Artist, activist, and author Clayton Patterson is the unofficial historian of New York’s Lower East Side. For over three decades he has lived in the neighborhood, establishing himself as fixture in the landscape that has been central to the development of New York’s underground scenes.
He moved to New York in 1979, where he began working as an artist, creating paintings, prints, photography, and sculpture. He had his first exhibition that same year at the Frank Marino Gallery in Soho. By 1982, he purchased a building on Essex Street that became home, studio, print shop and gallery for himself and partner Elsa Rensaa.
His life changed dramatically on the night of August 6-7, 1988 when he gained notoriety for videotaping the Tompkins Square Park police riot. In what was the first of many legal cases for Patterson that concerned artists’ rights to their work and freedom of expression, he was arrested for refusing to give up his tape and sent to jail for eight days before a settlement was negotiated that allowed his release. The actions of officers that night against neighborhood residents, homeless individuals, affordable housing advocates, anarchists, squatters and others resulted in the filing of over 100 complaints of police brutality. The footage was important evidence in the investigations and legal proceedings that followed and several officers were disciplined or criminally indicted. The city also paid an estimated $2-3 million in settlements to the injured.
The Tompkins Square Park tape changed the direction of his work and his life. Afterwards, he became actively involved in neighborhood struggles and his video and photography often focused on such issues as the homeless crisis, drug trafficking, police corruption, and the displacement of the poor and artists by gentrification.
Patterson speaks with The Click about the nature of New York in this time of change, a period of revitalization under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg that changed the very fabric of New York’s landscape.
Patterson observes, “We captured something about this last, wild, crazy period in New York City, and we as artists are the end of that period, in a way. This work represents the last of the wild and the free Lower East Side, and it now stands as a record of a time and a place. Gentrification has changed everything.
“New York used to be about the individual mentality, about the artist’s mind and their ability to create change. Now New York could be anywhere; the corporations are erasing the individual character of the whole place. Is New York still the place for an artist to be?
“New York (Manhattan specifically) was constructed to be a walking city. Because it is an island, there is a serious concentration of activity in just a few square miles. When New York was filled with poor people, the place for being social was the street. You could be hanging out playing dominoes in front of the bodega, while gang members gathered on corners selling drugs. Creativity came out of the street because life was connected to action on the street. Gentrification has taken all of that away from New York.
“If you get rid of street culture, you can control the neighborhood. Think about the Upper East Side: you can bowl on those empty streets. Life is centered on being indoors, and the street is consider a dangerous place. Overpolicing has aided the destruction of street life. The point of gentrification is to destroy any culture that celebrates the poor and working class.
“In this brave new world, how do we cope? As artists, we have to think about it. It’s a fact of life. Where is the culture? Ninety to ninety five percent of the genius of New York was connected to cheap rent and lifestyle. Whatever the art form, it could take hold because people who made contributions could afford to develop the space and the time to pursue their art.
"Things have become so expensive that we cannot create that space any more. Is there a place of compromise, or a way to support artists so that people can survive? We’ve turned art into just a project. We are marketing art like it’s a cup of Starbucks. Art that is corporate created is vacuous.
“The Housewives series on Bravo is an important show. It lays out a lifestyle that many people aspire to. You don’t have to be creative, constructive, or be a contribution. You can simply be a gossip and a corporate product and collect checks. The idea of being a Renaissance man or woman, being a well-rounded person, isn’t in fashion right now.
“What are we aspiring to as a society? What are our ideals, our goals, our heroes? Right now, it’s all about money, not goodness or wellness. When billions of dollars are in play, somebody is getting robbed. Money is real, but there’s nothing left for community on a cultural level. There is narcissism, and there is wealth. That is the Bloomberg effect.
“What do we really see here? Appropriation. It’s all about stealing. Stealing doesn’t have a positive side, as far as I can see. What kind of message is this sending to the world? Appropriation destroys the essence of that work. It is regressive and repressive, and it is ripping people off while not putting anything back. That is harmful to us because we can’t develop from that. There’s no clarity of thought.
“Paris: After World War II, it was over. It all came to New York. You wouldn’t go to Paris mid-century to be an artist. The art world had moved on. Is that what we are witnessing in New York?”