“When I started taking pictures there was this girl with nose ring and frizzy hair…” photographer Nacio Brown remembers. Between 1969 and 1973, he photographed street life on a single block in Berkeley. “There was an absolutely horrendous mortality rate among these kids. This scene was interesting, but it was toxic. They were having sex and smoking dope from the time they were 12 years old and so on. I don’t want to say that specifically about these girls, but just in general. But the two girls on the outside of that picture made it to 22 years old. Some of the other kids didn’t make it that far, a really horrendous rate of dead kids.”
Decades later, on Brown’s newly launched online project Rag Theater, those “kids” speak out. Along with the striking black and white photographs, there is a comment section where people can post their memories and recollections. It’s striking how Brown and the commenters are intent on showing a bigger, deeper vision of this alternative culture pocket than is often romanticized and demonized. “I realize my take on it was one-sided and that the reality was more complex,” the photographer himself admits.
“I set up the Rag Theater website as a blog so people could reminisce,” Brown says. “All these years I’ve thought, ‘God what a toxic scene, just death for these kids’ … For the people that are still around that were there, this was the time of their life.”
Here are some of those comments:
..I see all the faces I remember, Crossmans, Delacores, Barsottis, Super Joel, Gypsy, old Sean, and dozens of other people I spent most of my time with every day on the ave, until I was about 13.
I think rather than saying it was bad or good, I‘d say it was just where fate put us at that time, and there will never be another like it.
Talking with some of my friends now, we all remember what a sexually, and physically predatory place it was, and how much freedom there was to do drugs and have sex or whatever we wanted to. I think our parent’s hearts were in the right place for the most part, and they were trying to escape the gravity of 50′s upbringings, that hurt them badly.
I miss a lot of my friends, and among the Crossmans and Delacores in particular there was so much tragedy and hurt.
All in all we survived, and most of us are really conventional now when it comes to how to raise kids or what to expose them to, while retaining some of that era’s freedom and free thinking.
Dogs: By my count nearly fifty images of dogs appear on this site, this with only a half-dozen or so leashes in evidence. Dogs were a reliably safe source of affection for the kids on the street.
I was in the Med watching my daughter, Shelly and my nieces and nephews, Kathy, Vanessa and David Delacour as closely as I could. Even in the euphoria of that time period I was concerned about the drugs that were being used. Over the years I have come to believe that these experiences were neither positive or negative. I have gained a neutraility, that they were experiences and should not be judged. However, hind sight being 20/20 vision you can always see where you could have made better choices. That is called learning from your experiences. I know many in the photos and many of them have passed from this world and I love them all.
Hello Nacio, Recently, here in the NorthWest, we lost the girl next door to addiction. I thought I might mention it on the RT blog because I have sometimes made the careless assumption that Berkeley is the exclusive site of such sad, needless endings. Of course, such an assumption is not true nor accurate, but it has been very easy for me to try to focus this horrible problem somewhere else. Berkeley makes a very convenient scapegoat when my small thoughts are seeking refuge. The young neighbor girl, Marah Williams, who was only nineteen-going on thirty-going on twelve, I believe can still be found on facebook. She was quite the girl; so brilliant and vulnerable, so seemingly sure of herself and yet unable to control her inner insecurities and fears. Thanks, for giving my thoughts some of your time. Sincerely, Jim Delacour