In 1966, Danny Lyon, then 23, returned to his native New York City an emerging star on the photography scene. He spent the first half of the decade documenting the Civil Rights Movement as the official photographer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; at the same time he was a member of the Chicago Outlaws motorcycle club, making what would become The Bikeriders (1968), a landmark monograph that exemplified the emerging school of New Journalism.
Lyon moved to Lower Manhattan just as the neighborhood was about to be torn apart to make way for the construction of the World Trade Center, under the auspices of David Rockefeller, founder of the Downtown Manhattan Association and brother of then-governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller. The Rockefellers decided to launch of a program of “urban renewal,” which wholesale erased a neighborhood dating back over a century. Recognizing this historic moment, Lyon set to work, creating the portrait of a world that would soon disappear in the landmark 1969 book, The Destruction of Lower Manhattan, just reissued by Aperture.
“I came to see the buildings as fossils of a time past,” Lyon wrote in the book’s introduction. “These buildings were used during the Civil War. The men were all dead, but the buildings were still here, left behind as the city grew around them. Skyscrapers emerged from the rock of Manhattan like mountains growing out from the earth. And here and there near their base, caught between them on their old narrow streets, were the houses of the dead, the new buildings of their own time awaiting demolition.”
Portrait of a Vanishing World
The Destruction of Lower Manhattan is a poignant portrait of a vanishing world and an elegiac chronicle of the way working class communities have been used as pawns by the wealthy elite, who wield political power the same way a demolition man waves a wrecking ball. As Lyon’s photographs and journal entries reveal, the ruling class could obliterate sixty acres of architecture without ever getting their hands dirty. Instead they brought in those with the least leverage — the Slavs, Italians, and Black Americans who came north during the Great Migration — to wipe out entire communities for a mere $5.50 an hour.
Whether photographing a couple of housewreckers casually standing in a doorway while on the job or local kids playing on the streets one Sunday morning, Lyon’s attention to nuance and detail is unparalleled. His luminous scenes of solemn buildings soon to be reduced to rubble and dust stand in poignant contrast to images of empty homes strewn with abandoned furniture, a forgotten photograph still hanging on the wall.
By positioning himself inside the story, rather than being an outsider passing through, Lyon’s knowledge and understanding of the world disappearing before his very eyes allows us to recognize the process of “urban renewal” is a misnomer at best. What Lyon witnessed was a kind of corruption that has plagued this nation from its very start, positing the value of property over people while profiting the power elite.
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, and websites including Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, Dazed, and Vice, among others.
Danny Lyon, The Destruction of Lower Manhattan
Published by Aperture
A talk with Danny Lyon is organized on Zoom on October 24, 2020.