I AM OHNY is a campaign we began in late 2011 to highlight and celebrate Open House New York’s diverse community of supporters. Ben Helmer is one of our go-to volunteer photographers, both for our year-round programs and for tours during OHNY Weekend. He moved to the city several years ago, having grown up in the Mid-Hudson Valley, and has been volunteering with OHNY since 2009.
“I never had any interest in being a city person,” Ben admits. “But after transferring here for work, I began a photography project and for 700 days straight, I photographed the people and neighborhoods. I got to know the city better than many of my native friends. Today, the diversity of a subway car feels like home. I’m pretty sure I’m here for life.”
Thank you, Ben, for volunteering your time and talent to help us document our programming so beautifully!
What do you love most about New York City?
The people. I live in Queens, and the range of food, culture, dialects: they’re all tied to people. In the suburbs, the ratio of people is very limited. The diversity that is there is so small, you’re just not that exposed to it. For the past several years, I’ve been talking to and photographing strangers. I’ve talked to all sorts of people, from everywhere: rockstars, architects, Sandy relief workers, homeless people, first generation mothers; I even met a former bodyguard for Norigea. Most people I meet have amazing perspectives, and are way more approachable than an outsider would think. It’s not a huge stretch to say that people are New York’s greatest achievement.
What is your favorite building and/or neighborhood in the city?
My two favorite bridges are the Hell Gate Bridge in Queens, and the Manhattan Bridge. Of the latter, I love the bases of the two towers, below the main span of the bridge. As for the Hell Gate, it’s so different from the suspension bridges, and (to my knowledge), it’s the only bridge in New York to be copied elsewhere. Also, the view of Manhattan, just east of the Hell Gate, has got to be of the most beautiful in the city.
What was your most memorable OHNY experience?
I took some of the best photos I’ve shot for OHNY on a hardhat tour of the Spring Street Sanitation Garage this past Weekend. Being on a hardhat tour is exciting, and I love the level of excitement everyone experiences on such tours. Normally, if you pointed out a sanitation truck garage to me, I would likely keep walking. Seeing the innovation coming out of a normally unpopular public work was really inspiring. We’re talking roof gardens, beautiful architecture, and not only consideration for the neighborhood, but improvements that actually make the lives of city workers better.
If OHNY could grant you an all-access pass to any place in the city, where would you go, and why?
I’ve been dying to get into the Second Avenue Subway or the East Side Access tunnels. Last fall, the Transit Museum did an exhibit of photos of the tunnels by a Japanese photographer. They were incredible, and it’s a dream of mine to see them for myself. Really, I want to document the workers in those unfinished tunnels. It’s a once in a lifetime chance to witness history. Barring that, access to any subway tunnels off-limits to the public would be incredible. City Hall station is also on my radar.
OHNY is important to New York City because…
Architecture is pointless without people. We need every chance we can get to share New York with the people it was built for. Few organizations enable that like OHNY.
From the Annual OHNY Weekend to its year-round public programs, OHNY offers you opportunities to see the city like you’ve never seen it. With your support, OHNY can continue to open the city to tens of thousands of people throughout the five boroughs, tying us closer to the places, people and stories that make New York the most extraordinary city in the world. Together, we are OHNY.