Peep Through Harvey Wang’s Chinatown Window

| November 29, 2011 4:00 AM
Where: The Tenement Museum
Opening: Nov. 30
Price: Free
Photo by Harvey Wang.

When I moved to Chinatown in 1979 to live in a six-story walk-up with five young artists, everything was about to change. The Lower East Side’s Orchard Street still had the flavor of the traditional Jewish shopping district, but businesses were beginning to shut down as younger people moved into the surrounding tenements. Chinatown was expanding into Little Italy and the Lower East Side.

The East Village, where Puerto Rican families lived alongside a still thriving marketplace for drugs and prostitution, experienced an influx of squatters, artists and musicians.

At the same time that I was photographing the disappearance of one New York, I was also documenting the emerging new neighborhood of galleries, clubs and the bohemian culture exemplified by places like Club 57 on St. Marks Place, the hangout of artists like painters Kenny Scharf and Keith Haring, performance artists Klaus NomiJoey Arias and Lypsinka, and musicians like Fab Five Freddy.

Firemen watching a building burn on a winter's day on Eldridge Street in 1981. Photo by Harvey Wang.

Many of my photographs in the Tenement Museum exhibit document the changing physical landscape of the Lower East Side.

One image shows four firemen watching a building burn on a winter day. There were many abandoned buildings on the Lower East Side and in the East Village in the 1980s. Landlords chose to walk away from their buildings rather than deal with a low rent roll, expensive upkeep, dangerous streets and drug commerce.

On one abandoned block, I spent many days and weeks photographing the eccentric community gardener Adam Purple and his world-famous “Garden of Eden.” It began in 1975 when Adam set out to plant a garden behind his tenement building at 184 Forsyth St., when the Lower East Side was a crime-ridden wasteland. By 1986, his garden had grown to 15,000 square feet.

Adam Purple's Garden of Eden rose from the rubble of the Lower East Side. This photo was taken on Eldridge Street in 1982. Photo by Harvey Wang.

I first visited “The Garden of Eden” with reporter Norman Green on assignment for New York Magazine, and I was there in 1986 when it was razed by the city after a protracted court battle.

I was always photographing my Chinatown neighborhood. But there were many aspects of life that were difficult for an outsider to penetrate, including the ubiquitous “sweatshops.”

Sweat shops were a part of many lives in Chinatown. Photo by Harvey Wang.

The garment industry has played a long, important  role in the history of New York City. And even though by the 1980s much of the work of assembling clothing had gone overseas, Chinatown was still home to many garment factories. Many immigrants, mostly women, worked long hours making clothing in cramped lofts in and around Chinatown.

Another Chinatown subject was 87-year-old Carmine Venezia, whose Italian funeral band I photographed for my book “Harvey Wang’s New York.” At that time, Carmine and his marching band were commissioned about 250 times a year to play their sad hymns at Chinese funerals on Bayard Street.

87-year-old Italian funeral band leader Carmine Venezia. Photo by Harvey Wang.

According to Carmine, the Italians who used to live in the area had big bands at their funerals, and the new residents adopted the custom. Carmine said to me: “Once a priest told me, ‘Without you, this funeral would have been a dud.’”

Many of the people and places that I photographed are long gone. Last year, I released my first feature film, “The Last New Yorker.” Although it’s a narrative film, it’s rooted in my documentary photography work and is really an homage to the ever-changing city. The characters in the film are all chasing love or a buck or an escape route. It’s exactly the kind of scrappy attitude I came to appreciate while living and working on the Lower East Side.

Harvey Wang has published five books of photography. He is also a commercial director and filmmaker.

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