Photographer and lifelong traveler Donna Ferrato has lived in Tribeca since the ‘90s. She viewed the neighborhood as her oasis. An extraordinary community of artists and cultural luminaries living quietly together. That all changed as the neighborhood recovered from the fall of the Twin Towers. After 9/11, Ferrato felt compelled to photograph her neighborhood as it rebuilt and transformed. A display of a small selection of that ongoing photo series, aptly named “Tribeca 10013”, has just wrapped up at the Leica store in SoHo.
After viewing the show, I spoke to Ferrato about the project and her experience as a documentary photographer. During her long career, she has connected with everyone from celebrity musicians to survivors of domestic violence. She has also traveled the world documenting the incredible costs of war and famine. After 9/11 Ferrato turned her camera on the rapidly changing environs of Tribeca.
After 9/11, Ferrato remembers everyone feeling like an outcast who was isolated from the rest of Manhattan, but supported by the community of neighbors. She also remembers police keeping residents from going past Canal St. unless they had an ID that showed they were residents.
“We commiserated about our shock over what had happened,” Ferrato said. “We were haunted by the sights, the smells, and the sounds. We felt that very deeply down here, but we started to heal from it. The cleanup was immediate and swift; but then we were exposed, and all of the developers and the real estate companies started to work in earnest to sell off the lower part of Manhattan to turn it into something else.”
When Ferrato began to register the changes that were happening in her neighborhood she decided to bring her work home, and start photographing the neighborhood that had served as her sanctuary.
“I wasn’t photographing it before,” Ferrato said. “I took it for granted, just like everybody else. But after 9/11, I really couldn’t take anything about Tribeca the neighborhood for granted. I never wanted to leave, I just wanted to photograph it. I didn’t want to go on assignments for magazines anymore. I just wanted to stay here to photograph everything as it was changing, and the phoenix was rising up from the ashes.”
The photographs capture the variety of life that enlivens Tribeca. Two photos placed next to each other show mirror images of construction (of a skyscraper) and demolition (a brick wall being knocked down). There are also images of the variety of people that inhabit the area from a seemingly prosperous businessman to a man sleeping on the steps of a store with a thin and tattered blanket to keep out the cold.
Ferrato thinks that many resident photographers, and other artists, didn’t document life in Tribeca because they thought of the neighborhood as a refuge.
“They were living there and making their art about other things,” Ferrato said. “What I think was happening, was that artists who came here were happy to be in a place that was private, quiet, and lonely. They didn’t want to share that story about this neighborhood. They used the neighborhood as their oasis to be whoever they wanted to be.”
In the notes that accompany the show, Donna Ferrato mentions that during the rebuilding old buildings were demolished with impunity and that the selling of air rights became routine.
“We used to have an open unmarked sky, except for the Twin Towers”, Ferrato said. “Now as inhumanly towering skyscrapers are rising up in front of our eyes, we are losing what made Tribeca special on the human scale. Today it’s more about what is there over our heads, and I don’t mean birds. For example, 56 Leonard offers life in the clouds. If you have the money, you can live so high that every morning when you wake up and you open your window you can smell the clouds.”
Ferrato has found her own freedom in her photography. Her career as a photographer started in the early ‘70s, after she left her husband and her job as a secretary and wandered through California with her camera.
Ferrato said. “I wanted to be out dancing in the clubs and photographing, and sleeping in my car or sleeping on the beach,” Ferrato said. That’s when I became a wanderer, the camera has always been my ticket to being free.”
Ferrato’s freedom has allowed her to wander and document her explorations for Life Magazine.
“I think a desire to wander is essential, especially for a photographer who is curious about life, and wants to understand what is going on around them,” Ferrato said. “But for the kind of photographer that I am, to have a sense of wanderlust is very important. wander and wonder.
As Tribeca moves forward and upward into the air and becomes a neighborhood of extreme privilege, Ferrato believes that her photographs serve as a record of what has been lost or displaced.
“It seems to me like the people that are moving in now they want to be the captains of a vehicle that has no rear windows,” Ferrato said. “I believe I have become the photographer who is the rear window. I am documenting what is disappearing right underneath our noses, so that people can’t forget. I’m doing everything I can to put it out there, so that people can’t forget, they can’t forget where we came from. My photographs are a piece of history with a personal touch, in a time of monumental change.”
To learn more about Donna Ferrato, please visit DonnaFerrato.com