Volume 81, Number 11 | August 11 - 17, 2011
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Photos by Arlene Gottfried

Poet Miguel Algarin eulogizing Ritchie Cruz, a congero, at the Ortiz funeral home on Second Ave.

Lens on Loisaida and poet Pinero in new photo book

By Lincoln Anderson

With arresting portraits of people, events and a very different cityscape than today’s, Arlene Gottfried’s new photography book captures the vibrant life of 1970s- and ’80s-era Loisaida.

A former freelance photographer for the New York Times Magazine, LIFE, Fortune and Newsweek, Gottfried lives in Westbeth in the West Village. Living in the East 20s about 20 years ago and seeing gentrification fast encroaching, she put her name on the waiting list for the affordable artists’ housing complex, and got in seven years ago.

It was growing up in ethnically mixed Coney Island where her interest in Puerto Rican culture first blossomed.

“It’s very passionate,” she said. “It was always a lot of fun. And there was a lot of heartbreak.”

Her family eventually moved to Avenue A in the East Village.

She didn’t want to go to college, since she never liked sitting in a classroom and listening to lectures.

“I hated school,” she said. “You know, a lot of creative types don’t like school.”

But she discovered an interest in photography, studied it at F.I.T., and eventually went on to become a staff photographer for an ad agency.

Her new book paints an evocative picture of “Alphabet City,” the East Village of 30 and 40 years ago, back in the age of tube socks and tight gym shorts, disco and Menudo, the neighborhood’s abandonment by landlords and everyday arson.

The book’s images run the gamut from intimate scenes of domestic life, like birthday parties and family gatherings that Gottfried was invited indoors to shoot; to street scenes, like communion processions, locals hanging out on stoops and kids cavorting in fire hydrants; to riveting scenes, like a one-handed musician playing the congas with a drumstick strapped to his arm, or a man’s face illuminated in the orange glow of his heroin works, a syringe gripped in his teeth, focused on his fix. “Killer” is Gottfried’s sole caption for, and commentary on, this last photo.

There are also joyous photos here of the Puerto Rican Day Parade and lovers kissing in Tompkins Square Park. Also in the park, Gottfried captured poet Jorge Brandon (“El Coco Que Habla” — “The Talking Coconut”) posing in a military jacket and clutching a board.

There are a series of portraits of another renowned Lower East Side poet, Miguel Pinero, with whom Gottfried was close. These are sandwiched around a two-page spread featuring Pinero’s iconic love song to his community, “A Lower East Side Poem,” with the refrain asking that his ashes be scattered through the neighborhood when he dies.

Tragically, the talented Nuyorican Poets Cafe co-founder died too young, at age 41, in 1988 — and as he had requested, his ashes were scattered throughout the Lower East Side.

“I thought he was a genius,” Gottfried said. “Talk about someone not going to school for learning how to write. His skill was tapped in prison — that’s where he learned to write.”

Pinero also acted in and wrote for TV and movies.

“He was in ‘Miami Vice’ and ‘Baretta’,” Gottfried recalled. “He was in the movie ‘Fort Apache.’ He would write realistic dialogue — they would wire him. He was the real thing.”

Gottfried’s nickname for him was “Miky” (pronounced “Mikey”).

In one of photo, Gottfried is shown hugging Pinero. Asked if their relationship went beyond friendship, she said, “I think we were really close. But you can’t have a relationship with someone with that kind of lifestyle.”

She didn’t say as much in words, but indicated that drug use by Pinero was a factor.

There’s also poetry behind the book’s title, “Bacalaitos & Fireworks.”

“It was a July Fourth. It was at Avenue B and Third St. outside the Nuyorican Poets Cafe,” Gottfried recalled. “A vendor was yelling, ‘Bacalaitos and fireworks!’ Bacalaitos are like cuchifrito fritters, fried cod fish. And it was back when you could still buy fireworks on the street. The poetry of it stayed in my mind — bacalaitos for the island [of Puerto Rico], fireworks for the Fourth of July.”

Things have changed a lot since those days, and not all for the better, in Gottfried’s view. It used to be easier to enjoy events and a sense of community in New York.

“You would just go,” she said. “It didn’t cost a lot. It was easy to be with people then. It’s so different today, and you don’t have the mix of people. New York is becoming so homogenized. The East Village — it’s like N.Y.U., all dorms.”

Gottried has put out three previous books of her photography. Her first, “Eternal Light,” documents an East Harlem gospel choir, which she eventually joined herself as the choir’s only white member.

“It was one of the best experiences of my life,” said Gottfried, who also goes by “The Singing Photographer.”

Her second book, “Midnight,” profiles a Puerto Rican man she met at Nuyorican Poets Cafe, tracking his life over 20 years, including his descent into schizophrenia.

Her third photo book’s title, “Something Overwhelming,” came to her as she tried to find words to describe its eclectic mix, ranging from a shot of a nudist posing next to a fully garbed Orthodox Jew on Brighton Beach to uncensored action in disco bathrooms.

Her brother is also talented and creative, the comic Gilbert Gottfried.

“He’s younger than I am — but he’s my big brother,” she said. Asked her thoughts of his work, she said, “He’s genius comedian.”

How did one family produce so much talent? Was it nature or nurture?

“I think genetics,” she said, “and the environment does what it does.”

For Arlene Gottfried, connecting with the environment of Loisaida did something special, and “Bacalaitos & Fireworks” is the result.

“Bacalaitos & Fireworks,” photographs by Arlene Gottfried (powerHouse Books, $39.95). Call the photographer at 212-260-2599 or e-mail her at arlenegottfried@earthlink.net to get a signed copy of the book.

Clockwise from top left: A young Menudo fan in Tompkins Square Park; poet and playwright Miguel Pinero and photographer Arlene Gottfried in the Bronx at the filming of the movie “Fort Apache,” in which Pinero, shown in costume, had a role — the photo was taken with a timer; a young boy elevates on a trampoline at a Lower East Side block party; a girl on Halloween costumed as Snow White.

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