Addiction and Poverty, Dignity and Friendship: An Interview with Chris Arnade

By Regina Walker 07/10/19

Even in harsh situations people can find dignity, and create these beautiful things. Even in the crack houses, even in the drug spots there is beauty. It's not just all down and out.

Couple at McDonald's, heads together
McDonald's is often the only place that is opened to all people, a place to regain a sense of dignity, where people don't stare at you. All images via Chris Arnade

In 2011, Chris Arnade was a successful bond trader, working on Wall Street and experiencing a level of success most Americans only dream of. He seemed to have it all – a degree from a prestigious university, a nice home, and family. And yet just a year later, he began a project that would eventually morph from distraction to obsession: photographing and documenting the lives of the drug addicts who were then denizens of Hunts Point, thought at the time to be one of the roughest neighborhoods in New York’s South Bronx. 

Arnade had become disillusioned with the financial industry during the mid-2000s financial crisis, and he left Wall Street for good in 2012. In 2013, he published a series of photographs titled “Faces of Addiction” on the image hosting site Flickr.

In 2014, Arnade began taking long road trips across America, documenting “the back row” – his term for the people who had fallen through the cracks of the Great American Success Story, those who are routinely ignored, marginalized, and demonized. At oases of calm, like local McDonald’s restaurants which often serve as places of refuge for the down-and-out, Arnade found unexpected resilience, dignity, and even humor in the lives of America’s forgotten.

Photographs, interviews, and observations from these journeys comprise Arnade’s latest book, Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America. I once again had the opportunity to talk with Arnade about how he went from being a cog in the finance industry machine to the lens that strives to expose the worth in people so many think of as worthless.

The Fix: You're a scientist, you worked on Wall Street, where you had a very successful career. What made you decide to make the transition from Wall Street to becoming a documentarian? Actually, you're more than a documentarian. As I recall, you were very much involved in the lives of the people that you met in Hunts Point. What was the catalyst for that transition?

Chris Arnade: A combination of curiosity and frustration. Frustration with Wall Street and how, especially after the financial crisis, how the industry was, and how much damage it had done, and how closed-minded people on Wall Street were to the fact that they had done damage. So, I kind of, in some way, blew off my job and just starting walking around the town, and that's kind of what led me to Hunts Point. Not just Hunts Point, but other neighborhoods like Hunts Point where people tell you not to go to.

Then it became somewhat political, where I was seeing things that are very different to what people had said I would see. Neighborhoods [where] there's a lot more sense of community. It wasn't as dangerous as people said it was, it was far more inviting, friendly, than people said it would be. But also people were screwed over, and so the neighborhood had been kind of unfairly stigmatized. And it made me kind of frustrated that people here weren't necessarily any different that the people on the Upper East Side, but they were treated a lot different.

It was an area that people judged quite harshly, but you saw another level, you saw the community, you saw other pieces.

Right. And also…it was the first time I was really spending a large amount of time around hard-core addicts, and so the stereotypes for addicts were all wrong. They were no less intelligent, no less hard working, no less decent than any other people. Here they were, being in this awful situation, and being treated like shit. So, some of that was going on, just being kind of like, “Oh my God, this is so wrong.”

Did your experience in Hunts Point change your thoughts about and viewpoints of addiction?

Yeah, I became a lot more sympathetic. I certainly understood a lot better how stigmatized the community is. This is, I guess, seven years ago now. A lot has changed in the seven years, for the better. I think seven years ago, you'd regularly hear people saying, "Addicts deserve this." I don't think you hear many people say that anymore, thankfully…The biggest change I saw was, if you had asked me before, I would've thought it would've been pretty easy to get clean, to get sober. Life sucks for them and this is unfair, but why don't they just get clean? When I was in Hunts Point, I realized just how hard that is, it's impossible sometimes.

Did you have a sense of addiction from the medical model?

Yeah. From that perspective, I'm in the minority I think. I don't want to get people angry and say it's not a medical condition, [but] I don't see it that way. I see it as more of a cultural issue, in the sense that you're surrounded by it. You grew up in these neighborhoods. I see it as a response to basically being either traumatized, or stigmatized. The sense of being cast aside, and feeling like you don't really fit in anywhere, and that life is kind of meaningless. 

So, one of the things I write about in the book is: I talk about how— and people don't want to admit it— there's a strong community in the drug houses. You walk into a crack house or drug trap, or you crawl underneath a bridge and hang out with people shooting up, it's a real community. Friends, there's people, it's a place where you fit in. And, I think there's a lot of people who don't feel like they fit in, or are not accepted in other clubs. Nobody wants to let them in their club, so why not go to the club underneath the bridge?

McDonald’s became almost a symbol while you were in Hunts Point. Why McDonald's?

I think there's two reasons. One is, well, it's been the place addicts go. It's often the only place that is opened to all people, when you're really pushed to the margins. That's where the addicts were, that's where my friends were. People who would spend all day there. They'd go pick up a newspaper out of the garbage can and maybe a soda cup, and refill the soda, sit in the corner, and maybe shoot up in the bathroom, clean up, and just otherwise get lost alone for maybe four or five hours, and no one bothering them. No one telling them “move,” nobody telling them to get out; do this, do that. As I say, a place to regain a sense of dignity, where people don't stare at you. 

And the second one, it's one of the few places that worked. I think Hunts Point's doing better now. I don't know, haven't been there in a while, but I think back then [McDonald’s] was one of the few places that actually was functional, that you could just go to. It was open, and had a bathroom.

And McDonald’s remained a touchpoint for you in your travels across the country.

I didn't really want it to necessarily, but it was for the same reasons as I found myself at McDonald's in Hunts Point. I found myself in McDonald's in Portsmouth, I found myself in McDonald's in other places, because that's the place where, if your goal was to write about people who were living in the margins, you go to McDonald's. That's where they were. I also wanted to be there because I could charge my phone, charge my computer, and I could use the bathroom, and I could clean up. And also, I like the coffee there. You had free WiFi, all those things that people want.

You also visited many community churches across the country, how did that affect your experience with faith?

I'm not an atheist anymore, but I'm certainly not religious. I write a lot in my book about how I grappled with thinking about the role of faith, and what I believed before that. I'm a lot more open minded about people. I certainly have a lot more respect for religion, for faith, than I did before.

It's interesting, because very often science seems to be at odds with religion and you are a scientist. 

I'm not doubting that the science community is extraordinarily well-intentioned and does great things, and wants to help the people, the homeless, and they want to help the addicts. Certainly, doctors do and certainly, people do. The average scientist doesn't understand how, on the street it doesn't feel like you're being helped by science. Even a lot of readers won't understand this. Detoxes, certainly ones that serve the poorest of people, are not necessarily accepting places. They can be sterile cold places, not very welcoming. Hospitals are the same way.

The places you would think would be the least judgmental, very often are the most.

The thing is, it's just a matter of legwork too. If you're in the worst neighborhood, worst stigmatized, worst drugs, worst crime…the groups that go in there and talk to them on their level and don't treat them like things they don't understand are churches. They really go into these communities and do outreach. Some people might be upset with that outreach, but I think the reality is they're there, they’re boots on the ground.

And I noticed, in the book, it wasn't like you visited homeless shelters or spent much time in treatment programs.

No. I think McDonald's are the homeless shelters during the day, the day shelter. When people can't be in the shelter, they walk over to the McDonald's and hang out there. There are certain McDonald's that were open 24 hours, especially ones in the inner states. That's where they hang out. They try to hang out all night there.

Was your experience of this kind of journey different than what you expected it was going to be? Did you have a sense of what you were going to see or what you might encounter? 

I didn't think I would see as much pain as or as much frustration as I saw. Every town has a neighborhood, or multiple neighborhoods that are like – this isn't a blue-state, red-state or urban thing, it's everywhere. You go into any town, and there's going to be a problem, a place where there're drugs, and where there's frustration, and where there's poverty. I guess, what I found, what kind of shocked me or disappointed me in some ways, is just how easy it is to find. You don't have to go searching for it. And how out of touch politicians are, with what's going on in their own country. 

So, the magnitude was greater than you expected yet, it seems like you have hope. In your book, that sense of hope comes across, despite the fact that as you said, the problem was greater, the magnitude larger, but there's hope, still.

People are resilient. So, even faced with these awful structural problems that are kind of put on them, they do their best. It's like in Hunts Point. 

The things I worried about that didn't get a lot of attention are like the pigeon keepers, right? People who take pigeons and make beauty out it. A lot of people think it's nothing, they’re just rats with wings, but if you go up on a roof and watch the pigeons fly, they're gorgeous. The same with the guys who fix up Schwinn bicycles, which are literally being tossed out by wealthy people, or ignored, they turn them into these really cool things. 

So, I think what I appreciated is the resilience. Even in harsh situations people can find dignity, and create these beautiful things. Even in the crack houses, even in the drug spots there is beauty. Where there's people putting together small works of art, and there's humor. It's not just all down and out. There are funny moments, people have fun. It's not just all evil.

The tragedy of the streets means few can delude themselves into thinking they have it under control. You cannot ignore death there, and you cannot ignore human fallibility. It is easier to see that everyone is a sinner, everyone is fallible, and everyone is mortal. It is easier to see that there are things just too deep, too important, or too great for us to know. It is far easier to recognize that one must come to peace with the idea that “we don’t and never will have this under control.” It is far easier to see religion not just as useful but true.

From Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America

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Regina Walker is a licensed psychotherapist in NYC. She has written for multiple publications and is an avid photographer. You can find her on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.