I've spent much of the past year rediscovering the city of New York. Popular neighborhoods, iconic shops and tourist spots, parks and public spaces—on most days of the week, I'm out there, strapped with lenses, limning the landscape through my camera. One of my ongoing assignments has been to photograph every neighborhood in the city, conveying its sense of community, commerce, and general vibe, and then packaging it all in a photo-rich guide showing what it's like to live there. I work closely with a writer and researcher but a lot of my work is done in real time, walking a neighborhood's boundaries, watching people, following the daylight.
I've lived in the city for about 10 years. During this time, I've always been an active explorer but, like most people, my interests typically led the search. When I first moved here in my twenties, it was the grit and nightlife that attracted me. I spent most weekends in the East Village, Lower East Side, and Brooklyn, hunting for intimate venues, dives and holes-in-the-wall, seedy parts of town where anything might happen. As I got older, I moved into Queens and became absorbed in exploring the diversity within my own borough—Jackson Heights, Flushing, Astoria, and Long Island City—otherwise trekking out to neighborhoods based on the cuisine or specific events.
As such, many neighborhoods remained a mystery to me. And there were definitely neighborhoods that I avoided like the plague—Times Square, located in the Theater District, was my least favorite area of all. Thousands of tourists walking at a glacial pace, skyscrapers covered with spasmodic blinking ads, street vendors selling New York City paraphernalia marked up a thousandfold, and traffic, always so much traffic. It seemed to condense all of the worst aspects of New York City in one small square radius.
My knee-jerk perspectives began to change, though, after spending lots of time in each neighborhood. I began to see things in a more balanced light. I became charmed by the guileless wonder of people looking up at Times Square, calmed by the peaceful haven that is Battery Park City on a weekday morning, inspired by the rich craft community in Brooklyn's Boerum Hill. I suddenly knew more of Harlem's verdant parks and block parties, the evolution of far west Chelsea, and of all those rooftop bars and third-floor restaurants tucked away in Murray Hill and the Garment District. It was hard to have the same singular emotional verdict for any neighborhood anymore; what resulted was a mix of new perceptions, both positive and negative, objective and subjective.
I've started to corral some of my favorite images together and will be sharing these little slices of life from each NYC neighborhood here. As the city's mascot neighborhood, Times Square (part of the Theater District) seems like a good place to start. Aglow with light and always packed with people, it is both the antithesis and embodiment of the city. I'd always sneered at its fraudulence, its rows of big corporate stores appropriating the city to imbue their generic stuff with a sense of excitement. Also for its infamous traffic, its chaotic slowness. The slow walking of tourists stopped bothering me, though, once I stopped to walk with them. If you look beyond the retail, there really is a lot to see: monks and businessmen waiting together at stoplights; the street performers, indefatigable despite performing very physical routines over and over again in August heat for hours; those moments of synchronicity when the movement of the masses seems coordinated and perfectly balanced. There are quiet moments: a woman cycling down a street, wind in her hair, lost in thought despite the throng of cars and people rushing all around her; rows of yellow cabs, patiently parked in natural sunlight, musical in their perfect yellow gleam; a couple taking pictures together in silence, smiling while they flip through their reels.
And, despite the fact that most everyone there is trying to sell you something, the place is actually rife with authenticity and interesting stories. Those Disney characters beckoning you for photographs? They are all self-employed, out there on their own accord. Many are immigrants who have purchased the costumes on their own and have created these professions for themselves. The woman trying to capture your attention to sell you Broadway show tickets may be a struggling dancer, living in a hallway in south Brooklyn, and that slick corporate guy in a dark suit may be from a small town in the Midwest, visiting for interviews, searching for a new life.
It's no wonder that people walk so slowly—there's a lot going on in this neighborhood, some things surprising, some sad, and a lot hilarious. The good, the bad, the weird below.