Alphabet City is a documentary project on the Puerto Rican community of Manhattan's Lower East Side. I lived just a few blocks from the Alphabet City neighborhood when I began photographing there in the late 1970s. It was at that time the largest heroin market in the world. I took pictures there for several years, and when I took the photographs around to try to get them published, the magazines weren't interested. It was the beginning of the Reagan-Bush years, and a photo editor at Life said, "We aren't interested in doing stories on poor people just because they're poor anymore."
I set the pictures aside and pursued other projects. After much soul-searching about documentary photography, I decided that the photographs by themselves did not sufficiently address all I had come to know and feel about the people I knew in Alphabet City. I missed their voices. I needed to go back into the neighborhood to see what more I could find, intending to locate the subjects of the photos I'd taken and to interview and re-photograph them. Ironically, before I got started, the photographs by themselves won a prestigious photojournalism award. In 1987, the Missouri School of Journalism's Pictures of the Year Contest accepted unpublished work for the first time for their Essay of the Year category. I submitted the Alphabet City photographs and won.
Below is a selection from Alphabet City, which was published in 1992 by the University of California Press. The book is 128 pages and includes 69 black and white images.
JEANETTE STELLA, 1989
I been here ten years. I have a marriage life now, and I got kids. I stay home all day, all night. I would like to be in New York. The rent is high, but that's why they have welfare. I love New York.
This girl in the picture, with the jacket over her head, that's my cousin. She was in jail. She had a habit. She was taking drugs through her vein. If I would have been over there, I could have been running around like a junkie, locked up, or dead. See, my father never understands that he should be proud the way I am now. I have my house, I have my car, I have a husband, I have three kids. I didn't give him everything he wanted, me finish school, being a secretary, a teacher, a doctor, a nurse, but at least I'm alright.
MAN ON EIGHTH STREET, 1989
This is some devastating stuff here. I don't know how to compliment you in photography, man, but I'll tell you one thing, you done captivated the culture here.
You have caught the essence of a situation by a tilt. It's weird to me. To look at things, you must have a slant, so, like, that's your tilt.
I used to work at a drug spot. I wasn't scared. In the ghetto, if you're hustling in the streets, what happens to you, you gotta accept it. In here, I had a few problems.
My first time upstate, I got in a fight with a corrections office, so they sent me to Attica. Attica supposed to be for big time criminals, who got life, fifty to life, big time. I had people outside who were sending me everything I needed. And these older guys inside, they wanted it. They seen me, I was young. I was seventeen. Maybe they had in their mind they think they're gonna fuck me too. I prefer one of them killing me. I had to fight a lot. I got stabbed four times. Then you had some old timers from the Lower East Side there, and if you come, and you're willing to fight or stab for whatever you got, then they'll back you up. But if you give yours up, they cut you off. Remember that guy that killed the cops, in Fifth Street? He knew me when I was a little kid. He was there. You got Slim the Knife, from Eighth Street. You got Blue Boy, from the Avenue. They seen I was willing to fight, so they all stood up, and they said, Don't worry about it. Everything's gonna be alright. I didn't have no more problems after that.
AMY ZAPATA, 1989
I’m twenty-three now. Then I was twelve. My mother had money. She had a friend that owned a beauty parlor, they hooked her up with this job. She used to go to Peru, Spain, and come to New York City wid drugs taped in her body. She came back wid a lot of hundred dollar bills, forget it. That Christmas we had everything we wanted.
Then after that, I started to notice my mother wid a lot of bandaids, in her arms. She’d say, I went to the hospital, they took blood out. Until one day, I opened the door and there she was shooting up through her vein, through her foot. I started screaming, and she told me she wouldn’t do it anymore. Things started missing. She was selling everything. One day, my mother brung a man to the house. They did whatever, whatever. She left him sleeping and stole his wallet. The man could have raped me or my sisters, could have hurt us. That’s when I found out that my mother didn’t really care about us. So that night, I went to this place, I worked all night, bagging up dope and coke. Putting it in little bags to throw in the streets, to sell it. I made enough money, called my aunt in Puerto Rico, got the tickets right at the airport, and sent my sisters off.
My Moms is in prison. She looks good now. But she has AIDS. She used to sleep in an abandoned building. She used to the use the vein from her neck. Any vein she will find in her body.
“For anyone who has walked down Avenue B and wondered what life was like back in the day, this archive answers the question. The collection not only documents the Puerto Rican diaspora of the 1970s, but provides a visual record of a neighborhood that has undergone a near total architectural and cultural change in the last three decades. To view the archive at The Library is to be transported to another place in time — where dirt, drugs, and dust envelope everything.”
—Thomas Lannon, Archivist at the New York Public Library
What do you want? I don't get it.
You went up to my house? I don't like it.
I don't want to get involved with nothing from the past.
Why you took my picture? Who gave you my address?
I don't know you. I don't know nothing about you.
I'm no fugitive from the law, I know that.
I'm an American citizen, that's it.
For all I know, it could be illegal for you to take my picture. If you have a big company, maybe I could sue you.
I'm in my rights here.
I don't know who the fuck you are.