale, they add the moral dimension that necessity recovers. Urgency provides the individual with a fundamental alibi.”[5] This system of scales and priorities —which Le Corbusier otherwise sought by evoking the Vitruvian Man— can be traced in the images that make up Trailers. Elizondo’s photographs manage to capture the architecture of the neighborhood and its multiple ways of reinventing itself according to the orders imposed by necessity. But in the aesthetic work deposited in each image by the author, time coexists with a look that reproduces —from the codes and resources of photographic language— the effort that residents have put into creating zones of elegance and comfort capable of replacing the imaginary of luxury coming from high culture and its stereotypes.

Sebastian Elizondo. From The Series Trailers, 2019-2O21

In a sort of re-enchantment of marginal space, the artist’s attention pauses on a set of apparently trivial details —be they places or simple objects— that bear the affective traces of their owners. Several scenes are developed through a dynamic play of volumes and planes of color that are combined in the frame to create compositions with a geometric accent, at times very close to the playfulness of abstraction. Others seem to take us in a kind of pendular movement between two apparently contradictory extremes; between realisms in an undeniable way of marginality, and the contemplation of a singular harmony that is anchored in precariousness and its own codes, as confirmation of André Breton’s radical phrase: “Beauty will be convulsive or it will be nothing.” His peculiar way, for example, of dispensing with highlights and working basically with shadows —the low keys of lighting— allows the photographer to recreate not only dramatic or introspective environments, but also the charged atmosphere of the area and its irritating stillness. These are indices of the lethargy that inhabits these peripheral spaces that the city seems to sweep under the carpet to hide its contradictions. Sebastián Elizondo’s photographic record has the semantic richness of a story as complex and polysemic as life and its incongruencies; an archive that transcends the factual logic of documents with an added dose of meaning, reflection, and aesthetic value.

Sebastian Elizondo. From The Series Trailers, 2019-2O21

At the beginning of the 20th century, the American, Lewis Hine —one of the fathers of social photography and photojournalism— commented in an interview: “I want to photograph the things that must change and the things that we must appreciate.” More than a century later, the phrase seems to summarize better than most others, not only the dilemma of a human collective but the spirit of an increasingly interesting area of auteur photographic production. When one reviews Trailers through its moments, one cannot help but wonder: What will happen to the neighborhood? Will its long history end under the overwhelming mat of an army of machinery that will turn it into a brand-new housing complex for “young couples and other professionals”? But above all, what will happen to its residents? Will they find an alternative space to rebuild their life and dreams with dignity? The photographs in Trailers open a gap of empathy and reflection around conflict, a threshold of thought that invites us to preview the future scenario of gentrification in the requalification processes of the city and its spaces.

Gables Trailers Park is one of the figures that result from precarious settlement in Miami, although its levels of poverty, fortunately, cannot even approach other marginal areas of Latin America, for example. However, in recent decades, other similar spaces have disappeared under the investment impetus, giving way to new developments that the dynamics of the city seems to demand as a sine qua non condition in its desire for modernization and structural expansion. If photographs can influence public opinion by mobilizing urgent dimensions of social ethics, it is very possible that Trailers, after its timely disclosure, could create a necessary pause for citizens, authorities, or investors to question the need to find balances between the goals of prosperity and the challenge of building a city for everyone, with respect for every individual and their forms of habitat.

Sebastian Elizondo. From The Series Trailers, 2019-2O21

From this perspective, the series would be validating, not only an aesthetic attitude or the author’s position in the face of social urgency, but also the importance of photography done with a critical scope in art circuits. It evidences the necessity of a photographic practice capable of questioning the symbolic power of the urban imaginary, as well as the hegemonic nature of the paradigms that make up the iconography of the city. Either way, the months to come will have the last word regarding Gables Trailers Park and the fate of its inhabitants, the nerve center of the conflict. Meanwhile, Trailers opens an additional window to these parallel and little-known worlds, as a way of recovering a sensitive look on the subject; a look that allows us, at the very least, to relativize the borders between ourselves and others.


* This text was originally published in Wall Street International Magazine. Reproduced with permission of the author.

Notes:
[1] Benjamin Walter: Illuminations. Essays and Reflections.  Translated by Harry Zohn. Edited and with an introduction by Hannah Arendt. Preface by Leon Wieseltier. Schocken Bpook, New York, 2007.
[2] Flavio Dalmazzo & Pablo Pulgar: “Materiales para una estética de la marginalidad. Pornomiseria, signos marginales y subjetividad”. Arte y políticas de identidad. Vol. 19, December 2018, pp. 89-90. Publication services of the Universidad de Murcia, Spain.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5]  Ernesto Oroza: “Arquitectura de la necesidad”. www.ernestooroza.com.

WILLY CASTELLANOS
WILLY CASTELLANOS
Willy Castellanos. Art historian, curator and artist, graduated from the University of Havana. His writings have been published in magazines and newspapers such as Arte al Día International, Art Nexus, Nagary Magazine, El Nuevo Herald and The Sun Sentinel, as well as in several exhibition catalogs in Miami. Castellanos is the cofounder -along with Adriana Herrera- of the Aluna Curatorial Collective, the curatorial arm of the Aluna Art Foundation, a non-profit institution created in 2011.

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