A Stroll Through Veterans Alley

When America went to war in Afghanistan in 2001 and in Iraq in 2003, the words “Support our Troops” came from the lips of war supporters on television and appeared on magnetic yellow ribbons nationwide.

Now, the conflict in Afghanistan is the longest American military engagement in history. There are 2.6 million veterans of that war and of Operation Iraqi Freedom, many of whom have mental and physical war wounds that may never be healed. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, and other tolls of combat, a dozen military veterans commit suicide every day, according to the Veterans Administration — and now, the ribbons and the verbal “support” are gone.

The Veterans Alley Project gives witness to the experience of U.S. servicemen and women. Today, reminders of the nearly 5,000 American military personnel who died in the War on Terror and the many more who suffer in peacetime are painted in Shannon Alley, between Tayor, Jones, Geary, and O’Farrell streets.

SF Evergreen recently conversed with Amos Gregory, a photographer and veteran of the first Gulf War who came up with the idea of dedicating a sliver of downtown San Francisco to troops coming home.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

SF Evergreen: How did the idea begin?

Amos Gregory: I sat around and walked around in the Tenderloin for around six months. I was out really late until early in the morning. Like, 3 o’clock to 6 o’clock. I was specifically looking for homeless vets to photograph and trying to give them a positive self image of themselves. That’s the last thing you have, right? A positive self image.

The same thing I’m doing in Veterans Alley I started doing in Cuba in 2002 and that was photographing children, but specifically trying to show the diversity of Cuba and to try and show the impact of the African diaspora. That project led to another photography project called Children of the African Diaspora. I began to explore children of the African diaspora in different places.

I ended up in Vietnam in 2005 for the 33-year celebration of the Fall of Saigon. I met some of my heroes there and photographed some Vietnamese women and their children for some vets, one of whom was my uncle, to show the healing that had happened. That became the “Children of the Diaspora” project, so I opened it up to children.

The only reason that the photography led to the painting is that I was photographing one very special homeless vet named Gabriel, Archangel of the Bay. His real name is Gilbert Lovato, of the United States Marine Corps. He’d been on the streets longest. One night I was rolling around with Gabe. Gabe was one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met in my life.

He was like, “Hey man, if you really want to do something for this neighborhood and this community, and think you so good you wanna do something for the Tenderloin, do something for this alley!” We were outside the alley smoking cigarettes and I’m like, “Damn! Black Jesus! We need something! Come in here.” I turned and it was a sight!

SFEG: What was Shannon Alley like before?

AG: It was “Crack Alley” when I got there. It was “Body Alley” before that. I was like, “Okay, here we go, Gabe.” I knew this was Gabe, and Gabe had been on the streets and was kind of a hero amongst everybody on the streets. He was brilliant, an archangel to them all. Toughest of the toughest and he just challenged me, I better figure shit out. I was like, “Okay, we’re gonna paint murals.”

SFEG: How did the murals, like the one with a cross for every death in Iraq, happen?

AG: For some of them, I design it so that the mural is so big that I need help. I design it so that anyone with basic writing skills can come up and participate. For the mural of all the soldiers’ names that were killed in Iraq, there were over 40 people from all over that came in solidarity during a 10-week period to do the names. That’s real.

I put out a call for help to Swords to Ploughshares to come to the rescue and none of them did. I put out a shout out to everybody from Swords to deep, deep in the VA. I wanted a promise of, “Check this shit out, and provide free lunches.”

They didn’t. Nobody showed up until the official press release. That’s the truth. It was all done by me.

The initial design was done with Richard Barksdale. He was doing his community service from getting caught tagging a bank during “Occupy” and I agreed to bring him into the project. He did the initial design.

There was another person named Taharka. He was a 19 year old student who’d been following me around for like a year. He was a backbone of the project from beginning to end.

It was JJ down the street, who’d come down and clean up with us even though he was suffering from seizures.

It was a huge community effort, but the thing is that many of the murals are done by other vets. So the things that I’m describing that are personal to me, other vets have had to go through. The Santos family and Brian Parker. There had to be over a hundred fucking people involved in that mural. I was grateful to facilitate it. Also, with the Chelsea Manning Mural and Aaron Hinde and Iraq Veterans Against the War and Vietnam Veterans Against the War. All the way over to David Moraz, who does it solo. Cowboy, who does it solo. Randy Figurs, who does it solo. Amanda Brannan, who does it solo. Maria, who does it solo. There’s so much in there.

Photo of Amos Gregory by Kevin Kelleher/Special to SF Evergreen