Street Corner Society

Les Back

The world thinks it knows Manhattan. A thousand movie portrayals, among them Woody Allen’s classic Manhattan, and TV shows like Sex and the City have imprinted its iconic skyscrapers on our imaginations. Looking at Richard Howe’s extraordinary photographic portrait of the island, New York in Plain Sight, reveals that this assumed familiarity is a sign of how little we actually know the city.

Between March and November 2006, Howe photographed virtually every street corner on the island of Manhattan, resulting in an astonishing 11,485 urban portraits (and the number has since crept up slightly). Cumulatively the photographs produce a visual census of the city’s buildings, sidewalks, and the life of its citizens in public. As your eye strolls through these photographs—all of which are available online, at larger size than available here—the viewer is forced to look closely at otherwise unremarked-upon aspects of New York life. The vividness of the physical and cultural texture found here is a towering achievement.

I recently spoke with Howe via Skype, while he was home in Staten Island. “The skyscrapers captured the world’s imagination in the 1900s but they were utterly unimportant, percentage-wise, until sometime in the 1930s at the very earliest. Even today they are not as important as you think,” Howe said. “At street level there are no skyscrapers, there are no icons, there are no famous buildings—there’s nothing but people on sidewalks and mostly small shops and occasionally the front of a larger building.”

The idea began early in 2006. Howe noticed that the area he was living in then, in the East Village, was undergoing a period of profound urban change. The transformation was largely due to New York University’s expansion into the area. Howe wanted to find a method of recording what this meant at street level. He developed a method of working whereby he photographed each corner from a view diagonally opposite at an intersection. That way he could capture the convergence of two streets at the corner. This led him to consider a survey of all of Manhattan’s street corners.

“Most of the action—so to speak—is at the corner in a New York block,” Howe explained. It is largely true that in Manhattan the avenues, running north–south, are places of commerce, while the streets, running east–west, are residential. As a result, working and home lives intersect on the street corners. “Halfway through photographing the East Village in the spring of 2006, I said to myself, ‘You know, I bet you could do the whole island.’ Everyone thought I was nuts.”

What he wanted to do was to admit as much detail of corner life as possible. The images seem straight-on because the camera is exactly vertical and at eye-level so that there are no converging verticals in the photographs. All the images have the same aspect ratio of 1:3 (height to width). “I absolutely didn’t want the photographer in the picture at all,” insisted Howe. Once he established this method he did not allow his identity to intrude. “The photographs would absolutely not be expressions of Richard Howe—I wanted zero subjectivity in the pictures.” At the heart of this project is an artistic humility. As a result your eye can wander through the detail preserved in razor-sharp focus.

<i>10th Avenue and 207th Street, Southwest Corner</i>

Here, shaded under the El, is a Manhattan tableau preserved in dappled sunlight (see here for a larger version). Consistently producing images of this quality is technically an achievement, and yet Howe doesn’t really consider himself a photographer.

He took up photography in 2004 after a long experience in the arts and sciences. As a young man he worked for the composer John Cage and received a PhD in sociology from the University of Illinois, later pursuing a successful career in the computing industry. At the same time he also established himself as an accomplished artist, producing an extensive portfolio of drawings and paintings that have frequently been shown locally at the Kentler International Drawing Space in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and been included in several shows that have traveled to museums around the country. Consequently his photographic work combines the metric precision of a computer scientist with the feeling eye of a painter.

This kind of depth of field, where every detail is in focus, requires shooting in bright sunlight. Howe explained: “I was mostly shooting at f/16, a relatively small aperture, and I needed both shutter speeds of 1/500th of a second and low ISOs. I actually looked up things like when was solar noon and also found out when was Manhattan noon, which is about two hours later. Manhattan noon is when the shadows go straight up the avenues. All having to do with the light needed, using small apertures and fast shutter speeds at low ISOs.”

The first picture was taken on March 10th, 2006. “I would set out so that I could start at the first corner around 11 a.m. in the morning,” he recalled. “I was usually out no more than four or five hours, preferably only three or four. Late in the session it’s amazingly easy to just walk past an intersection and forget to take the pictures. You space out and when you get home you discover, ‘Oh shit, I missed 87th Street.’”

“Actually visiting every corner means something else when you are 8,000 corners on.”

Working on the sidewalk had its frustrations too. Howe used a Leica lens that had to be focused manually. He would set up a shot and a bus would pass by, or at the moment he was about to “pull the trigger” a pedestrian would jostle him. And the pace of the shooting meant that he more or less had to accept whatever was happening at the moment of arriving at a corner. Sometimes he would wait for something to happen, other times he would take just a single shot. If a lot was happening, with people moving, he would take dozens of shots and stay for several minutes. He would photograph somewhere between 100 to 200 corners per day.

“Actually visiting every corner means something else when you are 8,000 corners on.” Sometime in July 2006 a sense of fatigue set in; he was simply exhausted. Howe reflected: “It would really help if I knew exactly where I was in the process—I am a person for measurements.” He got a big map from the planning department and counted how many intersections were left. “It tuned out that there were 6,000 fewer corners than I had thought and that gave me a real boost. I think I took the last corner on the 22nd or 23rd of November.” On average he spent about 18.3 seconds at each corner, taking 2.1 shots.

The result is a vast photographic survey of everyday life at street level. It took several years of postproduction to catalogue and prepare it to be made available online. He explained: “Part of what I wanted in the images themselves—and why I wanted this extreme depth of field—is I wanted there to be so much in the picture that you could just keep on looking at it and keep finding new things to look at. And when you found them that would change the relationships among all the other things and you’d have to back up and look at them again too.”

One of the most interesting things about New York in Plain Sight is that the significance of each image is not self-evident, because the photographs are so full of visual information. This can overwhelm the viewer to the point of bewilderment—we simply get lost in the detail. As a result, they demand from us that we look and think for ourselves. For an imaginative viewer, sifting through this texture offers real rewards.

Howe’s pictures hold the social action of city life still for us to look at closely. Viewing them can also be addictive—you just want to see the next and the next, and hours can pass by unnoticed. In the frozen frame the choreography of the sidewalk and its structure suddenly come into view.

<i>Broadway and Canal Street, Northeast Corner</i>

Here on the crowded northeast corner of Canal Street and Broadway we can see so much (see here for a larger version). The two men in baseball caps striding across the street show clearly from their body language their line of travel. Sociologist Erving Goffman called this “body gloss,” whereby pedestrians use their bodies as a “vehicular shell” that signals their intentions to everyone else on the sidewalk. The street sign pointing “One Way” seems to emphasize their intent. A group of women form a circle defending a portion of the sidewalk where they can be stationary like a besieged wagon train. Approaching pedestrians know they will have to shorten their step and walk around them.

To the right, a woman holds up a book to shade her face from the bright sunlight while looking down, scanning far enough ahead with her peripheral vision to avoid stumbling or colliding with others. She can see the heels of another woman who is speaking on a cell phone. Her phone both creates a “social cell”—a kind of semiprivate conversation that her fellow pedestrians only hear one side of, while the cell phone transports her elsewhere, to the person on the other end of the line. She seems to tilt her head back slightly to signal to those ahead that she is not paying complete attention. Another way cell-phoning pedestrians externalize this message is to look down while they stride forward talking loudly to their invisible conversation partner.

What is encoded wordlessly here is the taken-for-granted order of human traffic on the sidewalk. As Goffman commented: “City streets, even in times that defame them, provide a setting where mutual trust is routinely displayed between strangers.” We can see these transactions on Broadway and Canal Street, even though the people there are so inside this structure that they are almost certainly blind to it.

Howe’s photographs provide more than a resource for understanding the structure of social interactions on the corner. They also offer a window onto New York’s social structure, if we as users have the imagination to recognize it. One productive way to approach this is to compare corners from different parts of the city.

<i>Sutton Place and 57th Street, Northeast Corner</i>

Take this portrait of the northeast corner at Sutton Place and 57th Street, where some of New York’s wealthiest citizens—Rockefellers and the like—are said to live (see here for a larger version). The shaded police box tells us that this is a controlled area. It is almost completely devoid of people, the one exception being a solitary young male jogger on the left-hand edge of the image. Life here goes on almost entirely behind closed doors, within the security of these fabulously expensive townhouses and condominium apartments—many of them serving as Manhattan pieds-à-terre for people with other homes in other cities as well as in the countryside. Now contrast this with a corner in Manhattan Valley, just south of Harlem.

<i>Amsterdam (10th) Avenue and 103rd Street, Northwest Corner</i>

On the northwest corner of Amsterdam (10th) Avenue and 103rd Street, a whole social world is publicly in motion in the shade of a tree (see here for a larger version). It could be a scene from Jane Jacobs’s classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities. As Jacobs wrote: “We get useful information by observing what occurs tangibly and physically, instead of sailing off on metaphysical fancies.” On Amsterdam and 103rd we see people doing things together on the sidewalk. A car has its rear door open and a man who may be its driver—who is possibly trading in goods—is sitting on a folding chair next to it. A group of white men are talking to each other but also have their “eyes on the street,” as Jacobs would say. Unlike Sutton Place, the sidewalk in this comparatively lower-income neighborhood is for public characters.

Then there is a black woman, probably on her way home, carrying a pizza and a plastic bag. She has her hands full, so the two young girls at her side hold on to her arms as they cautiously approach the curb. Leaving the A. M. H. Grocery & Deli, another black woman peers down at her newspaper, while two black men to the right are engaged in conversation at what seems like an easy and familiar distance from each other. From this scene there is evidence of interracial proximity, even though there seems to be no dialogue or verbal exchange going on across the line of color.

Howe’s street corner census also shows the extent to which Manhattan is residentially segregated and racially coded along white versus black and Hispanic lines. In Howe’s images of Chinatown the trained eye can see the visual trace of divisions and regional/ethnic differences imported from mainland China. The photographs also portray the “ethnic” neighborhoods, some of them new like central Harlem’s ‘Little Senegal’.

As Howard S. Becker has observed, “A well-made photographic sequence supports a large number of comparisons and thus a large number of interpretations.” Howe did his job well, but as Becker points out, it is then up to us as users to do something interesting with these raw materials. An imaginative sociological way of looking is needed to draw out interesting comparisons from the detail, to identify the patterns of interaction that are stored in the frozen frame.

The physical layout of Manhattan was aimed at protecting New Yorkers from the twin threats of fire and the spread of infectious diseases.

The New York in Plain Sight collection also invites us to look carefully at Manhattan’s material and physical structure. As Howe explained, “No matter where you are in the city—you know you are in Manhattan. There is the unity of the city that is pervasive. Urbanists call it the urban morphology … I prefer to call it the look and feel of the city.” Howe is working on a book exploring this theme, provisionally titled “Material City: Building New York, 1600–2100.” That sense of unity is in part a result of the grid structure laid down in the plan of 1811, made in the aftermath of the colonial war with the British. Howe continued: “People like to make a lot of the grid conceptually. But the surveyor who was almost certainly responsible for its dimensions had two things in mind—epidemics and conflagrations.” So the physical layout of Manhattan was aimed at protecting New Yorkers from the twin threats of fire and the spread of infectious diseases.

There is a hidden history here also to be recovered. During what Howe calls New York’s own “‘long’ 19th century,” 1790–1910, the city experienced a population explosion. The number of people living in New York increased a hundredfold during the period, and housing had to be built fast to meet the housing need—Manhattan’s roughly 5,000 buildings in 1790 had ballooned to over 100,000 by 1889. The island’s street grid provided the external parameters for the building development, while the building lots within the grid were defined by developers as the city grew northward up the island. The 100,000 buildings were remarkably similar—“clones,” Howe called them during our call. Their external shells were brick, their internal structure almost entirely wood. “The result was that by about 1890 the island was carpeted with these buildings, 20–25 feet wide, four, five, six stories tall, 50–70 feet long, 80–85% of them residential, most of them multi-family ‘tenements’ and many of them quite wretched,” explained Howe.

The 19th-century building boom shaped the look and feel of the city and that legacy endures to this day. Howe continued: “Nothing that New York is famous for architecturally exists at the ordinary, everyday experience of the so to speak vernacular city.” Most of what we see in his photographs is wall after wall of bricks and brickwork. It is counterintuitive but nonetheless true that Manhattan’s “concrete jungle” is still made largely of wood and brick.

<i>Bedford Street and Leroy Street, Southwest Corner</i>

Howe chides us with an overlooked fact: “Cities are studied by academics and intellectuals but they are built by carpenters, masons, iron workers, and so forth and they are mostly built by hand. So, there is a connection between these bricks and the history of the city as something that was actually made by people, by hand, one brick at a time! We forget it—we take it completely for granted.” (See here for a larger version of the image above.) That is until someone like Howe makes us see what has been before our eyes all along. Our stereotypes about Harlem or Greenwich Village or the Lower East Side are unsettled as a result.

Of course, a documentary project of this scale can only do one thing, if it’s going to do it really well, but one of the pleasures of New York in Plain Sight is that it constantly suggests other, related projects, such as photographing the corners or even the middles of the blocks at times other than midday. What would these corners look like at 7 a.m. or 7 p.m.? At midnight? What might they look like in the rain or when it’s snowing? In all four seasons? And, of course—something Howe has tried on a limited basis, on 10th Avenue—what would they look like a year, five years, ten years later?

One might also ask: how would the portrait of Manhattan’s life be different if we looked up from the street level view? The consistent framing of Howe’s photographs invites the viewer to compare corners from different parts of the island. It is also what makes them so visually compelling as a collection. However, the 1:3 aspect ratio means that we don’t see anything much above the ground floor on the street corner. This inevitably confines the user’s view. Howe himself is well aware of this: “If I did it again I’d use something closer to 1:2, and with less street and more buildings in the field of view, which would reveal that much more about the city. At the moment I’m playing with 5:9, which I like a lot.”

One can only hope that a work like this will inspire other photographers to take up these or other possibilities and give us a portrait of Manhattan on winter evenings just after sunset, or of just one corner or block through the course of 24 hours, one minute at a time. As New York in Plain Sight already demonstrates, the possibilities as are every bit as rich as the city itself.

Doing the project meant personally confronting a great deal of residual racism.

In 1961 Jacobs wrote that street corner society could play an important role in addressing “our country’s most serious problem—segregation and racial discrimination.” For her, sidewalks offered a kind of open-minded space, not only for contact but for social bridging, to counteract the fear that accompanies discrimination. There is something very reminiscent of this in Howe’s response to the question of how doing this large-scale photographic survey changed his sense of the city. Pausing to reflect, he said: “There is no longer any place in the city I am the least bit afraid of, and almost—it is New York, after all, you have to exercise some judgment here—no-one that I run into on the street, anywhere in the city, who I would be afraid of.”

Doing the project meant personally confronting a great deal of that residual racism. He continued: “I don’t like to think that I was ever racist in any obvious way, but … you know, you grow up with it … In the course of the project I became very conscious … about how racist I still was. But while photographing Spanish Harlem, Central Harlem, Washington Heights, parts of the Lower East Side, and so forth, I had so many spontaneous conversations with people in those neighborhoods that a great deal of that residual racism was dissipated, and, where I live now, on Staten Island, in a largely black and Hispanic and even Muslim community, I feel completely at ease, and I don’t think that would have been the case if I had moved here before the project.”

New York in Plain Sight invites us to see Manhattan with fresh eyes, beyond tourism’s visual clichés or the celluloid city presented on film and TV. It brings to center stage the most unassuming aspects of everyday life and offers an almost inexhaustible resource for better understanding Manhattan’s unfolding landscape. Looking at the photographs closely affords us the possibility of seeing the unnoticed, helping us to challenge the urban mythologies that shroud this great city.

Howe’s photographs will be useful to sociologists, planners, and urban geographers for decades to come, but this extraordinary collection is also a gift to New Yorkers. Howe calls it “a love letter to this city, New York, written in photographs.” Most of the people who have bought them from his website have not done so for their sociological worth. “Most people … wanted a picture of the street corner where they grew up, or the street corner where they took their wife on their first date. A surprising number have been sold to New Yorkers who for one reason or another are now living elsewhere and miss the city.”

This is not surprising, for Howe’s collection contains the trace of so many New York lives lived. The portraits of less celebrated neighborhoods have a special quality, in that they show ordinary citizens going about their business. Yet, at the same time, there is nothing commonplace about this compendium of urban scenes. Howe makes the mundane beautiful, and taken together New York in Plain Sight amounts to more than 11,485 visual poems to the greatest show on earth.