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Meet Clayton Patterson, One of New York’s Most Iconic Street Photographers

When you think of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, you think of the Jewish and Latino immigrants of the past or the moneyed elite of the present. But the story of the hood’s transition remains to be told, and that’s where documentarian Clayton Patterson steps in.

A native of Calgary, Canada, Patterson moved to New York in 1979, and by the early eighties he was a permanent fixture in the gritty Manhattan enclave. In 1986 he began taking photos of his neighbors—mostly gang members and graffiti artists— and posting them in the window of his Clayton Gallery, Clayton Hats and Outlaw Museum at 161 Essex Street.

Later, he graduated to a videotape recorder and shot three-and-a-half hours of footage during the 1988 police riots in Tompkins Square Park. He continued taking photos and video, amassing an archive of media that spans three decades. It’s a visual history of how the neighborhood and its people have drastically changed.

Some of Patterson’s photographs were compiled and released in a 2009 book “Front Door,” and much of his work was featured in Ben Solomon and Daniel Levin’s documentary on the Lower East Side, “Captured.” A comprehensive and celebrated exhibit, “L.E.S. Captured”— presented by ALIFE and Kinz + Tillou Fine Art; featuring archival photographs, portraits from “Front Door,” and the short film “The Documentarian” — also opened in 2009.

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How did you get started?

I used to take pictures in front of my door all the time. I had two things — there was the Hall of Fame and the Wall of Fame. The Wall of Fame was graffiti on the door; a lot of the local kids tagged. This used to be a heavy drug neighborhood. It didn’t have the whole “downtown” thing [that exists] now. You see all this graffiti now, it wasn’t really like that in the past because these streets had drug dealers on them.

So that meant graffiti and street art were more rare in the L.E.S. in those days.

There was a whole collection of Lower East Side tag crews like 333, ADT and The Violators. Each different crew would have their block or their area, and so the door [where the pictures were taken] was neutral. The other thing was I used to photograph people in front of the door and I’d put them in the window. The window became known as the “Hall of Fame.” It was interesting because it was a whole cross section of the neighborhood. The space was neutral so I had [street gangs like] Ñetas, Latin Kings and La Famiglia and different crews like 333 and ADT. They would all come and I’d take their picture. I used to say, “OK say p — y!” to make them laugh. The reason I did that is because I wanted to show their best side.

It wasn’t just the bad guys, though. It would be a lot of good kids, young girls. Once in a while you get mothers. I would often have the only picture of somebody in their family. I had pictures of different people’s brothers who went to jail. Or someone who died. In the inner city, people have fires, they have to move. There’s certain reasons why people don’t collect things.

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Through documenting these people’s lives, there’s a renewed interest in Clayton Patterson.

Yes and no. On one hand I’ve had stories in The New York Times and things like that, but there’s never really been an interest in the Lower East Side. So, even though I have this huge archive which includes stickers from the street, dope bags, heroin bags, photographs, a lot of videotapes — which would include Mickey Cesar, the “Pope of Dope,” the first guy who started a marijuana delivery service — that’s street culture. Graffiti kids in the neighborhood, tags, and all this street culture, nobody really cared about the Lower East Side.

“Lower East Side was where people came and bought drugs. You wanted to be a famous artist, you went to Soho.”

You’ve used the word garbage to describe what the archive was. You said it would be nothing until somebody found it.

That’s true. If you go to the Lower East Side, once you get to the Puerto Ricans there’s no history. Pre-1940s with the Jews, you’ve got Hollywood … with the Italians you’ve got the beginning of the Mafia. But once you get into the modern period it doesn’t exist. There’s no well-known Puerto Rican drug dealers. The reality is the L.E.S. was a bigger drug world [than anywhere else in NYC] because those guys who were selling in Harlem [Frank Lucas, Nicky Barnes] were just selling to their own people, mostly black people. Lower East Side sold to the whole world because it was an area that was accessible to white people and cool people and artists and everyone else.

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Why hasn’t someone come in and written that history?

I don’t know why. This guy Leonardo Levitt, he just did a book called “New York Confidential” about the NYPD’s secret history. He covers the whole city except for the Lower East Side. Lower East Side in 1988 had a police riot! Even that early-’80s arts scene, there was a couple books, I think “Art After Midnight,” put out by Steven Hagar from High Times. I think there was Art News, by Carlo McCormick. But there’s been no book on [the Lower East Side]. The point that we’re getting to is even though I have this massive archive, on another level there’s really no interest in it.

How did you link with ALIFE to have them present your 2009 exhibition L.E.S. Captured?

I was coming down Orchard Street one night. It was really dark. I saw this place that was all lit up, I went in. I saw these young people working. The first person I met by the door was Rob [ALIFE co-founder and artist JEST]. He had this whole collection of tags. So I said, “I know some local people, can they come by and tag?” From there they started having their openings. ALIFE was interesting because they dealt with street culture, graffiti and fashion, which was kind of an intersection that was unique at that time. It was also unique because I had a little gallery and the hats and took pictures. They were selling sneakers and had the art gallery thing going on. They were almost doing an idea I’d been doing, only they’d been doing it in a much more sophisticated way. The were like an idea factory.

How long ago was this?

This was 1999. They were also doing Mass Appeal [magazine] at the time, laying it out and designing it. They included me in a couple of editions. One where they put in a bunch of photographs from the front door. And one where they did something on the dope bags. Also there were these kids I knew down here, I knew their mother. They went to Cuba and did this movie on Cuban hip-hop. So I was able to get a small article in Mass Appeal about this movie that they went to Cuba and did. That turned out to be Ben Solomon [and] Dan Levin. Dan went on to film school in Boston and when they came back they wanted to do something on my archives. They ended up making the movie “Captured.” And that happened through ALIFE too, through doing the story in Mass Appeal.

Through your archives you’re able to see a neighborhood change. What are some agents of change in L.E.S?

“Lou Reed started off on Ludlow Street. He was living there in the sixties and paid $38 a month. Well, that gave him the time to go, Am I gay, am I straight, am I a junkie, am I not? Eventually he came up with all these great songs and became Lou Reed.”

Now across from Katz’s Delicatessen on Ludlow street, a studio apartment is 3,000 dollars. How do you go through your ups and downs, your ins and outs: Who am I, is this good, is that good, am I gonna play the guitar, am I gonna sing? You gotta know right away, so it’s not possible. You have people trying to pay the rent, trying to get by, credit cards overdue. You just don’t have that breathing room. You don’t have that cross-cultural pool of people to deal with anymore.

In interviews you’ve said you don’t recognize anyone in the Lower East Side anymore.

In a lot of ways that’s true. I could stand at 7th and [Avenue] A and, if not by name, at least know by nodding the head probably at least three-quarters of the people who went by. Now it’s so completely transient. Now you could go out there and not meet anybody you know. That’s a weird thing.

What keeps you there at this point?

I guess the archives … [besides] I wouldn’t know where else to go.

Originally written for Streetlevel.com and originally republished at pauljcantor.com on September 29, 2009. This interview has been lightly edited and updated for clarity.

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Wrote for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vice, Fader, Vibe, XXL, MTV News, many other places.

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