Justin Hudnall, project director of The Far East Project.
Eldonna Lay, historian, author, former educator and curator of the Knox House Museum in El Cajon.
Related Story: Stories From 'The Far East' (East County That Is)
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Many coastal dwellers in San Diego used to sport bumper stickers proclaiming there is no life east of I-5. That flippant comment represents a certain dismissive attitude toward inland San Diego, especially our remarkable east county communities. And it's an attitude a new art project is hoping to help change. The far east project made possible by the San Diego foundation is documenting poem, stories, pictures, and performances about life in east county. A book encompassing the project has just been released, called the far east, everything just as it is. My guests, Justin Hudnall is project director. Welcome to the program.
HUDNALL: Thank you so much for having me.
CAVANAUGH: And Eldonna Lay is here, historian, author, and curator of the Knox House museum in El Cajon.
LAY: Thank you for inviting me.
CAVANAUGH: Calling this the far east project is a little strange. It conjures up a very far away place. Is that how you think the rest of San Diego remarks the east county?
HUDNALL: Well, the title is a very tongue in cheek kind of jab that I think a lot of us who grew up in east county feel. Eldonna likes to job it takes a lot longer to drive into El Cajon than it takes to drive out. And it's a very psychologically distant place, but not physically at all. It takes about 15 minutes to get from downtown San Diego to downtown El Cajon, but it's a world away. I think it was -- we would say you're going down the hill, or I don't want to go into the city. Or you wouldn't go to the beach, you'd go to the lake. So it's very cultural separated. Of so we were kind of doing this as a nod to that phenomenon.
CAVANAUGH: How did this idea come about to focus an art project on the east county?
HUDNALL: Well, there's a lot of people involved in this project. And they all kind of came at it from their own interests. But I'll tell you how I got involved and why I wanted to do this. I started in a nonprofit about four years ago called so say we all, and we do a lot of literary arts education, performance, readings, publishing. But it's this idea that everyone needs to tell their story. And it should be artistic, but it's also psychologically important. For me, and for my friends growing up in east county, it was a place that everybody had a lot of assumptions about. And we encountered this yet, we encountered a lot of stereotypes. You say you're from east county, and they immediately feel like they know you're story, and it's not necessarily a flattering one. And if you're not able to tell your own story, there are ramifications. So I wanted, and I met a lot of great collaborators like Mindy Soliz, and she came up with the title, wanted to just do a zine. And she had this idea. So when we applied for this creative catalyst grant, fellowship from the San Diego foundation this year, and we were so lucky to get it through the sponsorship of writers Inc., this was the first piece of the far east project we wanted to do was this book. Because the question, how do you tell the story of a city? It's so overwhelming, it could go on for so long. I think the answer we came up with is you don't. You get out of the way and you allow all of these different myriad perspectives that east county embodies to tell their own story. Even if they contradict.
CAVANAUGH: Let's hear a sample of one of the poems that's included in the book, the far east. This is from poet heather you'dy.
NEW SPEAKER: I traced the seasons this way, by this orchard. Where trailer and highland converge, a mid-grassland. Where wildlife research has won against gated developments. My hometown offers plenty of questionable pursuits. Nationalism, rodeos, methamphetamine. But the grove line redeems this place. In fall, still breathing, I pay for a bucket -- to fill with red/orange harvest. One after the other, I pluck, alone. Under a sky of their ripe, heavy, tart, sweet, strange to most American, while I add more to my pale, already overflowing.
CAVANAUGH: That was heather you'dy, reading her poem persimmons. Tell us a little bit about this poet.
HUDNALL: Well, heather is a great example of some of the voices that have come out of east county. These a professor at southwestern, I believe, and before that, she was at SDSU. And we have access to a lot of these really great voices through the faculty. Grossmont college. And Sid brown was our project mentor there. And when I was recording this piece, we got to talking, and I'm sorry heather if I'm airing your dirty laundry, but she was telling me that it was really hard for her to write about east county where she's from. I think she grew up in Ramona. And she was telling me about how she would fly in after moving away that she got this kind of sense of dread. Not because of what's there but because when she left, she put it behind her and compartmentalized it. And that was my experience too. When I moved to New York at 18, I'm out, I'm moving on. But it stays with you. And this was her chance to confront that, as I think it was for a lot of the contributors in this become to look at and own your story where you're from in all of its glory and rough spots.
CAVANAUGH: You helped guide this project. El Cajon is celebrating its centennial this year. Give us a background on this city that so many people have so many different ideas about
LAY: Well, are the city is formally 104 years old on this you've, the 12th. But there were years before that when the settlers were moving in, and they came because the valley was so rich agriculturally, and it had been advertised all over the United States. There are brochures that use the term valley of opportunity, and it was agricultural at that time. And so as people came into San Diego, sometimes they elected to come inland after New Town was born, or built. And those families, some of them were fantastic families, culturally, intellectually, education-wise, moved out there. One of the people who came out, one of the Asher family members, was the hermit of Palomar, who is an absolute treasure for the state. And our historical society received his letters and his writings and everything we have that when the last member of that family died last year that was gifted to us along with the rest of the families' letters and notes and bills from Marston's. And the history of the family starts way back in England.
CAVANAUGH: Tell us a little bit of some of the other perhaps famous people we might recognize who have their roots or connections with El Cajon.
LAY: Well, there are -- usually when that question is asked, people want to know about sports heroes.
[ LAUGHTER ]
LAY: And actors and things. And certainly we have the Greg lubeganisis, and we have the Jimmy Johnsons, but what goes unsaid and unremarked upon are the number of surgeons and medical personnel who are award-winners. The and only that group of people, that profession knows about it, and they're not celebrated outside of Grossmont hospital or whenever else they are working. A lot of them live in the area and work at Scripps. And so there's a lot of traffic going on. But El Cajon isn't limited to the valley. It spills up and over on mount helix and Grossmont and those places. So it's difficult to say where the fame comes from. Does it just come from the valley floor or from Rancho San Diego or wherever else El Cajon is?
CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you, Justin, if you could encapsulate, what are some of the stereotypes that this project about the east county wants to confront and explore?
HUDNALL: Sure. Well, my grandmother is from Arkansas, and she loved going to east county because I think it reminded her of home. And one thing she said that I think is very applicable to this project, we are advanced enough now as a culture to know it's not okay to make fun of people for their religion or race. Hopefully their sexual orientation. But they'll always be able to make fun of poor people. And that is at the core what I think a lot of the stereotype comes from with regards to east county. Because at its core, east county has always been a home for immigrants. The dust bowl, the original settlers, southeast Asian refugees in the '70s, and now the middle eastern population, are the second largest of cal Deans in the country. And of course Mexico. Telling the stories of very strong people who do the best they can and really embody that American ideal they hope we still have of doing better and doing better for your kids and seeking a better life. That's there: It's a guileless country. There is no obsession of irony as much as you find out here.
CAVANAUGH: Let's hear another poem from the book, and the book I'm referring to is the far east, everything just as it is. Here's an excerpt of poet Ron Salisbury reading his poem, considering reincarnation in a bar in El Cajon.
NEW SPEAKER: I spilled beer on the first draft of this poem. It was my first beer, not the third or fourth. I just wasn't concentrating when the bartender leaned over to suds the glasses. I mean, concentrating on the beer. Same thing happened with the hot wings. But this time, she was stretching to get the stoly from the top shelf. So many things happen when you are looking the other way. In justice, prejudice. What really mattered to your last wife. A career: The tricked out Ford 350 at the stoplight. What day was your birthday anyways? I promised to do better next life. This one is worn at the salvage edge and compromised by inattention. Isn't it the Hindus that believe each newborn spirals higher toward perfection if this one is carefully lived?
CAVANAUGH: That San excerpt of considering reincarnation in a bar in El Cajon by poet Ron Salisbury, and that is from the book from the far east project called the far east, everything just as it is. I want to ask you, Eldonna, I just talked about Justin about stereotypes and so forth about the east county. What do you think San Diegans in general need to learn more about the east county?
LAY: Well, I think east countyians need to learn it too. And that is that the first settlers had considerable money. They came in on government land and purchased more land to go with it, and then they ordered seeds and trees from all over the world and planted them on hundreds and thousands of acres. So I think it's important to understand that they brought with them the culture of Boston and the culture of New York City, and they were used to fine things where many fine musicians who came in, people with theatrical backgrounds. Madame Schumann-Heink. She was such a famous opera star. And the framework for the organ pavilion in Balboa Park has a bronze plaque dedicated to her.
CAVANAUGH: That's interesting.
LAY: And so there were others too who lived on mount Helix. It was a retreat for them. She made it her permanent home, but it was built as a retreat for artists who travelled.
CAVANAUGH: You make a really interesting point about the kinds of things that these early settlers brought with them. There's a particular beauty about areas of the east county. People talk a lot about the surf and the sand in San Diego. But does this book address that particular look of the east county?
HUDNALL: Very much so. There's so much in this book that really addresses the topography and the natural beauty and the unique urban beauty also that you find there that you wouldn't find elsewhere. And part of San Diego's glory is you can stand on the beach in Ocean Beach and see the mountains in east county. And it is a semirural area, and it is a semirural people. And it's very celebratory of that. And what Eldonna was saying about the early settlers, for me it was so liberating having this connection, all of the voices in our book, they're living writers. But we all kind of have the sense that it had always been the way we knew it growing up. And to see -- it just really reenforced what's maybe obvious to some of your listeners, that it's so important to know where you're coming from, and it defines where you're going a lot of the time.
CAVANAUGH: The far east project, 2012, closing ceremony happened Friday night at 3rd Space in university heights. Thank you very much, both of you, for speaking with us.
HUDNALL: Thank so much for having us.
LAY: You're welcome. Glad to be here.