In the mid-1970s, Rich Allen began taking pictures of children playing truant and messing about in the empty lot a New York City’s 76 E. 3rd St. The Hell’s Angels lived directly across the street. They wanted the lot for themselves. (You can read more about that here.) One of the children in many of pictures was Fernando Madrid. This is his story told in Richard’s words and through his superb photographs of life in the East Village in the mid to late 1970s. It’s a story that moved me beyond reason. I hope you like it – and do read to the end.
In the spring of 1975, I received a CAPS film fellowship, writes Rich Allen. The film I made in 1970 finally paid off. I left my bike messenger job at Cosmic after 4 years… sorry I recently threw coffee at dispatcher Steve. At first I tried to put together another short comedy film, but I was so deep into still photography it was difficult to cross back over to movies. For some time I’d been taking pictures of the kids in the neighborhood. The Greek kids, John, his brother George, their friends Johnoco, Nico, and sisters Dona and Christina, were all from wonderful and loving families.
East 3rd St. was a diverse neighborhood; Puerto Ricans, but also Black, East Indian and other cultures. The kids and I would congregate in the empty lot at 76 E. 3rd and take pictures. They sometimes borrowed an old camera of mine and took pictures of themselves climbing the back wall or building a fire in an ash can. The Greek kids and their other friends Andre and Nick always called me “Kent” – I’m still not sure why, but think it might have something to do with “mild- mannered reporter.” The Puerto Rican kids called me “Scorpio.” To the Blacks I was “Rigid.” And to everyone I was also “Picture Man” – “Hey Picture Man, take me a picture,” they’d yell.
The boy I had been following in particular was Fernando Madrid, one of Lydia Madrid’s six kids. Fernando played hooky a lot; I’d see him. I began working on a photographic essay called Hooky. There were also his half-brothers Orlando and Estebe, his sisters Juanita and Maria, Daisy and other family members at 74 E. 3rd St.
After a failed attempt to mount a production of the short film script I was developing, using professional actors (I was sup- posed to make a film with the grant money), I decided to change my plans and make a film about Fernando and Orlando playing hooky. It was soon summer when every day was like playing hooky to them. I began to just follow them around with a wind-up movie 16mm camera, not directing or asking them to pose much, but watching and recording them moving through the environment like little fry learning to swim in the stream.
You can buy prints of Rich Allen’s wonderful pictures exclusively in the Flashbak Shop.
Often Jeffery, a 3rd St. friend, came along. They walked the whole Lower East Side, or across town to the West Village to an outdoor free pool. Then, across the Williamsburg Bridge to Brooklyn. Soon they were hopping the subway. They’d ride for a while, then… get off. Once they got off in Chinatown. It was like coming out on the other side of the world!
From there they walked down Broadway’s canyon, past Wall Street, out to where lower Manhattan and Battery Park overlooked the bay and the Statue of Liberty. Until he crossed the East River, the most water Fernando had ever seen was in a bath tub. But here he looks out at this great saltwater bay, and he turns to me and says, “How’d they get all the water in here?”
That summer I decided to add a narrative to the film, and scripted out a scene where the kids lift a gun from a policeman and he chases them around the Statue of Liberty. I wanted to touch on ideas of freedom and apply concepts of the pedagogy of A.S. Neil 7 who ran Summerhill School in the UK, or Homer Lane, who created a self-regulating school called Little Commonwealth in Detroit around 1900. We shot the scene over two days, a week apart. Lazaro Perez, an actor from the Actors Studio I knew, played a policeman. He kept trying to pick up girls during the down time. I didn’t have a crew. The camera wasn’t working well and wouldn’t “stop down,” so a lot of film became over-exposed. The kids got lost at one point. But we filmed it.
Soon after this I was asked to go to Spring Valley High School to run a workshop with some kids in the film class there. So I took this overexposed footage with me, thinking I’d explain to a dozen film students how hard it was, and how fallible I could be, too. Unfortunately when I got there they had the entire school of a thousand or so students in the auditorium to watch the finished film for which I’d won the grant! On that finished film I had real actors, a cameraman. I could have rocked them! But I had only this bad raw footage to show. Afterwards, I had to explain on stage how I hoped to get only 4 or 5 minutes out of the 30-minute reel. The audience was whispering and the principal wasn’t impressed. I felt two feet shorter than Paul Simon, and minus his talent.
A lot of film and pictures were taken in the old vest-pocket park at 76 East 3rd St. It’s basically become an empty lot since the city can’t maintain a park.
Suddenly I had a new neighbor move on my floor next door. Joey C. leaves the TV on all night. The National Anthem is followed by static at 2AM. I’d bang on the wall and yell until he wakes and turns it off. He’d stop a night, then back to the old routine. One day there’s a knock on my door. It’s Joey. He shows me a gun and says he’ll kill me!!… Next day a burly-looking man is at my door: “You make trouble for Joey it won’t go down good for you.”
Fortunately, a room opened in Fernando’s building at 74 3rd St. and I moved in there with the Madrid family on the second floor, me on the fourth. Actually it’s a better place, a nicer view, at about the same cost: $100 per month.
A month or so later, I wake to a knocking on the door at 3AM. A policeman announces: “There’s been a murder here in the building, but everything is under control now, you can go back to sleep.”
A week later I wake up coughing. I go to turn on the lights but they don’t work. I hear noise in the hall, open the door – flames are licking the walls, with smoke so thick I could hardly breathe. I shut the door, and hear the fire trucks; my heart’s racing. I went to the window and fire escape, but the steel gate to keep burglars out was locked shut. I fumbled in the thick smoky darkness for the key. Luckily my fingers lay hold of it. Gasping for air, I unlock the gate. A fireman was making his way up; I looked down and ask, dumbly, “Should I get out?” he replied, “I think it would be a good idea.”
The Wide World
When I left the city I moved back to Rhode Island, where I grew up. But I’d return to NYC to work or visit, and went back to 3rd St. often. Sometimes (with Lydia Madrid’s written permission) Fernando and Orlando would take a bus to Providence to visit for a few days.
One day I went down to 3rd St. and the only one left I knew was Estebe. He told me Fernando had died a year ago. That he’d been in California trying to start a new life but came back to 3rd St. for a visit and got into an argument. They broke it off, but Fernando, being a gentleman, turned and offered to shake hands to end the matter. That’s when he was stabbed, right around the corner from 3rd St. on 1st Avenue, knifed in the gut. He walked away, but col- lapsed between two cars. By the time an ambulance came he was dead. He was a sweet young man and I miss him terribly. His spirit lives in these pictures.
All images copyright Rich Allen – not to be used without permission.
You can buy prints of Rich Allen’s wonderful pictures exclusively in the Flashbak Shop. I you see one you like that’s not there, or you want s card, canvas or framed, please get in touch – at firstname.lastname@example.org, or via the chatbox at the shop.
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