A few years ago, my husband and I went apartment-hunting in Uptown Manhattan (Inwood and Washington Heights). At first, I was mainly interested in the apartments until my husband, a New York City native, insisted on seeing the basements as one can judge the quality of a building from its basement. What I encountered was truly amazing. Over the course of two years, starting in early 2011, I photographed how superintendents decorate the basements of apartment buildings in Inwood and Washington Heights by illuminating the process of migrant adaptation to the metropolis from an intimate perspective.
In many ways, basements are special sanctuaries for supers and their families. Supers often live in basements that are hidden from the public and from visitors, which creates a form of privacy. However, the basement is also a space of work for supers and their environment is on display for the residents of the building. Under these circumstances, the supers’ decorations function as a territorial claim over the basement’s semi-public/private space.
Most of the supers in Northern Manhattan are migrants from Latin America or the Caribbean, and images from their home countries might connect their new home to a past they have left behind. This can be especially important given the grueling nature of their work and the difficulty of establishing themselves in NYC.
When photographing the basements I was interested in what decoration I would encounter, how the supers would curate the space using found objects (in fact, most of the objects were discarded by tenants) and what references I would find to each super’s culture and/or dreamscape. The images encourage viewers to think in new ways about how space functions in NYC apartment buildings and broaden our understanding of the relationship among migration, semi-public/private space, and the everyday landscape.
The project has been initially supported with grants form the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance (NoMAA) and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC).
Basement Sanctuaries will be published by Schilt Publishing in the Spring of 2014. As an additional element for the book I have also photographed and interviewed the supers to present their personal stories.