Leon Alesi began documenting his central Austin neighborhood in 2014. He has lived in the Bouldin Creek community for more than 25 years — a time span that has seen the downtown-adjacent area morph from a modest neighborhood to one invaded by enormous modern-esque houses squeezed onto the small lots.
The Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association claims 2700 households in the area bounded by Lady Bird Lake to the north, Oltorf Street to the south, South Congress Avenue to the east, and South Lamar Boulevard to the west. Until Colorado River flooding was controlled post-WWII, property was cheap on its south side. And much of the Bouldin Creek neighborhood’s initial development occurred in the 1920s and 1930s, when small bungalows were built among the Live Oak trees.
Called “The Proximity Series,” Alesi’s images speak to architecture and scale. But they also speak to economic inequities, gentrification and a disappearing sense of place.
Built to the absolute limits allowed on a plot of land, the new houses metastasize. Privacy fences and walls stand in aggressive postures. The public realm of the street and the sidewalk is shut out, ignored. So is the neighborhood.
He titles each image simply with a street address.
“The first 15 years I live here didn’t hold much transformation, but for the past ten years the change is happening exponentially,” Alesi says. “I started noticing the ridiculous juxtaposition of newly built architecture, standing next to the classic bungalows.”
When he started, Alesi had been working on a years-long portrait project, capturing people in the intimate settings of their homes. Photographing neighborhood houses provided a creative departure.
And in completely eliminating the human element from his images, Alesi realized something else: a certain element of subjectivity disappeared.
“The absence of people speaks to the changing nature of how we live, with less street-level interaction with our neighbors,” Alesi says. “I really don’t know who I live near anymore.”
When they moved to Bouldin Creek, Alesi and his wife, artist Stella Alesi, repaired and remodeled a 1930s bungalow on West Milton Street, bringing it back from the neglected rental property it had been. They added nothing to the structure’s footprint. On occasion they stage their home as Blackbox, a project space gallery.
Alesi shoots mostly when cloud cover offers a consistent, diffuse light — challenging conditions in Austin where bright sunlight is often the norm.
With their lack of sharp shadows and the flatness of light and composition, Alesi’s images have a visual silence that’s almost dispassionate. Or perhaps even deadpan.
Except that these images are not at all dispassionate or deadpan. They speak of economic inequality and the unchecked consumption embodied in over-large amenity-packed houses. They speak of erasure and a disregard of a place and its history.
Yet Alesi’s images capture a resiliency too, the modest bungalows and their idiosyncratic yards holding their own. Flower pots line up on front porches. A concrete birdbath stakes out a corner close to the sidewalk. Sporting an orange hue and bright turquoise trim, a one-story home remains resolute between two towering newcomers.
Since starting “The Proximity Series” Alesi spends perhaps one day a week documenting his neighborhood. But he often finds it particularly compelling when a house is in the process of being razed or moved. Then he returns every day to witness the erasure.
It’s not just about capturing a potent visual moment. Witnessing the change, he says, “allows me a deeper connection to my neighborhood and its land.”
Alesi has no plans to end the series, at times feeling at its service, as if the work has taken on a drive of its own.
“I’ve been unwilling to let the change happen without creating my archive of it,” Alesi admits. But the inability to let go of his project provides him with a existential benefit as it were.
Says Alesi: “It allows me a space to understand that change is a process, and I am a part of that change.”