In May of 2009, I was finishing up the photojournalism/documentary program at The International Center of Photography. We were getting ready for the end of the year exhibit and “Career Day” aka portfolio reviews with editors, curators, etc. The last I should have been doing was starting a new project. One night after a late night at ICP, Sophie (fellow classmate) and I took the train to Christopher Street, in the West Village. I had walked around the Village before, but when we hit the block of Christopher Street between Hudson & Greenwich Streets it was a scene like nothing I had ever seen. The characters, the energy of that block, especially in front of a bar called Chi Chi’z (now closed) intrigued me instantly. I knew it was something I needed to experience further. After getting some liquid courage at a bar down the street, Sophie & I entered Chi Chi’z. Right away we were noticed and approached, for one we were white and we were women, as most of the clientele was African American males & Transgender women. After we finished our cocktails, we stepped outside for a smoke.
“You are making some of the girls uncomfortable, are you cops?” Qwanna asked. “No, I replied” Sophie had walked to the corner store to buy cigarettes. “What are you doing here?” Not sure what to say, figured honesty was always best, especially if I wanted to gain her trust. “I’m a documentary photography student, I’m curious…” Let me back track, the reason we ended up on Christopher Street was I had been hanging out with Damian, a 17 year old Transgender homeless runaway and he stopped returning my texts, so I got nervous and we were walking to the Chelsea Piers to see if he was there when we past Chi Chi’z. I explained this to Qwanna. She replied “We’re not all homeless.” “I know, that is why I am here, I don’t mean any harm.” “I know, that is why you are still here.” And with that answer, Sophie returned we shared cigarettes, I relaxed. We went back inside Chi Chi’z and enjoyed the rest of the night, which I barely remember, due to the “Purple Mother Fuckers” we were served. The next night I returned, by myself, with my camera out and saw Apollo. “You’re back!” “Told you I would be.” “Good, our story needs to be told, we need to be documented.” Not sure if Apollo knew this was all going away, or if he just liked having me around to take his picture. Either way I went back every weekend night for the next year. I was in, I was invited into this community, this family.
Then a year later, I moved back to Austin, Texas. Whenever I would find myself in the city, I always try to make it a point to head to Christopher Street, to see if I bump into any of my old friends from the block. As the years past, that block between Hudson & Greenwich as a lot of the village slowly began to change. First the Path Cafe went in then the spy (nanny cam) shop became an AT&T store, but there was still a buzz on that block. On my most recent trip a couple of weeks ago, I was saddened to see the block was gone. Nothing remained. Chi Chi’z is now a sushi bar, the adult DVD shop is a restaurant that is up for sale. It was a Friday night in April, a beautiful spring evening and the block was empty, there was zero energy. I know folks will argue that it was a good change for the neighborhood, really is it? No matter what side of the change/gentrification fence you sit on, always remember to respect individuals, just because you don’t agree with there lifestyle choices, doesn’t mean they don’t have a right to exist. This was a community, a moment in time that is gone.
Take a walk with me on this block in 2009. A journey in sights and sounds (warning explicit language and content).
You can view more images from Walking the Block, 2009 on joannsantangelo.com