Park Bench People


By Pablo Herrera

Park Bench People. Photographed and Edited By Pablo Herrera. Music By Nils Nils Frahm

I first came to New York City in 2011 to work in the documentary “The Building of A Community” commissioned by the “Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space”, a cultural institution which chronicles the East Village community’s history of grassroots action. The documentary examined the social transformation of the Lower East Side of Manhattan where activists, artists, historians and political representatives describe the neighborhood, the squatters, the community gardens and explain the struggle to save them. For me, it represented a singular way to discover New York City. Let’s be honest, people around the world (and almost all in the rest of the U.S.) know little about how life really is in New York City. Many people may think New York City is Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert, SNL and things like that. Ok, good, but NYC is also tiny and expensive apartments, endless hours of work, high level of competition, pricey restaurants, and thousands of park bench people. This last group are not just NYC’s props, they are real people who happen to live on the streets.

After almost a decade of living in an extraordinarily noisy city, I came to realize how much all that noise was affecting my perception of reality. Today, in times of pandemic we are experiencing NYC with less exciting distractions and more harsh realities. Following my instincts, I decided to grab my old SONY X10 camera and go out there to catch what’s happening in the streets.

I started my route at 14 Street walking down 6th Avenue and then Houston Street to the Lower East Side. I walked nearly 6 miles around the city just to corroborate that the reality is, as I expected, harsh.

Invisible Numbers

The New York’s Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group, reported that about 62,000 people were living in city shelters in January, 60% more than 10 years ago, according to Reuters. Up to today, more than 50 people from the city-run shelter system had died of COVID-19, according to the city’s Department of Social Services. The agency said more than 600 shelter residents and other homeless people – including those living on the streets – had tested positive for the virus so far.

In an interview with Reuters, Giselle Routhier, the group’s policy director, ensures that thousands more are living on the streets and the subways. She states the city hasn’t done enough. The New York’s Coalition for the Homeless wants the city to pay for housing the homeless in some of the thousands of empty hotel rooms in the city

On April 11, Mayor Bill de Blasio said 6,000 hotel beds would be available for single shelter residents by this week, Reuters informs. Of those beds, 3,500 homeless were already in hotels when the disease struck, and since the outbreak, 1,000 shelter residents have been moved into hotels, including about 500 residents sick with the disease, according to the DSS spokesman Isaac McGinn

These numbers represent only a fraction of the inequalities in America. Cities like Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and in southern cities like Austin, the crisis of the homeless has been growing steadily and unstoppably for the last 10 years. The response of the system is, unfortunately, to bet on an unequal system, penalizing the poor for being poor and admiring the rich for enriching themselves through smart tax evasion, wage freezes (the Federal Government has not pass a legislation to increase the minimum wage in over 10 years) and unstoppable family debt growth. The health crisis that we are experiencing these days makes the ‘constantly ignored numbers’ become more visible than ever. It remains to be seen if the ruling class really cares and does something to change it

A Photo Assignment  

After finishing my tour, I came back home somewhat hopeless, leaving the reel in the camera for several days. It was difficult to review those images and photographs documenting one of the harshest crises that the city has had to face and overcome. Finally, I found the courage in a magnificent piece of music by Nils Frahm. It is not a story within a story that happens in an exciting city, which is how we like to imagine New York City. It is the harsh (and today more than ever inevitable) reality that we have to experience and see on the streets of New York City.