On the corner of Spring and Bowery stands the magnificent German Bank Building. Decades of urban scrawl cover its granite facade and it has been the home of commercial photographer Jay Maisel and his family for nearly fifty years, he still maintains his studio and gallery there. With six floors and seventy two rooms, this breathtaking monument, now an official New York City landmark, stands as a defiant symbol of past glories while around it the ‘Bowery’ is modernized by a plague of eye watering neon and glass. I know that one day some bright young spark from City Hall is going to commission an army of cleaners to descend on 190 Bowery and wipe away all traces of a character that no longer fits into its surroundings. Until then, we can only marvel at its unique, graffiti embellished beauty.
For me, there is something devastatingly moving about this photograph. Fragile, isolated and alone, a very elderly homeless woman sits in the burning heat of a Lexington Avenue summer afternoon. If I hadn’t taken it myself and came across the image with a caption declaring that it was shot on the streets of some third world country, or outside the walls of a refugee camp, I would have believed it. Amazing to think that Bloomingdale’s is only a couple of blocks north of her and the opulent stores on 5th Avenue a few blocks to the west.
Difficult to photograph and hard to comprehend.
Click on image to enlarge
I can’t decide if there is more impact close up or with a wider shot taking in the environment. Isolated images that show the details of the face tend to make a more dramatic portrait style photograph but sometimes the surroundings can add that touch of ‘location’ that anchors the image. The shots below were all taken on the first day of summer. The lost at the bottom of the world and the never likely to be found of New York City.
Where the sidewalk ends and nowhere begins will always be a mystery to me. The first photograph almost hurts, empty eyes lost in some thought, some memory, somewhere that is not here and now, I guess. Holding on?
The second, on the Upper East Side, is someone I see all the time. Always surrounded by trash, like a nest. He is oblivious to the world around him, the biggest disconnect of all, I think.
Finally, on 5th Avenue and proudly announcing his upcoming birthday, this guy always hides his face behind a cardboard sign. ‘Clothes, socks and a Metro Card’ not that much to ask for really. ‘Jesus loves you’ I hope so, someone should!
‘In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends’
Martin Luther King Jr
As someone who has trouble putting together an overnight bag, I am always amazed by the packing and transportation skills of the homeless in New York. The burden of dragging around your possessions on a daily basis is something I can only wonder at. Not just something for the next couple of days, but everything you own! It is hard to put yourself in that position, hard to imagine how the contents of a few grimy plastic bags tied to a trolly can become so important to an existence. How many of us just fling open the wardrobe and throw ‘something’ on without a thought? We ponder, agonize and concern ourselves with how the ‘look’ we have chosen for the day will be perceived by the world around us, by our families, workmates and friends. We twist and preen in front of mirrors to check ourselves out (not me, obviously) before we leave the house, because it is so important to project the right image, to complement our dynamic and generate an air of confidence.
Some of us would never admit to caring that much. Below, are some who just can’t.
New York City has its fair share of the wild, the wacky and the wickedly wonderful (see ‘Peacocks’). As a typically reserved Englishman, I am constantly surprised by the bizarre characters who prowl the streets here without fear of ridicule or confrontation. Manhattan glows like a neon magnet for the strange and the disconnected. I have always secretly admired the people who just go about their lives without a care for what others may think of them or their lifestyle choice. I guess there are not many of us who do not, at some point, harbor a desire to be free of the restraints of acceptability that a polite and narrow minded society imposes on us, but there is a glorious strength in being able to step away from the sepia of normality to dance in the light of a different sun. Obviously, there is a very narrow line between fearless self expression and marginal insanity, many spend their lives standing precariously along it. What makes this nonconformist approach so compelling? The complete lack of need to ‘fit in’ is alien to most of us, and let’s be honest, we all tend to fear what we don’t understand.
So here we are, Ladies and Gentlemen, allow me to introduce the magnificent ‘Prince of Manhattan’ and his faithful and beautifully pedicured companion. Along with a few other edge dwellers who merit a mention.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office has announced that housing support payments to the New York City families left homeless by Superstorm Sandy are to be stopped. It seems compassion and decency has its limits within the halls of absolute power and these victims are a disposable commodity. Like most political cowards, city officials waited until the nation’s gaze has moved on to other things and then lash out from the shadows. Superstorm Sandy’s victims’ desperate situation will now miraculously disappear from the ‘things to do’ list at City Hall and will make Bloomberg’s record look a little neater when he is finally dragged from his office kicking, grimacing and posturing at the end of this year. The removal of financial aid for temporary accommodation will leave thousands of New Yorkers with nowhere to go, hundreds of families will be cast onto the streets and left to fend for themselves through no fault of their own. Disgraceful? Callous? Shameful? Yet another example of the rungs at the bottom of the ladder being sawn through? Yes, yes, yes and yes. But hey, on the brighter side, the NY job figures in the private sector have reached an all time high. Well done Mike!
With over 50.000 people already living in shelters or on the streets here you tend to think that there isn’t room for even more of the desolate and the broken. But this is New York, the greatest city in the world, there is always room, come on in, make yourselves at home and repeat after me: “can you spare any change?”
Vulgar of manner, overfed, Overdressed and underbred, Heartless, Godless, hell's delight, Rude by day and lewd by night; Bedwarfed the man, o'ergrown the brute, Ruled by boss and prostitute: Purple-robed and pauper-clad, Raving, rotting, money-mad; A squirming herd in Mammon's mesh, A wilderness of human flesh; Crazed by avarice, lust and rum, New York, thy name's "Delirium."
Byron Rufus Newton (1861-1938)