Monday, October 12, 2009

Welcome to The Time Machine

February 1987

Everything is a time machine of sorts; anything you see or touch has links to other people, previous times.

Photographs are time machines of the ultimate sort: they preserve an image, exactly as it was, and allow us to experience the past from the comfort and security of the present.

My scanner is another kind of time machine: it enables me to explore these images in great detail, to bring to life again those scenes I was compelled to preserve so long ago.

I started shooting a 35mm camera in 1984. I shot some color print film, some slide film, but by the summer of 1985 I'd found my grail: Black and white. I carried the camera everywhere, and shot at least a roll a week. I was working in lower Manhattan, so I had no shortage of subject matter. I took an early train to the city, and made a habit of walking from Penn Station down to Canal Street, taking different deserted side streets, and wandering through the Village before anyone awoke. In late 1987 I moved to a shop on the west side, at 44 Street and 12 Avenue, and added the streets of Times Square to my portfolio.

So now I take these two time machines together, the film and the scanner, and travel back to the gray days of New York City in the 1980's: A land of filthy streets, dilapidated buildings, and a few husks of humanity, shuffling along in a bittersweet cloud of crack.

But this isn't meant to simply be a nostalgically depressing trip down memory lane. To contrast the time machine images, I'll be making images of the same scenes as they look today, so we can decide if the passing of a generation has been kind, cruel, or merely indifferent.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Liberty Warehouse

September, 1985

March 2008

I'm really not sure what attracted me to this building. After 23 years I have no idea if I was passing the handsome facade on West 64th Street, or if I was wandering around the plaza at Lincoln Center, a block and a half to the west, when I spotted its most striking feature.

That feature of the Liberty Warehouse, however, wasn't the solid stone facing, or its keystone arches. What made this century-old building unique was the 37-foot tall replica of the Statue of Liberty on the roof, eight stories above the ground.

September 1985

William H. Flattau built the warehouse and had the statue crafted in Akron, Ohio, from where it traveled by flatbed railroad car to the west side of Manhattan in 1902. I passed the building in September of 1985 during an afternoon wandering the west side, shooting the Ansonia Hotel and the Dakota apartments.

She stood above west 64th street until 2002, when she was removed and stored behind the Brooklyn Museum where she underwent extensive restoration (including the removal of the lead-based paint covering it) and installed at the museum's rear entrance during the summer of 2006.

The warehouse itself was gutted, several stories were added to the building, and it reopened as residential condominiums. As we see in the 2008 photo, the loading bay now leads to a courtyard, new lanterns have been added and the standpipes relocated. The corner bumpers seem to be the originals, so perhaps vehicles still pass through the portal.

Manhattan - 1985

Brooklyn - 2007

I tried my best to recreate newer picture of the statue, but was hampered by being so close to my subject. The first picture was made with a 200mm lens while I was standing on the sidewalk eighty feet or so below the statue; optical foreshortening in the telephoto lens compresses the image, giving it a chunky stature overall. For the second shot I had to lie on the ground with short zoom set at 22mm. I also had the disadvantage of the sun behind my subject, but I like the band of clouds.

For another current picture of this Liberty, and to see some other pictures from the Brooklyn Museum's urban sculpture garden, visit this page from the Talking Pictures site.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Duane Street

June 1986

September 2007

One of a row of cast iron buildings built in 1920 on the south side of Duane Street between West Broadway and Church, probably built as factories and gradually evolving into low-end offices and warehousing over the years. Businesses like these were on their way out in the mid 1980's as the importing and purchasing power of the then various -Mart's began their rise.

This original scene could almost look like it was taken not too many years after the building opened, rather than the 1980's, which was when it actually was made. And for 21 years I had no idea exactly where in Manhattan this picture was taken, as I had completely forgotten, and the rest of the roll didn't give me much of a clue. Because of the signs, I thought it may be in the garment district, but judging from the other pictures on the contact sheet from that same day, it might be below Canal, or somewhere on the west side, near Hudson and Leonard. I finally found the answer while wandering around the Forgotten New York website, on the page dedicated to street and wall clocks. Towards the end of the piece was mention of this location on Duane Street at West Broadway. (Click on the link above and scroll to the bottom.)

The merchant's signs are gone now, the footwear manufacturers and wholesalers have walked away, and these six-story cast-iron fronted buildings are all residential today. I didn't note this particular building's address, but looking through the NYC building department website I see that most neighboring buildings seem to be full-floor apartments, others appear to be half-floor. Alas, the clock, though showing a different time than before, is still only right twice a day.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

The Majestic Theater

February 1988

September 2007

Since January of 1988 there has not been a show running at the Majestic Theater that wasn't called Phantom of the Opera. When the first of the pictures above was taken, the curtain had gone up and the chandelier had come down only a few dozen times on this musical. Now, the show sets the Broadway record for longevity every single night, and it doesn't seem like it will ever go away. January 28, 2008 marks the twentieth year of this run, an incredible 25% of the time the building itself has been open.

The theater has been here since 1927, one of three theaters and a hotel in the neighborhood that was built for the Chanin Brothers by Herbert J. Krapp, a prominent theater designer of the early twentieth century. Krapp was responsible for over a dozen other Broadway houses as well as another hotel. The Shubert brothers took over the Majestic after the market crash of 1929, and it is managed by the Shubert Organization to this day. The adjacent Lincoln Hotel later became the Milford Plaza, a part of which is covered by the white scaffolding in the current photo. The glass wall looming in the background of both pictures is the Astor Plaza Building.

One of the places where time seems to have stood still in this rapidly churning town.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

42nd Street and 12th Avenue

November 1987

August 2007

I have no explanation for the insanity that seems to have occurred here, at what was once a desolate corner across from the Circle Line piers. When the first picture was taken there were parking lots stretching from 11th to 12th Avenues on the south side of 42nd Street, today one immense luxury high-rise is filling up, while another fills in the hole created for it a block away.

Further east along 42nd I can count at least seven buildings that weren't here in '87, as well as the obvious street improvements. 12th Avenue today is nothing like it was twenty years ago, today there are jogging and bike paths along the river, thousands of tourists coming and going to the boats, a far cry from the days when the biggest crowds were lining up for visas at the Chinese Consulate to the UN, visible in the 2007 picture on the left side of the intersection. This neighborhood was about as exciting as it looked in 1987, so I can't understand the lure of the apartments here, but it seems that the new human instinct is to inhabit every square foot of Manhattan.

Oh, and regardless of how long the visa lines got in the 1980's, the greatest number of people I ever saw on this corner was in June of 1989, when hundreds of Chinese filled the sidewalk in front of the parking lot on 42nd across from the consulate in silent protest and solidarity during the Tianamen Square demonstrations.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Mayfair Hotel

February 1989

September 2007

This first shot shows the beginnings of the rehab of the Mayfair Hotel on west 49th Street, next to the Eugene ONeill Theater, a scene I happened to catch while walking by that day. I'd never passed the place before, and never did again until this summer, when I went looking for it. I don't know what kind of hotel it was in the eighties, but it looks grungy enough to have been an SRO.

What makes the first picture for me is having caught the workers just as they were peeling off the sign; a second shot a moment later, after the lettered strip of metal has been tossed into the Dumpster, hasn't got the same impact. The sign is also the only clue I had for the location of this scene. I suppose I'm fortunate that the name of the place never changed, which made Googling it more fruitful.

But here it is, a small Times Square hotel, eighteen years later, its facade cleaned but starting to get a bit dingy again. The first floor has lost the horrible 1960's style storefront and barbershop, and the neon sign perpendicular to the building is also gone, which, no doubt, also removed whatever ambiance it lent to the room it was outside of. I personally think the landmarks preservation people should have insisted that at least a few Times Square hotels maintain rooms with blinking neon signs outside the windows. And ledges. Not enough hotel rooms or office buildings have ledges anymore in New York. There's a halfway-decent ledge outside the third-floor windows here at the Mayfair, but being a skinny, mid-block building, there's really no place to go on it. But it's the thought that counts.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Cupcake Cafe

June 1988

September 2007

Leaving the shop on west 44th Street, a building that now serves as a storage warehouse, I was faced with two ways of reaching Penn Station: I could take the 'scenic route' of 42nd Street to Seventh Avenue, or I might choose to follow Ninth Avenue down to 33rd Street. Late afternoon was a good time to shoot the buildings and storefronts in 1988, since there was really no high-rise development around Hell's Kitchen then, and the late afternoon light fell nicely on the aged buildings.

Even with all the sparkling residential high-rises that have erupted from its worn gray asphalt, these streets today, around the west side of the Port Authority, still maintain their air of insouciant grime.

Ninth Avenue, in the blocks below and south of the bus ramps, was an array of meat stores, bakeries and delis in the 1980's, most notable were the Manganaro's stores: two delicatessens next to each other, owned by feuding members of the family that first made a six-foot-hero. I assume that neighborhood allegiances are still strong, as well as equally divided: both stores prosper after decades side-by-side.

But my favorite storefront was the Cupcake Cafe, mainly for the sign. You just didn't see lettering like that anywhere. It was hand-painted, and each letter was a different size, to create an undulation across the words. The cupcakes and muffins were pretty well made, too.

And in a happy ending, though the Cafe is no longer at this corner, a close look at the roll-down gate reveals a crudely painted arrow and the partial phrase, "We h-". Blocked by the parked car and phone booth (phone booth?!) is the rest: "-ave moved". Across the street and one block north. Still good pastries.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Moondance Diner - Late Update!

September 2007

It never occurred to me, as I re-took my pictures for these pages last June, that I'd have to be doing an update anytime soon. So many of those old scenes had been altered beyond recognition that finding an unchanged neighborhood made me feel as if it were safe and protected, perhaps for the next few decades.

Now I wonder if instead I'll be the kiss of death, much the way the US Mint's State Quarter project seemed to be targeting its depicted icons for destruction. (Connecticut lost the Charter Oak, Maryland had the State House cupola struck by lightening, and the Old Man of the Mountain in New Hampshire fell apart, all of these happening not long after their quarters began circulating.)

But the Moondance had been on Sixth Avenue for years, it was on TV shows and in the movies, it had a steady clientele and a great big sign made out of silver spangles, with a huge revolving yellow crescent moon. They had great pancakes, and they put cinnamon in the ground coffee before brewing it. It had an obligation to be there!

Alas, land values in Manhattan being what they are, and what with the urgent, war-time need for overpriced luxury apartments, the lot was sold for residential development. Yet the diner, or at least the original railcar-style building, was sold separately to a couple who put it on a flatbed truck and drove it to LaBarge, Wyoming. Once there, they'll add kitchen and storage extensions, and open it as the only restaurant in town.

Sixth and Grand will be served with, I assume, another oddly shaped glass tower.