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THE LOWER EAST SIDE, BEFORE IT BOOMED
By JOHN STRAUSBAUGH
in: New York Times, September 24, 2009
IN the window of a small storefront art gallery on Rivington Street called Alife Presents, a plasma screen scrolls through a portrait gallery of the Lower East Side of Manhattan as it used to be. More photos hang on the walls inside. Black and Hispanic schoolchildren smile. Crips and Bloods flash gang signs. Dope crews and drag queens posture. Homeless men, hookers, bikers, punks, eccentrics, artists and the postman grin and pose.
The photos are part of a crowded exhibition (through Nov. 8) called “Clayton Patterson: L.E.S. Captured.” Although none of the photos are more than 25 years old, Mr. Patterson says he considers them historical documents. The Lower East Side has changed a lot since he took most of them. A real estate boom pushed out many of Mr. Patterson’s subjects and brought in a new, affluent population.
“I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was capturing the last of the wild, free, outlaw, utopian, visionary spirit of the Lower East Side,” he said recently.
With his companion, Elsa Rensaa, Mr. Patterson came to New York from Calgary, Alberta, in 1979. In 1983 they moved into 161 Essex Street, over a Hispanic dressmaker’s shop, and Mr. Patterson began obsessively documenting his adopted neighborhood.
With his long goatee, biker-black outfits and camera bags, he became a fixture of the neighborhood himself. He shot on its streets and in its nightclubs and rock clubs, now vanished.
He recorded police battles with squatters and anarchists, most notably the clashes around Tompkins Square Park in 1988. He was arrested more than a dozen times by camera-shy police officers, one of whom knocked out a couple of Mr. Patterson’s teeth with his baton.
Over the years he has amassed a huge archive that he estimates comprises hundreds of thousands of photographs, some 2,500 hours of video and 300 audiotaped interviews, plus a large collection of heroin bags he picked up off the streets, graffiti stickers he peeled off walls, books, articles, posters, postcards, tattoo art and other Lower East Side ephemera, “much of it rare because it was underground or illegal.”
“It’s empirical history, immediate history,” he explained. “I go where my nose leads me. It’s a wealth of material, but it’s one guy’s view of it. The history of the Lower East Side is dense, multicultural and diverse. There are multiple layers within the community. You had Jews, Asians, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, avant-garde filmmakers, tattoo parlors, the gay clubs, the art scene. It takes having documented all these different circles to get how they connected.”
In recent years Mr. Patterson, 61, has begun to edit books about some of those circles. “Captured: A Film/Video History of the Lower East Side,” edited with Paul Bartlett and Urania Mylonas, was published in 2005, and “Jews: A People’s History of the Lower East Side,” edited with Mareleyn Schneider, will be published next year. (Both are from Seven Stories Press.)
Mr. Patterson waxes elegiac when speaking of how his neighborhood has changed:
“The Lower East Side was a crucible for creativity. Artists and intellectuals were drawn here because they could afford to live and create here. When Lou Reed moved here from Brooklyn in the ’60s, he rented an apartment on Ludlow Street for something like $38 a month. Now it’d be $3,000. I don’t think there’ll be any more Lou Reeds on Ludlow Street. All of the geniuses who were here because of the cheap rents are gone.”
He doesn’t disapprove of all his new neighbors however. In 1999 he came upon a group of young people hanging the walls of their new Orchard Street shoe store with more than 300 small-scale graffiti panels, called tags, by artists from all over the city. The store was called Alife. A shared interest in the art forged an intergenerational bond between them.
“I wrote graffiti coming up,” Rob Cristofaro, one of Alife’s founders, said recently. Growing up in Yonkers and White Plains, he had known little of Mr. Patterson’s Lower East Side. “I came to eat and hang out once in a blue.”
Pushed off Orchard Street to make way for a new hotel, Alife relocated, and its owners opened the Rivington Club, selling high-end sneakers, and the A.R.C. Sports Store. Alife Presents is a new addition to the block. Mr. Patterson’s is the second exhibition in the space.
Mr. Patterson rejected the idea that a boutique offering Commes des Garçons T-shirts and $200 sneakers might be an example of the hipster upscaling he says killed the old neighborhood. He said he respects Alife as a small, independent business that has hired staff members from the neighborhood. It’s not so different, he said, from his own Clayton Caps, a line of ball caps hand-embroidered by him and Ms. Rensaa, worn by art and film celebrities like David Hockney, Matt Dillon and Gus Van Sant.
Along with Mr. Patterson’s photographs the show includes “Clayton Patterson’s Front Door Book,” recently published by O.H.W.O.W., with more than 100 pages of portraits Mr. Patterson snapped of neighborhood residents and visitors posing in front of his graffiti-covered front door. (In another indication of how things have changed, Mr. Patterson recently received a notice from the Sanitation Department ordering him to clean the graffiti off his door. It’s the first such notice ever, he said.) Also, an excerpt from the film “Captured,” a 2008 documentary about Mr. Patterson, will be screened.
Alife produced the show with Kinz & Tillou Fine Art, a Chelsea gallery that exhibited some of Mr. Patterson’s photographs in 2007. As he helped to hang the Alife show, Lance Kinz said that in his opinion Mr. Patterson’s work sits comfortably in a tradition of “other New York street photographers and artists-slash-journalists” like Weegee, Jacob Riis, Garry Winogrand and Robert Frank.
“Clayton calls it documentation, not fine art, but it’s done with an artist’s eye and mind,” he said. “And to me his archive is a fascinating conceptual art project, one he’s dedicated his life to.”
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: John Strausbaugh (born in Baltimore in 1951) is an American author, cultural commentator, and host of the New York Times "Weekend Explorer" video podcast series on New York City.
Strausbaugh's books have examined the history of recreational drug use (The Drug User: Documents 1840-1960, co-edited with Donald Blaise, with an introduction by William S. Burroughs, 1990), the intersection of politics and popular culture in the White House (Alone With the President, 1992), the priesthood that spreads the gospel of Elvisism (E: Reflections on the Birth of the Elvis Faith, 1995) and Rock and Roll's infidelity to the youth culture that created it (Rock 'Til You Drop: The Decline From Rebellion to Nostalgia, 2001), which was declared “the definitive word on the senescent Rolling Stones” by The New York Times.