Time seems to drift away while driving winding highway 160 through the Delta of Northern California. The road meanders through a system of levees, dredged islands, and the Sacramento River. It continues past tiny hamlets struggling to survive in the wake of modern population movements to larger, urban areas.
Passing over a second draw bridge along the convoluted route, a series of decayed buildings of western architecture painted with aging and weathered signs touting China imports and similar sayings, sit uncomfortably close to the highway.
This is Locke, California. Locke is a unique place, caught somewhere in the past yet struggling to remain in the present and create a future.
I have photographed in Locke before, but not with my M4. This dependable camera has become my "best friend", delivering consistent results, particularly in low light. I am almost exclusively a black and white film photographer, and my classic Leica M4 is the perfect companion, no matter where I venture!
Most of the town was built in 1915 after a fire in the neighboring town of Walnut Grove destroyed the homes of Chinese immigrants from the Guangdong province. The founder of the town, George Locke, granted the displaced population a lease of roughly nine acres (At this time, individuals of Chinese ancestry could not own property), upon which the town was built. This area of the Delta also became home to immigrants of many nationalities, working primarily as agricultural laborers and in the nearby Libby cannery.
At its height, the town boasted homes, hotels, grocery and hardware stores, and community gardens. Having no police force, it also contained numerous bars, gambling houses, brothels and opium dens. At one time the population was in the neighborhood of 600, and the town was well known as a gathering place for the rowdy.
That was then. This is now.
That was then. Now the current population of Locke is approximately 50, with and only two or three residents of Chinese ancestry residing there.
The gradual loss of population and industry created a decay of the city and its buildings. Even in the present, the buildings of the town are deteriorating in ghost town fashion. Yet, they are inhabited by residents, and the community garden area and orchards still survive. Stores, restaurants, and art galleries make use of the aging structures.
Using its rich history and embracing its unique decay, the town of Locke has positioned itself as tourist destination to survive, and is now a National Historic Site. While not drawing thousands of visitors, the town does garner a fair number of travelers from highway 160. A favorite motorcycle route, the road draws a large number of bikers into the town for a visit to Al the Wop's bar. Bikes can often be found lining the streets with decayed buildings as backdrops.
In spite of the structural decay, there is a definite flow of life in Locke. I stopped in Ning Hou's art gallery, and struck up a conversation with Ning. Born and raised in Shanghai, China, Ning Hou attended the Shanghai Art Institute. He came to the United States as a young man, and became a well-known and respected painter based in Northern California. In addition to his gallery in Locke, Ning also teaches area students in a studio and art school across the street.
Passionate about his teaching, he invited me to not only look at the space, but to attend one of the classes the following week. It is his feeling that the students are the future - not only artistically speaking, but also because he teaches them that through learning and understanding a subject, they will learn respect and understanding of the world around them.
To the Future
I was delighted to sit in on the class the following week. Lighting in the school was less than ideal, but I have found that my M4 handles low light so well I can hand hold in most interior situations. Here I met Lipon, age 11, and watched as he presented his sketches from the previous week to Ning Hou. Later, he worked on his larger piece modeled after the large classical statues placed in the school.
Lipon is one of several amazingly talented students ranging in age from 5 to 12 years. One student resides in Locke, but most venture from as far away as San Francisco.
After class had ended, I strolled back out onto the main street of Locke. More tourists had arrived by that time, some simply looking at the buildings and others moving in and out of local stores and the ice cream parlor. True to form for the town, a fair number of motorcycles lined the street across from Al the Wops bar.
As I left Locke that day it occurred to me that, while Locke may have a more colorful past than most American small towns, it shares a definite connection to them. As populations move toward urban areas, small towns struggle to maintain their roots and survive the present. Locke may be one of the lucky ones that can look toward the future, as well.