Volume 78 - Number 39 / March 4 -10, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Villager photo by John Penley

Squatters facing off with “the tank” on E. 13th St. during the squatter evictions in the mid-1990s. Police peer over the tank with a small periscope. This photo was one of late Villager editor in chief Tom Butson’s favorites; a framed print of it hung on the wall above his desk.

Villager file photo

John Penley in Tompkins Square Park before last summer’s rock concert commemorating the 20th anniversary of the park riots.

Riots to Rakowitz, former photog leaves it to N.Y.U. 

By Lincoln Anderson

Planning to relocate from the East Village and New York City, activist John Penley recently left his voluminous photo archives to New York University’s Tamiment Library.

Penley, who used to photograph for the New York Post as well as The Villager, started shooting photos in the 1980s and continued until the late 1990s, at which point he admitted to being burned out on the profession. During his time shooting, he amassed a wide-ranging collection of images.

“My whole archives, 30,000 or 40,000 negatives, are at N.Y.U.,” Penley said. “Everything from ‘the tank’ on 13th St., Rakowitz, Father Pat, every riot. There’s a big amount of Margarita Lopez and the conflict at Community Board 3. I even have one of Margarita Lopez in handcuffs when she was arrested at the riot at Cooper Union,” he said, referring to the former East Village councilmember and the battle over whether a building called the “Glass Factory” — which had been occupied by squatters — should become H.I.V./AIDS housing.

“Rakowitz” is Daniel Rakowitz, a Satanist who was accused of killing his girlfriend and feeding her, as soup, to the Tompkins Square homeless in 1989.

As for the tank, Penley said, “They were using ‘the tank’ to get to the squat’s front door, so that they’d be protected if people threw stuff down on them. There were five buildings — all their doors were welded shut. There’s a poster of Mumia Abu-Jamal in that shot, too.

“Everything I shot for The Villager is in there,” Penley said of his archives, “ACT UP!, Wigstock — probably a few hundred photos that were published in The Villager: A lot of fires — including one I think was great, of a fireman being rescued from a burning building on Fourth between B and C.

“I retain the rights, and after I’m dead, they get the rights,” he added of the Tamiment Library.

Penley noted he probably would have moved into a run-down squatter building himself and helped fix it up along with other squatters back in the 1980s were it not for the fact that he was just too busy as a press photographer.

“You name it, I photographed it,” he said. “I was working full time as a photojournalist, and when I wasn’t working, I was just walking around taking photos of stuff I was interested in.”

Penley initially planned to move to Erie, Pa., but now hopes to relocate less far away, just to Newark, N.J., which will allow him to visit New York City whenever he wants. His departure has been delayed as he continues to work on archiving his photo collection with Dr. Michael Nash, head of the Tamiment Library.

This week Penley was organizing a fundraiser with Bob Fass of WBAI to help Penley move to Newark with Aron Kay (“The Yippie Pie Man”), who has been crashing at the Yippie Cafe at 9 Bleecker St.

However, on Tuesday, Penley reported things might be delayed again: The Yippie Pie Man has gotten so comfortable at the cafe that he doesn’t want to leave, and is reacting badly to the idea. With no pies handy, he found something else to toss.

“He threw a fire extinguisher,” Penley said.

“I really like Erie, but I’m a community organizer,” Penley said. “I think Newark is going to be ground zero for some changes that are going to be coming down. And it will take me a year or two to work on the archives, to put all the photos in protective sleeves. It’s extremely tedious and hard work.

“I have to go through each strip and piece and identify what the event is and who are the people. … I have Ed Koch being attacked by ACT UP!, the Keith Haring memorial photo. Lots of Save the Robots after-hours photos — he wouldn’t let anyone shoot in there but me. Lots of photos of all the ‘Tent City’ guys. I got Hilly Kristal being raided by cops — Dean Johnson was having a party over there; Dean’s parties were always being raided by cops…more for sex than anything else. I got Bill Kunstler reading a letter from Mumia Abu-Jamal at the Palladium, which is now an N.Y.U. dorm. I got Henry Stern getting a ‘Tompkins Square Is Everywhere’ T-shirt. My favorite was Timothy Leary at Collective:Unconscious. … I forgot a lot of this stuff, but it’s now all flooding back. It’s hard.”

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