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Capturing the Lower East Side’s vanishing single-story buildings

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A new exhibit brings these background buildings to the foreground

As cookie-cutter condo towers continue to fill the gaps in Manhattan’s skyline, one photographer made it his mission to document the vanishing single-story buildings of the East Village and the Lower East Side.

Photographer Adam Friedberg, who has lived in the East Village for nearly 30 years, has captured the roughly 100 one-story buildings in the two neighborhoods over the last four years. Shot in large-format sheet film, Friedberg strips away people and cars from his frontal black and white photographs by visiting streets in the early morning hours.

The results are quiet portraits of modest buildings that New Yorkers might not give a second glance to as they move through the city, but whose presence offers slivers of fast-disappearing sky from the streetscape.

“For me, that’s the most powerful way of seeing the building,” said Friedberg. “I wanted it to be about the negative space. The picture is not about the building itself but how it fits into its street scene.”

As part of a new exhibit, “Single-Story Project,” on view at the Center for Architecture from November 21 to February 29, more than 50 of Friedberg’s photos will be on display across six categories: storefronts, churches, garages and warehouses, cultural and community spaces, bars and restaurants, and strips of multiple stores in one building.

Friedberg began chronicling these spaces in 2015, as major development pushed into an area celebrated for its grit and neighborhood character. It took as many as 20 visits to capture each building, with Friedberg frequently rising at 4 a.m. for uncluttered shots.

Today, some of the sites in Friedberg’s photographs stand unchanged, others have had the streetscapes around them transform, like the iconic Katz’s Deli on the corner of East Houston and Ludlow streets, where a condo rose beside the no-frills Jewish deli.

“It’s more to give people a sense of how things change while they’re changing,” said Friedberg. “Change is the nature of things and I understand that. Katz’s wasn’t there forever. The building that Katz’s is in used to be something else, so it’s not like it’s the perfect iteration of what should happen in that space.”

Other structures still have vanished since Friedberg visited them, including a handful of low-rise buildings on Third Avenue between St. Mark’s Place and Stuyvesant Street that have since been demolished to make way for a 10-story office building through a contested air rights transfer.

Many of the buildings are architecturally insignificant, but they serve as a contrast to the looming towers grabbing up the remaining bits of sky from onlookers on the street. When these one-story structures are lost, so too are vistas of the sky and sunlight that can be enjoyed by all from the street level, according to Friedberg.

“Ultimately it’s the disappearance of the texture,” said Friedberg. “It’s the disappearance of the kind of democracy of this neighborhood.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that the exhibit will open on “November 29” the show will actually open on November 21. Curbed regrets the error.