Think photos of the Lower East Side and you might well conjure up Jacob Riis’ grainy black and white images, Hebrew signs hanging from stoop steps, pushcarts lining crowded streets. Or perhaps you’re remembering more recent images ‒ burnt-out buildings, gangs and cigarette butts hanging from slack mouths during the ’70s. Maybe for you, the Lower East Side is all about discount Sunday shopping in the ‘80s. But it’s not the old neighborhood anymore, as Sally Davies’ “Photographs of the Lower East Side” — now on view on 57th Street — at the Bernarducci Meisel Gallery make clear.
Some icons remain and Davies captures those images, as well: Yonah Shimmel’s Knish Bakery is still there but striding in front is a brightly clad hipster. The old church on 8th street, fresh from a cleaning, is open, but only Charlie, the photographer’s dog, attends and waits.
Davies’ photographs attest to the many histories that line these pockmarked streets and the new stories that are now unfolding. Signs in Hebrew, Chinese and graffiti are reflective blackboards of the varying migrations while the New York skyline continues to beckon its downtown denizens. Young people lay claim to the streets during the day and the clubs at night, but the century-old tenements bear witness to an earlier provenance, a wheelchair atop one snow-covered roof. A young Muslim woman, clad in abaya, hijab, sneakers and knapsack , talks on her cell as she walks past ad hoc graffiti of the Statue of Liberty. In a Hopper-esque photograph, a lone blonde scans the street, on the lookout for something or someone. Hell’s Angels maintain their NY headquarters; tattoo parlors and Chinese laundries still exist but trendy businesses are taking over.
Davies, who’s been living in the area since the early ‘80s says, “Everything changes so fast. I’ll see something one day and the next day it’s gone." Lining the buildings, cars tell the story of the changing neighborhood: in one frame, the expected jalopy, in another, a snazzy white Cadillac, gleamingly renovated, spends the night, and finally, the ultimate status symbol ‒ a vintage roadster stands proudly parked outside expensive new housing.
“Sally Davies: Photographs of the Lower East Side” is on view through March 1, 2014 at the Bernarducci Meisel Gallery at 37 West 57th Street.
Gloria Kestenbaum is a corporate communications consultant and freelance writer.