Seattle Metropolitan
STREETWISE
December 2009
By Steve Wiecking
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark

STREETWISE (1984)


300E-012-22A

Life magazine sent writer Cheryl McCall and photographer Mary Ellen Mark to Seattle for a few weeks to find out if living could be hard in what was considered the nation's most livable city. After their July 1983 story, "Streets of the Lost," uncovered the daily distress of young hustlers, prostitutes, and runaways, Mark called her filmmaker husband Martin Bell to come document the action on Pike Street between First and Second avenues.

"It's a story that you could still make today but it would look entirely different because cell-phones have changed everything," says Bell. "The kids used to hang around phones on the street. And there it was‑in broad daylight‑ in one block."

McCall and Mark established such a level of trust with their teenage subjects that Bell was able to wire a select few with body mikes as he followed them around. Others he filmed as they hopped in and out of cars while selling their bodies. "It's very disturbing‑but what am I going to do?" Bell says. "I can't stop them. That's how they were surviving." He wasn't able to remain completely detached. Anyone who watches the movie is haunted by Erin, aka "Tiny," a 14‑year-old with the Depression‑era face of a Dorothea Lange portrait. Bell and Mark couldn't shake her, either: They offered to take her back to New York with them on the condition that she go to school. She refused, yet the couple kept in contact with her, charting her life in several short films over the next two decades.

The movie earned an Oscar nomination for best documentary and stunned its subjects at the initial screening. "When they first started seeing themselves in the film, they laughed‑they enjoyed seeing themselves on the street because they were like movie stars," says Bell. "Then, as the film went on, it got very serious and quiet in the room. There were tears."

One of the teens came up to Bell after that first viewing. "I want to hit somebody," the kid said, "but I don't know who to hit."

HOW IT DEFINED US The city revealed a real‑life desperation hiding in plain sight.

END