Phil Jackson is an American photographer and filmmaker based in Brooklyn, NY. He began his career in photography while skateboarding, traveling the US extensively and documenting the trials and tribulations of life on the road. For ten years, he self-published an annual zine, collaging his photographs with handwritten text. His work has been in solo exhibitions in the US, Germany and Japan. He holds a BFA in Photography from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.
I moved to New York City in early 2012. At the same time, I started riding out to Newark, New Jersey to photograph an unauthorized construction project in a vacant building. “The Ironbound”, as it’s known by locals, is a neighborhood nicknamed for the metalworking industry and the railroad tracks that give it its borders. Newark shares the same post-industrial decline story as many American cities: this area, once full of factories, is now mainly home to scrap yards and recycling centers. Much of the land has been declared uninhabitable, contaminated by arsenic and other pollutants.
Built up brick by brick using salvaged materials and remnants of the building itself, the space has grown from a few fledgling obstacles to a project of immense scale. This is not a unique occurrence, but rather a worldwide development: for 25 years, skateboarders have been taking over unused spaces and pouring concrete for their own purposes. The project is fleeting, and each hour of work sunk into it raises the stakes for its eventual demise. It may likely have been torn down by the time this book is published. It’s been almost 5 years now, and its status is no less contested: one day the mayor of Newark is stopping by with his bodyguards, claiming, “This place is fucking awesome! Keep doing what you’re doing and you’re all good!” The next week there’s a worker in an orange vest taking measurements, claiming that the property has been sold, and that soon they’ll begin demolition.
The spot was dubbed “Shorty’s” after the warehouse’s sole tenant, a woman (whose real name is Ava) who used to keep a mattress in the back. We don’t see her around much any more, but when we did, she always greeted us with an emphatic, “I just LOVE what y’all done with the place!” Her nickname is emblazoned in 6-foot tall letters atop the bay doors of the western loading dock. As the setting sunlight pours through the frames, I sometimes think about how few people have a building dedicated in their name.
What would the world look like if more people took from this example and stepped outside the system to address their own needs? The primary purpose of all of this labor has been to build a place to ride a skateboard, which is (lest we forget) a child’s toy. In making these photographs, I’ve tried to examine how people work together, what we value, and how we make use of public space. Here, it seems as though camaraderie and a cooperative spirit have displaced capitalism entirely. Is that even possible in this day and age?
To view more of Phil’s work please visit his website.