Wedged between a row of shotgun shacks and an aging section 8 apartment complex lies a park that forms the heart of Jackson Heights, Florida. It’s also the unlikely place I chose as my conduit for exploring the lives of children growing up in a poor, urban neighborhood.
The Heights isn't exotic. It isn’t beautiful. It isn’t the worst of neighborhoods, and it certainly isn’t the best of neighborhoods. As a rough neighborhood, it’s far from remarkable. Yet, all the same, the kids of Jackson Heights are remarkable. As they've shown me time and again, there is no box that would fit them. Their resilience has left me continually in awe. The hardship these children bear and live through is breathtaking. I see it every time I crouch down to take a portrait, every time I introduce myself, and every time I’m stared at in a dozen different ways. I’ve seen a toddler whose gaze was more world weary than mine will ever be. I’ve seen a child come up with half a dozen different stories to explain the cuts and bruises on her face. I’ve seen eager girls that handle my camera better than most adults would, and bright eyed boys that made every moment an adventure.
I wanted to focus on the future of this neighborhood, that is, the kids. Over the course of a year photographing them, I found that every single one of them has a story, though they might be reluctant to share it. Coming from suburbia to this urban neighborhood always had such a stark contrast in my mind, but strangely, it wasn’t that simple contrast that struck me the most. It was the attitudes of the kids themselves. Surely, the Jackson Heights kids are like any other; they play and laugh and run about as often as any. However, I couldn’t help but notice how closed many of the children are. Though one might guess from the expressions on their faces, they would hesitate to speak of the happenings of their young lives. All too often the lines of past sorrows seemed written in their young faces; pains that their inexperience would not allow them to hide.
So in one sense, my photographs became a visual telling of a life story left unsaid.
As I look back on all the faces, all the names, I can’t help but wonder what their futures each will hold. The paths these kids walk begin to diverge around middle school, setting the stage for success for some, and tragedy for others. I recall noticing how some of the boys would grow more and more distant, until one day they simply wouldn’t show up. The lure of fast money, of the camaraderie of the local gang, are all too often proving too difficult for the kids to resist. The road out of the heights seems more a tightrope to my young eyes, fraught with fraying edges and faulty safety nets. Who among them will walk it safely?