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review

THE POWDERY CONTENTS ARE GONE,

BUT THE STAMP OF ADDICTION REMAINS

By COLIN MOYNIHAN

in: The New York Times, August 1, 2006
Portrait Clayton Patterson  bags
A reflection of Clayton Patterson, a Lower East Side photographer, is seen amid his arrangement of empty heroin bags that he has collected over the years. He says the bags represent part of the neighborhood's underground culture. — Photo by Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

GENERATIONS of addicts have prowled the Lower East Side looking for a fix, and countless bags of heroin have changed hands there. The powder in those bags was quickly consumed; the empty bags tossed aside until most of them were blown away by the wind or washed away by the rain.

But some of them have found their way into a collection maintained by Clayton Patterson.

Mr. Patterson, 58, a photographer, has been collecting “dope bags” for 20 years. Some he found while walking the streets or visiting spots where addicts have congregated. Others were given to him by a revolving cast of characters who shared his fascination.

“This collection reflects a major part of the underground culture in this neighborhood,” Mr. Patterson said. “Dope dealing was one of the biggest parts of the neighborhood and one of the least documented.”

Mr. Patterson said his fascination with the bags started in the mid-1980’s when a heroin user showed him an album in which he had placed bags and listed the places where he had bought them. Over the years, Mr. Patterson has added to that album and started another.

Mr. Patterson estimated that he has collected nearly 2,000 bags, and about 700 of those are cataloged. The bags, which are generally made of plastic or wax paper, bear names or images that identify the contraband inside. Those labels — part turf marker, part marketing message — allowed users to differentiate among dealers and evaluate the drug’s purity.

Although the collection is dominated by heroin bags from the Lower East Side, it also includes a few from Brooklyn and a handful that once contained cocaine.

The collection, viewed page after page in the albums, has a magnetic quality, even when considering the untold misery that the contents doubtlessly created. Some of the labels, like D.O.A., Body Bag, Post Mortem or Poison, seemingly embrace the dangerous reality of their contents. A brand of heroin sold on the Lower East Side in 1982 was stamped with letters that spelled AIDS. There are brands named F.B.I. and Secret Service and others called Forsythe or 4th D, which refer to where the heroin was sold. Devil’s Bag, sold in 1985, was stamped with a Manhattan phone number.

Though the collection might strike some as grisly, Mr. Patterson thinks it has a lasting value and is hoping to create a book to document the history of heroin in the area.

“We’re talking about relics from a Lower East Side street drug culture that is gone,” he said. “I think evidence of that time deserves to be preserved.”

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