New York Photobooks

About photobooks – old and new.

Danny Lyon – The destruction of lower Manhattan


Title: The Destruction of Lower Manhattan

Author: Danny Lyon

Published by Macmillan Company in 1969.

4to, Hardcover with photographically illustrated dust jacket.

[A second edition was published in 2005 by PowerHouse]


In June 2005, the Museum of the City of New York organized an exhibition on “The Destruction of Lower Manhattan” based on Danny Lyon’s work published four decades earlier. In the context of that exhibition, Eric Banks wrote a piece for the New York Times describing with valuable details the photographer’s motivation and the context of his project. Parts of that text were used word-by-word for this post.

“In 1966, a swath of Lower Manhattan faced a demolition job of staggering magnitude. Over the next year, whole streets were slated to disappear, and did, along with the cast-iron “Bartleby the Scrivener”-era buildings that lined them, housing printing lofts and importers, tanneries and produce stalls. More than 24 city blocks would be razed to allow for a wave of development that included an access ramp for the Brooklyn Bridge, the expansion of Pace University, and office buildings, shops and housing. Opening the way for the expansion of West Street, the construction of the World Trade Center and, eventually, Battery Park City, the area was pulled apart, literally, brick by brick. In all, some 60 acres of buildings below Canal Street vanished.”

“As astonishing as the scope of the demolition project was, it attracted few witnesses. One was the photographer Danny Lyon”, who had “moved into a loft on Williams Street, in the heart of the largely empty neighborhood, and was struck by the atmosphere of abandonment. He approached associates at the Magnum photo agency, who helped him arrange financing for his project to document the disappearance of the buildings and the 19th-century mercantile New York they evoked.”

“…he worked on the series for a year, capturing somber views of the facades and interiors of the doomed structures and the efforts of demolition workers to bring down their sturdy columns and frames. (Among those structures was one of the oldest cast-iron buildings in the world, a four-story industrial space constructed in 1848.)”

“When the buildings were demolished in 1967, no one in New York cared,” he said. “I don’t recall ever seeing a single other photographer in front of a building during the six months it took to demolish them, though many hundreds of professional photographers then lived in Manhattan.” What unites this project, “The Destruction of Lower Manhattan”, with previous Lyon’s projects, is his interest in the socially and culturally marginal and powerless.

“More immediately, 9/11 has rewritten the context of the photographs. After the destruction of the World Trade Center, there was renewed interest in exhibiting his images, but Mr. Lyon initially resisted. “I thought it would be in bad taste to do it at the time, so I waited,” he said. Then, the reissue of the book by Powerhouse prompted the Museum of the City of New York to seek an exhibition of the complete set of vintage prints, which were lent to the museum by a private collector.”

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This entry was posted on October 23, 2016 by in New York photobooks, The constant regeneration of the city.
October 2016

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