August 5, 2008
East Village, Before the Gentry
By COLIN MOYNIHAN
Over the last 15 years Q. Sakamaki, a Japanese photographer living in New York, has forged a reputation as a documentarian of conflict and suffering. From the civil war in Liberia to the misery of sex workers in Bangladesh, he creates pictorial narratives of the devastation that unfolds when military or economic forces collide with ordinary human lives.
But his new book, "Tompkins Square Park" (powerHouse Books), returns to his early days in New York, when he was still adjusting to a new home and a new avocation "” photography "” after giving up a job at an advertising agency in Osaka.
Upon arriving in the city in 1986 he settled in the East Village, where he was alternately charmed and horrified by what he found. Dilapidated and abandoned buildings lined the streets. Entire blocks were filled with little more than rubble and bricks. Heroin was sold in candy stores, and gunshots sounded in the night. In the morning he sometimes spotted the bodies of people who had been killed or had died of overdoses.
Even more surprising was the abundance of people living on the sidewalks. "The homeless were spread out all over the neighborhood," Mr. Sakamaki recalled on a recent afternoon while sitting on a bench in Tompkins Square Park. "It was like a third world city."
Before long he gravitated toward Tompkins Square, the neighborhood's central gathering spot, where he found a lively mix of people. There were law students, punks, poets and older, lifelong residents who could remember the days of the New Deal.
Twenty years ago this week the neighborhood was also much like a war zone as protesters clashed with police officers seeking to enforce a curfew in the park. Mr. Sakamaki's book is timed to that anniversary and documents the street skirmishes, yet it is also a kind of manifesto.
"This book focuses on Tompkins Square Park as the symbol and stronghold of the anti-gentrification movement, the scene of one of the most important political and avant-garde movements in New York history," Mr. Sakamaki writes in an introduction.
Strolling through the neighborhood, he elaborated, saying that he favors safe streets and finds no romance in poverty. But, he said, change that is primarily driven by monetary profit "destroys the lives of poor or weak people."
As his black-and-white photographs make clear, Mr. Sakamaki found much that was life-affirming amid the conflict and penury. The energy and camaraderie of people who banded together in adversity appealed to him; so did the desire of East Villagers to create their own social order even as they received little help from mainstream society.
Most of the pictures in "Tompkins Square Park" were created before Mr. Sakamaki began traveling abroad to war zones. But it is fair to make the connection between his later work, for which he has received several awards, and a consciousness formed while documenting the depredations of the East Village in the 1980s, including addiction, AIDS and police violence.
The struggles he documented took place against a backdrop of rapid and sometimes rapacious gentrification that took hold in the 1980s and is the unifying theme for the 60 images in the volume. There are also essays on the park and its history by Bill Weinberg, a neighborhood journalist, and by Mr. Sakamaki, who described what the park and the neighborhood meant to him.
Political protests and musical events were also integral to the anti-gentrification movement. Photographs show performances in the Tompkins Square band shell by groups like the band False Prophets and Allen Ginsberg's reading of a poem demanding affordable housing.
Photographs of demonstrations and police responses range from arrests inside the park in 1989 to a clash in May 1991 when bottles flew through the air and police officers in visored helmets formed a line across Avenue B. He documents a major demonstration a week later in which a crowd marched on Avenue A at night to condemn the city's decision to shut the park and bulldoze part of it.
But the bulk of the book focuses on the lives of the homeless people who lived in the park or on the nearby streets.
In 1987 Mr. Sakamaki photographed homeless men and women eating a Christmas Day meal at a soup kitchen in a garden on East Ninth Street. In a 1989 image from Tompkins Square Park two men warm themselves next to a fire inside a trash can. A photograph from the same year shows homeless people and their supporters camping in the park with American flags. In a picture from October 1991, after the park's closing, a man sleeps in a bed on Avenue A in the pouring rain.
The streets and park paths depicted in the book still exist, of course, but many of the people who populated that landscape have died or left town. Mr. Sakamaki's photography has always been about people, from the street children of Rio de Janeiro to denizens of an empty lot on Avenue C.
So the absence of that population in today's East Village lends the book a haunted, ghostly air.
In the end Mr. Sakamaki's book is a valediction of sorts to lost people and a lost place that has been supplanted by a neighborhood that he finds rather sterile and uninspiring.
"We lost our culture," he said, "and we lost control of our dreams."
Leaving the park, Mr. Sakamaki, who still lives in the neighborhood, headed out to the surrounding streets, spots he had photographed decades before. Much has changed. Along East Eighth Street, where he once visited men and women in shacks, a six-story building houses a home for the aged. The onetime site of similar shanties on Avenue C is now occupied by a police building and parking lot.
But on Avenue C at East Ninth Street, La Plaza Cultural, a garden where Mr. Sakamaki had photographed the homeless on that Christmas Day 21 years ago, has survived.
"I'm happy that this garden is still here," he said, gazing through the fence at the pastoral spot, where city dwellers sat beneath a willow tree. "But I'm also sad, because the people I knew are not inside anymore."