New York is the city that never sleeps. But this renowned insomnia would not be possible without the more than 200,000 men and women who work the nightshift – the fry cooks and coffee jockeys, train conductors and cab hacks, cops, docs, and fishmongers selling cod by the crate. Inverting the natural rhythm of life, they keep the city running as it slows but never stops.

In our book, NIGHTSHIFT NYC, we tell the stories of New York City nightshift workers. This ethnography of the night investigates familiar sites, such as diners, delis and taxis, as well as some unexpected corners of the night, such as a walking tour of homelessness in Manhattan and a fishing boat out of Brooklyn. We show how the nightshift is more than simply out of phase, it is another social space altogether, highly structured, inherently subversive, and shot through with inequalities of power. NIGHTSHIFT NYC presents the narratives of those who sleep too little and work too much, revealing the soul of a city hidden in the graveyard shift of 24-hour commerce when the sun goes down and the lights come up.

But there is more to the story than found its way into the pages of the book. Here you'll find more stories of the night in New York City and around the country. And we hope you will add your own stories and comments in the months to come. Stay tuned and check back often...

Monday, December 29, 2008

Nighthawks



Edward Hopper haunts me. When we were in Chicago last week, I read a lovely novel, An Unfinished Season, by Ward Just, which features a scene where the protagonist spends some time in the Art Institute of Chicago looking at Hopper’s Nighthawks (1942), that iconic nightshift painting of a diner at night. When I was a senior interviewer on a study of homelessness, my boss, NYU social work professor Deborah Padgett, took me to her office, which is in the former studio where Hopper lived and worked with his wife Jo.

When we spent our year on the nightshift to write Nightshift NYC, the Whitney Museum had an exhibit, “Holiday in Reality,” on Hopper’s work. In addition to Nighthawks, there were many breathtaking pieces that demonstrate Hopper’s long preoccupation with light/dark and day/night. There was Soir Bleu (1914), as well as the watercolors and gouaches from his time in France (1906-07) that inspired Soir Bleu. There were the etchings from 1921, Night in the Park and Night Shadows. The former features a guy in a hat reading the paper on a bench in a moonlit Central Park, the latter another solitary man in a hat walking amidst shadows. And Early Sunday Morning (1930), another shadowy portrait of alienation, which, while morning, evoked for me the familiar feeling we’d come to know after having survived another all-night trek through New York.

At the Whitney exhibit, a sign on the wall said Hopper’s work “captures signification qualities of modernism: urban life and the individual’s place within it, the evocation of time passing, and a mediated, synthetic representation of the real world.” Two weeks before seeing the exhibit, we spent all night out in Manhattan taking a walking tour of homelessness, with a formerly homeless man, Barry, and our photographer for the book, Corey Hayes. Primarily a portrait photographer, Corey’s style for shooting the nightshift pictures evolved over time. But that night he shot many of the first photos of what became his signature nightshift style, capturing the synthetic light and blurred motion of the night. Seeing Hopper’s work against the backdrop of my appreciation for Corey’s photos, I was struck profoundly by how Corey was capturing the mediated, synthetic nature of the mediated, synthetic reality that is night in New York

Also, in both Early Sunday Morning and New York Movie (1939), Hopper created scenes that were deliberately a little outdated, to show how they were changing, shifting. We’d already titled our book but staring at those paintings I was aware of a secondary meaning to it, the shift being not only the hours worked but the shifting state of New York. That’s why we chose to feature two diners, one old and one a recreation, to get at that shift; and further underscoring the point, the old one, the Cheyenne, closed before the book was published.

But here’s where we diverge from Hopper’s portrayal of the night. Hopper’s diner, painted in 1942, was not outdated but rather representative of something new, modern, and therefore alienating. Just beyond the diner, a row house represents what’s fading away. In the diner, there’s a film noir feeling evoked by harsh (new, modern, fluorescent) light, unease among the people, and not even an exit for them to escape into the night – that is, if they dare to brave the shadowy nightworld beyond the diner. Without an exit, they’re trapped inside, with each other, but without connection, with only their urban anxiety, malaise, and fear. Even the title, not the typical term for people who stay up late, “nightowls,” but “nighthawks,” which Hopper invented, deepens the portrayal of a dangerous, violent, modern world.

Nearly seventy years later, many still see the night – in New York City especially – as a shadowy nightworld full of anxiety, malaise and fear, where no one connects with each other, all are alone and alienated, and danger lurks around every corner. This is not an accurate portrait of New York at night. Yes, there is a mediated, synthetic nature of a mediated, synthetic reality, but only on the surface of things. Stay in the diner long enough and you start to see that not only do people connect with each other, they forge a community where they look out for each other, where even a stranger can find company and conversation, and where the alienating dayshift city can seem a million miles away.

1 comment:

B. Kaufmann said...

"Nighthawks" haunts me too. There is something mystical about the "night." I have always found the darkness "friendly." I love the book cover photo; reminds me of an all night diner in Milwaukee where I used to meet the most interesting characters! I have suggested our library purchase your book and I look forward to reading it. Congratulations!