NEW YORK IN PLAIN SIGHT
The Manhattan Street Corners
There are afternoons — late afternoons — uptown in the long Manhattan summer when a stray sea breeze ripples through the day’s heat and the distant shrieks of children playing are heard more clearly. On the corner, old men lean back, eyes closed, on their folding chairs, while the women under the awning of the store behind them shop for lettuce and tomatoes, potatoes and onions, peaches, plums. Traffic lights change, unseen, on the momentarily empty street, and the day itself seems to pause, to reflect on its passing, as if to catch the sense of life in Manhattan wafting aloft on warm updrafts of asphalt and ailanthus.
There are late mornings too — Sunday mornings, these — downtown in the all too brief Manhattan springtime when the young people, undeterred by the chill March air, brunch outside in their shirtsleeves at sidewalk cafe tables, and the sense of life in Manhattan that lights up their faces warms the hearts of the still prudently overcoated passers-by.
And there is the sense of life in Manhattan at lunchtime in dappling sunlight under the El at 207th Street; or on a Fourth of July weekend under the spreading shade of the trees — alas, no longer standing — on DeLury Plaza at Fulton and Gold; or in the high noon tide of traffic at Madison Avenue and 49th Street; or in a quieter moment in the narrow shade of a brick loft building at Wooster and Grand, where a man sits hunched up against his three carefully packed black plastic garbage bags, reading an old issue of the Svenska Dagbladet . . . .
A streetless city is a contradiction in terms: the city is nothing without its streets; the streets are nothing without the city. The very idea of a streetless city seems monstrous and — surely Jane Jacob’s central insight — inhuman. To know a city is to know its streets, which are its public face, and the sense of life in a city is the sense of its life in public, the sense of life as it is shared on the city’s streets and sidewalks.
The island of Manhattan is not only the most densely populated area in the United States — and one of the most densely populated areas in the world — it is also one of the most densely streeted: nearly 500 miles of streets and sidewalks constitute Manhattan’s largest single category of land use, accounting for nearly 30% of its total area. Joined by some 3,300 intersections into a single space nearly five times the size of Central Park, Manhattan’s streets and sidewalks are the island’s greatest public commons. Manhattan’s streets and sidewalks are so closely woven into the fabric of the city that scarcely anywhere on the island is more than a two minute walk from the nearest intersection. And because commerce in Manhattan tends to run north-south along the avenues while the east-west streets tend to be more residential, Manhattan’s street corners are its village squares, the public places where daily life and commerce meet face-to-face to transact the myriad exchanges of the everyday urban process.
Street corners are such a common element of everyday life in plain sight on Manhattan’s streets and sidewalks that we ordinarily don’t pay much attention to them unless we find ourselves in an unfamiliar neighborhood where their character seems strange to us, or when the deliciously over-ornamented 19th century belted brick building on the corner nearest us is demolished to make way for yet another undistinguished high rise. Otherwise, we scarcely notice how Manhattan’s street corners, the people and the buildings, the demographics and the architecture, the shops and the signage — even the sounds and the smells — are telling us, again and again, not only where we are but also who we are and where we come from. At the intersection of 400 years of history and 170 languages and cultures, Manhattan’s street corners are the living vernacular of the city’s restless genius.
To find most meaningful what is most extraordinary is so natural that it is almost impossible not to forget that the deepest sense of life arises out of what is most routine, commonplace, unremarkable, ordinary. The fundamental structures of the Lebenswelt, the material constants of the longue durée, and — nearer the surface — the intricate ballet of the urban sidewalk continuously recede to near invisibility behind the scrim of more immediately pressing concerns until an Alfred Schütz or a Fernand Braudel or a Jane Jacobs hauls them back for a brief turn on attention’s center stage. And even then the sense of what is happening when nothing is happening — like the music of the world that sounds through the open window of John Cage’s silent 4' 33" — eludes the effort to make it an object of special attention, for the essence of the quotidian is shy, as modest as it is pervasive, the social and material equivalent of the unseen air we breathe.
This paradox haunts the photographer of everyday life, whether on the streets and sidewalks of Manhattan or anywhere else. The great New York street photographers — Berenice Abbott, Bruce Davidson, Lee Friedlander, Walker Evans, William Klein, Helen Levitt, Joel Meyerowitz, Garry Winogrand (to name just a few of the least contentious candidates for such a list) — have responded by intensifying the paradox itself until it precipitates the latent sense of our own experience of the street and elevates their images into Heraclitian ciphers of life in the city. Whether it is otherwise possible to capture the sense of life in Manhattan in a single photograph — or even a single monograph — is another matter altogether.
But if no single photograph, no matter how great — or even how banal — escapes this paradox, the New York City Department of Finance’s “tax” photographs of the facades of every building in the city, taken between 1939 and 1941 and again between 1983 and 1988, bury it under the sheer of mass of their prosaic — albeit indispensable — documentation, as does Frank Didik’s 2000–2002 survey, also of every building in the city. The 22,000 photographs of New York and New Yorkers made by the Byron Company between 1892 and 1942 fare better in this regard, if only because of their more deliberate artistry. The same might be said of Percy Sperr’s 30,000 photographs of New York commissioned by the New York Public Library between 1931 and 1942; it is even more true of the 5,000 photographs of New York produced by the Works Progress Administration Federal Writers’ Project between 1936 and 1943, among them Berenice Abbott’s famous Changing New York of 1939.
Large-scale New York documentary projects have also been motivated by art-world conceptual-serial intentions, most notably in Dylan Stone’s remarkable Drugstore Photographs, Or, A Trip Along the Yangtze River, 1999, which, with its 26,000 color snapshots of each of the buildings below Canal Street, seems in retrospect almost to anticipate Google Maps’ “Street Views” — the most comprehensive as well as the most accessible documentation of the island’s streets and sidewalks ever produced — though Stone’s eye-level camera on the sidewalk yields a far more persuasive account of the look and feel of Manhattan at street level than the roughly ten foot elevation of Google’s mid-street van-top imaging technology.
New York in Plain Sight is a large-scale photographic survey of everyday life at street level in daytime Manhattan, shot for the most part in 2006. The survey is based on the Manhattan street map, which provides a straightforward plan for obtaining comprehensive coverage of the island at a relatively uniform density throughout. The 3,300± intersections of Manhattan’s streets and sidewalks are distributed across the island at an average density of 182 intersections per square mile (exclusive of parks and other public open spaces). Though local densities range from as low as 140 to as high as 300 intersections per square mile (but only in a few areas, each extending over less than a quarter of a square mile), most of the island is close to the overall average, largely as a result of the famous Commissioner’s “grid” plan of 1811 and its subsequent extensions, which defined an average of 168 intersections per square mile over about two-thirds of the island.
The unit and motif of New York in Plain Sight is the street corner. Not counting the corners of streets that are permanently closed to traffic, staircase streets, park roads, on/off ramps, medians, and traffic islands, there are perhaps 11,485 street corners on the island of Manhattan — some ambiguous cases make the exact figure a matter of judgment — or about 633 street corners per square mile. As a result, New York in Plain Sight comprises some 11,485 photographs: one for each of Manhattan’s 11,485 street corners, each viewed — with a few exceptions — from its diagonally opposite corner. A more important result is that New York in Plain Sight is a reasonably equitable survey of Manhattan’s human geography, capturing its range of demographics — age, race, ethnicity, income — in roughly the same proportions as their physical distribution across the island.
New York in Plain Sight is a “random” sampling of its subject in the sense that the pace of the shooting meant accepting whatever was or wasn’t happening within a very brief interval of arriving at a corner. If nothing was happening — especially if no people were present — a single shot might suffice, requiring only a few seconds, while if a lot was happening — many people doing many different things — several minutes and a dozen or more shots were sometimes warranted. The actual averages were about 18.3 seconds and 2.1 shots at each corner.
New York in Plain Sight was also conceived as a survey of a single “moment” in the city’s history: the long summer season from March 10, 2006 through November 24, 2006, during which I photographed 10,563 street corners (92% of the total) in 91 days of shooting. The remainder have since been shot — and some of the original 2006 photographs reshot — in coordination with the work of cataloging and processing the whole set.
The photographs of New York in Plain Sight are not architectural; few if any of their moments are decisive; they do not aspire to the closure of art. In its simplest terms, New York in Plain Sight is a set of 11,485 photographs, one for each and every one of the 11,485 street corners on the island of Manhattan. Nevertheless, New York in Plain Sight is not “about” street corners, or at least is only incidentally about them.
If you walk the length and breadth of Manhattan often enough and long enough, and make an effort to stay alert to the fleeting moments when the sense of life on the island seems as palpably present as the trash can on the corner — litter only no household trash no business trash $100 fine — you may begin to sense in these moments a larger commonality, a larger sense of what it is to be alive just then anywhere in Manhattan, and this larger sense, though seemingly so intangible as to be almost indescribable, may nonetheless come to define your entire experience of life on the island, or at least of life in public, of life on Manhattan’s streets and sidewalks. The sense and the justification — if any — of New York in Plain Sight is to be sought in this sense of life which is its elusive subject.
The New York in Plain Sight photographs — all of them in color — were made with digital cameras having native image widths ranging from 3504 to 5616 pixels. Ninety percent of the images are natively at least 4064 pixels wide; 68% are at least 4992 pixels wide. All were shot “raw”; all were cropped in post-processing to a 1:3 aspect ratio. A complete set of 1838 ✕ 5513 pixel tiff files was generated as a baseline from which to produce other sizes and file formats as needed.
All of the images can be printed successfully at 6" ✕ 18"; most can be printed at 12" ✕ 36"; a surprising number can be printed as large as 20" ✕ 60" or even 30" ✕ 90". Nevertheless, it has been my intention from the outset — planning began in the spring of 2005 — to distribute New York in Plain Sight digitally, and as a whole, equipped with the software required to flexibly access, navigate, and display the images.
I am hoping to rephotograph the entire set starting in the spring of 2011.
Copyright © 2010 by Richard Howe