A Photo Project's Message: Hello, Neighbor If you're someone who thinks neighbors and neighborhoods aren't what they used to be, you aren't alone. A sense of community can be hard to come by, even in thriving areas. A public photography project in Oregon is meant to change that, with large banner portraits of residents.
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A Photo Project's Message: Hello, Neighbor

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A Photo Project's Message: Hello, Neighbor

A Photo Project's Message: Hello, Neighbor

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Well, everything was much more low-tech back in the 1950s when television spread across the United States, and the makers of TV sets couldn't make them fast enough. So neighbors would gather in the household of a family lucky enough to have one and watch programs together.

Of course neighborhoods aren't what they used to be. When NPR senior correspondent Ketzel Levine saw banners on buildings in Portland, Oregon showing huge photos of some of her neighbors, she had to find out why.

KETZEL LEVINE: And I will tell you shortly, but first I've got to introduce you to one of my neighbors.

Mr. TOMMIE WASHINGTON: My name is Tommie Washington, and I've been living in this neighborhood since 1948.

LEVINE: Living in the same house, I might add, surrounded by friends.

Mr. WASHINGTON: You can run in one house in the front door and go out the back door with a sweet potato pie, and the community was just such a village, you know, raising all the kids.

LEVINE: Talk about a flash from the past. Tommie Washington says those days are history.

Mr. WASHINGTON: We can sit on the porch and talk about those days and rewind the tape, you know, but it's a new era.

LEVINE: There you are on the side of a building.

Mr. WASHINGTON: Uh-huh, on the side of a building. Ain't that something?

LEVINE: It really is. Mr. Washington's affable, oversize portrait printed on a huge vinyl banner, hanging from the steel grid of yet another condo project in a neighborhood gentrifying at dizzying speed.

This black and white juxtaposition of what was and what's now here speaks of a changing community that's already left many of its residents estranged, and so the banners. They're from a project simply called Hello Neighbor, an attempt to connect this and a dozen other fraying Oregon communities by those who may need those communities the most: the kids.

Unidentified Woman: So maybe if you can stand over there or something...

LEVINE: Sure. At this Hello Neighbor photo shoot, a swarm of fast-moving young hellions with big-lensed cameras surround an older couple.

Ms. JULIE KEEFE (Founder, Hello Neighbor): Can you show them where you want them to be, you guys?

LEVINE: Hovering nearby giving instructions is photojournalist Julie Keefe, mastermind of a project she's come by quite naturally, having lived here in north Portland through crisis and comeback.

Ms. KEEFE: So now, 2008, there's a restaurant every 10 feet. There's a fabulous DVD store. I still cannot believe that there are boutique clothing stores in my neighborhood, but people aren't saying hello.

LEVINE: Being very familiar with her neighborhood's kids, having taught them photography and raised two of her own, Julie Keefe saw something that concerned her. The kids were losing their friends and strangers were moving in, often young, often wary, typically white.

Ms. KEEFE: So I thought, if the kids somehow approach neighbors and let the neighbors know that they're actually interested in them and let the neighbors meet the kids of their neighborhood.

LEVINE: Here's how Hello Neighbor works, beginning, of course, with funding in this case from Oregon's arts organization, Caldara, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

First, Julie Keefe and her group decide on a list of locals they want to meet.

Mr. RON McDOWELL(ph): My name's Ron McDowell.

LEVINE: That person or couple could be any color, any age, the barista at the fresh-pot coffee house, the gay couple who used recycled olive oil cans for the siding on their house. Willing neighbors - most are - are then invited to school one at a time to answer questions the kids came up with: How old are you? Do you feel safe on your street? What are you most proud of?

Mr. McDOWELL: I'm proud to be a union ironworker, you know. Iron work's been really good to me. I climb more ladders in a day than a fireman does in a month.

LEVINE: Most answers are pretty straightforward and often revealing. Here's how 17-year-old Beau Mandella Cordetta(ph) answered the question - what would you like people to most know about you?

Mr. BEAU MANDELLA CORDETTA: I would want people to know that I'm smart - know what I'm saying - honest, trustworthy, all them good things, because a lot of people look at me and don't see that. They would rather walk by than speak or say hi or something like that.

LEVINE: Twenty-one-year-old Bobby Williams told the kids much the same thing. I feel it in my chest, he said. I sense that people on the street are scared.

In fact, until Hello Neighbor, one of the 8th-graders in the project had been afraid of Bobby Williams most of her life.

Neighbors weren't the only ones interviewed and photographed for the project.

Mr. LARRY KEMP: My name is Larry Kemp.

LEVINE: The kids themselves took questions from their peers.

Unidentified Child #1: My question is, if something happened to one of your family members, how would you take it?

Mr. KEMP: I don't know how I would take it. That experience hasn't even happened to me yet.

Unidentified Child #2: Do you have a crush?

Mr. KEMP: Do I have a crush? I would not like to answer that question.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LEVINE: Other kids in the Hello Neighbor project were all too happy to talk, though I'll use only their first names. Here's Dominic.

DOMINIC: I met people that I had no idea existed, never seen in my life before but who lived really close to me, and it kind of opened me up to realize that people are, in general, like good to meet.

LEVINE: What about you, Precious? And let me clarify, that's your name. I'm not being cute with you, right?

Ms. PRECIOUS ANDREWS: Yeah. I learned that when you say hi to people, I mean, it takes you out of your comfort zone because you don't know them, but somebody says hi, I'm glad to see you, you have some type of reason to like be here, I guess it's pretty good.

LEVINE: From what I'm understanding, everybody who was interviewed and everyone in the neighborhood is in fact a wonderful person, and yet we know it's not quite like that.

Ms. KEEFE: No, you do know it's not quite like that.

LEVINE: Photojournalist and teacher Julie Keefe.

Ms. KEEFE: Definitely there was a woman who told the kids if you ever crossed her that she would come at you with everything she had, basically intimated a little violence, and so that was harsh. I mean, there were things you did not expect to have happen and usually didn't.

Mr. WASHINGTON: What's up, player?

(Soundbite of laughter)

LEVINE: Most of the time, though, nothing beats a neighbor. I mean, who'd want to miss out on Tommie Washington, a man who approaches his old neighborhood with this wisdom.

Mr. WASHINGTON: You see the squirrels running around the wires nowadays. They're not on the ground, so they have adjusted to the changes, and so will we have to adjust to it, you know, so...

LEVINE: Ketzel Levine, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: You can see portraits of the community and the locals who made them for the Hello Neighbor project by moseying over to your friendly neighborhood Web site. That would be NPR.org.

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