Art in America: Pigeon Keepers of NYC
Creating Beauty to elevate life
I first noticed the flocks of pigeons swooping and swirling above Brooklyn during my long walks back in the 2000’s. I immediately knew they were beautiful, I just didn’t know they were art. Well, art as most people experience it. Not as something to put in a gallery, but as something to elevate life above the mundane. Beauty for beauty’s sake, not for fame or money.
Recognizing them as art took a little more time.
I became fascinated with the pigeon flocks, not just because of their beauty, but because they could be used as landmarks. As a way to navigate mile after mile of row-houses, bodegas, parks, liquor stores, barbershops. (“Walk towards the large flock of white pigeons, you will find me in the park next to them”).
I started paying more attention to them. One flock flying high above Maria Hernandez park in Bushwick stood out and each walk I stopped midway there to rest on a bench, sip a mango juice, and admire the “hundred-birded tumult and blur."1
One day I noticed a long pole with an attached white sheet being spun in long circles from the top of a rundown brownstone beneath the pigeons as if conducting them.
Curious about the pole (was it signaling to the pigeons, or just joy-ishly emulating them?) I found the brownstone it came from, one partitioned into tiny apartments. The doorway was a tangle of buzzers, wires, and nameplates, none of which seemed to work, but it was jammed open with a beer can. I went in, climbed the five flights of stairs, then up the tiny metal ladder to an open skylight.
It was like crossing a magical boundary. Outside was sky, light, air, a breeze, and the whoop whoop whooping of hundreds of pigeons wings flapping together. Inside was the dark tight stairwell filled with toys, drying clothes, yells, and the smell of dirty oil.
Standing on the roof were a group of men smoking, laughing, and hanging out, all around a sprawling coop made from roofing material, chicken wire, and wood.
This was Luis’s rooftop, although he didn’t own the building, he only lived in one of the apartments, or he used to live in one of the apartments, or he had a relative who lived in one of the apartments, or he used to have a relative who lived there. Regardless, he had claimed the roof, built a coop, and filled it with pigeons he’d collected and tagged.
Twice a day they came over to feed and fly the pigeons. The long flagged pole, used with a series of whistles, was to signal to the pigeons when to come back, although tossing handfuls of seeds and feed onto the roof seemed to be how it was really accomplished.
Luis’s life beyond keeping pigeons was complicated, but he had his pigeons.
I started spending more time with him and other pigeon keepers, and turned my walks into finding more of them. Across all of New York City. While I was drawn in by the pigeons, I was also trying to figure out why exactly they did it. There had to be some money involved. Maybe it was a sport or competition, maybe they raced them, or fought them, or battled them.
But no, there wasn’t any real stated reason, certainly not economic, beyond that they really liked pigeons.
There was no prize money involved, no trophy. They kept them for their beauty, both alone and when flown as a flock. The goal, if there was a goal, was to keep the birds happy enough that they would eventually return to the coop. “You need to be a good dad, otherwise the kids will fly away.”
Nothing about pigeon keeping is fancy, or official. It is all largely improvised. The biggest challenge is finding a roof to use. A few of the men (they are almost all men) are lucky enough to own their own home, and have access to a roof. Some guys are supers in co-ops and had access to the roof, but most, like Luis, just find a building lightly managed that maybe they had once lived in, or maybe they had a relative live in, and climb up to the roof, and start building a coop. Others find an abandoned building, break into it, climb up, and take over the roof.
The coops are also cobbled together, some from wood salvaged from construction sites, some from wood removed from the building itself, or an old dresser turned into a nesting box.
One guy, even turned a room in his “low income apartment” into a pigeon coop, with a window used as entry/exit for the birds. (Another room had a stripper pole in it. LOL.)
Pigeon keeping is not, at least in NYC, a rich person thing. Not at all. The story behind the keepers are all roughly the same. They come from “rough hoods”, start loving pigeons young (picked up from another guy in the neighborhood), and then find keeping pigeons as a way to stay out of problems, past or present.
Like Whitey, standing on his Bushwick Brooklyn rooftop, “I would be dead now if not for my birds. Dead. So many of my friends are. Birds, they kept me on the roof and out of trouble.”
Kevin, now in his sixties, started at eight, grew up in the very rough neighborhood of East New York, Brooklyn. “I’ve had a few problems. Growing up here it’s hard not to, but that’s all behind me now. God’s now shining his light on me. For the last 15 years I’ve stayed away from everything. Now I spend my evenings on the roof with my birds and a Pepsi. The pigeons don’t talk back to you and my wife always knows where I am. I can put everything behind me when I’m up on the roof.“
Slice was a drug dealer when, at 17, he killed another dealer, and spent 20 years in jail, “It was either kill him or I was gonna be killed. I had gotten myself into a bad place.” Now he is "locked down by my wife and birds. Both of them keep me out of trouble. When I am up here on the roof, I am in another world. I can leave all the past behind.” He scans the Bronx streets from six stories high, “All that below us, that’s gone.”
Almost all the keepers know each other and often engage in playful competition, trying to capture other people’s pigeons that stray from the flock, or sending their flock up to show off their birds when they see someone else’s flock.
On a late Sunday afternoon, if you are in the right neighborhood of New York City, you can look out across the skyline and see dozens of flocks of pigeons all circling in tight spirals above their owner’s roof.
Despite that ubiquity, it isn’t legal or approved. The ad hoc coops are almost all unlicensed, and most wealthier neighborhoods keeping pigeons is banned. Think of the buildings loaded with anti-pigeon spikes.
Robin, late 60’s, lives on the edge of Park Slope, which is at the tail end of a decades long transition from working class to elite. He used to keep pigeons, but had to stop when the new neighbors started complaining about the noise and the mess. He is wistful, but blunt, “The new people moving in, they only like their cats and dogs, treat them like children, and complain about anything else.”
Pigeon keeping may not have a stated goal, might not be the pathway to riches or fame, but standing on a roof, feeling the breeze on a humid day, watching a flock of pigeons turn tight circles, the wings catching the light of the setting sun, you get why people do it. They are elevated, both physically and emotionally.
To me, that is exactly what art is about. Moving beyond the mundane, if only briefly. And that type of art is everywhere, all over the world, no matter the neighborhood, if you just open your eyes and look for it.
I see it everywhere in my walks, not just Brooklyn or pigeons. Graffiti in Lima. Pimped out cars in LA. Yard sculptures in Indianapolis. Gardens wherever. Rap wherever.
Even how people arrange junk in junkyards can be intentional and beautiful. I used to call it “accidental art.” But it isn’t accidental at all. Just not appreciated enough.
So the idea in some circles, that art or culture is dead, or stale, is complete nonsense. Sure, what is happening in the high end art galleries right now might be depressing. Might feel like a cynical money grab. An elite game of meta whatever. A desire for fame. But that isn’t art to me. Not how most people experience it.
Before I was writing this, I was reading some Plato (for the first time in my life. I know, a little late.) and was struck by his view on art. He doesn’t like it, not at all!
Plato sees art as imitative, just fakes of the real thing. Bad shadows cast by higher forms, and understanding the higher forms is what life is really about.2
He even wants to ban artist from his perfect city (from the Republic)!
It seems, then, that if a man, who through clever training can become anything and imitate anything, should arrive in our city, wanting to give a performance of his poems, we should bow down before him as someone holy, wonderful, and pleasing, but we should tell him that there is no one like him in our city and that it isn't lawful for there to be. We should pour myrrh on his head, crown him with wreaths, and send him away to another city.
Man has a smart person ever gotten it more wrong?
Art, even in Plato’s narrowest sense of being “imitative” is still absolutely everything, and the idea it should be shunned, or moved beyond, is crazy. Especially if the reality around you sucks.
Because art allows, through colorful imitation, the dreary reality of life to be punctuated with moments of beauty.
Think about Pigeons. They are real things that have for thousands of years on their own, swooped and swirl, scattering light from their wings. Over forests, or parks, or whatever.
But when collected together on a Bronx rooftop, and choreographed from below, they allow a person working two jobs, surrounded by buildings, to add something special to the world.
They allow them to break away, for a moment, from the drudgery of modern life.
That modern life which is a dreary version of life, constructed by people like Plato trying to build the perfect city, that has done it’s best to make us forget beauty is everywhere around us and that anyone can create it.
Link below for 120 full resolution photos of pigeons and pigeon keepers for paid subscribers to download.
PS: These are JPEG files, if you want a copy of a Raw file for any of the pictures, please reach out to me.
Don DeLillo, Underworld
It may be that I have gotten Plato very wrong. Yell at me in the comments if that is the case.