Volume 22, Number 24 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | October 23-29, 2009
Downtown Express photo by Lincoln Anderson
Clayton Patterson and Elsa Rensaa at a recent book-signing event for Patterson’s new “Front Door Book” at Alife Presents on Rivington St., where an exhibit of his Lower East Side photography and video work is currently showing.
‘Front Door Book’ offers window onto a community
By Lincoln Anderson and Rita Wu
A new book by Clayton Patterson offers a view not only into a more gritty Lower East Side of not long ago, but also into the well-known documentarian and artist himself.
“The Front Door photos are the summation of everything I have ever learned,” Patterson writes in the “Front Door Book.” “The L.E.S. in the ’80s and into the ’90s was not the hip place it is today. For the most part, the photos were representative of people who lived in the section that outsiders considered dangerous and that was normally out of bounds for those who had no business being there.”
The shots were taken in front of the door at 161 Essex St., home to the Clayton Gallery and Outlaw Art Museum, and also home to Patterson and his common-law wife, Elsa Rensaa.
The door became known as the Wall of Fame, a canvas for the creations of local graffiti artists. Meanwhile, in what he called the Hall of Fame, Patterson picked from the photos he took of people in front of the door and displayed them in his gallery’s window, pasting up 32 new ones every week.
People from all over the neighborhood came to pose for Patterson, sometimes ringing his doorbell in the middle of the night to have him snap their photos — and get their moment of fame in his window. The book’s first picture shows a group of young men at 4 a.m. holding up a lighter, eager to see the latest Hall of Fame display.
Today, Patterson’s “Front Door” collection stands as an impressive archive of a bygone era of a neighborhood — what he calls “the Hispanic L.E.S.” — that has been radically transformed by gentrification.
“These were areas where the government and the police allowed drug dealing to operate,” Patterson writes in the book. “Here, you had 24-hour-a-day markets in which you could find every kind of illegal drug desired. …
“In front of my door, I photographed a cross-section of the neighborhood (and some visitors), including the kids going to school, the good kids, the bad kids, the in-between kids. Sometimes I took pictures of their mothers. I would get shots of the new babies, the basketball players, the boxers, of P.S. 20 Principal Dr. Leonard Golubchick. I have photos…of various crews, clubs, associations, gangs, posses: Puerto Rican Mafia, Allen Boys, Dog Pound, Neta, Latin Kings, La Familia, Crips, Bloods, La Boba Mafia, Hell’s Angels, MC, Satan Sinner Nomads, The Secret Bachelors, The Satan Souls MC (Brooklyn), The Unforgiven MC (Bronx), Savage Skulls (L.E.S.), Hell Raiser, The LSB (Ludlow Street Boys), 357 (from Orchard), C Town (of Eldridge/Broome), Point Red (Norfolk/Rivington), Blue Thunder (Forsyth), B Boys, Real Niggas, Hit Men, Dynamite Brothers, Kato Nunchucks, Ridge & Attorney Boys. There are also portraits of the postman, prostitutes, outsiders, outlaws, drug dealers, hits sellers, the graffiti writers and the journalists who came to see me. On film, I managed to capture the wanted, the unwanted, the hated, the loved, the drunks, the derelicts and the homeless. There were the people who had fallen as far as they could before they were dead. On very rare occasions, maybe once or twice, there were even cops.”
Every picture tells a story, and, like an oral historian Patterson is a good storyteller. When a reporter recently visited him at his Essex St. gallery, Patterson flipped through a copy of the “Front Door Book” and talked about some of the photos of kids who grew up in the neighborhood, and what has become of them.
“He works at Katz’s, he’s still in the neighborhood,” Patterson said of one young man. “He became a druggie,” he noted matter of factly of another. “This one was up for murder, but his little brother is around. … These two guys were drug dealers right outside, and he ended up finding God, so he got out of the business and he cleaned up. And this guy stayed at it — this guy eventually died.
“It tells you about the disappearance of a neighborhood,” the documentarian reflected, as he sported his trademark skull baseball cap. “When you look at the book, you realize how many of the people are gone.”
After 9/11, Patterson switched from film to digital photography, and stopped making prints, which brought an end to the Hall of Fame window.
The “Front Door Book” also gives insight into Patterson’s early life in Calgary, Canada, where he grew up as a self-described outcast, which he says is why he could connect so well with his subjects.
“We were outsiders according to the middle class,” he writes of his youth. “I came to understand from the tip of my nose right to the bottom of my soul what it means to come from a place that others see as socially unacceptable.”
Those slights and injustices fueled a burning passion in Patterson to achieve notoriety. He found it on the Lower East Side through his compulsive recording of everything in the neighborhood, from the trivial to the traumatic.
Patterson first grabbed major headlines in 1988 when — at a time when few people were toting camcorders — he made one of the two main videotapes of the Tompkins Square Park riots.
“There is no question that through my documenting of the community I accumulated fame, if not in the public eye, then certainly in the underground,” he writes. “Some call me a legend, not knowing, though, how Elsa and a (very) few others stood behind me.”
He had come to New York in 1979. At first, he dabbled in the Soho art scene but found it to be too much about status and big money for his liking, so gravitated to the Lower East Side. He and Rensaa have lived in their Essex St. building since 1983.
Patterson’s “Front Door Book” also covers the Lower East Side art scene, with a section written by local graffiti writer LA II, who famously collaborated with Keith Haring, lending Haring’s work street cred and urban style.
A collection of about a dozen of Patterson’s “Front Door” photos are currently hanging on display at Alife Presents, a three-month-old, pop-up gallery space, at 157 Rivington St. A continuously running video slideshow at the gallery includes many more of the “Front Door” photos.
The exhibit also features other shots by Patterson of the Lower East Side, ranging from portraits of nightlife figures, like John Sex of the Pyramid Club, to assorted images of homeless people sleeping in cardboard boxes on the streets, to undercover police making drug arrests outside bodegas. Also showing on a continuous video loop are excerpts of the new documentary on Patterson, “Captured,” featuring some of his riots footage.
On sale at the gallery are copies of the “Front Door Book” ($38), the “Captured” biopic DVD ($20) and two Clayton Patterson-designed T-shirts ($40). Running until Nov. 8, the show is presented by Alife Presents and Kinz + Tillou Fine Art.