“How the Other Half Looks: The Lower East Side and the Afterlives of Images” by Sara Blair— How New York’s Lower East Side Inspired New Ways of Seeing America

Blair, Sara. “How the Other Half Looks: The Lower East Side and the Afterlives of Images”, Princeton University Press, 2018.

How New York’s Lower East Side inspired New Ways of Seeing America

Amos Lassen

New York City’s Lower East Side has been long viewed as the space of what Jacob Riis notoriously called the “other half.” The Lower East Side was also a crucible for experimentation in photography, film, literature, and visual technologies. In “How the Other Half Looks, Sara Blair takes an unprecedented look at the practices of observation that emerged from here, showing how they have informed literary and everyday narratives of America, its citizens, and its possible futures.

We begin a journey in the mid-nineteenth century and continue to the present experiencing the career of the Lower East Side as a place where image-makers, writers, and social reformers tested new techniques to better understand America. We see the birth of American photojournalism, the writings of Stephen Crane and Abraham Cahan, and the forms of early cinema. During the 1930s, we watch the emptying ghetto bring about contested views of the modern city, animating the work of such writers and photographers as Henry Roth, Walker Evans, and Ben Shahn. After World War II, we learn the Lower East Side became a key resource for imagining poetic revolution, as in the work of Allen Ginsberg and LeRoi Jones, and exploring dystopian futures, from Cold War atomic strikes to the death of print culture and the threat of climate change.

What we really understand from this journey is that the Lower East Side has inspired new ways of “looking—and looking back” and these have shaped literary and popular expression as well as American modernity. Our journey blended visual and aural evidence as we see how creative writers, journalists, photographers, poets, and so many others focused on what they think they saw and heard in the Lower East Side.

Sara Blair takes us through the literature and the art of Jacob Riis, D. W. Griffith, Paul Strand, Henry Roth, Ben Shahn, Allen Ginsberg, and Gary Shteyngart, among others. We become aware of historical and stylistic differences and understand that this is due to the Lower East Side’s always changing and always the same, she constantly returns to the question of time. We are reminded of how much cultural work we do to continue imagining the project of America.

After reading this, we cannot help but think differently I about the Lower East Side, as “a place of entry not just for historical newcomers to the United States but for understanding how we’ve come to view and imagine this rich, ongoing, incomplete experiment we call America…It’s about the way history lives and continues to shape our lives in images, and how we might learn to look back more acutely at that history, at a time when we urgently need to learn from it.”

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