The water slowly ran out of the fire hydrant, like a spring it ran across steaming hot concrete evaporating to rise and meet clouds forming a midsummer thunderstorm above me. The hydrant was on a dead end cul-de-sac in the Brownsville Housing Projects of Brooklyn.
Once the meeting place of gangs, the space has been transformed by local non-profits like the one I was working for into a kind of oasis; murals, a flower garden, and large vinyl prints of photos and art attempting to change the spirit and maybe direction of the community.
I was standing near the hydrant on a hot July day looking for my photography students. My co-teacher and I had given the assignment to shoot portraits of each other and they had fanned out into the community looking for interesting backdrops. I did not see any students at that moment so I was stepping toward the hydrant to douce my bald head and take a drink when a thin middle-aged man approached and threw down a black plastic bag.
He knelt to take a drink and we began a conversation. He told me his name was Robert. I mentioned that I had a son with same name. I told him I was teaching photography to students in the community and that I wanted them to photograph this hydrant.
“You need to have them photograph the developers that are moving in here and turning buildings like that one ( he pointed across the street) into condos that no one living here now can afford. The anger in his voice rose as he explained. “They made millions in Manhattan and now they are coming here to make more money.”
I agreed and I mentioned that in fact several of our students had said they planned to photograph this very topic.
“Do you live around here?”, I asked. He grinned and looked at his plastic bag. “I’m homeless man, I live in the shelter down the street. It’s fu*king violent as hell, but I’ve run into hard times. There are no jobs, none that can pay the kind of rents they are charging now.”
As he walked away toward the shelter I bent down and drank from the hydrant. As I stood up a private, sleek blue helicopter zoomed low over head, most likely shuttling some millionaire to Manhattan. It had come from the direction of the dark rain clouds gathering on the horizon.