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August 24, 2009

Requiem for a City

Photographer Harvey Wang has spent much of his life photographing The Other Half, an increasingly endangered species in new New York.

Adam Rosen

"My mother was an alcoholic, my father was something of a tyrant, and I just never fit in. So I moved here in '61. Started off with these crazy, soaring ambitions of trying to figure out everything…Anyhow, I became disillusioned. Started drinking. And here I am."

So explains Vic K., an afternoon clerk at the Sunshine Hotel, well into the recesses of Flophouse: Life on the Bowery. The Sunshine, along with three other $10-a-night "lodging houses" located in Lower Manhattan's Bowery district, is the setting for Flophouse, an oral history and extended photo essay documenting the famously infamous neighborhood's last pockets of despondency and small triumphs. Though published only nine years ago, Flophouse is now largely an anachronism; atop the skid row it chronicled sit digs such as the Bowery Hotel, which charges $400 a night and boasts C.O. Bigelow Bath Amenities.

Harvey Wang. Photo by Amy Brost.
"People look at my New York book, and say, it’s a good thing you made these pictures because it's all gone."

Harvey Wang. Photo by Amy Brost.

The book consists of 50 individual narratives as told by residents and staff of the Providence, White House, Andrews, and Sunshine hotels. (Actually, 49; one would-be narrator was found dead in his room from an overdose, though he still went through with his photo shoot.) Shots abound of two-toned paint jobs and single, dangling-bulb hallways, all vestiges of pre-war buildings that were shabby even in the '30s. Flophouse came about after radio producer David Isay's documentary about the Sunshine aired on All Things Considered in the fall of1998. Isay, who edited the book along with radio producer Stacy Abramson, then asked Harvey Wang to take the photographs.

Wang was an easy choice. He had already published two books with similar ambitions to Flophouse, Harvey Wang's New York, and Holding On: Dreamers, Visionaries, Eccentrics, and Other American Heroes, another collaboration with Isay. Raised in Queens "under the flight path of planes landing at JFK airport," he's just as New York as the characters, old-timers, and ne'er-do-wells who make up his portfolio. Wang is also an Emmy award-winning director, and his work has been shown in film festivals around the world. Most recently, he directed a feature-length film starring The Sopranos Dominic Chianse, The Last New Yorker, which will be released this fall. In the following interview, which was conducted over email and edited for clarity, Wang reflects on what's left of the Bowery flophouses, keeping it real, and whether or not rumors of New York's demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Gelf Magazine: What neighborhood do you live in?

Harvey Wang: I’m bi-coastal, splitting my time between the East Village in Manhattan and Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn.

Gelf Magazine: How did you get into photography?

Harvey Wang: From a very young age, I knew that I wanted to be a photographer. It suited me because I felt compelled to leave the corner of Queens I was growing up in, and in a way, the camera was my passport. At age 13, I got my first "real" camera, a Nikomat. I learned the basics from a cousin who was an artist and photographer; she had a darkroom in her Brooklyn apartment. By 15. I had my own darkroom in my dad’s tool room in the basement of our house. I worked on school newspapers, and after college, began shooting for the Village Voice, and other newspaper and magazines.

Gelf Magazine: How much has the New York of Harvey Wang's New York changed since Flophouse? Has it changed more or less than from the time of Flophouse to today?

Harvey Wang: The impulse to make photographs for Harvey Wang’s New York in the mid-1980s was because of the rapid changes I saw happening in the city, especially in the East Village, Lower East Side, and Chinatown, where I lived. Store after store began closing as rents rose, and the demographics of the city changed. New York City is always changing, though I had no idea when I made photographs for Flophouse in the late 1990s that the skid row Bowery would disappear in such a short time.

Gelf Magazine: Why did it go so quickly? Are they any remnants left?

Harvey Wang: I think it went because the real estate became too valuable. It's the same thing that has happened all over the city where low-income people live. Some of the flophouses the—Sunshine, the Providence—are still functioning. The White House is part youth hostel, part flophouse, and the Andrews is being run by a social service agency for the benefit of the elderly men who still live there.

Gelf Magazine: Would you consider your work a romanticization?

Harvey Wang: I’ve always been drawn to the remnants of the past that have survived to the present. I wrote in New York that I was seeking the New York City of my grandfather, whom I never met, so in that sense, I have perhaps "romanticized" the past. But what has influenced my development most as a photographer is my feeling that rampant egoism, unbridled and amoral consumerism, and materialism are eroding our humanity. As I was growing up, I felt a real discomfort seeing those aspects of life around me. That discomfort compelled me to seek out people and places that felt more real—people who had a different frame of reference—to celebrate that and hopefully to learn something from it. That’s at the root of my work for New York and Holding On. With Flophouse, and with a lot of my street portraits, I wanted to reclaim the individual from the blur of the urban landscape. I wanted to show their spirit, their uniqueness, and their resilience, all of which I think are the real source of beauty.

Gelf Magazine: Many feel that New York City is over; is dying; has lost its soul; or a similar variation. Would you agree or disagree?

Harvey Wang: People look at my New York book, and say, it’s a good thing you made these pictures because it’s all gone. I always respond that my book can be made at any time, because NYC is constantly changing. At any moment, we can lament and capture some old business closing or professions dying. I do think that with the economic boom in the 90s, and the taming of some of the city’s "rough" spots (Times Square, Hell’s Kitchen, Loisaida, Fulton Fish Market, etc), that much of New York’s soul has changed. On the other hand, the city still remains a vital place for those drawn here from around the world.

Gelf Magazine: In Holding On, you took pictures of eccentrics like an Alabaman coon-dog gravedigger, and in Flophouse you took pictures of down-on-their-luck men. Can photographing the squalid or abnormal lives of others' be considered exploitative?

Harvey Wang: It’s been noted that much of my work exhibits a fascination with outsiders and loners and misfits—people outside the mainstream. To me, the idea that there is a "mainstream" is a myth. What fascinates me is that anyone and everyone is an outsider, a loner, or a misfit, and that the fact that those words are often meant pejoratively shows how far our society will go to punish people for nonconformity. My real interest is in the exquisiteness of individuality, and its implications for how we should live. Each of us is inexpressibly precious and interesting. That’s what has made me want to focus on portraiture and photographing people as they go about their daily lives.
Also, in the Flophouse work, I was seeking to show the beauty of these simple places and show the humanity of a population that was largely shunned by the people of the city. What we learn from the residents of the flophouses was that in some cases, all it took was a small setback—like the loss of an apartment or a job or a divorce—to precipitate a devastating downward spiral. Within months, one could easily find oneself in dire circumstances without any safety net. In no way is my work meant to be exploitative. I hope it's evident from my photography that I always treat my subjects with honor and respect.

Gelf Magazine: To what extent is The Last New Yorker influenced by your books?

Harvey Wang: The simple inspiration for Harvey Wang's New York and Flophouse was to record a part of New York City that was on the verge of oblivion. Likewise, The Last New Yorker is a story of two old men, friends for life, who find themselves in a city they no longer recognize. In one sequence, Lenny Sugarman, who is played by Dominic Chianese (Uncle Junior on The Sopranos) is saved from catastrophe by the possibility of love. In a metaphoric rebirth, he visits all of his old haunts. Many of those locations, and the people in them are similar to the environments and people in New York.

Gelf Magazine: How did you get involved with the movie? When will it show in New York City?

Harvey Wang: When screenwriter Adam Forgash was working on the script, he came across my book about New York. He was inspired by it, and mentioned that to the producer, Dan Vinik, of Brink Films. Coincidentally, I've known Dan since we lived together in Chinatown in the early 1980’s. He asked me to direct the film. The Last New Yorker has been in four film festivals (winning the Cityscape Award at the Big Apple Film Festival), and it will have a theatrical release this fall in New York.

Gelf Magazine: What do you miss most about New York City (both concretely—as in a certain deli or enterprise—and less tangibly)?

Harvey Wang: Of course I could list all the automats, dairy restaurants, bakeries and small shops that I used to frequent and cherish, and the rough edges of the city that had so much character, but mostly, I miss the era when a young person could afford to live here and be a self-supporting artist. As one of the characters in The Last New Yorker says, "It’s the land of the rich now."

Front-page image of Wilford "Chief" Parriette from Flophouse: Life on the Bowery Photography © Harvey Wang

Adam Rosen

Adam Rosen is a contributing editor of Gelf, and host of the Non-Motivational Speaker Series.







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Article by Adam Rosen

Adam Rosen is a contributing editor of Gelf, and host of the Non-Motivational Speaker Series.

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