Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Mary Ellen Mark, Martin Bell and the Three-Decade Odyssey of “Streetwise”

Copyright Mary Ellen Mark 1983

June 27, 2017

By Dylan Foley

Materials discussed:

“Streetwise” (1984 documentary, 1985 Oscar nomination)

“Tiny: Streetwise Revisited” (Exhibition, Aperture Foundation,
Chelsea, May-June 2016)

“Tiny: Streetwise Revisited” by Mary Ellen Mark (Photobook, Aperture, New York, 2016)

“Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell,” a film by Martin Bell (2016)

“Streetwise” Facebook Fan Page (Ongoing)

In March 2017, a gunman walked up to an African-American homeless man on the streets of Seattle and shot him four times in the back, killing him.

Two days later, on the Facebook group for fans of the classic 1984 documentary “Streetwise,” which focused on Seattle runaways and teen prostitutes, a woman named Erin Blackwell wrote that the 52-year-old man murdered was Patrice, who was a 20-year-old pimp featured in the film.

Erin Blackwell was the star of “Streetwise” when she was a 14-year-old girl nicknamed Tiny, living on the streets of Seattle and selling herself to older men to survive.

In the documentary, Patrice Pitts is a handsome, cocky character. He is a pimp, who lives off the sexual trade of his fellow children. After the film, Patrice had lived on the streets for three decades and suffered from long-term drug addiction before he was murdered. [Patrice was murdered over a drug deal and for insulting a dealer. The killer was caught eight days after the murder.]

The genesis of the “Streetwise” odyssey started in 1983, when the photographer Mary Ellen Mark was hired to take photographs for a Time Magazine piece on Seattle street children living near the then-decrepit Pike Place Market area.

Focusing on the ethereally pretty 14-year old Tiny, Mark photographed her and a dozen of her friends, recording their daily hustle, the prostitution with much older men and the petty thievery that the kids used to survive.

Mark gained the trust of Tiny and her band. She chronicled the often volatile love affairs between the kids, the fighting and sheer boredom of hanging out for hours on end, waiting for something to happen. Along the way, we meet Munchkin the pimp, who has two teen girls in his stable. We also meet Shelly, who escaped her sexually abusive stepfather, and is now turning tricks on the street.

After Mark finished her magazine assignment, she came back to Seattle with her filmmaker husband Martin Bell to film the street kids from Labor Day to Halloween 1983. The country singer Willie Nelson provided $80,000 in seed money to make the film. The result was the riveting 1984 documentary “Streetwise.”

In the documentary, the kids do drugs, they fight, they get picked up for paid sex, they fool around with each other and fight some more. Tiny went to the street to escape her alcoholic mother at the age of 13. The barely teenage Tiny looks younger than her years, but already has the brutal knowledge of the streets. “I think it’s very strange that these older men like little girls,” said Tiny in the documentary. “They’re perverts, that’s what they are. I like the money, but I don’t like them.”

The most iconic still photo is of Tiny from the documentary, dressed in a black skirt, black blouse and a black pillbox hat with a mesh veil, looking like a mourning Jackie Kennedy , circa 1963. Tiny stares at the camera with an intense gaze. In another version of the same photo, Tiny blows a bubble gum bubble, like the child she is. Tiny told Mark that she was dressing for Halloween as a French whore.

The “Streetwise” documentary was nominated for an Oscar in 1985. Tiny dressed for the Oscars in a rented tuxedo. Mark and Bell offered to take her back to New York, to keep Tiny off the streets, but Tiny declined the offer when she found out that attending school was a requirement. Tiny was offered a film role in Hollywood, but though she was very bright, she was functionally illiterate and could not read her script.

[Editor's Note: 18 hours after my blog post was up, Erin Charles (AKA Tiny) sent me a clarification on her reading skills..."Hi Dylan its tiny....just wanted to say thank u for writing about me & not putting me down for who i am.....but i also wanted to say...i do know how to read ...i just hated reading."...Thanks Tiny, for setting me straight]

In 2015, Mary Ellen Mark died at the age of 75. Her 50-year career encompassed young prostitutes in the Falkland Road brothels of Bombay, the Indian circuses, homeless families in America and movie set photography of such films as Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” and Fellini’s “Satyricon.”

Mark’s greatest and most long-lasting work may be the “Streetwise” project and its evolution over more than three decades. Mark kept in touch with Tiny for the remaining 32 years of her life. She chronicled Tiny’s pregnancy at 15 and the birth of her son Daylon, as well as Tiny’s addiction to crack, which started in 1989 and lasted through the 1990’s.

Tiny and Daylon
Copyright Mary Ellen Mark

Along the way, Tiny had nine more children with a number of men. She found a partner named Will (the father of her youngest five children) and appeared to settle into a life of stable poverty. Mark came back many times to chronicle the growing children and Tiny’s loss of her ethereal good looks as she gained weight, becoming a heavyset woman on methadone maintenance.

In May and June 2016, the Aperture Foundation in Chelsea mounted a major exhibition titled  “Tiny: Streetwise Revisited,” coinciding with the release of Martin Bell’s updated documentary “Streetwise Revisited” and Mark’s last book with the same title as the exhibit.

The gem of the exhibit was Bell’s hard-to-find original cinema verite documentary, following Tiny, Rat, Patty and Shadow the pimp as they go through their daily hustles. They bicker over crushes and climb into cars with strange men for sex. The film was made from 200 hours of footage.

Fortunately, I found my copy of “Streetwise” from an iOffer vendor from Portland, Oregon. Thirty-two years later, it is still a mesmerizing story of a city and how it neglected its most vulnerable children. [The whole original documentary can now be seen on youtube.com]

Unfortunately, I missed the New York screening of “Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell” in June 2016. The film played in Seattle to packed audiences, and was also shown in Iceland at the end of 2016. I am waiting for it to be available for streaming or to be shown on PBS.

Tiny is the center of the original documentary. She got her period in the summer of 1983 and went to the streets soon after. Mary Ellen Mark met her on the night of her 14th birthday. Early in the film, she goes to a free clinic and the medical worker eases out information on the three STDs she’s had already. If she gets pregnant, Tiny says, she won’t have an abortion.

Tiny and her sons Rayshon and E'Mari, 2003
Copyright Mary Ellen Mark
In the documentary, a 16-year old named Dewayne goes to the doctor, where he is told that his chronically infected tonsils are affecting his growth. Dewayne visits his father in prison, where the father is incarcerated for arson. The middle-aged loser tells Dewayne that they will open up their own thrift store, then starts berating him, doing a “Scared Straight” routine, calling him a con man and taunting him that he is going to be a street punk and will wind up in jail soon enough. “Look at you, you bite your nails,” yells the father. “You are too damn little to be tough. I love you, you’re all I’ve got. I’m gonna make it up to you, what we didn’t do.”

Later in the film, a Pentacostal minister stands on the sidewalk hawking a new shelter for homeless street youth, with a small cot as a prop. While he talks to the camera, behind him a little boy crawls on the bed and starts to jump up and down. An amused pimp named Patrice banters with the preacher, asking if he can go to the shelter with his girlfriend. The preacher good-naturedly says no.

Later in the documentary, Patrice is seen with his mother in a parking lot. She clearly loves him. The brash Patrice is meek and quiet, putty in her hands. She wants to take him to a restaurant to feed him, but won’t give him money, because he will spend it on drugs. This was the same Patrice that was murdered last March.

“Streetwise” is beautifully filmed and cut. At one point early in the film, a street performer named Baby Gramps plays guitar and sings “Teddy Bear’s Picnic,” with the creepy refrain of “If you go into the woods today, you are in for a big surprise,” as the young hustlers cavort like feral cats while the Seattle residents and commuters going to and from work stream by.

In the movie, Rat is Tiny’s boyfriend. “[Tiny] is only 14, but she talks like she wants to get married,” he says. He dreams of joining the Air Force. Tiny and Rat sit on a mattress on the floor in a room in an abandoned hotel. They move from being the bored kids they are to discussing their inevitable separation. Talking big, Rat says he is going to go to a juvenile lock up out of the city to break out his running partner Mike from jail. Tiny looks at him with pride at his macho bluster. “Look at you,” she says.

Tiny in the 1980s
Copyright Mary Ellen Mark

 Rat is 16, but very small for his age. Rat visits Tiny in juvenile lock up after she gets arrested for prostitution. He lovingly taunts her, “You can take the hoe off the street, but you can’t take the street off the hoe.” Tears run down Tiny’s pretty face as he is about to leave. They embrace. He leaves. She breaks down, alone in the juve dorm room.

Meanwhile, Dewayne gets busted for selling pot. Through some bureaucratic mix up, his parole officer can’t get him released into the custody of Dewayne’s friend, a 20-year-old former street kid with a child. Dewayne is trapped in the juve hall for days.

Dewayne Pomeroy, 1983
Copyright Mary Ellen Mark

In early 1984, Dewayne hung himself at that juvenile detention facility, the day before his 17th birthday. One theory of his death was that Dewayne was due to be released, and that he was tired of the struggle of the streets. The parole officer noted that only three social workers who’d worked with Dewayne and his father (with prison guards in tow) showed up to the funeral. “Like his life, it was a pretty skimpy affair.” He noted that Dewayne had wanted a family, a mother and father, and a house, like every kid should be entitled to have. His juvenile parole officer poignantly said that Dewayne would be cremated and his ashes would be spread over Puget Sound. Dewayne was finally free, said the officer, when he’d never been free before.

The film juxtaposes Dewayne’s funeral, with his father crying over the coffin, and Rat making plans to leave town by hoboing out on a freight train.

Playing with the chronology in the documentary, Bell first shows the funeral of Dewayne, which took place in early 1984. The last scene is Halloween 1983, around the Pike Street Market.

On Halloween, clowns and demons go down Pike Street. Patty and Munchkin kiss. There is footage of Tiny running out of a shower at her mother’s house, wrapped in a towel. She dresses carefully in her black sleeveless dress. The last shot is Tiny walking down a dark street, with her little dog on a leash, dressed as a skinny French whore. The movie is dedicated to Dewayne Pomeroy.

After the release of “Streetwise,” Tiny became a national story and something of a cult figure. The Streetwise kids would occasionally make the news. In the film, Lulu is an aggressive young lesbian, not afraid of confronting the cops who are hassling other hustlers. In one scene, she grabs a hobo who groped a girl’s breast. Hitting him on the face and head, she forced him to bow down and apologize. She had a reputation for trying to defend the most vulnerable runaways. In the film, she finds a new girl with a broken jaw, who had probably just been raped by a john. She stops the traumatized girl from banging her head against a concrete column and calls an ambulance.

In 1985, Lulu made national news when she attacked a man with a garbage can who was assaulting her girlfriend. He stabbed her in the chest, killing her. Dan Rather eulogized her on CBS News, with her death making a sympathetic two-minute item on the national news. Her last words were, “Tell Martin and Mary Ellen that Lulu died.”

In 1993, a decade after the Time Magazine photo essay, Ted Koppel’s “Nightline” revisited Tiny. Mary Ellen Mark went back to Seattle and filmed her in the middle of a crack binge with an abusive boyfriend.

Mark sits with Tiny on the bed of the seedy hotel, reminding her of her then-two beautiful children, and tells Tiny that she could find a better man. Tiny was dancing on the edge of the abyss. It was voyeuristic and depressing.

The photos from Mark’s visits with Tiny through the 1990’s shows a family fractured by drug abuse. Her first daughter LaShawndra, about six, waits for her mother to come home from one of her drug binges. Her wide, pretty face is clouded by anxiety as she looks out the window, waiting.

Tiny keeps having kids and there are numerous photos of children in diapers and underwear cavorting with each other and their mother. There is genuine affection and chaos displayed in the photos. In several pictures from the early aughts, a teenage LaShawndra has a black eye. A reader is left to wonder if it is a domestic violence from a family member or a boyfriend.

I actually had the good fortune of meeting Mary Ellen Mark in 2005 for an interview on a gigantic photobook that Phaidon put out of her work called “Exposure: The Iconic Photographs.”

Mark, then 65, was quite regal with her signature, tight black braids. She was very witty. Mark told me that she would have a fight with Tiny every time she got pregnant again.

Martin Bell, her filmmaker husband, had his film production business in the same studio. He was already at work editing a short, updated version of “Streetwise.” He was overjoyed that I hadn’t seen the original, so he showed me a 20-minute clip of the film for my virgin eyes. It was a moving piece, showing an older Tiny, now going by her birth name Erin Blackwell, who has gained weight and burdened by years of drug abuse and a growing family, living on the poverty line.

The problem with Mark’s large final project, “Tiny: Streetwise Revisited” is that there is an element of repetition that she did not have in the original photos of “Streetwise” in 1983. In “Streetwise,” there were the mean streets of the Pike Place Market, several years before the area gentrified. There are the abandoned hotels, the freight trains and the street characters, the dirty old men that pay children for sex, the disabled panhandlers and the old-school hobos.

In “Revisited,” the vast majority of the photographs take place in Tiny’s home, a sterile new construction, and there are many pictures that are the same—Tiny smoking while holding a child, kids cavorting in diapers and underwear, Tiny crying while smoking. There is not the same grittiness of the street life.

Readers will see that Tiny has survived, when five or six of her friends and Mark’s original 1983 photo subjects did not. Though there is the questionable decision of having 10 children when it is hard to care for them, and one or two children suffered from Tiny’s active drug use in the 1990’s. At least four of the children were in foster care. The two oldest sons hint at their drug involvement and one says that he has the daily struggle to stay clean.

The Streetwise Facebook Page is a fascinating addition to the Streetwise history. With more than 4,100 members, some of the original Streetwise kids write in. Those kids who have died have memorial threads. There is Patty, who died of AIDS, and Roberta Hayes, who was murdered in the early 1990’s by the Green River serial killer, who preyed on prostitutes. Roberta is immortalized as a pretty blonde 16-year-old with a big grin on her memorial page.

There are also survival stories, like Rat, who is a truck driver in the Northwest, and is a grandfather. Erin Blackwell (Tiny) is a member and wrote in recently of her daughter’s Ranaja’s devastating hospitalization in April 2016. In Mark’s last book, Erin Blackwell said that Ranaja had been cutting herself, indicating self-destructive impulses by her daughter.

“Streetwise” is the kind of legendary documentary that is shown on PBS every five years. Or there is Mary Ellen Mark’s original, haunting book “Streetwise” that is being stored in a library somewhere. The Facebook “Streetwise” Page gives the people and events behind the documentary a burning immediacy. Members cheer the survival of their favorites and mourn those who died years ago, like Lulu, the heroic young gay woman who protected other kids, who was stabbed to death.

On his website for “Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell,” the “Streetwise” filmmaker Martin Bell promotes his follow-up film. He promises that he is also working on some short films on Rat and Mike, a young man in a motorized wheelchair, who hung out with the young street kids in 1983 and was embraced by them.

In the afterward in “Streetwise Revisited,” Mary Ellen Mark writes a moving passage about Erin Blackwell, her muse of 32 years. At the age of 14, Erin displayed a great openness in discussing her life and was comfortable before the camera. Thirty years later, Mark marveled, Erin still had this openness with Mark and was willing to talk about her life and all its turbulence and heartbreak. Erin Blackwell was the perfect subject for a great photographer to follow for 32 years.

In return, Mary Ellen Mark created a nuanced portrait of Erin Blackwell. Erin became more than just a pretty young sex worker in a two-week photo assignment. She became a mother, a drug addict, then a woman in recovery. Erin Blackwell became a moving story of a woman struggling with her kids on the poverty line.

J'Lisa, 2014
Copyright Mary Ellen Mark

In one of the last series of photos that Mary Ellen Mark took in 2014 for her final book is of J’Lisa, one of Tiny’s youngest girls. She poses in a grimy alley behind Tiny’s house, dressed in a long t-shirt and a tiara, playing ballerina. She is skinny and bony is the way that only a five or six year old can be. She is beautiful and the reader hopes that her life will not be as rocky as her mother’s was, that she won’t descend into drugs as she gets older, that she won’t have to sell herself to survive.


Unknown said...

Hi Dylan its tiny....just wanted to say thank u for writing about me & not putting me down for who i am.....but i also wanted to say...i do know how to read ...i just hated reading.

Dylan Foley said...

Dear Erin--such an honor to get a comment from you on my blog piece about the great work that you, Mary Ellen Mark and Martin Bell did on "Streetwise." The camera adored you when you were 14. I look forward to seeing Martin's new film on you. "Streetwise" was an epic, great documentary. It reached in an touched my heart. I am posting this here to reach you. I will also put a note in the blog that you didn't like reading. Thanks for reaching out to me. I hope all is well with your 10 children. You managed to turn out a bunch of handsome and beautiful kids, Sincerely, Dylan

Anonymous said...

Wow I have always been fascinated by streetwise, I am a bit younger than Tiny but I grew up.in Tacoma..although I had a nice roof over my head the lack of parental supervision was quite the same! NONE!! anyway I guess it was normal to roam the streets but my lord can't get over the old men picking up little girls. Thanks Erin for sharing the truth and your struggles (I hope joy and peace has been found for all) life is a trip.