The Daily Heller: It’s a Wonderful Day in the Neighborhood

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Often a photograph says more than a drawing or painting. Other times the drawing or painting adds a necessary emotional spark to the same scene or idea. And then sometimes both media trigger unique responses. This is nothing new. Ask five people to describe the same object, and that sameness becomes entirely obscured by a slew of fixations, prejudices, agendas and preferences.

This is how I feel about NYC Storefronts by Joel Holland (Prestel), a book of 225 colorful pencil drawings of well- and lesser-known mom and pop shops around greater New York. All are portraits of the stores and their personalities—as different from one another as the customers who frequent them. When decontextualized from their surroundings, each is something of an icon unto itself—like the Yonah Shimmel Knish Bakery (below), which, despite its run-down facade, is a beauty of a bygone relic that has forgotten to be bygone. This and the other venerable storefronts suggest the greed-mongering real estate developers cannot eradicate and homogenize everything, no matter how hard they try. New York won’t let them.

When I first saw this book (with text by David Dodge and a foreword by New York Nico), I dismissed it as yet another of hundreds of sketchbooks I’ve seen. This is not to demean sketchbooks (in fact, I co-authored five books on and about sketchbooks). But I’ve also collected (and wrote an introduction to one of) James and Karla Murray’s photo books on storefront heritage, including Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York. At the time of their respective publications, actual photographs satisfied my desire to see and feel the vintage beauty of each store. In other words, I preferred the real to the impressionist.

As I began browsing Holland’s drawings, though, looking closer at the details and reading the brief descriptive texts, I was entranced by the emotion embedded in each image. The Murray photographs are wonderful documents of distinct commercial architectural and sign styles, devoid of sentimentality, of what may or may not survive during my lifetime. Holland’s drawings capture his personal passion that translates into the viewer’s memory, recollection or imagination of these stores.

James and Karla Murray have done an essential service to anyone who loves old New York and lives in the contemporary city. I admire their thoroughness and tirelessness in preserving these images. Holland’s drawings are not about preservation but sanctification of the individualists in a city where glass and steel edifices are overpowering the streets.

His drawings are not postcard renderings (although they could make beautiful memory cards). He draws them as he sees them, introducing nothing that is not in his field of vision. What he adds that a photograph will not is an intimate eye and personal hand.

Holland is not the first nor last artist to pay respect to the city through its common and uncommon stores and shops, even as neighborhoods are devoured and starchitecture sucks up the air. But his collection of images is the first I’ve seen to capture the city exactly the way I saw it from the family car window as we’d drive up and down city streets looking for a place to park.