A new book of portraits celebrates the diversity and pride at the heart of Chapmantown
Mark Hooper wanted to give something back to Chapmantown.
In 1976, shortly after Hooper moved to Chico, he answered an advertisement for free rent included with a “fixer-up house.” The address was in Chapmantown, which he’d heard was a bad neighborhood, but instead of buying into the negative perception, he took a chance and soon fell in love with the area’s semi-rural atmosphere.
Located between East Eighth and East 20th streets and the Highway 99 freeway and Mulberry Avenue, it’s a place full of trees, modest but well-kept houses, old family-run stores, neighborhood basketball games and, best of all, a wide diversity of people who help each other out as a real community should.
“I’ve been here a long time and have always enjoyed and been fascinated by my neighbors and just the colorful people, to say the least, that live in the neighborhood,” Hooper says. “Just walking around and seeing the beauty of the children is really something.”
Three years ago, Hooper learned that T.E.A.M. Chapman was beginning to brainstorm on a new community art project, one like the colorful mural at the Chapmantown CARD Center he had participated in many years ago. So he joined the efforts of numerous volunteers, and he soon fostered his own idea to create a coffee table book featuring photographs of Chapmantown residents along with brief interviews with them—how they came here, what they were most proud of, and the like. It seemed like a logical way to bring youths and adults closer together while stirring appreciation for the community itself.
“In the standard press, all you ever hear about is the criminals or that other side,” Hooper says, “which is in fact quite the minority. [It seems to me] most of the problems in any community like this come from lack of loyalty or transient issues. If you don’t have loyalty to anything other than yourself, people tend to do petty crime. But people who live in Chapmantown know each other and know it is a safe area.”
This idea was recently reiterated on local television news when a Chico police officer confirmed that the Chico PD is aware of no greater criminal activity in the Chapmantown area than in other parts of Chico.
As the son of an immigrant himself, Hooper says that one aspect he feels is common to most communities with a large immigrant population is that the children separate or hide from their parents even more than usual because the parents are perceived as “weird” or different from the mainstream culture’s imposed values.
He has witnessed many changes in the neighborhood over the last two decades, such as the increased presence of Asian and Hispanic families seen today. This is a factor that he says has had a “solidifying influence” because these are “long-term renters” and people who seem to be “more family oriented than most American families.”
One of the main reasons for the book, from Hooper’s personal point of view, is a self-made show of pride in the community.
“If the kids could see that we value each other as adults, and of course that the adults value the kids regardless, then we are helping to build a community that people can be proud of,” Hooper explains. “It’s one thing if the News & Review does a story; it’s a whole other thing if the kids can say, hey, we did this!”
After viewing just a few pages of Faces of Chapman, it becomes clear just how special the area is to Chico. Nowhere else do you come close to finding such a wonderful diversity of race, ethnicity and age. Flipping through the pages, the smiling faces of children, married couples, widows and others go by like human samples from a diverse garden—Hispanic, Asian, black, white—a colorful tribute to the typical American melting pot one might expect from a larger, urban area.
The book opens with written tributes to the geographic area by looking at it from east, north, south and west perspectives, while the main text consists of 63 black-and-white photos with opposite-page interviews. The book concludes with a final section of photos featuring such well-known neighborhood places as Laurel Market, the Chapman Mansion, Mim’s Bakery and the Dorothy F. Johnson CARD Center.
Local photographer Rudy Giscombe, who once rented a room in Chapmantown from Hooper, was an obvious choice as an artist who could examine the neighborhood through a certain shared humanity in the facial expressions of its residents.
“I’m not afraid to keep shooting until I have something,” Giscombe told me during a recent book release party held at the Sierra Nevada Brewery mezzanine. “Usually I get an intuitive feeling. Most of my photography is based on feeling when I’m dealing with people. When I get a good glimpse into who they are, I feel like I have it. … I’m trying to create something, and I can’t do it if I get someone’s fake self,” he laughed knowingly.
Many of the neighborhood faces included in the book showed up for the event, where several framed Giscombe prints were on display as patrons ate delicious stuffed mushrooms and socialized to jazz tunes like Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father” performed by local flute-led jazz trio Jazzonn. It was a warm, well-received reception that represented the culmination of several years of group planning and joint participation. Recognizable neighborhood faces were still smiling.
“Rudy was a good choice because he’s obviously very talented and has a good connection with people that comes through in the photos,” Hooper said.
“I grew up in Harlem in a neighborhood where I knew everybody on the block,” Giscombe explained. “But since I’ve been living in California, many of the neighborhoods I’ve experienced have been more like a ‘surburban’ thing—people don’t know each other, they go to work, come home and live separately—they don’t relate as well. But I’ve always liked Chapmantown because I was able to meet people around me. And it’s not all the same kind of people—you don’t find that a lot in Chico.”
Chapmantown matriarch Dorothy Johnson’s daughter Darcia, just a little girl when the community mural project took place, is now one of the primary organizers and speakers for the new project. As a hostess for the opening, Johnson flashed her dazzling smile throughout the festivities, telling the audience that the stories contained in the book made her both “laugh and cry at times.”
Printing and binding the 500 Faces of Chapman books cost around $8,000, but the total cost was closer to $12,000. To cover it, a grant was written last year to the Cal Arts Commission, who gave the group $7,000. The rest was siphoned from a previous million-dollar, three-year grant from the California Wellness Foundation. The majority of the books (which cost $20 each or $10 for participants) will likely be sold from the T.E.A.M. Chapman office, but they will also be available to the public at the Thursday Night Farmers’ Market booth run by partners Big Brothers Big Sisters. All the proceeds will be funneled back into the general fund for T.E.A.M. Chapman.
Woody Hosler is another of the main participants in the creation of the book. A youth who grew up alongside Darcia Johnson at Chapman Elementary, Hosler had just returned to Chico from the Bay Area to attend graduate school in journalism when the project began. After volunteering, he was assigned to help finish conducting and writing the interviews.
The process certainly left an indelible impression on the young writer.
“I learned a lot during the interview process,” he said. “We have doctors and teachers who could afford to live in other parts of town but still choose here.
“When I was young, I always thought of [Chapmantown] as the place I had to live because of our income level," Hosler adds. "But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve really come to love the way I grew up and the diversity there. … Now, after working on this project and meeting a bunch of people I didn’t expect, now I can say that I am proud to be from Chapmantown.