By James Maher
Name: Nelson Vercher
Location: 9th Street Community Garden, 9th Street and Avenue C
Time: 3 p.m. on Monday, June 29
I’ve lived in the neighborhood since 1996. I’m originally from Chicago but moved to New York from San Francisco. I moved New Year's Day. I partied on New Year’s Eve and then got on a plane to New York the next day.
I first moved to 9th Street between B and C. I remember coming from the airport and passing 7th Street between C and D. From the moment I got here to this day, it has been my favorite street in the whole city. It’s lined with gorgeous trees. It’s a little gem.
The neighborhood was cool; it was what I knew. Everyone said don’t go to Avenue D, which I eventually moved to. It was actually in some ways cooler in a sense. It had a creative energy. But then you’d definitely see people on heroin in the middle of the street passing out during the day.
I think my first desire to live in New York was — and this is probably very gay and very typical, but it is what it is — seeing Diana Ross in Central Park. I saw her live concert on cable with my mom as a teenager. It was outside and in Central Park and at the time I was a huge Diana Ross fan. I saw so many different races of people together and hanging out. I was like, ‘I have to be around that.’ I didn’t know what it was and how I was going to get there but it stuck in my head.
I’m a hairstylist. I’ve been doing it for a long time. I starting doing it in Chicago when I was a little boy. When I was probably 19 or 20, I was still assisting but getting toward the end. My roommate at the time, who is still my best friend, went to New York and this was during the Malcolm McLaren "Deep in Vogue" time. He came back and the stories I got, and he came back with a boyfriend. It was then that I started pushing for it at work. I asked if they could transfer me to New York. I knew that was my ticket out. I had barely been out of Chicago once. I had only been on a plane once.
I then had to move to California as an interlude, but the focus was to come here. When I got here I started working in 5th Avenue salons. That was kind of the entryway to it all. I wanted to work on photo shoots and I so started assisting super well-known hairdressers that were doing all those things: W, Harper’s Bazaar — all that ‘90s high-end amazing stuff. I was new to New York so I was doing a few days a week in the salon as a stylist, then assisting these amazing guys. It was definitely a hustle because it’s hard to maintain a clientele on 5th Avenue, and then to go into an assisting role and becoming basically somebody’s bitch. The trade off was that I got to travel the world from Milan to Paris and do fashion shows and be around supermodels of the 1990s. It was awesome because the editorial world is so different than the salon world. It’s a different high.
At one point it became time for me to do my own thing, so I stopped assisting. It was a hard transition. Eventually I got an agent and started going, but I also had a lot of help. So I moved into entertainment and music and things like that. It was actually really liberating in a way. I’m a huge music fan as well.
It was interesting seeing Avenue C start changing. That was definitely a turning point in the 2000s. You started seeing the type of girls who would never come down here running around with halter dresses and bad highlights. You know, I’m not completely against gentrification. I do think that it’s a good thing to be able to have decent restaurants and healthier options and things like that, but what I’m not about is seeing people who have raised families here for generations being kicked out and spoiled kids who have no real appreciation of the neighborhood coming in. Avenue D is definitely the last avenue to change but it is changing.
I feel like Alphabet City has a uniqueness in New York. It’s a little organic and a little hippie and bohemian, but more and more money is moving down here. This is one of the areas in New York that you really get that in a concentrated zone and that’s why I have such a hard time even thinking about leaving. The idea of going to a different neighborhood doesn’t really appeal to me. I’ve always been a fan of thinking that poor and rich people should be forced to live together. I think that makes a difference.
Everyone has their own idea of what success is and I definitely don’t need everything, but just to be comfortable and to be able to do nice things for yourself and to help the people you love a little bit and to be able to retire decently is an awesome thing to do. But success to me — and I don’t care how much money I have — doesn’t mean living on the Upper East Side on 5th Avenue. That doesn’t connect to me, but I find that it can be very ‘New York,’ because New York is a place of ambition. People come here to be successful. That’s what the bottom line is.
I would hope to think that there was still some of it left, but that crazy artist doesn’t want to come here like that anymore. I don’t think it resonates that way. My nephew is a brilliant artist who lives in Minnesota — good looking, young, sexy. He’s up on stuff and he’s not even thinking ‘I want to come to New York.’ When I was his age, I was like, ‘There’s no place I can be but New York. I need to get there to do my thing.’
Has New York let me down? Yes. Has it surprised me? Yes. Am I happy? Yes. Let me down? Of course it has. New York is full of disappointments and rejection. But has it let me down in the grand scheme of things? No. You’ve just got to get your hustle on here and come back tougher. I’m a stronger person because of New York. It made me a better person, for sure. I’m a smarter person, a better person, even a healthier person. New York has done that. So all in all, through the good, the bad, the ugly, the failures, the successes, the ups and the downs, New York has been first rate. I can’t complain.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.