Sinatra's New York, Immortalized as Miniatures

Talking "Old New York" with artist Randy Hage, who makes miniatures of CBGB, Katz's Delicatessen, and more iconic locales.

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Oct 9 2015, 1:30pm

Images courtesy the artist

As the immortal chorus of Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" goes, "I want to wake up in a city that never sleeps / And find I'm a number one, top of the list / King of the hill, a number one." Those lyrics weren't written about a Times Square bleached with electric billboards or corners occupied by Starbucks and Taco Bell. Sinatra's was a grimier, crime-ier New York that scared the "small town blues" out of its new residents at knifepoint while live jazz played in the background. But the maligned wave of hipster gentrification, now being precluded by straight-up corporate gentrification, that has swept away many NYC institutions from the 70s and 80s isn't the final word on the graffiti-worn streets of the city that never sleeps, thanks to artist and former movie set designer Randy Hage.

For 15 years, he's been photographing hallmarks of New York, like CBGB and Katz' Delicatessen and immortalizing them as miniature sculpture series, Facade. The detail is painstaking, down to the autumn leaves and garbage littering the sidewalk. At a glance, a close-up shot of his work is indistinguishable from a photo of the real thing. Based in LA, Hage was in the city to photograph its great cast iron buildings, but he tells The Creators Project his, "interest quickly turned to the storefronts on the bottom floors of these buildings. I was really taken by the character of these mom and pop shops with their old hand-painted signs, weathered patinas, interesting colors, and decay." This fascination may have been inspired by his own personal experience of owning a hobby shop in California, only to have his rent quadrupled once "a Starbucks moved in nearby."

Hage is displaying the product of his fascination and suffering at the Flower Pepper Gallery in Pasadena from October 10 through November 18. We asked the artist about his craft, but mostly just chatted about the fossilized version of New York he has preserved in his miniature Facades.

The Creators Project: How you feel about the new New York? Is there an opportunity for communities like the ones you romanticize to build around the new institutions that are cropping up?

Randy Hage: If you are talking about Times Square, a Starbucks on every corner, the loss of “mom and pop” storefronts, and the continued displacement of the diverse communities, I have to say I miss what once was. It’s hard to deny the benefits of city improvements, cleaner streets and lower crime rates. But I do miss elements of the grittier city. I think that rapid gentrification brings great feelings of concern to the community.

Occasionally when I am taking photos of closed storefronts, I will be approached by someone who will sternly ask me what I’m doing. Once I explain, their demeanor changes and we begin to have friendly and meaningful discussions. Their initial approach and reaction is spawned by fear. Fear that I am a developer looking to dismantle more of their neighborhood. Gentrification plants the seeds of fear into the community. 

This recently happened to me when I was photographing Lenox Lounge in Harlem. A woman came out of the neighboring building for a smoke break and was visibly upset when she approached me. She ended up spending her entire break with me. We talked about family and summer plans. It was an enjoyable connection with a perfect stranger. The diverse communities of New York are what make it such a unique city and it is what gives it such character. The loss of the family run storefront has greatly changed the neighborhoods. I have come to appreciate the importance of the people who operate these “mom and pop” businesses. Many of these shops have served the people of New York for generations. Communities come to rely on the services and products that they provide and they become iconic fixtures in the lives of the local residents. The owners of these storefronts have a personal interest in their businesses and the local community. 

One of the first pieces I did was Vesuvio Bakery on Prince St. The internet is full of stories about the owner Anthony Dapolito. He was much loved, knew the names and families of his customers and was an activist in his community. He was referred to as “The mayor of Greenwich Village.” These types of stories about family run businesses in New York are plentiful. You are not going to find this type of care and community involvement from a Starbucks barista who can’t even get your name right.

Chain stores and big box stores often preclude the opportunity for small family run stores to survive. This happened to me in LA. I ran a small hobby store in the Pasadena area for over 25 years. A Starbucks moved in a few doors down and they agreed to pay three times the rate I was paying per square foot. When my lease came due, the owner quadrupled my rent and I was forced to close up shop. This is what is happening in New York at a painfully rapid rate. It does not leave much room for the old type of New York storefronts.

Where does the desire to immortalize these classic storefronts comes from?

I was looking for subject matter for my miniature projects as I was beginning a transition from working in the TV/Film industry as a prop and model maker to trying my hand at fine art. In the late 90’s, I traveled to New York to photograph the cast iron buildings in SoHo. My interest quickly turned to the storefronts on the bottom floors of these buildings. I thought that the storefronts would make great subjects for my sculptures. I was really taken by the character of these mom and pop shops with their old hand-painted signs, weathered patinas, interesting colors, and decay.

I started making multiple trips each year, always with my camera in one hand and my “rat run” journal in the other. This small journal I carry is filled with the storefronts that I want to photograph with subway and bus routes and detailed walking instructions that I put together between trips. As I continued to visit and search for more storefronts, it became increasingly apparent that they were quickly going out of business. Stores that had been in business for 50 -100 years were closing. These businesses were then replaced with Chase Banks, Starbucks, and other chain stores. The culprit... urban renewal and gentrification. 

This rapid change wasn’t just affecting the stores, it was displacing people in the community and changing the diversity that made the neighborhoods so unique. My project was quickly becoming more of a documentary effort. Over the past 15 years, I have photographed over 700 storefronts. More than half of those have moved or have gone out of business. Through my work, I try to honor the history of these storefronts and the people who lived in, and served the community.

For me, what started as a simple interest and appreciation for the visual elements of these storefronts, changed to include a study of social, political, and civic issues that affect the community. My initial goal was to enter into the fine art market. To create miniature sculptures that would fulfill my desire to do the kind of work that I wanted to do while moving from industry commissioned work. The creative process is completely different when you are working to fulfill your own dreams.

As the project continued, I began to witness and understand the resulting issues brought about by gentrification and urban renewal. This was not the kind of change that takes place in a way that a community can accommodate and rebound from, but an incredibly rapid and shocking change that has affected the city in major ways. I hope that my work has contributed to the efforts of others to shed light on the importance of these storefronts and the communities that they serve. I also hope that when someone views one of my pieces that their fond memories of a place, and their experiences there will be rekindled. I hope to express my passion for the city through my art.

Where do you like to hang out to remember the old New York? Are those your main haunts, or do you mostly visit for special occasions?

After I throw my suitcase down, I head straight to P.J. Clarke’s on 3rd and 55th for a burger or whatever the special is that day. During my stay, I have to have a pie at John’s on Bleecker, a drink at McSorley’s, a pastrami sandwich at Katz’s, and a knish at Schimmel’s. For breakfast, I used to frequent Joe Jr.’s on 6th Avenue and 12th st. I will always remember the day that I approached the restaurant and discovered that they had closed due to rent hikes. I was strangely overtaken with emotion and got a little teary eyed. The sidewalk outside of the restaurant was adorned with grief candles and notes of love and appreciation to the owner for the service that the restaurant had provided through the years. 

I like to stay at the Beacon Hotel on Broadway near 72nd. Great access to the subway, a Fairway market across the street, close to the park, and a view of the Ansonia building.

My favorite lunch spot is in Williamsburg, at Peter’s on Bedford. Great food and a counter seat at the window so I can watch the world go by.

I find myself venturing further east into the other boroughs to recapture the feeling of New York of past decades. I love to walk Flatbush Ave. from Prospect Park all the way down to Avenue R and then take the B41 back.

My haunts are usually well away from tourists, and away from chain stores.  

What's next for you as an artist?

I’ve been working on this project for about 15 years and it continues to be well received. So, I will keep working through my list and photos of storefront subjects and try to do those storefronts justice. I am also going to take some time to work on a book.  

See more of Randy Hage's work on his website.

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