“Dream Street” by Douglas McCulloh book review

If you won the right to name a street what would it be?  Artist Douglas McCulloh won the right to name a street in southern California and had no idea where the opportunity would take him and the significance it would make later on. Dream Street (Heyday Books) reveals the pride and grit behind the suburban lifestyle we call the American Dream. It takes us on a moving journey through the progress of “Dream Street” from the open field to the open house filled with potential buyers ready to live their dream. McCulloh captures more than just the progress of these homes being built. It’s a different story each time he visits the site of Dream Street. Different workers are there each day ready before sunrise to do what they do best.

Foot trenchers, carpenters, framers, contractors, subcontractors, superintendents; McCulloh meets different men and women on the site each day. He listens to workers as they share what their work is like. The bullshit of work and no pay, the racism, the lives of each individual worker striving to support their families by working all day seven days a week 365 days a year is all very evident. His images capture the personality of the people he speaks to as well as the comfortable bond he’s achieved with them. This is shown in the photographs of the workers. Whether it was of their faces, hands, injuries, or them working, the photographs were always shot up close and personal. His comfort and trust with these workers is visible in his risk taking photographs like the one shot of the Young Homes billboard with the train bowing past below them. McCulloh’s photos definitely show that working in the construction industry isn’t easy.

The images in Dream Street illustrate what hard work really is. Houses don’t just build themselves and it doesn’t just take a few men. It takes hundreds of men, women, and even kids to do a job like this. Each photograph tells a story of what McCulloh saw and experienced at the site. The photo of a man’s hand that has been shot with a three-and-a-half-inch framing nail expresses the danger of working in construction, which makes one wonder, what happens when a worker gets hurt? There’s no legitimate way of reporting these accidents to anyone. Most of the work is under the table, so no one ever finds out and they just go back to work. The photograph of the children working tells us that something needs to be changed about the construction industry.  The photographs and stories of Dream Street create a deeper appreciation for those who work hard everyday to turn their dreams into reality. They show us the gruesome reality of the workers who make others dreams come true.

It all begins with an open field of something that once was, to something that will be. Pride, grit, hard work, and dreams create what we call home. Dream Street Superintendent Gary shares “This is the story of all these guys out there. It’s their dream. It’s what is happening in their lives. It’s your dreams too. So that’s what it’s all about. It’s their dreams and their realities. Despite the realities, they still have their dream.” I couldn’t agree more. It’s about people just like you and me. You’ll feel joy in the work you do for others and thankful for the effort others put in to fulfill your dreams.

Deana Romo

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Of the many important issues brought up in McCulloh’s excellent book are those related to the economic boom and bust associated with the housing market. Not so long ago, developers hired union carpenters, plumbers, and electricians, as well as local contractors to build homes. These workers were the backbone of the middle class and provided crucial support to their families and communities. But those days are long gone. Developers fought regulation and fair wage laws, fought against fair taxation and undermined unions. Speculators rushed in and bought up empty spaces and sold it off, taking their profits and moving on. The developers hired so-called independent contractors to insulate themselves from regulations, wage and labor laws, seeking the lowest bid for a job and not caring who did the work or if it was done right, let alone well. Banks and mortgage brokers enticed the naïve, unsophisticated and the greedy to buy a home they could not afford, creating the perfect storm of defaulted loans, foreclosures, and blight, which in turn has fed our long and miserable economic slump. At the same time, the banks are thriving, the rich keep getting richer and the middle class is shrinking. The dream that McCulloh shows us has turned into a nightmare for the middle and working class. The market is rigged against most of us, providing profits for those who least need it and oppressing whose spending actually drive our economy.