By James Maher
Name: Kevin Cloutier
Occupation: Director of Photography, Documentary Cameraman, Filmmaker
Location: Tompkins Square Park, SE
Time: 2:30 pm on Thursday, Feb. 4
I’m from Providence, Rhode Island. I went to art school in San Francisco for four years. After awhile, being from the East Coast you either become a Californian or you don’t. Basically my theory is that all the nuts shake loose from the East Coast, they go out West and they either stick or the don’t. After finishing art school, it was either LA or New York, and two weeks in LA certainly told me it was not LA.
I came to New York in November of 1978. New York’s never been easy, so even then to get an apartment was hard. I originally found a really boring place on 25th Street, but eventually I sort of lucked out and found a place on East Third Street. It was incredibly inexpensive. My first apartment here was $125 a month. I got it because a friend knew somebody who had made a bad deal with somebody else and had to leave town. What kind of deal that was I never knew, but he basically gave me his apartment for a few hundred bucks of key money. Of course that apartment had cold water, 15 amps of electricity, and more cockroaches than I’d ever seen before or since.
I drove a taxi for one year. That was intense. I was involved in three attempted hold-ups, but in each case I saw it coming and was able to diffuse the situations. Each one is a story onto itself. When I was an art school student I drove a cab at night in San Francisco, so I had plenty of experience with dicey situations, and I had survived a near-death encounter behind the wheel there. That was what helped me see it coming here, but one year of that was plenty. That was actually more the Scorsese "Taxi Driver" era of the experience. It was blatantly dangerous back then. It was tough.
My building on East 3rd Street between First Avenue and Second Avenue didn't have a front door. People slept under the stairs. Across the street were two completely gutted empty buildings. One day I came out and there was a car stripped of all its parts, upside down on the sidewalk. I don’t know how they did that. I stayed in that apartment for a couple of years and then I was able to get a better apartment in the same building and then that building was sold to the tenants. I’m still in the same building but now it’s a co-op.
The first several years I was here, there was very little activity. There weren’t a lot of bars and restaurants. There were just the old places, like the Ukrainian bars ... and not a lot of fine dining. There were Indian restaurants of course ... and the Kiev restaurant. The transformation to sushi bars and fancy coffee shops is pretty extreme, but I also don’t regret not having to look over my shoulder all of the time.
It was a neighborhood that had been gone through many transitions. New York was coming out of its near bankruptcy. I remember actually standing right around here, saying Wall Street is just a few miles away. This is not possible. This can’t stay the way it is. I raised two children in the East Village — Deniele born in 1988 and Ian born in 1994. I never thought of fleeing to the suburbs. I think that they benefited from the unique environment. They are both successful young people and that is a testament to the East Village.
[The neighborhood] allowed me the freedom to pursue my endeavors and not have to work to pay the rent the way unfortunately a lot of people have to do now. That is probably the biggest problem. I studied filmmaking and I was doing sort of experimental filmmaking. Then I became a documentary cameraman, which I still am. For a good 25 years, I’ve worked for the networks. I worked for "60 Minutes" and some of the ABC programs like "20/20," and I’ve done a lot of independent documentaries.
I have a feeling you’ve heard the same story dozens of time. I’m very torn about it because I think that what has happened with real estate is very troubling. Some people have lucked out. I personally have lucked out. I own a little piece of the rock. But a lot of people don’t or were not lucky and when I see my local shoe repair guy go out of business, that’s just like a symptom of what’s wrong. But it’s just unbridled capitalism when it comes to real estate. It works for some people but it doesn’t work for most people. Then again, we are in sort of the capital of the Western world, so I don’t know what you’d expect. You’ve got to accept change. If you don’t, you’ve hitched your wagon to the wrong car. Anywhere and everywhere, the world’s based on it. I run into that in my field all the time. It changes so rapidly, the technology. You’ve got to keep up with it.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.