Outlaw City: Clayton Patterson’s New York

To this day, a debate rages in the tabloids and blogosphere as to the merits of the period in New York City known as the “pre-Giuliani era” or “old New York.” From the mid-1970s to the late ’80s, New York could be a frequently violent and/or gratuitously disgusting place, but it was also a city with heart. You had to watch where you were walking, but the living was cheap and the music and art scenes were plentiful, and those who braved its fringes then have stories to tell today.

Any discussion as to whether times were better now or then is largely rhetorical, since there is little left of that classically debauched New York City that Martin Scorsese used to make movies about. The stores, restaurants, neighborhoods and people who made that era what it was have been substantially displaced or erased via zoning laws, rent hikes, quality-of-life policing and bulldozers.

So I am grateful that, during those decades, we had a guy like Clayton Patterson around to document the good, bad and ugly of this city when it still abounded with dark corners. He is our Weegee, our Jacob Riis. Coiffed in his trademark embroidered skullcap and looking through the viewfinder of his ever-present camcorder, Clayton was a conspicuous presence wherever there was a ruckus—protests, police actions, punk gigs, drag shows and the like. At the time, I chalked him up as yet another freak in a city full of them. It wasn’t until some years later that I came to appreciate both his art and the scale and the depth of his chronicling.

The documentary Captured, directed by Dan Levin, tells Patterson’s story. A native of Canada, Clayton studied at the Alberta College of Art and Design, as well as the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, before moving to New York in 1979. He made headlines after he videotaped the wanton police violence at the Tompkins Square Park riots in the summer of 1988. Decrying the encroachment of yuppie hordes on their turf, a small army of squatters, anarchists and street people made a stand when the NYPD came to enforce a curfew and tear down the tent city that had slowly taken over the park in the preceding years. It was a prophetic event, an ominous taste of things to come, as many of us who regularly spent time in what was then known as Alphabet City had never even heard of gentrification, much less imagined that there would come a day when parents would feel safe letting their children play in such a rat-plagued, piss-soaked, needle-strewn stretch of dirt, asphalt and incongruously beautiful trees.

After the police riot, the forces of “justice” came for Clayton’s tapes, knowing full well the career-ruining misconduct that he’d caught on them. Clayton resisted, was thrown in jail a few times, but eventually managed to present them as evidence of an unhinged and abusive police force. The anarchists had proved their point—but ultimately the war against gentrification was lost, and today there are million-dollar condos being built along Avenue D.

I finally got the chance to speak with Clayton and his longtime partner/collaborator, Elsa Rensaa, at their new exhibit, “Outside In,” at the Howl Gallery at 6 East First Street. With his gold teeth and long gray beard, Clayton is still a commanding presence. His artwork is similarly attention-grabbing, ranging from photographic portraits of neighborhood denizens to meticulously embroidered fabrics; he also creates large dioramas spattered with color and populated by mannequins, dime-store figurines, toy guns and ammunition shells. In contrast, Elsa’s paintings are elegant, almost classical portraits of robed figures of mysterious origin.

My favorite of the bunch was a diorama featuring arms reaching up from a Hades-like underworld toward a sea of faces. Above the faces is a cutout illustration of children playing harmonicas around a box with the word “work” adorned on its side. And surrounding them, in turn, is an inscription: “I would like to thank God and all of you out there for allowing me to live this moment.—Miss Universe.” The top of the cabinet that contains this fantasia is crowned with steak knives.

“I lived on the Bowery at the time,” Clayton said when I asked about the piece. “It’s a memory of it all—the stabbings, the restaurant-supply companies…. There was innocence and aggression. It’s a dichotomy: on the one hand the American Dream, Miss Universe representing all that is good and great; and then on the other the American bottom end, the Bowery, Skid Row.”

Noting that the stated intent of the show is to depict “the wild, free, outlaw, utopian, visionary spirit of the Lower East Side,” I asked Clayton for his definition of the word “outlaw.”

“‘Outlaw’ either skates or crosses over to the unfavorable side of the law—graffiti, street art, art that has court cases attached to doing it,” he replied. “I’ve had many court cases come out of different situations documenting the streets. Tattooing in NYC before it was legal was an outlaw art. It could also be statements that some would consider antisocial or as challenging the system. Protests can be a form of outlaw culture. Art that’s connected to the pot culture could fit into that category.”

In their many years of videotaping daily life on the LES (the shorthand term for the Lower Side East, if you’re not from around these parts), Clayton and Elsa documented numerous drug busts. So how did they learn about them?

“It was easy,” Clayton shrugged. “Usually on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the narcs would park on my block—around 3:30 or 4 o’clock—and then they would all of a sudden rush off. Elsa and I would chase after them on foot. Drug spots were everywhere, so we didn’t have far to run. We knew what to look for, and we followed what we saw. Drugs on the street were much more open than people realize. It was a 24/7, in-your-face business.”

The gallery housing the exhibit stands a few doors down from the Bowery—the original Skid Row, now the most gentrified street in all of New York. I asked Clayton if he saw any irony there.

“No! What is, is what is,” he replied. “I made my contribution to fighting gentrification: I lived on the Bowery in the early ’80s, when it was one of the worst crack streets on the LES. I see my work as the connection—the flavor, the essence, the spirit. Some of my work in the show has actual pieces from the Bowery from that period of time. And it seems fitting that my show is in exactly this spot—near where McGurk’s Suicide Hall and CBGB’s used to be.”

Considering that the majority of New Yorkers in the 1980s found the Lower East Side and its activities mostly repugnant, I was curious as to why Clayton had such a different reaction.

“I’m not sure,” he mused. “All I know is that, when I found the LES, it was like I’d found home.”

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