Almost two years ago I walked into the Hunts Point neighborhood of the Bronx with my camera. I came because I was told not to go, that it was the poorest neighborhood in all of New York and one of the most violent in all of the United States. I was immediately drawn in by a humanity that transcended the headlines.
I started going anytime my Wall Street job would give me time, driven by curiosity. I would walk the neighborhood, talking to everyone. On my third trip, on a quiet Sunday afternoon, I met Takeesha who stood by a trickling fire hydrant, washing her face. She looked over at me, and with a smile yelled, "Hey, take my picture." When I asked why, she said, "Because I am sexy, a beautiful prostitute."
We talked, and over the next half-hour she condensed her life story. She told me how her mother's pimp put her on the streets at twelve. How she had her first child at thirteen, the result of a rape. How she was addicted to heroin. She was calm, polite, and funny. How did she want to be described? She replied, "As who I am, a prostitute, a mother of six, and a child of God." No equivocation there.
Soon I started going at nights, drawn by the stories and the frankness. It was jarring to leave my Wall Street job where the focus was luxury, golf, kids, and second homes, and then hear small talk about rape, murder, and jail. It was equally jarring to come home to my wealthy neighborhood. Once pulling into my parking space at 3:00 am I saw a large rolled-up rug in the alley trash: My Hunts Point eye saw it as a great sleeping place, how dare somebody throw it away. A second look revealed it had come from my apartment.
I was being tugged in two directions. My days were safe, practical, and obvious. My nights were dangerous, impractical, and not at all obvious. I started choosing the nights. My friends and family started to question my sanity. When asked why, the best I could explain was, "I have learned more from the last year than my prior twenty on Wall Street."
I was seeing firsthand, as my collaborator Cassie Rodenberg later would write, "How resilient people are, how, as brutal and bleak as life gets, people can find humor and friendship."
I was also seeing firsthand what Katherine Boo, the journalist, saw in the slums of India, "There's some way in which we would prefer not to see very clearly the immense gifts and intelligence of some of the people who live in our most abject conditions. Maybe there are some things at work in deciding who gets to be society's winners and who gets to be society's losers that don't have to do with merit."
I would come home filled with a mixture of empathy and anger. My Wall Street job started to seem less important.
Seven months ago I quit my job to focus on the photography and the stories. It was a remarkably stupid financial decision, but my mind told me, "you only live once."
Soon I was fully immersed. I started working with Cassie who also quit her job to focus on the project. Pictures became only a part of the story. We delved into every part of Hunts Point life. We followed people into the jails, into the courts, into the hospitals. We became friends with the addicts, pimps, dealers, bodega owners, and prostitutes. We both started getting calls from them at all hours, cries for help or just someone desperate to be heard. It became both of our lives.
The intensity increased. Stories became interlocked.
Every additional day was eye-opening, a new layer removed to reveal even more subterfuge, more pain, and more desperation. Everybody either sold drugs, did drugs, or ran from drugs. The kind gentleman standing on the corner helping kids cross the street was eventually thrown in jail for dealing. The effects of poverty seemed to seep into every corner.
We started searching for a hopeful core, the trajectory of a story that would end with peace and tranquility. It just kept getting uglier.
No day was a respite from drama. Thanksgiving brought the death of a fifteen-year-old girl, Destiny Sanchez, whose body was found in a Hunts Point vestibule strangled and covered in bleach. The story melted into the mist of death and dysfunction: The fifth shooting or death of the month. Nobody has been charged yet.
The teenager Jose, who does amazing flips and was my feel good story, ended up homeless, fleeing an abusive father. A late September Sunday meant to be spent taking pictures of his aerial tricks turned into a standoff with his drug-addled uncle, who flashed me a knife: The police were unconcerned.
It started to creep up on me, as I would drive home, emotionally exhausted. The lack of a positive story was the story. I didn't want to admit it, and nobody else wanted to hear it.
Denial kicked in. I started to grasp at tiny strings of happiness, desperate for a salve. I turned to saving a kitten. Even that became a black comedy of drugs and emotions.
Desperate to prove the world wrong, to justify the commitment, Cassie and I started to get more involved.
We went regularly to Rikers to visit Daphne, a charismatic twenty-one year old prostitute. We brought her books and clothes. We kept reminding her of what she could do once out, even offering to drive her back home to Oklahoma. We sat in the courthouse, learning the language of law, to follow her case. We circled the day she would be released from jail, waiting in the cold alley outside criminal court. Her first request after four months? A cigarette and a ride back to Hunts Point to smoke drugs with her friends. She is still there, on the same wall, smoking dope and working with a pimp.
So when Michael, a transsexual, lifelong addict, and something of our Hunt Point guide, mentioned she wanted to get clean, we jumped. We drove her on a road trip upstate to visit her mom for encouragement. We cleared a bureaucratic and emotional path to get her into detox and then rehab.
Three weeks ago we drove to Staten Island and checked Michael into Bayley Seton Detox. It felt like our first real story of hope.
The system however fought back, dumping Michael into the streets. Detox released her on a Saturday morning. Rehab began admissions the following Monday. That Saturday morning, we sat stunned and confused. We were in too deep to let her spend the weekend in Hunts Point and certain relapse. She would have to stay those days at Cassie's home. Now the boundary between our subject and us was completely broken.
That weekend was hell, a continuous fight to keep her clean. Neither Cassie nor Michael slept, one out of dope sickness, the other out of empathy. Sunday was the worst. Michael was desperate for drugs, and threatening to run away back to Hunts Point. The lesser evil was getting a dose of methadone to hold her one more day.
So two years of Sundays after I entered Hunts Point I found myself driving to Long Island to buy methadone off the black market from a former prostitute. As I drove I thought back to two years before, when I was resting in a bar reading research reports on G7 currencies.
Michael left for Hunts Point anyway, back into the arms of crack, heroin, and walking the street. "Hunts Point is safe for me. It's what I know." The following week brought a cascade of promises to try rehab, but there were always caveats, and finally the truth: "I will stay an addict until my last excuse."
That weekend was in some sense the natural culmination of everything we had started. The imagery was too clear and close for me to recognize at the time.
We were in over our heads, fighting a symbolic battle to prove that maybe poverty and addiction could yield a happy ending. We wondered if we were doing this to feel better about ourselves and force a happy ending.
This week we are both emotionally, physically and financially drained. I fluctuate between feeling I have wasted two years of my life tilting at windmills, to feeling I have spent two years immersed in the most fascinating place in all of New York City.
Regardless we are both left staring into the abyss asking ourselves, what now?
Chris Arnade received his Ph.D. in physics from Johns Hopkins University. He joined the bond trading desk of Salomon Brothers in 93. He traded bonds, currencies, and interest rates until 2012 when he left to focus his attentions on photography and writing. His series Faces of Addiction focuses on addiction and poverty in the South Bronx, and can be followed on Facebook. He is on Twitter at @Chris_arnade.
Cassie Rodenberg's writings on Hunts Point, White Noise, are published at the Scientific American website.
A version of this essay was originally published on the author's Tumblr. Photos by Chris Arnade.