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Danny Lyon, "Washington Street. View north from Chambers Street" (1967) (© Danny Lyon/Magnum Photos)

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MADRID — Over the course of 1967, Danny Lyon meticulously chronicled the large-scale demolition project taking place in his backyard, as his one-hundred-year-old neighborhood was razed to make way for New York’s transformation into a global financial center. Taken as a whole, his project wicks traces of the contemporaneous urban renewal debate that raged between community-based activism (Jane Jacobs) and top-down planning (Robert Moses). Simultaneously, each of the exhibit’s 76 black-and-white photographs offer a more nuanced and human perspective — one that is often paved over by history books.

USA, New York, 1967. A burner is lifted to cut the bolts in the cast-iron front of 82 Beeckman Street. The cast-iron is then smashed to pieces with a sledgehammer.

Taking stock of the historical loss, the first section catalogues TriBeCa’s iconic cast-iron facades. Nineteenth-century structures near the Brooklyn Bridge, Washington Market, and West Street are rendered as probing portraits of their former inhabitants, whose traces linger on inside the empty apartment interiors. These photographs are as much documents of the spaces that were abandoned at the behest of expropriation as they are an elegy to the lives that former inhabitants lived inside of them.

Gradually, the emphasis shifts towards labor, with intimate portraits of the demolition crew — their subjects occasionally framed by Playboy images hung in lockers. Nearby, wide-frame shots image workers dismantling the buildings by hand, literally brick-by-brick. Although these men are labeled “Housewreckers” in the wall text, the photographer reveals a paradoxical sense of awe evoked by the enormity of such an enterprise. Debates about urban renewal tend to assess what has been lost in order to evaluate what has been gained; by focusing instead on the physical process of destruction, Lyon bypasses the rationalist logic used by planners, bringing the immediate human toll of urban upheaval into the fold.       

Danny Lyon: The Destruction of Lower Manhattan continues through January 17, 2021 at Museo ICO (C / Zorrilla, 3 – 28014 Madrid, Spain), as part of PHotoESPAÑA 2020. The exhibition is curated byDanny Lyon.

Hannah Feniak

Hannah Feniak is a Madrid-based writer, researcher and educator interested in architecture, building materials, and cities. She is an editorial contributor at Architizer and a PhD candidate at the Institute of Fine Arts.