In the late 1970s, my favorite place to shoot was Alphabet City, north of Houston Street between Avenues A and D on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. At the time, the neighborhood had more than its share of drug dealers and petty criminals.
The landscape was forbidding, but to a child, the abandoned buildings and rubble-strewn lots provided raw materials and open space for improvised play. A crumbling tenement housed a secret clubhouse, a rooftop became a private aviary, and a pile of trash was a potential source for treasure.
Children played freely without adult supervision. I admired the simplicity of their toys and their imagination. Today, New York City has undergone a transformation. New buildings stand in place of the razed tenements and it’s rare to see children devising their own playgrounds.
Martha Cooper is a documentary photographer, who has specialized in shooting urban vernacular art and architecture for nearly 50 years. Her books include Subway Art (a collaboration with Henry Chalfant), R.I.P.: Memorial Wall Art, Hip Hop Files 1980-1984, We B*Girlz, Street Play, New York State of Mind, Tag Town, Going Postal, Name Tagging, Tokyo Tattoo 1970 and Remembering 9/11.
Martha’s work has been exhibited in museums and galleries worldwide, and published in numerous magazines from National Geographic to Vibe. She lives in Manhattan but frequently travels to street art festivals across the globe.