Walking around the Lower East Side these days, the neighborhood can at times feel like an amusement park stuffed into a history museum, as clubs denominated by shades of fuchsia fill the first floors of century-old tenement buildings. Ironically, when Clayton Patterson and his wife, Elsa Rensaa, arrived on the LES in 1979, the state of affairs could be described pretty similarly, but the amusements du jour were drag clubs, hardcore and heroin, not $15 mojitos. During the 29 years that he has lived there, Patterson has tirelessly documented the neighborhood's characters, culture and social evolution through video and photography. Today, as the neighborhood is undergoing a frighteningly rapid process of gentrification—risking the effacement of the area's vibrant and diverse character—his work seems more important than ever.
In their new documentary, Captured, which was screened at the NewMuseum theater on Friday, Jenner Furst, Dan Levin and Ben Solomon pay homage to Patterson as an impromptu historian, and look back with a twinge of nostalgia at the neighborhood's gritty and dynamic past. The film moves roughly chronologically through Patterson's life and work, starting with his early days filming drag queens at the Pyramid Club (still around, but markedly different in character). From there, Patterson began documenting the budding hardcore scene (including captivating footage of an early Bad Brains concert), as well as the diverse and fruitful visual art communities in the area. As Patterson himself put it, he liked to spend time "on the outside edge," to see firsthand how society was changing. To him, the Lower East Side was one such fringe, where "you could do what you wanted to do."
Of course, all that freedom of expression was accompanied by its fair share of violence and poverty. As former mayor Ed Koch puts it in the film, "Quality of life was not on the agenda." Patterson's footage of the harrowing drug scene and the extensive violence is indicative of just how far the neighborhood was from the city's attention.
All of that changed with the so-called Tompkins Square riot, on August 6, 1988. Patterson's footage of the night, accompanied by insightful commentary from academics, policemen and militant squatters, is no doubt the highlight of the film. After the police attempted to enforce a 1am curfew on TompkinsSquarePark, home to dozens of the area's homeless, the rather disparate neighborhood banded together, fighting in the streets until the police retreated the next morning. Patterson, with the immense help of his wife, captured hours of incredible footage, from M80 explosions startling mounted officers to shot after sickening shot of brutal police beatings.
The irony of watching a film that bemoans the Lower East Side's golden days in a venue that symbolizes the neighborhood's transformation was difficult to shrug off. But Patterson seems all right with it. In the Q&A after the screening, he admitted his initial skepticism of the NewMuseum, but praised its efforts to connect with the area's arts community, past and present. Despite gentrification, Patterson shows little signs of letting up with his work, let alone moving to Brooklyn. For years he has assiduously recorded his neighborhood's history, helping to solidify its place in New York City lore at its most animated, dangerous and unique. While things will no doubt continue to change, his status as a neighborhood fixture is immutable, no matter how many new museums move onto the Bowery.
For information about the film and future screenings, go to http://capturedmovie.com/