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By Miriam Raftery, Editor

December 1, 2012 (San Diego’s East County)--I looked forward to a debut last night of the Far East Project, which promised to showcase photos, art, poetry and essays telling the stories of East County. Sadly, the resulting book, The Far East Project: Everything Just as it is,  fails to live up to its promises to show the "soul" of East County. While some of the writers clearly have talent, the book's slanted approach overall is offensive.

Our assistant editor, Mayan Avitable, a retired educator, was equally aghast when she first saw the book and photos displayed at last night's event. “I’ve lived in East County for over 50 years and this is not the East County that I know,” she stated.

The project was funded by San Diego Foundation, an organization that in the past has done great good, including helping firestorm victims in East County. The project claims to capture the “uneasy beauty” of East County.  But instead, the book published under direction of Justin Hudnall, Editor Mindy Solis and So Say We All fails to live up to its expectations. It highlights overwhelmingly the seamiest elements of our region, reinforcing seemingly every negative stereotype that East County residents have long strived to overcome.

The initial project description of creating a people’s history of East County sounded worthy, no doubt, to grantors.  But from the looks of this book, one would think that East County is populated mainly by rednecks, racists, illegal immigrants, poor white trash, hookers, and gun-toting gangbangers. It ignored rural residents' serious issues and through the choice of visuals, reinforced the trailer trash image that too many San Diegans have of East County.

The book contains not a single photo depicting the natural beauty of our region’s spectacular mountains, lakes, waterfalls or deserts--those places of which backcountry residents take pride. Why are there no images of Lake Cuyamaca, Mount Laguna, Carrizo Gorge or Cedar Creek Falls, cherished natural wonderlands? 

(Note: The group's website contains photos that are NOT included in the book, such as a snow scene and a rural resident gazing out at a sunny meadow. Absence of these makes for an imbalanced portrayal dominated by ugliness in the book.) 

We have beautiful seasons, from snow-capped mountains to fall foliage, from shimmering summer lakes to deserts abloom in spring wildflowers. We have wineries and vineyards, a rich agricultural heritage, colleges with gleaming new buildings,  historic sities and charming rural towns - yet there is not a single positive image of any of these, or anything else.  These settings are important backdrops to understanding the people who live here, but the voices of rural residents and all who love East County were excluded in this work. Even essays on wildlife in this book have no photos-- other than a snake consuming a lizard, a squirrel drinking from a jar, and a plastic deer with a broken-off antler.)

Two cities, El Cajon and La Mesa, celebrated centennials this year. There is no mention of these historic commemorations, nor of revitalizations occurring in these communities. Also omitted was our historic gold rush town, Julian.  Instead, the images chosen to represent East County universally depict squalor, mediocrity, urban decay and despair.  

"It needs to be said that some of the world’s greatest writings focus on the darker sides of life, and most of us know nothing about what some of the things that are being written, photographed and drawn about our city," says Eldonna Lay with the El Cajon Historical Society, who defends the project in which she was involved as a "literary accomplishment--an art book," adding, "In truth, The Far East: everything just as it is, represents good, as well as regrettable and evil, happenings at every level of society in portions of each city and community in the entire world.”  She further praised the work as "an ode to the superior instructional abilities and insight of our college, high school and grade school teachers, and the ability of their most talented students to write honestly and magnificently of personal observations and insights."

Certainly life is not all sugar-coated and casting a light in darkness is at times necessary in art as in journalism. Our own mission statement is to reflect all voices and views in our community, and we especially strive to include the downtrodden and those too often ignored by other media.   It is right to give voice to those who are oppressed or impoverished. 

But choosing entirely derogatory visuals and overwhelmingly negative stereotypes is a disservice to our diverse community, implying that there is no inspiring places to show and no one here with positive stories to share. It is this profoundly skewed approach that has aroused my indignation. Justin Hudnall in his welcoming remarks claims the book  includes "portraits of moments poignant and beautiful...captured alongside sights equally depraved and desperate." But the images he chose are entirely negative. Why? What message was he trying to convey to readers not familiar with our region? Why does he want to make us all look like trailer trash through the images he chose to portray?

I will not promote those negative stereotypes by showing you any more of the Far East Project’s photos from the book. Instead,  I am sharing images taken by our photographers and readers to show examples of what could and should have been included as one aspect of any project aspiring to tell the stories of East County and its people.

The people in the Far East photos appear downtrodden and depressed.  Our people’s proud heritages are ignored or denigrated.  The mood in most images is somber and the text adds insult to injury in the vast majority of passages.

 Why are there no positive images or stories about our 19 Native American tribes and their traditions? Or our proud wild west heritage, such as interviews with descendants of East County’s pioneer families and the many historical re-enactors locally? Our rich tapestry of cultures from around the world--the immigrants and refugees from the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Latin America who call our region home—have also been disrespected.  Other than derisive references to illegal border crossers and Chaldeans running a smoke-filled hookah bar, our immigrants are largely in the shadows in this book.

Essays and poems also included seemingly every unflattering stereotype imaginable, with titles such as “Hooker on the Court,” “All roads lead to the liquor store,” “Barmaid”, and “Trailer trash white boys from Lakeside and how the treated brown girls.”

Even poems with appealing names like “Leopard Sky” contain such negative imagery as “Palms wear the dead around their ugly necks in East County.  People comment on the humidity versus the heat—of one’s temper.”

To assure our readers that I am not omitting any positive images in this review, below are descriptions of every photo or other ‘artwork’ in the book.

The first image is of a nondescript El Cajon apartment complex. Then a car in front of homogenous garages. Next is a photo called “The view from Pauline’s complex” as seen through a chicken wire fence.  There’s a photo of the iconic yogurt mill  followed by a mural on a building hawking costume jewelry and Arabic CDs.  We see more gawdy murals, then the “lip rock” in Lemon Grove painted to resemble a big red smooch.  The next photos are a thrift store, a  roadside memorial, and a billboard reading “Eternity is Forever: Choose widely!”  

We then see  a photo titled “Trailers in pastel”  depicting a trailer park, followed by an extended series of graffiti shots taken along the trolley’s Orange Line--along with a photo of a discarded condom and the author's recollections of observing cops arresting teen girls for drinking in La Mesa.

El Cajon seems to have been singled out for the most derisive treatment. Text informs us that El Cajon means “coffin” in Portuguese; this info is juxtaposed beside an image of a boy diving into a rectangular pool at a stark apartment complex with looming shadows. 

Next are street scenes—a wheelchair bound resident gazing up at the El Cajon sign downtown in a washed-out shot, a pedestrian on a nondescript sidewalk, a patron exiting a wig shop displaying green, orange and yellow  hair, cooks in an industrial-looking  kitchen, a burly man who appears to be holding a cigarette – or perhaps a straw—outside what looks like a fast-food outlet.

A dull brownish-red sedan image follows. If an old car photo was desired, why not choose a lovingly restored vintage vehicle at one of the many classic car events in El Cajon? Adding to the fringe lunatic imagery, we’re shown UFO cult members in El Cajon holding signs next to a vehicle painted with a flying saucer.  Could the authors not have found a single positive image in all of El Cajon?

Next is a lackluster shot of a family looking out at a hazy horizon, perhaps atop Mt. Helix, a place where it would have been easy to shoot some stunning scenic shots.  Then comes a photo of two white guys at a parking garage—one gap-toothed, the other sporting a shirt with skulls.  Had the photographers picked the cast of Deliverance as representative of East County, they could hardly have done worse. 

The next set of images is called “Self Portraits in Santee.” It includes a painting of a man in shorts, shirt unbuttoned, standing by a sprinkler and wading pool.  More portraits show him seated and standing in a dimly lit living room. Why no images of Santee Lakes, or the many fine new parks and sports facilities, new homes and shopping, or community celebrations in Santee?

Next is a line drawing called “Gas Station” featuring leering faces and another titled “All Roads Lead to the Liquor Store.”  We see the “rundown skeleton” of an abandoned Ferris wheel at the former Marshall Scotty’s amusement park. If they wanted  amusement ride, perhaps they might have shown one at Santee’s annual Fourth of July extravaganza that the city hosts for its residents.

I had high hopes for a poem called “Back Country” until I read “down hills pass the check point no illegals tonight just me and a sleeping dog”, more immigrant bashing, though it did mention the “orange moon ripe in the sky” and a couple of other brief enticing phrases. There are a few more positive essays and poems such as “The Wind”, which describes scenic areas such as Kitchen Creek and Descanso, but why are there no photos to show these beautiful places?

Another puzzle: why do all the buildings shown look straight out of the 1950s?  There is no modern architecture anywhere – such as the spectacular new buildings on our community college campuses, or the fine new civic buildings in La Mesa, or El Cajon’s gleaming new public safety center, Grossmont Hospital’s dramatic remodel, or a glass elevator built with federal stimulus dollars at the Grossmont trolley station. 

The book is not without merit, whcih may be found in the words of several writers. An essay titled “Fires” by Zebylon Huset follows, chillingly recounting the charred matchstick trees left by a firestorm. The writer describes the “apocalypse” adding “Ash rained, streaked grey the windshield.” Another moving essay by Chris Baron titled "Prayer for Cuyamaca" movingly described the devastation from the 2003 Cedar Fire, writing, "No voice can chant the trees into rising, or the waters to flow more deply, or the lions to come out of hiding, or raise the dead buried in their trunks" but concludes with a note of optimism that "Hope already seeps into the soil, pushing yellow and purple up and out, and there are some meadows, far and green in the long sun, and a prayer now, a quiet." Several others also show the writers' talents including one on hiking. (Why no photos with the only essays that might shed a positive light on our area?)

But the handful of essays and poetry with literary or historic value in this book are overshadowed by the overwhelmingly derogatory tone of the project, particularly the unconscionable omission of any images portraying East County in a positive light. The text is mostly gritty and devoid of inspirational value, though there is much to find inspiring in the actions of East County's people. Where are the stories of neighbors helping neighbors to rebuild their shattered lives after the fires?  Or the firefighters whose heroic efforts saved lives, homes, and entire towns in this wildfire and so many others?

I have no problem with artists documenting the terrible toll taken by the firestorms, nor  the impacts of undocumented immigrants or the plight of the homeless or any other dark sides of our region if done in the interest of provoking change. But what’s missing is any sense of balance.  To read this book one would come away with a very distorted view of East County. 

A piece titled “Refugees” makes no mention of those with formal refugee status conferred by the United Nations or other international agencies, such as the tens of thousands of Iraqi Chaldeans, or the East Africans, or Vietnamese, who call our region home.  Many have started businesses, helping to fuel economic revitalization.  Instead the essay describes illegal immigrants pursued by Border Patrol agents.  Those are not refugees under the legal definition of the word.

An essay on mountain lions was included, but why no photos of our most specatular local wildlife – our lions as well as endangered bighorn sheep, bobcats, coyotes, owls, wild turkeys and eagles?  

Next there are many pages of essays, some painting mental pictures but with no photos or other artwork at all– stark and unattractive, not at all like the beautiful and diverse East County that I’ve come to love.  Some are gritty, i.e., “Hunger on public transit.” Another describes a tattooed, bruised woman awaiting a trial in the El Cajon courthouse; she mutters,  “I need a gun.” 

An essay on Iraqi Chaldeans chose to focus on smoke-filled hookah bars. Why not something more positive such as the many restaurants, dress shops, and markets owned by Chaldeans?  The same essay later denigrates gays as well, citing a redneck who spouts forth a profanity-laced tirade. 

A piece titled “Casa de Oro” opens with the line “If you’ve grown up in a place where the skinheads from your high school frequent your favorite taco shop….”  The final entry, “Simple Music”  elaborates on such details as bus fumes, Argentine ant attacks, homophobia, “wife beaters holding coffee mugs at the windows” and more. 

The book ends by insulting even the popular Mother Goose Parade, suggesting that a marching  band needs practice while oversized storybook characters  proceed “ponderously” down  East Main Street. 

If the writer didn’t like that event, why not find another festival to celebrate? We have many, as anyone reading our “Festivals” section on East County Magazine would have known.

The Far East project also includes news reporting, also of a negative nature. For instance, a story that appeared on Huffington Post focused on the murder of a Muslim woman in what was initially suspected to be a hate crime, though police later concluded that it was a tragic case of domestic violence and arrested her husband. Did the Far East folks bother to issue an update to Huffington Post?  Or did they simply leave standing their original sordid tale of sex, forced marriage and a desperate young woman who leaped from a moving car?

As a stand alone piece, some individual entries have artistic or journalistic merit. But why are the only stories this outfit publishes on East County all negative? They have taken the bashing of our region to the national media.

 I have never before written a negative review before of any arts project or other local endeavor.  My philosophy has always been only to review shows, restaurants or exhibits that are good to excellence, focusing on places I wish to recommend to our readers.  If I find something not suitable for recommending, I simply don’t review it.  I have made an exception in issuing this harsh review of the Far East Project, however, because I feel compelled to dispel the negative messages conveyed about East County by this project.

As the editor of East County Magazine, I’ve travelled back roads and byways across our region.  I’ve met many generous and good-hearted people, and found beauty in a wide array of places—from vineyards resplendent in the autumn sun to hiking in our wilderness to admiring a rainbow arcing to earth after a rain shower.  I've interviewed refugees, asylees, and immigrants.  Many have overcome terrible hardships such as war and torture in their homelands and some are still struggling here. But they also have stories that are inspiring--stories of courage and overcoming adversity. Why does this project not show us their faces and share their experiences?

To publish a book about East County that focuses virtually entirely on negatives and reinforces every derisive stereotype  is culturally insensitive and just plain wrong.

How would sponsors of this project have felt if their neighborhood was covered in such a one-sided and negative fashion?  Imagine the uproar if the same folks had created a “Far West Project” that focused on stench at La Jolla Cove, those who want to kill the seals, beach bums, and socialites mistreating servants?  Or a story on the Gaslamp limited solely to pimps, pandhandlers and tattoo parlors?  Or a College Area profile limited to images of frat boys passed out in drunken stupors while ignoring educational excellence?  Such negatives reflect only a narrow spectrum of the broader fabric in these communities. 

Why was East County singled out for the “honor” of this grant project?  Given San Diego Foundation’s outstanding reputation, I suspect that the Far East Project’s end result does not reflect the grant proposal. Earlier descriptions I read of the project certainly did not imply that it would make a laughing stock out of East County.  But the outcome is neither artistic nor appropriate.

Perhaps submissions from the public lacked suitable quality and context. Only 60 photos were submitted, Hudsall said. Most images are of marginal technical and artistic quality, at best. Efforts should have been made to reach out to local publishers and photographers to assure balance. An editor or other individual with long experience in East County issues should have been asked to oversee the project. If the director could not or would not provide balance, the project should have been cancelled.

East County Magazine has thousands of beautiful, high quality images showcasing the natural beauty of our region, the historic character of our communities, the proud heritage of our residents, the resiliency of fire victims in the face of adversity, efforts to help the immigrants/refugees and others in need, and the changing faces of our homeland.

We’ve won over 40 major journalism awards for our reporting on East County including photojournalism, investigative reports, multicultural and environmental reporting. I personally have won national honors for community journalism focused on our region.  If we’d been asked to create a “Far East” project, the results would have been something we could all be proud of, not ashamed to see.

East County is under stress as it has never been before.  The federal government seeks to turn our most beautiful places into giant energy corridors. Some of our most special places have already been lost and others are now threatened. 

Our people have suffered terribly from the wildfires, but the land can recover from flames.  It can never recover from the devastation wrought by industrialization of our backcountry.

The last thing we need is a project devaluing our region’s worth, when those who love East County are fighting to save the places they cherish, places that generations here have called home. These places are vanishing before our eyes, as local residents organize to combat battles waged in Washington and Sacramento by politicians and bureaucrats who don’t realize or don’t care what is being lost. Backcountry residents constantly ask me why San Diegans treat them with such disrespect and don't care about what's happening to them. This book feeds that prejudice.

The Far East Project’s assault on East County is particularly unconscionable at a time when residents across our backcountry are fighting to save their rural communities and pristine wilderness areas from an onslaught of industrial wind facilities and power plants that if built, will forever destroy the places we hold dear.

San Diego Foundation owes it to the people of East County to atone for this “art” project that is, in fact, largely a hit piece denigrating our communities and our people. I believe the insult was unintended by the Foundation, and that its good-hearted board members will seek to restore the trust and support of East County residents. Some have criticized me as not having a sense of "humor" about this project. I don't laugh at racist or sexist jokes either. There is nothing funny about denigrating an entire region and by extension, those who live there.

To accomplish that, I propose a grant for our nonprofit news organization, a division of the Heartland Foundation which has been a proud partner with San Diego Foundation in the past. I propose this not for profit, but to restore the dignity of our readers who have been harmed by this project. We aspire to create a photojournalism project that will celebrate the strengths and beauty of East County—not treat our communities and our people with disrespect.  Had the Far East Project lived up to its expectations, there would have been no such need.  But if nothing is done, the stigma of the Far East Project could have serious and lasting impacts.

The tragedy of the Far East Project is that it fuels the dangerously misguided notion that there is nothing in East County worthy of preserving for future generations.  It implies that our region and our people are trashy and expendable.

If you believe East County Magazine should be granted an opportunity to rectify the offense promulgated by the Far East Project, please support our goal of creating an East County Heritage project to restore our region’s good name. We aim to celebrate our strengths, including triumphs over adversities, instead of exploiting stereotypes.  Yes there are people facing hardships. But we should focus on root causes and solutions to help those in need, while also celebrating those who have overcome adversities and the many generous individuals and groups who are credits to our region. 

We would also interview old-timers for reflections on our region's history, from pioneer descendants to Native Americans, as well as immigrants, refugees and asylees from around the world who now call East County home. Our project would also show a truly representative sampling visually of each area in our region -- our mountains, deserts, and rural areas, as well as our redevelopment areas and our urban and suburban neighborhoods.  We would show people at all stages of their journey through life--those facing challenges but also those who overcame adversity and those who lent a hand to help their neighbors in need. Put an award-winning journalism team with decades of experience in East County in charge. We will assure that East County's people are treated with respect, not derision.

Our East County Heritage project would include multimedia East County components including a full-color book, video, audio and online site devoted to this worthy cause. Please help by sending an e-mail voicing support to editor@eastcountymagazine.org.   We aim to present letters from community groups, local leaders and residents to the San Diego Foundation in hopes that the Foundation’s honorable board will support our vision of forging a legacy project of which we can all be proud.

Correction: An earlier version of this editorial reference the project director as a "city slicker" affiliated with CityBeat.  CityBeat has clarified that Justin Hudnall is a freelancer who began writing for their publication after receiving this grant. 


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Let art do its job

According to its website, ECM's "mission is to provide in-depth news, views and events"  for the east county.  Thanks, Miriam, for all the links where ECM did its job.  Kudos.  The mission of the Far East was to present the "complicated beauty" of some of its people, through the ART, and not the journalism, of its diverse writers and artists who submitted their work.  Why do you want to put loin cloths on our naked statutes?  Why do you want to urinate on our tents?

What a shame


It's clear that you have a great personal and professional investment in East County.  I admire your passion.

However, to rail against The Far East Project for being "skewed" is both ridiculous and irrelevant.  It is an artistic endeavor, not a journalistic one.  The Far East Project never aimed or claimed to present a balanced view of East County.  It is not a research study; its editors were under no obligation to offer a representative sample.  The purpose of art is not merely to soothe or to prettify, like you seem to believe.  It is also to invoke, to provoke, to tell stories.  The Far East Project gives voice to real East County residents. 

I am proud of my East County roots, and I am proud to have contributed to this project. 

Reality check

As cumbersome as it is to have to 'register' just to make a single comment on an article, it is worth doing so to defend TFE.  Raftery, it's fantastic that you have such a wonderful lifestyle in East County and that you can enjoy it's many cultural offerings.  This is not, however, the experience most Gen X or younger habitants of East County are having.  If you think everyone in this region is enjoying the same comfort and enjoyment that you are, you are in denial and out of touch with the majority of your neighbors.  The lives most of us experience in East County are described more accurately through TFE than your article.  I beseech you, come down from Mount Helix, or wherever you live, and walk a few blocks on El Cajon Blvd and write an article more realistic and relevant.  Get to know the actual residence of East County.  Produce a publication that actually speaks to the majority of residence instead of alienating them with your handful of photos that reflect a lifestyle that doesn't represent our real lives.

You're apparently not famliar with our work in this region, or

with myself. I hope everyone will take a moment to read a few of the links below before bashing East County Magazine as a whole, though I will accept fair criticisms of our critique on the book.  

My family's roots are in poverty - Depression and Holocaust survivors. I lived month to month most of my life, and even now have health issues that make life far from comfortable.  I am well aware of the suffering some have in our region and have written about most of those important issues and published works by others on many more issues.  I will accept criticism from those who diasgree on the need for balance in the Far East Project and those who take issue with the editorial. But don't lambast ECM or myself as not reporting on "real lives" or the darker problems facing people in our region.

I have been ill the past week dealing with after effects of carbon monoxide exposure from a gas leak while visitng family last week, including a headache that hasn't gone awayy and severe neck/back/hip pain that I can't afford medical treatment for.  I was harsher than I should have been and do value the voices in the book - just not the omission of so much else.  I have a firm commitment to providing voice to all voices in our region (in fact that is our mission statement) just not denigrating by omission as was done here. 

Here are some of our most important stories on serious problems facing local people of a variety of ethnicities and economic classes in our region.

Wind turbines arrive in Ocotillo as residents complain of “Dust Bowl’ conditions: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/10795

Alone in a strange land: African asylees tell their stories: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/5504

1,800 disabled, elderly residents lose benefits:  http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/3924

This was your land: East County suffers loss of our public lands: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/8876

 8 tribal nations mourn losses at Ocotillo wind site:  http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/10162

Ocotillo wind project winds approval despite outcry from tribes, environmentalists and residents: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/9471

Jacumba—a town surrounded:  http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/8724

FEMA to disaster victims: Send back every penny: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/6155

Local Iraqi Christians mourn loss of those killed in massacare at Baghdad church: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/4724

Little Mogadishu: From East Africa to East San Diego: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/5895

Editorial: The people our Governor wants to “crush”:  http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/10538

Lakeside citizens put SDG&E in the hotseat over Powerlink decisions: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/2690

How wrong you are on THE FAR EAST PROJECT


How can you say there is no beauty in this book?  Just please read the following poem, maybe you missed it...
Dusk in the Cuyamacas
It was that tangerine
& golden
sepia light
spilling over the Cuyamacas
--each leaf
of the manzanita
chiseled in space--
that shook me out of my dreams
till I woke again
to my own life:
everything shimmering
everything just as it is.
--Steve Kowit
If this doesn't speak about beauty and nature in the East County, then I don't really know what you would want.

After reading The Far East Project I found it an exciting, deeply felt account about unique aspects of East County. The diversity in terms of voices and approaches to the literary and the visual is superb.  Like the poet Steve Kowit said in his comment about your review, "this was not supposed to be a PR piece about the place."
I also feel there needs to be some clarifications regarding the outreach for participation in the project. Justin Hudnall promoted through FB, emails and posts on the website for So Say We All (http://www.sosayweallonline.com/?p=6382).  I got an email which I shared with artists, photographers and students who lived in the area. Maybe it was just that the people that are now complaining didn't make an effort (like the person who misplaced the request for submittals).
I feel this article/review is so totally skewed and out of line in its excessiveness. ART is not PR..., just think about the great works in literature (I list the canon here lest there be a question) Steinbeck, Dickens, Hemingway.  Art is not painting a pretty picture--although Kowit's poem above certainly is about beauty as a sublime experience.  ART is reflective of the contradictions in society, the inequities, and sometimes it is about presenting the ugly side.  Should we not teach Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, because it presents a 'negative' passage of American history?  Just saying...


Bashing the rural poor needs to stop.

Alessandra – Will you please forward this email to all who received the call to arms to attack our editorial?  I would like them to know a few things. I’ve been savaged for asking for “pretty pictures.” Here’s why that’s so important, and it has nothing to do with tourism or boosterism, as I’ve been accused of promoting.  My motive is to protect impoverished rural and mountain residents from being marginalized at a time when they are fighting to save their towns and our public lands from the most destructive threats our region has ever faced. 

The poem of Cuyamaca was my favorite in the book.  Too bad the book didn’t tell how places like this may soon be gone forever, and show images of what we stand to lose.  Rural residents across East County and our nation are fighting to save beautiful places and historic towns from destruction as the federal government has designated rural East County and places like it to become official “energy corridors.” Or as rural residents say, “rural sacrifice zones.”

 Most people don’t know that there are 50 big energy projects slated  for East County and neighboring Imperial County. Judging from the first couple, seemingly nothing will stop them—I’ve seen grown men, tribal leaders, break down in tears in public meetings pleading for their ancestors to be respected. Mothers with children crying as they worry about asthma from dust storms created by scraping bare the earth for projects in areas with Valley Fever.  People who invested their meager life savings for a small patch of paradise, maybe a trailer with a spectacular meadow or mountain view, only to have big energy companies blast the tops off mountains and bulldoze the meadows and deserts.  When I go to meetings in the backcountry on these issues the people are so depressed and hurting. I am asked over and over by these rural residents, “Why don’t people in San Diego or Washington DC care about us?  Don’ t they know what they are destroying?”  Gov. Brown came here recently and spoke at the grand opening of one of these projects where they blasted the top off a mountain to build it.  He said we must “crush the opposition” to those big projects. The opposition was the people protesting outside, which included Indians who are ill from stray voltage; there is a cancer cluster near a wind farm here in East County. Many of those protesting, who live in these small historic towns, living below the poverty level whose communities, the special places they love, are being ravaged by people who don’t value East County’s rural and mountain and desert areas. They have destroyed Ocotillo, cutting down 100 year old ocotillo groves, getting kill permits to kill the bighorn sheep that are federally endangered, spreading poison/toxic flammable chemicals across the desert floor and even washing it onto people’s lawns when the project flooded. This is happening all over here and nobody is giving voice to that. McCain Valley is next, and there are even projects that could threaten the Laguna Mountains where Steve wrote that lovely poem.

Rural people have also been burned out twice by massive wildfires, and many are still living in trailers, as SDG&E refuses to even allow the case to move forward to trial; just this week a judge ruled mitigation must be given more time.  I was glad to see the book touch on the fires but not the human impacts of it, which would have been good to include.

I have softened my wording a bit in my editorial, realizing I was too harsh/ unclear in that my criticism lies not with the writers, some of whom clearly have talent and passion, but with the editor’s choice to minimalize/marginalize rural residents and their issues, and to choose visual images that did not include even a single positive images to show why East County is worthy of protecting, not destroying.

Everyone has a story.  It’s good and worthwhile to tell the story of the downtrodden. I’ve written many such articles including interviews documenting the suffering of refugees, asylees, immigrants and the homeless.  I have won over 100 journalism awards for investigative reporting , multicultural and environmental reporting and ECM has won 45 major awards.  (Anyone reading our site this week would not have seen a representative sampling, as I was on vacation a week and came back to a monitor that failed twice, thus we’ve mostly posted filler.  Go back through our Green Living section a few months to find dozens of stories on the battles East County rural residents are fighting in their quest to save the lands and the health of people in these small towns.)  Similarly, the many who take pride in their efforts to improve other communities, notably the two cities celebrating their centennial, were also slighted here though the effects of that are less severe; people may be offended but they are not facing the threat of losing their communities’ scenic character or the health of the people who live there. 

There are some things I want those defending this project to know. My degree is in Environmental Studies. I love the land and have a passion for protecting our wild and scenic places, and also  protecting poor and rural residents from abuse at the hands of corporations. These are social justice issues, too. It was my reporting that was largely responsible for driving Blackwater, the world’s largest private mercenary army, out of Potrero where it had planned to build a paramilitary training camp on a protected agricultural preserve near a rural town (as Steve Kowitt knows, incidentally, he was also involved in that effort to expose the truth about Native American history there and protect the region.)  We exposed that a former Blackwater lawyer had been appointed by the county to write the EIR, among other shocking findings.  Our reports drew international media attention. The people staged a march through the Hauser Wilderness adjacent to the Blackwater proposed camp to show why it should be saved. That coverage was instrumental no doubt in Blackwater pulling out.  Not even a wildfire that burned down half of Potrero could stop people from showing up at a recall election to oust the planning board members who had voted for the Blackwater project. Many were living in trailers or displaced far from their homes, and most in Potrero are very poor.  There is great power in media to achieve social justice.  It should be done for those now battling new fights in rural East County. 

Our reporting has helped protect local fire victims, for instance FEMA was demanding refunding from poor people four years after the fire due to an error on FEMA’s part. We got Congressional members on both sides of the aisle to join together and protect those being preyed upon.  Our reporting got the County to back down off a developer-backed scheme to eliminate all rural community planning groups as part of a “Red Tape” reduction task force.  We also mobilized our readers when California’s 70 state parks were threatened with closure. We helped save Palomar State Park and ultimately 67 state parks from being closed forever.  I recently accompanied Native Americans on a wake to mourn the loss of their ancestors whose graves have been desecrated at an Ocotillo wind farm where every state and federal law that was supposed to protect them was ignored to build a wind energy project.  I also went along as forensic dogs found ancient Native American remains, which the government has unconscionably refused to protect, even at sacred ceremonial sites still used to this day by my friends in the tribes and their families, as their ancestors have done for 10,000 years in Ocotillo and McCain Valley. Other areas have been desecrated by Sunrise Powerlink.  Children are at risk of leukemia and other illnesses living so close to this line.  Nature nurtures the soul.  It gives a sense of freedom to live in nature even if you don’t have much money. Backcountry residents know this, and this life is being taken from them. They are not even being compensated for their financial losses . My photographer in Ocotillo had wind turbines built on three sides of his home, so close that when it’s powered up the people there are certain to have health problems that occur elsewhere—heart problems, head and ear pain, sleeplessness.  Property values are diminished 40% or more near these projects so people can’t even sell out and escape this hell.   Where is the concern for them?  Why are only the problems facing urban East County dwellers included in your book? Why is all the outrage directed at me, instead of at those preying on the poor in rural areas and the editor who either didn’t do his homework on a region he purported to capture the “soul” of, or worse, consciously chose to exclude these stories.

So yes, showing “pretty pictures” of nature as some have said IS important. To have a book that shows no visual images of what’s worth saving here is skewed, an omission that is not only unfortunate, but harmful to those fighting to save small towns and our wild/scenic places.  Reading the book I remembered an old man who looked at me with tears in his eyes to tell me why he didn’t go to the latest meeting on an energy project in his town.  “I just couldn’t take any more of these meetings where everybody is crying, and nothing happens. “ He said he is tired of being ignored and abused by the big energy companies and people in other areas who don’t care about people like him.  When rural residents complain about the destruction of their towns with 500-foot-tall turbines taller than any buildings downtown, with noise and lights and worse infrasound and stray voltage that endanger health, they are dismissed as “NIMBYS.”  I have come to hate that word. When I first heard about this project I had high hopes that it would tell these stories. It failed.  I did meet Justin at an arts event and encouraged him to get in touch so I could offer some ideas for the project.  He did not do that.  I’ve spoken with a prominent backcountry  blogger who said she did speak with him and he didn’t seem interested in the rural perspective.  Perhaps instead of a knee-jerk defense of the book as perfect in every way, those who supported it should take a  hard look at its flaws, not just its assets. 

Beauty in words is not enough to overcome the book’s major flaw, which is that it does not include the visual beauty of our region, nor does it address the concerns of rural residents over the biggest threat to East County that it has ever faced: corporate predators seeking to destroy the areas that most East County residents cherish.

One poster noted that perhaps not everyone has seen those areas and thus couldn’t write about it.  That is exactly the point – that the arts community and this editor in particular failed in the obligation to show East County  “as it is” – and soon those beautiful places are going to be gone. A real opportunity to educate readers of the Far East Project on life East of El Cajon was lost, with only a couple of token poems about hiking and leaves, not the far more serious issues that the people who live in and love those places are facing.

I hope that people will see that I am concerned for the harm this does to rural residents, most of whom are poor, and also how it fuels the effort to destroy our scenic areas that people from across San Diego County care about, once they’ve seen those places.   I don’t give a damn about making money off another project;  I am working 80 hour weeks as it is.  I proposed a new project because there is a need to undo the harm that was done with this project, which while it does have  literary merits, clearly is not  representative of the “soul” of the rural, mountain and desert people of East County and worse, feeds into dangerous stereotypes that this area of the county doesn’t matter. 

How about some discussion of these issues?  Why are all the boosters of this project silent on the rural residents problems, bashing me instead of looking in the mirror at what is seriously flawed about the project?

Talk About Skewed

The fact that you are so personally invested in this topic as to a) write an op-ed piece that is WAY too long (showing an inability to professional edit the piece & gain control of your emotions) and b) actually feel the need to post comments on behalf of others instead of allowing them to express those feelings on their own, indicates to me that you aren't willing to even contemplate that you may be off base with your assessment of this project.

Art is not something that YOU get to direct....the artist gets to do that.  This project isn't about YOU or YOUR idea of East County; it's about other citizens' experiences here.  It's interesting that your views of the region don't match up, but that doesn't mean that the project itself is inherently wrong.

My recommendation is to step back.  Take a deep breath.  And recognize that you can't control everything in the universe, which includes other people's perceptions of their time here on Earth, whether it be in East County or Timbuktu.  


Try to be fair


To be fair (and this is something Raftery claims to be interested in), if all of the book's critics get to have absurdly detailed bios, then Steve Kowitt should, too. He's one of the greatest living American poets. He's published numerous collections of poetry and a best-selling book on the practice of writing poetry, and he's a beloved teacher of writing not only in San Diego, but across the nation. He's not just some guy; he's a big deal.
It may be interesting that the defenses come from participants in the book. It's may be much more interesting that Raftery seems to be the only critic who has actually read the book. Even Avitable seems to have only seen it. The rest of the criticisms come from people who have simply only read this long-winded and weirdly self-serving review. 
I guess if the point of all work that focuses on East County is to promote the area like a huckster booster would have in the 1930s, then The Far East Project fails. But that was clearly never the intent of the project. The book was based on submissions; if there weren't any submissions about Raftery's particular obsessions, that says more about the writers and artists who live in East County and not very much about its editors. 
I assume that in her anger, Raftery mistyped in claiming that the editors "omitted materials that should have been crucial to include for a balanced view of our region to present to the world," since this is claiming that the editors deliberately chose to portray East County in a negative way. Does Raftery have any evidence that work that portrayed East County in her preferred way -- as an Eden without "rednecks, racists, illegal immigrants, poor white trash, hookers, and gun-toting gangbangers" -- was rejected? Does Raftery have have any evidence that the book was put together by "city slickers focused on sensationalism"? Since it has been pointed out over and over again that the editors and organizers are all from or currently live in East County, that the book was put together based on submissions, how exactly do city slickers, their focus, and their sensationalism come in? Does Raftery have any evidence for such a charge? If not, Raftery should control her language. 
Fine, Raftery doesn't like the book. But the ad hominem attacks on its editors are scurrilous, and nearly libelous.

city slicker

My reference alluded to the project director who writes for CityBeat and has not lived in the rural areas, thus is probabyl less familiar with their issues than he should have been. 

I don't know what else was submitted or rejected for inclusion, but it is still an omission if they failed to seek any balance.  They sought out poets to round up public submissions but not photographers or journalists famliar with the region to round out public entries that were skewed toward urban not rural issues and toward darker issues and in some cases, negative stereotypes about East County.  I have been an advocate for the disadvantaged as anyone who has read our site for a while would know.  

My hometown


I was born at El Cajon Valley Hospital, where my grandmother was a nurse. My parents were highschool sweethearts at El Cajon Valley High. They met at the Mother Goose Parade. My grandmother went to Grossmont. I have photos of when my grandparents first married and El Cajon was basically rural and lovely. -- I went to the closing ceremony and listened to the people who spoke. I was moved to tears and inspired! I was proud of my roots in El Cajon. I know amazing and wonderful people in East County. I've seen great creative output and valuable civic efforts. I am watching, with fascination, as the demographics evolve. I've been around the world and wear my El Cajon roots proudly. It gives me a grounding that I treasure. 

Miriam, I also am not happy with a skewed vision of El Cajon. It's the very thing many people involved dealt with growing up and the reason some people want to be involved in this project. They wanted to either bring another view or to be the one to tell the not-so-pretty - from the inside. From personal experience. Not some outsider's assumptions or stereotypes. 

I'm going to find a way to be involved in future phases of this project so I can share what East County means to me. Yes, it's beautiful. It also has ugly parts. It's all a mix - and that's ok with me. This book was not intended as a travel guide, a promotional brochure or a list of local issues. It's individual stories. If you don't like what's represented there maybe you should have added your voice. I, for one, appreciate the hard work and effort that went into this. It may not be perfect but that's ok. Are all of your efforts perfect? It was a big undertaking and I would like to give some credit to the ceators for trying to make something personal and professional. Clearly, the project has "inspired" you to undertake your own effort to share East County's story. I think that's great and I'd like to participate also.

(PS - "city slickers focused on sensationalism?" Now who's stereotyping?)

Letitia, thank you.

I would welcome your involvement and help from all who will assist us to tell the stories of those in our rural, mountain and desert areas who were left out, as well as others whose views were not included for whatever reason. 

The city slickers remark referred to a project director who I understand writes for CityBeat, not an East County publication, and who does not live in our rural, mountain or desert areas.  I have clarified the statement.

I do understand that the individual writers were telilng their own perspectives. It should have been an editor's job to assure that a wider variety of perspectives were included, and that the imagery more accurately reflected the wide breadth of experiences in all of East County, not just the urban portions. 



Far East Project

The goal of the Far East Project is to show our world as it is. It's a pretty gritty place (and also not). For years I drove to Cuyamaca College to teach. Going from paradise (Descanso) down the hill to El Cajon (Second Street, Easty Main) was a descent in so many ways. It just reminded me of why I live in this world. It's not just to drink in the beauty of the Cuyamaca Mountains and eat Julian Applie Pie; it's to share my good fortune with others (I am a teacher). I taught an early morning class. I saw the hookers wandering "home" -- and more; I witnessed many a payoff to a pimp and a few slaps in the face. Around 6:30 in the morning you can see drunks and strung-out addicts picking themselves up and homeless FAMILIES wheeling their belongings out from under the bridge to look for breakfast. Some of these people showed up in my classes, too, looking to the community college to help them get a second chance in life. I promise you there is NOTHING more beautiful than a kid who goes to school for the financial aid to support his mother and brother and ends up discovering he's INTELLIGENT and has somewhere to go. It doesn't LOOK pretty, but it IS beautiful. 

I moved here from City Heights where I lived for 17 years. I lived in the midst of a rapidly changing, at times very dangerous, neighborhood. Many of my friends who drove from the loftier regions of La Jolla or Mission Hills were afraid to leave their cars in my drive way when we went to eat in some ethnic restaurant they'd read about in the reader. They had no idea where they REALLY were. They just saw the lawns weren't watered, the houses weren't well maintained, the kids everywhere, old(er) cars and some random crime news in the Union/Tribune. They didn't see the neighbor's close community or the generosity or the kindness or the hard work or the cultural curosity. I was very happy there and have inspiring stories to tell for the rest of my life.

Your editorial gave me the impression that if you had come to visit me in my City Heights days you also would not have parked in my driveway but insisted I move my car so yours would be "safe" in the garage.

You really should have slept on this thing rather than indulging yourself by publishing it. Your conclusion is an outline for YOUR future project. It's a job description for YOU. The East County Project had/has a different vision. It's no less valuable because it's different -- and not yours.

The only thing that's offensive is this article

While I have not seen the book yet (I no longer live in California) I have been a supporter of the Far East Project from afar via its website.  The combination of the unglancing look at the more distressing aspects of life east of "America's Finest City" with the quirky and the breathtakingly beautiful has moved me often to a homesickness I didn't know I was capable of.  Having not seen the book though, I am unfit to judge whether or not the final product is at all "offensive."  What I can say for certain however, is that Miriam Raftery's article is offensive.  I was somewhat shocked to find such atant hatred of "rednecks," "trailer park trash," and "illegal immigrants" among others expressed in this article. The issue for Raftery is not whether the Far East Project has put forward offensive portrayls of individual people in an effort to aestheticize poverty, and important question for any project like this, but rather, whether is hurts East County's image.  Clearly Raftery is much more comfortable portraying East County as a bastion of white middle class trail joggers.  She can hardly contain her racism and disgust for the poor and working class people who are her neighbors in this review.  It's articles like this that put my homesicknesses check.  

Promoting your own agenda through a 'review'

Review, boiled down into 5 points using Far East as a whipping boy to promote East County Magazine's agenda (confounding, considering Miriam uses much of her review to talk about balance and objectivity).

1. "I will not promote those negative stereotypes by showing you any more of the Far East Project’s photos, or linking to the project website. Instead,  I am sharing images taken by our photographers and readers to show examples of what could and should have been included in any project aspiring to tell the stories of East County and its people."

2. "East County Magazine has thousands of beautiful, high quality images showcasing the natural beauty of our region, the historic character of our communities, the proud heritage of our residents, the resiliency of fire victims in the face of adversity, and the changing faces of our homeland."

3. "We’ve won over 40 major journalism awards for our reporting on East County including photojournalism, investigative reports, multicultural and environmental reporting. I personally have won national honors for community journalism focused on our region.  If we’d been asked to create a “Far East” project, the results would have been something we could all be proud of, not ashamed to see."

4. "San Diego Foundation owes it to the people of East County to atone for this “art” project that is,"

5. "To accomplish that, I propose a grant for our nonprofit news organization, a division of the Heartland Foundation which has been a proud partner with San Diego Foundation in the past."

We did not set out to create East County Magazine V. 2. Sorry Miriam. 

Ryan Bradford, Creative Director of So Say We All. 

Must Be Nice To Live In A Fantasy World

I found the writer of this articles views to be skewed and unrealistic. I grew up in East County - born in El Cajon Valley Hospital in 1970, lived in Alpine, Harbison Canyon, Lakeside, Santee etc. Crystal meth, poverty, Hell's angels, alcoholic cowboys, abuse, desperation, hunger, heat, dirt, schrubs, wild fires, rattle snakes, illegal aliens, sexism, cults... This was a reality for me, and for many of us. I think the Far East Project embraces the reality of East County, or what was reality for many of us, and lets us know that we weren't alone in our experiences and that there are others who can see the beauty and art in the madness that was and is East County. I love these revisionists who want to "restore East County's good name..." what good name? It is what it is. At least some of us aren't in denial about it. We don't want to repaint history with full-color books that show someone elses version of East County and that makes it look prettier than it was. We want to embrace and glorify the reality of our East County. I'm sure for a few, it was a beautiful land of blooming cactus flowers. That wasn't my experience and I find it offensive that someone wants to discount MY reality, simply because it doesn't match with theirs. I'd be happy to send you photos and tell you stories of my reality in East County San Diego. Deal with it. I'm going to write to East County Magazine and let them know how offended I am by you trying to discount my reality.

Class issue?

I admit I come to this not having seen the book, and I rarely comment on articles. But after reading much of this long critique and the comments below it, I'm starting to wonder if class might be the goggles through which people view their beloved East County, as with anywhere else. San Diego (or SoCal in general) has a large population extremely wealthy people, and a large population of very poor people. And of course, a middle class.

I'm finding this fascinating because I wonder if the middle class, upper middle class and the wealthy see all the beauty East County has to offer, whereas the lower middle class and the poor don't get to see those things, or that the beauty doesn't have the same impact on their lives as it does for people who get to take in nature and enjoy leisure time. They might see two very different landscapes, and while some may get to experience an idyllic and wonderful place, others (including not just the poor but those who thrive off the city buzz and flounder in suburban and rural areas) might consider it a place they hope to one day escape. Or, they just notice different things, because they have different details in their surroundings that contribute to their sense of place and home.

If the problem is mainly an imbalance, it also leads me to wonder - why? Perhaps the contributors and editors involved are like most artists, writers and editors - underpaid and undervalued? Which might also contribute to their experiences, the side they get to see and which details hold more weight.

Defending "art" in the east county

The journalist here proclaims "San Diego Foundation owes it to the people of East County to atone for this “art” project that is, in fact, a hit piece denigrating our communities and our people."   Certainly, you jest, for no journalist could make such a pretentious statement.  You, and your readers, may not choose to hang the art of The Far East Project in your home, or keep it on your bookshelf, but you have no right to declare that it is not "Art,"  simply because there are not enough pretty flowers, parades,  and smiling faces in this art collection to suit your taste.  Art is not news reporting, not public relations, not defined by any chamber of commerce for any region or city.  "The activity of art is... as important as the activity of language itself, and as universal." --Leo Tolstoy    

And kindly inform us how many of your supportive readers who praised this "review" actually bought and read the Far East Project for themselves.  Sales must clearly be on the rise. 


Brevity is Key


Criticism is invaulble for us all to experience and I can understand where you are coming from. I am sure you have a long, invested history that validates the points you are making. However, this critique is too long. You've spent over 3700 words to make your point. I actually had to stop reading because your tone wasn't coming off professionally.

My one question to you and your staff (you might have stated in the article), but at any point were you or your staff ever given the opportunity to contribute to this anthology? Did you contribute?

Again, I am sure you have valid points against this project. 

The answering of these two questions will clarify a lot for me.

Nobody contacted us to ask that we contribute.

A local blog publisher sent us an announcement about the competition for photos and essays and we published that on Sept. 23, 2011 o encourage our readers to participate. I don't recall getting anything directly from the project organizers about the contest, other than the announcement of the event last week after winners were chosen.

 I met Justin when we covered a gallery event in El Cajon.  He knows who we are, but did not reach out to encourage us to enter.  I thought about sending something in, lost track of the deadline in a computer crash, but also didn't think it was appropriate for a news editor to enter a photo contest intended for readers. Had I been specifically asked for photos to round out the content (as they apparently did by asking professional poets to supplement what the public sent) I would have been glad to do so. I would also have been glad to refer them to people with oral histories that are fascinating, some stories of hardship, but not all.

supportive of the efforts

As a resident of east county for over 20 years, I believe in what the Far East Project was trying to do. Not everyone will have the same outlook on what East County is or what symbols represent it. This article is unfair to say the least because what these people are trying to do is tell things from their point of view and who are you to judge what is a misrepresentation of what they see as important. You may think views from Mount Helix are what really make the land out east special, but there are those of us who have grown up in the thick of what El Cajon has to offer and find beauty elsewhere. I saw the same woman in short pink shorts and a pink fur coat everyday when I walked home form school for 6 years, I became familiar with her, and she is one thing that represents El Cajon to me, and I think she is much more beautiful than a view from atop a mountain. I want people to of course respect the scenic and cultural history of the area, but also know what its residents everyday lives and emotions are like. The Far East is a truthful representation of that. 

A People's History of East County

Miriam, as someone who has followed this project rather closely since its inception, I figured I'd chime in.

First off, I wanted to point out your magazine's Oct. 7 post regarding submissions for photos for the project, which was just one of many ways in which I know that the community was reached out to by the Far East Project in order to keep as broad a voice as possible.  Here's that link if you need it--http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/11148.  If you've followed the Far East Project, I'm guessing you've noticed that its end product is not stricly relegated to this first publication, which is very clearly a People's History, with contributions from long time residents of El Cajon and the surrounding areas.  This was not intended to be a travel guide; plenty of other avenues, most especially this magazine, already cover many of the news items and the sights and sound of the area.  To me, this publication gives voice to just some of the everyday dwellers of the area.  I also don't imagine that this publication was intended to be an all-encompassing overview of the region and its history, but to allow an outlet for observations by its own residents looking to help others understand what makes East County so unique, and in a way that hasn't previously existed.  It's also clear to me that the power of this publication derives largely from its contributors; I doubt anyone was told what to write, but rather felt the need to convey their own existence within the confines of East County.  The project itself has plenty more to contribute beyond this, and projects like these in general don't have any room to be precious in their approach; it's owed to the denizens of this area, or any area, really, to keep things raw and real, not glamorous, without worrying about the filter of those who would rather tuck away aspects that some might deem "offensive."  

I'd also like to say that I'm interested to see how your readers might feel AFTER they've read the book, rather than just responding to your own critique of it.  Personally, I'd be more than happy to see your own project; anyone with the drive to give their own take own their lives and towns/cities/etc. should take every opportunity to let their voices be heard.  The Far East Project: Everything Just As It Is is just one collection of those voices.

Thanks for your time.

Craig Oliver

Response to Far East Editorial

(Disclaimer: I have not read the book [though I did order it yesterday]; some of my photos are featured on the site and in the exhibit.)

It was with great disappointment that I read yesterday’s editorial about The Far East Project. I have long been a supporter of Raftery’s work in this one-of-a-kind online publication, so it was with an especially heavy heart that I saw her dismiss another unique attempt to give East County a voice.

The crux of Raftery’s argument is that the project is rife with East County stereotypes, that it is “filled with ugliness,” “devoid of inspirational value,” and “culturally insensitive,” among other sins. Since she refuses to link to the website or present more than a handful of carefully selected images, she also asks us to simply take her word for it. (Instead, you can see for yourself at http://fareast.sosayweallonline.com/.)

What Raftery fails to mention is that every single contributor is a resident or former resident of East County. The Far East Project isn’t a case of outsiders bashing the region; it’s an attempt (albeit limited) to give first-person voice to some of the insiders. To that extent, Raftery is ridiculing the very population she claims to defend.

One gets the impression that Raftery went into the book and exhibit intent on that ridicule. She interprets every word, every image negatively. Mention a hooker? Oh, that’s bad! (Never mind the poetry of the writer adding dimension to a character that I guess Raftery would just as soon remain hidden.) A photograph intended to show the unanticipated beauty of a late-winter snowfall is described as “a deer with a broken-off antler.” First of all, it’s not a deer; it’s a fake plaster garden deer and just one element of the photograph—tellingly, the only element Raftery focuses on.

Raftery writes, “Efforts should have been made to reach out to local publishers and photographers to assure balance.” I’m not sure why Raftery thinks the views of publishers and established photographers are more legit than those of local residents, but the statement itself speaks to her misunderstanding of the project.

In addition, Raftery overlooks that Far East is a fledgling effort: it’s new, the organizers are young, there’s no template to follow, and they had only a year to complete the work. Was the project overambitious? Perhaps. Would we be better off had it not even been attempted? No way.

Raftery also glosses over the distinction between journalism and a creative endeavor such as the Far East Project.  Far East was intended to present individuals’ perspectives; by definition, such accounts are situated and limited. I’m guessing, but I doubt that anywhere in the proposal or other associated materials did the organizers suggest that this project would result in a comprehensive 360-view of the region.

I do agree with Raftery on one key point: the quality and breadth of the project could have been enhanced with a broader range of submissions. Publicity of the project was thin. A resident of East County, I found out about it only through a friend who was on the mailing list for the San Diego Foundation. I don’t know what outreach attempts were made by project organizers—small ads in some local publications would have no doubt elicited a response that went beyond the arts community.

However, I do know that as soon as I found out about the call for photographs back in September, I immediately posted about it (http://lawsonvalley.blogspot.com/2012/09/photographers-help-tell-east-countys.html) on the Lawson Valley blog (which is probably read by all of three people) and contacted Raftery  (whose publication is probably read by thousands) to let her know. She indicated that she would definitely publicize the event. Unfortunately, that never happened.

I hope that Justin Hudnall and others who worked on the project, contributed submissions, or otherwise helped out will not be discouraged by this one negative response. Indeed, Raftery’s editorial suggests that more, not fewer, perspectives are needed in the region. Let’s get to work.



Although I searched East County Magazine for an announcement regarding the call for photos and didn't find it, that was my failure. Raftery did in fact run a story on the project: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/11148. My sincere apologies for the oversight.

offended by offendedness.

Wait, there weren't enough pretty nature shots?? I remember a squirrel drinking orange juice out of a jam jar. It doesn't get much more Bambi than that.

I'm saddened by how narrow your definition of art seems to be. Yes, there was a poem about hookers in east county, but I've lived in East County, and guess what? There are hookers there. The poem about Pete's Cocktails in La Mesa makes me laugh, because that's a fixture of East County that deserves to be celebrated as much as the howling coyotes and Mt. Helix sunsets do. But of course, that poem would likely never land itself in your magazine, so thank goodness it got picked up somewhere.

Please don't forget Eudy's poem "Persimmons," Sherlock's story about waking up to a parade on El Cajon Blvd., or Misty's narrative of a crowded bus ride. All those paint pictures of East County that complicate your cherry-picked rendering of Friday's event.

If you wanted to publicize East County magazine, present "your view" of East County, and generate grants, maybe you should have entered something into the contest instead of slamming this grassroots organization.

Your derisive tone is indictative of the problem here.

No, a squirrel drinking from a jar is not an adequate representation of the spectacular natural beauty of our region.  Hookers, bars, and crowded bus rides are only a small slice of East County, and I doubt most residents would see those as topics worthy of "celebrating."  The project was misrepresented.  If they wanted to do a project focusing on the dark underbelly of the region it should have been positioned that way.  If it was supposed to be representative of our region, they left too many important things out.  Sure, the Persimmons poem is nice.   So are a couple of other essays/poems.  It's just too little, and the visuals were 100% skewed toward urban decay and unsavory images. Why is there no one affiliated with this project wililng to say "We screwed up--we should have had a more balanced approach to include photos of places people take pride in." as a pretty obvious starting point for what's wrong with this project. Stop trying to justify the failure to run even ONE positive image.

I contemplated submitting an entry at one point and didn't as I lost track of it in a computer crash, however in hindsight I'm glad I didn't as I would not want my name associated with this project.  I would very much like to know if they had nicer photos that they chose not to publish, or if what was in the book was really all they had to choose from. Even if the latter, the project leader surely should have reached out to local photographers to get photos representative of all of East County. To not have a single image from our mountains, deserts or rural areas and yet position this as representative of East County is an insult to ever resident of those areas, and even those who live in East Couinty's urban core who appreciate the beauty of our backcountry.  And if exposing gritty problems facing poor people was a goal (a worthy goal, I might add) why were the problems of rural residents left out?  Where are the stories about Powerlink and wind projects destroying communities and endangering people's health? Wells running dry?  Losing fire insurance? Fire survivors still living in trailers?  Even as a critique of East County it falls short.

I do not fault the writers, for the most part.   The blame lies with those who put the book together and omitted materials that should have been crucial to include for a balanced view of our region to present to the world. 


Readers weigh in on the Far East Project

I will post comments as received by email and Facebook. Please post your own comments below!

  I've added a sampling of Eldonna Lay's remarks into the story above, as she was involved in the project and penned a justification of her support.  Below are comments from readers who found the Far East Project objectionable:

--"Nicely written and illustrated article. Who was this book designed to benefit? If it does not benefit East County, then what is its purpose? My mouth is hanging open."--Cindy Spencer, writer, editor, and educator in Ramona

--“I’m very surprised to learn this was supported by San Diego Foundation, I've only heard good things about them in the past! It irks me to no end when I hear self-proclaimed "San Diegans" diss our East County communities and I see this an opportunity to counter the negatives you've described by featuring the positives about the treasures in the East County!” – Mike Hancock, News Reporter/Anchor

--“Great review!  The west of 5 group has viewed the east of 5 group as hicks, red necks and farmers since I was a kid.  Guess it is just their mentality to limit their views to the "city life."  Choosing to go through life without opening your eyes and enjoying the real beauty of rural life and open spaces, sounds like a very closed minded group to me.  People see what they want to see.  If they need to ridicule us and picture us in a way that justifies their lack of a "real" outlook on life, only sends a signal to me that they still only live on the west side of 5.” – Parke Ewing, Ocotillo resident

--"What a wonderful piece of writing to combat this lunacy.  You have my complete support.  SDF is across from my office in Pt. Loma.  One of its executives attends our church, Foothills UMC in East County.  I am dumbfounded.  Recall Ed Fletcher in his memoirs focused on the fact the true value in San Diego is in our back-country."--Bill Pate, attorney, Mt. Helix

--"Thanks for alerting us to this project.  It's high time that East County had its life and conditions described in a balanced way.  But, the Far East Project is done.  According to your perspective, it seems to focus on what is most unsavory about the area.  I agree that the situation should be remedied.  If you can get a grant and address the full range of issues that should be covered, that would be appropriate, I believe.  I do want to note that there are many people in East County who are living in poverty and need a great deal of help, which they are not getting from anyone, especially elected officials.  Many folks who were burned out are still living in trailers on their burned out properties.  Some are living in worse conditions.  In some places it's like Appalachia.  Some never got insurance sufficient to rebuild according to the new fire resistance requirements.  Some never had insurance at all...Water sources are drying up.  Some water companies will no longer provide service to new residents because wells are insufficient.  The prolonged drought has caused the trees to die after they are attacked by the pine beetles, thus creating a greater fire hazard.  Older people who live in the mountains often lack cars or the funds to drive anywhere.  So, many are without medical care and sufficient nutrition...Yes, there is beauty there, but it is often overlooked because many flatlanders do not go up to the mountains.  The few that go, are tourists and don't have to deal with the daily issues that face the residents." -- Bonnie Burns Price, PhD, past president, La Mesa Democratic Club

(Editor's note: I agree with all that Bonnie says above. These sorts of issues are worthy of coverage. Another shortfall of the Far East Project is its focus mainly on the more urban areas of East County while omitting issues facing rural and mountain residents. Perhaps that should be a focus of another project. Poverty in a rural area can be even worse than in an urban environment because there is no public transportation. How do you access medical care or even buy food if you can't afford a car?) 

--"Miriam, I read your article with great interest, as I can vouch for all your excellent coverage of East County and the amazing number of community events- a clear indication of a thriving loving community! I have also fought alongside your passionate activists who have fought tooth and nail against overwhelming odds (and WON!) to defeat negative powerful elements that threatened the peace and spirit of East County. I do hope you are given the means of producing a parallel and positive narrative as it is truly warranted." - Pat Gracian

--"I agree with your statements and comments regarding the overemphasis on negative aspects of our East and North County communities.  There are problems with poverty but the percentages of struggling people in rural towns are far lower than in the cities. My family lived in Alpine for 20 years.  There were areas where homeless migrant workers lived, but to say that no one helped them is completely false.  We hired them and gave them food as well as to any strangers who asked.  There were free food programs offered locally every two weeks provided by the federal government...The only "gangs" were teenagers who had too much free time and money, members of mostly well-heeled families....Alpine is a generous and giving community that provides humanitarian services through individual giving and group charities like the Lions Club or Kiwanis, Women's Club, the Community Center and numerous churches. We moved to Julian 12 years ago, and the same is the case here...People work for years and save or strive to live in Julian and Alpine because these are communities that pull together when times are tough, not just for the well off, but for everyone, and certainly anyone less fortunate.  I'm sorry there are misanthropic people around who enjoy writing malicious and maligning books that focus on the less fortunate instead of highlighting the good that exists every day in every town throughout San Diego's unincorporated communities.  More effort at shining light on available resources for the poor and needy might enable them to find help rather than denigrating compassionate and caring people for the fact that the poor exist in the first place." --Bonnie Gendron

--"I support your goal of creating an East County project to restore our region's good name. If you think I can help, let me know."-- Billy Ortiz, East County resident, video /photojournalist, Volunteer of the Year 2010 East County Magazine, neighborhood news stringer for San Diego Reader, Board Member/ Publicity Chair at Lakeside Historical Society, Board Member sub-committee for Lakeside River Park's "San Diego River Field Station at Lakeside/Bostonia House Restoration Project", Award wining Best Art Work  2011  Lakeside River Park Conservancy.

--"I was shocked and very disappointed to read about the Foundation-funded project that denigrates East County instead of actually showing it as it is.  I support the East County Magazine's proposal to portray an accurate picture of our region."--Dan Moody, Professor of English, Reading, and ESL, School of Languages and Literature, Southwestern College

--"This book smacks of an elitist group who decided to trash the East County and then set out to find poetry and pictures to support the story line.  This is NOT a journalist effort, this was a old fashioned hacket job by a bunch of people who obviously do not like anything east of Mission Trails or one of the rancho whatevers.  Where does the San Diego Foundation get its money?  Maybe the feds or private donors should all be e mailed and notified of this twisted book."--Tim Scherer, ham radio operator in rural East County   


Interesting that the only

Interesting that the only messages supporting you seem to be from people who have yet to read the book and form their own opinion.

New comment thread for those who support Far East project

Here are excerpts from a couple of long emails sent by Steve Kowitt, a poet who particpated in the project.  (Interesting that the only emails supportive of this have come from its participants.)  I must say I fail to see how this counters stereotypes about East County, if anything it reinforces them in my view. 

“The Far East anthology is a collection of writings by San Diego poets and fiction writers celebrating the East County communities and landscapes of San Diego.The editors were raised in El Cajon and La Mesa, grew up in East County, and the book they have put together is a labor of love. It is an attempt—an explicit attempt—to counter the denigrating stereotypes about East County, the notion that there is "No culture east of I-8." …This is not an East County PR tourist book but a book by serious and experienced artists and writers celebrating (yes, that's the word for it) their real lives, their real experiences. It is not the genteel collection of prettified pictures that you are looking for. It does not celebrate these cultures by hiding the darker sides. It's art, Miriam, not public relations, not the stuff of slick commercial magazines. There is poverty and grit and violence and, yes, used condoms in urban and rural America.” – Steve Kowitt, poet


Though I haven't seen it, the

Though I haven't seen it, the book sounds like little more than a sophomoric celebration of the sordid.

Ooh, ah!--how  bold! How original. How "authentic!"  Any other outcome would, of course, have been (as some have noted) nothing but schmaltzy sentimentalism. Thank God for intrepid young artists like these who have the wherewithal to plunge headlong into the (predominantly) seedy underworld of East County existence and  return with primitive, sub-humanoid specimens for our enlightened examination.


It may be interesting that

It may be interesting that the defenses come from participants in the book. It's may be much more interesting that Raftery seems to be the only critic who has actually read the book. Even Avitable seems to have only seen it. The rest of the criticisms come from people who have simply only read this long-winded and weirdly self-serving review. I guess if the point of all work that focuses on East County is to promote the area like a huckster booster would have in the 1930s, then The Far East Project fails. But that was clearly never the intent of the project. The book was based on submissions; if there weren't any submissions about Raftery's particular obsessions, that says more about the writers and artists who live in East County and not very much about its editors. I assume that in her anger, Raftery mistyped in claiming that the editors "omitted materials that should have been crucial to include for a balanced view of our region to present to the world," since this is claiming that the editors deliberately chose to portray East County in a negative way. Does Raftery have any evidence that work that portrayed East County in her preferred way -- as an Eden without "rednecks, racists, illegal immigrants, poor white trash, hookers, and gun-toting gangbangers" -- was rejected? Does Raftery have have any evidence that the book was put together by "city slickers focused on sensationalism"? Since it has been pointed out over and over again that the editors and organizers are all from or currently live in East County, that the book was put together based on submissions, how exactly do city slickers and sensationalism come in? Does Raftery have any evidence for such a charge? If not, Raftery should control her language. Fine, Raftery doesn't like the book. But the ad hominem attacks on its editors are scurrilous.