Woodrow Street, Wichita: Late Fall 2011.

Two weeks ago I made my third visit to Gene Smith’s hometown of Wichita, Kansas.  The Ulrich Museum of Art organized another impressive week of events.  Their staff and patrons were generous and welcoming as usual.

With the help of Eric Cale, director of the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum, I managed to go inside the house where Smith lived his first eight years with his parents and older brother.  Photographer Kate Joyce, who was also in town to give a couple of talks at the Ulrich, went with me.  You can see a sequence of her photographs below.

On Smith’s last visit to Wichita in 1977, a year before he died at age fifty-nine, this house at 1201 Woodrow St. was his priority, according to his companion at the time, photographer Sherry Suris, who made photographs of him inside the house and standing in the yard.   Smith didn’t visit the bigger home across the street on N. River Blvd. where his family moved in 1926 when he was eight.  This was where Gene’s father, William Smith, left one morning in April 1936, drove to a hospital parking lot and blew open his stomach with a shotgun.  Happier memories were in the Woodrow house; plus its windows were Smith’s first apertures.

The current residents of 1201 Woodrow are Reverend David Carter, a minister at a Unitarian Universalist church, and his wife Marguerite Regan, an English and writing instructor at Newman University.  They were gracious and accepting hosts for our exploration of their place.  Before becoming a minister David had worked with Roy DeCarava and others as a member of Kamoinge, a forum for African-American photographers in New York founded in 1963 and continuing today.  He and Marguerite were intrigued to learn that Smith had lived in their house as a young boy eighty-five years ago.

Back home in North Carolina last week, I mailed David and Marguerite a copy of the Jazz Loft Project book.  As I walked away from the post office in the back of the hardware store near the home where my wife and I have lived for thirteen of the fifteen years that I’ve been researching Smith, it occurred to me that I had just done something unusual:  I packaged my book about Smith’s New York City loft and addressed it to his first home in Wichita.  Both buildings face due east.  The Sixth Avenue loft had traffic running right to left in front of his window; the Wichita home had the Little Arkansas River running left to right.

The week culminated with a moving talk by photographer Terry Evans, whose exhibition “Matfield Green Stories” was installed at the Ulrich.  A native of the Kansas plains, Terry has spent her life photographing places not unlike Smith’s paternal grandparents’ farm in Severy, an hour east of Wichita, which was memorable enough for Smith to mention in his book on Minamata, Japan forty years later.  At dinner after her talk, Terry’s husband Sam Evans, who has a background in the grain and banking industries in Kansas, gave me poignant insights into the pressures and customs Smith’s father would have experienced as a grain dealer and President of Wichita’s Board of Trade before and during the Depression.

In the second half of 2012 I’ll submit my manuscript for Gene Smith’s Sink to my editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  I’m not sure if I’ll visit Wichita again before the manuscript is done.  But I’d like to return when the book is published.  Wichita and Japan loom large in the story.

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Little Arkansas River Homage to Jun Morinaga's River: Its Shadow of Shadows.

Photographs by Kate Joyce.

-Sam Stephenson

2 Comments

  1. David Simonton Said,

    November 30, 2011 @ 8:30 pm

    What a wonderful collaboration—your words, Sam, and Kate’s images. Both so probing and intimate.

  2. Blake Bailey Said,

    November 30, 2011 @ 10:00 pm

    Wichita never looked so good.