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Marcia Bricker Halperin looked at a striking photo of children posing on a 1970s Hell’s Kitchen stoop, trying to remember their names.
“The other day I was thinking about the kid in the roller skates — I thought his name was Vinny, but he might have just told me it was Vinny because it sounded good. You could be anyone you wanted to be back then!” she laughed.
Halperin, a lifelong New Yorker, has been photographing the characters and landscape of New York for almost 50 years now. Going through her catalog of work for an upcoming book on the city’s historic cafeterias and automats, she took the opportunity during the pandemic to dig deep into her film archives, and ended up “finding people and things I had totally forgotten about.”
Some of the people Halperin rediscovered were the subjects of her series Hell’s Kitchen in the 1970s, completed as a part of the federal government’s Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) — a bipartisan initiative modeled after the Great Depression’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) to employ artists across various public and private community organizations.
Halperin, who grew up in Brooklyn — receiving an MFA from Brooklyn College and studying under Walter Rosenblum and, later, Lisette Model at The New School — was already interested in street photography before working with the project. “My major influences were street photographers like Helen Levitt who walked the streets, photographing kids on stoops. These things were already sitting in my mind before I joined CETA. They matched us with assignments based off of our work from the application process, and they knew that I did stories about people. They had seen my cafeteria work. I also photographed public markets, a lot of Lower East Side things — they knew I shot community things,” she said.
Her projects with CETA on the documentation team gave Halperin unique access into the lives of niche New York communities. “My first CETA project was in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn,” she recalled. “It was when there were quite a few Soviet refugees arriving. There were already many Jewish refugees settled in Brighton Beach — and there were tensions in the neighborhood between the Soviet refugees and the older Jewish residents. My first assignment was to do a slideshow to show the commonalities between the two cultures and have them learn about each other.”
After wrapping the Brighton Beach project, Halperin was assigned to a stint in Hell’s Kitchen, working with the Housing Conservation Coordinators (HCC), a nonprofit tenant advocacy organization dedicated to fighting landlord negligence and aggressive gentrification. “They were wonderful people,” said Halperin, adding that the HCC is still hard at work in Hell’s Kitchen today, and gearing up to celebrate its 50th anniversary of operation.
She was assigned to assist the HCC in documenting building violations ahead of hotly contested housing court cases. “I followed the tenant organizers around rooftops and down staircases and into apartments on 42nd Street and 10th Avenue and all kinds of places throughout Hell’s Kitchen,” said Halperin. “Part of my work was photographing the rent violations and things they could bring to court — showers with mold, holes in walls and doors, vermin — those sorts of things. By day I went out and photographed, and then I would come back home where I had a little studio and developed the film and printed it late at night, to have the rent violation photos ready for housing court the next day. So I’d bring those in, but I would also print some of the portraits of people from the street that I had done.”
While she found the work alongside the HCC fulfilling, “What I was really interested in was photographing people from the neighborhood. And so my photos became more like one picture of a housing violation, and one portrait of a person.” Compelled to stay in Hell’s Kitchen beyond what was required for her assignment, Halperin returned to visit several of the residents on her own and met the kind of personalities that one could only find in the New York of the 1970s.
“I remember meeting this opera singer — I have a copy of his La Scala diploma. He was left sitting in a water-damaged department on West 40 something, sitting there, singing opera to me — he was a very colorful character,” she recalled. “I also used to go to 500 W42nd Street a lot, and I went back a number of times on my own to photograph people who lived in the building. I met one guy whose apartment was decorated like a Playboy Bunny lounge — all black and white and red,” she added. “There were lots of old women, some guy who had rabbits, and all kinds of characters.”
Though Halperin was no stranger to the city and its quirky souls, there was something exhilaratingly dynamic about the rough-around-the-edges Hell’s Kitchen that she felt compelled to explore. “People told me all about the Westies (an Irish-American gang native to the neighborhood), but I think it was that I was a young woman and they were trying to get a rise out of me. But I kind of enjoyed that little tinge of danger,” she said.
“I never wanted to be a photojournalist — I admire people who shoot in warzones and get involved in situations that are really challenging,” she added. “I was a kid from Brooklyn and I was a little fearsome, but here, I could be a little bit of a hero photographer,” she said. “Hell’s Kitchen had this cache of being rough, but I never found that. People were really open, people were great. The kids in the stoop photo looked tough, but they just wanted their picture taken.”
The melting pot of the West Side also struck Halperin as unique to the time. “I grew up in an apartment building in Brooklyn, and it was working-class Italian, Irish, and Jewish kids — but it was a white neighborhood. What struck me when I got to Hell’s Kitchen was that there were all kinds of people speaking different languages, going to the bakery on 9th Avenue, living in these buildings together — and for a documentary photographer who came out of the humanist photography genre, it was great,” she said.
Halperin’s trip down Hell’s Kitchen memory lane has coincided with other Old New York nostalgia — her work on Kibitz and Nosh: When We All Met at Dubrow’s Cafeteria, a photographic retrospective of the city’s cafeteria that will be published next year by Cornell University Press.
She’s also managed to reconnect with some of her CETA cohort, recently reunited at a celebration of the program’s artists held at City Lore. The meeting was bittersweet, said Halperin: “There aren’t a ton of us left. The project was so diverse and across all ages — we originally even had two people who had also been in the WPA project. We also lost a lot of people in the project to AIDS. But there were a few of us that were the younger people in the project who are still kicking.”
The impact of CETA lives on, however, as Halperin emphasized: “None of my connection to Hell’s Kitchen or to the HCC would have happened without the CETA project. And it’s relevant even now — the new Creatives Rebuild New York Project (an artist’s employment program created in the wake of the pandemic) is being modeled on the CETA project.”
Decades later, when she needs to reconnect with the neighborhood, Halperin finds herself wandering back to the block where it all started. “I’ve tried to find the stoop, the boys on the stoop. I’ve walked 47th Street back and forth, but I couldn’t find the building,” she said. “I walk the streets looking for the remnants of 1978.”
More of Marcia Bricker Halperin’s photography can be seen at marciabricker.com. If you recognize any of the people featured in the photos, please comment below.