As with many of our world’s notable places, the discovery of The Magic Door came about by accident.
A friend of mine, Steven, is prone to buying and selling classic American cars. Along with hats and flasks and Apple products, big, ol’ hunks of Detroit Steel are one of his signatures. His trusted mechanic, a cool character named Jack, owns Central Garage, a mid-sized, old-school repair shop on Martin Luther King Drive. Jack’s is the only venue allowed to work on Steven’s vehicles. As one of several auto-centric businesses on the block, Central Garage’s service bay is accessed not from MLK, but from a v-shaped alley, itself backed by a large field of grass.
An outsider would be forgiven for looking at The Door’s immediate area and not seeing much beyond the obvious disinvestment. A St. Louisan, on the other hand, might look at it with too much dispassion, as one of those funky pockets routinely seen in our city’s core. This neighborhood’s weathered its share of challenges and the environment’s reflective of the many societal issues around it. Unfortunately, all of this makes St. Louis’ version of MLK not unlike most other MLK’s found in American cities. Efforts to revitalize have come and gone, with minor successes and plenty of turnaround issues lying ahead.
Helping Steven shuttle his latest prized vehicle up to Central Garage one day, my attention span was quickly taxed by the pair’s precise and enthusiastic discussions of a Buick Riviera’s engine; I’m not a car guy and find it difficult to pretend otherwise. After a minute’s courtesy listen, I spun on my heels and walked east, down the alleyway, camera in hand. After a decade of flitting around in various forms of “urban exploration,” I’ve learned that you don’t wander down a city alley without a camera or photo-enabled cell phone. ‘Cause you never know the day when you’ll come across something of interest, even significance. And on the damp, gray afternoon of December 4, 2012, I had one of those classic “yeah-boy” moments, delivered in the form of The Magic Door.
A narrow, empty lot sits between Central Garage and Howard Auto Body. Passing it absent-mindedly, I noticed a worn, wooden, sliding door ahead, the lower-half of which was tattooed by colorful, jaggedly-cut pieces of car exteriors. There was also an all-capped term, OTHA, pasted on the door with stick-on letters. Initially, I read it as “otha,” as in slang for “other.” This wouldn’t be my only miscalculation, but it was my first; it turned out that an Otha Howard owns both the building and the business. After a few days passed, I decided to show him the photo I’d taken of the door, which I’d been thinking about non-stop since, totally enthusiastic about starting a photo series there. This was my second miscalculation: Otha wouldn’t understand my enthusiasm, at least not early on.
We spoke. That ended weirdly, so I lurked nearby while he had another conversation. Then we spoke again. I got something that sounded like an “okay” from Otha to the use the door for photographs; I’d long been wanting to do a standing photo project, and this space was the one that seemed to mysteriously but clearly present itself as the proper location. Sure, the first conversation wasn’t going easily. But since St. Louis is, at essence, a small town clad in the skin of a big city, the first person to come up for a round of photos knew Otha; he talked for a few minutes with my friend Zach, who’s some type of distant relation. The earlier disconnect eased, just enough. It might’ve taken the better part of an hour, but I got the desired message: I was okayed to shoot, as long as “weird stuff” wasn’t involved. (That request’s mostly been honored.)
Reflecting on it later, I could actually understand the hesitation. As well as being a small town, St. Louis is a sprawling region of sharp delineations and artificial separations. Our City of St. Louis is a stand-alone county, while St. Louis County is made of 90 different cities, some of them just a few hundred residents deep. Nearly three-million people strong, St. Louisans don’t often blend well, either, the region sliced by real and imagined boundaries, based on race and class, in addition to our map’s million municipal lines. As a white photographer, turning up in a North City alleyway with an unpracticed speech about wanting to execute a nobody-gets-paid photo project, well… STL locals can dig the possible confusion.
And, as I was trying to tell Otha early on, I’m not even a real photographer. I’m a writer (well, a journalist), attempting to adapt to a media world in which print journalism refugees have to be photographers, videographers, multi-media “content producers.” Worse than that, I’m a project whore, seemingly unable to go a few weeks without a half-baked idea that seems doable in my brain, but winds up going haywire when exposed to the light and air of the real world.
The Magic Door’s been exposed to all the elements since that first shoot on December 8. There’ve been windy, sub-zero afternoons. Driving rainstorms. A pinch of early-summer heat. The vibe of the area’s been marked by the weather, true, but also by the passing humans (and animals).
On some afternoons, I’ve sat all alone in my pick-up, my confirmed subjects no-showing or forgetting our appointments altogether. Those moments are frustrating, sure, but have allowed me to soak in the atmosphere of the place. I’ve watched dozens of men pushing shopping carts full of metal to a scrapyard ‘round the corner, forever-and-always reminding of me of our town’s own versions of Bubbles from “The Wire.” On another day, in the dead of winter, a huge crow sat on a nearby power line, cawing in the near-silence at a volume that seemed almost cartoonish. That was an eerie scene. Then there was the afternoon when two young men walked past.
They bent off course, sort of randomly. This caught my attention. Then, they walked towards me at a funny angle, slightly-too-close, considering the big space of the Central Garage parking pad. When one reached into his pocket, maybe 10-feet away, I won’t lie: my stomach tightened, my nerves fired. Then they walked right on by, slightly-too-close, yes, but with no ill intent. I relaxed, but immediately thought about my own role in the city’s longstanding passion play about where to go, with whom, and at what times.
I’d wanted an excuse to take pictures of people, not just things. And The Magic Door seemed the right place to frame that attempt. It’s been a great backdrop. It’s also been a place of strange synchronicities, random occurrences and some deepening friendships. The name, The Magic Door, was based in a moment of manufactured, whimsical “branding.” Somehow, it’s worked.