New York is one of the most photographed cities on the planet; yet most images of it have focused on Manhattan, leaving the other four boroughs visually neglected. Understandably, the camera eye seeks the hot density, the ironic serendipitous clashes of Manhattan streets, thick with icons, while unsure of how to frame the more spacious, anonymous physical environs of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island into a compelling picture.
It was this challenge that first stirred the contrarian impulses of William Meyers. Sometime in the early 1990s, looking at a display of New York photography books in a B. Dalton bookstore, he was stunned by how Manhattan-centric they were. Meyers had taken pictures all his life while pursuing other careers—first as a naval intelligence officer; then as a government researcher who questioned the efficacy of War on Poverty programs; and later as a businessman and investor in biotechnology companies. Now he was ready to devote himself full-time to photography and had found a sustained project: “to see what’s out there in the boonies,” as he put it.
That he has done, intrepidly and triumphantly, exploring the unsung parts of New York and capturing their elusive soul. A selection of the pictures in his Outer Boroughs: New York Beyond Manhattan recently went on display at the Alice Austen House on Staten Island, and the New York Public Library has just acquired a selection of 86 black-and-white photographs, proclaiming: “Meyers pays tribute to the outer boroughs and fills an important and veritable void in photography of the changing city.”
The essential flavor of the outer boroughs is easily intuited but harder to pin down, in words or photographs. There is more sky, more land, less intensive cultivation of property, with borderline areas that seem just to sit there, between factories and highways and one- or two-family bungalows. The private homes often have vinyl or aluminum siding, practical if unaesthetic. “Parts of the boroughs are closer visually to Scranton, Harrisburg, or other middle-size cities in America than they are to Manhattan,” Meyers says. We may note, for instance, his moody photograph of Clifton, Staten Island, with white houses jutting away from each other and cars parked in between, underneath a brace of telephone wires.
The people in the outer boroughs dress more casually and seem less rushed, less patently ambitious than their Manhattan counterparts. They avoid the dramatic presentation of self that makes the average midtown Manhattan street look like a cattle call for cameo actors or job seekers. Look at Meyers’s photograph of Queens guys in shorts, sitting on benches next to a wheelchaired waterfront spectator beneath a Pepsi-Cola sign. They appear to have all the time in the world, but what are they staring at? Manhattan’s towers. Meyers remarked to me, on a visit to his Upper West Side apartment, that Saturday Night Fever had unfairly presented the outer-borough denizens as living half-lives while longing to get to the heart of the Big Apple. But the fact remains: there is something mesmerizingly beckoning about that skyline that orients the Brooklyn or Queens resident, however reluctantly, to its visual magnet. (One perk of living in the outer boroughs, though, is that you get to put that show-offy skyline in detached perspective.)
In Manhattan, you feel yourself a world-citizen, at the bottom of a zoom shot that could keep opening up to encompass the globe; in the outer borough, you belong to the block, the neighborhood. That’s sufficient for these urban villagers. We see that quality of nesting hominess in the gorgeous shot of two almost identical houses in Riverdale, parted by the Hudson River: the garden, the old woman on her balcony, and the Renaissance light and perspective all suggest an Italian hill town, far from the bright lights of Broadway.
One finds beauty in these photographs, but of a distinctly gritty, unglamorous kind. Meyers discovered in the outer boroughs the antithesis to the glamour and celebrity obsessions of Manhattan. Here are the remnants of the old, working-class, manufacturing city, before New York began hemorrhaging blue-collar jobs and converting to pixels, tourism, shopping, and FIRE (finance, insurance, real estate).
These photographs also display a feel for seemingly “placeless” places of transit—not surprising when you consider that the photographer’s father started the Meyers Brothers Parking System and that Meyers himself has run parking-lot and car-wash businesses. We’re invited to stare up at the Long Island Expressway overpass, which the photographer, amused by the way that its sign incorporates the names of all the outer boroughs, has chosen to open the series.
We’re given, too, a glimpse of a forlorn Bronx night lot for school buses, where they sleep under halos of lampposts.
Eeriest is the graveyard that tilts up to confront a breezily hatted female bus rider—“emblematic of the fact that we are all on the bus to the cemetery,” says Meyers with a smile. He adds that the rider was part of a bus excursion to pay tribute to Sholem Aleichem and other lions of Yiddish culture buried in this cemetery in Glendale, Queens.
The outer boroughs have a preponderant share of the city’s cemeteries, as anyone riding in from the airports to midtown can attest. But they’re also hospitable to casual, robust entertainment, like the klezmer band shown rocking in a Williamsburg tavern with all the brio and zest of a Parisian bar snapped by Robert Doisneau.
Another recurring theme in Meyers’s series is the outer boroughs’ traditional function as a base from which immigrants launch their entrepreneurial efforts to achieve the American dream. The solemn, cap-wearing cook with a crooked nose in the Greenpoint hash house is actually the owner, a patron of the arts who turns the café over to poetry readings on certain nights.
Meyers is no naif: he has an extensive, sophisticated knowledge of the history of his medium, having written photography criticism for the late New York Sun and the Wall Street Journal, and he is quick to acknowledge how the great street photographers—from Walker Evans to Weegee, from Garry Winogrand to Helen Levitt—have influenced him. But he has his own quietly quirky vision. “I didn’t have any broad documentary or sociological intention, but I wanted to go to these obscure sections and take a good picture. When I put them in order, I saw they said a lot about the city.”
What exactly they say about the city, he leaves to the viewer to interpret. Meyers began this series at the end of the Dinkins era, when New York was going through a dispirited time; watched it rebound during the Giuliani era and the Bloomberg administration; and is now uneasy about some of the dangers ahead in the aftermath of the Wall Street meltdown. Still, his photographs are by no means pessimistic. You have only to see the two girls flashing their dazzling smiles at the photographer in the Kingsbridge Heights section of the Bronx to come away feeling that the outer boroughs will long remain a repository of vitality and hope.