Photog’s blog lets park ‘crusties’ tell their own stories
By Lincoln Anderson
In his new blog, “Crusty Punks,” on Tompkins Square Park’s homeless youth, longtime East Villager Steven Hirsch documents a subculture that is very much in the public eye, but which most people might shy away from, even shun.
In what is undoubtedly the most in-depth look at the “crusties” to date, Hirsch has currently photographed more than 80 of them, while letting them tell their own stories in their own words, Studs Terkel style.
A photographer for the New York Post based down at the courts, Hirsch’s first blog, “Courthouse Confessions,” done in the same style, earned critical praise for its profiles of defendants leaving court and giving accounts of their arrests. “Courthouse Confessions” includes everything from armed robbers to an Ivanka Trump stalker to a photographer busted for walking through Washington Square after the curfew.
Hirsch found he enjoyed the medium of blogging, liking the ease of posting, as well as the wide readership that blogs get — far more visits than a gallery show, he noted.
After more than 140 posts, though, he was tiring of “Courthouse Confessions” and searching for a new project. He decided to try documenting the crusties.
“I’ve always wanted to shoot the kids in the park,” he said. “After I did ‘Courthouse Confessions,’ it seemed like an interesting project to do next.”
In late May, on a visit to the park, Hirsch approached a crusty punk and asked him if he’d let him take his photo and record his story. He agreed, and then introduced Hirsch to some of his friends. Hirsch photographed about 10 crusties that first weekend, and the project was underway.
He’s particularly interested in documenting the “travelers,” a segment of the crusty punks who ride freight trains and roam around the country, splitting their time between places like New Orleans and Portland, Oregon, as well as Tompkins Square. They can be identified by the bandannas around their necks, which they use to cover their faces when they’re on the trains, and their patched-up clothes.
May was the ideal time to start the “Crusty Punks” blog, since it’s when the travelers start filling “Crusty Row,” a section of benches in Tompkins Square’s southwest corner. “Crusties” is the name they like to use for themselves.
“The train-hopper types are akin to the hobos of the 1930s and ’40s,” Hirsch said, “seeing the sights and the wind in their hair — with the twist that they’re into punk and punk rock.
“They party hearty in June and July, and by August, they’re starting to move on, go down south. They’re almost like migratory birds — they can feel it getting colder in the air.
“These are kids who are totally dedicated to what they’re doing — which is being free, traveling and, in their mind, not working. They’re nontraditionalists.”
As he documented more crusties, Hirsch increasingly built up a level of trust among them. “He’s cool,” punks that knew him would vouch, if someone was suspicious of Hirsch and his camera.
“They like being photographed,” Hirsch said. “They like talking to me. In many ways, some of them see me as a father figure. I was treated with a lot of respect, I have to say.”
Hirsch, who feels an affinity for the crusties as an admitted “’60s hippie and fellow traveler,” fondly recalls his own journeys across America and Europe in his youth and the sense of freedom those wanderings fulfilled. Except, instead of hopping freight trains, he drove a VW Bug and rode a BMW motorcycle.
A former fashion photographer, he came to appreciate the crusty travelers’ style.
“As a photographer, I find them incredibly interesting,” he said. “Once you start understanding their sense of fashion and design, they look really cool. There’s order in their disorder. They sew their clothes and patches together with dental floss — it’s really strong. They’re not looking to hide the threads.
“They all have dogs,” Hirsch added. “Everyone has a dog — or wants a dog.”
Hirsch, who stresses he’s a photographer, not a writer, lets the crusties tell their own stories without adding any commentary of his own. Each post is highlighted by a pull quote that gives the flavor of the profile, like, “I still have all my teeth” (the morning after a fight), “Success is bulls---” and “I’m a hitchhiker, not a hooker.”
The travelers talk about how dangerous it is to ride the trains, how the bulls — railroad security guards — are always after them. One woman confesses to having slept with dealers to support her habit. They talk about their substance preferences: “I swirl beer,” says one punk. Crazy experiences on the road is a common theme, as in one man’s brush with an apparent psycho killer. Rapes occur, or are narrowly avoided. There’s the daily monotony of “spanging” — panhandling — for change. Some voice disdain at the thought of becoming a “home bum,” basically, a middle-aged or older homeless person who stays in one place. There’s frequent anti-consumerist sentiment. Fights and violence are commonplace. One crusty describes how it feels to be Tasered. Another details the art of dumpster diving. Two women say they’re ready to clean up their acts, one because she just had a baby, the other because she’s pregnant. One traveler sadly relates how everyone in his family is an addict.
“They’re telling very, very intense things, about personal stories,” Hirsch said. “I think there’s a lot of hurt. I think there’s a lot of storytelling about a lot of pain. That’s why I do this. These are people that nobody in the straight world would have any contact with or want to deal with. These are basically homeless kids. They don’t choose to be homeless — they are.”
Hirsch’s presence has been an inspiration to at least one of the crusty travelers — renewing the interest of Myke, 28, in taking photos.
“I was already into photography,” Myke said. “Seeing him taking pictures and everything, his blog and stuff, it made me want to pursue it some more.”
He says he now wants to earn some money so he can get a top-quality camera, like Hirsch’s.
“Right now, I’ve kind of messed up my lens,” he noted. He said he’d like to start a Web site, eventually open a gallery.
Myke said he appreciates Hirsch’s technique and sensitive approach on the blog.
“The photo he has of me looking up — it’s kind of how I see myself. What it captures — it’s my sexiness,” he said with a laugh. “And the writing is awesome. It’s our words, nothing is changed; he just puts them out there for everybody. It’s who we are — but it’s not exploitation.
“When people see it, they don’t say, ‘That lazy piece of s--- lying on the street.’ We just want to get by a little easier — but we get by,” Myke said. “People reading it will be like, ‘Wow, these are real people. We got a chance to meet them — without actually meeting them.’”
Myke, who is one of the few black crusties, has been traveling for 15 years now. Asked if he planned to stop anytime soon, he said no.
“The music scene and the trains — I have an addiction to metal and trains,” he said. “I’m not ready to stop riding trains.”
As for drug use and drinking among the punks, Hirsch said it’s not what he wants to focus on, feeling that it’s a story that’s already been told. He does acknowledge that, for some of its denizens, there’s a “dark side” to Crusty Row.
“Why do people do drugs?” he asked. “It’s really to dull the pain, whatever it might be. Why is there more drug use among the crusties and travelers? It’s because a lot of them come from broken homes. I mean, why do we have such a drug problem in this country? Let’s face it — most of the drug addicts in this country don’t live in Tompkins Square Park.”
As well as sympathizing with the crusties, Hirsch ardently opposes gentrification.
“My opinion — the grungier, the better,” he said. “I don’t want the neighborhood to be yuppiefied like Carroll Gardens. When the place is like a movie set, where it’s so pristine, so sterile — it makes me want to puke.
“I’m an old-timer. People like me, we like this,” he said. “The park is funky. The park is cool. Does it offend yuppies? Maybe. I don’t know, I don’t care. They offend me. They caused rents to go up here to $2,500 or $3,000.”
Hirsch continues to add to his “Crusty Punks” blog, regularly posting new photos and profiles. In the end, the blog offers a window into a little-understood subculture, humanizing a group that many would choose to otherwise ignore or avoid.
“My opinion of them changed during the project,” he said. “I have a lot more respect for them. They have a lot to say, a lot of strength in their belief and doing what they do.
“They really show the humanity everybody has,” he said. “A lot of them are troubled, and that’s indicative of many people in society. In many ways, we can see a reflection of ourselves in them — though many people wouldn’t say that.”
Hirsch’s blog is at crustypunks.blogspot.com .