Photographer Rachel Portesi is the Edge of Humanity Magazine contributor of this photo essay.  From the ‘Birge Street Project’.  To see Rachel’s body of work, click on any image.


Lilly, Laundry


David’s Porch


The “Birge Street” photographs might not exist had I not purchased a Honda CB360 motorcycle. It required constant repair, and due to my tight finances at the time, I was determined to fix it myself. My neighbors, curious and maybe amused by a college girl and the motorcycle, soon became a valuable resource. They were adept at fixing broken cars, appliances, and motorcycles. I didn’t set out to photograph or write about my neighbors. My project evolved through friendships, relationships, and my own interest in their lives. In time, an elaborate social structure that helped secure knowledge and parts for such repairs became evident. In the early 1990s, before our reliance on the internet, this special sort of knowledge could not reliably be found in libraries. It could only be procured through a fascinating word-of-mouth network.




Reagan, Guns


Recently, I’ve been thinking about those relationships formed during that time in my life. I am fortunate to have met and shared time with such a remarkable community. It’s no wonder I was drawn to my Birge Street neighbors. My father’s side of my family is working class. Only my uncle attended college beyond trade schools, but several of my generation received four-year degrees. My cousins who did not go to college have been successfully employed.  My mother’s side remains bogged down by generational poverty. Drug addiction, prison sentences, and sex workers are scattered throughout this populous family tree. Many of these relatives have seen their children taken by social services. There are some happy notable exceptions in all four of my mother’s children. Additionally, my mother’s sister and her children have built a strong matriarchal family branch.  The greatest story of success concerns my cousin, whose mother had been a sex worker. Not only has my cousin climbed out of poverty and found business success, but he has also become an important role model and mentor in the very community in which he was raised.  


Irene’s Magnet Collection




I began college in 1991, and it was there that I first realized the extent of the vast inequality in our country.  Many of my classmates enjoyed opportunities I didn’t even know existed. I was shocked. I felt ripped-off. Tricked. My confusion and anger helped me connect with my neighbors. I could see beauty and value in the ways they lived.   

It’s hard to imagine working on this project today. YouTube might have answered my questions and I might not have met my neighbors. Today, during this time of national division, my neighbors might not have been open to meeting me. Would a young student form the same friendships today as I did then? The divisions we live in now feel dangerous and wrong. It’s difficult to see a way around it.   

I fear these images might be misinterpreted. I’m hesitant to put these photographs into the world without the ethnography to accompany them. The people pictured here are dear to my heart. They let me into their homes, families, shared their hopes, dreams and lives with me. I am forever grateful for the way it helped me accept and love the two halves of my own family and thus integrate two sides of myself.




Hand Gun


All images and text © Rachel Portesi



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By Rachel Portesi




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