Saturday, January 28, 2012

Book Review: East of Bowery

Issue #5 of OBSOLETE! was so jam-packed that we had to leave out the reviews page this time-  I'll be periodically posting those reviews here. Please consider scoring a hard copy of the new issue- it's our biggest yet...

 East of Bowery
Text by Drew Hubner, photos by Ted Barron

“ In those days, New York City was absolutely lousy with people who had come to the big city to become writers.”

So begins “No Rio”, the fourth chapter of East of Bowery, by Drew Hubner at Ted Barron. Hubner and Barron tell the story, through short vignettes and photographs, of the late 80's Lo-Ea-sider everyman- a dope-shooting writer who moves from bar to squat to dope spot to poetry reading to NA meeting, on the black and white streets familiar to anyone lucky enough to have experienced those twilight days of New York downtown greatness. It's all in there- Save the Robots, The Circle bar, The “Hat”, Sophie's, the Gas Station, The International, the Zoo Bar. PS 122, ABC No Rio, Max Fish, Angelica's, The Parkside, Blue and Gold, Mona's.... The Tompkins Square riot, Clayton Paterson, Adam Purple...

The project began as a web collaborative between writer Hubner and photographer Barron, and has now been published in book form by Sensitive Skin (which has itself grown from 80's East Village zine to webzine and now publishing house).

Hubner's writing is visually rich and his storytelling tight. “The imagery of physical things will carry whatever sort of lies you can think up”, his protagonist states at one point, and it works for Hubner in this case- in his bio he claims that the stories are total fiction, but they read as utterly believable memoirs. The voice of the time and the place is present, but despite the junkie theme, he's not “doing” Jim Carol. He has the perspective of someone looking back, without glorification. He tells the story of one of those who came from the outside, (in this case Raleigh) rode high in the pre-hipster days, and then crashed hard into the wall of addiction.

Barron's photos are wonderful artifacts of the time- images of the Lower East Side that is no more. They are beautifully composed, but they stop time so effectively that the have the feel of a tourists snapshots. Instead of the Empire State Building or Times Square, they are of the intersection across from the Gem Spa, children with a toy gun next to a Dinkins era police cruiser, a cat on a shooting gallery rooftop. If I have any complaint about this book, it is that I would have like to see more of Barron's photos, and in a larger format. Luckily, there are more available on their blog, http://eastofbowery.blogspot.com/.

Hubner and Barron have done a great job of capturing a moment in time- those last days before Giuliani changed New York forever, when art lived with the poor, not in the sanitized world of internet marketing. Before digital media brought everything to everyone, when mutant culture still eddied in artistic backwaters, high, nodding, un-tweeted.