Louis Heilbronn: On The Subject of Water, Staten Island

Produced in conjunction with the Alice Austen House Triennial

What is left behind 

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, hundreds in the Staten Island area were left either homeless or scrambling to gather lost memories and family belongings. This was not the only time Staten Island experienced devastation from natural disasters. Hurricane Hugo in 1989, Floyd in 1999 and Irene in 2011 had also left Staten Island neighborhoods scrambling to pick up the pieces.

Hurricane Sandy hit hard in 2012 and left more destruction and casualties than previous hurricanes. After the storm, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, alongside other community activists began a comprehensive buyout plan to purchase over four hundred homes in low-lying areas of Staten Island. 

In order to incentivize owners to leave their properties New York State offered to buy each home for their full value prior to the storm’s arrival in October of 2012. Buying out these homes would allow the evacuated areas to form a natural marshland that would act as a buffer zone between the Atlantic Ocean and the remaining residents of Staten Island.

“There are some places that Mother Nature owns,” said Governor Cuomo as he announced the buyout and pleaded with residents to sell. Despite this, a handful of owners defiantly decided to stay put. Raising their homes several feet off the ground these holdouts refused to be forgotten. Today, however, the remains of these neighborhoods now resemble ghost towns.

Louis Heilbronn’s photographs of these lost neighborhoods taken in the winter of 2015 and summer of 2016 ache with this a sense of abandonment. Mud covered streets and piles of debris lay quietly dormant four years after Sandy’s destruction. 

Born in New York, Heilbronn gives an intimate view through the work. A place close, a place remembered. Remnants of houses and cars contrast the natural surroundings reclaiming what once was. A snow covered ladder leaves only a silhouette, an echo of what these houses are now; a reminder of what once sat on these shores.

Though the images of debris and the abandoned emanate a feeling of grief, there is still hope in the photographs. New growth, flowers and foliage emerging from the mud soaked ground signal a new beginning for those who lost so much.

Louis Heilbronn