Blog - Robert Matthews

Desperately Seeking Old New York

January 21, 2018

Just when I think all the grime, grit, and sheer decadence of what New York once was has been fully scrubbed clean, sanitized, commercialized, and anesthetized, I come across a little gem of a side street like this. Maybe I’m just romanticizing the past, but the streets of Manhattan-past had an authenticity to them that packed a ton of energy. At least that’s how it felt to a young kid growing up in the sheltered blandness of a NJ suburb. Today it can sometimes be hard to tell the city from the suburbs. This is a side street somewhere off Canal Street between Chinatown and the West Village. I hope it’s not cleaned up the next time I go by.

“It reminds me of the movies Marty made about New York

Doin' the things that we want to

Those frank and brutal movies that are so brilliant

Here's to 'Travis Bickle' and here's to 'Johnny Boy'

Growing up in the mean streets of New York”

Lou Reed - 1984 (click link for video)


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The Great Falls - Paterson, NJ

December 30, 2017

Alexander Hamilton (yes, the same Hamilton from the Broadway musical) conceived the idea of Paterson becoming America’s first planned industrial city in the 1780’s, just at the start of the industrial revolution. Hamilton saw the potential of harnessing the power of the Falls and his vision eventually transformed Paterson into an industrial powerhouse that produced textiles, locomotives, and the famous Colt revolvers of the old West. At one point Paterson became know as Silk City due to the volume of the silk the city produced. Today, many of these factories are now abandoned or are slowly being repurposed. The city is a prime example of industrial decay, and as the manufacturing industry declined, poverty crept in and crime rose. Paterson now has one of the highest crime rates in the nation, particularly for violent crime due to all of the gang activity. It is a sad tragedy to see a city with such a rich history fall into such decline. In 2009 the Great Falls were officially added to the US National Park system. Renovations are underway to improve the site to accommodate more visitors. Hopefully this will give a much need boost the city’s economy.


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Church of the Holy Innocents

December 15, 2017

A beacon of light (and salvation?) on w37th St. in Manhattan. It was a "dark and stormy" night when I caught a glimpse of this illuminated cross shining down 37th St in Manhattan’s Garment District. It stood out quite prominently on the type of dreary December night that turns the city streets into dark, hauntingly cavernous alleys. As it turns out, this Gothic Revival styled Catholic Church built in 1870 is the oldest building in the Garment District. It has quite a storied past and history. It is the only church in the city that still holds a mass in Latin, also referred to as a Tridentine Mass (I learn something new everyday). Interestingly, they hold a mass at two-twenty AM (yes in the morning) every Sunday. Confessions are heard at all times and all hours; very convenient since this is NYC and I'm sure sins are being committed at every conceivable hour. Supposedly, one will find worshipers here that vary from the poor (and homeless) to patrons dressed in minks and tuxes. Part of the attraction is a “Shrine to the Unborn” dedicated to children who died before birth. Also, a large mural that at one time hung in St Patrick’s Cathedral now hangs behind the church alter. I’d love to go back and see the inside and perhaps attend one of those 2:20AM masses or maybe the one in Latin. I imagine that would be quite an interesting experience. I wonder if they would mind if I took pictures?


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Ramapough Lenape Nation Teepee - Mahwah NJ

November 2017

Real teepees. Real Indians. Yes, there are still real Indians living in suburban NJ. And just like in the old west there is still fighting between the natives and the “settlers” who in this case happen to live in a wealthy housing development just adjacent to this land. A lawsuit was filed against the Indians claiming zoning violations. It seems the land is zoned for single-family homes and municipal facilities. So I guess you can build a house but not a teepee? Not sure I understand the logic here, but the law ruled in favor of the wealthy homeowners. The Indians were fined and ordered to remove the teepees. I recently went by there and the teepees are gone. The teepees were erected as a protest to a proposed oil pipeline that is slated to cut through the Indian’s land. The homeowners took exception to the noise from the protests and filed complaints against them. I don’t think the Indians stood much of a chance in court, as they are a very poor people. This story has received a lot of attention in the news including a write-up in the NY Times. But what amazes me is how little things have changed in the last 400 or so years since the first European settlers landed on the shores of North America and to a larger extent the question of who has the right to a piece of land?


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Ashokan Reservoir, Catskills NY

October 22, 2017

About 100 years ago one dozen hamlets in the Catskill Mountains were literally swallowed up to accommodate New York City's desperate need for clean drinking water. Hundreds of houses, businesses, schools, and churches were dismantled or burned to the ground. Over 2,000 people were forced out of their homes and even the graves of the deceased were disinterred so the land could be flooded (residents were purportedly offered $15 to dig up the remains of their deceased). What lies there now is the Ashokan Reservoir holding 122 billion gallons of water, the largest in the world at that time. Needless to say, resentment can still run strong in the community; when visitors ask where is the center of town, locals will answer “under-water”. When the water levels get low (as it is now) you can find people along the shores looking for remnants of the old towns, such as stone foundations, pottery, horseshoes etc.. One thing everyone agrees on though is the beauty of the reservoir and the spectacular views of the Catskill Mountains it offers. It’s an interesting history and there are now 5 reservoirs in the Catskills supplying water to the city, the Ashokan is still the second largest. For me, I always make a point of driving past the reservoir whenever I am in the area, and I’ll usually take a walk along its pathways admiring the beauty of the surrounding area. But I often wonder what it must have felt like to get a knock on the door and be told that your home would be taken away from you in order to provide water for the city folks 100 miles south. A place you have probably never seen.


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Ellis Island

October 2017

An image from Ellis Island coinciding with President Trump's third attempt to restrict entry into the U.S. for citizens of certain countries whose motives are deemed “detrimental to the interests of the United States”. And similar to previous attempts this one was also blocked by a federal judge, once again a judge from Hawaii (why Hawaii? Don't know, go figure..). Immigration seems to be a very hot topic and not just here in the states. Countries like Germany, Sweden, and a host of other countries are all dealing with similar issues. It’s a much different world compared to the days when Ellis Island was processing millions of immigrants into this country, and throughout history immigration has always been a complicated and emotional issue. The decaying ruins of the infectious disease ward of Ellis Island seen here seems to reflect the current state of affairs we find ourselves in today; as unsteady as this 3 legged stool. It seems odd we build a national monument to celebrate the history of immigration of the past, but live in fear of what it may foretell for the future.


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St Michael’s Cemetery, Bethlehem, PA – (Walker Evans Redux)

September 30, 2017

In 1935 Walker Evans made an historic image of this cemetery in Bethlehem Pennsylvania ( see Link here). On a recent pilgrimage to this site I made this image seen here. I did not make the visit with the intention of re-creating Evans’ image, but merely to stand in the place that inspired that shot. And as I discovered, any effort to recreate that shot now would be for naught anyway as the cemetery cross in the foreground of his image is no longer there, and the row houses in his image are now obscured by a large tree. So thankfully there can be no copycat images. But much of the scene remains the same; the same row houses are there just as back then, the cemetery is mostly the same although with obvious signs of neglect and decay, and the south side of town depicted here is remarkably unchanged despite the closing of Bethlehem Steel in 2003. When Evans made his image it was a grim portrait of a steel town. In one remarkable image Evans captured the steel mill where the residents worked, the row houses where they lived, and the cemetery where they would be buried. And the cross that he chose to dominate the foreground in his image stood at the top of the hill almost as if God himself was looking down watching over the town. It was a powerful image. Of course times change, and fast forward 82 years and one will find that the steel mill has closed, the few remaining smoke stacks of the blast furnaces seen here are now a tourist attraction, and the grounds of what was once the largest steel manufacturer in the world have been replaced with a casino, a shopping mall, and various retail and entertainment venues. I wonder what image Evans would make today if he could re-visit the scene?


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