On July 19th, 2015, the New York Times published an article profiling the infamous “Zombie McDonald’s” of 490 8th Ave at 35th Street in New York City’s historic Garment District neighborhood.
“A grimy McDonald’s with a rough clientele” is not a story on its own, but “people openly buying, selling, and consuming drugs and alcohol inside a McDonald’s” is. Chasing this lead, The New York Times reported that within a few blocks of the fast food franchise, there are two outpatient substance abuse programs, a methadone clinic, and a needle exchange. Meanwhile, right out the front door is a pickup/drop-off point for the ubiquitous double-decker tour bus. The restaurant’s bathrooms must remain unlocked and accessible to the steady influx of tourists. This along with McDonald’s “Dollar Menu” and a relatively comfortable place to escape the weather combine to create the “drug addict’s paradise,” described on Yelp.
As a New York City-based photographer concerned with social issues, I often reference The New York Times’ Metro section to identify places that might be of photographic interest. I noticed the seediness of this particular block years before the Times ran the story, but reading it piqued my curiosity enough to go deeper and do some documentation of my own.
So, camera in hand, I've been hanging out at the so-called “junkie McDonald’s” nursing coffee like the regulars, watching, listening, and stealing shots. In this blog, I'm sharing only a few images and observations but this work is becoming a much larger project. The story of this particular New York neighborhood is in my opinion, one of the more interesting ones and points to much larger problems stemming from growing income inequality in the city.
I used a Leica M9 rangefinder camera, a perfect digital tool for this sort of “fly on the wall” photography. The preferred camera of legends like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ernst Leitz II, and Robert Capa, Leica became synonymous with the golden age of reportage. Their cameras are built strong enough to literally survive a war and yet are substantially smaller than SLRs. They utilize a fast and accurate focus system that allows a skilled photographer to shoot “blind” when necessary, i.e. not having to look through the viewfinder. Leica brought this tried and true analog technology into the digital realm with their M8, M9, and M rangefinder cameras, combining speed and size with the instantaneous feedback of digital imaging.
I can attest to the Times‘ writer’s observations that the police and McDonald’s management’s efforts to erase the drug scene there appear futile. However what The New York Times article glosses over is that while this McDonald’s is somewhat an anomaly among fast food restaurants, it is consistent with that can be seen in the still gritty axis between Penn Station and the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Perhaps because of the high volume of transient traffic and concentration of homeless shelters, this area has proven somewhat resistant to the rampant gentrification of the West Side. Within this little pocket remains images of poverty that contrast sharply with the picture of today’s wealthy, elitist Manhattan where once notoriously blighted areas have been transformed into playgrounds for millionaires.
The gentleman above declined to be ID'd but he stands at this spot for most of the day just keeping an eye on things. He said the restaurant has gotten a lot worse in the past two or three years though offered he no insights on why that might be. An additional layer of security, an off duty NYC cop is employed here as well though only until the early afternoon.
The activities on display in this McDonalds are a reminder that New York’s meteoric rise to prosperity has left many behind, harkening back to a time when the city was a far more raw and visceral place, a place where visibly desperate people weren’t concentrated in a few small areas, but a fixture across much of the city.