If you were on the Bowery last night, near Delancey Street, you witnessed quite a spectacle.
As the sun went down, black and white photographs of 62 locals were illuminated in the windows of the newly completed CitizenM Hotel at 189 Bowery. Many of those depicted were standing on the sidewalk across the street to witness the dramatic unveiling of a new exhibition called, “Citizens of the Bowery.”
The project is the work of photographer filmmaker and activist Christelle de Castro, who runs a design studio on Rivington Street. The photos will be on display at the 22-story hotel in the weeks before the property opens for business (that’s expected in about six weeks).
We had a chance to talk with de Castro and with Noreen Chadha, CitizenM’s general manager, yesterday afternoon at a cafe on Elizabeth Street.
For the project, de Castro created portraits of individuals with ties to the legendary block. The idea was to capture the diversity of the Bowery, as de Castro put it, to “represent all of the demographics that make this neighborhood great.” If you look up at the windows (or peruse this web page), you’ll spot well known figures such as Village Voice columnist Michael Musto, small business owners like Brian Faerman of Faerman Cash Registers (on the Bowery since 1910), local activists like Karlin Chan, fixtures of the downtown scene like filmmaker/performance artist Kembra Pfahler and some younger locals such as Jada Young, a Lower East Side high school student
Chadha, an executive with the Dutch hotel brand, explained how the Bowery art exhibition came about. “We were looking forward to entering the neighborhood,” said Chadha, “looking for the best ways to connect into a community that’s quite close-knit and also protective, in a way, and also sensitive about who’s coming onto the block.” She added, “We were thinking about, ‘What makes Bowery special?’ So, of course, there’s art and music and so much rich history here, but there’s also a lot of characters and people who are kind of local heroes.” Chadha said the project is meant to, “pay our respect” to what the neighborhood is all about.
De Castro said her team researched the history of the Bowery and then hit the streets. “We marched up and down the Bowery,” she explained, “walked into local shops, gave (shop owners) flyers. We just introduced ourselves, and we talked to people about their stories.”
There was some early resistance, but de Castro said most people were receptive once they realized she was serious about capturing what was authentic in the neighborhood. “Neighborhoods change, neighborhoods evolve,” observed de Castro, “but when artists like us are actually included in the evolution, when we have a platform to represent ourselves, that’s really cool. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Hotel executives and de Castro know some people will label this project as cultural appropriation and criticize the hotel for contributing to the gentrification of the Bowery. “For me,” said de Castro, “it’s very important that the message comes across that these are new neighbors, but they didn’t get some random photographer from Amsterdam to come in and take these pictures and ‘street cast’ and not really care. They gave the project to someone who is a local.”
Beyond this particular art exhibition, Chadha said CitizenM is making a long-term commitment to the Lower East Side. “We’re planning on being here for 90-100 years,” she said. “We’re not entering this neighborhood with a sense of, ‘The Bowery is cool, let’s see how it goes.’ We’re here to stay.”
Asked about her aspirations for the project, de Castro told us, “I just hope that it adds some sort of beauty to the neighborhood, and I hope it inspires people to take photographs. I’m really excited about younger people seeing it. And for the people who are in it, I hope they feel empowered and know that they are important members of the community.”
Here are a few select portraits from “Citizens of the Bowery:”