After doggedly trying to document firefighters responding to an alarm on Ludlow St. last Thursday afternoon, Lower East Side documentarian Clayton Patterson found himself handcuffed and spending a couple of hours in a Seventh Precinct cell after having repeatedly refused orders to keep his distance.
Patterson said he was only trying to get a good shot, and that it turned out to be nothing major, anyway, “just smoke in someone’s kitchen.” The arresting police officer, an Officer Lugo, told him he needed a press pass.
“I documented that block for 30 years and never had a problem,” Patterson said speaking days after his release. “It’s important that people document what’s going on,” he said, adding that Ludlow St. recently has been plagued by serious traffic problems due to all the ongoing construction.
Patterson, who filmed one of only two major videotape accounts of the first Tompkins Square Park riots, went to jail for 10 days in 1988 for refusing to give police the original copy of that tape.
“It’s ironic,” he said. “Here it is 20 years later, and I’m doing the same thing I’ve been doing for more than 20 years and I get thrown in jail for it.” Patterson said he’s been arrested a total of 14 times for videoing or photographing in defiance of police orders to back away, though it hadn’t happened for several years before last week.
“For a few years after the riots, it was quite common to get arrested,” he said. “That tape got a lot of cops criminally indicted and fired.” Patterson said he’s not about to change his approach now. “You have a right to be out there photographing and taping what’s going on in your community,” he stated.
Patterson’s Lower East Side archive now stands, by his estimate, at “probably over 1 million photographs and over several thousand hours of video.” He is also completing editing his third book on the Lower East Side, this one on the subject of the neighborhood’s leading Jewish figures.
“It’ll probably be called ‘Jews: A People’s History of the Lower East Side,’” Patterson said. The three-volume tome will clock in at 2,500 pages and 150 articles.
“The archive is real, the books are real, what I’m doing is real,” Patterson said. “It’s not just some jerk on the street taking pictures and getting in people’s way. This archive on the Lower East Side is the largest archive on the Lower East Side ever assembled by one person,” he said, likening the impact of his work to that of Jacob Riis.
Patterson noted that Susan Stetzer, Community Board 3’s district manager, has used his photos of Ludlow St. traffic to show city officials the situation’s seriousness.
“We have been having problems on Ludlow because of the multiple construction sites,” Stetzer said. She confirmed that she sent Patterson’s Ludlow St. photos to the Department of Transportation’s and Department of Buildings’ borough commissioners “to show the severity of the problem and it helped tremendously. I give Clayton’s photos of these accidents a great deal of credit in helping me make agencies aware of the problem and I have told this to Clayton and thanked him for his help,” she said.
“This is a very painful situation,” Stetzer said. “Clayton and I are often at sites in the district together while I am working on problems and he is documenting. We share a great love for our community and I think his work is valuable. I also work very, very closely with the Seventh Precinct. This is a very upsetting situation.”