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Through a Lens Darkly : Downtown's Social Disparities Disturb Photographer


In 1989, Diego Cardoso was down the hill from the California Plaza looking for the urban landscapes he likes to photograph when he heard "screams and more screams." Determining that they were coming from a large cardboard box, he peered inside. A homeless woman was giving birth--the umbilical cord still attached to mother and baby boy. Cardoso did not capture the moment on film because his first instinct was to call paramedics.

A few weeks later, Cardoso photographed the woman, whose name he had learned was Diane, in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art, a stark contrast to an advertisement for a MOCA exhibit, "Blueprints for Modern Living."

Cardoso has an eye for Los Angeles' startling incongruities.

A planner for the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, Cardoso spends his spare time photographing Downtown, including Bunker Hill's shining skyscrapers and the homeless who live in their shadows.

Combing Main Street in his 1980 Pontiac Le Mans on a recent Saturday, Cardoso pointed out what he said is a familiar scene: a homeless man sleeping on the sidewalk in front of a bright, turquoise parking garage. A cheerful mural of palm trees and city buildings loomed above.

Cardoso calls a photograph he has taken of the man, the mural and the garage, "The CRA's Art Policy," referring to the Community Redevelopment Agency's policy of requiring 1% of the development cost of some projects to be used to incorporate an artist's design in that project. The money is also used to fund art projects in areas targeted for revitalization.

"If we can afford to put a mural there, I don't understand why we can't afford to deal with the man outside," Cardoso said.

Cardoso makes it a practice to talk to most of the homeless people he photographs. He has befriended some of his subjects. One man, Leo, says he has lived in the same part of Downtown since coming to Los Angeles from Pennsylvania 20 years ago. He spends his nights on 4th Street under the Grand Avenue overpass, sleeping on flattened cardboard boxes and laying out his wash on newspapers.

"Leo hasn't changed very much," said Cardoso, who has been photographing him since 1985. "But his environment has changed a lot."

Leo said he has watched several buildings go up around him, as well as the Grand Avenue overpass. Despite the roar of the traffic and pungent exhaust, he prefers the busy street and development to the quiet that preceded it. "It's much better now," he said. "More company."

Cardoso traced his interest in Downtown to days as a student at UCLA's graduate school of architecture and urban planning. In the mid-80s Cardoso began to take pictures of street vendors--most of them Central Americans--on Broadway as part of a student project.

Cardoso noticed that the boxes the vendors used as stands to sell their wares came from wholesalers--most of them Asian--nearby on Skid Row. Focusing his attention there, Cardoso saw how the homeless used these same boxes for shelter. The result was his "Itinerary of a Box," which was part of an exhibit at UCLA and at City Hall in 1988.

After graduation, he went to work for City Councilman Richard Alatorre as a planning deputy. In February, the 40-year-old Ecuadorean native became a project manager for the transportation commission, where he helps plan the Orange Line, the rail that will extend from Union Station through East Los Angeles. Cardoso's photos are included in "Intersecciones," on display at the McGroarty Arts Center in Tujunga through April 18.

Cardoso's images include an inner-city economy of street vendors and swap meets, as well as its middle-class counterpart, the shopping mall.

But he keeps coming back to the relationship between different parts of Downtown. The recent Saturday morning tour of Broadway, Skid Row, and the garment district--all bustling with activity--included a stop at Bunker Hill.

It was a veritable ghost town.

Walking through a gleaming California Plaza, Cardoso spoke of the expense of keeping the fountain working in the plaza, which is virtually empty on weekends. At a cluster of white tables and chairs, a well-dressed man sat alone reading next to an artificial waterfall.

"It's so close to where Leo lives or where Diane gave birth to the baby in the cardboard box," Cardoso said of the plaza. "It's so close in terms of the physical distance and so far away in terms of the contradictions."

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