Thinking About Photography
Dedicated to expanding our ideas about photography
I won the right to name a street in Southern California. A chance win at a charity event launched me into an obsessive relationship with a 134-home subdivision just commencing in Southern California. Dream Street focuses on two linked ‘structures’: the homes themselves and the ruthless outdoor sweatshop that produces them—the housing construction industry. There have been exhibitions. There is a book. I made 14,232 photographs. I have forty-seven and-a-half hours of interviews (photographs do not speak for themselves). Everyone is willing to talk. They are amazed anyone is there to listen.
David and Brent discover a major problem with the 492 model. The roof trusses fall three feet short of a bearing wall in the master bedroom. Framing crew members try to take home a hundred bucks each, daily. They have to blast through two or three houses a day to do so. The nail guns rattle like a hellish hailstorm.
“These guys right here, they’re pieceworkers, they’re piecers,” David explained. “They’ll come in today and they’ll do how many houses they can. They might be down on another job by tomorrow. I may see these guys two or three months later, you know. So these guys come in and their whole objective is to get that house done and get their money. The faster they get that house done, the faster they’ve made their money. And that’s just it. So why is he going to get down off that roof and go look for a two-by-eight? He sees a two-by-six there and jumps up there, and he’s nailing that thing on. “As we say in the trade, ‘Hey, fuck it.’ You know, you get a lot of that. There’s a case of the fuck-its in everybody out here.”
Jairo, twelve, and Gustavo, eleven, were up in the trusses, hanging flex from the heating-cooling unit back to the flow box. Jairo struggled to drive a three-inch nail and cut himself on a sheet metal edge. He showed me the blood.
Chino had dropped the kids off at Dream Street and gone to work at another tract. He’s a one-man operation—install the heating-cooling unit up in the joists, hang flex ducts to all the rooms, set the intakes, flow boxes, and vents. The kids help on evenings, weekends, and school breaks. They hang flex and set vents.
Ross, a Young Homes superintendent: “He works his kids too hard. I’m tellin’ you, they make more money than me.” Ross, in imaginary dialog with Chino: “‘You drop ‘em off every evening out here? I see you drop ‘em off and leave.’ I’m like—dang.”
The piecework system cascades through the site. Chino gets piecework pay and pays his kids a piecework rate per house. “The kids put their money in the bank or spend it and buy clothes. They buy warm clothes. This guy (Jairo), he buys a lot of CDs. Games for the computer. Games. I told him don’t buy it no more. I don’t like using the computer for pleasure. I like using the computer for learning … I pay them about five dollars per house. This guy, he’s doing about ten houses in five hours.”
Brad scuttled around on the model home slab with a piece of chalk the size of a banana. He made fast notations at precisely chosen points on the concrete—mostly numbers: standard wood sizes and various heights and other dimensions. They didn’t make a lot of sense to me. Every few minutes, he scuttled back to consult a roll of architectural plans.
Brad stopped to chat. He seemed amused at my naiveté. Sure, said Brad, craftsmen used to build each house from foundation to finish. Might still happen somewhere else, but in southern California those days were long gone. The new system, he said, is built on very abundant, very unskilled, and very cheap labor. What makes it work is a tremendous segmentation of tasks. Each person learns one small job. That’s all they know and that’s all they do. Door frames, for example. One person roams from tract to tract across the LA basin doing nothing but nail in prefab door frames—Valencia to Ontario, Santa Ana to Simi Valley. Another guy comes and actually hangs the doors. But the door hanger doesn’t put on the knobs—that’s the lockup guy. A fourth guy does the thresholds and weather stripping. And that’s just to get the doors in the house, said Brad. Wait until you check out something complicated, like the framing or roofing.
Brad is the brains for the framing crews. He’s the layout man, the translator of the drawings. The framing crews never see a set of architectural plans. Brad told me it would slow things down and they wouldn’t understand the plans anyway. A chasm has opened between the few people who get to use their brains and the rest, who just use their muscles. “Basically what I do is take a set of plans and break them down into laymen’s terms. I lay out where all the windows and doors and special openings are going to go, so the framers know where to nail all the stuff up.” Brad chalks all the information right on the slab—wall height, window openings, beam locations. He notates the concrete tabularasa so thoroughly that each framing crew—among the lowest paid and hardest working people in the business—can come in, heft their nail guns, and whack together a couple of houses a day.
Fernando, drywaller on Dream Street, has a clear view of the new construction economy. “This is how America works: the people who build the houses can’t afford one.” Fernando lives in a shared rental apartment in Downey.
Gary, Young Homes superintendent: “I don’t know, I just think it’s sad. The middle class is eroding and it just doesn’t work very well. I see these guys out there working for seven dollars an hour and stuff. They’re working hard and they have absolutely nothing. They’ll live in a house with three or four other guys. They’ll all have one vehicle to go to work in that barely makes it there. And, you know, they drink a lot of beer and the reason is, what the heck else are you going to do?”
“All these trades—it used to be, twenty-five or thirty years ago, good money for carpentry, roofing, drywall. People were trying to get in there, just beating everybody up trying to get in there. It was mostly union and they made good money. They’d buy a new truck every year. These guys now don’t have an idea what a new truck is, most of them. I wonder about that a lot of times. Where does it all end? How bad does it get?”
Justin called it “slamming windows.” The process moves quickly—wedge the pre-made aluminum window in the framed opening, shove a four-foot level on top, pry and bash with a short crowbar until the bubbles on the level line up, pop the window in place with a nail gun, then move on to the next window. At times, Justin was literally running through the framed houses. He hinted that he got a buck a window. He thought the company owner got five dollars for every window he installed. “I’m kind of senior man on the crew, so I’m hoping to get a little piece of the action. Talk to the owner, maybe fifty cents or a dollar more per window.”
Dave, owner of the Dream Street painting subcontractor, summarizes: “A lot of guys piecework their stuff anymore, so they don’t have to pay all those benefits and stuff. That’s why they can save a few bucks. But you don’t usually get as good a job from your pieceworker. Because they don’t care. Because the more they can get done, the more they get paid, basically. So, there’s a strong incentive just to whack through everything.”
I arrived just as two workers lifted the mirror. Arturo had forgotten the suction clamps for carrying. The glass was heavy and the edges sharp, so the mirror became a swerving reflection of Dream Street.
“There has to be a benign capitalism, and we don’t have that.” Dream Street superintendent Gary: “It is definitely capitalism. And it’s kind of like the robber barons are back in power … Even at the level of Dream Street, that’s operating, because it permeates our society.”
Stendhal describes a novel as a mirror carried along a road. The Dream Street workers are hunched and careful. They pick a path across the irrigation trenches. The veering mirror catches a wall, a window. They shift their grip. A doubled chunk of house is cut into the sky.
Gary: “In the United States it’s ‘Better I grab before you do.’ Usually, it’s ‘All for me and nothing for the rest of the people.’ And the workers are just the workers. ‘If I can crush them a little bit more, then I make more money.’”
By the fifteenth photo, the mirror fills the frame, but the workers have almost vanished. The mirror is clear and hard. The mirror moves into the shadow of a house. All that is visible of the workers is fingers gripping the mirror edge. In the deep shadow of the last frame, Arturo leans around the end of the mirror to see where he’s going, but he is reduced to a silhouette. He could be anybody.
Gary: “There are sort of levels of victimization. It’s what you’re willing to—I shouldn’t say stand for—what you cannot rise above for some reason or another. It may be because you’re too timid. It may be because you’re too unskilled. You may not know the language. But there’s some reason you cannot rise above this level. And that’s where you’re going to be. And therefore, somebody on the next rung up can victimize you. And they do.”