Portfolio: Penthouse and pavement
Past swanky offices and the homes of the super-rich, down into Harlem, photographer Mathias Braschler's journey captures the ever-changing faces of New York's Madison Avenue. Words by Jonathan Dyson
Saturday 13 November 1999
Madison Avenue offers a microcosm of America, from the buzzy, business- like Midtown through the fabulously rich Upper East Side to the often desperately poor Harlem. The street is named after one of the country's founding fathers, James Madison, who himself embodied some of the contradictions and extremes to be found here. Madison was only the fourth president of the US. He helped draft the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, yet he came from a slave-owning plantation family in Virginia.
The street was inaugurated in 1833, three years before Madison died. It only came into being because it was thought the swisher parallel boulevards of Park and Fifth Avenue were too far apart, and so Madison was slipped in between them. Only in 1869 did it reach Harlem, then a sparsely populated white neighbourhood. In the early 20th century, big business started to move in and luxury hotels established themselves here: the Ritz-Carlton, the Biltmore. The advertising agencies, with which the street is still most associated, arrived after the Second World War, and the fashion industry followed in their wake.
Power continues to shift. Computer giant IBM lives here, and the most eye-catching new building is the eclectic Sony headquarters, a modernist skyscraper sandwiched between a Chippendale-style top and a Renaissance base. Not that that means a lot if you're living in a cardboard box.
`Madison Avenue' by Mathias Braschler is published by Andreas Zust Verlag/Scalo, pounds 28
Mathias Braschler spent eight months photographing and interviewing a cross-section of those who live and work on Madison Avenue. The 30-year- old Swiss-born photographer eschewed the usual sidewalk cliches to focus squarely on individuals. All his images are similarly framed and shot from just a few feet away. This uniformity forces one to compare often wildly divergent life stories. "The kind of living that the upper class used to have here doesn't exist anymore," according to the monocled Prince Robert Khimchiachvili, self-styled Grand Master of the Order of St John Street at 63rd Street, pictured (above) with his elegant wife, Helene von Hohenfriedenburg. Grittier realities confront Joseph Pagan (right), project worker in the cultural melting pot of East Harlem at 115th Street. "One of the biggest problems we have in this neighbourhood is AIDS," he says matter-of-factly.
The American dream
Here, in business-like, bustling Midtown, there is ample evidence that New York is still a magnet for immigrants chasing the American dream. Heegu Yoon (top right) was born in Korea. He has lived in the city since 1983 and owns a dry cleaner's at 27th Street. "Madison is good," he says, "in this area there are no other cleaners." Over at Rueben's Sandwich at 38th Street (above), Jack Hassanean, Mitch Platt and Silvester Murphy (some good, European names there) look like they woke up from their dream. "I've been working here too long," comments Mitch (seated). But for the majority who don't make it, there are the luckier, sharper few who do: Harold Grossmann (above) at 30th Street is a gynaecologist who studied in Switzerland, and James Larosa (top left) at 26th, is a lawyer specialising in organised crime cases - these, of course, being another famous European export.
See and be seen
Madison Avenue is at its smartest as Midtown gives way to the Upper East Side. The 60s, 70s and 80s packed with antique and art dealers, shoe shops and designer emporia. Russian emigre Leonida Zaloutskaya (right), who works for an export business, was photographed at 69th Street. "I only wear Versace," she says. "When Gianni got killed, it was a nightmare for me." Jennifer Clegg (top left) is more understated. A Polo Jeans merchandiser at 58th Street, she hails from Texas. "I always knew that I wanted to live in New York," she says. Some want to be looked at, some are born to look on, from Herns Barthelemy (left), doorman at 96th ("It's not that I don't like the job. It's how you're getting treated") to writer and commentator Dominick Dunne, caught in the lobby of Vanity Fair magazine at 45th Street. His verdict? "To me, Madison is a glamorous avenue."
End of the line
Braschler originally went to New York to chronicle the work of a special school in Harlem, and it is in Harlem that his story ends. The avenue finally segues out of the Upper East Side where Donna Senko (top left) at 76th Street sits resplendent on her faux-tribal throne, taking a break between property deals. Things aren't as bad as they were in Harlem, since a regeneration programme and a crackdown on crime. Braschler captures a wide range of moods. Julius Vines (left) at 127th Street, invalided, seems doleful. John Santiago (above) at 104th Street doesn't have a job, but he works out. Willie Mae Whitted (top right), meanwhile, is on a mission. The priest at the Fountain of Living Water Ministries church at 119th Street, she proudly recalls, "In 1960 I came as a blues singer to New York. After one year I got saved and went to the church." God, Mammon and everything in between.
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