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Photographer Alex Harsley Created An Artists’ Hub In the East Village—And Now He’s Trying To Save It

Alex Harsley and daughter Kendra Krueger in the 4th Street Photo Gallery (Photos: Tara Yarlagadda)

All the roads in Alex Harsley’s life have led him to photography (many of these roads he traversed as a young man keen on tearing up the streets of New York on his sweet motorcycle). Specifically, what he calls “information photography.”

“I like discovering things nobody knows. And that’s how I got into photography…I had this way of seeing things before they happen. And then getting there as it was happening.” He gestures to a photograph on the wall near him, where a man and woman stand under streetlamps on a New York night. Two drops of blue from the streetlights—almost like splashes of paint—stand out from the yellow and black hues of the photo. This is a signature technique of Harsley, who’s spent much of his life experimenting with the ultraviolet spectrum by pulling different colors out and plopping them where they normally wouldn’t be seen. But Harsley is fixated on a different detail at the moment. “The way that woman’s heel is, for instance. Minor things in the image that say a lot…I’m always looking: ‘Well, how can I push this medium even further now?’”

A New York street photo shot by Alex Harsley.

I first came upon the 80-year-old founder of the nonprofit Minority Photographers Inc. while wandering around East 4th Street and seeking to escape the 90-something degree heat on a ruddy June day. He was resting on a chair outside of his narrow storefront, above which was painted, in charming print, “The 4th Street Photo Gallery.” Harsley invited me inside, where I met his daughter, Kendra Krueger, who had recently moved back to New York to help her dad with the gallery’s needs. These include archiving and digitizing countless photos shot over a lifetime and monitoring a GoFundMe campaign that they had set up to meet the demand of rising rents, hefty property taxes and loss of storage space as the East Village gentrifies.

Despite the efforts of nonprofit Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association—who rents the space to Minority Photographers and supports affordable housing in the area—to keep costs down, their rent has jumped from $1200 to $1400 a month and another ten percent hike is expected in the coming years. In order to stay afloat and keep the gallery—which has been a collective for artists of color for the past four decades—going until at least its 50th anniversary, Harsley has reached out to the community for support by asking for donations and giving participants a photographic print of their choice in return.

“There’s enough people out there that I have invested heavily in that, now, they can start paying something back for what I have helped them. I’m looking at hundreds and hundreds of people out there, saying, ‘I need some help now. Help me,’” says Harsley.

When I return the following week, Harsley—surrounded by a backdrop of hundreds upon hundreds of photos hanging on the walls and connected by clothespins—narrates his life story, which is enough to fill a half-dozen books, let alone a short article. Harsley grew up in a multi-generational household of 15 people in South Carolina, headed by the patriarch—his great-grandfather—who took care of him when he was born. Being born in the late 1930s, Harsley saw most of the young men of his era go off to war, but he was raised for the farm life. “I was basically brought up and taught everything I needed to know about running a farm. Horses. Vegetables. Fruits. Different seasons for different things. Making specific objects in case something broke. Like welding, for instance, with just a hammer. So, I had these interesting skills.”

From a young age, Harsley was tinkering with different objects, which foreshadowed the extensive exploration he would do in terms of researching photographic techniques. A key moment was when his mother took him to a photo gallery for a family portrait as a child, and he spotted the black photographer taking their photo. “And it was like this magic stuff was happening in this box. Did all these funny things and gave this tiny little picture. And I was like, ‘How’d you do that?’” Harsley says, mimicking his sense of wonder as a child, which he still possesses in abundance.

But Harsley never felt at peace in the South. As the child of a Baptist father born into a Methodist household, the family marked him as an outsider. “That’s when my mother was asked to come and get me and take me out of that environment. They could no longer handle me, as the saying goes,” recalls Harsley with a knowing smile. So his mother, who had been working in New York to support her family, brought him up to the big city in 1948. Harsley hung out with a bunch of kids who had survived the hardscrabble years of the war on the streets of New York. He also inadvertently sneaked into museums—one of the gatekeepers of the art world—thereby absorbing the strange dual nature of life in the city.

As a young man in the 1950s, he used to ride down to Washington Square Park. One day, a fellow in the park sold him a $15 camera, which he promptly took apart and examined. He was hooked. Not many years later, he would become the first black photographer in the New York City District Attorney’s office. He had first got a job working as a messenger in the district attorney’s office. “That was the beginning of equal opportunity. And the white structure was bringing in us folks,” says Harsley. “They had a photography department, and the person up there, I got to be friends with [him]. And realized he wanted to get a job working in the clerk’s office. So it was a good opportunity for me to take his job.” Harsley laughs, his voice crackling slightly.


But being drafted into the army in the early ‘60s derailed his plans. He re-enlisted, as he thought he would be able to use his service as a way to enter photography school. But the army had other plans for him, and he was unceremoniously shipped down to Alabama. Back to the “negative reality that I escaped many, many years ago as a child.” He stayed in his post and refused to go into the main town, and described being taught “very bad technology” which could be used to chemically kill or maim people. He was subsequently sent to a new posting in Massachusetts. After he returned from his service in the army, he realized it was time to get serious about his photography. He freelanced for a variety of publications and committed to research in a less destructive chemical technology than what he had been taught in the army: photographic techniques, which he honed as a supervisor in the Color Lab.

Meanwhile, he was also a bit of a self-admitted “playboy” when he moved into a place over on 11th Street called Paradise Alley in 1964 (Bedford + Bowery previously interviewed Harsley for a piece on the complex in 2013). “Paradise Alley was notorious. I didn’t know that. Where artists come and create troubles for everyone else.” He lets out a light laugh. “To me, it was like moving into paradise, literally. They had all these beautiful women. They had parties every night. Nobody complained.” It was around this time that he met Shelagh Krueger—Kendra’s mother and Harsley’s wife.

The photographer became acquainted with a lawyer in the office where Shelagh worked as a secretary. The attorney was irate that a building on Madison Avenue, which had a connection to Winston Churchill’s family, was being torn down for a high rise. Moreover, the appellate division of the New York State Supreme Court was also next to the building, and Harsley said the lawyer felt this new high rise was going to “cast a shadow on this important institution.” Literally. So the lawyer struck a deal with Harsley: take a photo of the building and preserve its glory, and I’ll help you set up a nonprofit art organization.

And that’s how Minority Photographers Inc. was born in 1971. The gallery came along not long after in 1973. The gallery hosted workshops over the next four decades and cultivated artists from communities of color like Dawoud Bey— a 2017 MacArthur Fellow that Harsley lauds for his writing ability as well as photographic talent—and David Hammons, who “was important to the [art] culture because he knew how to make fun of it in the most ridiculous way.” Minority Photographers also provided guidance to women photographers like Cynthia MacAdams. Harsley exhales deeply when describing her work. “I shiver when I look at that woman’s work. Wow. Techniques that she came up with. Difficult techniques. She’s the best. Ever. Ever.”

Harsley takes me on a tour of his life’s works. Photographs of celebrities like Miles Davis and Muhammad Ali scatter the walls and old-school cameras line the desks. But most of the people in these photos are ordinary New Yorkers, like a girl standing in a snowy landscape in front of a laundry sign. Some of the individuals Harsley have photographed have even spanned decades of contact, such as a series on his neighbors in the Village and Lower East Side. And yet, Harsley makes them appear extraordinary through his lens and often captures them in heated moments of history, such as during the riots in Bedford-Stuyvesant in the ‘60s. He had been heading to Bed-Stuy to put up placards advertising Minority Photographers when he crossed paths with a black photographer he knew who was working for The New York Times. “He said, ‘Don’t go in that area. The people’s going crazy rioting!’ I didn’t have the camera, so I had to rush back here and rush back out there,” says Harsley.

Besides displaying his work in the 4th Street Photo Gallery, Harsley has exhibited in numerous other galleries from New York to the Netherlands. His creative experimentation also extends to the audiovisual sphere, including videos that his daughter Kendra describes as “hypnotic” and “deprogramming experiences.” And he also loves installations, he says, pointing to what may be his most eccentric work to-date hanging from the ceiling. “Anti-Gravity” consists of fiber board from which lollipops dangle. “I was in the hospital for a while and they had bad news about lollipops. So I decided I could stick the lollipops on the ceiling,” says Harsley. The installation moves in accordance with the sounds in the room, and it took him 18 years to complete.

Why is it so important for the legacy of Minority Photographers to live on in the 4th Street Photo Gallery? Harsley wastes no time in answering. “I figure it’s important in terms of history. Their history, mainly, that’s here. And they have something in place that they can come back to and recognize. More and more people are starting to come back and say, “He’s still here?!” He chuckles before stating the gallery’s unofficial purpose. “It’s become like a museum now…the first museum [of photographic technology] in New York City.”

The 4th Street Photo Gallery is located at 67 East 4th Street. Store hours are Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday from 2-8 pm and Friday and Saturday from 3-10 pm (closed on Mondays). You can find their GoFundMe here.

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Bushwick’s Glitzy New Luxury Building on the Rheingold Brewery Site Is Ready For Its Close-Up

(Photo courtesy of MySpace NYC)

The Denizen Bushwick, an eight-story luxury rental building on the site of the former Rheingold Brewery, has finally opened one of its buildings, consisting of 444 units ranging from $2,000 studios to two-bedrooms exceeding $4,000. The inspiration for the controversial project reportedly stemmed from the idea of a European village, but in reality, the Denizen Bushwick resembles more of a glitzy, almost overwhelming megalopolis that is unlike anything else in the neighborhood.

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‘Store Front’ Photographer Karla Murray Races Against Time to Document ‘Fun and Funky’ NYC

(Photo courtesy of James and Karla Murray)

Longtime East Village photographers James and Karla Murray installed a structure in Seward Park recreating the Lower East Side’s Cup and Saucer, which closed after more than 70 years in business. Now, they’ve set up a gallery show featuring photographs from their “Store Front” books just a few blocks away at The Storefront Project (70 Orchard Street). The exhibit, “Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York,” pays homage to the mom-and-pop shops of the Lower East Side and will remain open through August 12. Bedford + Bowery chatted with Karla Murray about her hopes and thoughts on the changing neighborhood. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

(Photo: Tara Yarlagadda)

BB_Q(1)

I hope the opening reception went well.

BB_A(1)We got a lot of love and support from our friends and store owners as well. The granddaughter of Moe Albanese [of] Albanese Meats & Poultry on Elizabeth [Street]. Really the last butcher in Nolita. A neon sign fabricator who created the sign for Trash & Vaudeville and refurbished the Russ & Daughter’s sign was in attendance as well.

(Photo: Tara Yarlagadda)

BB_Q(1)

Tell me about your hopes for the Orchard Street exhibit.

BB_A(1)The majority of the photos relate to the Lower East Side. You know, to relate back to the neighborhood that the gallery is in. We also have a smattering from our so-called other “favorite” ones, mostly departed stores like Zig Zag Records and the Ralph’s that you saw in the window. We included some others but concentrated on the Lower East Side because we wanted to continue our story. ‘Cuz certainly the Lower East Side has changed a lot with gentrification and different people moving in. Unfortunately, a lot of mom-and-pop stores have closed. Buildings have been knocked down—it’s not only the stores. They’ve destroyed a lot of old tenement buildings [that] have been replaced with newer developments. When that happens, what replaces them on the ground floor as far as retail [goes] is a massive space that usually doesn’t lend to a mom-and-pop store leasing it because it’s just too expensive.

(Photo: Tara Yarlagadda)

BB_Q(1)

Are you mainly trying to preserve the legacy of these buildings or do you think there is some hope for activists to see your work and get inspired?

BB_A(1)Oh, of course. The way we’ve always thought of it is a celebration of the businesses that are still around. We always photograph vibrant, lively businesses. That’s why we always put the address with the cross street because we want people to be able to go to the stores and shop at them. That’s really the key to their survival, [which] is that they need customers.

(Photo: Tara Yarlagadda)

BB_Q(1)

And how many businesses did you end up photographing as part of this project?

BB_A(1)It’s countless. Thousands of photos. There’s over 325 stores just in our first book. And we have three books on the subject. Too many to count and interviews with the store owners as well. It’s over twenty years now [that] we’ve been documenting these mom-and-pop stores.

BB_Q(1)

You [and James] have been East Village residents for how many years now?

BB_A(1)We’ve lived in the same apartment for 22 years now. So it’s been a long time. It’s changed a lot in the time that we’ve been there. To be honest: we wish we had photographed more. There’s many, many small businesses that we remember fondly, but frankly we didn’t ever take a photo of [them] because we didn’t think they would ever close. And then it was too late. It’s always been a race against time to document them because they seem to be closing almost on a daily basis. For the most part, if they don’t own the building they’re located in, with the cost of new real estate going up, the landlord will triple, quadruple [the rent]. One business, they increased the rent 15 times. I mean, no small business can absorb that kind of rent increase, so then they’re forced to close.

(Photo: Tara Yarlagadda)

BB_Q(1)

So how do you feel about new developments like the Target in the East Village? Do you feel that kind of bodes ill for the mom-and-pop businesses?

BB_A(1)We live on that street.That was all mom-and-pop stores. We documented them on film in the ‘90s. There was a pizzeria. There was a Permacut [Beauty Salon]. There was an old dive bar. Blarney Cove. There was a little bodega. There was a 99 cent [store]. There was a whole strip of store after store after store. Mom-and-pop places. They knocked all that down and built that development. I mean, you can go anywhere and shop in Target. You don’t have to be in New York City. That doesn’t make a neighborhood. To us, it’s the mom-and-pop stores that define a community. The very reason we moved to the East Village years ago [was] that we thought it was fun and funky and had a lot of cool and interesting shops. When those types of stores close, the fabric of the neighborhood suffers.

(Photo: Tara Yarlagadda)

James and Karla Murray will lead a walking tour from their Seward Park installation to the Orchard Street exhibit on Saturday, August 4th from 1-3 p.m. Check their Instagram and Facebook for further details coming soon.

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New Target Desperately Tries to Fit Into the East Village: Does It Hit the Mark?

(Photos: Tara Yarlagadda)

I had been caught in the pouring rain without an umbrella, and my shirt was soaked through like a wet dog on the night of the East Village Target’s soft opening. “This is a bad omen,” I muttered, the weather not improving my already lukewarm attitude toward the behemoth chain store right across from my home in the East Village. As a resident of 14th Street, I had walked by the 27,000-square-foot, two-floor Target at 500 East 14th Street nearly every day for the past year, spanning its early construction all the way up to its glitzy opening day. To confess: until yesterday, I– like many East Villagers— found the Target to be a mostly unwelcome eyesore and a reflection of the hyper-gentrification of the neighborhood. It didn’t help that one of my go-to Chinese food joints had been shuttered in 2017 in the same location. Sitting atop the Target are luxurious, $3,695-per-month apartment units.

As I peered into the store’s open windows and looked at the svelte mannequins sporting trendy summer dresses, I thought that it resembled something more akin to a Saks Off Fifth than the decidedly un-hip Targets of my suburban California childhood. But by the end of the store’s opening that night, I’d become mostly convinced that if a megastore must take over a corner of the East Village, it might as well be Target.

How did they convince me? Target plans to open up a new store on the Lower East Side in August and is coming to Kips Bay and Hell’s Kitchen next year. Part of the brand’s commercial success in metro New York may lie in its distinct appeal to the communities it serves. That’s evident from the moment you walk in the store and spot the pastel-pink mural designed by Vault49, which spans the length of the checkout area and references Avenue A and the Nuyorican community of the Village and LES. Or the kombucha in the grocery aisles and the sliced toasted coconut chips hanging near checkout, perhaps catering to the area’s millennial population.

A mural in homage to the East Village behind the Target checkout counter.

“When we think about going into a community, we spend a lot of time talking to guests and understanding what they would be looking for from Target,” said Target spokesperson Erin Conroy. “Making sure the store fits the flavor not just from an assortment perspective but from an aesthetic perspective as well.”

The East Village store’s team leader, Steve Dyba, echoed comments along a similar line. “I think we really have an opportunity to become the neighborhood store.”

Some might balk at the idea of Target becoming the “neighborhood” store in the once-burgeoning artists’ community. But gesturing towards a toy set which she intended to purchase for her grandchildren, Susan Stetzer, district manager for Community Board 3, said, “Where could I buy Harry Potter LEGO in our community? I can’t. I can’t. So I think people are excited about buying things that are no longer available in our community.”

I spoke with both Stetzer and Alysha Lewis-Coleman, chair of Community Board 3, near the first-floor produce section. Both were generally pleased with the new Target, which they said had been consulting with the community board prior to the store’s opening to hire local employees.

“Jobs are so needed and so scarce right now. I’m just happy they created another job source for families and young people in this area,” said Coleman. She added, “They wanted to do right by the community.”

A Target employee adjusts an item of clothing.

Over the course of the night, I did, however, learn that not all store employees were from the area. Not including senior Target team leaders or communications officials, I spoke to two of the store’s 110 employees. Neither of them lived in the East Village. Many employees who were not from the area seemed to be part of the extended Target family, such as Teresa G., a lively young woman who had been promoted from her previous station in Queens to oversee home goods and other items here in the East Village.

The star of last night’s show was the iconic English bull terrier and Target mascot Bullseye. I wondered how they had managed to paint the Target emblem—a bullseye, of course—around the pooch’s eye. I then decided better of it. Attendees gleefully posed for photos with the terrier, who was perched atop his own pedestal.

Employees pose for a picture with the Target mascot.

Following that, attendees sipped red wine, chowed down on mini Korean BBQ tacos being passed around by servers, and explored the store’s wares, which included an array of women’s wear and reasonably-priced produce on the first floor, as well as apparel and home goods—including a Target-owned men’s clothing brand and candles affixed with the image of Jesus Christ—on the lower level. The odd, but somehow fitting assortment of items made me think that while this Target would never become a beloved neighborhood fixture, it was going to do just fine. Maybe I would even stop by and pick up some of their $2.99 mini watermelons to make a summer slushie. But as I left, I frowned, asking myself, “Am I a sellout? Or just adjusting to the changing reality of the East Village?”

The East Village Target is located at 500 E 14th St.  The store launched for its soft opening yesterday. Its grand opening will take place on July 21.

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In East Williamsburg, Plan to Build On Public Housing Property Gets Frosty Reception

A parking lot at the Cooper Park Houses is set to be replaced by a high-rise building, and residents of the East Williamsburg housing development aren’t happy about it. Several dozen people showed up to express their outrage Tuesday at a meeting where the New York City Housing Authority unveiled its plans. 

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5 Pointz Artists Go to Court With Building Owner Who Demolished Street Art Mecca

(Photo: Garrett Ziegler on Flickr)

The 5 Pointz building was a world-famous haven for spray-paint artists, until it was whitewashed in 2013 and then torn down to make way for luxury apartments. Now the owner of the Long Island City property is in court defending himself against artists who say the demolition destroyed their property.

“The art has to be recognized as of value,” said Judge Frederic Block, explaining the central legal point to the jury. “You are going to hear experts testify, and they are not going to agree with each other.”

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LES Residents Call For City to Intervene On ‘Nightmarish’ Mega Towers

(Two Bridges resident Trever Holland speaking at the rally in front of the Department of City Planning)

In another installment of “the rent is too damn high,” Two Bridges residents are demanding that the city increase its oversight of the mega-towers coming to the Lower East Side waterfront, which are set to add thousands of luxury units to the lower-income and working-class community.

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East Village Community Gardens to Host Screenings of National Security Docs

Does government surveillance really get your goat? (To be honest I have never really understood that expression but I am just going to run with it.) Is your ideal evening spent watching documentaries on the deep state? If so, then you’re in luck.

In a new film fest running today through Aug. 5 — ominously titled “Spy vs. Us” — the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space (MoRUS) in the East Village takes on national security and the surveillance state. Even better, like last year’s MoRUS-sponsored film and theater festivals, this year’s festival screenings will occur in the lovely environs of several community gardens. Tonight’s opening screening takes place in the roof garden of Alphabet City’s fabled Umbrella House.

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Brandon Harris Talks Gentrification, Race, and the Perennial Struggle of Making It in NYC

In his first book, Making Rent in Bed-Stuy (HarperCollins, 2017), New York-based writer and filmmaker Brandon Harris uses his memoir of “trying to make it in New York City” as the starting point for a complex, multi-layered discussion of race, class, and gentrification.

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What’s Going On With the Great Jones Cafe?

Great Jones Cafe.

New Yorkers today learned some shocking news: beloved Cajun/Creole restaurant Great Jones Cafe will close tonight and may or may not reopen. Tipsters told EV Grieve that tonight would be the last night, but there’s reason to hope rumors of the 34-year-old Basquiat hangout’s death are greatly exaggerated. This evening, an employee at the Jones told Bedford + Bowery that it’s closing for a week; after that it will reopen — or not. More likely not, she said.

Messages left for owner James Moffett have not yet been returned. In April, the restaurant’s longtime GM, Bill Judkins, told EV Grieve that he was forced out when he couldn’t see eye to eye with his two partners, who “feel that the Jones needs to be changed into something more contemporary to appeal to the ‘new’ neighborhood.” The restaurant’s famous jukebox had been turned off, Judkins told Grieve.

In January of 2015, Judkins told Eater that the restaurant’s landlord was “a nice, old school guy,” and that there were still “a few years” left on the lease. Eater wrote that Judkins “doesn’t see things changing anytime soon, although he does admit to some ‘concern’ about what will happen in the future.”

We’re hoping the Noho fixture rises Lazarus-like from the dead. (I mean, where else can you get a proper oyster po boy around here? Served up by Pavement bassist Mark Ibold, no less.) But many are operating on the assumption that the restaurant won’t be coming back. They filed onto social media to pay their respects:

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Diner Death Notice: Cup & Saucer Goes Dark

Credit: Shanna Ravindra, New York Magazine.

Last week we reported that LES/Chinatown stalwart Cup & Saucer — one of the last of the New York luncheonette old guard — is closing after more than three quarters of a century, thanks to a rent hike on its Canal Street location.

Although Bowery Boogie reported that today would be Cup & Saucer’s last day of operation, it already, as of this morning, appears to be closed forever. Phone calls to Cup & Saucer are going unanswered, and sources tell us the diner is dark.

People paid their respects on Instagram.

Credit: ____genna____ (Instagram)

Credit: OrchardStreetRunners (Instagram).

Credit: PraiseShadows (Instagram).

The owners told the New York Times that their rent was set to nearly double and that they may look for another space.