They say there are two sides to every story; I say there are two sides to every city. If I were a New York City virgin, maybe its charm would have been more self-evident. Long ago in May 2016, embarking upon my first visit to New York, I rode in on my high horse of expectation. The photos couldn’t be too far from the truth, right?
Wrong. Well, sort of. My first visit was remarkable enough to spur the second. Admittedly, I hadn’t left my safety net of tourist traps and sightseeing the first time around. Now, five years later, I found myself moving to New York amid a chaotic whirlwind of life events: a couple family deaths, daunting self-realization and an omnipresent pandemic chasing me in my shadow. The New York I encountered this past January was a far cry from the New York I knew in May 2016, but there’s some beauty in that.
You might be thinking, “What does any of this have to do with sin?” The best answer I can give is that imagination runs wild when a scatterbrained academic is introduced to the chaotic pilgrimage that is Dante Alighieri’s “Inferno.” I finished reading it in its entirety on the plane ride to New York; and in its afterglow, hell was fresh in my mind. I wouldn’t even consider myself a religious person, but there’s something about reading religious texts under the coercive influence of an ADHD hyperfixation — you can’t seem to think about anything else.
Alongside my Fujifilm disposable camera, I took the liberty of capturing some personifications to this imaginative hell. Throughout this photo essay, I’ll be traversing the abysmal chasm of New York City’s very own inferno — the flipside to my city love story. Buckle up, we’ve got a hell of a way to go.
As the very first circle of hell, limbo is intuitively imagined as a “border.” Likewise, the closest New York City has to a border is the lowermost tip of Manhattan, overlooking the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. In this circle of hell, you’ll find the unchristened who have not yet committed a sin — so, babies. Hordes of condemned babies. The only punishment they’ll undergo is a detachment from the grace of God, wandering the crowded terrarium of limbo for all of eternity. Similarly, walking around lower Manhattan, you’ll find mobs of Lululemon yoga moms, forever bound to its confines.
Upon one late night out with friends, I found myself in dire need of a restroom. Because COVID-19 forced many New York businesses to close their doors early on, my doomed soul was left roaming the streets, searching for a light in the dark void of the West Village. Then I saw it: a florescent plasma sign reading “London.” Ah, a sex shop. Beggars can’t be choosers, right? After using the store’s shoebox of a bathroom and entertaining a lovely conversation with the man at the front desk, I captured this shot of my friend, Akira.
Between all the horrors that modern-day capitalism has produced, “Karens” are arguably the worst. Moments before this picture was taken, I witnessed a middle-aged white woman berating the Costco food court worker for “forgetting her chicken bake.” American consumerism is gluttonous at its core; we regressed past the point of basic human decency the moment hounding a minimum wage worker, all in the name of a chicken bake, became socially acceptable.
This one’s self-explanatory. Donald Trump’s success has unrelentingly fed upon greed and exploitation. His Fifth Avenue residence perfectly symbolizes a conglomerate of the venal Trump clan, his corrupt establishment and his dangerously unhinged persona.
The fifth circle of hell in Dante’s “Inferno” is located on the river Styx, where the wrathful souls duel for all eternity on the surface of its ghoulish muck. Any given New Yorker would tell you that the Hudson River is just as terrifying — chock-full of brain-eating microorganisms, urban runoff and radioactive waste. Rumor has it that if you look close enough, you might be able to spot a legion of poor submerged souls, struggling to escape its murky depths.
At the time Dante’s “Inferno” was written, any belief contrary to the Roman Catholic Church’s doctrine would be considered “heresy.” What could possibly be more heretic than my friends and me? We offer an impressive assortment of heathens, committed to betterment in all aspects of life but salvation. Pictured below, we have Akira posing in front of the Grace Church on Broadway after a long night of crazed occult activity.
The most common interpretation of violence would be something along the lines of murder, but Dante’s “Inferno” actually named three classifications of violence: violence against others (murder), violence against one’s self (suicide) and finally, violence against God and nature. At the lowest point of this circle, you’ll find the usurers, which at the time of Dante’s “Inferno” were those who perverted art for personal gain. If Dante was to witness the commodification that came about as a result of industrialization, he would likely classify factory owners as sinful usurers. The factories sitting at the bank of the Hudson, therefore, serve as the perfect representation of violence; for they have single-handedly converted the artist into the waged worker and their art into objectified product.
Wall Street is notorious for being the epicenter of fraudulent financial activity. Wandering down the worn-out cobblestone toward The Battery, I shared footsteps with countless crooks of the past and trampled over the eventual grave of fraudsters yet to realize their title. Pictured below is the Wall Street Bull, with an added Taurus for comedic effect.
In the lowest circle of hell, we have the sin of treachery — betrayal of a loved one, friend or neighbor. Located on the west edge of Central Park lies the remains of Seneca Village, a 19th-century safe haven for formerly enslaved African Americans. Seneca Village provided a good deal of economic stability in the wake of their newfound freedom. By the 1840s, New York City’s elite began calling for the construction of Central Park, and in 1857, the entirety of Seneca Village’s inhabitants were ordered to leave through eminent domain. Unsurprisingly, the selfish affluent valued leisure over the livelihood of the working class. In my eyes, there is no greater sin than the denial of one’s existence and the subsequent destruction of their home.
Upon return from my journey through the nine circles of 21st-century hell, I found myself in the glow of my humble Bushwick abode. I watched from my window as the M train barreled by, loudly jolting its exhausted tracks. Climbing to the roof, I reclined on its concrete surface and admired the few stars lucky enough to shine through the decades of industry that came before. Under the bleak emptiness of the winter night sky, I gazed at the city lights until they fell victim to the morning sun. Gradually rising over the horizon, I had never seen a sunrise so divine.
In the light of the new day, we have a visceral impulse to gravitate toward rose-colored glasses. My intention in taking up this project was to challenge this instinct. I can now declare with wholehearted confidence that I’ve met New York in all its glory. Let this photo essay serve as the conclusive fusion to both my Dante’s “Inferno” hyperfixation and my wide-eyed naivete; for now, I can purge myself of normality and ascend to the Manhattan heavens.