Before artist and performer Ise Lyfe became Ise Lyfe, he was Isaac Brown, growing up in East Oakland, probably playing Nintendo games like he is right now. We’re in a bedroom in an apartment with these old video games, hat boxes, and vintage clothes – all carefully placed to capture what public housing units like the one we’re standing in must have looked like back in the day.
Everything around us is part of an art exhibit Ise Lyfe designed. He calls it “Grandma’s House.” In it, Lyfe “wanted to honor grandmas. Grandmas, you know, raise families in our communities and so you walk through one of these units and we’ve totally made it to look like a grandmother’s house in the 70s, 80s, and 90s,” he says.
“Grandmas House” is the only furnished apartment inside the otherwise unoccupied Greenside housing complex. Lyfe remembers Greenside from when he was growing up.
“This is a notorious building. You didn’t just walk in here – you had to know somebody to walk in here. There was a lot of drugs, a lot of violence here, a lot of homicides on the site. And over time it turned into an and became worse and worse until it had to be condemned,” he says.
Today you can walk in here and see what life might have been like for people who lived here. In the kitchen, pots and pans hang on the walls. There’s a bedroom with a small bed on a wooden frame and a soft, colorful quilt on top. There’s even a photo of an older woman and her granddaughter hanging on the wall.
“I was able to take this picture,” Lyfe explains. “One thing about building this exhibit is I was able to go around to current public housing sites and photograph families there and it was really fresh.”
“Grandma’s House” is just one part of a bigger installation called “Brighter than Blight.” Lyfe took inspiration from the families he interviewed and created works of art throughout the Greenside complex. They include a series of photographs around the plaza outside.
Lyfe leads me to the portrait of one African-American girl he met who has pig-tail buns in her hair and is wearing a dress. She looks like she could be in first grade.
“She’s growing up maybe 40 steps from a prostitution stroll,” he explains. “And I think that maybe we should consider like, when we talk about housing as a human right, what are people growing up around?”
“Brighter than Blight” explores the outside forces that can impact people growing up in public housing. But it also examines what’s going on inside. Lyfe points out bars that are covering the windows of the building.
“I assumed that these bars were put up after the building was condemned,” he says. “You know, when people lived here they lived behind those bars. And I can’t think of a bigger Indictment of how inhumane people were living in sites like this across the country.”
Those bars inspired the piece in the very center of the of the plaza, wher an armchair sits inside a cube of iron bars. It looks like prison cell. Next to the chair, is a written list. Lyfe reads off the first few items on it: "Go to college, you’re an American, don’t do drugs."
“That’s a cold thing to say to somebody who’s living from that perspective, behind bars,” Lyfe adds, “not because they’ve committed a crime, not for doing anything wrong. Just for being poor.”
But the exhibit portrays success stories as well, stories like Andre’s, which Lyfe shares with me.
“Andre is 14-years-old, he took the prep for the SAT and got a perfect score. He has straight A’s and B’s on his report card -- we just learned about his pre-prep for the SAT so that was really cool. His mother lived here.”
Andre’s mother lived at Greenside up until it closed. To the right of his photo, there’s a copy of his image, but with a black ski-mask colored in over his face.
“What I do with the image was to find a way to show, what do we see when we see young black boys? And I think more than we see this, we see this with this ski mask on. And so I wanted to challenge people around that,” says Lyfe.
Lyfe’s main goal is to challenge people’s assumptions about what life in public housing is like – and to show the important role housing can play in the course of people’s lives.
“A lot of our conversations around the country, our social welfare conversations are going into marriage rights, into education, into getting hormones out of the food, but I want to make sure that we’re still remembering the fundamental things that make a human well – which is food, shelter, and clothing,” Lyfe says.
The Greenside building will be demolished one month after “Brighter than Blight” closes. The plan is for something to go up in it’s place that would provide another basic element to good health – food.
“They’re gonna put an urban farm here,” explains Lyfe, adding “another issue in east Oakland is that you have to drive 20 minutes to get a grape.”
These are issues Lyfe faced when he was just Isaac Brown. And most of the tenants of places like Greenside have lived them, too. They continue to live them. One art installation – or the demolition of a blighted building – doesn’t change that. But it does make space for something new.