Goodnight Mr. Lewis: Ben Rowland’s ‘Big Picture New York’ Takes Us Way Back

Photos via Big Picture

Many years ago I worked for club mogul David Marvisi, a nice enough fellow once you got past his gruff exterior. He owned Spa, as well as the mega club Exit, which has since become Terminal 5. David was very good at making money because, as you know, some people get into the club business for that stuff.

Spa was a hit and David was generous to all that worked there. Every so often he’d stick his head into my office and proclaim, ‘Lewis, Lugars!’ and I’d stop whatever I was doing and head to Peter Lugar’s for the best steak in town with this larger-than-life character. He’d even get me a take-home steak for my pet Chihuahua. After our meal we’d drive around Williamsburg in his Bentley du-jour before the neighborhood became gentrified. David had a stable of them in lots of colors, and the kids would all swarm toward us as we drove slow, wondering who it was driving in that big car—who was living their dreams. Now, those same blocks are occupied by people chasing a different dream.

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I came into B-Burg about 6 years ago, a Hipster-come-lately to the art crowd that had come 5 or 7 years before. The original gentrifiers looked down at newbies like me. They had lived among the Bentley gawkers and old-school Italians in cheap-ass harmony until a wave of new kids created the massive change that has now swept through Bushwick and Greenpoint, as well. Those that could pay the ever increasing rents defined the hoods, while those that couldn’t moved away. Now it’s all baby carriages, big buck boutiques and new high rises. Even a recent arrival like me hardly recognizes large tracks of the promised land. Change is inevitable, constant and always complained about.

At Peter Pan Donut & Pastry Shop, you can chat up locals and stately regulars about what it was like 30, 40 or 50 years ago in the hood and they’ll tell you all about the changes that have reshaped NYC’s cultural identity. Tourists and cool kids listen to stories about houses that date back to the beginning and how streets were named. Every week, the past is torn down and the future put up.

While nostalgia is potent, grounding us in a rose-tinted past that seems better than it probably was, changes to the hood have been profound. For centuries, it’s been the constant out with the old, in with the new. Now as the pace of change has been quickened—condos reaching for the stars and providing slick homes for the next wave—there is a new site that takes you deeper into history. Successful photographer Ben Rowland’s Big Picture NY provides a glimpse of old New York, before the rise of trendy restaurants and dive bars—heck, even before the L Train.

Ben, a key player and creative consultant for Bang On! NYC, has a keen understanding about the ever-evolving relationship between culture and neighborhood. In the past, he’s photographed everyone from Obama to Jay-Z for major clients like Rolling Stone and Milk Studios; he also works in real estate.

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A self-proclaimed “Big nerd for old pictures,” Ben has accumulated a large collection of hi-res images that he’s now sharing with the world online. He’s decided not to include any text saying “from an existential perspective, I wanted to keep it an imagery site and not an historical site.” While they say a picture is worth a thousand words, a thousand wasn’t enough to satisfy some, the Big Picture’s Facebook provides lengthy descriptions for those who’re curious. He’s even VR-optimizing these images.

Ben’s project takes us away from our troubles to show us a distant world that seems gentle. Obviously we know our past was anything but, though looking back at these big pictures, zooming in on faces and building facades is a sweet addiction. I want more. Someday when I’m very old and my beloved hood is all glass and concrete, I’ll be sitting there at Peter Pan having a Red Velvet (still $1.10) and I hope somebody will ask me about the good old days. However, I suspect that won’t happen as the Internet will render me obsolete.

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