Video © Michael Ursone Films
6sqft has been excitedly following the progress of photographers James and Karla Murray‘s Seward Park art installation “Mom-and-Pops of the LES,” from the announcement that they’d been chosen through the Art in the Parks UNIQLO Park Expressions Grant Program to their wildly successful Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the wood-frame structure’s build out. And now the piece, featuring four nearly life-size images of Lower East Side business that have mostly disappeared, is finally complete. James and Karla shared with 6sqft an exclusive time-lapse video of the installation process and chatted with us about why they chose these particular storefronts, what the build-out was like, and how they hope New Yorkers will learn from their message.
Video © Michael Ursone Films
James and Karla first came into the spotlight a decade ago with their first account of small businesses in NYC a decade ago with their seminal book “Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York,” which captured hundreds of mom-and-pops and their iconic facades, many of them since shuttered, along with interviews with the business owners. They then published two follow-ups, “New York Nights” and “Store Front II-A History Preserved,” gaining local and even international fame for their documentation of vanishing culture and celebration of local businesses.
This is the first time they’ve brought their mom-and-pop photos to such a grand scale. The wood-frame sculpture is 8 feet high, 12 feet wide, and 8 feet deep. It’s framed with lumber and plywood and covered with photos printed on dibond, an aluminum composite material that is weather-, UV-, freeze- and heat-resistant and has a graffiti-resistant laminate applied to it.
6sqft had the chance to interview the artists:
Why did you choose these four storefronts?
We purposely chose three that are no longer in business and have sadly disappeared from the streetscape. We chose the bodega image (Deli/Superette) because many corner bodegas have recently closed as the Lower East Side has gentrified. For many people in the area, the bodega acted as an ad hoc community center where you could talk to the owner or others hanging out both inside and outside and find out the neighborhood gossip while shopping for virtually anything from food, drink, candy, or toiletries and household items.
We chose Cup & Saucer to be immortalized because it not only was a fantastic luncheonette in business since the 1940s but because the family-owned business really helped bring the Lower East Side community together. Co-owners John and Nick knew their customers by name and told us that they often would begin preparing their regulars’ favorite meals as soon as they saw them crossing the street. Sadly, this coffee shop which was located just down the street from Seward Park was forced to close in 2017 after a steep rent increase.
We chose Chung’s Candy & Soda Stand because this small newsstand located off the Bowery in Chinatown closed in 2017. Newsstands, in general, have been increasingly threatened (as a small business) because many people simply don’t purchase newspapers anymore as they obtain most of the news online.
James and Karla’s rescue dog Hudson poses in front of the Katz’s photo
And then we chose the Delicatessen as our final image as an homage to the many delicatessens that once lined the streets of the Lower East Side. In the early 1900s there were more than 60 delicatessens specializing in Eastern European Jewish cuisine and now there is only one remaining in the neighborhood–Katz’s Delicatessen.
All of the mom-and-pop shops we chose represent small businesses that were common in the Lower East Side and helped bring the community together through people’s daily interactions. When viewing the near life-size photographs one can get a visceral sense of the impact of these losses on the community and on those who once depended on the shops that are now gone. The installation is an artistic intervention and a plea for recognition of the unique and irreplaceable contribution made to New York by small, often family-owned businesses. These neighborhood stores help set the pulse, life, and texture of their communities.
The response to your Kickstarter campaign was overwhelming! Did you expect this?
We were very pleasantly surprised about the outpouring of support we received as our Kickstarter campaign funding goal was met in just a little over two days. We purposely set an initial modest goal which represented the minimum amount we needed.
Tell us how you went about the logistics of building the structure.
It was pretty involved as neither of us are professional carpenters and we have never attempted to construct anything of this size before. We knew the basics but after watching a few YouTube videos and getting advice from friends who have some knowledge about construction, including Joey Kilrain and Doug Ensel, so we felt confident.
We also received invaluable advice about the fabrication and installation of the dibond photo panels from Fernando Luciano of Unique Visuals NY. This small independent print business located in Greenwich Village not only beautifully fabricated and printed our near life-size storefront photos but also professionally installed them on the wood frame we built. We were happy to support a local small business so that we were not only raising awareness of Mom-and-Pop stores, but also giving back by supporting a local business.
An up-close of the model (top) and Karla holding the model in front of the installation (bottom)
Also, building our 1/10th scale miniature prior to doing the actual full-size build was extremely helpful to us as it gave us a way of visually the installation and build process of framing the four walls and installing the photos and constructing a roof.
How did the actual build-out go?
The actual build went well despite the high heat and humidity. We again supported a local business by purchasing many of our materials from a nearby lumber store, Chinatown Lumber. We worked slowly but efficiently spreading the work over four days. On Monday, we also received help from our friends, John and Kyungmi. Mario from Unique Visuals NY also helped us secure the sculpture.
What has the response been like so far?
We have been receiving such positive feedback on our social media accounts and also from community members who watched the installation process. They told us that not only does the installation look wonderful but that they remember many of the shops and miss shopping/dining at them. It is especially rewarding to see children’s faces when they realize that they can’t actually go inside the stores to purchase food or candy.
The Art in the Parks UNIQLO Park Expressions Grant Program is a partnership between the Japenese clothing company and NYC Parks Department. It began in 2016 and each summer chooses 10 NYC-based emerging artists to bring their works to parks throughout the boroughs that have historically lacked cultural programming. Learn more about this year’s finalists here.
Please join James and Karla Murray on Saturday, July 14th at 1pm for the official opening celebration for “Mom-and-Pops of the L.E.S.” They’ll be discussing the inspiration behind their project and will have delicious pickle samples from local shop the Pickle Guys.
- Local artists will bring 10 public art installations to NYC parks this summer
- My 630sqft: Inside ‘Store Front’ photographers Karla & James Murray’s East Village home of 22 years
- Documenting Gentrification’s Toll on the Mom-and-Pops of Greenwich Village
All photos courtesy of James and Karla Murray
Neighborhoods : Lower East Side