Luis Mallo was searching for an apartment in Williamsburg with his then-girlfriend, Ana, in 1994, when a woman in her 70s sitting outside a building caught his eye. “She was this older, Polish lady sitting in front of a door. I thought, ‘Should I ask? What are the odds?’ I said to her, ‘My girlfriend and I are looking for an apartment. Do you know of anything available?’ She looked me up and down, paused for a minute, and said, ‘Come with me.’”
The woman led them to an airy, two-bedroom apartment on the second floor of a building on the corner of Metropolitan and Wythe Avenues. It had windows on three sides, lots of light, and no heat, except for a 1950s furnace in the kitchen. For $450 a month, it was perfect.
Mallo, who was born in Cuba, was pursuing his career as a photographer, and found himself surrounded by artists. In the early ’90s, “It was edgy, gritty, industrial. There was a big Hispanic community, Puerto Ricans mostly,” said Mallo, 52. He loved the creative energy in the people around him, and started shooting building facades he found aesthetically intriguing in Williamsburg, Greenpoint and Bushwick, and elsewhere in New York City, ones that represented the temporal nature of neighborhoods.
“At night, it wasn’t the safest place to be. Cab drivers would think twice about crossing the bridge to take you to Williamsburg,” he said. “There were prostitutes and crack addicts all over the place. You would never imagine it would become what it did.”
Mallo’s work will be on exhibit in a solo show, called “Interruptions,” opening Jan. 8, at Praxis International Art on West 25th Street in Manhattan, and will be on view through Feb. 21.
“When we moved there, artists were looking for cheap rent,” said Mallo of the apartment he shared with his girlfriend, Ana Nery Fragoso (whom he’s now married to). “This is a scene looking out my living room window on Metropolitan Avenue. It’s a little melancholy. It was a rainy day, and the drops were caught in the window mesh. It abstracted the scene and it was beautiful. That’s the heart of Williamsburg.”
“I was photographing and trying to get by. I wasn’t making a lot of money. It was a hip place. You felt like you’d discovered something.”
“We lived with the Polish landlord above us until she died. We would go up and make sure she was okay. She was very frail,” he said. “Her daughter became the landlord. She could have doubled the rent, but she didn’t. She wanted us to stay, and I guess she appreciated that we took care of her mom.”
“Across the street was the Mustard Factory. It was a beautiful building filled with artists. It was iconic. They tore it down. I watched the whole thing. I had artist friends who had lofts in that building.”
It was around the early 2000s, when, he said, “I realized what was happening. I got out of the L train on Bedford. There were a couple of girls coming out of the station. One turned to the other and said, ‘Welcome to the east East Village.’ It was becoming an extension of the East Village, and was inevitable.”
“When I saw the gap there and all those wires, I thought, ‘ruin, destruction, beauty.’ At the same time, the scaffolding made me think about the juxtaposition between demolition, and the scaffolding saying there’s something that’s going to be built in its place. It’s destruction and renewal at the same time.”
“This was another moment of restructuring, something being replaced. I was there the other day and that whole area has been renovated dramatically. I’m not making a statement on gentrification and the process; I look for things that are temporal. One window here contrasts with the other that’s very old. On the left, you have an industrial building contrasting with a building that looks residential and in decay. In three weeks, you’ll go back, and it won’t be the same.
“The tree in front looked like someone had put it there to say, ‘Let’s make this look more attractive.’ You plant a tree, and all of a sudden, the industrial area doesn’t look so industrial anymore. You can imagine that inside, they’ll be gutting or renovating the place, or maybe they’ll destroy the whole structure.
“In that area, there’s been major transformation. A lot of artists were living there illegally. Eventually, the landlords said, ‘We want to get them out to make condominiums.’ They make it look pretty and sell it for a million bucks.”
“That whole area is still very industrial, but it could very well one day become something else. I was looking for areas that had industry. That’s where I would find a lot of fences, materials and textures that look industrial and run down, with lines, holes, metal gates – things that you can see through, but are impenetrable.”
Mallo moved to Bushwick six months ago with his wife after living in Williamsburg for over 20 years. “We were looking to buy something. We wanted a larger place of our own, and there was no way we could afford Williamsburg,” he said.
“We’re on a residential block in a one-family home. We’re very happy. We’re still on the L line, but a little further back. These houses are protected. No one’s going to start tearing them down,” he said. “But who knows?”