Reconstruction Debris

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“At first I thought living in 322 was the worst place,” says Diane Riddick. “There were all kinds of different people, with different backgrounds, doing their own thing.”

She’s talking about the apartment building that used to stand at 322 Irvine Turner Boulevard, the way it used to be before the fires, the evacuation and the demolition. “The people took care of each other’s kids and wasn’t gonna let anything happen to them,” she says. “I got to know the people, and it began to feel like home.”

For 15 years, I took photos and listened and learned in this Newark building, afraid of strangers when I was alone in the halls, but always feeling safe when I was welcomed into the apartments of Diane Riddick and her neighbors.

Two fires around Christmas 1996 drove the people out—City Limits ran my photos of the evacuation in the April 1997 issue.

I’ve tried to keep up with the tenants of 322 since then, checking in to see how they’ve managed and how their lives have changed. For a while, I visited the old building every few weeks and took a few more pictures. For a year, it stood empty and barren.

Then last February, I made the turn onto Irvine Turner Boulevard, and my heart sank. I saw what used to be a four-story building scattered across empty lots.

I stumbled in frustration up and down the piles of rubble, trying to document the essence of this building with my camera before it was all over. The site supervisor approached me, and I told him what I was doing–the years I’d spent with this building. “Go ahead and take pictures if you want,” he said. “The building was built to last forever. A shame to destroy it.”

I spent the next two months in the mud and rain, poking my camera into every pile of debris. Every day, the workers waved and greeted me, and the bulldozer driver gave me a little toot.

Now the building’s tenants are scattered across the city. Riddick, who lived at 322 for 12 years, has moved twice since it burned down. But she hasn’t forgotten her neighbors. “I still miss Mildred–she was old and so funny,” she recalls. “She be walking around with one leg, and jokin’ and drinkin’ that vodka. She gave me some corn liquor one day, and man, I was going all kinds of ways. She drank that stuff straight and that lady was eighty-some years old. . . . I guess it’s the way it’s supposed to be–a story begins and a story ends.”

Her kids–10-year-old Sherell and 13-year-old Rashawn–miss their friends and their tree fort. “I didn’t know what to say when the house got burned down,” remembers Sherell. “By the time we got home, my mother already moved to another place and we didn’t have a chance to see our friends or anything.”

A block of pre-fab housing now fills the lot where 322 once stood. Most of the former tenants have lost track of each other. “We tried to stay in touch, but we just can’t,” Riddick explains. “There was something about that building and the people that made you different once you moved out. It’s like you’re not home no more. You’re out.”