The Miniature Lower East Side

The Miniature Lower East Side

I’ve been drawn to abandoned buildings for as long as I can remember. As a boy, the challenge and malice of breaking into forbidden places without getting caught and finding my own secret space was paramount. Play football? Are you crazy? Let’s explore. Later, when I became a firefighter in 1978, I began my career in the South Bronx; entering and navigating vacant structures became both a full-time job and a passion. The city was burning and there were endless fires in the 1000s of the city’s vacant structures.

Around the same time, I moved to the Lower East Side, surrounded by blocks of vacant tenements dating back to the late 1800s/early 1900s, some of the oldest is the city. Despite how dangerous it was, I spent much time exploring these empty buildings. The illicit hours passed in those Lower East Side wrecks was my coming of age. The darkness that fell over me, in part due to my activities within those structures, eventually became the catalyst for my spiritual evolution.

Over the years my attraction to abandoned spaces grew and I fell in love with turn-of-the-century industries: mills, warehouses, foundries, loft buildings and factories, as well as former institutions such as asylums, prisons, schools and hospitals. Foreclosed homes in decay still baffle me.

As I started photographing these emptied spaces, I felt extremely comfortable in the midst of neglect and decay. The abandonment, loneliness, and isolation inside the structures grounded me despite the risk (though the buildings were abandoned by society, I was hardly alone). I discovered an escape from the boredom of inhabited space, and grew lost within the wealth of bygone architecture and design. I felt like I was participating in some grand installation of living art. The decay was dynamic, the interiors different if I revisit them in a year. New levels of rust and mold. Brick disintegrating and nature slowly prevailing, ailanthus trees growing through floors, replacing manmade elements. Where some people saw eyesores, I saw the labor of architects, craftsmen, and assemblymen using complex machinery built as durably as the products they made. To me, each abandoned building tells a story from our past, and all these buildings tell a collective story of our present, of an era of greed when everything–from architecture to wares to art–is disposable, replaceable.

My artwork today recreates and memorializes the emotional experience of seeing and exploring these structures and creates a physical representation of them. I also want to pay tribute to the quality of manufacturing we once had and the domestic jobs it created.

And lastly, in my experience, Nature Always Prevails. I’ve been to many Super Fund Sites, formerly toxic facilities, and even Hiroshima. No matter what we do, eventually something green appears and takes over. Always. They say even Chernobyl is swarming with green. Will humans prevail in that same manner?

–Dennis Gordon