In this weekly feature, East Village-based photographer James Maher provides us with a quick snapshot of someone who lives and/or works in the East Village.
By James Maher
Name: Tony Feher
Location: Avenue A between East 3rd and East 4th
Time: 4:30 pm on Friday, Dec. 4
I moved here from Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1981 because I wanted to have a life, which I was not going to have in Corpus Christi. I moved into my apartment on East 2nd Street in 1984. I worked in SoHo. The art galleries were there and I was kind of between places and somebody let me sleep in their basement on some crates full of art. Then I moved over here because it was cheap. I’ve lived here for 31 years.
I’m an artist. When I first came here I was working in galleries or for another artist in the contemporary art world. I now support myself with my own work. I do sculpture for a lack of a better word, but really the breakthrough for me came when [started using] found objects and common ordinary things that we just overlook but I found interest in them and kind of created a unique genre of the moment.
It was a good neighborhood for found objects because there was so much debris and so much stuff everywhere. Like milk crates — nobody ever paid attention to them, but when you see them scattered around the neighborhood in green and red and blue and pink… I thought, ‘Wow these are like shells on the beach.’ It’s landscape, but it’s an urban landscape and they used to just be dotted around. Now you can’t find anything.
It was vibrant. It was tough, but [I was] young and looking for adventure and so that was cool. But I had to walk five blocks to the laundry, and if you turned your back, somebody would steal your clothes. There weren’t any markets around. The Koreans showed up after awhile and they changed the neighborhood completely because they had fresh food. Now they’ve all been kicked out. There’s not a single Korean market left. Grace from Gracefully had three or four places in the neighborhood and they’re all gone. And she, to her credit, when the deli workers, green market workers went on strike, she was the first one to settle with them, pay them more money, and get back to work. So I give Grace a lot of credit.
Two-thirds of the buildings on my street were abandoned and burned out. There was like a Kmart for heroin across the street in this vacant lot. For an artist it was great but I think it’s difficult to romanticize the ghetto, especially if you’re not from the ghetto. And that was not my background. A city can’t survive with huge sections burned out. It’s just the greed of real-estate development that destroys the integrity of a neighborhood and forces people out. I was too poor to move to Brooklyn when all my friends moved to Brooklyn and they’ve all now moved like five times. They keep getting pushed out. I worked in my apartment as my studio for 20 years and kind of woke up one day and all my friends were gone.
Westminster apparently bought [nearly 30] buildings in the neighborhood in the last year or two. The building was built in, say 1890, or something like that and had marble wainscoting four feet high up the stairway and all the way up. It’s a beautiful building. The first thing that they did with my building, which was really sad since it was the only building on the block that survived intact through the dark ages, was smash out the interior and turn it into a ruin for the look of the exposed brick interior. They made it look like it had been a burned-out hole, which they think appeals to the young suburban NYU kids. But it could have been a landmark interior. It was spectacularly beautiful. It needed to be cleaned; it didn’t need to be smashed. And the dust it created… people got sick. It’s just so vulgar, the way that they approach the whole thing.
I have a curator friend who has lived on Clinton Street for longer than I’ve been here and he predicted that the galleries would move to the Lower East Side, and I was like, ‘are you nuts?’ It’s interesting that the artists have been replaced with the galleries. The artists can’t afford to live there and the galleries are paying these big rents. That’s the thing in the city — there’s no place else to go.
When everybody moved to Chelsea, that was still an open territory for galleries. That’s full now and the High Line has turned that into a luxury neighborhood. There are a lot of substantial galleries that are having trouble, because the art market has changed so dramatically with the art fairs. It’s insane with the billionaires who come in and the speculation. I’m going to be left on the street but there’s going to be five or six mega-galleries and if you’re not involved with them, then you’re not involved.
Where is the art world going to go? I don’t know. It proved that Brooklyn doesn’t hold up because the people with money don’t want to go over there. For a little while Williamsburg was okay, but they ain’t taking the L Train and traffic is traffic. That’s when the Lower East Side bloomed. I mean, there’s stuff going on over in Brooklyn of course, and a lot of young artists are there. But it’s the same story — if a gallery over there gets successful, they move over here as quick as they can.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.