Over the holidays, reader Jerry Rio sent me this charming doc about changing mid-90’s New York: The Urban Eye. This ‘video time-capsule’ was made in 1995, when market forces, and Rudy Guiliani, were shifting the city into its present phase. Jerry Rio interviews people on the street and a mock-serious narrator charts the ‘unofficial landmarks . . . which are disappearing from the New York landscape, one after the other”. From the site description:
“Join your host Jerry Rio as he takes you on a nostalgic tour as he explores the disappearing icons of this metropolis and find out what New Yorkers think about unchecked development and the corporate homogenization that has altered and destroyed much of the uniqueness of the New York City landscape”
The first video swings between shots of signs and cityscapes of ‘a city that was once a great manufacturing center’. From the first interview, with a self-described ‘student of painted signs’, in front of what had been the Wannamaker Department Store:
“I call (what’s happening now) Facadomy – when they take something traditional and change it completely.”
“They have a lot of these retro-theme parks now”
“That’s appalling – if you’re going to change something, they should do it radically. Otherwise it just becomes some kitschy thing. ”
“New Yorkers tend to look down, I think it would be better if they looked up . . . “
From another interview with a man who sums up what is to come:
“I hope the whole city will turn into a giant Wal-Mart. I want no help for struggling companies . . .”
The segment concludes with amazing footage of shop windows, which the narrator refers to as ‘incidental art . . . the never ending combinations of graphics, products and objects, result in the combination that is the true Dadaist collage.’ Look for it at 11:10.
Part 2 focuses on midtown signage and shop window views which have largely disappeared from today’s New York, including the much lamented Howard Johnsons, and Times Square: “the veritable epicenter of the urban universe . . .the Deuce!” which, at the time of filming had been “frozen in transitional limbo for many years.” From there they focus on a lunchonette, and a look back at the Hawaii Kai and other lost kitsch (the abandoned storefront of Hawaii Kai lived on underneath the omnipresent billboard for ‘Cats!’). Jerry then goes on to interview the owner of Papaya King, Peter Poulous, underneath the original art-deco Papaya King sign, before the end credits pan out over amazing footage of signs and storefronts, many of which are long gone.
Most interesting to me was the portrait of a New York already in transition. Even by the mid-90’s, gentrification, mallification, were already changing the city’s character, starting in Times Square and radiating outward, We can see the roots of it here in this fascinating mini-portrait of an already vanishing city.
To see more of Jerry Rio’s amusing man on the street interviews go to The World of Jerry Rio