Nelson Christopher Ala arrived in NYC as a rock ’n’ roll guitarist. The freelance photographer based in Hell’s Kitchen shares his West Side Story, including his love for the city, his favorite places in the neighborhood, and his personal journey of resilience after a life-changing accident on 9th Avenue.
So, what’s your New York story? Born here, or just arrived?
I’ve called NYC home for over 25 years, but I was born in Connecticut. My dad was in the Navy and my mom was studying to be a doctor. When I was a kid we’d would take family trips to the city all the time — that’s how my love for the city began. My dad later got transferred to Norfolk, Virginia so I wouldn’t make it back up to the city until my teens, when I went with a friend’s punk rock band who had a gig in the basement of an East Village club called The Spiral. Back then the East Village was still a thriving art and music mecca. It was the second time I fell madly in love with the city. I have lived in Ridgewood, Williamsburg, Bushwick, Bed Stuy, Washington Heights and eventually landed in Hell’s Kitchen in 2012.
What was your first job? What do you do now?
My original intent was to make it as a working rock ‘n’ roll guitar player, and aside from playing shows I had a million different gigs, ranging from doorman, mover, messenger to stagehand in support of that life. The East Village was so much different back then. It was possible to string together those kinds of gigs and live. But my first “adult” job here was as a web/graphic designer for a start-up back in the old dot com days. It really was just an endless party that took me years to recover from. Once the smoke had cleared and I started to recover from that wreckage, I landed a job at Parson’s The New School assisting students in the computer labs. I quickly discovered that helping others brought about an authentic sense of fulfillment and purpose. It was also during my time there I gained invaluable experience on how to set up and troubleshoot a variety of technical audio visual equipment. While my focus at the time was still music and design, it was where my love for photography and cinematography was born. I am currently a freelance photographer.
What’s your favorite New York minute (or moment) so far?
There are so many, but perhaps the absolute most favorite is the birth of my son. Close second is the opening gala reception for my gallery and book launch at VIA 57 West. Working from a helicopter shooting over Midtown and being able to share every single one of those moments with my son. Recently, Yi Li, one of the designers who worked on the design team of VIA 57 West randomly reached out to me after seeing one of my images of the building. She wanted to surprise her partner Jaan, now fiancé, with a wedding proposal with some of her closest friends and family on my terrace. It was such a pure and beautiful moment, I was truly honored to be a part of it.
Share with us why you love Hell’s Kitchen
I have been a Hell’s Kitchen resident since the start of 2012. So many parts of it still feel like the old NYC, like the old Network Entertainment sign and the “Sin will find you out” sign on 51st. I used to sit on my stoop and watch the carriage horses come back from work. Hudson River Park, the greenway, the Intrepid. Riding bikes with my son on the greenway to Pier 62 Skatepark or Andy Kessler Skatepark. Walking my dogs in Clinton Cove or Riverside Park south. I’ve been lucky enough to live right on the Hudson for the past seven years so I’ve witnessed the most incredible breathtaking sunsets daily. Of course its proximity to everything, restaurants by default. Walking home from an amazing show at Roseland before it closed. Stopping at a diner before going home. So many spots to just sit and take in the city. What hasn’t been said about this amazing neighborhood? I absolutely love living here
What’s your superpower or hidden talent?
I don’t know if it’s a superpower, but I have bounced back from several life-changing tragedies. I was hit by a truck on 9th Ave and 46th when I was on my skateboard in the bike lane. I was in the hospital for three months and recovering for three years while they tried to save my leg. I held out hope that my leg could be saved, but at the end of it all they had to amputate my right leg below the knee. To this day I am still learning how to live with it. If I allow myself to think about it for too long it can get kinda dark, like maybe I’ve been alive too long. Ha! But when I really think about it, I’ve done more living as an amputee than I did when I had my two birth legs intact. Most of the time I am grateful to be alive today.
What else should we know about you?
The hardest bottom of the barrel experiences have given birth to some of the most beautiful chapters in my life. I live with the knowledge of that gratitude daily. I love photography and cinematography. I love creating imagery. I shoot sunsets daily. I continue to work on the second edition of my coffee table book, available later in 2023. I still play guitar. I continue to compose music, practice and play guitar daily. While my ability to skateboard has quite possibly been permanently impaired, we have yet to see for sure, skateboarding is still a great passion of mine. You can still sometimes find me documenting the local rippers at a west side skatepark. Dogs are family.
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Nelson’s Favorite Hell’s Kitchen Places
VIA 57 West — 625 W 57th Street (bw 11th/12th Ave)
Is it possible to be in love with a building? My son used to have baseball practice at DeWitt Clinton Park and over the course of that season in 2015 and in 2016 we watched the building come up. One afternoon my son said to me, “how cool would it be to live there!?” I moved there in October 2016. Aside from obviously being an insanely visually stunning work of architecture, I have loved every waking moment and every sunset living here…my neighbors, the staff. All top notch. My current apartment is the physical manifestation of every dream apartment I’d ever imaged living in my whole life. The sunsets over the Hudson are amazing. Hudson river sunsets effect my soul so deeply and profoundly. I have also been blessed with the opportunity to work with the ownership and building management and have a dedicated gallery of my photography here.
Clinton Cove, Hudson River Park, Private Passage — Hudson River Greenway
I think a lot of locals just refer to it as the Giant Bottle Park by Pier 96. I’m talking about the Malcolm Cochran sculpture of course. The giant wine bottle. It’s a really peaceful place to hang out and watch the sunset. Just lots of happy memories of chill days there, hanging out with my son and dogs.
Like a lot of NYC’s historic live venues it’s unfortunately gone now, but I have some amazing memories of shows I’ve seen there. Just the experience of walking home from a show through Hell’s Kitchen and stopping off at a diner.
DeWitt Clinton Park — 11th Avenue & W54th Street
My son used to have little league practice and games there. My dogs love it. We used to see Trevor Noah around there all the time and get our Christmas trees there.
Sacco Pizza — 819 9th Avenue (bw W54/55th St)
The best NYC style slices and meatball hero subs. There have been so many occasions when it was the default choice for lunch dinner. A Hell’s Kitchen staple.
Burrito Box — 885 9th Avenue (bw W57/58th St)
Probably the best kept secret — closest to Cali Mex in Hell’s Kitchen.
Pupculture — 645 W57th Street (bw 11th/12th Ave)
My dogs love it there. I have to give them a shout out. They take such wonderful care of my dogs. Recently I have had issues with my prosthetic and have not been able to walk my dogs myself. My dogs love all their Pup Culture W57 walkers. The staff takes the time out to celebrate my dogs’ anniversaries. They always come back from grooming and daycare so happy. But what really sets this place apart is the level of care and attention they give to each and every dog. The staff truly love what they do, and it shows in the way they interact with the dogs in their care.
The Greenway Hudson River Park/ The Intrepid/ Riverside Park South
Just so many great and happy memories of riding bikes with my son on the Hudson River Park Greenway down to Pier 62 Skatepark or up to Andy Kessler Skatepark at 108th. Hanging out at the Intrepid with my son. Taking our dogs to Pier 84 dog run.
Anything else you’d like to tell us?
Thank you W42ST and Phil for being such great supporters of my work. So glad you made it back Phil!
You can follow Nelson on Instagram @nelphotomedianyc. If you know someone who would make a great West Side Story (or you would like to nominate yourself) please fill in this form — w42st.info/WSSnominations
You can check out more West Side Stories and reader recommendations on W42ST’s Hell’s Kitchen Local App.