Exploring New York City, Part 2

Coated in grime and sweat, the people and buildings here express the vitality of a living organism. Amidst the commotion I know that I am surrounded by over 300 years of human suffering, joy, toil, and ecstasy. Replete with nooks and crannies offering insight as well as danger, New York City begs to be explored. This article documents my recent investigations of history, garbage, architecture, games between men and women, and a sobering scene I happened upon one night.

See also my first article on exploring New York City (not a prerequisite for reading this one).

Looking For 1906

Wondering what New York was like a hundred years ago, I searched the library (via Internet) for pictures. I found cable cars, sparsely populated roads, and a lot of formally dressed people captured on black and white film.

But what was it like to be there? I needed something more specific so I took my camera and went looking for these snapshots from a century ago, trying to find an entrance into New York City circa 1900.

  • 207th Street IRT Station, Manhattan, 1906 and 2006. (New York Transit Museum. Subway Style. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2004.)
  • Flatiron Building, Manhattan, 1903 and 2006. (Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago Historical Society, #DN-0001198B)
  • Shore Road, Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, 1904 and 2006. Shore Road used to be on the shore. Now it lies over 100 yards inland in parts (including here, around 82nd Street), beyond the Belt Parkway, a bike path, and the many parks and playgrounds which were constructed on hydraulic and dry fill in the 1930s. The Verrazano Bridge, completed in 1964, is now visible in the background. (Mid-Manhattan Library Picture Collection)
  • General Post Office and Brooklyn Eagle, downtown Brooklyn, 1906 and 2006. The Post Office has been expanded. The Brooklyn Eagle building, right of the post office in the 1906 photo, was demolished in 1954. (Mid-Manhattan Library Picture Collection)
  • Looking up Fifth Avenue from 13th Street, Manhattan, 1898 and 2006. Note the Empire State Building, now only about 20 blocks away, just visible in the background. (AP Photo Archive)
  • The Sun Building, Manhattan, April 15, 1912 and August 6, 2006. In the 1912 photo people are just learning about the sinking of the Titanic. The Sun, a newspaper which began in 1833, continued publishing until 1950 when it merged with the New York-World Telegram. (AP Photo Archive)
207th Street IRT Station, Manhattan, 1906 and 2006. (New York Transit Museum. Subway Style. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2004.)

207th Street IRT Station, Manhattan, 1906 and 2006. (New York Transit Museum. Subway Style. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2004.)

(click image for next)

The Nature of Litter, Part 2

A few months ago I learned that, in at least one place, cleaning up litter didn't make it go away (see The Nature of Litter, Part 1). My question was then: is it possible to alter one's response to litter, to enjoy it as any other aspect of the city?

These photographs are dedicated to an old Chinese woman who approached me while I was collecting materials. Without a word she dropped a large red berry into my bag and vanished around a corner, leaving me to wonder why on earth I had said as she approached, "No, I'm just collecting cigarettes."

(click image for next)

Architectural Icons

Often the hardest things to see are the things you see the most. Repetition can make one numb to details and we quickly take extraordinary things for granted, especially in New York where it is commonly held that one must tune out a certain amount of sensory data in order to get by. It is particularly easy to become blind to those things which are icons in our culture. We've seen so many images of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Empire State Building that the postcard and the object, the idea and the experience, are easily confused.

In an attempt to see these icons anew, I set out to photograph them in ways that relegated their most familiar form and orientation to a secondary role. In trying I was thrilled to discover how difficult this is, how well these modern architectural forms withstand even such abuse as blurring and overexposure.

(click image for next)

Men Looking At Women

With all of their lights and motion, the streets of New York provide a panoply of visual stimuli. Yet one of the most popular sights for men has been around since long before the Dutch settled in New Amsterdam: women. Men are forever looking at women.

There are lascivious looks, artistic looks, skeptical looks, and inquisitive looks. And women's reactions are equally varied. Depending on the look, the looker, and the circumstances they may feel uncomfortable, proud, threatened, or admired. In New York, where anonymity is easily maintained, men and women engage in a game of looks and solicitation of looks by employing a variety of non-verbal means. Though fleeting, these exchanges can achieve a surprising depth of communication, often involving "onlookers" as well. The photographer capturing these exchanges inevitably becomes a participant in this ceaseless and subtle game.

(click image for next)

19 August 2006, 3:30 AM

What follows is a detailed account of a scene which may be disturbing to some people. Nevertheless, the event and others like it play an important role in my experience of New York. They are a real part of the city and I feel I would be remiss to omit this account.

It is a clear, warm night and I am walking over the Williamsburg Bridge from Manhattan where an ebullient Friday night crowd is flowing out of bars and sidewalk cafes, into taxis and down subway stairs. On the bridge things are quiet and calm, but halfway across I spot something that doesn't belong: a man on the far roadway, perched on the outer railing clothed in only his underwear. The police are arriving too and blocking off the Brooklyn-bound cars.

Attempting to dissuade the man from jumping, a policeman begins to negotiate.

"If you come down now we won't touch you."

"Why are you doing this to me?"

And so on.

Neither party understands the other and as we passers-by stop and watch we have no clue as to the outcome, or to the sequence of events that brought this man, half naked, to the edge of the bridge. He is argumentative, but too coherent to be dismissed as crazy and the policeman's lines too scripted to be believable.

For most of us watching, the urge to speculate on the outcome pales in comparison to the stark sensation of being there. Our expectations can only suggest irrelevant tales from the normalcy of everyday life.

He gestures violently, cursing, pointing out the hypocrisy of the police as they set up ropes and harnesses. A boat moves into position in the water 135 feet below. Thirty cops look on, milling about, talking, smoking cigarettes. The man crosses himself.

Photo series of man on railing of Williamsburg Bridge, arguing with police, eventually jumping off.

Remarkably, this is the second such event I have witnessed, or nearly witnessed, in the past three months. In early June I rode over the Queensboro Bridge on my bicycle just moments after a man had jumped off. He had chosen a spot right next to some construction workers by the Queens-side tower and so he lay atop a heap of rubble on the ground below. Wondering if my experience was unusual, I went searching for some numbers.

Apparently the police do not keep track of how many people jump off New York City bridges,1 but over the past five years there have been approximately 1.3 suicides per day in New York City. (The annual rate of around 5.5 per 100,000 residents is among the lowest of all U.S. cities.2) Generally speaking about 2% of all suicides are by jumping3 (though we may think there are more because of the news coverage they receive) and so my extremely rough estimate, based on 475 suicides annually and a study of some popular bridges outside of New York,4 is that there are around 10 successful (deadly) jumps from New York City bridges per year.

Regardless of numbers, such an event transforms its witnesses. On August 19th, strangers who shared the experience and heard the sound of the body speak about it as if friends. The event makes us amiable and contemplative as we walk slowly and introduce ourselves. Among New Yorkers there is a strong tendency to shake things off and keep moving, but the chance extraordinary event can force us to notice our common experience and sensitivity, under the armor.

  1. ^ Arnow, Pat. "Drowning and Rescue in New York." Gotham Gazette. July 2006. Viewed 2 September 2006. [web site]
  2. ^ "America's Most (and Least) Stressful Cities." Sperling's Best Places. January 9, 2004. Viewed 2 September 2006. [web site]
  3. ^ "Suicide Statistics." 2001. Viewed 2 September 2006. [web site]
  4. ^ Gunnel, David, et al. "Suicide by Jumping: Is Prevention Possible?." Suicidologi. 2005, Vol. 10, No. 2. Viewed 2 September 2006. [PDF]

Everything on this web site copyright © 2004-2010 Alex Reisner, unless specifically noted.