By Alexandra Phanor-Faury
Street Play: Going Inner City
The influx of Stella McCartney-clad hipsters in Manhattan’s Alphabet City might have appeared, back in the neighborhood’s pre-affluent era in the 80s and 90s, like poorly cast extras on the set of The Warriors. A veritable ghost town, Alphabet City, referred back then as “the wild wild west,” was a place where drug dealers defiantly engaged in public sales, boarded up buildings were converted into crack sanctuaries and echoes of crowing roosters and growling pitbulls were the daily soundtrack. It seems near impossible to picture such a tableau today.
But for famed photo-journalist and ethnographer Martha Cooper, revisiting this area’s past in her latest book, Street Play, uncovered a vibrant life and energy that brewed in a seemingly chaotic area – thanks to its young residents. “These photos are from a personal project when I was driving around Alphabet City nearly every day to and from my job as staff photographer at the New York Post. I remember being amazed at the vast areas of boarded up and burnt out buildings right in Manhattan. On the other hand, I always found the area interesting because it had the richest street life,” recalls Cooper who is credited with being the first and foremost photographer to document the birth of hip-hop in the 70s.
The photographs, dating from 1977 to 1980, are a poignant depiction of the creativity and resourcefulness of children despite their dire surroundings
The photographs, dating from 1977 to 1980, are a poignant depiction of the creativity and resourcefulness of children despite their dire surroundings: abandoned buildings turned into playgrounds and mattresses were urban trampolines. The photographs are accompanied by a first-person narrative written by graffiti artist Carlos Rodriguez who recounts his own painful and gleamy-eyed optimistic New York City childhood. While the National Geographic
photographer intended on releasing this book back in the 80s, the harsh realities of Alphabet City seemed all too authentic. “Now, 25 years later, these photos are “vintage” and as such are more unusual because they show a neighbourhood and a way of life which has disappeared. Until the past few years, it has retained its artistic character. But recently, there are disturbing signs. Families, some of whom have lived in the area for generations, are being pushed out. While Alphabet City’s makeover is inevitable, Street Play
is a meditative study in looking beyond the surface.
Alexandra Phanor-Faury is a married, Haitian-American journalist living in Brooklyn, NY. Alexandra has reported and written about music, fashion, art and celebrities for websites and publications such as i-D, Nylon & NylonGuy, People Magazine & People.com, Courrier International, BlackBook.com, Trace, Giant, Teen Vogue, Page Six Magazine and Bloomingdales’ Little Brown Book.
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