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Norfolk Street

Whenever I tell a fellow NYU student or other New York resident about the blog I’ve been writing for Media History of New York, I’m always greeted with the same question: “Norfolk Street? Where’s that?” invariably accompanied by the slight frown of surprise (and disappointment) that, somewhere, there is still a corner of the city with which she isn’t yet familiar.

But unfamiliarity with Norfolk Street is to be expected. It’s just one of those pockets of the city that seems to try to be inconspicuous.

Norfolk Street juts straight down from East Houston into the heart of the L.E.S., only a couple of blocks away from one end of the Williamsburg Bridge at its intersection with Delancey, running southward until it terminates at Grand Street.

It isn’t what you’d call a destination street, and it isn’t the kind of street you’d normally walk from end to end. By now, I’ve treaded up and down Norfolk’s entire length countless times, and every time I do it, it feels slightly unnatural. Turning onto Norfolk Street and staying on Norfolk Street feels strange because, for most people, Norfolk seems to serve only as a channel between the street’s busier neighbors—Rivington, for example, or Stanton. One gets the inescapable sensation of lingering on a street that is not meant to be lingered on, a street that people mostly only take to get somewhere else.

Photographer Dylan Stone tried to recreate this sensation in his project “Drugstore Photographs, or A Trip Along the Yangtze River, 1999.” Stone’s collection of Lower East Side snapshots is extremely extensive, detailed, and inclusive, the final collection consisting of 26,000 photographs of L.E.S. street intersections and buildings, all of which can be viewed through the New York Public Library’s online digital archive. The photographs intentionally toe the line between documentation and art, portraying the street as it is and simultaneously attempting to communicate the feel of the street to the audience. The photographs of Norfolk street have a particular, muted range of color, and they seem rather awkward—some are badly framed, some are out-of-focus, the views in a few are obstructed by cars or tree branches, and all of them are inexplicably slanting to the right. They seem almost as if Stone had taken them in a massive hurry, snapping photos one-handed as he walked down the sidewalk.

Considering the street’s character, the flighty, awkward nature of Stone’s photographs are fitting. They give the viewer the sensation of being in a rush, and almost look like what you would see if you glanced up every once in a while when speed-walking down Norfolk, the slant of the pictures enhancing the feeling of constant motion. Through this unique style of subjective documentation, Stone expresses the essence of Norfolk Street as he saw it.

What Stone attempts to communicate about Norfolk in his photographs makes sense, really—compared with the countless restaurants and shops located on its cross streets, Norfolk is barren. It’s almost as if Norfolk is the introverted younger sibling, quietly overshadowed by its louder, more attractive brothers and sisters. But Norfolk, which doesn’t call attention to itself in the first place, doesn’t seem to mind. It sits quietly and waits until people take the time to slow down and turn their curiosity in its direction. It doesn’t look like much—just five blocks of brick-fronted tenements, elementary schools, and two interminable stretches of parking lot—but the key to this place, as with most other seemingly “bland” parts of the city, is to look beyond appearances.

To begin with, Norfolk has had an extremely rich history, with years of relative prosperity and years of decline. Like the rest of the Lower East Side, Norfolk Street was extremely crowded and lively during the turn of the century, when the neighborhood was home to thousands of immigrants who’d come to the States seeking to better their lives. There are countless photos depicting the living conditions and atmosphere of the area at the time, but novelist Meredith Tax provides what I think is the best and most vivid rendition of the Norfolk Street area in her book Rivington Street: A Novel. Tax performed months and months of research on the lives of early twentieth century Jewish families in the Lower East Side for this novel, and though the work is fictional, her description of the atmosphere in the area is historically accurate; by having her imagined character, Hannah, navigate through the streets of the L.E.S., she provides her readers with a unique “first-hand” account of what it was like to live in the Norfolk Street area in the early 1900s:

Taking her shopping bag and plunging into the life of the marketplace, Hannah threaded her way along the choked sidewalks—six hundred people on every acre of the East Side, more packed even than China. Stalls and awnings burst from the tiny shops onto the sidewalks, pullers-in hollered and grabbed her arm as she went by, pushcarts encroached upon the sidewalk from the other side, leaving almost no passageway.

And here was the world of her delight, after six years still as thrilling to her as an Arabian Nights bazaar. The filth, the crush, the stink, the cacophony of a thousand bickering voices, the yelling of children underfoot, the countless peddlers shouting their wares: pickle vendors with their vats of sours, gherkins, green tomatoes; candymen and their lollipops, licorice sticks, squares of butterscotch ten for a penny; the halvah man and the woman with slabs of broken chocolate. There were carts heaped with dried fruits and nuts—baseball nuts, polly seeds, St. John’s potatoes from little metal ovens on wheels; and a fellow how cried ‘Hot chickpeas! Roasted chickpeas!’ Chicken and geese hung by their necks from poultry carts and fish were piled one upon the other, staring upward with glassy eyes. A man peddled hot ears of corn from a vat perched on a baby carriage. Another sold political pamphlets; a missionary dispensed tracts; a vendor of Yiddish sheet music sang free samples; and three little boys practiced a vaudeville routine. There was even an ‘Irish tenor from Lithuania,’ singing in English the song of the hour, ‘I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now,’ with a cap in front of him.

She pushed through the crowded street. Look up and you could see the sweatshop workers hard at it, faces gray as the cloth that drained their lives little by little. Occasionally a worker came out onto one of the fire escapes to gasp for air and she gave him a rueful smile, remembering the lint that had filled her own lungs. The fire escapes were covered with bedding and mattresses, like low-hanging white clouds; clothes hung out to dry between the buildings were getting dirty over again from the air.

One can immediately see how different a walking experience on Norfolk Street today is, compared with a stroll down Norfolk in the past, when it was constantly crowded with people and teeming with life. Articles have always described the Lower East Side during the time as being precisely like this—crowded and full of street vendors and haggling customers—but Tax’s novel gives a more detailed, rich, gritty, and personal feel to the neighborhood.

There are still traces of this former life to be found on the street today, though, if one knows where to look. Following Germany’s Reform Movement in the mid 19th century, the Lower East Side saw a massive influx of German-Jewish immigrants, who opened up theatres, cafes, publishing houses, and synagogues all over the neighborhood—including the Ansche Chesed synagogue that now stands at number 172. The synagogue has been around for more than one and a half centuries, and thrived well off of the community in its prime but eventually, in the 1960s, fires, crime, and business closures caused Norfolk Street—and the establishments on it—to fall into a state of disrepair. Luckily, the synagogue was salvaged from demolition when developers bought it and boarded it up to wait for the neighborhood’s revival. In 1986, the synagogue was finally bought by Angel Orensanz, a sculptor who restored it to its former beauty and turned it into the Angel Orensanz Center, an art exhibition and performance space.

Like the street they call home, many of the establishments on Norfolk Street have something great to offer to the city but don’t go out of their way to call attention to themselves, and the Angel Orensanz Center is no exception. When Orensanz renovated the synagogue, he left the façade of the building rather bare, installing only a few simple, metal sculptures in front to distinguish its new purpose as a place for art and performance, rather than worship. But passersby shouldn’t let the exterior of the building fool them—the interior is breathtakingly gorgeous; indeed, good enough to host the marriage of Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, an album release performance by Lady Gaga, and the filming of Gossip Girl (twice!). Even when it isn’t being rented out to high-profile celebrities and CW productions, though, the center also has a full-time job as an art gallery, exhibiting works by Angel Orensanz himself, as well as several other painters and sculptors. Though it isn’t used exclusively as a worship space any more, the synagogue’s newfound function in bringing people together through the arts still has the same ultimate result in building a community of people with the same interests.

The Angel Orensanz Center is one of Norfolk Street’s success stories, but, unfortunately, this happy ending isn’t a universal theme for the street’s establishments. The synagogue’s Eastern European sister, the Beth Hamedrash Hagodol synagogue at the corner of Norfolk and Broome, was another popular place of worship in the neighborhood during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, helping to attract diverse crowds to Norfolk Street. In the late 1800s, it housed a large congregation and even had a high-profile dedication ceremony, during which the street outside of the synagogue was “packed from curb to curb” with people “endeavor[ing] to get into the synagogue to witness the dedication services,” and even when packed with people standing, the synagogue still didn’t have enough room for all those present. However, the synagogue has long since been abandoned, and has been in dire need of funding for repairs since the 1940s. Even though it still stands at its original location, the synagogue is but a faded and gutted ghost of its former self.

The synagogue has a contemporary neighbor that met the same unfortunate end—a few blocks north of the synagogue, there is a tiny, garage-like building standing at number 107, a forlorn little cube of brick that is empty, now, but only a few years ago, it was the treasured haven of some of the Lower East Side’s most talented underground musicians—the Tonic.

The club opened in 1998, and soon became one of the most popular places to see the best of New York City’s underground musical acts. Tonic, in keeping with the general appearance of the street, was nothing great to look at. The place was incredibly cramped and decidedly glamourless, prone to both flooding and exploding plumbing, and performers often had to set up their equipment on makeshift surfaces like card tables and spare chairs. But, also like other establishments on the street, Tonic simply embodied Norfolk Street’s general habit of hiding quality experiences behind scruffy exteriors. It may have been dirty and spartan, but people kept coming to Tonic because they loved what the venue stood for—the spirit of the “suffering artist,” a place where the only thing that mattered was the music itself. The place was unique in that it was dedicated not so much to any single style or genre of music, but rather to the idea of musical integrity and the appreciation of music itself. Similarly to the Angel Orensanz Center, it played the unexpected host to performances by well-known (or soon-to-be well-known) musicians like Sonic Youth, Norah Jones, Cat Power, and Yoko Ono. But the pride of Tonic was always found in its eclectic mix of experimental jazz musicians like Martin, Medeski, and Wood, John Zorn, Ras Moshe, and Marco Benevento, who found an eager and open-minded audience in the venue.

At first, their brand of music just sounds like pure discordant noise, but this distinctive, improvised sound is a musical art, more a stream of consciousness expressed through instrumentation than a planned-out, scripted tune. It reflected the Tonic community’s alternative attitude toward music—they were strongly against the mass-commercialization o their art, and sought to bring music back to its most basic, primordial, emotional roots. The Tonic community used their music to identify themselves as a thriving subculture and carved out their own haven in this tiny garage in the Lower East Side, where they could rebel against the homogenization of music in general. In 2007, however, the venue was brought to a sad end by the very forces that it sought to oppose. After nine years of operation, Tonic was evicted from its space due to the owners’ inability to pay the skyrocketing rent—a story all too familiar to dozens of other music venues scattered throughout the neighborhood. Though gentrification has been steadily displacing the Lower East Side’s beloved music venues over the past several years, the closing of Tonic was an especially hard loss—so hard, in fact, that on the day of its closing, more than 100 musicians and showgoers congregated inside the building for a final farewell show. When the police came to bolt the doors shut, the crowd protested and refused to leave, leading to at least two arrests. Even after Tonic’s closing, the community spirit was kept alive online through the Tonic newsletter and a Facebook page where the venue’s fans could share their memories and photos from past shows.

Though there are a few parts of the street that have fallen victim to unfortunate economic conditions, the establishments on the street now seem to have found a way to take advantage of the street’s obscurity. The cafes, restaurants, bars, and galleries on the street are not extremely well-known in the city, but they are all unique and of high quality (if customer reviews on the internet are anything to go by!). My personal favorite establishment on the street has to be Tiny’s Giant Sandwich Shop, a minuscule corner café at the intersection of Norfolk and Rivington that’s a bit of an unspoken legend among New York City café-lovers. Schiller’s Liquor Bar is probably the most “famous” restaurant on Norfolk, mostly because of its reputation as a fun, laid-back atmosphere with incredible food at reasonable prices (and partly because of its use in the 2010 romantic comedy film Morning Glory). The street comes alive when the sun goes down, and some basement bars seem to suddenly crop up out of nowhere when the sky gets dark and the artificial lights come on. The façade of the Back Room disguises itself as a slightly creepy, old toy store, with a sign on the gate to the entrance reading “Lower East Side Toy Co.” It’s a speakeasy-like bar with a rather “Fight Club” kind of feel—you can only really get in if you know it’s there, and what’s more, access to the exclusive back room of the Back Room is limited to friends and acquaintances of the bar’s owners.

In the weeks I’ve spent with this street, I’ve found that it has a knack of keeping its best parts a trade secret, only revealed to those who really take the time to poke around and look for interesting finds in unexpected places. From looking at Norfolk Street, it’s the last place you’d expect to be a recurring set for Gossip Girl, the site of A-list movie star nuptials, or to be listed among the favorite haunts of pop culture big-shots like Lady Gaga. It’s defeinitely not the bustling street illuminated by a million neon sign’s that’s so iconicly New York—instead, it’s quiet, deserted for much of the day, and looks a little bit sketchy, but it’s got so many hidden treasures just waiting to be uncovered, and it has a knack for bringing people together into communities based on shared interests and passions. It is precisely these things that contribute to its allure.

Works Cited

http://www.nysonglines.com/norfolk.htm

http://www.orensanz.org/pdf/orensanz-booklet.pdf

http://www.archives.nysed.gov/a/research/res_topics_pgc_jewish_essay.shtml

http://www.orensanz.org/angel.html

“Synagogue Needs $35,000: Beth Hamedrash Hagodol Must Repair Building Defects.” New York Times [New York] 30 Dec. 1946. Print.

“DEDICATING A SYNAGOGUE. The New House Of The Congregation Beth Hamedrash Hagodol.” New York Times [New York] 17 Aug. 1885. Print.

Tax, Meredith. “Chapter II.” Rivington Street: a Novel. Urbana: University of Illinois, 2001. 81-83. Print.

“Morning Glory Film Locations – On the Set of New York.com.” Film Locations. Web. 25 Oct. 2011. <http://onthesetofnewyork.com/morningglory.html&gt;.

Sisario, Ben. “Avant-Garde Music Loses a Lower Manhattan Home.” The New York Times[New York] 31 Mar. 2007. Print.

Chinen, Nate. “Requiem for a Club: Saxophone and Sighs.” The New York Times [New York] 16 Apr. 2007. Print.

Corbould, Clare. “Streets, Sounds and Identity in Interwar Harlem.” (2006). Web.

“”Drugstore Photographs, Or, A Trip Along the Yangtze River, 1999;” Lower Manhattan Block-by-Block by Dylan Stone.” NYPL Digital Gallery. New York Public Library. Web. 19 Nov. 2011. <http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/explore/?col_id=176&gt;.

A Brief History

Norfolk Street juts straight down from East Houston into the heart of the Lower East Side, ending where it runs into Grand Street. Along with the two streets on either side of it–Essex and Suffolk Streets–Norfolk was named after a southeastern English county (Naureckas). Despite the heritage of its name, however, Norfolk has seen a rich history influenced by German and Eastern European Jewish immigrants, who brought their unique cultures to Norfolk Street and gave it its two landmark synagogues: Ansche Chesed (now the Angel Orensanz Center), erected by the German Jewish congregation in 1849, and Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, built in 1852 by the neighborhood’s Eastern European Jewish community (Orensanz, Sussman).

Perhaps one of the best ways to look at Norfolk Street’s history is through the eyes of the Ansche Chesed synagogue, which has been around for more than one and a half centuries. Following Germany’s Reform Movement in the mid-19th century, the Lower East Side saw a massive influx of German-Jewish immigrants, who brought with them new culture, philosophy, music, and ideas. Theatres, cafes, publishing houses, and synagogues are opened all over the neighborhood, including Ansche Chesed, at whose opening ceremony the governor and mayor of New York were in attendance. At this point, Norfolk Street was buzzing with life and progress. But by the 1960s, fires, crime, and business closures caused Norfolk Street to fall into a state of disrepair. The synagogue was bought by developers who wanted to wait for the neighborhood’s revival, and in the meantime, Ansche Chesed was boarded up (and, unfortunately, repeatedly plundered and vandalized). Within the next few years, while the L.E.S. and Norfolk Street remained relatively downcast, artists of all kinds began to reclaim the neighborhood’s empty spaces, slowly transforming the area once more into a center for culture and thought. While the desolate synagogue remained empty and neglected, the area around it was beginning to reawaken. In 1986, the Ansche Chesed was finally bought from the developers by Angel Orensanz, a sculptor who restored it to its former beauty and turned it into the Angel Orensanz Center, a space for art exhibition and performance. The center has been host to many events of high visibility, including fundraisers for non-profit organizations and celebrity weddings (The Farber Center). Indeed, most notable to me about Norfolk Street are its several independent art and fashion galleries; though it no longer swarms with activity and life as it seems to have done in the past, Norfolk still retains a quietly, serenely artistic and sophisticated spirit. The street is also home to Sloan Fine Art, NORFOLKSNYC, Gallery One Twenty Eight, the L.E.S. Runway, and the Thierry-Goldberg Gallery, as well as the Asian American Arts Centre. (Also found along Norfolk’s five blocks (mostly at its southern end) are a few locally owned, hole-in-the-wall businesses and restaurants, but most of the rest of this quiet street is comprised of brick apartment buildings.)


Interior of the Angel Orensanz Center

Sources:

http://www.nysonglines.com/norfolk.htm

http://www.orensanz.org/pdf/orensanz-booklet.pdf

http://www.archives.nysed.gov/a/research/res_topics_pgc_jewish_essay.shtml

http://www.orensanz.org/angel.html

http://thefarbercenter.com/blog/2010/07/21/the-venue-for-rocks-against-cancer/

“Friendship Starts with Good Communication”

At a glance, Norfolk seems to be a relatively insignificant road, with its silent apartment buildings and modest local establishments, just one in an endless row of similar streets. But living in New York City will quickly teach you that if something looks uninteresting, you’re not looking hard enough. (Unfortunately, the city also teaches you that if you’re able to look that carefully, you aren’t walking fast enough.)

Nonetheless, on my last visit to Norfolk, I forced myself to slow down and took the time to really look at the things my eyes had previously been sliding right past. Several galleries call Norfolk Street home, but the street itself also seems to serve as a canvas for the city’s more anarchic artists. Graffiti sprawls across the facades of almost every building in this neighborhood, but here I found a few uniquely striking images.

There was one spray-painted piece that I found especially fascinating: it featured four rows of faces–male and female, of varying races–turned in profile, facing each other in pairs. Between each of these rows was written the phrase “Friendship starts with good communication,” first in English, in Spanish in the next row, and finally in Chinese characters.

It struck me as an apt representation of the nature of my street, and of the entire city. Though Norfolk Street and the surrounding areas have a history deeply influenced by European Jewish immigrants, it has–like the rest of New York–grown to become incredibly diverse in every way. There is now a strong Chinese presence on Norfolk Street; there are traditional, all-American diners, and even a high-end, Eastern European bistro that recalls Norfolk Street’s earliest history. Norfolk Street doesn’t feature just diversity in race; it features diversity in lifestyle and interest and ideology, with a shiny, glass-fronted condominium building standing flush against ancient, brick apartments, and with a contemporary fine arts center living out of a 19th-century German synagogue. Graffiti is, by nature, inseparable from its surroundings; this is art painted directly onto the side of a building, at the street’s exact midpoint. It should be taken in the context of Norfolk Street as a whole: a quiet side street that’s a strange amalgam of history, art subculture, immigrant lifestyle, and American burger joints. I’m left wondering if this piece of art is pointing to its surroundings not as part of the problem, but as a sort of rickety model for what society should strive for. Norfolk is a far cry from a glamorous New York City street, but it does have an atmosphere of peaceful coexistence, one that I’m sure many places could do well to mimic.

A quick Google search for the phrase depicted told me that the graffiti has been there for quite a while, as graffiti goes. There are photos of the piece from as far back as 2006. I also noticed that different photos of the graffiti from different times imply that the piece is regularly touched up and cleared of any interfering tags from other artists. Compare the following photos to mine:

an image of the graffiti from April 2007 by Pavla Kopecna

an image of the graffiti from June 2010 by Shira Lazar

I’m not sure if the piece was put there by the cafe or by an anonymous street artist, but no matter who the author was, the building’s caretakers seem to have found the image’s message valuable enough to maintain the art as a part of the building.

Walking on Norfolk

Norfolk Street isn’t the kind of street you’d normally walk from end-to-end (unless you’re trying to get from Houston to Delancey or vice versa, and Norfolk just happens to be the nearest north-to-south running street). By now, I’ve treaded up and down Norfolk’s entire length several times, and every time I do it, I can’t help but feel like I’m doing something unnatural.

While it has its historical buildings and tiny art galleries, Norfolk isn’t what I’d call a destination street—it’s basically a long stretch of silent-faced apartments, devoid of any shop windows to linger at or any captivating sights aside from those stray pieces of graffiti. Turning onto Norfolk Street and staying on Norfolk Street felt unnatural because, for most people, Norfolk seems to serve only as a channel between the street’s busier neighbors. When I visited on Tuesday morning (my first non-afternoon visit to Norfolk), the area was markedly busier than it had been during any of my previous visits. Neighborhood residents were out walking their dogs, presumably before having to head to work or classes; the owners of Schiller’s Liquor Bar and the Remedy Diner were rolling up the gates in front of their doors and setting up shop for the day; men and women rushing to work stopped by the walk-up window of Tiny’s Giant Sandwich Shop to hastily order a coffee. (All of these businesses are on Norfolk’s corners.) While walking from north to south on the street, I found that almost all of the foot traffic was moving horizontally, from west to east or east to west along Norfolk’s cross streets, especially Rivington and Stanton. Walking a path perpendicular to the ones most people were taking felt strange, and crossing at the corners involved a lot of yielding and dodging on my part. I got the impression that I was lingering on a street that was not meant to be lingered on, a street that some people only took to get somewhere else. It makes sense, really—compared with the countless restaurants and shops located on its cross streets, Norfolk is rather barren. It has nothing to offer a New Yorker in the middle of a Tuesday morning rush to work. In fact, in thinking about the street in terms of de Certeau’s comparison of walking to language, I found a bit of synecdoche in Tiny’s Sandwich Shop, situated on the corner of Norfolk and Rivington. The shop’s main entrance faced onto Rivington, inviting the countless pedestrians there to step inside the shop, to have a bagel and coffee and sit for a while at one of its tables. On its Norfolk-facing side, however, there was only a small walk-up window for quick ordering, so walkers could get their food and beverages and be back on the road more quickly. Sure, people take Norfolk Street as part of their routes, but no one lingers there for too long; that’s not what Norfolk seems to be meant for, at least on a weekday morning.

It almost felt like Norfolk was the introverted sibling, quietly overshadowed by its louder, more attractive brothers and sisters. But Norfolk, which doesn’t call attention to itself in the first place, doesn’t seem to mind. It sits quietly and waits for the rush to die down, waits until people have the time to turn their curiosity in its direction. I mentioned its atmosphere of quiet artsiness in my first post, and that atmosphere holds even now. It may not be a destination street, but it at other times I imagine it fosters a lot of serendipitous discovery—perhaps on weekends, or in the evenings, when walkers wander without a set destination in mind, they turn onto Norfolk Street and find themselves charmed by its tiny galleries and restaurants. But busy Tuesday mornings just aren’t those times.

The Darker Side of Norfolk

Though many of its old tenement buildings still stand, Norfolk Street has long lost the crowded, bustling, and chaotic atmosphere that characterized the Lower East Side during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It only took a few minutes of poking around in historical New York Times articles to find that Norfolk Street’s history offers a fascinating cross-section of daily life in Victorian Era Manhattan.

Especially during this period in New York’s history, Norfolk Street attracted diverse crowds because of its religious centers—namely, Beth Hamedrash Hagodol, the Jewish synagogue that can still be found at the corner of Norfolk and Broome. The synagogue is, sadly, now out of use and has been in dire need of funding for repairs since the forties(¹); in the late 1800s, however, it housed a large congregation and even had a high-profile dedication ceremony, which took place on August 16, 1885. The street outside of the synagogue was “packed from curb to curb” with people “endeavor[ing] to get into the synagogue to witness the dedication services,” and even when packed with people standing, the synagogue still didn’t have enough room for all those present(2). Further up the street, the Anshi Chesed synagogue (which is now the Angel Orensanz Center) also held regular services in German(3).  Norfolk was also usually crowded with people buying goods from the numerous street vendors who ran businesses out of carts along the length of the street (one article talks about two vendors who got into a fist fight because one vendor’s horse had been eating apples out of his neighbor’s cart!)(4).

Despite this rather domestic-sounding atmosphere and its strong religious ties, Norfolk Street was also the site of more sinister happenings, like fistfights between street vendors, “Wild Western-style” robberies and holdups at saloons along the street, and mysterious suicides and murders. In fact, in 1912, Norfolk Street witnessed a pair of extremely bloody murders in the vein of London’s notorious Jack the Ripper. An elderly couple living in an apartment at 101 Norfolk were found tortured and killed in their home, “a sharp instrument having been driven through the eyes of the old couple into their brains.” The murderer was believed to have been a “religious fanatic,” but the crime remained unsolved and the killer was never apprehended(5,6). The murders were so unusual and gruesome that Norfolk Street drew some out-of-state attention for several days, prompting articles in newspapers in Pennsylvania, Missouri, Massachusetts, and Washington, D.C. As this period was also the height of the Prohibition Era, there are also articles detailing raids and arrests for illegal stashes of alcohol, and even one instance where a man was found to have been running a printing press in the back room of his home at 81 Norfolk, producing counterfeit revenue stamps for selling alcohol(7).

Illustration accompanying the New York Times article about the murder of the elderly couple on Norfolk Street

Norfolk’s history is certainly much more colorful than I’d expected, and the next time I visit the street, I won’t be able to stop imagining the visions that these articles have put in my head—women haggling with street vendors over the price of produce, families walking to the synagogues on days of worship; and at night, drunken men staggering out of saloons, and suspicious figures hiding in the shadows. I’m sure at least some of the tenement buildings that are there today are the same buildings that were there a hundred years ago, but the atmosphere that surrounds them is now so different. The buzz, clamor, and color are now long gone; Norfolk is a quiet, somewhat deserted street with a history that doesn’t match its present ambiance at all. What’s sad about it is that there is no apparent sign–save the synagogues and their histories–of the street’s past life on the street itself; no one walking on the street would know anything about Norfolk’s fascinating past unless they were, for some reason, driven to investigate it themselves. As Crang wrote in “Envisioning Urban Histories,” “History does not form a presence on the scene but an absence and loss or, rather, a ghostly presence that haunts the city–not life as it was but life as it has been forgotten”(8).

Works Cited:

  1. “Synagogue Needs $35,000: Beth Hamedrash Hagodol Must Repair Building Defects.” New York Times [New York] 30 Dec. 1946. Print.
  2. “DEDICATING A SYNAGOGUE. The New House Of The Congregation Beth Hamedrash Hagodol.” New York Times [New York] 17 Aug. 1885. Print.
  3. “Sermon by Rev. A. Berky, Pastor of the German Reformed Protestant Dutch Church, in Norfolk-Street, Near Stanton.” New York Times [New York] 27 Nov. 1863. Print.
  4. “HIS HORSE LIKED APPLES. Because of His Taste Owner Gottlieb Is Charged with Assault.” New York Times [New York] 15 Aug. 1893. Print.
  5. “AGED COUPLE ARE TORTURED TO DEATH: Bodies of Rich Manufacturer and Wife Are Found Terribly Mutilated.” New York Times [New York]. Print.
  6. “OLD COUPLE SLAIN; DAUGHTER DETAINED.” New York Times [New York] 8 Jan. 1912. Print.
  7. “BOGUS RUM STAMPS ARE SEIZED IN RAID: Outfit for Engraving and Printing Revenue Certificates Found in Norfolk Street Room.” New York Times [New York] 26 Mar. 1921. Print.
  8. Crang, M. “Envisioning Urban Histories: Bristol as Palimpsest, Postcards, and Snapshots.”Environment and Planning A. Vol. 28. 429-52. Print.
Norfolk’s Demographic History

Though I wasn’t able to find historical demographic information about Norfolk Street specifically, by looking at the demographic evolution of the street and its surrounding area, I was able to glean plenty of information about what kinds of people lived on the street over the past 250 years. (My data dates back only to 1850, as the demographic information available before that year wasn’t really very detailed. In fact, 1850 was a significant year in the history of census-taking in the United States, as it was the first year that the Census Bureau really attempted to take stock of every single member of each household, including women, children, and slaves, instead of just counting the heads of houses. Even so, the data from before 1950 only gives information about New York City as a whole, but I’ll still provide those demographics as a background for more recent information about the Norfolk Street area.)

1850 found New York City transformed into one of the country’s commercial and industrial centers after the Industrial Revolution swept through the Northeast. At this point, New York City’s population was already dense, with a population density of about 15,000 to 22,455 people per square mile. The largest age group at the time was of people between the ages of 20 and 39; I’d guess that many of these were people moving to the cities with their families (the male/female populations were about split, with very slightly more women than men) hoping to find work in the quickly developing city. New York was also seeing a huge influx of immigrants, most of whom were white Europeans—while between 40 and 60 percent of the city’s population was foreign born, only 1 to 5 percent of the population was nonwhite. Though information about immigrant origin was not provided in the Social Explorer demographic maps, this data is in keeping with my historical research for previous posts–I’ve already seen that the Norfolk Street area in the mid 1800s was richly populated with immigrants from Germany and Eastern Europe.

Map of foreign-born population in New York (1850)

Map of white population in New York City (1850)

Fifty years later, in 1900, New York City’s population had more than doubled, growing from a maximum density of about 22,500 people per square mile in 1850 to a density of 47,727 people per square mile. The immigrant population still comprised about half of the people living in the city, and there’s clear evidence that the families of older immigrants had grown considerably—the population of native-born whites of foreign parentage was larger than the population of native-born whites of native parentage. In a fortunate development, the census data from 1900 actually gives us the origins of the city’s immigrants during this time: the largest percentages of immigrants came from Ireland, Italy, and, reflecting my earlier historical research, Germany and Russia.

In 1950, the census data becomes much more area-specific and detailed. The population density of the Norfolk Street area was about 112,000 people per square mile. For the first time in the data I studied, the male population surpassed the female—where, previously, the female population outranked the male by a few percent, in the 1950s, the male population surpassed the female. And this wasn’t just a discrepancy of 2 or 5 percent, either—the male population in the area was between 45 and 70 percent larger than the female! Interestingly, the population of men on the west side of Norfolk Street was especially dense.

Map of male population in Norfolk Street area (1950)

The area was home to mostly low-income residents—the largest percentage of people living in the area made $500 or less; most of the population were married couples with no children, and the buildings in the area were, as always, overwhelmingly renter-occupied (as opposed to owner-occupied). The largest percentage of people living in the neighborhood worked as operatives, which I believe means that they worked in manufacturing or related occupations. Also, by this point in time, the stream of immigrants coming into the city had somewhat slowed, and instead of the native-born/foreign-born population being about split as it had been in the past, the native-born population surpassed the foreign-born.

Forward another fifty years, in 2000, the population of the area was still very dense, but the highest density actually decreased a bit to 230,000 people per square mile. The distribution of the population stayed about the same, with about the same percentage of people in all ages from 18 to 54. Again, the female population surpassed the male, but not to the extent that the male population had surpassed the female in the past—there were again only a few percent more females in the area than males. As always, the population was still predominantly white, but by this point the gap between white and nonwhite populations had narrowed considerably; whites comprised 40 to 60 percent of the area’s population. And, as we know, the area also became much more expensive—where previously the buildings in the area were occupied by individuals and families with low incomes, the average household income jumped to between $75,000 to $100,000, an overwhelming increase from previous years. The area is also mostly home to married couples, but who have no children. The foreign-born population remained high, ranging from 30 to 40 percent of the population, with a vast majority of the immigrant population being of Asian origin.

Works Cited:

  1. Demographic maps from http://www.SocialExplorer.com
Norfolk in the Spring, 1909

Finding fictional works that even mentioned my street—let alone works that took place on it—was a difficult task, but after changing tactics and searching novels for the names of Norfolk’s neighboring streets, I stumbled upon a hidden gem: Rivington Street: A Novel, written by Meredith Tax in 1982, is a work of historical fiction detailing a Jewish family’s struggle to adjust to New York City life after fleeing from pogroms in Russia in the early twentieth century.

In one chapter of the book, Tax provides an incredibly rich description of the area surrounding the Levy family’s apartment on the corner of Rivington and Essex—a mere block from Norfolk Street. The chapter begins with the main character, Hannah Levy, reveling in her “new-found freedom” and the joy of achieving “her dream: a flat on a good block, Rivington and Essex, in a corner building, a new-law tenement with running water in every kitchen and a toilet on each landing” (Tax 81). She leans out of the window of her apartment and observes the bustling streets below: “She surveyed her kingdom, the teeming street. A melting pot they called it, but it was more like a boiling soup kettle, swirling round and round in ceaseless motion. You could never tell what might come to the surface, and her eyes strained perpetually for fear of missing something” (Tax 81). She then takes us downstairs and outside for a stroll through the neighborhood:

Taking her shopping bag and plunging into the life of the marketplace, Hannah threaded her way along the choked sidewalks—six hundred people on every acre of the East Side, more packed even than China. Stalls and awnings burst from the tiny shops onto the sidewalks, pullers-in hollered and grabbed her arm as she went by, pushcarts encroached upon the sidewalk from the other side, leaving almost no passageway.

And here was the world of her delight, after six years still as thrilling to her as an Arabian Nights bazaar. The filth, the crush, the stink, the cacophony of a thousand bickering voices, the yelling of children underfoot, the countless peddlers shouting their wares: pickle vendors with their vats of sours, gherkins, green tomatoes; candymen and their lollipops, licorice sticks, squares of butterscotch ten for a penny; the halvah man and the woman with slabs of broken chocolate. There were carts heaped with dried fruits and nuts—baseball nuts, polly seeds, St. John’s potatoes from little metal ovens on wheels; and a fellow how cried ‘Hot chickpeas! Roasted chickpeas!’ Chicken and geese hung by their necks from poultry carts and fish were piled one upon the other, staring upward with glassy eyes. A man peddled hot ears of corn from a vat perched on a baby carriage. Another sold political pamphlets; a missionary dispensed tracts; a vendor of Yiddish sheet music sang free samples; and three little boys practiced a vaudeville routine. There was even an ‘Irish tenor from Lithuania,’ singing in English the song of the hour, ‘I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now,’ with a cap in front of him.

She pushed through the crowded street. Look up and you could see the sweatshop workers hard at it, faces gray as the cloth that drained their lives little by little. Occasionally a worker came out onto one of the fire escapes to gasp for air and she gave him a rueful smile, remembering the lint that had filled her own lungs. The fire escapes were covered with bedding and mattresses, like low-hanging white clouds; clothes hung out to dry between the buildings were getting dirty over again from the air.

Tax performed months and months of research on the lives of early twentieth century Jewish families in the Lower East Side for this novel, and though the work is fictional, her description of the atmosphere in the area is historically accurate; by having her imagined characters navigate through the streets of the L.E.S., she provides her readers with a unique “first-hand” account of what it was like to live in the Norfolk Street area in the early 1900s. In fact, with that sentence beginning with “Look up and you could see,” it’s like she’s giving the reader a personal tour. Though I’ve seen photographs of exactly the kind of scene Hannah describes, “walking” through it with her was a completely unique experience—it was as though I really were going down the sidewalk at her side, looking up and around and spotting things one after the other. I could hear the clamor of the street vendors and smell the food and sweets; I could imagine myself being pressed in on from all sides by bodies pushing past in the opposite direction. Countless articles have described the Norfolk Street area during the time as being precisely like this—crowded and full of vendors and haggling customers—but Tax’s novel gives a more detailed, rich, gritty, and personal feel to the neighborhood. And I keep saying it in every post I write, but the thought still rings true here: Norfolk Street and the area surrounding it are nothing like how they used to be, constantly crowded with people and teeming with life. It seems that the only aspect of the area in the 1900s that remains today is its racial and cultural diversity. It felt almost surreal, walking down the street after reading this chapter from Tax’s book; to think that this quiet, forgotten afterthought of a street was once, essentially, a perpetual street fair!

Rivington Street in 1910 (from NYPL Digital Gallery)

(Click the image to view in full size.)

Works Cited:

  1. Tax, Meredith. “Chapter II.” Rivington Street: a Novel. Urbana: University of Illinois, 2001. 81-83. Print.
Norfolk Street in Film

Though I wasn’t expecting my search for Norfolk Street in film to come up completely empty, I was surprised to find out that one of the restaurants on my street was featured in a recent, mainstream comedy film.

Morning Glory, which came out in late 2010, is a comedy/drama/romance film in the vein of The Devil Wears Prada (in fact, it was written by the same screenwriter). Instead of focusing on the cutthroat world of fashion, though, Morning Glory is about the stresses of running live television programs. It stars Rachel McAdams as the awkward but spunky Becky Fuller, who is taken on as executive producer of the fictional morning show Daybreak. An extreme optimist, Becky makes it her mission to resurrect the failing program, but she finds her way impeded by Daybreak’s cast and crew, who are cynical and jaded and have lost faith in their own show. But Becky learns how to work with each of these personalities and by bending a few rules of morning show convention, gets the Daybreak team reunited, the show back on its feet, the job offer of a lifetime, and, of course, the token hot new boyfriend.

During the first few days of work at Daybreak, Becky befriends the handsome Adam Bennett (Patrick Wilson) who works as a producer for another show in the same building. After a few days of acquaintance, Adam invites Becky to come out for drinks with him and some friends after work: “So, now is an excellent time for you to take up drinking, and I came by to say that sometimes after work a few of us go over to Schiller’s on Madison, so, um, you know, if you’re, uh, ever… around…”

I recognized the name “Schiller’s” immediately, as Schiller’s Liquor Bar is actually located not on Madison Avenue, but on the corner of Norfolk and Rivington streets (and I’ve spent quite a lot of time staring at the neon “LIQUOR BAR” sign while sitting in the café across the street, trying to brainstorm for blog post ideas!).

A few scenes later, Becky is sitting in Bryant Park with a few friends when she spots Adam walking by toward (the imaginary) Schiller’s on Madison. She leaves her friends and follows Adam to the bar, and we finally get a shot of the actual restaurant on Norfolk Street. The way Schiller’s was portrayed in the film seems to reflect how the restaurant actually is—trendy, laid-back, and full of people enjoying themselves. When Becky leaves the restaurant, we get a shot of Schiller’s recognizable exterior: the angled corner entrance, the smooth, white brick walls, and the retro neon sign. The shot is taken from the Norfolk Street side, and I noticed that they portrayed the street itself as much busier than it normally is in the afternoon—of course, because it’s standing in for Madison Avenue! But there are many people walking up and down the street, and in reality, despite Schiller’s Liquor Bar’s popularity, Norfolk is never quite that populated at that time of day.

Schiller’s Liquor Bar exterior, from Norfolk Street

Schiller’s interior shots

I’ve long known that films are rarely true to their scenes’ actual locations. Schiller’s is light-years away from Madison Avenue, but it was fascinating to see how the film actually made it look like a mere hop, skip, and jump from Bryant Park. At first, I couldn’t understand why the director or writer would find it necessary to relocate Schiller’s, but then it struck me that the actual location of the bar made a statement about the kinds of people who went there. In film, the Lower East Side is often associated with struggling artists and a humble, bohemian lifestyle, but the characters in Morning Glory are ambitious, rising television show producers—having them frequent a bar in the Lower East Side would’ve been a noticeable departure from these kinds of characters’ M.O. No, their favorite haunts had to be hip-but-classy bars in hip-but-classy places… not on modest, graffitied Norfolk Street.

In movies, the restaurants that the characters eat at are always “put” on streets that are instantly recognizable by name—like Madison Avenue—because when the characters say these street names, they kind of remind the viewers where they are. I don’t think anyone who didn’t live in New York would know that Norfolk Street exists, let alone where it is. In fact, when I mention that I’m keeping a blog about Norfolk Street to actual New York residents, many of them say that they’ve never heard of the street, either! I’d say that New York City in the “filmverse” is made up of about five streets: Fifth Avenue, Broadway, Madison Avenue, Park Avenue, and Wall Street, and to name streets other than those might, strangely, detract from the essential “New Yorkness” of the film.

Works Cited:
  1. Morning Glory. Dir. Roger Michell. Perf. Rachel McAdams, Patrick Wilson, Harrison Ford, Diane Keaton, Jeff Goldblum. Bad Robot, Goldcrest Pictures, 2010. Digital Copy.
  2. “Morning Glory Film Locations – On the Set of New York.com.” Film Locations. Web. 25 Oct. 2011. <http://onthesetofnewyork.com/morningglory.html&gt;.
  3. “Morning Glory (2010) – IMDb.” The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Web. 25 Oct. 2011. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1126618/&gt;.
Norfolk at Night

Walking down Norfolk Street at night was a weird experience. When I visited this weekend, I expected to find people passing over my street in favor of the establishments on Houston, Stanton, and Rivington, as they usually did during the day, or at most, sticking around the popular Schiller’s. I didn’t expect it to have turned into such a lively scene.

Unlike during the day, when Norfolk Street was either almost completely deserted or saw only a few pedestrians trying to get to other streets, Norfolk unexpectedly became kind of a destination spot at night. When the sun is out, no one really hangs around Norfolk Street; but when I visited on Saturday evening, I was shocked at how alive it was. I saw groups of friends out for dinner and drinks at the Remedy Diner and Schiller’s Liquor Bar, people milling around on the street corners smoking, chatting, and laughing, walking arm-in-arm up and down the street toward whichever underground bar they wanted to discover that night. Music was blaring from every restaurant and basement bar I passed. Because the street itself was so dark, it seemed as if people naturally gravitated toward the light and general atmosphere of fun emanating from these places dotting Norfolk’s blocks.

Customers standing outside Schiller's Liquor Bar.

In fact, most of the establishments on Norfolk Street seem to follow a kind of “double life” pattern: they remain pretty quiet and untouched during the day, but come alive when the sun goes down. There were even some bars I found at night that I hadn’t noticed were there during the day–they only became visible when the sky got dark and the artificial lights came on. The facade of the Back Room disguises itself as a really creepy, old toy store (it even has a sign on the gate to the entrance that says “Lower East Side Toy Co.”), and I had no idea there was a bar in there until I walked by the entrance and saw inside the door.

The Back Room during the day

However, while the bars and restaurants were full of people, the rest of the street was just dark-faced tenement buildings with rusted fire escapes and long expanses of blank brick wall. The farther south I traveled, the fewer bars, restaurants, galleries, and people there were, and (though I hate admitting to being so spineless) the less safe I felt. Delancey seemed to dissect Norfolk into two distinct sections: of course, Delancey itself was bright, well-populated, and thick with cars, but just beyond that, the stretch of Norfolk approaching Broome and Grand Streets—with its huge, dark parking lots, dilapidated, abandoned synagogue, and dark, empty park—felt dim and foreboding after the buzz and life of the upper blocks. Walking down Norfolk at night gave me the sensation of passing in and out of distinct areas of safety and vulnerability.

Strangely enough, the cloak of night seemed to fragment and intensify the character of Norfolk Street—during the day, Norfolk is uniformly peaceful and still, but in the evening, the shadier areas seemed much more menacing, while the bright corners were much more alive than I had ever seen them.

Gossip Girl on Norfolk

Though Norfolk Street itself doesn’t get much publicity, the Angel Orensanz Center (or the Ansche Chesed synagogue) has seen its own impressive share of high-profile visitors throughout the years. As it’s been the site of celebrity weddings and galas in the past, I wasn’t too surprised to find out that it’s also been used at least twice as a filming location for Gossip Girl. In an episode called “The Witches of Bushwick,” the wealthy Chuck Bass throws a lavish, red-carpet, exclusive “saints and sinners” party, which was (quite fittingly) filmed inside the synagogue.

Strangely, for once, the use of the location in the show reflected how the synagogue might normally be used in reality—the Angel Orensanz allows people to rent its space for large events, so someone looking to host a fete like Chuck Bass’s might really consider the synagogue as a potential location. The interior shots of the party even closely resembled photos from parties that have actually taken place at the Angel Orensanz:

Screencaps from “The Witches of Bushwick”:

Photos of actual events that took place at the Angel Orensanz Center:

However, the venue was still portrayed to be in a different part of the city from where it really is; brief flyover shots of the Empire State Building  and Times Square suggested that the venue was somewhere in Midtown instead of in the Lower East Side. Similarly to the “relocation” of Schiller’s Liquor Bar to Madison Avenue in Morning Glory, the directors and/or writers probably did this for both logistical and cultural reasons. Though this is the only episode of Gossip Girl I’ve ever watched, I get the impression that Chuck Bass, the owner of a hotel and an ambitious financier who only wears crisp suits and ties, would not host his swanky saints and sinners ball on a street like Norfolk. The street outside is only briefly glimpsed on screen, but even from those few seconds, it was clear that the exterior shots were filmed elsewhere, likely on a bright and busy Midtown street, rather than on quiet, dark, narrow, cobbled Norfolk.

A brief glimpse of the street outside the party venue

A different church (I couldn’t find out which one) was even used for the exterior shots of the venue; the Angel Orensanz’s exterior, with its multicolored façade and bright, metal sculptures adorning the front gates, was probably much too eccentric for the general feeling of sleekness and sophistication of the party.

It’s always really fascinating to me that, even if Norfolk is such a low-profile street, it’s still home to a building that sees so much high-profile, celebrity action. The majority of the street is extremely modest and, to be honest, looks rather run-down, but here is a tiny section of it that has been visited at least twice by the Gossip Girl cast (and, accordingly, has had Gossip Girl fans camped out outside it, hoping to glimpse Chace Crawford), has seen the wedding of SJP and Matt Broderick, has been visited by the likes of Jeremy Irons, Susan Sarandon, and Richard Gere, and often plays host to the nuptials and birthday galas of New York’s wealthy. It’s a disparity that definitely warrants further exploration!

The Tonic

At 107 Norfolk Street sits a forlorn little building, a tiny cube of brick sandwiched awkwardly between two towering steel-and-glass apartment buildings. The building is empty, now, but only a few years ago, it was the treasured haven of some of the Lower East Side’s most talented underground musicians.

Tonic opened in 1998, and soon became one of the most popular places to see the best of New York City’s underground musical acts. The place was incredibly cramped and decidedly glamourless, prone to both flooding and exploding plumbing, and performers often had to set up their equipment on makeshift surfaces like card tables and spare chairs. But people kept coming because they loved what Tonic stood for—it was, if anything, the embodiment of the “suffering artist” spirit. Dirty and spartan, Tonic made it clear that it was a place where the only thing that mattered was the music itself. Though the experimental and art musicians who frequented its stage put Tonic on the map, the venue was dedicated not so much to any one style or genre of music, but rather to the idea of musical integrity and the appreciation of music itself. One could have stood on the sidewalk outside Tonic for five nights in a row and heard five completely different styles of music, from folk and grunge to blues. Plenty of well-known (or soon-to-be well-known) musicians performed there in its heyday, including Sonic Youth, Norah Jones, Cat Power, and Yoko Ono. The venue’s most popular acts, though, were predominantly experimental jazz musicians like John Zorn, Marco Benevento, Ras Moshe, and Medeski, Martin, and Wood.

At first, their music just sounds like pure discordant noise with no predictable rhythm or melody, but this distinctive, improvised sound is its own brand of musical art, more a stream of consciousness expressed through instrumentation than a planned-out, scripted tune. This “noise” reflects the Tonic community’s alternative attitude toward music—they were strongly against the mass-commercialization of their art, and sought to bring music back to its most basic, primordial, emotional roots. Just as the black community in Harlem “used sound to distinguish themselves from white Americans, and to make Harlem theirs,” the Tonic community used their music to identify themselves as a thriving subculture and to carve out their own haven in the Lower East Side, where they could rebel against the homogenization of music in general.  Even though the music was radically different every night, it was this spirit of musical integrity that brought music fans of all kinds together into a single, close-knit group.

Ironically, in 2007, the commercialization of the Lower East Side was what brought Tonic to its tragic end. After nine years of operation, Tonic was evicted from its space due to the owners’ inability to pay the skyrocketing rent—a story all too familiar to dozens of other music venues scattered throughout the neighborhood. Though gentrification has been steadily displacing the Lower East Side’s beloved music venues over the past several years, the closing of Tonic was an especially hard loss—so hard, in fact, that on the day of its closing, more than 100 musicians and showgoers congregated inside the building for a final farewell show. When the police came to bolt the doors shut, the crowd protested and refused to leave, leading to at least two arrests.

Even after Tonic’s closing, the community spirit was kept alive online through the Tonic newsletter and a Facebook page where the venue’s fans could share their memories and photos from past shows.

Works Cited

  1. Sisario, Ben. “Avant-Garde Music Loses a Lower Manhattan Home.” The New York Times[New York] 31 Mar. 2007. Print.
  2. Chinen, Nate. “Requiem for a Club: Saxophone and Sighs.” The New York Times [New York] 16 Apr. 2007. Print.
  3. Corbould, Clare. “Streets, Sounds and Identity in Interwar Harlem.” (2006). Web.

Norfolk As Seen in Dylan Stone’s “Drugstore Photographs”

In 1999, photographer and artist Dylan Stone started a project that he called “Drugstore Photographs, or A Trip Along the Yangtze River, 1999,” in which he “explore[d] the intersection of art and documentation in an archive” (“Lower Manhattan Block-by-Block by Dylan Stone”).  The project involved an array of artistic media, including archival boxes, acrylic paintings, and photographs. Stone’s collection of Lower East Side snapshots was extremely extensive, detailed, and inclusive, the final collection consisting of 26,000 photographs of street intersections and buildings, all of which can now be viewed through the New York Public Library’s online digital archive.

I’d unwittingly seen Stone’s photographs in the digital archive many times before while doing visual research for my street, and even before I knew anything about Stone or his project, they’d always struck me as strangely artistic for documentary photographs. The photographs look developed to have a particular, muted range of color, and they also seem somehow intentionally awkward—some are badly framed, some badly focused, the views in a few are obstructed by cars or tree branches, and all of them are inexplicably slanting to the right. They seem almost as if Stone had taken them in a massive hurry, perhaps snapping the photos one-handed as he walked down the sidewalk (which would explain the slant, at least).

Considering Norfolk Street’s character and people’s apparent attitude toward it, the flighty, awkward nature of Stone’s photographs seems fitting for the street. Earlier, I wrote about how Norfolk wasn’t a destination street, that it wasn’t a place where people tended to linger. Stone’s photographs give the viewer the sensation of being in a rush, and almost look like what you would see if you glanced up every once in a while when speed walking down Norfolk–the slant only enhances the feeling of constant motion. The photographs also feel a bit timeless; when I was looking at them in the database, I had no idea that they were actually taken more than ten years ago—I just thought that the photographs might have been developed with a special filter. It made me realize for the first time how timeless Norfolk Street actually is—aside from one or two shiny, new apartment buildings erected within the last few years, most of Norfolk Street of the present day is indistinguishable from the Norfolk Street of a decade ago.

When Stone said that he wanted to “explore the intersection of art and documentation,” I think he was trying to challenge the notion that documentation had to be completely objective. Stone probably wanted to capture Lower East Side streets in a way that captured their true essence, as one would feel when actually, physically walking along them, and he certainly achieves this with his photos of Norfolk Street. Through these photos, Stone successfully represents his personal experience of being on Norfolk Street to his audience.

I think this is a demonstration of the phenomenon of cultural expression through media that Miller discusses in “Grove Street Grimm: Grand Theft Auto and Digital Folklore.” She writes that digital media  “are like folklore as we understand it today: a form of expressive culture transmitted through intersubjective performance, ‘in which a group, and the individuals who constitute it, can discuss, convey, reinforce, alter, and otherwise play with the validity of a concept and their attitude toward it’ (Motz)” (Miller 280). Stone expresses the essence of Norfolk Street as he saw it through this unique style of subjective documentation, and when people look at these photos, they are not only seeing a flat, two-dimensional representation of the street; they also receive some of Stone’s own feelings and thoughts about Norfolk.

Works Cited:

  1. “”Drugstore Photographs, Or, A Trip Along the Yangtze River, 1999;” Lower Manhattan Block-by-Block by Dylan Stone.” NYPL Digital Gallery. New York Public Library. Web. 19 Nov. 2011. <http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/explore/?col_id=176&gt;.
  2. Miller, Kiri. “Grove Street Grimm: Grand Theft Auto and Digital Folklore.” Journal of American Folklore (2008). Print.

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