I was standing in the yellow cast of streetlights on Central Avenue with several members of Two Way Street, a community newspaper whose objective is to allow the city's low-income and homeless communities an opportunity for entrepreneurship and creativity, when a passerby stopped to shake David M. Ellis' hand. Ellis is a hip-hop artist, poet and a street vendor for the paper who regularly performs Downtown on Fourth Street and Central. The young man who stopped had seen Ellis rap and it had left an impression. In his unabashedly kind way, Ellis obliged with another impromptu performance. At a second's notice, he floored us all with a freestyle that was so quick witted and clever I could barely keep up. It's with earnest generosity that Ellis shares his work with people on the streets of Albuquerque. Despite his brilliance with words, and that he offers them up for nothing, Ellis said that he works way too hard just to get a listen.
“People walk past and I'm saying, 'Can I offer you a poem, can I offer you a hip-hop verse?' And they just say, 'I don't got nothing.' You don't got what?” He asked. “We live in a world that has praised homeless people—Jesus Christ, Mohammad, Gandhi, Buddha, Mother Theresa—they all hit the stage of homelessness. We praise them. Yet, Saturday night, we'll walk past that homeless person. … People will shrug me off before giving me the opportunity to offer them something.” And what Ellis has to offer is not just artistic talent, but also tremendous insights into our city that have been, at times, hard-won, and knowledge of resources that could benefit so many if his voice could just be amplified.
“It hasn't been easy at all to be a homeless artist in Albuquerque,” Annabelle Marge Taylor agreed. “I've been arrested for vandalism; I've been ticketed.” Taylor's life reads like a book—and in fact she has written a book (send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to get your hands on a copy of it—I Don't Make Round Tortillas). “I went to Venice Beach, San Francisco, San Diego, Slab City, everywhere I could to learn how to be an artist from street artists. The hard part was, I didn't realize that people were going to scream at me, throw things at me, business owners are going to run me off.” Taylor creates murals in chalk and does street installation work. She is also a writer and poet. Her art beautifies and lends greater value to the otherwise gray city blocks.
Through Two Way Street, Ellis, Taylor and others, have found a broader platform for their work, and, armed with press credentials, vendor licenses, and under the umbrella of a (soon-to-be-official 501(c)3) nonprofit, they're getting the community's ear more easily. “This paper gave me validity as a member of the community,” Taylor said. “I always had it, but it wasn't recognized. Now it is. This paper gave us a voice.”
Two Way Street was born out of editor Jeff Hertz' master's thesis work at UNM. “I originally started researching how street papers were helping marginalized individuals overcome public perception through market-based strategies,” he explained. This was around the time that the mayor's office started their “Better Way Van” program, offering work picking up weeds and litter in parts of the city that “were typically outside the public eye” as an alternative to panhandling. “Even though [this effort] was working on getting people 'off the street,' it was doing so in a way that wasn't addressing the biggest issue at hand: Helping these individuals engage in meaningful face-to-face interactions that help them socially reintegrate back into their community. … At that point, I realized that Albuquerque needed another street paper—yes, another one,” Hertz explained, pointing out that from 1990 to 1999 we had Albuquerque Street News, a paper that eventually sunk.
Here's how Two Way Street works—street vendors work as independent contractors, hired with minimal barriers in place—you don't need an ID, or a criminal background check to begin work. Each vendor receives five donated copies of the paper, which are then sold for a dollar or more each. Vendors can come back with their earnings and buy more copies of the paper for 25 cents each, and hit the street again in an effort that has the potential to become a bonafide small business. People going through hard times can generate income on their own terms, applying their own vision and skills to support themselves.
“The hard copy is the most important thing,” Ellis said. “You can go online and check it out, but you don't get to meet the people. … If you work in any community, live in any community, you should know your surroundings, good, bad or indifferent. You should know who your neighbor is.” Chair of the Street Vendor Community, April Parrish echoed that, underlining the importance of simply talking with each other, “These kind of direct experiences are the only thing that are going to revolutionize the perception … so that there's a body of direct experience that completely dispels these misperceptions about our folks out there struggling for resources and opportunities.”
“The reason for these problems in the first place is the disconnect between our public spaces and ourselves. We don't activate our public spaces … in addition to activating these public spaces and connecting people to these stories, giving the opportunity for face-to-face interaction, it's also an opportunity to legitimize the interactions of our most vulnerable people. It’s an opportunity to get these voices out,” contributor Nick Vottero offered. Another writer for the paper, George Christopher Moreno deepened that thought by pointing out that each of us have a responsibility to be a force of positivity in our city. “It's absurd that we treat each other so poorly. We don't pay attention; we don't listen. We let each other off too easy. We want people to read this and to learn things, and not only to learn things, but to have resources. I think the paper is operating on many meaningful levels. I can't wait to see it all happen.” Those of us invested in the success of our city—and that should be all of us—can't wait to see it happen, either.
Find out more about how you can get involved with, support or buy a copy of Two Way Street at twowaystreetabq.org, and keep an eye out for vendors all over the city with a copy in hand.