Vacant Factories, Crumbling Tenements: The Blighted Neighbourhoods of NYC by Jack DeMartino

‘Urban blight’, ‘the pre-programmed American urban ghetto’ and ‘how people persevere in the face of what is often called willful neglect’ are the main subjects of Brooklyn-based artist Jack DeMartino. Executed mostly in shades of thick brown, red, yellow and purple, the paintings present to us visions of New York neighbourhoods hit by foreclosure, arson and abandonment. The scenes speak of loss and poverty but manage to remain alive with an energetic, almost comic-book glow. There is a deep story behind these artworks, one that includes instances of racial discrimination and substance abuse.

My paintings are based on the experience of living and working in transitional neighbourhoods beginning in the mid-1970s up to the present day,” writes Jack. “As a child growing up in a part of Manhattan where the city used ‘slum clearance’ to reduce crime and chaos by forcibly removing close to 7,000 mostly Black and Puerto Rican tenement dwelling families by bulldozing their homes, I was stunned by the ‘Tale of Two Cities’  that was and is New York. As a public-school art teacher for the past thirty years, I worked in the southeast Bronx during the height of the Crack epidemic from 1985-90, and my daily commute through East Harlem, Morrisania and Hunts Point was my own post-graduate education in urban neglect.”

Families that had the means fled the waves of crime and drugs, and the once vibrant neighbourhoods fell silent. The South Bronx, Harlem, the Lower East Side and many parts of Brooklyn resembled battlefields after the war, except that the refugees had never been relocated. “Today, practically every big city in America is made up of or surrounded by neighbourhoods being consumed by this repeating pattern,” maintains the artist, “as the current succession of economic recessions inflicts unemployment, foreclosure, abandonment, arson and crime across the country. In the wake of this slash and burn policy, with the poor and middle class as it’s chaff, spring the ‘green’ shoots of gentrification.”


Jack DeMartino, 1985


Jack continues with the idea of “the American Urban Ghetto”—it is a place, he says, that reads like a cryptic code absent a thorough examination, an area where promise and despair perform a never-ending dance. Here, complex layers of meaning accrue, springing like ailanthus trees growing through the charred interior of an abandoned building. It is here where spirits regularly make themselves seen, wandering through the contorted debris of civilisation in what was not too long ago…farmland.


Lower East Side, 1985


South Bronx, 1985


As he was growing up drawing, studying Karate and going to art museums, Jack found his initial inspiration in the burners covering the trains during the graffiti era and the Old Masters. He subsequently obtained a BFA from the University of Michigan and an MFA from the Yale University School of Art. He has also studied independently with Gerome Kamrowski in Ann Arbor and Daniel Graves and Charles Cecil in Florence. He likes the words of J.M.W. Turner—“I don’t paint so that people will understand me, I paint to show what a particular scene looks like—as well as the Chinese literary concept of “New Wine in Old Skins”, which gave him the understanding that the unnoticed ruins of the Bronx and Brooklyn were just as metaphoric as those of Ancient Greece and Rome.

The concept of “New Wine in Old skins” refers to Literati who wrote in a traditional style, while describing contemporary society. This strategy was employed after Mao’s Cultural Revolution, when Chinese writers were compelled to write solely about the Revolution, in a one-dimensional propagandistic style. They sought  to maintain the complexity  of writing that had evolved over the centuries, and not merely to cater to current political tastes. Many were labelled “counter-revolutionary” and put to death or imprisoned for not abandoning the artistic accomplishments of the past, for not simply throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

The artist adds on his practice: “As a student, the painters from the past that I came to admire were the ones who could create a sense of place and time that was truly magical. I knew that the places and people I would depict deserved the same dignity, and that the ‘Great American Landscape’ paintings of the late 20th century had never been painted, and that if I attempted to paint them, they would have to deal with the dystopian present that is America, and the tale of two cities that I had experienced first hand in NYC.”

Jack DeMartino’s paintings could be found in the following private and corporate collections: Merrill Lynch (New York, NY), New York City Transit Authority, P&K Securities (Athens, Greece), Henry Chalfant Collection (New York, NY) and Tony Silver Collection (Los Angeles, CA).

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Images used with permission.