For some, New York City’s Bowery conjures visions of desolation. The word used to be synonymous with the drunk, destitute and down and out: Think of the “bowery bum.” But today New York’s Bowery district is far removed from its seedy past.
The area in southern Manhattan has been gentrifying for years. Up until the late 20th century, it was still a place full of cheap hotels and dive bars, but then it all began to change. Now it is home to luxury steel, glass and brink condos and apartment buildings, with the accompanying high-end grocery stores. Where once stood CBGB, the famed venue where punk and new wave acts such as the Ramones and the Talking Heads played, there’s now a John Varvatos boutique.
In the 1970s, however, the Bowery was still home to a host of men wandering the bars, drinking on the streets and panhandling. Photographer Edward Grazda’s new book, “On the Bowery” (powerHouse, 2019), preserves that history. It is dedicated in the opening pages to Lionel Rogosin’s 1956 film of the same title. Grazda’s photos, taken some 15 years after the film, match the gritty, grimy reality that Rogosin recorded.
Grazda shot the photos in his book over a period of several months from September to December 1971 while staying with friends in their loft on the Bowery near Grand Street. He initially shelved the photos he took of the men populating the area because he thought they were too intrusive. But in 1999 while at the MacDowell Colony, an artists’ colony, he revisited the work and decided to make a book.
The black-and-white photos of men sitting in doorways drinking, sidling up to cars on the street looking for change and sitting in dingy bars are gritty and loose. In that way, they mirror the subjects’ lives in the four borders of the frames. The people in the photos seem to be on a long day’s journey into night, echoing an old saying Grazda recounts at the end of the book, “The Bowery is the longest street in America: Once you get on it you never get off.” And while Grazda left the Bowery at the end of 1971, he notes: “I was lucky: I got off the Bowery, most of these men did not.”
You can find out more about the book here.
In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.
More on In Sight: