The intersection of East 125th Street and Lexington Avenue is not picturesque Harlem. It is not the Harlem where tourists go to get their picture taken. It is not the Harlem where neighbors put out their chairs on the sidewalk and talk with each other. The intersection is where the old-style ghetto lingers on, where people who are not doing well come together. I document urban places across America where mostly poor strangers cross paths, but none is as complex as this intersection in New York.
Among the crowds are ordinary working people shopping at the Pathmark, as well as down-and-out “canners” bringing their cans and bottles to the recycling station on East 124th Street. Some are recently released hospital patients, plastic I.D. bracelets still on their wrists. Others are navigating their way slowly with the help of wheelchairs, walkers, and crutches. A few carry on intense conversations with themselves. This corner of New York is particularly attractive to street evangelists, who readily find people in need of salvation.
This intersection is a focal point of the underground economy, a place where it is possible to buy methadone, crack cocaine, pills of all sorts, and even a “clean” urine sample. Street vendors sell “loosies”—single cigarettes—and porno DVDs, as well the Daily News and the New York Post. African women hand out cards advertising hair-braiding salons; and sandwich men walk by adorned with billboards touting nearby shops that buy gold.
The intersection is a busy transportation hub. Homeless men wait for the M35 bus to take them to Ward’s Island, New York City’s largest shelter, and college students and tourists catch the M60 bus to La Guardia Airport. Beneath the street is a station for the 4, 5, and 6 IRT subway lines, which link the poorest communities of the South Bronx with the richest neighborhoods of the Upper East Side.
Hogarth and Daumier would have loved this intersection: grim but very entertaining, the best free theater in New York City. Corner regulars tell me about the hustles they’ve witnessed, such as the wheelchair-bound man who suddenly stood up and started running from the police, wheelchair under his arm. I have seen Japanese tourists in casual conversation with one another, oblivious to the drug deal going on next to them. Once I saw a street preacher instantly change his sermon when a recycling truck pulled up next to him: He began telling those around him that their souls were garbage and needed recycling—otherwise they were going to hell. The driver of the truck heard this and laughed loudly.
Click here to view a slide show about the intersection of East 125th Street and Lexington Avenue.