NYC Newsstand Project
In November 2006, I began photographing Manhattan’s sidewalk newsstand kiosks. After seven years living in New York, I suddenly started to pay attention to this ingrained fixture of the city streetscape. As fate would have it, a few weeks after I started, Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed a $1 billion contract with Cemusa, Inc., to install standardized bus shelters, public toilets, and newsstands to “unify the look and feel of New York City’s street furniture.” My interest became a quest, and over the next five years I photographed all 242 newsstands in the borough. Today only a handful remain standing and will soon be gone.
I quickly became seduced by the newsstands’ appearance, by the visual sensation of repetitive patterns, the rows, stacks and piles of newspapers, magazines, cigarettes, lotto tickets, candy, gum and beverages. More or less, they shared a basic form: metal walls and a flat roof with a shallow overhang, often with a fridge on one side, usually with a Snapple logo at the top. Newspapers were stacked across the bottom, milkcrates keeping them off the ground, and magazines displayed face out. Between vendor and customer was a clear plastic divider holding varieties of gum and candy. But while the structures were in many ways the same, they were also incredibly varied from one another. In color, for instance: they were often painted red, silver, brown or black, and occasionally yellow or blue. Some were very large and wide, others small and narrow, a few so tiny they could pass for a street cart. Some were overflowing with merchandise, while others were spare; some were haphazardly arranged and others obsessively organized. I found two that were wooden and seemed handmade: one downtown on Canal and the Bowery and the other in Harlem at 138th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd. Some were decorated with personal mementos like family photographs and some with graffiti -- personal mementos left by New Yorkers themselves. The merchandise varied by neighborhood: in Chinatown were Chinese-language newspapers, in Harlem were incense oils, and in midtown and Lower Manhattan tourist trinkets. There was no clear formula, though. Mostly I felt that these businesses were profoundly individual, and in that sense, truly characteristic of New York City.
I grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but as a child, New York was like my second home. It was the city where my father was born and raised, where his mother was born and raised, and I would come often with my parents or stay alone with my grandmother, who proudly lived in the same apartment on West 72nd Street, where my father was born. New York in the 1980s was still very rough around the edges. I steered clear of certain subway lines at all times, and I was warned of particular blocks to avoid. Even so, I was mesmerized, enchanted even, and moved to the city in 1999 to study photography at NYU and live out the dreams that New York seemed to promise.
Since my arrival nearly 15 years ago, the New York City that had fascinated me has been rapidly fading away. The loss of the newsstands represents for me the end of an era. This project is deeply rooted in nostalgia and memory, and the act of making photographs fulfills my desires to collect the present and preserve the past. I have been deeply influenced by the works of Eugene Átget, Berenice Abbott, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Bernd & Hilla Becher and Ed Ruscha, who taught me to use the camera to document and archive what I see. Making these photographs has been a means to comment on the larger trend in which large corporations have replaced family businesses, what has been called the mallification of the city. The photographs lessen the loss, conserving the past so it can in some way live on.
The focus of the project changed course many times over the years. Sometimes it was about mapping the city, exploring it block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood. At other times, it was about the physicality of the stands themselves, seeing them in relationship to one another as typologies, and illuminating how diverse and varied they were. My point of view also shifted, from standing close-up to focus on the person inside, boxed in surrounded by their goods, to standing a few steps back to show the whole stand frontally, or standing from the side to show it obliquely. Sometimes, I moved across the street to view the newsstand in the larger context of its block. In many photographs, the people of New York make an appearance, and in others, the kiosks stand alone.
The changes in the appearance of our streetscapes reflects the changes in the social, political and economic landscape of our city. The disappearance of these newsstands is one reflection of that change. These photographs allow us to consider the implications of how New York City today is different than it was. They allow us to step into the past and take part in a piece of an old New York that will never be again.