Clayton Patterson is a collector, a collector of an instrumental time and history of New York City’s Lower East Side. This photographer, artist and activist has managed to document the streets and culture of the Lower East Side like no other. Compiling a massive archive of the neighborhood and its collective group of characters. And whether you know him or not, his indomitable presence down on the Lower East Side has had a massive impact to New York City and its rich history.
“The history of the Lower East Side is like no other. I was gifted a camera back in 1972 for my birthday from Elsa Rensa. The women who I have lived and worked with for over 40 years. At the time I lived in western Canada when I began taking pictures but it wasn’t necessarily documenting per se, but when I came to New York it was different story. The people who have lived or worked here on the Lower east Side have made such significant contribution culturally and just generally to the history of this city whether they know it or not. Yes I photographed a time in place in history but it is their existence that has forever changed how we see New York. Yet, so often this area is left out of the historical equation.”
Distracted by the Police sirens wailing as they abruptly pull up directly in front of 313 Bowery in all likelihood responding to a call from, the homeless shelter located directly above us. Clayton gives us a mighty chortle. He then turns slightly, and gestures with his thumb towards the red and blue flashing lights.
“You know who doesn’t like the camera? It’s funny how they are so intimidated by the camera and frankly I don’t get it. We live in a world where everything is documented from so many different outlets. We live in the era of reality television and camera phones and yet these guys still don’t know how to behave.”
Clayton is no stranger to the NYPD. On a steamy night down on the Lower East Side back in early August of 1988 Clayton Patterson was venturing out to photograph a performance at the Pyramid Club. What Clayton was about to stumble upon at the foot of Tompkins Square Park would forever change his life.
"My main focus up until that night was really making art, and I was really content doing so. The three hour and thirty minutes of that evenings melee we captured on video pushed Elsa and I right into the ugly world of New York City politics. If you were to watch the tape today it is more obvious that what transpired was a police riot. The most damaging incident in the tape was not cops beating civilians, damaging, yes but unfortunately that happened. The deal breaker was when the white shirts, the commanders were trying to stop the blue shirts from going off on a rampage and their was nothing they could do, they simply failed. The cops just ran by them. In other words no chain of command, no respecting authority and a complete dismissal of order.”
The sheer ferocity that erupted that night led to over 100 complaints of police brutality. As a result of Clayton’s refusal to turn over his riot footage he became a target by the district attorneys office and the NYPD, and was subsequently arrested over 14 times. With the mounting evidence growing several higher ups in the NYPD were forced into early retirement or were transferred. Out of the 100 plus complaints only two officers were charged with using excessive force. Thousands of tax dollars were spent studying the misdeeds and ill-behaviors carried out by the police department that night and the end result was flawlessly exhibited nearly 23 years later in the eviction of Occupy Wall Street protestors residing in Zuccotti Park.
“I know what police corruption is and when you get to the point where cops are just openly brutalizing people as they have down on Occupy Wall Street that stinks of corruption. The police commissioner is a man who is gearing himself up for a political career. New York City cops are like pittbulls on a leash and if you don’t keep that line taunt and really close things are bound to get out of control. When you see the rise in crime and all of these police shootings in New York City today, that is the main indicator that shit is out of control and the problem is systemic. The neighborhoods have always remained the same, yes economically we are in down times but that doesn’t equate to the low ethical standards exhibited by the people who are meant to serve and protect.
All it takes is one bad cop, and that one overly aggressive cop can do a tremendous amount of damage. If you go through my hours of tapes relating to the police riots, it apparent that in many instances it is select few cops who are acting out or who are just thuggish. Most of the cops are just following procedure. But you have to understand the mentality see they stack like dominos and if one falls they all will eventually follow, corruption is a learned behavior.”
As the police caravan exits the Bowery Clayton reaches under the zebra skinned couch reaching for his cup of fine bodega coffee. He takes a gulp and wipes his long whiskers. He scans the walls, cladded with various images of rock icons.
“See what I have done isn’t truly desirable, people want the Keith Richards 16 X 20. But the reality is over one hundred thousand people have probably taken pictures of Keith Richards. And the people who I have documented the people of the Lower East Side, this amazing history, not many people have captured them.”
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