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Cyrano of New York

CyRano: a guerrilla photographer exploring the fading ruins of New York City and beyond.

New York City is where I have lived for the last 13 years, quite possibly the only place I have ever called home, though I only know the real New York through stories and photos; I find myself chasing it through the streets every day, hoping to catch a glimpse, nostalgic for a fabled city that I never actually knew. What most people don't know is that there are actually many layers here, cities within cities within the city itself.

There is the New York City of the rich, the old money socialites of the Upper East Side with their art galleries, Park Avenue apartments and Madison Avenue boutiques; the New York City for the tourists, who gravitate in droves of hundreds of thousands from every country and every walk of life, like moths to a giant flame, to converge on landmarks in the city's inner core such as Rockefeller Center, Times Square and the Empire State Building and spend their hard earned money in gift shops to buy themselves trinkets to remember an experience in a city so close, yet so far from home; the New York City for the foreigners, working for their own American dream, who came here and brought with them their languages, traditions, and rich cultural heritage; the New York City of the Jews, generations of old-world Hasidim who have resisted giving in to the constantly shifting demographics of the neighborhoods around them for over 150 years. There are many more as well; there is the New York City of the dead, the countless huge cemeteries dating back to the mid-1700s whose headstones show names of some of the city's most prominent families.

There is the New York City of the underground, the sprawling catacomb mazes of over 1,200 miles of train and subway tracks, and beneath them, the layers of maintenance and steam tunnels; you can see glimpses of this world through the window of a stalled train, under decades of grime, as the distorting speakers bleat out the all-too-familiar cadence: "Ladies and gentlemen, we are delayed because of train traffic ahead of us..." Underneath the city has geography, and those who dare to plumb its Stygian depths may find it: the entire second system that was never completed, an unused tunnel underneath Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, the Court St shuttle, and the magnificent arched ceilings of the abandoned City Hall Station loop; the over 200 autobiographical 'pages' written by graffiti artist Revs throughout the entire subway system; or the stories of the 'mole people', who live hundreds of feet underneath city streets without any light or contact with the living world.

Similar is the New York City of rooftops...high above the streets where the pigeons go, the echoing two-part harmony of car horns and the howl of the wind take on strange new dimensions; the ancient wooden water towers on stilts, faded hand-painted advertisements for now obsolete products sold by long-vanished companies, secret city views, and midnight glimpses of the East River skyline are taken in as our soles whisper across roof spines and softly up ladders and across rusting catwalks, so as not to be detected by the eyes that watch us from below...There is the New York City of the damned, over 20,000 homeless who walk the streets among us, all but invisible to most of those around them. There is the New York City of strangers, who wrote their names on walls and trains, Cost, Rate, Taki187, Smith, Sane, Freedom, Rebel, those who came in the night silent as freshly falling snow to leave their marks on the city in shades of aerosol to be discovered at morning light, and who paved the way for generations of graffiti writers.

There is the old New York, the enclaves of brightly colored gingerbread Victoriana in Staten Island and stunning pre-war apartment buildings in the Bronx. There is the New York City of islands, and of bridges. And then there is what I like to call New Rat City. The invisible city behind fences, barbed wire, and stark 'no trespassing' signs, far off the beaten path, through tangles of briars, poison ivy and rampant ailanthus to where forgotten hospital buildings and power plants rise from the dense jungle like jagged teeth to bite at the world one last time in their death throes and then crumble slowly to dust, and the Arthur Kill fills with the corpses of tugs and the once grand wooden steam ferries...

Finding these places, getting in and out undetected, and finding the artifacts left behind like inside a tomb of some ancient civilization, is a bizarre cross between an urban archaeological expedition and a geocaching scavenger hunt. But the smells of death are not those of musky spices and mummifying rags and the cloying sweetness of a reverent interment, but of rot and decay and moisture damage and neglect and sorrow, and the artifacts in question little more than everyday objects, clothing, a hanger, a razor, a mattress, photographs, someone's discarded personal effects morphed into sinister and disturbing mutations if only by the fact that to a certain extent, on this plane, they have long ceased to exist.

The lead paint, asbestos dust, black mold, the unsound structures in various stages of decay, create hazardous conditions at best, and in the long dark hallways, elongated shadows start to seem like hands and fingers reaching out to pull us in and make us like them...but for those of us who seek solace in the dark, this is our drug, the high we chase, something you can't get in any bottle or back alley or on any street corner: the feeling of exploring places built by man, used until their usefulness came to an end, and then forgotten about: the ruins of a modern civilization. Because these walls do talk, and the stories they tell should never fall on deaf ears. In our culture today, many of us mistakenly believe that nearly everything is disposable.

There is certainly no longer a reverence for architecture like there once was, and in a city particularly famous for its callous indifference toward preserving its own history, we act as guerrilla historians, capturing forever in a single shutter click that which lasts long after the place itself finally ceases to exist.

And when we can make people look past what their eyes see, to the beauty of what once was, when we can make them see the world in the way that we see it, that is our greatest gift...

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