On Williamsburg’s Union Avenue, the three-story row house at number 322 has served as a bodega, a chicken shack and even a tattoo parlor. Most recently, it has housed the latest wave of gentrification —the scarfed, young artists—by serving as a home away from home. Here, in the musty basement shared with a meat locker, screeching bands can rent out quiet practice spaces. Upstairs, artists grace the walls with their images. And on a pull-down screen, local filmmakers screen their documentaries for intimate audiences of cinephiles.
Now a non-profit, state-supported arts center billed “Union Docs,” the house hosts about forty screenings per year selected by six rotating “curators in residence” who live just upstairs. In the tin-roofed former grocery store, these residents serve $2 bottles of Yuengling and free popcorn to anyone who comes out for their weekly series, cheekily billing the operation the “Documentary Bodega,” now in its second season.
Though their neighbors wander in from time-to-time, they rarely stick around. This was one reason the group selected this season’s theme of “Neighborhoods,” explained one resident-curator. (Fall’s theme—“Praxis,” or politics—hinged on election fever.) In January, the season opened with a film documenting Brooklyn’s long tradition of pigeon breeders and their new battle with development, titled “Up on the Roof.” Last Saturday at the series’ second screening of the season, the first-floor was packed to capacity and more gawkers were milling outside—all drawn to the work of Nathan Kensinger, the evening’s featured filmmaker.
Raised in the stretch of San Francisco that fronts the abandoned Navy Yards, Kensinger is one of a generation of photographers obsessed with the aesthetics of abandoned urban spaces. Like the 18th century British artists who fled industrializing London to document the crumbling “picturesque” cottages of the neglected countryside, these “urban explorers” sneak into decaying, neglected city nooks and emerge with grand images of ruin. Wary of guard dogs, crumbling floors and caving ceilings, Kensinger has puttered around the iconic Domino Sugar plant, the country’s first chewing-gum factory (located in Staten Island) and the hideouts beneath the Coney Island board walk—among hundreds of other locales. He posts the resulting work to his blog, where he also writes of his research on the background of the buildings he finds. As such, his works intrigue not only for their aesthetic beauty—the beauty of ruin, of decay, of the sad passing of time—but because like the photographs of Jacob Riis, they show us a world we would otherwise never see, a world left behind by the quick waves of gentrification.
This evening, these spaces did not remain unseen. The crowd was so massive that the images along the wall were only visible altogether once the audience sat down to better see Kensinger’s first short film, “Covered Tracks,” filmed in the graffiti-ed Amtrak tunnel stretching below Riverside park. In the film, tree-shadows fall through rain grates on to the scrubby walls, where in sad nooks the graffiti of the homeless reads “Home Sweet Home.” Williamsburg resident Orie Braun came out to see the show after seeing the images on Kensinger’s blog which showed, Braun thought, a “willingness to see beauty in the forgotten or ignored.”
Union Docs resident curator Lila Dobbs chose Kensinger’s work for the series because, she explained, “His shots capture that sense in a neighborhood of ‘blink and you’ll miss it.’” And yes—you just might; many of the buildings Kensinger has documented have since seen the wrecking ball—lending a historical element to his images.
“In Brooklyn sometimes we don’t have a good grasp,” said Dobbs, “Of what building came before this one, of what this used to be, or who used to be here.”
Here at Union Docs, aside from digital color prints of the rust-stained, ghostly industrial spaces, Kensinger showed large format, matte grayscale prints processed by the same machine that prints architectural blueprints—a technology associated with urban growth, not urban decay.
“Brooklyn is strange,” reflected Operational Director Amber Cortes. “There are more and more abandoned spaces”—a problem not helped by the worsening economy—“but there are so many new spaces growing up between them.”
Union Docs is at 322 Union Ave. The schedule for this year’s series will be posted at http://uniondocs.org/