As a young photographer, Danny Lyon found himself living below Canal Street in the middle of massive “urban renewal”: the razing of some 60 acres of 19th-century buildings. His resulting book, The Destruction of Lower Manhattan (1969), has just been reissued by Powerhouse Books, and an exhibition of his photographs runs through September 18 at the Museum of the City of New York. The following are excerpts from a conversation with Lyon that took place in late June:
I seem to have started in the year 1966. If you look at the contact sheets, you’ll see pages of pictures of the Lower East Side, then there’ll be buildings, then subways. That’s typically how I got into the subject. You don’t know if you’re going to do these things. At some point, you wake up.
It was a huge story in New York City at the time. (I’m from Queens, and when you’re from Queens, you really admire Manhattan . . . and this was the most historic part of Manhattan. The oldest part of Manhattan was vanishing.) And it was an ignored story at the time, or I wouldn’t have done it. Part of how I saw myself, as a journalist, was finding the truth and delivering it to the American people. To put it in a really crude way.
I had a topo map of Lower Manhattan. It was so detailed that it had the block, and each building was designated. So Beekman Street would be, like, two inches long, and you’d see a line for every single building. I would follow this map and could shade it out when something was obliterated. ‘Cause these lines were replaced with brick dust. . . .
You have to understand that I was—and still am, although I’ve aged and mellowed— I was obsessed with the power of photography. I thought you could take a bike rider, Harley-Davidson, roaring along, and that this photography was so miraculous that you could somehow contain that power in
the negative. Unlike this guy who would go around the corner and die, or run out of gas, that the thing that you contained would be for all time. . . .
I had the power to use all of these buildings and preserve them for the future. And if anybody wanted to experience [the] Lower Manhattan that had stood there for 150 years, they would have to come to my photographs! Which would be washed and preserved and in the New York Public Library. . . .
I went out and purchased a small view camera, four by five inches, about which I knew nothing. A lot of those buildings had been condemned and were owned by the city. There was a key: an identical lock on all these buildings. They all had the same lock. And what those [maintenance] guys did for me is, they got me a copy of the key. That permitted me to get into any building on any block in vast areas of Manhattan. Once you got inside any building, you could go up on the roof, up through the skylight; you could then walk across the roofs and go down through the skylight into the next building. . . . And I remember going through someone’s loft and realizing it was still occupied. And I remember
my heart pumping, and thinking, “I’m in somebody’s place: There’s their clothing and there’s their stuff. This is like being a burglar. . . . ”
The interiors fascinated me, and the light in the interiors was perfect. It was natural light, and there was tons of it. [It] was really dangerous work. Because the buildings were falling apart; you weren’t allowed in them. I worked on weekends to avoid the demolition men. I wanted it [quiet]. So, Sunday morning was prime time for me. But had I fallen through a staircase, fallen and injured myself, no one would have found me till Monday. The demolished buildings were really dangerous. Staircases were hanging, half demolished. . . .
I understood that the way to deliver photography as news was to do books. That’s what I think the news should be: an individual’s statement about how he sees reality. Or as Ferlinghetti says, “The dog trots freely in the street and sees reality. . . . ”
The book’s about architecture. This country’s committing architectural suicide. It’s doing it right now, this moment. Not 37, 38 years ago. This is nothing, what they did down here: The 60 acres is nothing. We’re destroying 6 billion acres of America, and we’re doing it right now. We’re doing it because you can get a mortgage for 5 percent.
Anybody can do anything anywhere.