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A Walk to Remember

Early on the morning of January 24, four people set off from Pomona College on an unusual journey, a trek that is rarely, if ever, made on foot. Artist Michael Hebb, Gourmet writer Alex Van Buren, videographer Matt Wiggins and Ashwin Balakrishnan ’09, hand-picked by Hebb as photographer, would walk from 32 miles in 32 hours from Claremont to Anaheim, gathering food along the way, to have dinner on a traffic island near the 5 freeway.

“I’m interested in L.A. and how we live in this city, and exploring it in ways other than just driving around or taking the train,” says Balakrishnan, an environmental analysis major who’s also interested in photography. “And [the walk] seemed to kind of disrupt that way of experiencing the city.”

The walk was part of Hebb’s Corridor Project, an art piece in the current Pomona College Museum of Art’s exhibit suddenly: where we live now. The broader purpose of the exhibit, which first showed at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, is to examine “the space we actively inhabit,” says Museum Director Kathleen Howe, “not the dichotomy of natural/not natural or urban vs. country. [It’s about] really investigating what it is about the kind of spaces we live in at this particular moment.”

Hebb, a restaurateur as well as an artist, “makes tables,” bringing together people to dine at common tables in unusual locales. As he says in his artist’s statement, “I am fascinated by the possibilities of the civic space that is defined by the I-5. This limited access roadway is arguably the most significant physical feature and architectural structure in the west. Freeways have in many ways replaced the great rivers of this country - our rivers have been well considered by historians, artists, poets, and citizens - our vast interstate freeway system has not.”

Balakrishnan already had the experience of deeply considering a river—the San Gabriel River. Over the course of three weeks last fall, he traveled the length of the river, from the Sheep Mountain Wilderness area to the mouth of the river in Long Beach, via bus and on foot, meeting people along the way and discovering and documenting via photography the many ways people use the river, from recreation to gold mining; the ecology of the river; and the political and justice implications of how the river is utilized. When he saw the Student Digester message calling for a student to participate in the Corridor Walk, he knew it was a good fit and his photography professor Sheila Pinkel encouraged him to apply.

The Walk
The group set off at 8 a.m. that Saturday morning, stopping first at the Organic Farm for sage and rosemary to flavor the meal they would create the next day in Anaheim.

They made for a motley crew, especially when seen trekking along very narrow road shoulders through Carbon Canyon. Writer Van Buren describes them in her Gourmet blog article:

"Two safety-orange stools are folded and strapped to [Hebb’s] back, along with two military blankets rolled cigarette-thin. Ashwin Balakrishnan, the quiet student-photographer, sports an identical getup, while I don a bright orange plastic tabletop. Matt Wiggins.... hauls a heavy orange pack holding our gear, which he periodically trades with Michael.”

While fruit was gleaned on the trip—lemons in Claremont, oranges in Pomona—the group also procured ingredients for their final dinner from ethnic markets and big-name supermarkets like Fresh & Easy and Albertson’s. They ate at a McDonald’s, a Mexican restaurant in Carbon Canyon, the breakfast buffet at the Embassy Suites in Fullerton, and even at a furniture store that was giving away hot dogs. Eating and shopping at such typically urban places was all part of experiencing the landscape in its totality, from citrus trees and suburban gardens to national chain restaurants.

“I approached this trip [as if it would] be a backpacking trip, just through L.A. instead of Yosemite. So I had hiking boots on and all this stuff on, and I thought we were going to be roughing it,” says Balakrishnan. “We had this plan of getting breakfast at McDonald’s [on the first day] and I was like, oh, OK, this isn’t really about avoiding these cultural features, avoiding what we associate with L.A. I realized this was more about experiencing everything, really getting in depth and sifting through everything [the area has to offer], rather than avoiding things.”

Another important aspect of the trip were the people the group encountered. Throughout Pomona, says Balakrishnan, they met plenty of friendly people, including several who provided fruit and herbs from their yards and gardens. But as they walked deeper into wealthier areas, they found fewer and fewer people on the streets. Houses were farther apart and roads weren’t meant for walking.

When rain interrupted their plans to spend the night at a chapel in Carbon Canyon, the group walked five miles late at night to the Embassy Suites in Fullerton. The streets were deserted, and they had to trudge along the side of the road in darkness. “It was just ominous. The only thing you could hear was the creak of these oil rigs and then cars on occasion would pass by, but mostly nothing.”

After arriving at the Embassy Suites with all their equipment on their backs, the contrast of walking versus driving really struck Balakrishnan. “It was at that point, I really understood how this project was an introduction into the landscape of LA and how experiencing it by foot is really quirky and makes you see things,” says Balakrishnan.

“[L.A.] is definitely a place that compartmentalizes people and also doesn’t have the avenue of trains and walkways to make those communities interact. We experienced how difficult it is to get from city to the next by foot and also the lack of interaction with people. Either the streets were empty or people were looking at us out of the window of a car or people who were walking just kept walking, never really asking us any questions, except on occasion.”

The next day, walking through Fullerton and Anaheim to reach the 5 freeway near Anaheim Stadium, the quartet did have more interactions. One teen asked Balakrishnan if the table he sported on his back was a shield from bullets. A few homeless people asked if the group was also homeless. The workers at the furniture store where they dined on hot dogs weren’t exactly happy to serve the unusual group. And finally, at 4 p.m. on Sunday when they set up their table on the traffic island, a police officer arrived.

Van Buren writes that “Michael handled him with velvet gloves. We are with a university, he says calmly, and with all due respect, sir, he believes we have the right to assemble here, since there is a crosswalk to this traffic island.” The officer left and the diners weren’t bothered again.

The group, joined by Reed curator Stephanie Snyder and two people from the group Islands of L.A., finished their well-earned dinner of sangria, shrimp ceviche, escarole hearts with goat cheese and kumquats, white beans with dandelion greens, and a sauté of chorizo, squash and fire-roasted tomatoes. Then, they thankfully got a ride back to Pomona.

A Night at the Museum
The following week, students and faculty from environmental analysis, history, English, art studio and art history, as well as Michael Hebb and Stephanie Snyder, gathered in the museum for a communal dinner. Food was gathered from Pomona’s and Pitzer’s organic gardens and some of the gleaned ingredients from the walk were utilized. “Michael and his team served dinner, and it was part of his project he calls ‘making tables,’ which is really just making this social space of a meal. Everyone was asked to bring either a story or an artifact about being in L.A., traveling through L.A. or food in L.A.,” says Howe. “It was kind of cross-disciplines, a way to think of an art project as an interactive exchange-based activity, as opposed to something static that you look at passively.”

Students gave an impromptu musical performance, and the participants seemed to come away from the dinner having experienced more than just a meal.

“[I felt,] at the deepest level of my being, the semantic incompleteness of the event--the dinner's resistance to easy description. [It] made me see that the meaning of our dinner will grow, and change; it made me aware of the thinness and imperfection of language,” says Samuel Yamashita, Henry E. Sheffield Professor of History.

Currently, the Corridor Walk lives on in both the Pomona College Museum of Art’s suddenly: where we live now exhibit, which continues through Sunday, April 12, in a video installation, but also in the Smith Campus Gallery show A People’s Ecology of L.A. County, which is comprised of photographs Balakrishnan took during both his exploration of the San Gabriel River and the Corridor Walk, as well as photos by the students of the Bright Prospect Scholar Program. This exhibit is open through April 19.

Further Reading

To view more of Balakrishnan’s photos online and an essay about the walk, please visit the Environmental Analysis department website. To read Van Buren’s Gourmet article, please visit Gourmet.com. And finally, to learn more about Michael Hebb and his work, visit the Pomona College Museum of Art website and OnePot.org.