I have known Marlis since I started working on the homestead. Her building which is across the street from ours, was the first homestead building to be completed and occupied on our block. They were all moved in when we were just getting started pulling out the burnt beams. Their building was the proof that it could be done and it shone like a beacon for us. They gave us electricity and smiles of encouragement. I watched Marlis’s son grow up and she saw my daughters born and raised. It is unusual in New York to be so rooted to a place, to a particular block and also to be surrounded by people who are just as rooted. Long-time neighbors. Most New Yorkers move around. It is as though we are living the small village life even though we are in the middle of a giant metropolis – the so-called concrete jungle.
Marlis was born in the bombed out city of Berlin WWII so when she came to Loisaida in the 1970′s this was a familiar landscape. Marlis Momber’s photographs are full of soul. Yes, they have good composition and are well-crafted and her prints are exquisite. But aside from being an artful photograph, they reek of the soul. She is not a mere documentarian or onlooker – Marlis captures her subjects down to the essence. We are hers and Marlis is ours.
The brick wall in the hallway looks different now just from the coat of the stucco veneziano in bluish teal. It is as though the brick has come alive. Oona, ever the artist, said “Of course it has come alive, that is the magic of a complementary color”. I see the brick in all its glory for the first time. Every color in every brick and every stroke of the blue plaster pops. I can see nuance in the brick colors that before were in shadow. I see russet colors, greys, creams and even lavenders. This brick was probably laid between the mid-1800’s to the late 1800’s during the boom time in the Lower East Side of New York. As homesteaders in the early 1980s, we unearthed this brick in the interior walls. It was covered in a century’s worth of plaster and wallpaper. We chipped the layers away by hand with a hammer and chisel for a long time till we got to the pure brick. We didn’t work on our individual apartments, we worked collectively, so we were on plaster chipping duties on these walls for months.
I was shitty carpenter. I was bad at measuring and I wasted wood, so I was put on mortar duty. Mortar is more forgiving. The mortar crew was headed up by Smitty, who was an experienced construction worker and he trained a small team of us. We did all of the brickwork in the building. In the warm weather, homesteaders with older kids would bring them in and corral them in a safe part of the building while they worked. I kept an eye on them while I mixed cement. Then they started helping me mix. They made a game of it. We kept the mortar crew supplied with bucket after bucket of cement.
All around us buildings were coming down, victims of the criminal neglect of the landlords who had abandoned them. When a building was torn down, the homesteaders in the vicinity would spread the word and we would all head over there to rescue the brick. We had an enormous canvas mail cart that had been confiscated from a post office. The mortar crew would wheel this cart out and head over to the fallen building. We would find other homesteaders, squatters and gardeners there also rescuing the brick and the stone. We would pick through the rubble to find intact bricks and then stack them on the first floor like cordwood. Our building was restored with the bones of other buildings that didn’t make it.
A very exciting project is underway in Loisaida – a new living history museum that will focus on how the community came together to reclaim abandoned buildings and empty lots and created homes, cultural spaces and lush gardens in what was known as the “Take Back the Land Movement” of the late 70s and 80s. Check out the fantastic video and donate if you wish to get the museum up and running.
My daughter Camelia appears in the beginning of the video when she was little. She is the girl in the pink jacket with purple wings in the Jardin del Paraiso community garden.