Life in the Hole, Part III: The Cultivator

Raising animals, tending to gardens, and building his own house, all while living off the grid (literally), in New York’s most overlooked neighborhood.

By | February 13, 2015

Jose — known as Wepa to his friends — is a farmer of sorts. Untamed vegetable gardens are cobbled together on his property, while Jose’s roosters stalk his tenants’ yards, often engaging in impromptu cockfights to establish dominance over one another. Although Jose once owned a horse, pig and goat on his land, he does not live in farm country. He makes his home in “The Hole” — a neighborhood spanning the border of Brooklyn and Queens and filled with a ramshackle assortment of abandoned buildings, dilapidated trailers, and other abodes where a diverse assortment of New Yorkers are desperately trying to build their lives.

Jose brags about building his home with his own two hands, but he has been unable to connect it to the electrical grid and thus it sits abandoned. For months now, he has resided in a small shack on the edge of his property, a satellite of his hard work. Despite his tribulations, he is generous to a fault, sharing beer, food and money with anyone willing to share a conversation with him.

In part one of this series, “Life in the Hole,” we introduced you to Bam, who killed a man at twelve, became a father at fifteen, and is now trying desperately to balance the baggage of his violent past with his murky, uncertain future. In Part 2 you met Will, a carpenter and master carver who crafted a new life for himself using a gift from his dead brother. Bam, Will and Jose are just three of thousands of people piecing together their lives here.

After coming to New York to study at the International Center of Photography, my first assignment was “How water effects life in New York,” which took me to the Hole. One of the first things I saw there was Bam and Cindy’s RV. It was in the middle of what looked like an abandoned property, but I knew there were people inside.

I ended up walking around the block for five hours until Cindy came out. She is fat, loud and Puerto Rican. I just happen to be fat, loud and Canadian. We insulted each other, laughed and instantly got along.

That night Bam and his sons broke into their neighbors’ basement, crawling in through a boarded-up window to steal power for their RV. After this I knew without a doubt I wanted to document their lives.

About a month after that, I began sleeping on the floor of the RV, three or four days a week for the next year. On any given night there were between four and eight people sleeping in the cramped space. If they knew someone in need they always opened their home. I often got bumped from the floor to the driver’s seat. I was never treated as a guest, always as a family member.

Bam immediately began to confide in me. I think he trusted me and saw sharing his past life as a penance. He told me about growing up as a heroin dealer, and gave detailed accounts of numerous murders. Bam’s personality is a gift and a curse. He lacks the ability to introspect. Thus, he never stops to think, doubt, or see just how bad things are. (He doesn’t know he is stuck in the Hole). He just pushes on, but to what? Or, where? I am not sure.

There were a few times I felt afraid. Once, while cleaning up after a contracting job, Bam saw a man who once robbed his old weed spot driving past. Without a second thought Bam threw the hammer he was holding at the car, smashing the windshield. The car sped off. Later that day, Bam’s youngest son, Josh, saw the car with the smashed windshield and someone pointed a handgun at him from inside the car. After being told this, Bam acquired a twelve-gauge pistol-grip shotgun and kept it loaded under his mattress. Every time a car drove by during the week that followed Bam reached for the gun. I felt safer sleeping on the floor. I never told the family how worried I was.

This past year in the Hole was one of the most formative of my life. I developed and reaffirmed my passion for documentary work. I was made privy to the most intimate moment of these people’s lives. They welcomed me immediately and never censored themselves. I struggle to understand why they let me in. But I am honored that they did.

* * *

See the entire three-part series here.


Behind the Scenes with a Narratively Illustrator

Illustrator Ryan Raphael gives us an inside look into his process when creating the art for the Narratively story Inside the Queer-Centric Frat That Dared to Question What a Frat Even Is.


Faces of Freelance: Meet Carolyn

An award-winning producer on how freelancers bring freedom and innovation to structured work environments.


Mission Impossible: Finding the Perfect Name for My Kid

A new dad on the nightmare-inducing challenge of coming up with a timeless but fresh, cool but not too cool name for his son.


Adventure Is in My DNA

A filmmaker and surfer proudly explores her Indigenous roots, and discovers that thrill-seeking runs in the family.


These 4 Women Are Taking on a Politician Near You

The coalminer’s daughter. The bartender. The police brutality activist. The grieving mother. Each looked at the man representing her in Congress and said, “I can do better.”


The Grieving Mom Fighting for a Healthcare System That Actually Works

Amy Vilela lost her daughter when she couldn’t afford the medical bills. When her Congressman told her he wouldn’t support universal healthcare, Amy said, “I’m running.”


This Ferguson Activist Wants to be Missouri’s First Black Congresswoman

Cori Bush is a registered nurse, a pastor and a mom. After taking to the streets to protest police killings, she looked in the mirror and said, “why not politician, too?”


How Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Pulled Off the Biggest Upset in Congressional History

In early 2018, we introduced you to a bartender from the Bronx trying to pull off what many said was impossible. Here’s how AOC became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.


This Coalminer’s Daughter Is Mad as Hell—And Running for the U.S. Senate

Paula Jean Swearengin has seen West Virginia’s land exploited, its people fall ill, and its politicians do nothing. So she decided to do something herself.