Monday, January 16, 2012

Death and Life on the Bowery: A Conversation With Drew Hubner and Ted Barron

During the first half of the 2000s while I was writing Sweat and living in New York City for month-long stretches, the Bowery, like so much of downtown, was undergoing profound physical and cultural changes. The street seemed to be in a perpetual middle-state between ending and beginning. When not researching for the book, I was walking, walking, walking below Fourteenth Street, gratefully exploring the city, in particular the East Village: a visitor witnessing the continual transformation of once-derelict blocks into gentrified trendy locales. The Bowery's urban renewal—many old-timers and culture watchers might prefer to call it a death knell—continues as I write, and the stretch of blocks is virtually unrecognizable now from how it looked a decade ago.

I recently read and enjoyed East of Bowery, a new collection of short stories by Drew Hubner and accompanying photographs by Ted Barron. Hubner and Barron were living in New York at the same time, but didn't meet until years later.  The book began as a collaborative web project in 2008, and was later performed as a multi-media performance with live musical accompaniment at the Gershwin Hotel and the Bowery Poetry Club. Hubner's and Barron's milieu is the East Village and Lower East Side of the 1980s and early 1990s, an era when the Bowery still propped up one or two of the flophouses dating to earlier in the century, when old-man dive bars in Alphabet City could be stumbled upon and vanished into non-ironically, and when the city's homeless and drug-addicted had ragtag, generally ignored communities in Tompkins Square or Allen Street to call home.

There's an excerpt from the book at Sensitive Skin Magazine. Here's a portion:
What I really wanted was a vacated apartment. I could chill for a couple hours then walk right out in a few hours if all went well, counting my blessings. I climbed in the window and sat down at a chair at a kitchen table. I smelled coffee and heard a shower in the next room. I took a cup down, turned and sat just as an old man came into the room. He was wearing a bathrobe that hung open to reveal a graying, scarred chest. He burped and sat down at the table, pulling the robe over his knees. He was cold. When he looked up, straight at me, I saw that he was blind. My grandmother had cataracts but I had never seen anything like this. Both of his eyes were a blotted gray. You could tell he knew someone else was in the room but he just nodded. Whoever he thought I was he expected to be there.
I could have jumped up and ran out but something kept me in the chair. I don’t really know what. The whole day was a surprise, maybe I felt untouchable, maybe just because I was high, but I sat right there. I sipped off my coffee. There was an ashtray on the table so I lit a cigarette. When I did, he smiled and felt for the pack. I pushed it toward his hand like we had done this before and upon grasping the pack, he smiled and winked not at me but toward me. You would have had to be there to understand what I mean exactly.

While reading East of Bowery I was put in mind of Flophouse: Life on the Bowery, published in 2000, a terrific collection of Harvey Wang's photos of soon-to-be-gone Bowery transient hotels, David Isay's and Stacy Abramson's historical commentary, and edited monologues of folks barely if stubbornly hanging on in those residences.  After Joseph Mitchell's New Yorker essays and James Agee's and Walker Evans's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men—and predating the boomlet of blogs such as Jeremiah's Vanishing New York, EV Grieve, It's All The Streets You Crossed Not So Long Ago, and many others—Flophouse documents the city in vivid and precise nonfiction, telling true stories as those stories leaned and dissolved in dire times.  I've long been fascinated by the Bowery and its place in popular culture, careful to leaven what could become dangerous and irresponsible nostalgic romance with the painful reality of the street's history and its untold broken denizens. I was interested in why Hubner—who's published two previous historical novels, American By Blood in 2001 and We Pierce in 2004—sets his stories in the Lower East Side of a particular time, and why Barron felt compelled to photograph the sites and people of that restless area.

Recently I virtually sat down with Hubner and Barron and asked them about East of Bowery and about the appeal of the streets.


How and why did each of you become attracted to the Lower East Side as subject matter?

Drew Hubner: It was the place that taught me to be an artist.  We all aspire from books but we get art from life and from living among other artists and seeing how they work.  Plus I know a lot of great stories set there.  So it's a great canvas and like the art thing it shaped my sensibility.  We all knew what was cool and what was not because we were there and you could just tell.  I come from freaks and the East Village is a great place where freaks from all over the country come to fly their flag.  It's the circus life for me.

Ted Barron: I moved to Clinton Street in 1984, and was just starting to make street photographs. It was visually rich and vibrant, as well as broke down and dangerous. I felt a connection to it almost immediately, and as a young artist, it was an exciting place to be. I walked everywhere and always carried a camera. I was 19 years old and the city, especially the Lower East Side, had an almost dreamlike cinematic feel to me.

Ted, what accounted for the "dreamlike cinematic" feel of the Lower East Side? The people, the architecture, the history? Is that vibe there for you today?

TB: I think some of that has to do with youth. I was very impressionable and obsessed with images both still and moving. Some of it has to do with the physicality of the place. New York, and especially the Lower East Side, was bombed out, and digging its way out and into something new. It looked to me like the New York I had seen in pictures and TV and films before I got here. I remember what a thrill it was to find all those places that I had seen, like the hotel entrance on 13th street from Taxi Driver and to superimpose them into the background of my photographs.  It was really rich territory, particularly below Houston Street where I lived. Life was like an episode of Kojak or Midnight Cowboy in my imagination, but I didn't really have to manipulate anything. Showing the streets and the life that people led in them was more than enough. So, yeah the history, I suppose, but it was selective, and subjective to what I thought looked interesting. I still feel it sometimes, when I'm walking through parts of downtown, more so than I do in my Brooklyn neighborhood that I've been in half of my life now.

International Bar & Grill, St. Marks Place, 1986
Drew, you describe East of Bowery as "complete and utter fiction." Why did you feel compelled to emphasize the fictional aspect of the book like that?

DH: I am sure I overstate.  I am told I have a tendency toward that.  What I am looking for is something operatic, like the circus again where there's something happening all at the same time in three different places.  Life is like that.  New York has always been like that for me.  There are a million stories and they are all happening at the same time.  The thing is I don't know everyone's story for real.  In fiction I can and the East Village happens to be my place and my tribe.  That's what I am trying to set into motion.  It takes flight at some point, hopefully right at the outset and thing to do is fly up in the air with it.  Fiction is a place I can do that.  It must be possible in nonfiction but it's not what I do.  By the way, I love the image of Ted walking around like that.  Youth is so earnest.  At the same time I was walking around with a little notebook getting the same feel for the same place, my mind in the same whirl!

Are your stories autobiographical?

DH: Of ourselves the stories are autobiographical. 

What were the performances at the Gershwin and Bowery Poetry Club like ?

DH: The performances were a lot of fun.  Writing is a solitary sport.  This was a chance to work as a sort of art house band with instruments of our choosing. We had Jim Coleman from Cop Shoot Cop and a cello player named Kirsten McCord.  Jim did atmospheric samples and compositions.  This month we'll have Kurt Wolf from Pussy Galore, a guitar wizard.  We try to take the audience on an experience.  Ted shows over a hundred photos in a loop.

TB: The amazing thing about the performances was that that it actually worked. It was kinda risky on our part trying to do an unrehearsed multimedia presentation with a reader, live music, and projections. 

Wiffle Ball on St. Marks Place, 1985
What governing aesthetic did you have for choosing the photos for the book? Did you choose them together?

DH: Ted chose the photos after reading the pieces.  We talked over our favorites just as we did with the prose.  It felt really collaborative in that, though we each have our own instrument it was important to us that it fit together right. 
What role, if any, did nostalgia or sentimentality play in each of your work in East of Bowery? Did you have to guard against it in any way? Indulge it?
TB: I've tried to keep nostalgia out of the work as best I can. They are very old photographs from a time and place that I do have a romantic attachment to. I think Drew was careful not to romanticize the druggier aspects of the writing and subject matter, and show it for the comedic folly that that lifestyle can become if you don't die first. The character is always trying to get out and get straight, even if he never quite gets there.

DH: I ascribe to the idea that the past is not even the past.  It is a part of who and what we are and it comes with us and our experience.  Again you can tell what's overdone, that's part of the training.  

What do you mean? 

DH: What I mean is that the voice is everything.  Also that there is a fine line between bullshit and what works and takes the reader on a trip.

Ted, what areas of New York City would you like to photograph that you haven't yet?

TB: I don't have any plans for any photographic projects specific to New York City or any part of it, but I've spent a fair amount of time recently photographing at Zuccotti Park and around the Occupy protests. I've been inspired by the young upstart revolutionaries, to look around the streets, and make photographs. There's energy out there that I find exciting. The landscape is so totally different than the New York I photographed in East of Bowery.

Has growing up and maturing impacted your choice of subject as artists?

TB: I don't really feel like growing up has impacted my choice of subject matter as a much it has hindered the act of making a picture with the filter and weight of experience. To successfully make photographs in the street—as I did in those early days—relies on a lot of intuition and impulse. The older you get and the more you've seen in your own work and in others, the harder it becomes to access that place. Its like what Picasso said, that "All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up." Not that I was a child then, but I was young. I'm still resisting "growing up," but I am a lot less reckless than I was then and that's a good thing.

DH: It's funny that Ted mentions the Occupy movement. It's funny but this work came out of writing about riots.  This has always interested me as a subject.  Life on the run so to speak, making up things as you go along.  When I first set foot in New York that is what the city represented to me.  The book starts with the Tompkins Square riots and he never has a place to live. I mean New York is more expensive now but so what it was was expensive for those of us us with no money. And it's really not about drugs at all, though for this particular time and place it was, it's really about that spontaneous spirit and that can happen anywhere. 


Visit East of Bowery and Sensitive Skin Magazine to see old and new work from Hubner and Barron. Barron also writes a record collector's blog, Boogie Woogie Flu.


BabyDave said...

Hi. Nice interview. As for that photo of the International, I'm pretty sure that in the mid-1980's it was on St. Mark's Place, not First Avenue.

Joe Bonomo said...

Thanks, BD! Corrections made.

-K- said...

I bought "Flophouse" several years ago as a Christmas gift for a friend and always regretted not reading it before I put it in the mail.