Love at City Hall
by Chase Anderson
While meeting with my friend Indigo last week, she told me that she and Faith, her girlfriend of a year, had recently entered a domestic partnership, which they obtained at City Hall. She explained that it was an act of practical love: they are now able to share health insurance. Additionally, if one of them were to be hospitalized, it would be much easier to be able to get in the room and see the other. I was impressed and asked about the process, and Indigo wove a tale of positivity and sweetness, and I resolved to go to see if there were any photos to be taken there, as the ideas of romance and government didn’t usually go together in my head.
When I arrived at the Office of the City Clerk on a chilly December Monday, I found a man selling flowers outside who refused my request for a photo, but apart from that a bare street and a fairly unassuming, matter-of-fact building front.
Once I got inside and through security, which was a bit like a relaxed TSA checkpoint, I found a long room: on one side, service counters, and on the other, a long green bench filled with people snuggling up close together. Some were dressed in extravagant dresses, others in work uniforms, but no one looked out of place and everyone seemed to be buzzing with excitement. The scene felt otherworldly, like a heavenly DMV.
I started to introduce myself and ask for some photos, which was met at first with some skepticism — I later saw few patrolling photographers asking for tips — but once I made my intentions clear, nearly everyone was open and receptive. Clara and Paolo had flown in from Brasilía for just a few days to get married in “the most romantic city in the world.” In order to qualify for a marriage license at City Hall, couples must be in New York for at least twenty-four hours prior to their application, and the combination of wedding and vacation appealed also to Donna and Will, who had flown in from the bucolic Wales countryside. “I didn’t want anyone looking at me,” said Donna when I asked why they had come so far to get married. “I don’t mind strangers looking at me, but I don’t want all my friends burning holes in my dress. I thought we had better come here and see some things we wanted to see at the same time. I’ve always wanted to come here, and it’s nice to celebrate the family with just the family.”
Upon entering the building, couples take a number and then wait to be called. Some couples took the walk to their assigned station quickly with excitement, while others took a slower, more ceremonial pace. An important part of the process is coming with a witness: almost every couple had a friend, two, or a whole posse accompanying them, but a witness must also sign the document to confirm the marriage. Paolo and Clara brought some friends from New Jersey and ran to the counter faster than I had seen anyone run that day.
The process itself is quick and relatively inexpensive at $35 for a marriage license or a domestic partnership license. All that is required is a presentation of passports and a few quick signatures. Donna and Will were more processional as they went to their counter. While I was photographing them signing their documents, another couple, Alice and Noah, came up to me and asked if I could be their witness. They had seen me walking around and could tell I wasn’t in anyone’s party, and I happily obliged.
Andrew and Loretta had hitchhiked from South Carolina to escape an abusive family and were securing a domestic partnership in order to share occupancy rights in a shelter that night. Sarah and Rany were on vacation from Berlin and had always wanted to see the lights of Times Square for themselves. DeShawn and Yvette were getting married because they were “madly in love and didn’t want to wait any longer for money for a wedding,” though DeShawn lamented the fact that he was still wearing his work uniform for the photo.
After filling out the paperwork at the individual stations, some couples paid an extra $25 for a small ceremony in an adjoining chapel-like room with a humorous man presiding at the podium. Alice, Noah, Donna and Will opted in, and waited for their number in front of an airport-like readout and then waited in the chamber to be called in. Clara and Paolo opted out, but accepted the services of one of the roaming photographers for an impromptu shoot in the office next to some props and in front of the City Hall backdrop, conveniently located a few hundred feet from the real thing.
When I had thought of City Hall marriages before seeing them, I had thought of them as dull, procedural processes, devoid of romance or charm. However, even after shooting extravagant weddings with family and friends and food, I found there to be some of the most love, passion and attention at the Office of the City Clerk. The absence of pomp allowed the focus to be on one another, and the celebration of the state’s recognition of these couples’ closeness with each other in a public space was uplifting and beautiful.