Basement Sanctuaries explores the ways in which superintendents decorate basements of apartment buildings in Northern Manhattan by illuminating the process of migrant adaptation to the metropolis from an intimate perspective. I, a migrant myself, had the idea for this project when apartment-hunting in the neighborhood.
Superintendents are caretakers that usually live in the basements of apartment buildings with more than thirteen units. They are in charge of the building on behalf of the owner, do minor repairs in the apartments and deal with the tenants’ concerns. It is a job that is mainly done by migrants.
In many ways, basements are special sanctuaries for supers and their families. Supers often live in basements that are hidden from the public and from visitors, which creates a form of privacy. However, the basement is also a space of work for supers and their environment is on display for the residents of the building. Under these circumstances, the supers’ decorations function as a territorial claim over the basement’s public/private space.
Most of the supers in Northern Manhattan are migrants from Latin America or the Caribbean, and images from their home countries might connect their new home to a past they have left behind. This can be especially important given the grueling nature of their work and the difficulty of establishing oneself in New York City.
The repeated themes of cultural, national, and religious origins suggest that similar impulses drive the decoration process for different supers. However, the photos also show the diverse ways in which supers have personalized their work and living spaces and created a uniquely intimate space in the basement of New York City.
The images encourage viewers to think in new ways about how space functions in New York City apartment buildings and broaden our understanding of the relationship among migration, semi-public/private space, and the everyday landscape.
The series was published by Schilt Publishing in Spring 2014. Basement Sanctuaries was selected for the LensCulture Emerging Talents 2014 Awards and shortlisted in Professional Architecture Cetegory in the Sony World Photography Awards 2014. It was published in The New York Times, The Guardian, WIRED, mental floss, and many other outlets.