A version of this story appears in Issue 79 of Huck. Get your copy now, or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
When Irish photographer and director Niall O’Brien and his girlfriend Nikki moved to Silicon Valley for a three-month work secondment, they found themselves in a nondescript area called Campbell. They were living in a big, soulless, empty apartment building where Niall would ride his bike around the space because there was nothing else to do while his girlfriend was at work and traveling.
“The most exciting thing I had was running to Whole Foods,” half laughs Niall. His salvation from boredom was Bascom Avenue — a six-mile-long road that crosses through three cities; Los Gatos, Campbell and San Jose. The distance it covered and the juxtaposition of well-off highly paid tech workers alongside huge numbers of homeless people was something he couldn’t ignore. “I just walked up and down that same road,” Niall says. “Never turning off it, trying to find something, which was kind of hard but also interesting. I was there for three months and just kept photographing it.”
These photographs evolved into a project: Three Cities – named after the places Bascom Avenue connects – showing how crazy the whole ‘Silicon Valley situation’ is. The contradictions of how expensive the area is, the tech company employees that are pumping prices up versus an increasing number of homeless people, many of whom are also in full-time employment. “There’s a charity set up here for working people called the Safe Parking Program,” Niall explains. “You have to have a job to apply for it, it’s for working people who can’t afford to rent, so they have somewhere safe to live in their cars. It’s crazy, you have teachers and nurses living in their cars because they can’t afford rent. I actually met a guy in a doughnut shop one day and he commented on my camera and we started chatting about this whole safe parking thing. He’s like, ‘it’s funny you mentioned that as I’m actually thinking about it myself.’ He worked for the local college driving a bus. He’d just gone through a divorce and was looking at living in his car.”
One morning, new inspiration appeared: “I was looking over the balcony into this alley down the side of my apartment building,” recounts the Irish photographer. “And I saw a homeless-looking man down there. He was a guy I had seen before in the alley and also singing for money by the Whole Foods. So when he looked up at me and waved, I was like, ‘Hey, do you want breakfast?’ And I just went and got breakfast with the guy. Turns out his name was Blake and he’d chosen to be homeless — he was off the grid intentionally. He was such a clever man — really smart and articulate, and I started to photograph him as we became friends.” The Three Cities photo and film project had become more than a story about the road and class divide.
As O’Brien and Blake’s friendship started to grow, his new buddy met a woman called Dana and they fell in love — Niall documenting their blossoming relationship and increasing reliance on each other. “Dana had a serious addiction problem,” O’Brien explains. “She was in a very sad place, mentally — we visited her kid’s grave at one point — it was pretty heavy stuff. But it was pretty amazing to get to know them both.”
In the eye-opening, raw and ultimately uplifting short film Niall made as part of Three Cities, Dana credits Blake for changing her life. “I’ve changed my ways now,” she admits. “I learnt from him, to not go back to none of that.” From initially living rough in an alleyway, Blake and Dana managed to buy a van halfway through the project, which they lived in. Niall isn’t entirely sure where they are now. After three months it was time to move back to LA. “I did stay in contact with Dana on Facebook,” O’Brien says. “But we’ve lost touch recently, but I will see them again. It was a beautiful way to pass the time for three months. “For me, it’s the contradiction of Silicon Valley and all its overpriced banality versus the burgeoning homeless situation that is told as you travel along Bascom Avenue, which is the essence of Three Cities.” O’Brien concludes.
“But it’s also a love story. The humanity of the love story of Blake and Dana is important. When I met Blake, he was pushing 60 and alone. Happy, but alone. So it’s a story of a nearly 60-year-old man meeting someone and falling in love. On the street. It’s kind of amazing.”
See a full gallery of the Three Cities project here.