Every night, 62 faces appear on the windows of a new hotel tower in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Like a giant lightbox, the impressive photo display is CitizenM’s homage and conciliatory gesture to the residents of the Bowery, a once gritty and now rapidly gentrifying neighborhood that stretches from Chinatown to the Cooper Union school.
“It’s our thank you to our neighbors, who’ve had to live with the construction,” says Robin Chadha, chief marketing officer of the Netherlands-based “affordable luxury” hotel chain.
Photographed by Filipino-American portraitist Christelle de Castro, the series “Citizens of Bowery” features neighborhood stalwarts such as street artist Jonathan “Meres One” Cohen, gallery owner Alex Harsley, performance artist Kembra Pfahler, community activist Karlin Chan, and Village Voice columnist Michael Musto. De Castro, whose studio is on Rivington Street, says she made an effort to capture a realistic segment of the beloved neighborhood, going door-to-door to shops, studios, and bodegas. (The series incidentally also includes Fifa, a bodega kitten.)
“When we open the show, I want them to look up and really feel proud to be part of this community,” De Castro said. “I hope this really leaves a lasting impression.” The photographs are accompanied by video profiles featuring participants reminiscing about their iconic neighborhood.
Some Bowery old timers weren’t so impressed by CitizenM’s window dressing. Among them were some personalities who posed for the series.
“As any downtown New York City resident knows, the Bowery has long since lost its edge,” said one unnamed participant to the neighborhood blog Bowery Boogie. “The huge facade lit up at night by full panel portraits of artists is a serious source of light pollution, mocked by locals who remember when artists did actually live on the Bowery.” Some critics also point out that the 20-floor tower, posited as the world’s tallest modular hotel, is out of context with the Bowery’s landscape of low-rise apartment and business buildings.
Faerman Cash Registers proprietor Brian Faerman tells Quartz that he agreed to pose for the series primarily because of the $200 honorarium. He complained that he wasn’t informed of when the images would be displayed and hadn’t bothered to see them himself. (CitizenM contends that DeCastro’s team invited Faerman to attend the premiere via email.) Faerman was more concerned with what the influx of new developments like CitizenM will do to his family’s 108-year old business. “My taxes are up the roof!,” he says.
De Castro has a more optimistic take. “Neighborhoods change, neighborhoods evolve, but when artists like us are actually included in the evolution, when we have a platform to represent ourselves, that’s really cool,” she told the Lower East Side blog The Lo-Down.
“Citizens of the Bowery” is on display on CitizenM Bowery’s façade until Sept. 1. Portraits of Bowery residents will also be in the hotel lobby.