Wednesday, April 11, 2012
John Milisenda's roots on the Lower East Side run deep. His father lived all 72 years of his life on the Lower East Side, never more than one mile from where he was born on Chrystie Street in 1919. His mother moved to the Lower East Side in 1939 from Brooklyn. She has lived in the same Pitt Street apartment since 1964.
Milisenda was born (1947) and raised in the neighborhood. He started taking photos of his friends as a teen. And he never really stopped taking pictures. His work is in the collections of the Museum Of Modern Art, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and the Brooklyn Museum. Milisenda has taught photography at Drexel University, The New School and Parson's School of Design.
His photographs from the Lower East Side during the 1960s are now on display through April 20 at the Grand Central Library (135 E. 46th St. between Lexington and Third Avenue).
On Saturday morning at the Grand Central Library, Milisenda will discuss the photographs and recollections of the Lower East Side. (The talk is from 10:30 to noon.)
Milisenda, who now lives in Brooklyn, answered a few questions for us via email.
Your talk on Saturday is titled "Recollections on the Lower East Side during the 1960s." What are some of your earliest recollections of living on the Lower East Side?
In the 1950s a kid was standing in front of The Settlement house with a transistor radio. The music from the small radio bellowed out, "Rock Around The Clock," by Bill Haley and his Comets. There were memories of the kids transforming their roller skates into scooters, (soapbox racers) playing with fireworks, playing ring-o-levio (a game of tag) and stickball.
Why did you decide to start taking photos of your friends? Did you ever envision that one day there would be such keen interest in this time period?
My father introduced me to photography. He was a creative and curious person. He photographed our family every chance he got. I learned from him how important it was to capture everyday life experience. He learned how to process film and make contact prints in a make shift darkroom. He would drape a blanket over the window and place a folding table over the bathtub. My mother would complain no one could use the bathroom when he was in there working. It never dawned on that me these images would be of any interest or value. These pictures were old early work and I thought had no value.
Talk about the contrasts of the Lower East Side then. On one hand, there's this romanticized version of kids playing stickball in the streets, hanging laundry between tenements ...and, as you have said, it could be a violent place as well.
The Lower East Side in the 1960s was a neighborhood of stark contrasts. Its citizens were Italians, Jews, Ukrainian, Poles and Puerto Ricans. Primarily made up of the working class, all living together in an uneasy alliance. It was also peppered with southerners and educated people.
Growing up I witnessed violence there. My mother and I were walking along when a man suddenly hit the sidewalk. Later on we found out he was thrown from the roof by the local mob. When I was a child, I remember a commotion taking place across the hall from our apartment. It sounded like two people arguing in a drunken brawl. Next evening, the police were knocking on our door asking my parents questions. It turns out the women had stabbed the man and killed him. She dragged his body to the basement. Someone had seen the body and reported it to the police. She was nabbed.
Did the Lower East Side ever stop feeling like home to you?
The Lower East Side never did stop feeling like home. I can step into Katz's Delicatessen and instantly be transported back to 1965. Back then the counter men were tattooed with numbers on their arms. They were Holocaust survivors. A hot dog was 15 cents and a glass of Coke was 10 cents.
What do you think of the Lower East Side today? Do you still feel a connection to it?
The Lower East Side today is gentrified, and with that, thank goodness, most of the violence that was common during the 1960s is gone. It also lost something — the atmosphere of being a neighborhood with families and children everywhere. Each block of the Lower East Side was a neighborhood unto itself. The mom-and-pop stores are all gone. Hoch's candy store with its wood-lined glass cases full of penny candy. My dad's barbershop was on 80 E. First St. for over 20 years. My dad would look at the kids playing on the street and say, "See that kid over there, I gave him his first haircut."
For more information on Milisenda, including information about his photography books, please visit his website here.