It has been a while since Greg has mentioned Willets Points in Queens. When he brought it up, I quickly noticed that his tone of voice this time was different. It was more deep and his eyes were sparkling. You should come and see this place-he said. I was intrigued after Greg one night, showed me the pictures he developed in our tiny bathroom. He told me stories about the people he took pictures of for his project which will come out soon at gregbrophy.com. So I said let’s go this weekend.
On Saturday morning we went off together to visit Willets Point so Greg could continue his project but also so I can help him gather more stories by talking to people and finding out more about them. From our place we took the A train to Times Square and changed to 7 train until we reached Willets Point. My first impression about the surroundings was nothing like Greg’s pictures. The area around the Stadium was clean enough, but then we walked one block away from the stadium towards Willets Point Boulevard and obviously I could see what Greg meant. The scene in front of me brought me back to the Albania of 1997-1998. The contrast between a super rich city a few miles away and an area that looked like it was brutally raped several times, created a shocking contrast. It's hard to believe a place like this exists in New York City. Walking through the smelly and dusty streets was really tough. The heat made the smell and the dust rise higher and higher as the dust covered each of us. I tried to cover my face, like I usually do in Albania, but the smell and the dust was too strong and pierced right through my senses. Come this way Greg said. I followed without saying much because I did not want to let the bad smell and the dust discourage me. When he stopped and I stopped too.
Greg brought his 8x10 camera. When he is not using it, the camera makes a wonderful a decorative piece in our place. As he was setting up the camera, which takes time, I took his digital camera and took some pictures of my own as I really want to document and write something about the place too. I now knew how Greg felt when he came to Willets Point for the first time. My blood was rising as the dust and the heat took their toll, but by that time it did not matter much.
I did a 360 degree turn to see where I should go and to find where the best place to take photos. A spot where the sun won't overpower my pictures. We were surrounded by car repair shops. I have never seen so many of them.
People would go to Willets Point to get their car fixed for a lot cheaper than what they could in find the city. Some of these places were licensed and some not. I approached one shop, which was closed down but there were still people standing in front of it. I heard them talking to each other in Spanish and I immediately threw out to them my "Hola, que tal?" For a moment they hesitated to say "Hola" back and I could feel that they were not comfortable talking to me. They finally said Hola and ignored me. I said: No soy policia o parte de la oficina del emigracion. As soon as I said that I am not part of the emigration office, one of them asked where I was from. Immediately without even thinking I said: Spain. Que parte de Espana? I answered-Madrid. It only took this little bit to make a connection and get to know them and about their life here in NYC. I asked them what happened to their garage, why was it closed? They said that the city wanted to close down every shop here so they could turn it into a big parking lot or casino or maybe a commercial center. I heard different versions about what will be built there but the one thing that was clear, the area will be gone soon. The streets were never repaired and I asked why the streets are like this, isn't the city suppose to fix them? They pretty much gave the same answer, the city would like to keep this place like this, run down, big holes and unpaved streets so it will be easier to justify their actions so they could say the area is blighted and then they could build their big, multimillionaire projects such as casinos, commercial centers or parking lot.
All of them were from South America, Colombia, Peru, Mexico and the DR. Greg came over and I introduced him to my new friends. They were all talking about how beautiful their country is and how much they miss it. They started to talk to Greg in Spanish, but I told them that Greg only speaks Spanish when he has a drink in his hand. They were laughing and Greg as well and more people were curious and started to join in. They would call each other by the name of the country they were from. They shouted "Hey Cuba, get over here and be in the picture". It was perfect for Greg, to meet these people and to be able to the tell stories of so many people who were struggling and eager to work so they can support their families. I too, was also fascinated by learning their stories and getting to know them on a different level.
It was hot and we left the place to buy some beers for them as a way to say thank you for opening their heart to us and trusting us. To them we were just some strangers walking in Willets Points with their cameras taking pictures of their area like so many other photographers have recently done. On the way to Deli I stopped to talk with another person who had a similar story. He did not let me to take pictures of him but I asked him whether I could take pictures of his hands and the place he works, he agreed.
We started talking about Spain and about how his brothers live in there. About how life is better and more relaxed than here and that he was looking forward to go this winter to Teruel. As he was talking about Spain, my heart was melting and I couldn't help think about missing my friends, the food, the streets, and the beach. Spain became a common ground for me with the people I met there. I never thought that Spain would follow me so far to the edge of Willets Point. When I realized this, I was already between here and there in my mind and in my heart.
After taking his picture, he mentioned that he had chickens in his shop once but the raccoons ate them. I could see the tears in his eyes. If it is not the city, it is the raccoons, or by raccoons he meant the city? I do not know.
We brought the beers to our friends, they opened them up quickly enough and we took some more pictures together. The emigration office needs everything –I told them in Spanish. Their expressions immediately froze and I laughed hard and told them I was just kidding. I took their pictures and here are my new friends.
While we were saying Good bye to our new friends, we met with an artist and rapper. He was so eager to talk to us about his artistic life as musician. He showed us a video clip of Alejandro Sanz, a Spanish singer from Málaga who now lives in Florida. I watched the clip and noticed that he was there as well. You can find some of his work here. We spoke and took pictures and spoke some more. Here is the picture of him.
We said good bye and headed towards an unknown area to us, digging for more moving stories. While walking, the smell had quickly become unbearable. There was nothing that could stop the smell from getting to my lungs. I could quickly feel how the smell spreading through both sides of my body, getting into my ribs, arms and legs. Unfortunately, Greg wanted to stop and take more pictures with his film camera. As he stopped and I ran away from that wave of smells. I figured out later that trash (I do not know from which area of NYC it was coming from) was dumped in this particular area where Greg wanted to shoot. Here is the area.
I ran to escape the bad smell and search for new stories. I was able to take more pictures but I was still not able to escape the smell. The smell was stuck in my head and my Albanian nose is too sensitive to any unpleasant smells. While waiting for Greg, I saw people waving at me. Initially I thought that they wanted pictures taken, but not this time. People thought I was a prostitute. I was laughing hard when I told Greg the story. In one day, I was mistaken for an emigration officer and a prostitute. Which one do I like better? Hmmm
We finally came back around to Willets Point Boulevard again where we met these two women who were selling colorful drinks. It was so easy for me to just to talk to them in Spanish with my Spanish accent (very different than the Spanish from South America). I got their attention immediately. It allowed us to break the ice and take their photo.
We stopped at one last shop. I asked the owner if I could take some pictures and again the answer was: Puedes tomar lo que tu quieras. I took photos while Greg took photos for his project.
We took several pictures and left the place with wonderful memories and interesting photos that document this piece of the city which is lost in its own way but with so many warm hearted people, that although may seem poor on the surface, are very rich inside with warm smiles and open arms to strangers like us.
Of course I want to go back to this place again and again, though afraid that I wont be able to see my friends again because something other than the dust and smell will be covering the area.