Thursday, October 15, 2009

Memories of Larimer Square--and other places

The other day I was thinking about how important the businesses in Larimer Square were to me in the mid- to late seventies. I mostly frequented the Flick, an "art" movie house; Josephina's Pizza/Italian Food; and the Magic Pan (crepes). Other than LS, the streets were really quiet and pretty scary at night.

Saw at least two great films at the Flick by Jacques Tati and Vittorio da Sica at the Flick ("Playtime" and "A Brief Vacation"). It was a place a young woman could go alone, even take a bus there from Capital Hill.

There was little to hang your hat on elsewhere in downtown Denver. For a short time period I swam and took yoga at the YWCA (torn down in the 1980's). Sometimes the Oxford had some good music (Norman and Nancy Blake, for example)--was it in the "Booze-Wazee" Room? I rarely went to Ebbets Field for music; the Folklore Center on E. 17th Ave. was of much greater interest. Couldn't afford Top of the Rockies restaurant. Occasionally shopped in May D&F bargain basement and the Denver. There was a food co-op on California Street in an old Safeway building that essentially got put out of business by the Rainbow Grocery, a production of Guru Maharaj Ji's people on East Colfax. Some of the same people who brought us Pearl St. Market in Boulder and also drove out a food co-op, and later the Alfalfa's/Wild Oats empire.

One other business stands out: Cafe Nepenthes, on Market Street. A coffeehouse/restaurant with a wholesome, welcoming atmosphere. I often went there alone. Occasionally I even stopped at the White Spot for coffee! But only after photographing in the railroad yards.

Having lived around Harvard Square earlier in the seventies, it was hard to get a handle on Denver. Cambridge had everything: coffee, food, books, photography stores, movies, evening classes, music--all within a few square blocks. Walkable. Lots of people on the street, particularly women. Don't forget the muffins...

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Infrared film and the railroad

I've been pulling out my old photos of the yards from 1976-1978. Not documentation per se, but an artistic treatment of the area, trying to find beauty in a fairly utilitarian, often ugly place. Watching a coal train the other day make its way on the mainline through the Central Platte Valley, eclipsed and dwarfed by the lofts and other buildings, I got a hankering to do some more infrared work and catch the view of the diminished railroad in its "new" urban setting.

Kodak doesn't make infrared film anymore, just as the company knocked off Kodachrome this summer. But Rollei does, and not just in 35mm. 120 as well, so I can put my 1953 Rollei TLR to use again. It's such a great camera.

I'm excited, but wary; in truth, I'm not hopeful. The place is cluttered. Will the long rays of autumn make up for the lack of railroad?

A visit to a wonderful building on Wazee St.

This week I met with the owner of a building on Wazee, an old warehouse once used to store mining equipment, formerly owned by the Hendrie-Bolthoff company, which also owned buildings on Wynkoop St. (Wine-koop to the old Denver residents, or even Wy-in-koop). The building was designed by Frank Edbrooke, who also designed the Brown Palace, the Oxford Hotel, the Tabor Opera House, etc.

This was a revelation to me. A warehouse building designed by an architect?

Walking around LoDo later, I discovered a number of the signs that explained the history of the neighborhood's buildings. Indeed, many of the buildings were designed by architects, not just as warehouses but with corporate office spaces. The Wazee building sported some unusual features, including one of the largest freight elevators in the Western U.S. The windows are also much larger than in neighboring buildings, due to the support of steel beam lintels.

I asked what was there before the warehouses went up at the latter part of the 19th and the early 20th centuries. The speculation is small houses for railroaders and others who worked in and around the yards just adjacent. Houses that were highly vulnerable to Cherry Creek/South Platte flooding.

This visit opened my eyes to the necessity of bringing people into the picture, literally. As I have enjoyed Sam's photos of the skateboarder on 15th Street and the elderly couple crossing 16th Street a few Sundays ago, I realize there is indeed life in Lower Downtown and it should be documented. While there are still plenty of cars (that's Denver), it reminds me that I need to speak to people who work and live down there; who've done the renovations; and above all, remember the place before.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Stepping back from an earlier observation...

With the photographs of Wazee Street now developed and digitized, I am seeing something different in Lodo, particularly in Sam's images. His are playful, with people at the edges of frames, moving. People appear in 1937, but rarely in 1978. I'm thinking of his images of the Wazee Lounge. Mine, with the Retina I bought 40 years ago (!)--the camera that took the 1978 pictures--are static but fairly exact. His encompass the Lounge, part of 15th St., the pavement of the street itself, the Acme Building off in the distance (hello, Guy Noir), an African-American teenager moving quickly out of the left of the frame, and finally some cars moving quickly and a little randomly through the intersection. Bravo, Sam, for the vibrancy!

I always wait for people to get the heck out of the frame, but Sam includes them--like the elderly white couple moving into the intersection at 16th and Wazee.

OK, there are a lot of cars down there now, a lot of people walking around, some looking pretty rich. Lots of trees. To beat a dead horse, though, this is not the Denver I knew. Yet why doom a downtown to be a skid row neighborhood? Sometimes I think I liked it not just because of the Brooklyn memories, but because it was quiet, filled with isolated people if at all, and the same with the railroad yards. I'm pretty focused on the built environment and want that to stand out, but, like Sam, maybe now it's OK to let some people into my own pictures...let's see.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Earlier this week...

On 9/9/09, I walked Larimer, Arapahoe, Lawrence, Market and Wynkoop without the camera. Just wanted to see what was what. I started at 2:45 and ended at 4:45. After two hours my feet were exhausted from pounding the pavement.

Lots of traffic and new construction downtown and the air was icky. Surprised at the number of buildings pulled down on Market Street since '78-'79.

This time around we will photograph every street corner, whether photographed or not in 1937 or 1978.

The D&F Tower used to be a good landmark, but you can barely see it anymore.

Park Central still stands between Lawrence and Arapahoe, 15th and 16th. That used to be the headquarters of the Rio Grande Railroad. In 1977 I went to Park Central to apply for a job as a brakeman. I had to pass through airport-style security to get to the railroad. The building had been bombed during the Vietnam War years.

The railroad turned me down for a job, as did the Union Pacific. D&RG's reason was that my back "wasn't straight." (I had to go through a lower back x-ray). I do have a mild case of scoliosis. My father blamed my poor posture (in his opinion), but in reality one is born with scoliosis.

The real reason for the turndown was a letter from the Metro personnel office recommending me for a brakeman's job. The sender stated that the railroad would never discriminate against a woman, of course. So my fate was sealed: I was a potential troublemaker.

I did get a job on the Rio Grande later, though--in Pueblo. The various terminals--Denver, Pueblo, Salt Lake, Grand Junction--were independent, and hired as they liked.

A day of shooting

Today, Sam and I went down to Denver to rephotograph a few streets. We decided to do Wazee Street, starting at the intersection with Cherry Creek and moving up to 19th Street, just a block or two from Coors Field. A nice day, a beautiful day. We had lunch at the Wazee Lounge, where I used to hang out with my Metro friends in the late 70's. Looks different inside, but brighter because the 15th Street viaduct no longer darkens the street.

Impressions compared to '78-'79: Lodo is a busy place. Not having walked the neighborhood much over the last 25 years, I didn't expect so many cars, so many pedestrians on a Sunday afternoon. Perhaps Arapahoe and Curtis aren't that busy on the weekend; we'll find out toward the end of the project.

There is a lot more visual "junk" on the streets, i.e., parked cars, signs, parking meters, traffic light poles, new/old streetlamps, viaducts, people people people. These tend to obscure the field of the image! And have I gotten shorter? I'm using the same camera from 30 years ago and couldn't seem to back up enough. Luckily Sam had the wide-angle Canon.

One view was especially galling. The old Union Pacific building, 19th and Wynkoop, used to be very close to the tracks and the railroad yards. Now that the yards have basically been obliterated, a bus viaduct rises near the building and has made it impossible to get the same view as 19371978. Ah well. We were tired by then, and decided to call it a day.

A little kvetch: Denver is not my city anymore. I lived there from 1974-78 and three of those years were quite wonderful. Good memories.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Lonesome endeavor

Wonder if other photographers have had this experience?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Exile, and the railroad yards

In 1976 when I was studying photography at Metro State, the prevailing custom in the field was to work on a "series," photographs that detailed a particular subject. One of my teachers chose to document gardens in Maine, focusing on hydrangeas, which she hand-colored on black and white prints. My series would be the railroad series.

I've long been interested in the places around people, the background, the contexts we move in and live in. The built environment, if you will. Denver was a place of exile for me, and as a Jew, exile is a common life theme. At Passover we say these final words: "Next year in Jerusalem." (However you define Jerusalem).

The problem with exile is that you always want to be someplace else: home, a most elusive concept. But one has to make do, wherever. Initially disliking Denver, a city with no apparent center, I chose to work in a place that was essentially an exile from "normal" Denver. Here I would wander with the camera and plant my flag.

In Neal Cassady's day, people lived in the yards, businesses operated there. By '76 the area was desolate, rather unsafe and even hostile. Yet I learned that this was an important place. Freight cars were sorted, separated here, reconnected; trains were created, dissolved, then newly created. I was careful to stay out of the way.

This was the time when coal from the Northern Plains, mostly the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, began to supersede other freight on the Western railroads. Much of it rolled through Denver. And you can bet that the computer you're using right now is probably powered by coal, carried by rail to the huge coal-burning plants around the United States.

Two years later, because of coal, I would be working on the railroad myself, as a locomotive fireman on the old Rio Grande, in Minturn and Pueblo, another exile. A story for another time.

Friday, August 21, 2009

A quote from Susan Sontag

"People robbed of their past seem to make the most fervent picture takers, at home and abroad."

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


I'm glad to be writing again!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Back to Denver

I was quite militant about the changes in downtown Denver starting in the late 70's, namely the destruction of buildings in "upper" downtown (Glenarm to Arapahoe) to make way for the glass towers of the oil boom. When I worked at the Historical Society overseeing the photographic collection in the early 80's, I regularly called the guy in Denver's city bureaucracy who issued demolition permits. He would advise me about the buildings slated for the wrecking ball that week; often, as soon as a permit was granted, the wreckers went to work. I would grab our photographer, Myron Tannenbaum, and we would rush to the affected site, shlepping a 4x5 on a large tripod. It was a fruitless gesture, but it made me feel better. I don't know what happened to the negatives ultimately.

I was influenced by Danny Lyon's beautiful book, "The Destruction of Lower Manhattan." Many of the buildings in this part of the New York City had been constructed in the 19th century and were used during the Civil War. In the thirties, my father used to shop for electronics along "Radio Row"on the Lower West Side.

Eventually the World Trade Center would arise on this site. Lyon's book was re-published after 2001.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Deep history - Brooklyn, 1953

I never knew my great-grandfather, Morris Rabinowitz (Rabinovich in the old country). He died a few years before I was born, but his son, my Uncle Gus, told me that his father had written stories in Yiddish in those old composition books with the black-speckled covers (you can still buy them at King Sooper's, now in a choice of colors). This sparked an intense interest in Yiddish for me in the early 1990's, when I joined the Boulder Yiddish Vinkl, but never seemed to master the language...or find out where those composition books are...

In 1953, and for many many years thereafter, I thought Yiddish was pretty disgusting. A real Americanized kid, second generation. I was born in '48, the start of the Cold War. In 1952-53, when I was in kindergarten and first grade in Brooklyn, we wore dogtags to school. I was very proud of them. Just like my father's Army dogtags. Had my father's name, our address on Richmond Street, and the phone number. Theoretically the Russians would bomb New York, and the bodies of the kids at PS 65 could be identified. Amazing plan, eh? I've since heard that kids on Long Island, the Bronx, even Flagstaff, AZ, wore dogtags to school.

Other memories of Brooklyn:

-Curtsying to our teacher at the end of the schoolday (boys would bow)
-My grandfather's collection of blue seltzer bottles in the cellar, along with the surplus wire he was unable to sell during the war
-The hucksters and knife sharpeners who would come down our street with their horses
-Sparkling anthracite coal we burned for heat
-Church bells late in the afternoon on Crescent Street
-The TV set with the round screen
-Sitting on my grandmother's lap while she read paperbacks
-My mother's Merle Norman rouge
-The photo chemicals from my father's darkroom
-Fighting with my sister
-The Mickey Mouse chair (now in Baltimore)
-Taking out the trains (Lionel) on Sundays (trains now in Baltimore)
-My mother playing "Orche Chornye" [Dark Eyes] on the accordion
-Being burned by a curling iron at Macy's
-Lifebuoy soap, and the finecomb
-Wondering why you couldn't just eat dirt off the street if you were hungry
-Wondering what it meant to be Jewish and starting to divide up the world into Jewish and not-Jewish
-Learning from my mother about Buchenwald
-Fighting with my friend Eleanor Miller in the middle of the street over a book (yes, a book)
-Playing "Tubby the Tuba" on our Victrola
-Watching "City Beneath the Sea" at the Embassy
-Encountering a mouse in the attic, and screaming, "It's a ghost!"
-The smell of the baby carriage
-Breakstone's whipped butter in a ceramic container
-Somersaulting with Michael
-My grandfather smoking Camels
-Dr. Duckman's green Studebaker (he made housecalls)
-Visiting Aunt Mary, Aunt Lily, Aunt Sylvie and all our cousins
-The fighting about who was better, the Dodgers or the Yankees
-My grandfather's Pinochle games and the men drinking shnaps
-Pippy, Wee-Wee and Shnoz [beloved stuffed animals and still have Pippy]
-Afraid Nazis were going to come and get us
-Going to "New York" [what Brooklynites called Manhattan] on the train
-Eating cherry pie at the Automat
-Reading the funnies with my father
-Preferring vanilla ice cream to chocolate
-Dixie cups, malteds, Drake's cupcakes (predecssor to Devil Dogs)
-Mashed potatoes mixed with sour cream and spinach (very Eastern European and still a comfort food)

-Not wanting to leave Brooklyn for Rochester, leave my grandparents behind, leave Michael behind, leave my New York accent behind, and move to a cold, cold, dark place...

And then...

...I read a book by Neal Cassady, Kerouac's buddy. "The First Third" is a story of his youth growing up in a skid row hotel on Market Street (now a vacant lot across from the RTD station) and Curtis Park. Many wanderings in the railroad yards. I was intrigued, thrilled actually to discover more history about the part of Denver that was important to me.

The songs of Tom Waits, too. (So-o-o 70's!!)

Finally, I loved photographing a place that no one else was photographing ( as far as I know) least until the early-mid 80's when Kim came upon the scene...

I hope I can display some of those images sometime...

A change of thread coming...

Deep History

OK, so why did I do this project in the first place?

I had already been photographing the railroad yards in Denver, 1976-78. Yes, the "Central Platte Valley," the current location of Elitch's, the Pepsi Center, Confluence Park, etc. Once called "Rice Yard," owned by the Colorado and Southern Railroad (taken over by the Burlington Northern), and even had a roundhouse down there.

When I first came to Denver in 1974, I hated the place. It felt soul-less. Much of downtown was sorry, seedy, and abandoned. Too many blocks were urban-renewed for parking lots. Well, what do you expect from someone who landed there from Boston?!

I've always had a soft spot for trains. Two uncles were conductors on the New York Central, a strange job for Jewish men perhaps, but they were working class Jews. (I still have some New York Central pudding dishes.) In Brooklyn (Paradise lost), we lived very close to the el on Fulton Street. As I went to sleep at night I heard the clatter of the wheels of the BMT trains...and loved it. And my father sang me to sleep with "I've been workin' on the railroad..." So it was a natural. [I did actually get to work on the railroad later on. Story for another time.]

Influenced by my friend, Dan Furey, from Metro State, I soon found my way down to the railroad yards of Denver. The yards and Lower Downtown were a revelation and I began to photograph like mad. You may ask, a skid row and an industrial zone? Those places felt authentic to me--maybe this was the "real Denver," the historic Denver. If nothing else, they looked like New York to me, like Brooklyn, Paradise lost.

I also discovered Denver's special light. In spring and fall, the sun's rays lengthen and buildings and trains glow. I would get up at 5 am and head down to the yards to meet the rays of dawn. The splendor of photographing in that light was, well, splendid! Infrared film captured it even more beautifully. (I only see that light occasionally in Boulder, but I saw it in Pueblo).

Then in 1978...

Rephotographing Denver

I have just embarked on a project to rephotograph downtown Denver, block by block, an area bounded by Arapahoe Street, Wynkoop Street, 19th Street to Cherry Creek. Thirty years ago, I documented these same street corners as a volunteer for the Colorado Historical Society. That project in turn was based on work done by a WPA photographer named Cyril Norred, who worked for the Society in 1937.

This time, I'm proud to say, that my son, Sam Fairchild, is my colleague on this project. He will do the photography on the streets and has already entered all my data linking the original accession numbers of the images with my 1978-79 images. Bravo!

The first time we ventured out, some weeks ago, we tried to find locations on Arapahoe St. Needless to say nothing was familiar from 1978 (let alone 1937). A hailstorm quickly overtook us so we spent the rest of the afternoon at Zaidy's downtown restaurant. Eating hummus was fun, but not the intended mission of the day...hopefully the afternoon storms of Denver will be over soon.

Lower Downtown (LoDo) was a skid row when I photographed in the 70's, one of many skid rows in Denver (South Broadway was another one.) The closer I got to Union Station, the seedier the streets and of course, the closer I got to Arapahoe, the more parking lots I encountered.

Why did I do this project in the first place? Stay tuned...