Both Brian and his wife are interested in changes occurring in cities and while Renée takes an active part in shaping these alterations, Brian remains fascinated with documenting them. We spoke to the couple about the changes in New York City, their impact on local residents and what New York and Amsterdam could learn from each other.
Brian you documented New York’s Lower East Side (LES) in 1980 and then again three decades later, in 2010. Did you always plan on coming back for a second series or was this something that happened more or less by chance?
Brian Rose: After a few exhibitions of the 1980 LES photos, the negatives and prints went into boxes and remained in my archive while I moved on to other projects. I lived in Amsterdam for about fifteen years and although I often traveled back to New York, the LES work was not foremost in my mind. The destruction of the Twin Towers in 2001, however, had a profound effect on me as I realized how important New York City was to my identity. I began to think about how I might respond as an artist: For me, and I think for most New Yorkers, 9/11 was a personal wounding as much as it was a political act.
Around 2005, I began to go through my LES images and tried to reprint them in the darkroom. But the negatives had deteriorated over the years, making straight analog prints impossible. So, I began to scan the 4×5 negatives and made digital prints instead. It took a while to understand what needed to be done to correct the color, but eventually I was able to make the 1980 images look better than they did when they were new.
It then occurred to me that the best way to address the changes occurring in New York was to go back and re-photograph the Lower East Side. I decided to work with the same kind of camera and film, but to approach the neighborhood from a fresh perspective. In the end, I did take a few exact before/after shots – most notably on the corner of Orchard and Delancey Street where I photographed the profusion of signs and the flow of shoppers thirty years apart.
So, how has the neighborhood changed? Did any of these changes surprise you? And were there any aspects you expected to change that stayed more or less the same?
Brian Rose: The neighborhood had changed in many obvious ways. The abandonment and desolation of 1980 had vanished; now new buildings and gardens filled the vacant lots of the formerly broken streetscape. But other changes were much more subtle and can be found in the details rather than in broader outlines. Despite the influx of newcomers, many of the same people were still living in the old tenements and housing projects. The disparities between the groups, economic and cultural, became all the more acute and interesting from my perspective as a photographer. It was a new neighborhood and an old historic one at the same time. I had always regarded the LES as an enclave separate from Manhattan, but now it seemed that the rest of the city, if not the world, had discovered it and come to live, work, and play.
Renée, you are an urban planner. Would you say that the development of the LES could have been predicted? Did any aspects of it surprise you?
Renée Schoonbeek: What happened in the LES is not unlike what happened to historic urban centers in Europe. The process is typically described as gentrification and usually portrayed as a displacement of low income residents and local small businesses. I think this is an overly simple analysis of what happened here, of a process that hasn’t been altogether negative, especially when you consider the mix of groups and activities found in today’s LES. I believe it is actually a sign of a thriving dynamic urban environment. I did expect these changes, but what surprised me was the speed and the magnitude of it all.
Would you call the changes witnessed in Brian’s book “planned” or did they simply happen? In other words: What are the actions a local government or local people could take to spark change in their own neighborhood?
Renée Schoonbeek: It wasn’t the result of deliberate planning. Some of it happened in response to the infamous plans of (polarizing urban planner and “master builder”) Robert Moses who wanted to raze large sections of the neighborhood, an initiative opposed by local activist groups. They, in turn, wanted to preserve low-income housing and promote small-scale economic activity instead. Due to the abandonment of properties by private owners in the 1970s, the city had become an unwilling landlord to thousands of residents living in run-down dwellings. The city wanted to return those buildings to the private market and, in some cases, offered them to the tenants themselves. Between the initiatives of the city and those of local housing groups, there were substantial improvements made to the neighborhood.
You’ve both lived in Amsterdam and New York City. How do these two cities compare? What are the things you love or loathe about each of them?
Brian Rose: Both cities are intensely urban places full of street life that support small-scale businesses and creative activities. Both are home to large international corporations and financial markets. It is easy for a New Yorker to feel comfortable in Amsterdam than vice versa, I think. However, New York is a vastly larger metropolis with a major impact on the global stage. Amsterdam promotes itself as a world capital with its excellent museums and performing arts, but in my experience it does not open its arms to outsiders the same way that New York does. I struggled to fit in. Some of that was due to my difficulty with the language. But during my entire time there I often sensed a closing of Dutch society to foreigners, even as it remained dependent on them. I grew tired of explaining why I was there. In New York, in contrast, one of the first questions people ask you is: “Where are you from?” They simply assume that you are from somewhere else.
Renée Schoonbeek: I think that Amsterdam is an easier place to live in. It’s a very comfortable, orderly environment. It has lots of small urban spaces, parks, and amenities at the neighborhood level. In New York, everything is upscaled. Especially in terms of raising a child, Amsterdam is more user-friendly. It’s an urban village – it has the feel of a small place, but the amenities of a big city. In that sense it is like many older European cities. I don’t loathe anything about either city. I am very much at home in both places. New York has more diversity and open-mindedness. And despite the large scale of New York, there is a strong tradition of grassroots politics and community-based planning.
Brian, your work often deals with changes in public space like the LES book or your photographic documentation on the Berlin Wall. What is it that sparks your interest in documenting these changes in cities?
Brian Rose: I started out by studying planning and architecture, so my natural instinct upon becoming a photographer was to build upon that interest in cities and in the urban environment. I didn’t set out to do long-term projects like the Lower East Side or the Berlin Wall, but over time I developed a way of approaching these subjects that was attentive to the accretion of time, influenced by political events, economic shifts, or – in case of my upcoming book on the World Trade Center – a single cataclysmic event that everything else hinges on.
I think of what I do as visual intelligence: investigations into the urban fabric viewed over extended periods of time. I usually focus on a feature or structure like a border, a particular neighborhood, or a building. In Amsterdam, I mostly photographed the periphery of the city where things were in a state of flux. I was fascinated by the utopian – and often dystopian – world created by Dutch planners.
What would you single out as the key fundamental human need in urban areas? And is it one that is taken good care of? What could we do to improve the situation?
Brian Rose: As a photographer, I take what is in front of me without judgment. Or, at least, I attempt to suspend that judgment and maintain a neutral attitude. People get sentimental about cities – it is their home, after all. But I show them what is there, like it or not. As a citizen, however, I want a city that functions well – but not too well. Vital cities, in my view, are always remaking themselves, are always unfinished.
Neither of you grew up in NYC, but now you are raising your son here. What makes New York a good place for a kid? What are the places he loves?
Brian Rose: New York’s greatest asset is its cultural and ethnic diversity. It is in many ways an image of the future, a place where people find common ground and manage to live together despite their differences. It is a messy process – not without setbacks – but ultimately a fruitful one. My 14-year-old son has lived more than half of his life here and I hope that he has benefited from this climate of diversity. He gets dragged in and out of museums by me and my wife, though he pretends not to know anything about art. He has become quite the athlete playing baseball and basketball. Basketball is the perfect city game because it doesn’t require a lot of space. Baseball, on the other hand, needs plenty of space. Brendan spends a lot of time at Pier 40, the former dock for Holland America passenger ships, which has been converted into a sports complex. The pier is in desperate need of rebuilding. But despite tremendous grassroots political pressure to do something, it remains a heavily used, but crumbling, piece of infrastructure. It is Brendan’s home away from home.
Are you currently working on any projects you would like to tell us about?
Brian Rose: At the moment, my main focus is on a book about the World Trade Center with photographs from 1978 to the present. It is a book based on discoveries in my archive and comprised of pictures made at various times during my career. I am currently photographing the nearly completed 1 World Trade Center, designed to replace the pre-eminence of the Twin Towers in the skyline. The book will be called “WTC,” and I hope that it will serve as a sort of antidote to the exploitative imagery and jingoistic politics associated with those buildings and with 9/11. It is a book for New Yorkers and all who have left a piece of their heart in this city.
Renée Schoonbeek: I am working to reimagine the streetscape of a former industrial area in lower Manhattan. I work for a group that has a public/private function, a business improvement district. BIDs are non-profit organizations that typically provide supplemental sanitation and security services to promote local business and address quality-of-life issues. In the area I work in, called Hudson Square, the main issues concern traffic congestion due to proximity to the Holland Tunnel and the lack of shops, restaurants, and other street-level functions. Unlike other BIDs, we are actively involved in the planning process and have developed a comprehensive plan to improve the pedestrian environment and make better use of public space. The large industrial loft buildings on Hudson Square are perfect examples of adaptive reuse. Built in the 1920s for manufacturing, they are now home to art, media, and communication industries. We want to capture the creative energy of the buildings and bring this energy out into the public realm.
Interview: Lia Pack
Header image: Orchard Street, New York City, 1980, photo by Brian Rose and Edward Fausty