Canadian born Naomi Harris is primarily a portrait photographer who seeks out interesting cultural trends to document through her subjects. In June 2012 after living in New York for 15 years she decided to leave and live in her car traveling around America with her dog Maggie in preparation of becoming a US citizen, which she did in August 2013. She currently resides in Los Angeles but returns to her homeland of Canada often to continue working on her project OH CANADA. Thanks to a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, a book and exhibition is planned for 2017 to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday. She also recently completed EUSA which is a reaction to the homogenization of European and American cultures through globalization and is releasing a book by the same title in the spring of 2016.
HADDON HALL HOTEL – “Where Living is a Pleasure”
Recently I was in Miami Beach on an assignment and I walked the streets barely recognizing the city I once called home for two and a half years. So much change and transformation has occurred making me feel virtually a stranger in a strange land.
When I moved down to the Haddon Hall hotel in December of 1999, Miami Beach was barely holding on as the safe haven of the retired person, full of sunshine, cheap rents and the early bird specials. In its place had sprung up a town thriving on debauchery and hedonism. Silicon, sun tan oil and cocaine replaced banlon, Ben-gay lotion and rice pudding. In the mid-eighties the decrepit buildings of South Beach were rediscovered for their architectural significance. Committees were formed and historical societies deemed them to be landmarks. The seedy hotels in the deco district that once provided affordable accommodation for the “snow bird” jumped on the gentrification bandwagon and began to evict the older residents in order to renovate and replace them with a younger, richer clientele.
Haddon Hall was one of the few options available to those seniors who wished to remain. Once used to bunk World War II soldiers stationed in Miami Beach for training, it was the last of the old-time hotels that housed the remaining senior citizens of Miami Beach.
Upon eviction from other hotels many of the beaches elderly ended up at Haddon Hall. The seedy hotel offered the displaced seniors a place to live at a relatively cheap price. Most of the tiny rooms were equipped with a single bed, a television with lousy reception, and a small kitchen enabling the tenant to make their own meals. The pay phones were removed from the lobby so the elderly people were forced to go across the street to make calls on a payphone outside.
Their days were spent sitting on the veranda watching the traffic go by or snoozing by the pool out back. During the winter months, when the seasonal guests arrive, bingo was played three nights a week and twice a week a mediocre trio played big band standards. Most of the conversations overheard at the hotel centered on the “good old days.”
Paradise for the seniors was short lived. Haddon Hall too began its own renovations in the fall of 1999. Rather than closing the hotel down to remodel from top to bottom, they conducted the refurbishing with its inhabitants still inside. Several residents were forced from the prime rooms to smaller ones. The move would be exhausting and emotional for the eighty-year plus person who was given no choice in the matter.
Other inhabitants were deemed as inappropriate guests due to their appearance and declining health and were asked to leave. Those fortunate enough to still have family moved in with them. The only option for the others was to move into a nursing home.
When I discovered the hotel I found a unique community of people society chose to ignore. Suspicious of strangers, I decided to make myself known to them by joining them. I lived at the hotel for two months beginning in December 1999 and became the group’s surrogate granddaughter. By gaining trust and friendship I was permitted into their guarded lives and was able to photograph and learn about these individuals. Eventually I moved into my own apartment but continued my visits to the hotel, sometimes to photograph, others just for company.
The project ended two and a half years later when most of the hotel guests either passed away, moved to nursing homes or became too sick to make the trip down to Florida. I myself moved back to New York in April 2002. These images are a documentary of the hotel’s last days as a place where seniors could live out their golden years.
Today Miami is one of the fastest growing cities in America and hosts such luxurious events as Art Basel Miami. Haddon Hall has had yet another transformation, it’s been remodled and known now simply as “The Hall”. And though the pool exists out back and there are still remnants of the original architectural details the seniors are all gone. But I can still feel the spirits of my friends, the ghosts of the elderly that still winter at Haddon Hall.
For this work, Naomi Harris received the 2001 International Prize for Young Photojournalism from Agfa/ Das Bildforum, honorable mention for the Yann Geffroy Award, and was a W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography finalist.
To view more of Naomi Harris’s work, please visit her website.