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The Secret Life of New York Storefronts, in Miniature

The Secret Life of New York Storefronts, in Miniature
Randy Hage

A city’s storefronts, to paraphrase a much-quoted proverb, are the windows to its soul.  New York’s thousands upon thousands of retail façades have traditionally been as fabulous and motley as the city’s deepest self – in turns makeshift, perfectionist, self-aggrandizing, and practical.

Over the last 20 years or so, however, the city’s eyes have been glazing over. In neighborhood after neighborhood, what was once quirky and imperfect has been replaced by the smooth and bland. It’s like the city is getting a bad facelift that never ends.

Plenty of people have been documenting the changing look of New York with photographs – James and Karla Murray being a wonderful example -- but one man, Randy Hage, is taking things a step further. Hage, who for 30 years built models for film and TV, photographs New York storefronts and then creates scale models of the scenes faithful down to the coffee stains on the newspapers in the recycling bundles.

Hage is a native Californian who lives in the Pasadena area, but something about New York just clicks with him. "It’s like when the ambient temperature is perfect for your body," he says. "New York is the right place for me."

Every year in fall and spring, he makes scouting trips to the city, walking for hours each day and taking pictures of the establishments that catch his eye. He estimates that he’s shot about 450 places since he started in the late 1990s, and that more than half of those are now disappeared. Many of his sculptures document Manhattan icons -- Vesuvio Bakery, Mars Bar, Yonah Schimmel Knishes -- but increasingly, Hage roams the outer boroughs to find the handmade flavor he is seeking. "I’m having to move farther and farther out of Manhattan to find the same kind of character," he says.

When he gets back to California, the next part of the process begins. Hage sifts through the pictures, finding the few he wants to recreate in three dimensions. When he’s decided on an image, he spends a couple of days thinking about it before he begins, working through the process and the logistics in his mind. Then, he just starts building, using paper, resin, wood, and metal.

Unlike commercial work that he’s done in the past, Hage says these pieces are completed without plans or blueprints. "It’s very organic," he says. "As soon as I started doing work for myself, the impediment between brain and hands seems to disappear."

Hage’s models never have people in them, but it is the transient presence of the people that inhabit these spaces that he records so beautifully. Each scene includes layer upon painstaking layer of decoration and detritus, the residue of human intervention and occupation. "A lot of times I really hate the structures until the very end," he says. Then, when he puts the last touches on, it all comes together. "It’s not any one part that pleases me, it’s the amalgam."

Hage’s models will be on display at the Flower Pepper Gallery in Old Pasadena, California, from October 5 through November 15. The one-man show is called "Fleeting Moments," and it is a benefit for the Rachel Ann Hage Neuro-Oncology Fund, founded in honor of his daughter, who died of a brain tumor in 2000, when she was four-years-old. Proceeds will benefit Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

Hage says that when he looks at the storefronts and then goes on to recreate them, it’s as if he can read the history of these places, a complicated record of all the ephemeral human moments that have transpired on this spot.

"I love having that kind of intimacy," he says. "It’s like when someone tells you a secret. You feel a kinship with that person."

(Many thanks to the indispensable blog Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York for the heads-up on this one.)

All images courtesy of Randy Hage.

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

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