Michael Webster – Too Many Black People in One Place

Michael Webster

Too Many Black People in One Place

Intro by Roy Edroso

There is a neighborhood called Coney Island just up from the beach in south Brooklyn. Because the gentrification waves that have transformed much of the City have not reached it, the world mostly hears of its crimes, and sometimes about politicians visiting to show concern and promise improvements. Down by the water is the Coney Island the world knows better: the boardwalk, the Cyclone, the hot dog eating contests at Nathan’s, the carnival games, the sea and the surf — what the New York Economic Development Corporation (a not-for-profit facilitator of government and private sector cooperation) calls on its website a “historic entertainment destination.”

The world may also know, if it reads the New York papers, about the real estate squabbles that in recent years caused sections of Coney Island’s amusement parks, as entertainment destinations were once called, to be torn down. A developer named Joe Sitt bought up land at Coney Island and negotiated long and hard with the City over its use, sometimes demolishing batting cages or go-kart tracks, seemingly for emphasis. Sitt talked about his own lavish plans for the properties — “Vegas-style” was a frequently employed adjective — while the Bloomberg Administration tried to talk down the price.

The City eventually got control of enough of the land to build new amusements on it, or rather contract with other companies to build them; Sitt’s company continues to hold parcels, some of which remain deconstructed (though he recently leased to a shop that sells merchandise relating to the Brooklyn Nets, who play at Barclays Center, another product of real estate speculation further north in Brooklyn).

Other developers hold land in Coney Island too, and you may see at their websites great plans for its use, including residential and business towers, anticipating  larger changes; some of these plans are years old, but the developers have plenty of time to see them through.

This alarms some activists and nostalgic New Yorkers and expatriates. But it is reasonable to note that Coney Island has been convulsed by speculation many times since the first amusements were planted there more than a century ago. As long as rides and clam bars and games of skill are in operation, you might say, Coney is what it was.

 

 

You might also say that about the rest of New York, though that too has been affected by speculation. In fact it has gotten so intense that a new term for it has been generated: hyper-gentrification. This may be briefly described as what happens when gentrification cuts out the middleman. The middleman, in this case, would be those advance parties of urban pioneers who once made beachheads in poor neighborhoods. That’s how it had been done for decades: artists and adventurers would come to the East Village, Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and such places to get the cheap rents and make a scene, and after a while big money would chasing after. But now big money is bigger than ever, and has discovered that doesn’t need an advance guard. It finds cheap land, buys it up, and creates new markets all by itself. The outsiders will come not as pioneers now, but as customers.

Thus city life grows ever more expensive. But the City knows its own interests, and gives some elbow room to its poorest residents via low-income housing and other forms of public assistance; also, the big money provides opportunities for them to fill their income gaps with the hard jobs, on or off the books, that the wealthier residents need someone to do for them: cleaning their apartments, hauling their furniture, driving them home in the middle of the night.

Like everyone else these folks need to relax, to blow off steam, to get a change of scene, but they can’t spend a lot on that. The need is more pressing in the summertime, when apartments are close and hot; on the worst days the city makes overnight “cooling stations” of community centers, but those are not places to cut loose in. So they hang out in parks, on street corners, in playgrounds. There are limits on what you can do there, too, so sometimes it’s worth a trip to Coney. There you can take advantage of the official attractions, which are more expensive than they once were — the Luna Park complex, for example, now offers “wristband deals” starting at $32 — but even when money is tight you can drink outside at Coney, and dance to boomboxes on the boardwalk, and play on the beach and swim in the water.

 

 

When night falls the atmosphere changes a little. On big nights, like the Fourth of July, thousands of people are out, and their voices gather and rise above the music. Some have been drinking a good long while; others haven’t been drinking but have been laughing with friends, running in the sand, riding bumper cars and screaming on the Cyclone, walking the length of the boardwalk and back, eating clams and hot dogs, breathing the sea air, and getting the good kind of tired that makes you forget how tough the days are, then realize you’re not tired at all, just relaxed. You have plenty of jam left. You may have been toasted by the sun, but the sun is down now and the air is cooler. The abundant lights of Coney now shape the space, make a glow that you’re inside, and you may be aware that you are literally at the edge of the City; no skyscrapers tower over you; beyond the beach is only the black ocean.

But you are in the City still. Occasionally you’ll see, in the middle of the throng, a few cops standing close to a young man, and as you pass you check to see if his hands have been cuffed. In front of the Polar Express a cop car moves slowly through the crowd, and patrolmen call and motion for them to disperse. This is nothing unusual; just crowd control; you’ve seen it here before. And if one night you see cops on horseback, riding in to take command of the street, it may seem strange but it’s something you’ve seen before, too; not here, but at anti-war demonstrations, or at Occupy Wall Street, or at the Tompkins Square Riot. That’s what they’re sent to do if there’s a threat. You don’t see a threat here, but somebody does. Obviously. They must. You can’t imagine they were sent just to get people out of the way, to make them feel — innocent as they are, as long as they’ve been coming — that they aren’t welcome.

The deeper into the night it gets, the more active the police become. Yards away are the trains that will take you back, and you may decide it would be a good idea to beat the crowds. You’ve had a good time, and you don’t dwell on the police activity. There is after all a good bit of crime further up from the beach — a cab driver was just slashed there, you saw it on the news — and you don’t want it coming down to the entertainment destination. Neither does anyone else.  Changes are coming that will make that less likely, maybe in time unthinkable. People have plans for Coney, as they always have. They’re just bigger than they used to be.

 

 

Bio

On July 4, 2013, I took my 14-year-old son to the Coney Island amusement park in Brooklyn, New York. We were present as police closed off a section of the park that was popular with lower income, mostly darker skinned New Yorkers, many from projects around the city. The cops forced all the businesses to close along that stretch and used a line of mounted police to drive thousands of people off the street. We saw police beat a young woman who protested. They beat her down to the concrete with their fists and then kicked her while she was down.

There were no acts of violence or vandalism or any other kind of civil disobedience that precipitated the police action. People were behaving peacefully and generally appeared to be having a good time.

The following morning I returned to the scene and asked one of the business owners why the police had cleared the street.

“Too many black people in one place,” he said.

I am an American Photographer currently living in the United States.

 

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Michael Webster

15 Responses to “Michael Webster – Too Many Black People in One Place”


  • Excellent work, Michael! Intimate and powerful.

  • Very good Michael. I like it very much.

  • Really nice pictures Michael. A giant leap forward. My gripe is with the super high iso noise patterns visible even at laptop size. A trade off I guess so as to be able to shoot available, but that repetitive pattern banding really intrudes into the images.

  • Like this. I like the high noise. America is fucked up at the moment (perhaps it always has been) Lots of things need a bottom up rethink which I can’t imagine will ever happen.

  • Hey Michael. Congratulations and thanks for this. First of all, your essay, the written one, is amazing. I read it first, as is my habit. It’s probably among the best I’ve seen here. You paint a vivid picture. Never have been to New York, but I feel I know it a little more after reading this. After reading this I also pain a little more and feel a little more disturbed by the things that seem to be festering in your country.
    I like some of your photographs a lot. 1, 3, 6, and the panos stand out for me. As John G points out, the noise and banding in some of the shots is problematic and distracting. This is a problem with my X100 as well, when you dig in to an under-exposed file in post. Doesn’t seem to happen with the later sensors.
    I must admit I don’t care for your black and white conversions. Are these done in camera? In any case, it seems to me that this essay screams for colour.

  • @michael kircher, no doubt this is powerful and excellent. but i dont see anything intimate! its really great though

  • Thanks for the comments. You know I always appreciate them, positive or not. Thanks also to David and the burn staff. The photo world would be a much poorer place without them. And special thanks to Roy Edroso for the intro. Roy is what one might call a “consummate New Yorker,” and I greatly appreciate the consideration he gave my work and the nuanced piece of writing that came out of it.

    Regarding the extreme noise in some of the images, it was dark and I was shooting wide open at the highest ISO with, as Gordon notes, an original Fuji X-100. I spent many hours trying different de-noising techniques in post, but could never get it right to my eye and ended up doing nothing, figuring the noise and banding would just have to be a feature rather than a bug.

    The situation on the night of the massive police action and near riot was very volatile. It would have been nice to use a strobe, but flash does not go over well in Coney Island on the best of nights, so it was not really an option. I probably wouldn’t have gotten away with using a professional-looking DSLR, either. The police seemed less than thrilled with my presence as it was. It’s a sad comment on the U.S. that I was in the middle of a large crowd of African-Americans from the New York projects and it was the police I was afraid of. Especially for my son.

    Of course it is much sadder for all those African Americans (and Africans, West Indians, Dominicans, et.al.) who come out in public and get hassled by the cops for no good reason. The most poignant part of the essay, for me, is how many people in the photos were wearing clothing with American flags.

    Strange, how projects sometimes go. I worked on this one for years, but ended up using photos from just a three week period in this essay. I can tell precisely the same story with an entirely different set of photos, which is sad as well because what I witnessed on that fourth of July, although larger in scale, was far from an isolated incident. Ethic cleansing, of sorts, has been happening there for some time.

    I go back to a comment made by Mayor Bloomberg back when the Coney Island redevelopment projects were just beginning. He said “nobody goes there anymore.” Well, I went there a lot and knew that it was regularly packed with people, up to a quarter million on hot summer days. Thing is, most of that crowd consisted of low income minorities. It seemed clear to me what kind of nobodies and somebodies the billionaire mayor had in mind when he made the comment.

  • Oh yeah, The Blue look cold tone colour temp thing. Stylistic choice? Interested to hear your reasoning.

  • Mike, this is a SUPERB piece of work. I did wait until my return home from the field because I did not want to look at it on my iPhone for the first time but instead looked at it on my 27 inch iMac. Yes, the noise could be a bit of a distraction I suppose but I looked right through it at the content and found it stunning – number 3 alone with the title would have said it all, but I am glad you posted 22.

    Do they still have belugas at Coney Island? I always felt kind of bad for them. I’ve seen a lot of belugas these past three weeks.

  • MICHAEL WEBSTER

    nice work my friend….i think developing your original idea further worked….there is always that original itch and desire to publish right away…you had that last year…yet by waiting and thinking and tweaking, you made another whole statement….

    nice!!!

    cheers, david

  • Thanks David, Bill, all.

    David, yes, I think the tweaks, which were all in the direction of a purity of sorts, made it much stronger. On one hand, it really took me a long time to get past the issue of the noise and trying to do something about it. On the other, limiting it to pics from just one camera and focusing on a much more compressed time frame gave the piece a cohesiveness that was somewhat lacking before. Always tough to kill your darlings, innit?

    I also appreciate you giving me the space to tell the story my way. I know you generally don’t like narrative strategies such as repetition and establishing shots in photo essays, both of which I feel are very important (in my own work, at least), yet you have always respected my choices in those matters. Still, I figured you’d think I had at least one row of mounted cops too many, to name just the most egregious example.

    And speaking of repetitive elements, I also need to thank Mat Fraser and my friends at Coney Island U.S.A. for allowing me to shoot his act at the Burlesque. Mat is a great performer and Coney Island U.S.A. is a great place on a lot of levels. Anyone in New York should check it out.

    John, yes, the blue tint is an aesthetic choice. I use it in two other essays as well, so I guess it now qualifies as part of who I am. In this one, I think it best communicates the feel of Coney Island late on a summer night.

    Bill, I spent a lot of time watching those Belugas at the aquarium. They never seemed unhappy, but how could they not be considering the confines? I think they closed the exhibition for good soon after the eldest died, but it’s possible they are just building them a new tank. On a related note, one of the most beautiful things I ever saw in my life was a pod of 50 or 60 Belugas swimming up the Saguenay fjord in Quebec as a lightning storm was rolling in ahead of them. I sure envy you the sights you see on regular basis.

  • MICHAEL WEBSTER

    i don’t have any “rules” in my head about establishing shots nor repetition…all things work when they work….The Chain (Chien chi Chang) works because of the repetition for example…and Crewdson is all about “establishing” shots….in a traditional magazine you probably would have had one less mounted cop shot…yet for this essay, and for here, i think your point is well made….

    cheers, david

  • It’s an intimate essay in a roundabout way, in that it’s an exposé on the use of condign power. The presence of so many police at a peaceful gathering serves the crowd a reminder that they had better behave, otherwise their alternative, preferred act of protest will be met with some sort of punishment. I don’t know if the crowds in the essay were intent on protest, but why else would the police be there in such numbers? That’s the mystery of the essay: when too many black people converge in one place, why do the authorities have to make such a show of power?

    The police on horseback in Webster’s essay are reminiscent of the Plantation managers ensuring the slaves kept toiling as an alternative to the whip. Night-time crowd control at Coney Island is an unnecessary and offensive act of authority; like Napoleon’s “Whiff of grapeshot” just…without the grapeshot. It’s the indignity of the impotence of silent submission (Image #6) that makes the essay succeed for me; square one as an historical document of against-the-man use of power.

  • JEFF,

    I had to look up ‘condign’ in the dictionary, and I still don’t know what you mean or why you chose that word…???

  • No problem, Sidney. I came across the term years ago in John Kenneth Galbraith’s book, “Anatomy of Power”.

    Here’s a quote from the book which I hope explains it best:

    “Condign power wins submission by the ability to impose an alternative to the preferences of the individual or group that is sufficiently unpleasant or painful so that these preferences are abandoned. There is an overtone of punishment in the term, and this conveys the appropriate impression. It was the undoubted preference of the galley slave to avoid his toil, but his prospective discomfort from the lash for any malingering at the oars was sufficiently unpleasant to ensure the requisite, if also painful, effort. At a less formidable level, the individual refrains from speaking his or her mind and accepts the view of another because the expected rebuke is otherwise too harsh.”

    It’s one of three types of power Galbraith wrote about, the other two being Compensatory and Conditioned power. Michael co-incidentally covers conditioned power in his photographs by the way we see so many American flags on the crowd’s clothing. Compensatory power is tangentially covered in the the Artist Statement when referencing the developers and speculators in the Coney Island neighbourhood.

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