Intro

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Local Legends

Bonnie Duncan owns “a quaint, perfect little karaoke bar” in Tennessee.

Someone said to me the other day, “You can’t change a city.” Even as I heard it, I wasn’t sure I believed it. Cities are complex enough to resemble organic structures with their many moving parts and interdependent pieces, but it’s the people in them that make them what they are.

Maybe the folks below aren’t making radical changes to their neighborhoods, when offering advice about the tides, or performing drive-thru weddings, or attending social events. But these acts stitch a community together.

Read these accounts of kind neighbors, and don’t miss our partner NPR’s further exploration of one of the stories.

Published May 18, 2011

Guest Edit Claire O'Neill for NPR

Guest Design David Wright for NPR

Photo Julia Bonner

one
Frisco Fish

Frisco Fish

Walter is in his eighties and still swims in the chilly San Francisco Bay at least once or twice a week. He collects beer bottles and is adored by everyone at the Dolphin Swimming & Boating Club — especially the young ladies.

Photographer: Shane Powers

Shane Powers is a photographer and educator living in San Francisco with deep roots in Idaho.

two
Senior Swimmer

Senior Swimmer

On land Dave can seem quite fragile. He’s one of the oldest members of Brighton’s swimming club and walks with the aid of a cane. But once in the water he is like a fish. In the winter months, the other swimmers look to Dave to know whether the frigid waters are too rough to enter. In the summer months, Dave sometimes fishes with a primitive bamboo rod while swimming and can catch enough to feed 10 of us. Year round, he’s a source of living history, sharing not only his knowledge of the water but also stories from being a child during World War II and his other experiences over the years.

Photographer: Kevin Meredith

Kevin Meredith is a photographer, writer, and teacher in Brighton, England.

three
Femme Libre

Femme Libre

Sartre was a filthy man who dressed terribly and smelled of spoiled cheese. Camus, though…” Christiane sighed and smiled, with a far-off look. “Albert Camus was beautiful, and so charming.” After spending her early twenties with the Existentialists in Nazi-occupied Paris, Christiane emigrated to the US, earning her PhD at UC Berkeley and becoming a professor of comparative literature. A lifelong activist, member of the ACLU, and regular voice at Palo Alto city council meetings, she was known around town for her sagacity, colorful clothing, and commitment to social justice. I’ll never forget how extraordinarily happy she was in the days before she died, at 90 years-old. “I’m an atheist, so I have nothing to be afraid of,” she laughed.

Photographer: Daniel Steinbock

Daniel is a researcher, design educator, and musician in Palo Alto, California.

four
Maria

Maria

Maria bought a house in Venice Beach in the 1970s for $70,000 cash when it was still a beach-side ghetto riddled with gang crime. She and a number of other artists knew a good location when they saw one. Maria was here long before “trendy” arrived, and she scoured the area like one of the many other neighborhood crows that would dive in on anything lost and shiny. Those found treasures decorated almost every inch of her personal abode — down to the old, run-over, broken CDs that she hung from fronds at the base of the palm trees that shaded her concrete porch, itself another multi-tiered ongoing work-in-progress. Maria was a Venice artist who lived inside her own daily creations.

Photographer: Dolores Lusitana

I’m a designer/writer/facilitator in Venice, California.

five
Good Shepherd

Good Shepherd

Mickey Thoman’s family has raised domestic sheep on the rangelands and mountains of Wyoming for more than 100 years, and at 82 years old, the matriarch of the Thoman ranch is still an active participant in tending the herds. Last summer there were twelve grizzly bears following one of the sheep herds as it grazed the mountain country, but Mickey stayed close by the herd’s side. Mickey spent nights sleeping in the cab of her pickup truck next to her herds in attempt to keep them safe.

Photographer: Cat Urbigkit

Author/photographer Cat Urbigkit lives on a sheep ranch in western Wyoming, and enjoys learning from Old World pastoralists.

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Papa J

Papa J

My grandpa (name) was the county clerk for Cheatham County, Tennessee. Every year, he would enter the goat milking contest at the county fair, and he was undefeated for years. As county clerk, he always made an appearance at public events in the community. He and my grandmother never missed a wedding, funeral, birthday party, etc. I thought he would stop doing that after he retired, but he keeps it up like every year is an election year.

Editor’s note: This photo is courtesy of the Ashland City Times.

Photographer: Courtney Eason

I’m a proud granddaughter from Nashville, Tennessee.

seven
Jimmy and the Jacks

Jimmy and the Jacks

75-year-old Jimmy used to be known around town for cycling in any kind of weather, with his 11-year-old Jack Russell terrier Rosie a permanent fixture in the front basket. Then came the hit-and-run accident. Rosie was unharmed but arthritis brought on by the injuries has kept Jimmy in constant pain and moving slowly. There is some brighter news: Jimmy was asked to temporarily care for a few young Jack Russells and the situation became permanent. All three Jacks keep Jimmy going, keep him warm, and keep him loved. “You see, always, they’re there for you,” Jimmy told me in his thick old Irish accent. “When I wake they are there, all the day they are there, at night there are there … better than people that is … better than people.”

Photographer: Jim Mortram

Jim is an award-winning photographer living in East Anglia, UK.

eight
High Horse

High Horse

UVM Mallory, a Morgan mare at the University of Vermont’s Morgan Horse Farm in Middlebury is bathed by her trainers. The farm and its staff have been keeping the renowned Morgan bloodline alive for well over one hundred years.

Photographer: Brett Simison

I’m a professional photographer living in Middlebury, Vermont.

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Communion by "give up"

Communion by “give up”

I suppose a legend can be famous or infamous. Houston artist “give up” has been wheat pasting his work all over the city (and many other places) for a decade.

Photographer: David Elizondo

I am an amateur photographer in Houston, TX. I recently self-published a book about Houston street art called “Stay Up.”

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Billy Nardozzi: Poet

Billy Nardozzi: Poet

“Celebrations” is a small section of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that runs each Tuesday. People pay to have their photos and announcements (engagements, marriages, births) printed there. Since 2006, Billy Nardozzi (a packer for the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board) has paid $100 a pop to have his poetry published in it. And each poem is accompanied by his photo.

I started clipping and saving these poems years ago not really knowing why. Finally, I decided to contact him last year and he couldn’t have been nicer. I self-published a small volume of selected poems and lined up a reading for him at a gallery downtown. Almost 100 people showed up and we sold a bunch of books. I was surprised by how many people were also followers of his work. We heard stories of people reading his poems at their weddings and at funerals. People had t-shirts with his image from the paper. One man even wore a WWBND (What Would Billy Nardozzi Do) bracelet.

I built a simple site that archives every poem he’s ever written for the paper. Billy used to have a poem there every month or so. But since the book and reading, he’s become more prolific. He hardly ever misses a week now.

Editor’s note: Read more in an NPR Picture Show blogpost about Billy.

Photographer: Brett Yasko

Designer Brett Yasko works from a one person studio in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and devotes the majority of his time to working with cultural-, community- and arts-related clients. He’s a member of the adjunct faculty at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Design and lives in the neighborhood of Squirrel Hill with his wife, Sarah, and their sons, Nate and Jakob.

eleven
Wiili at Home

Wiili at Home

William H. Armstrong, aka Wiili, at home in his studio/living space near Boone, North Carolina, in April, 2002. Wiili was an artist, poet, and naturalist, best known for his paintings and constructed sculpture. Typically characterized as an “outsider artist”, Wiili was indeed an outsider but was simply an artist. He died alone at home in 2003 at the age of 47.

Photographer: Richard Rapfogel

Richard Rapfogel is a recovering psychologist who has been working as a photographer for the past ten years. He lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Boone, North Carolina with his wife and daughter.

twelve
Chicken John in Italy

Chicken John in Italy

Chicken John Rinaldi is a local legend in San Francisco known for his outlandish events, outspoken behavior, and clever pranks. A self-described contrarian, his run for city mayor in 2007 included the following: using a different fake mustache every time he appeared in public, 400 zombies attacking and dragging him away after a mayoral debate, and my favorite, when his campaign’s finance records were subpoenaed for an audit by the city’s Ethics Commission, he took boxes of paper records to an art gallery and glued them to the walls, asking “Why not let everyone see it?”

I lived with Chicken John and a number of other people in his warehouse in San Francisco for two years. He’s told me countless stories, screamed at me and begged me, given me some of the best and worst advice, taught me many things (sometimes the hard way), and we’ve shared a number of adventures that I’ll never forget.

Photographer: Neil Berrett

I am a photographer and radiation protection worker splitting my time between Oakland, California and Berlin, Germany.

thirteen
Conservationist

Conservationist

Smoking a beedi, a traditional Indian cigarette, he looks like any other ordinary villager at first glance, but he is not. Devjibhai Dhamnecha, now aged 75, is a school dropout and nature lover who has dedicated the last two decades of his life to protecting the ecology of Little Rann of Kutch, an arid desert in the state of Gujarat in western India. It is the last remaining habitat of the Indian wild ass (local name: dhorkhur), an endangered species with a total surviving population of only 3800, all living in the Little Rann area. Without any institutional sponsorship, he has teamed up with local villagers and non-profit organizations to pressure the government into declaring the area a protected wildlife reserve. He’s shown how an ordinary man can make an extraordinary contribution to environmental conservation.

Photographer: Karan Desai

I am a graduate student who grew up in the busting metropolis of Mumbai, and traveled halfway across the globe and across cultures to the US to get a masters degree in electrical engineering. However, what has remained constant is my love for nature, travel, and photography.

fourteen
To a Different Tune

To a Different Tune

Stumbling for words, I finally convinced this violin maker to let me explore around his studio. “Look under the cabinet. You’ll have to move some of those cases. There’s a really old half-size down there in a blue case.” On my hands and knees I was able to reach way back under the bureau for a dusty blue canvas case. Inside, I found a 200-year-old, child-sized violin from Germany; light and delicate, rich in tone and physical beauty, a piece of history kept hidden away so customers would stop asking to buy it. Then, Raymond explained to me where his materials come from. He handed me bows made from pernambuco wood from Brazil. The bow hairs came from Mongolia and Argentina. Violin tops are made of spruce. The back and sides are from maple imported from the Italian and Swiss Alps.

I thanked the violin maker and told him that I would stop by and say hello from time to time. I see him often now, taking a rest in front of the shop, facing the wall while reading the paper and smoking. I startle him with a salutation and sometimes receive a smile in return.

Photographer: Theresa Vernetti

Theresa Vernetti is a photographer and dental hygienist in San Diego. She resides in the beautifully eclectic neighborhood of North Park, appreciating the colorful people, historic homes and artistic flair her surroundings provide.

fifteen
Rasta Man of Mozambique

Rasta Man of Mozambique

João Marrime‘s powerful, yet plaintive voice and rock star persona belie his slender frame and cool off-stage demeanor. I met João at his second home, the Casa da Cultura in Inhambane, Mozambique where he rehearses with his band, Os Justiceiros (The Vigilantes). The closest thing to a rock star in backwater Inhambane, João divides his time between performing at the cavernous, yet dilapidated Cine-Teatro Tofo, and running a music program for Mozambican youth.

Photographer: Jesse Whitehead

Jesse Whitehead lives in Castlegar, British Columbia and combines photography with everything he does. At the moment, that includes social work and riding his bike.

sixteen
Builder Bill

Builder Bill

“Builder” Bill has lived in Slab City, California for over 13 years. Slab City is a unique place near the Salton Sea where free-spirited, like-minded people gather to live “under the radar” of society. Bill came to this community worn out from the financial strife of his previous life. Soon after his arrival he noticed the need for a social hub and so he started “The Range,” a spot for people to sing, dance, and socialize every Saturday night. Slab City and “The Range” have now become iconic destinations, thanks to this local legend.

Photographer: April Fisher

April Fisher is a graduate student studying Humanities in Orange County, California. She is also a photographer whose most influential muse for the past 7 years has been the Salton Sea.

seventeen
Where Giants Stood

Where Giants Stood

Forty Acres in Delano, California is where Cesar Chavez fasted for 25 days and where the late Senator Robert Kennedy visited Chavez at the end of his fast. Shown here is Paul Chavez, son of the late labor leader, welcoming Ken Salazar to dedicate the space as a national historic landmark.

Photographer: Ramon Jacquez Jr.

I’m a photo enthusiast capturing images of social destruction, improvement, and change. I’m also a retired probation officer interested in improving the quality of life in my community of Bakersfield, California.

eighteen
Up in Arms

Up in Arms

When Hank Thompson sang, “I didn’t know God made honky tonk angels,” he was undoubtedly talking about Bonnie. She owns a quaint, perfect little karaoke bar in Knoxville, Tennessee, named “Toot’s Little Honky Tonk” (where this photo was taken). Her patrons love her for her kind Southern accent, her warm personality, and her pistol-like nature if she’s crossed.

Photographer: Julia Bonner

I’m a graduate student living in New York City. I’m a lover of the mountains, a writer of haikus and a miner for a heart of gold.

nineteen
Breaking the Ice

Breaking the Ice

You can find the Piragua Man on Avenue C on the Lower East Side of New York City on hot summer days. His syrups are the best, and he shaves his ice with the greatest of care. Children line up with giggly glee and he always gives them extra to cool them down, if only for a just a moment.

Photographer: Leighton Gleicher

My name is Leighton Gleicher and I live in New York City. I retired from a corporate job several years ago and began taking photographs as a way of reconnecting with and really seeing the world around me, and what a world it is!

twenty
Mrs. Moore

Mrs. Moore

Knowing that unfavorable crime, drug, and pregnancy statistics were Fort Pierce, Florida’s claim-to-fame, I set out to document the lives of people defying this negative stereotype. This is Mrs. Moore, a Fort Pierce resident of more than 20 years that was kind enough to sit with me on her porch. She shared stories of heritage, life, and prosperity that won’t make the evening news, but deserve more than anything to be documented. Here she is pictured with the only existing photograph of her grandparents in her arms, with portraits of all of her children above her head.

Photographer: Rachael Hulme

I’m a photographer, an art student, an art teacher, a wanderluster, a dreamer. I’m studying photography and learning to navigate the world at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, Maryland.

twenty-one
Charmer

Charmer

My grandfather Pasquale hails from Italy and speaks little English. He can neither read nor write in any language. Despite these setbacks, he pretty much knows everyone in San Rafael, California. He plays bocce ball while talking a lot of smack, goes to casinos with friends, is good friends with the butcher at the local grocery store, and gets fresh bread baked every day at the same place. We have always found it cute how he can make so many friends despite being mostly incomprehensible.

Photographer: Ashley Batz

I’m a full-time photographer. I practice yoga, do hip-hop dance, believe in a good soy chai latte, and regularly make blanket forts.

twenty-two
Zip Duda

Zip Duda

Joseph Duda is a retired airport employee and justice of the peace in Western Massachusetts, who goes by “Zip.” He runs a drive-thru marriage business off of Route 9 in Belchertown, a strategic location on the way to Boston. When I asked to take his portrait, Zip put on his embroidered jacket and cowboy hat. He insisted on standing next to the sign. “That’s the joy of my life,” he told me. “Marrying people.”

Photographer: S.P. Sullivan

I’m a multimedia journalist with a background in anthropology, living in (and documenting) western Massachusetts.

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