The book jacket of Nelson Algren’s famous book, A Walk on the Wild Side, proclaims that “the book asks why lost people sometimes develop in to greater human beings than those who have never been lost in their lives.” Whether in Uptown, Skid Row, the Combat Zone, the Tenderloin or the Bowery, such lost people existed, they were a community, a part of the fabric of city life—an inevitable truth of life’s hard times.
The Park Avenue swell, the out-of-towner, the sophomore, the beatnik, the suburbanite, all came to visit the district, the place. They came not so much as voyeurs, but more as collectors of scenes in an attempt to know, or to experience, something of a fate that while dire, makes the city real. “There but for the grace of God go I.” The down-and-out poured into the missions, habituated the local taverns and greasy spoons. They collected together out of camaraderie and also collectively to protect the locality and if for nothing else, then, from gentrification itself.
I went to Uptown in Chicago in the late 1970s and headed to the Bowery in New York shortly thereafter. I see now that I went to these strips with the same intentions as any other visitor. I wanted to see, to try to touch at least with my camera, the experience of bewilderment of loss, to say, “I saw reality,” that I know something of the other. Of course looking and taking have nothing to do with really being there, in the psychological and physical state of those I photographed. Yet almost four decades later in the assembly of these pictures, I find the nobility that exists in all of us, even in the worst of times. We are all connected; we have lost the experience of that connection because today all such places, like the Bowery, have been transformed by the urban chic, holding on only to the nostalgic name of the neighborhood.
The writers are all gone too—the Nelson Algrens, James Farells, Studs Terkels, Damon Runyons, Joseph Mitchells and the William Kennedys, not to mention Patti Smiths. They all understood the places, and the characters, the times and the realities. Today “the noble savages of Skid Row” seems to no longer exist, and rather we are experiencing a kind of homelessness throughout our nation that is not so much caused by individual fates, but more by the great disparities and our indifference to the plight of others.
Charles H. Traub 2016