These new photographs mark a continuation of my interest in urban architecture. The photographs were taken in October, 2010, on the Upper West Side, near the apartment building where the immortal suffrage movement leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton lived and worked in New York City. The building where I shot the photographs was formerly an SRO – Single Room Occupancy Hotel. The rooms are small and reminded me of a low rent version of a hostel I stayed in one night in Berlin, after a long evening of trolling through bars in the Berlin Mitte district. In 2011 Class A buildings in New York City will be required to rent units for a minimum of 30 days. Landlords had been collecting rents as low as $200 a month from long-term residents. One newspaper article I read over a year ago interviewed a resident who wanted to keep up her $50 a month rent. Her case is somewhat different because she was renting a rent controlled apartment, where tenants are known to pay about a 25% of market rents.
It’s hard to fathom how much New York City has changed if you’ve never lived there or never traveled there. In a matter of about 30 years, starting in the 1980’s, Manhattan and parts of Western Brooklyn have become what Mayor Bloomberg describes as “the luxury city.” So this small project is a homage to the past, to the already changed universe that is Manhattan island of the 21st century. Over this past weekend there was a young man dressed in full on 1970’s street gang war paint. He wore a grey hoodie. His large black sunglasses covered his eyes like a robber’s head rag. His face was covered in skull grey paint, articulated with black and white lines. His hands were also covered in the same grey paint; the backs of his hands were covered in symbols. I thought about all of the various crazed street gangs that had become famous in the media through reportage by Hollywood. I thought about films such as Midnite Cowboy – and just how difficult a world that was to reside in and remain sane and dignified. Now there are noise laws in New York. There are armies of police. There is violence in Manhattan, but none of the daily madness one had to endure from people who responded to life as if they were missing their outer layer of skin. So what would normally not bother someone – say, getting bumped in the hallway, would cause and hyper-enraged response – because the person had no outer layer of skin, and they were basically a six foot bundle of raw nerves. I recall when New York only had reliable cheap good food in Chinatown. There were no coffee bars that artisans would recognize as such today. This transformation to a city for only the wealthy has had the impact of leading many to believe that the creative life is to be found elsewhere other than New York, which is now the showroom for all that is great in the world. While it is true that New York has priced out the middle-class, it is also true that the variety of experiences one can have in New York City in a few days to a week remain unsurpassed.
For example, this week the 1200 band CMJ Music marathon festival is in New York. Only SFSX in Austin and the Winter Music Conference in Miami Beach are at the same level. Surprisingly, no such event is in Los Angeles, where I believe the music industry still has firm footing. In Miami there are concerts right on the beach, within a 100 feet of the ocean. I wonder if cultural production will cease for the middle-class in New York, which has controlled the U.S. artworld for about 60 years, which is only one -fifth as long as Paris held sway over the making and meaning of art.
This post falls into the category of the kind of photo work i was doing in LA during the early part of the new century. I only recently came to know that NYC was planning on banning the use of SRO’s as tourist hotels.
In San Francisco, in the Tenderloin, there is the largest concentration of SRO’s in the US still standing. I would love to shoot there but those hotel already forbid tourists. As you know, I shot thousands of photos of motels in LA. I have not shot SRO’s, because it would be too dangerous to actually check into one of those places and start taking pictures. But I did get the old neon motels, many of which are used in a manner that is similar to the SRO’s, except they have their own restrooms, and the rooms are much larger than SRO’s rooms.
All photographs are by Vincent Johnson, shot with his Iphone 4.
Vincent Johnson has been named a United States Projects artist for 2010.
The USA site went live on December 7, 2010
Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer in Los Angeles