I Keep Them Because I Need Them, Part 2
Origins of The Bowery Project
Because of the rain, I was stuck in the city, cursing and slowly trudging through puddles and soaked newspapers, therefore I began to notice details about the four blocks that I routinely walked on my way to a shared writing space. I noticed the movement of street furniture: discarded mattresses, broken but almost good furniture, and sometimes dumpsters full of photographs and clothing of the recently deceased. I noticed the homeless, mostly men, from the nearby mission, and I heard rumbles about a renewal project sponsored by Cooper Union, a tuition-free (until recently) art and architecture school.
In the late 90s there was a battle to save community gardens as well as several squats from then mayor Rudy Giuliani’s auction block. I paid attention because as a struggling poet and newcomer to NYC, the debate over available and affordable space was a matter of survival, and dumpster diving and big trash pickup night, a home furnishings store.
I found myself drawn to books on urban studies, mostly Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Sidewalk by Mitchell Duneier, a study of homeless men who sell books on 6th Avenue in Greenwich Village. And Low Life, by Luc Sante, a study of the opium dens, gangs and dives of 19th century downtown New York City.
I began a journal of my regular walks on the Bowery, once America’s most infamous street. I bought a cheap camera and shot a roll of film nearly every week, often photographing the same graffiti over and over, but eventually the changes, the subtle and bold movements emerged; someone squatted a vacant weedy lot by erecting a tent out of blankets and furnishing this space with a collection of kitchen chairs, plants (from plant nursey dumpster), even a nude store mannequin. And then the city hauled away the goods, padlocked the site, and later, the cycle, the arc, started up again.
The photographs became part of a working scrapbook, a data midden, stuffed and tactile, along with journal observations about the movement of objects, overheard conversations and ephemera such as stickers, flyers, and deli cups that said: “We are happy to serve you.”
The data midden became The Bowery Project, first published by Leroy Books, and later included in A Handmade Museum, published by Coffee House Press in the early 2000s.
Other interests converged, artist Sophie Calle, under instruction from novelist Paul Auster, adopted a phone booth, placing a vase of flowers, cigarettes, change, and food to this “neglected space,” then photographed people who went to use a pay phone and ended up with a sandwich. I thought that must be the best project in the world.
I gathered histories of the properties; for example, McGurks’ Suicide Hall, where the artist and feminist Kate Millet lived. She tried to save the building by arguing for its importance in the struggle for women’s equality. McGurks’ was a dive and a brothel where about five young women, who felt themselves disgrace or fallen, committed suicide by drinking carbolic acid and dying a painful death in front of bar patrons. The owner advertised the suicides as a tourist attraction.
Drop off the film…. anticipate, worry, count the costs… open the envelope of prints.
Jane Jacobs spoke of “a public character,” the person who serves as the eyes on the street. In my quest to go deeper, I decided to become a public character on the Bowery. I put up a sign asking passing strangers to write down their wishes and place them in a box. I wrote a script for a three-minute black and white film and tried to follow my own directions.
From Bowery Box Wishes:
Observation Notes: Some began by clearing their throats and minds, by sitting down, selecting a pen, selecting paper in the color or in the best shape of their wishes. One wrote a very long wish over a very long time, but mostly the wishes were in the tip-top of their thoughts, not buried or deeply buried but near the top, accessible. Many held the pen tightly, many wore bracelets. Some were black and some were white, both men and women. Some came from the mission where there was a hot food line so many of the wishers and dreamers came over. One man, his glasses held on a string, promised he’d bring more people over and he was good to his word. Some write as if I had the ability to make the wishes come true. A man in a Three Stooges t-shirt said he had lived on the Bowery all his life, and he was looking for a girlfriend. Another said he has just yesterday gotten out of jail, and he was a poet, and he recited a poem. Some women stopped, they were silent and diligent about their wishing. They did not say if they were lonely or what they were looking for.
Then it was over and I had a box of wishes.
“Are you going to read them?’ someone asked.
“No,” I said. But I wasn’t sure why, I had promised them nothing yet I felt that they trusted me not to look, but maybe some of them hoped to be heard. Months later, I took the box down and realized that what I felt was the need to protect them. So I did.
I didn’t want “to romanticize the suffering nor demonize the Bowery, or its residents.” I wanted to listen and to document this public space, before gentrification dislocated its long-time occupants and bulldozed viable buildings, open space, and 19th century ruins. In A Summary of A Public Experiment, I asked passersby to tell me a Bowery story. I was moved at how many of the residents wanted to share their affection for the Bowery and their histories:
One day I gathered up a table and a chair and put up a sign that read, “Tell me a Bowery story.” My friend came with a video camera. Some people wanted to know if we could make them famous, some wanted to know if their parents would see them. Some were performers and trying to give me what they thought I wanted.
…[H]e said that he was a resident of the Bowery area, from Houston Street to Cooper Union Square. He said that he grew up in Brooklyn, on the streets, as a member of the Young Skulls, gang. He said “Things changed for me here. This is where it changed at, there’s lot of resources around here, for anybody that’s on the street. Some people are so accustomed to bathhouses, soup kitchens. That’s all they know, they don’t feel safe inside a city shelter …they kinda feel safer in the street, on the sidewalk, or in the park. They are woken up in the morning by police at 5:30. By the time people are going to work, they don’t see us…I have a gratitude for the Bowery, it’s the only place I feel at peace.”
Brenda Coultas is the author of the poetry collections A Journal of Places (online, Metambesen Press, 2015), The Tatters (Wesleyan University Press, 2014), The Marvelous Bones of Time (Coffee House Press, 2007), and A Handmade Museum (Coffee House Press, 2003). Her poetry can be found in anthologies, including Readings in Contemporary Poetry: An Anthology (2017), What...