Basement Sanctuaries explores the ways in which superintendents decorate basements of apartment buildings in Northern Manhattan by illuminating the process of migrant adaptation to the metropolis from an intimate perspective. I, a migrant myself, had the idea for this project when apartment-hunting in the neighborhood.
Superintendents are caretakers that usually live in the basements of apartment buildings with more than thirteen units. They are in charge of the building on behalf of the owner, do minor repairs in the apartments and deal with the tenants’ concerns. It is a job that is mainly done by migrants.
In many ways, basements are special sanctuaries for supers and their families. Supers often live in basements that are hidden from the public and from visitors, which creates a form of privacy. However, the basement is also a space of work for supers and their environment is on display for the residents of the building. Under these circumstances, the supers’ decorations function as a territorial claim over the basement’s public/private space.
Most of the supers in Northern Manhattan are migrants from Latin America or the Caribbean, and images from their home countries might connect their new home to a past they have left behind. This can be especially important given the grueling nature of their work and the difficulty of establishing oneself in New York City.
The repeated themes of cultural, national, and religious origins suggest that similar impulses drive the decoration process for different supers. However, the photos also show the diverse ways in which supers have personalized their work and living spaces and created a uniquely intimate space in the basement of New York City.
The images encourage viewers to think in new ways about how space functions in New York City apartment buildings and broaden our understanding of the relationship among migration, semi-public/private space, and the everyday landscape.
When photographing the basement decoration I was interested in the visual culture of the supers, how they project their local cultures onto the spaces and how they approach the space as curators by using found objects. I consider the images as fine art within a process of research that includes interviews with supers.
The images were shot on film with medium format cameras using only available light to show the conditions the supers work and live in.
Basement Sanctuaries will be published by Schilt Publishing in the Spring of 2014.
As an additional element for the book, I have also photographed and interviewed the superintendents to present their personal stories.
For this project I was awarded a 2011 and 2012 Individual Artist Grant from the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance (NoMAA) as well as a 2012 Manhattan Community Arts Fund (MCAF) grant from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC).