The first question that occurs to me as I look at the photographs in Brian Rose’s series In Time of Plague is: What happened here? I look further and the answer isn’t the obvious one. Rose certainly shows the streets of Williamsburg denuded of both pedestrian and vehicle traffic as if the neighborhood has experienced what most of the world has: a fulminant epidemic that crashed into us with the force of a tsunami. In what seems like a few weeks, the COVID-19 wave washed away the social habits and structures we had constructed over the course of millennia. Human beings rarely appear in these photographs — if they do, they are often seen running out of the path of the picture plane.
I’m familiar with Williamsburg because up until about two and a half months ago, for four years, I’d regularly travel to Hyperallergic’s offices there to do my work as a writer and editor. I recognize many of the streets and buildings in Rose’s photos, having walked by them or on them. But what I recognize more after spending time with the images is the massive wave of gentrification that happened before the pandemic struck. As I discussed in 2016, New York University’s Furman Center has cited Williamsburg as the most gentrified of all the New York neighborhoods within the previous 10 years.
Rose documents the visual contrasts between the relatively new Williamsburg of high-rise apartment buildings, luxury hotels, uber-metropolitan glass and steel office towers with the older, grassroots districts such as Williamsburg’s Southside, formerly known as Los Sures. Los Sures was a primarily Latino district and once one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. I can see in the graffiti and mural art painted on construction sites, abandoned buildings, and walls adjacent to storefronts, the tags and portrait work that represent a very different set of aesthetics and even habitus that are signified by the new high-rise structures. Rose catches these buildings mid-sentence, the construction projects now paused, and the raw cursive script of names and handles spray painted at the edges of architectural harbingers of encroaching capital feel like a pitched battle suddenly muted.
Rose is well equipped to document the change of one neighborhood to another, having spent several years chronicling the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rebuilding of the city, plus metamorphoses of the Lower East Side, the Meatpacking District, and the Atlantic City scene after the failure of Donald Trump’s businesses. Here, with In Time of Plague, Rose documents a previous devastation made more visible by a more present one.
In the poem “One Train May Hide Another,” Kenneth Koch describes how “ … on the Appia Antica / one tomb / May hide a number of other tombs. In love, one reproach may hide / another, / One small complaint may hide a great one.” This collection of images suggests that the shadow cast by one huge specter is momentarily obscuring another marker of peril. Both the poet and the photographer remind us: “When you come to something, stop to let it pass / So you can see what else is there. At home, no matter where.” With regard to Williamsburg, the enforced pause of the plague allows us to see what was already there.
In Time of Plague by Brian Rose is published by the author this year and is raising funds via Kickstarter.