“Take a walk along any river in any country, and one can see that the machine is almost defunct. God is rusting away leaving a fragile shell. Factories are like the shell of an insect that has metamorphosed into an entirely different creature and flown away.” From In The Shadow of the American Dream: The Diaries of David Wojnarowicz.
I’m not one of those people who has any great nostalgia for the bad, bad old days of New York City. The first couple of times I went there, in the middle and late 1970s, the place was terrifying; abrasive, threatening, teetering on the brink of a bankruptcy that didn’t seem merely financial. Having prostitutes, drug dealers or muggers on every street corner was undoubtedly very gritty and bracing, but it made walking around a hazardous and daunting prospect; not that I didn’t do it. I felt as though I’d accomplished something, simply by surviving those streets. And god knows I didn’t walk through the worst of it,
There was an occasion when I took a Greyhound bus up to Poughkeepsie where I had some friends of friends, and at this point I’m not sure exactly what route the bus took, but not long after we’d left the bus station we seemed to be travelling through a war zone: burned out cars, derelict buildings, kids playing in rubble, a few desperate, homeless refugees pushing shopping carts.
I didn’t consider myself a sensitive flower but I was really shocked by all this. It was a genuinely appalling spectacle even as it was an utterly compelling one. It was impossible not to stare and wonder. How could one of the world’s great cities have come to this? And above all, I was very, very glad that I was on the bus, and not out there on foot trudging through this blasted cityscape. I had compassion for the poor souls out there, but I was very, very glad not to be of them. It didn’t look very sexy out there.
The picture above is by Olivier Rebbot, and is titled “116th Street and Seventh Avenue, Harlem, New York City, March 1977, USA,” and I suspect the bus didn’t pass through precisely this zone, but the view is much as I remember it, though the man on the tricycle doesn't look entirely miserable.
These days, however New York, and especially Manhattan, is so prosperous, so pleasant, so spruced up that, while still resisting any nostalgia de la boue, even I find myself wishing it had a bit more patina, a few more rough edges. Even when you find a rusted sign for a bar or a store you can’t be sure it’s genuine: there’s always a possibility it’s been deliberately antiqued to appeal to the hipsters.
I did find a couple of places of fascinating ruin when I was in New York earlier this year, though you might argue about how “authentic” they were. The first was the Irish Hunger Memorial, a half acre site commemorating the Great Irish Famine, of 1845–52. It’s right down at the bottom end of Manhattan, on Vesey Street, close to the Hudson River, part of Battery Park, which means that it’s right by the World Trade Center. Incredibly, improbably, as it surely seems, work started on the Hunger Memorial in March 2001, and was completed in July 16, 2002, rising from the ruined landscape all around it, while itself being a kind of ruin.
The Irish Hunger Memorial is like a chunk of old Ireland, magically transported to the New World, though in fact it’s a man-made slab of hillside, with paths, stone walls, and Irish grasses and wild flowers, and there are 32 large stones scattered about the land, one from each Irish county.
There’s also a ruined a fieldstone cottage, brought over from Carradoogan in County Mayo. It seems to have been in use until the 1960s, and was owned by the Slack family who donated it to the memorial in memory of their relatives who emigrated to America and thrived. So it is, in some sense, a genuine ruin; ancient stone, a rustic fireplace, no windows, no roof, and the last of these features meant that when I was there it was possible to stand inside the ruined cottage, and look up and see the almost completed World Trade Center rising above it. If the symbolism seemed all too obvious it was none the less moving for that.
A few miles to the north, a longish walk but a good one, still on the west side of Manhattan, by Riverside Park, on the banks of the Hudson River, in some sense actually standing IN the Hudson River, are the remains of the 69th Street Transfer Bridge, a black, decaying, deeply impressive industrial ruin, that looks like a misplaced signal gantry, possibly a kind of crane, or an elaborate scaffolding structure, its actual function unguessable unless you happen to know that it was built in 1911 as part of the New York Central Railroad. It enabled railway rolling stock to be transferred from the rails and onto boats, then floated across the river to the freight marshaling yards in Weehawken, New Jersey.
It fell into disuse in the 1970s, and nobody seems to have thought too much about it at the time, since the city had other, more pressing concerns, which meant that a form of benign neglect took over, and the bridge survived, decaying gently but remaining essentially intact until 2003, when conservationists took notice and it appeared on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s right there on the list along with the Brooklyn Bridge and the Chrysler Building.
I’ve found some contradictory information about the future of the bridge. One source suggests there are plans to turn it into “a waterfront amenity for ferry/water taxi access,” which sounds unlikely to me. A more intriguing source has it that the 69th Street Transfer Bridge is going to be allowed to decay still further, to fall into absolute ruin, which I suppose means that it will eventually disappear completely. I like the sound of that. It seems like a very special kind of ruin, philosophical as well as physical, and it moves me even more than the Irish Hunger Memorial.
That walk from the Hunger Memorial to the 69th Street Transfer Bridge will most likely take you past the Chelsea piers, now more or less safe, family-friendly leisure facilities, but not very so long ago, in the 1970s, they were the site of all manner of (chiefly male, gay) sexual subversion. I certainly didn’t go down to the piers on my visits to New York in those days, and I’m not sure I even knew they existed, but I didn’t doubt there was plenty of sexual subversion going on all over the city. The picture below is by Alvin Baltrop.
And now, life being the way it is, I’ve just discovered an essay by Fiona Anderson titled ‘Soon all this will be picturesque ruins’: Cruising Manhattan’s derelict waterfront, which was presented at The Courtauld Institute, in 2011, as part of a conference titled Intersections: Architecture and Poetry. Anderson quotes David Wojnarowicz extensively, having examined his archive - those words in quotation marks are the subtitle of a Wojnarowicz essay – and she concludes that “For Wojnarowicz, the waterfront was a space that facilitated not only functional and geographical appropriation and overlap; in doing so, it permitted temporal palimpsestuality too.” Well you’ve said a mouthful there Fiona: palimpsestuality indeed!
She also quotes the novelist Andrew Holleran, one of whose characters, in a work titled Nostalgia For The Mud, asks “Why do gays love ruins? … The Lower West Side, the docks. Why do we love slums so much? [...] Why do I feel a strange sense of freedom the moment I enter a decaying neighborhood?” And I suppose obvious answer might be that slums and ruins are places where, historically, gay men have gone to have furtive and anonymous sex. Wojnarowicz did too, but he liked to imagine the guys he picked up bore some relation to great literary figures such as Genet and Mayakovsky. To be fair he also made art there too.
A website titled backinthegays.com reports that "Greenwich Village in New York City was a homosexual’s dream come true in the 1970′s and early 80′s. You could literally walk down Christopher Street and have sex as much as you wanted, anytime that you wanted to. Men fucked on the pier, in the trucks, in alleys and doorways and in bookstores, and bars backrooms.”
I don’t claim to know much about male homosexual desire, though I think I have some insights into the heterosexual variety. To be able to literally walk down the street (as opposed to metaphorically walking down the street, I suppose) and having as much sex as you want, sounds like the kind of thing most heterosexual men would be very enthusiastic about. And it would of course be crass to imply that having all the sex you wanted might lead to a different kind of ruin.
I’m sure it’s just as easy to ruin yourself in New York today as it always has been, but now the architecture and infrastructure no longer quite support the conflation of ruined body with ruined environment. The ruins are stabilized, tidied up, appreciated. Many sexual subversives now want to walk down the aisle rather than among the piers. I have a certain amount of trouble knowing whether that’s a good or a bad thing.