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Documenting the Park: East Village, Before the Gentry
source: New York Times

An abandoned building in Alphabet City, June 1986
source: New York Times/Q. Sakamaki

In 1987 Mr. Sakamaki photographed homeless men and women eating a Christmas Day meal at a soup kitchen in a garden on East Ninth Street. In a 1989 image from Tompkins Square Park two men warm themselves next to a fire inside a trash can. A photograph from the same year shows homeless people and their supporters camping in the park with American flags. In a picture from October 1991, after the park's closing, a man sleeps in a bed on Avenue A in the pouring rain.

The streets and park paths depicted in the book still exist, of course, but many of the people who populated that landscape have died or left town. Mr. Sakamaki's photography has always been about people, from the street children of Rio de Janeiro to denizens of an empty lot on Avenue C.

So the absence of that population in today's East Village lends the book a haunted, ghostly air.

In the end Mr. Sakamaki's book is a valediction of sorts to lost people and a lost place that has been supplanted by a neighborhood that he finds rather sterile and uninspiring.

"We lost our culture," he said, "and we lost control of our dreams."

Leaving the park, Mr. Sakamaki, who still lives in the neighborhood, headed out to the surrounding streets, spots he had photographed decades before. Much has changed. Along East Eighth Street, where he once visited men and women in shacks, a six-story building houses a home for the aged. The onetime site of similar shanties on Avenue C is now occupied by a police building and parking lot.

But on Avenue C at East Ninth Street, La Plaza Cultural, a garden where Mr. Sakamaki had photographed the homeless on that Christmas Day 21 years ago, has survived.

"I'm happy that this garden is still here," he said, gazing through the fence at the pastoral spot, where city dwellers sat beneath a willow tree. "But I'm also sad, because the people I knew are not inside anymore."