I made a vow that I would update this site at least once a week. So far, I’ve failed miserably. But to prove I’m not idle, here is my latest piece for Hidden City Philadelphia.
I met up with local Philly photographer Sarah Bloom at an old abandoned factory and interviewed her about her work, her inspiration, and what it is like to get naked in places most people won’t even enter.
Give it a read and stay tuned. I promise to have more stuff up soon.
There are people we see every day, but don’t really notice. They lounge on sidewalks, dash down alleys, prowl abandoned houses and sleep under bridges. They hide during the day and emerge only at night. Ghostlike entities who suddenly appear asking for spare change, or step from the shadows on a deserted street causing fear and alarm. But they are people like any others. Each one has a name and each one has a story. Thanks to a handful of street photographers, these people are being made visible, being given back their voice, and having their stories told.
In 2012, Arnade walked away from a successful career on Wall Street to focus on his photography, specifically of the addicts and prostitutes in the Bronx neighborhood of Hunts Point. Arnade has taken the time to get to know the people he shoots, many of them becoming friends. He provides not only a unique look at a life most of us will never know, but also gives his subjects a voice. The stories he tells of love and loss and pain are relatable to anyone. The difference between someone hustling on the streets and the person sitting in a warm home reading this is a matter of luck and circumstance. We should view them with compassion, not scorn.
Charlie O’Hay, a poet and photographer from Philly, is no stranger to hard times. He openly talks about his days as a drunk, losing jobs, friends and family because of his addiction. He’s sober today, but his experience helped instill in him a compassion for the people whose lives go off the rails. It could have just as easily been him. Charlie takes time to get to know the people living on the streets of the city. He helps them out with socks and gloves and gift cards that let them get a hot meal. But more than that, he gives them back their dignity and identity. Life on the street is not easy and some times it’s downright deadly, but even in the best of times people look down on the homeless as something less than human. O’Hay puts a name to those faces that we pass every day on the way to work or home. And in many cases he provides their story, often revisiting them over time to see how they are getting by.
In 2008, Philadelphia area photographer Jeffrey Stockbridge began exploring Philadelphia’s Kensington Ave., a depressed area known for easy drugs, prostitution and squalor. Much of the street is perpetually in the shadows of the elevated Market Frankford train line, adding to the gloom and the feelings of desolation. Jeffrey took time to not only meet the addicts and prostitutes along the street, but to also meet the people who are just trying to live their regular lives in an area that has been going to hell for years. Through pictures, interviews and journal entries from his subjects, Stockbridge provides a look into the struggle just to stay alive and stay sane when your world is falling apart. We learn how people have fallen to where they are, and what their hopes and dream for the future may be. We learn about trying to raise kids in a crime infested neighborhood that most people would rather ignore than deal with. There is both horror and hope, happy endings and sad, as people just try to make it through one more day.
One of the first places I ever photographed, with my little Sony Cybershot, was the legendary Freedom Tunnel in NYC. Recently, the British artist Banksy has been tagging up walls in New York, creating a media circus, thrilling hipsters and art dealers, and royally pissing off the local artists upon whose turf he is treading. And with good reason. New York has a long history of amazing graffiti artists, some of whom went on to mainstream success such as Keith Haring. Most, however, thrive on anonymity. They take great risks to put up their work, but physically and legally, with only pride and personal satisfaction for a payment. To have their space taken over by an outsider, to have him lead throngs of fans around the city to seek out his latest piece, and to have him eclipse everything they’ve been doing for years while he still feigns being a “street” artist must be infuriating.
No better example of the greatness of New York street art ever existed than the Freedom Tunnel. Originally a railroad tunnel running freight trains under the west side of Manhattan, the tunnel was eventually closed down and abandoned. It soon became infamous for its massive homeless community that saw an unused shelter, complete with buildings, and set up homes. For information on the once thriving community that lived there in the 1990′s see the movie Dark Days and the books The Tunnel and Tunnel People. While the shelter of the tunnel did draw some less than reputable elements. the majority of the people there were just down on their luck with no place to go. Of course such an act of freedom and defiance could not be tolerated and eventually the city chased everyone out and razed every structure that could be turned into a home.
But this is only half the story of the tunnel. The name the Freedom Tunnel came from artist Chris “Freedom” Pape, who along with such notable painters as Smith and Sane, Ghost, Cost, and REVS created massive pieces on a scale rarely achievable for street artists. Some of the more well known pieces include a recreation of Goya’s The Third of May and the Venus de Milo.
Eventually, the tunnel reopened for its original purpose, this time for use by Amtrak. Not that this deterred the artists, the few remaining squatters, and the those of us who came to view the gallery. While only a few tracks are active in the wide tunnel, making it easy to avoid passing trains, Amtrak still was not happy about people probing the space and around 2009 began a campaign to paint over all the murals and pieces that adorned the damp tunnel walls. Fortunately, there are a tremendous number of pictures out there of the works that once adorned this space. My big regret is I was not able to return with more experience and better gear, and get some shots worthy of the works themselves. But I’m thankful for what I did get and the chance to see it while before it was covered in cheap institutional blue paint.
Some locations you stumble on, a place you never noticed and a wide open door calling you in. Others you need to scout and scope and research, biding your time until you find a way inside. Then there are those locations that you’ve known for years, tightly sealed and secured, with no chance of even a glimpse of what’s inside. They taunt you. They tempt you. And they frustrate the hell out of you. But every now and then, there will come an opportunity to grab your camera and go inside for a precious few hours. After more than a decade of waiting, I finally got my chance to shoot Philadelphia’s Germantown Town Hall.
The building was designed by architect J. Sinkler and completed in 1923. This wonderful example of Beaux Arts/Classical Revival architecture stands on the same site as the former Germantown Town Hall. It has been empty since 1998, and despite its name, it never actually served as a Town Hall. Then again, neither did its predecessor, which was built after Germantown had been incorporated at part of Philadelphia. It did house various municipal agencies, the police, and during the cold war the basement was a headquarters for the Civil Defense. Today, it sits empty, slowly being worn down by the elements. This year it saw some life as one of the locations for the Hidden City Philadelphia Festival, but otherwise, its halls are empty of footsteps , the bell in its tower quiet and still.
Far north on Philadelphia’s Broad Street sits a strange rock wall that seems to have no business being there. The narrow size and slope of the walls did not suggest the ruin of any type of building I could think of. It was way to small to have been a wall surrounding another structure.
While I would wonder about this structure every time I drove past, it would soon be forgotten as I continued to my destination. Finally, one day I was looking at some other locations on Google maps and remembered this odd structure. I quickly located it on the map and zoomed the satellite image in as close as I could. There was no mistaking what I was seeing. Tomb stones. This was a tiny burial ground in the middle of the urban sprawl.
I soon made plans to visit this odd little patch of hallowed ground and began researching its origins. It turned out to be a relic from the Revolutionary War period. It not only included the extended de Benneville family, but was also the final resting place for two British officers killed at the Battle of Germantown.
Built in 1927, this classic Art Deco theater was designed by the Philadelphia architecture firm of Magaziner, Eberhard & Harris. Like many of the elaborate theaters of the day, it was built to be a cinema. It featured excellent acoustics, catering to the new “talkie” motion pictures. This made it an ideal place for live performances as well.
By the 1950′s, the neighborhood had become predominantly African-American and the Uptown catered to this audience. It became part of what was called the Chitlin Belt, a play on the Borscht Belt that catered to a mostly Jewish audience. Specializing in Rhythm and Blues, the Uptown came to rival the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem.
By the 1970′s, the neighborhood had become a center of drug and gang activity, the violence often spilling into the theater itself. Competition in places like Atlantic City and the small size of the venue also factored in its decline. It closed its doors in 1978.
In the early 1980′s a church moved into the site, but in 1991 damage from a storm forced them to move out. The building sat idle for years until it was purchased in 2002 by the Uptown Entertainment and Development Corporation who are working to restore the historic location.
I was lucky enough to get a quick look inside while some roofers were doing work on the building. It was dark and humid making focusing a chore and causing my lens (and my glasses) to fog up, while the sweat poured into my eyes. Hopefully, I will get a second chance to photograph this amazing location.