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What is Joppa?

Zack Canepari was commissioned by Habitat for Humanity, an international housing charity, to photograph one of their projects near Dallas, Texas in 2010. What he found was a small, largely poor, self-contained community that could be anywhere in the USA.

He writes of his impressions after having spent a number of weeks spending time with local people:

'After the shoot ended I spent an additional few weeks hanging out there. I'm not really sure why I did. It wasn't that the place has any particular qualities. In fact, that was sort of what stood out about it. Joppa seems like a forgotten place. It's trapped between a train depot on one side and a winding, swampy river on the other.

There are no supermarkets there. There are no schools there. No barbershops, no public transportation and definitely no coffee shops. There is a bridge, a mosque, a pond full of tires, a few horses, a lot of churches and a few hundred denizens.

There is some crime and some drug abuse but none of it is extreme. It's mostly dead end roads, vacant lots, stray dogs and overgrown fields. There really isn't a whole lot there. I guess that's why I liked it. From Joppa you could literally see the skyscrapers of Downtown Dallas but the place could not feel more remote or more present. Somehow time has stopped there.

The name Joppa comes from a city mentioned in the Bible. Jonah sailed from Jaffa before he was swallowed by the Whale. The word roughly translates as "beautiful" in Hebrew and it is one of the last remaining 'freedman's towns' - settlements that were set up by emancipated slaves in the 19th century - in America.

Actually, it's pronounced "Joppy", hence the fact that the locals all spell it Joppy. And hence the fact that no one outside of it knows where it is or what it is. Google maps hasn't a clue. I pilfered the name of this photo essay from a Habitat for Humanity billboard slogan promoting their projects in the Dallas suburb. The billboard asked "Where is Joppa?" and provided a URL for those curious enough to look it up when they got home.

Until a few years ago, the only road into town went over the train tracks at the adjacent depot. As long as there was a train on the tracks, no one got in or out. Stories of fire trucks and ambulances waiting with sirens flashing as fires burned or a citizens' condition worsened were very common. One woman I spoke with lost her mother in the back of an ambulance as it waited to get over the tracks and to the hospital.

Because of the geographic value of the land in Joppa, redevelopment projects have long been in the works. With a river on one side and the City so close by, the real estate value of Joppa is undeniable. To entice investors that might want to replace Joppa with strip malls and track homes, the city finally built a bridge over the train tracks in 2006. A few new roads and a few new houses have since followed.

One day Joppa may change. It might be become part of the American machine - all commercialism and efficiency and size. Google Maps may one day recognise it. But that hasn't happened yet. Today, Joppa is as quiet as ever.

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