A few Days ago I spent an afternoon walking around the Lower East Side with a group of photographers. We set out to explore some of the classic spots: The Essex Market, Streit’s Matzoh, Katz’s Delicatessan and ABC No Rio. Wait a sec – we just grouped ABC No Rio, an artist/activism collective founded in 1980 with a multi-cultural food market, a matzoh factory and a classic deli. THIS is the beauty of the Lower East Side, and it represents a microcosm of our city in all its diverse and eclectic glory.
This neighborhood is alive with change – electric with possibility. The people, the art on the walls.
Germans settled the neighborhood in the early 19th century. 50 years later Italians and Jewish immigrants arrived, followed by Puerto Ricans and African Americans after the world wars. Then in the ’80s – the artists; today: gentrification.
Walking these streets and looking closely one can see the imprint each of these groups has had on the neighborhood. And scattered between the old tenement buildings and the new high-rise residences are more community gardens than any other neighborhood in the city. Those are my next stop.
I used to come here fairly frequently when we lived on 59th Street in Manhattan near the bridge. It’s changed a great deal in the last 30 years. There’s a beautiful church that used to stand in a field but is now tightly surrounded by high-rise apartment buildings. The Smallpox hospital at the south end of the island was once a prime destination for urban explorers. Now it stands, nearly demolished, embraced by a chain link fence. It’s future is uncertain. At the very far south end of the island is the new Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, a truly stunning memorial/green space with spectacular views down the length and width of the East River.
Roosevelt Island sits in the East River between Manhattan and Astoria, Queens. You can get there by a bridge from Queens, or the subway. You can also get there by tram. Tram? This is a truly unique feature of this spot.
The island is within spitting distance of either shore, but it has a character all its own.
There’s a tame, suburban quality to the vibe of the place, lots of tourists. There was a film crew lunching between takes at the top of the island when we stopped by to look at the lighthouse. That’s a story in itself – it stands near the former “lunatic asylum” and a resident of said institution apparently built a sea wall to connect Roosevelt Island to a tiny island off its northernmost shore sometime in the 19th century. He claimed responsibility for the lighthouse as well.
The island is rich with history, as are many of the islands that form the archipelago that is our city. Well worth a visit.
This has been a rough winter, and we have not escaped it, despite our island status. The neighborhood is quiet during the winter, one of the charms of living here. But it can also become claustrophobic. The wind howls across the water, making it difficult to venture outside. Boats are brought up into dry-dock and block our views to the open water. Gates to the street beaches are locked; even if you could walk through them the beach is covered with washed-up icebergs this year. No quiet reflection at water’s edge for now. Walking the sidewalks can be treacherous with months of hardened ice and heaved-up concrete from the bitter cold and snow.
City Islanders celebrate the holidays with whimsy and good cheer. The Christmas decorations were a bright spot in this dreary winter, and brought smiles to my face as I tromped around in the sub-freezing weather looking for signs of life. Today is the first day of spring; it’s snowing mightily.
I came upon this surreal scene when I drove over to the beach to take a walk. The parking lot is huge. It’s a dumping ground for plowed snow from all over this part of the Bronx. I walked into the fog and photographed this other-worldly landscape just as the sky began to clear in the very late afternoon. The last two images were taken on the beach: they show High Island and City Island in the distance, through the mist.
High Island visible across the foggy bay
Long View of Orchard Beach with City Island in the background
This project began around 2008 when an ad hoc committee of local artists formed to spruce up the neighborhood. A mix of residential and industrial, this corner of Astoria is an eclectic array of auto-body shops, single family homes, low-rise apartment buildings and the occasional hipster bistro. Sprinkled among the multiple murals are a number of cars in need of repair. This adds to the surreal nature of the neighborhood and stands as a reminder that, underneath the scratched surface of the vibrant street art, a culture of gritty labor-based commerce remains to support the community
We explored the neighborhood on a cloudy day – the light slipped away as the afternoon wore on. I’ll be back in the spring; there’s a lot to see here.
Frederick Johnson had a good deal to do with the development of this neighborhood in the late nineteenth century. Before it’s transition to a suburban development Dyker Heights was designated as farm land; crops included grains, fruits and vegetables. What began as a largely Anglican enclave evolved into an Italian neighborhood as those immigrants began pouring in during the first half of the twentieth century. Many of the homes were converted to Mediterranean style with notable statuary and topiary adorning their well-manicured yards. Sometime in the 1980’s the residents began outdoing each other with fabulous displays of light and color during the Christmas season. Now Dyker Heights is known as the number one destination for fans of Christmas light displays. I visited at dusk and was enthralled by the transformation as the sun set and the lights clicked on.
I’m looking forward to revisiting the area in the spring. The architecture is intriguing and the location of the neighborhood in the shadow of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge pulls at my curiosity to see what drives this neighborhood during the off-season
First, I was surprised to discover that this park is in Queens, not Brooklyn. Standing on the beach at Dead Horse Bay, you can look past the span of the Marine Parkway – Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge toward the Rockaways. On the other side of the buildings of the north shore of that spit of land lies the beach, its art deco bath house and numerous other buildings and landmarks – remnants of another Robert Moses project. This beach development was meant to attract lower income families early in the twentieth century. Moses chose this site because it was accessible by bus. Today, the beach looks deserted. Yes, it’s winter. But there’s a general atmosphere of disrepair along the boardwalk. There are no orange fences holding back the encroaching sand, which buries the steps from the beach to the boardwalk. Small buildings are in ruin; handball courts overgrown with weeds and beach grass. Still, there’s something alluring about this place. The buildings were designed to mean something. Attractions – tennis and basketball courts, mini golf – span the roadway running parallel to the boardwalk. It’s a good destination and I look forward to traveling there in season.
Fort Tilden lies just beyond Jacob Riis Park. It was an artillery base spanning the years between the start of our involvement in the first world war and the late 1970’s. At one time it was home to a nike missile base. At present time, the fort consists of a number of buildings that are in use by artist groups. There is a theater, an art gallery, a children’s art space and a community garden. Kind of nice to see this peaceful overhaul of a remnant of the cold war.
Close to the beach lie a number of abandoned buildings covered in graffiti. As a lover of street art, I see this as an extension of the more formal endeavors at the main site of the fort. I was able to photograph the interiors of most of the buildings before a park ranger shooed me away. Apparently the public is welcome to roam the area as long as we don’t enter the buildings – but this isn’t specified on any signage.
Mia and I returned to Dead Horse Bay. She got busy working on a mandala – gathering beach glass, shells, metal objects and sorting them by color. She then used an old piling to create
a compass, and drew a large circle, then a spiral, in the sand. The collected objects went into the piece and it was a pleasure to watch her creative process unfold. I constructed some small weavings in the woods near the site, but I was mostly captivated by the place that day. The tide was going out quickly and, with each passing few minutes, more discards were revealed at the tide line. I walked south to discover some metal structures and other ruins along the beach. I photographed everything, and still can’t get enough of the tarnished magic of this place.
Mia, Nelly and I traveled to Dead Horse Bay in Brooklyn on November 8th to create an installation reflecting our responses to the site. Dead Horse Bay is a former landfill located across Flatbush Avenue from Floyd Bennett Field. I documented our installation at this unique New York City site. This tree has been a long-time ongoing art project and we were surprised to find it empty – stripped of the bottles and artifacts we’d seen hanging from the tree in the past. After Sandy the installation was damaged, but still visible, and it had been restored since the hurricane. It was curious to see that something or someone had removed the pieces, leaving the branches bare. We decided this would be the perfect place to create our weaving pieces. We used materials brought to the site and some materials found at the site. We also brought home some artifacts, completing the cycle of engaging with the environment.