Above: Refugio Simón Méndez stands where the old West Side Flats neighborhood used to be. View the full photo gallery here.
WSCO's oral history project, Stories From the Flats, includes a series of portraits taken by local photographer Elizabeth Leonardsmith. The project seeks to uncover and uplift the voices of those who grew up on the West Side Flats before the neighborhood was destroyed.
“As I explored the landscape of the Flats in preparation for this project, I noticed the enormity and emptiness, in stark contrast to the stories of a close-knit neighborhood where everyone knew each other, watched each other’s children, and kept their doors unlocked. In addition to the obvious injustice of displacement, this emptiness just gave me a feeling of, 'what a waste.'
"In these photographs, I tried to convey the enormity and weight of this history. I went with people to the locations of their former homes, and asked them to remember their time there, the displacement and the emotions they felt. I then reflected some of the heaviness of their experiences by highlighting the heavy structural elements; I represented the isolation of their displacement with isolated locations; I showed our efforts to see the past– to not let it fade away– by using reflections of present-day buildings.
"The natural disaster of flooding was not even the undoing of this community; it was the manmade disaster of the bulldozers, intimidation, and government misuse of power. By naming it, we have an opportunity to redress some harm, and to create a better process and future for the West Side.” – Elizabeth Leonardsmith, photographer
Leonardsmith (pictured, left) is a photographer who has worked on a range of projects from portraits to landscapes to multi-media social commentary pieces over the past two decades. Her work as an Environmental Justice Organizer at the West Side Community Organization informs her artistic practice; she approaches both organizing and photography with an eye towards speaking out for joy and justice. She lives on the West Side with her wife and three children.