Alleys & Ruins no. 138, New York, New York (2011, Brooklyn, NY, 9pm)
In March 2011 I was in NYC for the opening of my Alleys & Ruins solo show at the Condé Nast Gallery in Times Square. The New York Times wanted to document my work and my night shoots for a story, and at the show I'm introduced to Corey Kilgannon, a veteran New York Times city reporter. We arrange to meet a few days later to head off on one of my night adventures. Times photojournalist Robert Stolarik is also there, taking photos of me at work. In the first 10 minutes, he shoots more pictures than I’ve taken in 10 years.
We head to a spot I’d already staked out – by the East River in Greenpoint Brooklyn, across from Manhattan. This is an absolutely majestic location, where remnants of a pier lie, along with old, fallen girders from a long gone structure, and in the background, the beautiful and ubiquitous Manhattan skyline.
I set up, figure out my lighting and exposure, and shoot a test Polaroid that requires a heavy dose of my own lighting. After 2 minutes of processing, I peel away the sealing strip on the instant film (which doesn’t seem so instant in the digital age) and the shot looks good! I’m always excited when I know I’m zeroing in on a great photograph, but I’m extra happy since I have the freakin New York Times with me! I show them the Polaroid, excited at the picture I’m constructing. I get the film ready and prepare my lights for the actual photo. Just then a cop car rolls in, lights flashing.
Oh, I forgot to mention, to get to this location we had crawled through an opening in the chain link fence and we were clearly trespassing... The officers are angry and yelling at us to return. Corey volunteers to speak to them and see if his NY Times credentials can get us a break before I take the camera off the tripod. He returns with bad news. The cops have threatened to cuff us and lock us up for the night unless we leave immediately. Its a heart-breaking moment and I am fucking pissed! I had spent 2 days driving around staking out dozens of locations, taking notes, digital pictures... This spot, through the fence, by the East River was a treasured spot. I wasn’t mad at the cops, I was mad because it was a form of death. I wanted to give life to this image, but instead, here it would lie, buried and undiscovered forever.
I'm miserable as I'm packing my gear, and Corey notices. Then I see that he's smiling, "You don't understand, this is great," he says. "The story just got way better - the cops kicking us out?" Its something of a consolation, but not really what I'm looking for. I get more and more determined to get this shot!
We pack up and leave because neither of us wants to take a ride in a cop car, and we head to another good location I had found, which in the end, becomes Alleys & Ruins no. 137, Portal
I have to leave NY the next day, but two months later I'm back and the first night I head straight to this location. My heart is pounding out of my chest because I know how fast things change, and there's a very good chance all the ruins by the river are gone! I squeeze through the fence again, anxiously looking around. If the same cop catches me, I am totally screwed. I walk up to the location and I'm ELATED!! Its all just as it was 2 months ago! I quickly throw my tripod up, frame the shot and grab my lights. On this second risky attempt, all goes perfectly and I get the shot!
A little Greenpoint history
I'm a big fan of the TV show The Sopranos, so for years I couldn't help telling an ongoing joke that this location in Greenpoint was where Tony Soprano made the bodies disappear.
Brooklyn, including Greenpoint was where the Italian mob first settled. During Prohibition, a bloody war broke out between the main factions, until in 1931 Charles "Lucky" Luciano stepped in to help establish five distinct crime families and offer some sense of structure to the American Mafia. What began in small places, like Williamsburg and Greenpoint, spread across the country.
Genovese, Gambino, Bonnano, Colombo and Lucchese. For decades these Five Families ruled New York and built the American Mafia (or Cosa Nostra) into an underworld empire.
Thankfully today, the Mafia is an endangered species. A twenty year assault against the five families blossomed into the most successful law enforcement campaign of the last century.
NYC today is such an incredibly safe city, so shooting Alley 138 was quite peaceful (if I don't count the fear of being caught by the cops!).
But Brooklyn’s Greenpoint was once where the wild things were: the waterfront from the 70s-90s became a playground for punks, squatters, thugs and violent street gangs. In 1998, while shooting my Alleys & Ruins in Williamsburg, I ran into a street gang that scared the crap out of me. It was not a place to be. The waterfront had once been a thriving and essential part of the city but those days were history.
Ages before that, the area was populated by shipyards and sugar refineries. In 1845, David Provost, a scion of one of the five ancestral families that farmed Greenpoint, built the first pier at the foot of Freeman Street. By the 1850s, 12 shipyards lined the East River shore, building wooden clipper ships. And things were good for decades.
But the local docks increasingly became a point of conflict and corruption. A violent strike took place in 1919 where unionized local stevedores fought battles against scabs that were trying to take their jobs. Union corruption on the docks was so notorious that one of the lines in the classic Marlon Brando film “ On the Waterfront “ featured a scheming longshoreman “Go back to Greenpoint.”
The docks were also the scenes of much alcohol smuggling during Prohibition.
Corruption and theft by organized crime - the mob - became so prevalent that it drove local shipping out of the area. By the late 1970’s, the docks were mostly idle and many had become unsafe as the wood in the piers was degraded and eaten by crustaceans. Although the docks were abandoned by industry, they were still used by locals - in the daytime only! - who exploited them to fish, sun themselves or even as lovers lanes.
I look at the structures in my photograph, and can't help think of the rich vibrant history that preceded me standing there with my camera. Its a recurring thought whenever I'm looking at an abandoned location, or even a bend piece of metal history is all around us! Even if most of it will forever be unknown.
Greenpoint's industrial ruins - the old refineries, the hundreds of warehouses, the rusted out oil depots and refineries, and of course the crumbling piers, docks and moorings, like in my photo, had numbered days. With this million dollar view of Manhattan, the rust and rubble was just waiting to be removed and replaced. The waterfront is now giving way to development and its industrial past is being erased. The whole history of Brooklyn’s working waterfront has disappeared.
Today, 2020, its largely quite a beautiful waterfront park, linking Brooklyn Bridge Park to Williamsburg to Greenpoint offering a big dose of Brooklyn waterfront scenery — and vistas of skyscrapers in lower and Midtown Manhattan, from the World Trade Center to the Chrysler Building.
Massive condos now line Greenpoint, many selling in the millions, along with glass office structures. There is beauty in this of course, but its also a shame some of these industrial building couldn't have been preserved and converted to retain some of the fascinating history of the neighborhood.
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