Vegas: a massive social system imbricated in a massive gaming system. Check all the cameras in the ornate ceiling of the poker room at the Bellagio.
*Or, Why I Like BLDG BLOK
Last night I participated in the inaugural public event of BLDG BLOK, a start-up housed at the DUMBO NYU-Poly incubator that's using mapping and other digital tools to rediscover urban history. My task was to respond creatively to a history of Tompkins Square by writer Francis Morrone; I had five minutes, or about 1200 words. Following is what I wrote and read.
When I think of Tompkins Square, I think of rats. Two summers ago, the square—or park, or gathering place, or historical site, or whatever you deem the most appropriate description of the space for your needs—was infested with rats, as local parents complained to media; their burrows—the rats’ burrows, that is, not the parents’ burrows, which are a different kind of burrow—ran adjacent to the playground on the square’s west side. At night you could see the rats scrambling over the mulch, or venturing across the Avenue A sidewalk to pick through garbage. Rats are shy animals—they disappear if you get too close. But they need humans to survive.
During the rat infestation—I understand it’s lessened now—I happened to live, just for a short time, on Seventh Street between A and B, which is the south side of Tompkins Square. Accordingly, I had many opportunities to observe the rats. I was interested in photographing them, I guess to capture them, to hold them in time for longer than a moment—that is, permanently. In one photograph I took, there were 22 pairs of rat eyes glinting in the dark. Stopped in the image, they seemed to look at me with the same mix of curiosity and fear with which I gazed at them.
Rats are as much a part of New York City history—of any city’s history—as they are a part of my history in New York. Twelve years ago, shortly after I moved to this metropolis, I hit a rat with my foot as I crossed Broadway on Fourth Street. I didn’t see the rat—I just felt a soft, semi-squishy thud. Immediately a high-pitched screech overcame the corner; I looked down and saw a furry oblong scurry away zig-zag-like. Passersby glared at me as I stood there, stunned, as if I’d been hit by a car—an unexpectedly traumatic collision. But I might as well have collided with history itself.
Rats, as we know, are ancient animals—so ancient that the zoological designation “Old World rats” for the black and brown rodents we live with in cities doesn’t refer to the pre-modern era but to the pre-pre-pre-pre-pre-pre-pre-pre-pre-modern era: specifically, the Pleistocene epoch, which began more than two million years ago and ended eleven-thousand-and-seven-hundred years ago. At some point during this enormous span of time—scientists aren’t sure when—the rats that now commingle with us and our refuse in Tompkins Square originated in the forests and scrublands of Asia. Our rats, of course, aren’t a million years old (obviously)—their average life span is only a year. But their bodies carry within them a history of the world, both spatial and temporal. They’re living documents of human civilization. Don’t believe me? Ask the next rat you see. He’ll tell you if he could.
Like rats, architecture carries within it a spatial-temporal history of the world, only you can’t stop a building—a design—in its tracks with your foot. As eminent architectural writer Francis Morrone reminds us in his chronological history, the area that’s now Tompkins Square was once a swampy mass filled with birds of the snipe variety; Manhatten men of a certain stripe hunted them. The snipe hunt later became synonymous with the wild-goose chase, a madcap search for an ostensibly real but actually fictional object. Indeed, that meaning is so prevalent today that to use “snipe hunting” to refer to a kind of bird hunting would be archaic. And yet this seemingly outmoded definition is embedded in the phrase; it can’t be separated out. Etymologies are not linear but coextensive—meanings are ever present.
When I think about architecture, I often find myself thinking of Orhan Pamuk’s incredible novel Snow, in which the provenance and style of buildings are as important as any other theme. After years of living in exile in Germany, the novel’s protagonist, a poet, returns to Turkey for his mother’s funeral. Subsequently, he’s offered a reporting assignment that takes him to the eastern city of Kars, a remote outpost of have’s and have-not’s—mostly have-not’s. His first stop in town is the Snow Palace Hotel, an “elegant Baltic building…two stories high, with long narrow windows that looked out onto a courtyard and an arch that led out to the street. The arch was 110 years old and high enough for horse-drawn carriages to pass through with ease.” When the poet-reporter walks under the arch, he feels “a shiver of excitement.”
The novel takes place in the 1990s. A hundred-and-ten years before then—in the 1880s—Kars belonged to the Russian empire, and Turkey, as a nation, didn’t yet exist. At the beginning of that same decade, Tompkins Square had become a public park—“one of the most attractive spots in the city,” as the New-York Tribune hailed it. Within 60 years, however, the park was no longer attractive: as the New York Times noted—and these references are Morrone’s, by the way—neglect was visible everywhere, the playground vandalized.
Kars—you may have sensed I was going here—suffered a similar degradation: “elegant Baltic buildings” turn out to be a rarity in the city as rendered by Pamuk in Snow. Instead, as the novel’s poet-reporter walks through the snow, he finds “decrepit Russian buildings with stovepipes sticking out of every window,” a “thousand-year-old Armenian church towering over the wood depots and the electric generators,” and “a five-hundred-year-old stone bridge,” where a “pack of dogs bark[ed] at every passerby.” The forlorn scenes force our man to wonder if Kars is “a place that the whole world had forgotten, as if it were snowing at the end of the world.”
I read this moment, fictional or not, as the end of history—the end of a progressive chronology of the world that relegates the past to the past—forgotten. In contrast to a chronological view of history, I propose a kairological perspective, in which the past is never forgotten but always insistently here. In this regard, I follow the great Italian theorist Giorgio Agamben, who declares: “Against the empty, continuous, quantified, infinite time of vulgar historicism must be set the full, broken, indivisible and perfect time of concrete human experience; instead of the chronological time of pseudo-history, the [k]airological time of authentic history; in place of the total social process of a dialectic lost in time, the interruption and immediacy of dialectic at a standstill.”
Architecture can interrupt this dialectic of putative progress, as can rats. So can, perhaps ironically, the digital—or digitality, or technology, or invention, or whatever you want to call it—which makes visible simultaneous—kairological—historical experiences. This is what BLDG BLOK does, and this is why I like it.
Moving west to east, the second building of the East 10th Street Historic District, number 295 (above), is part of the same set of houses that includes 293 and ends with 299. All built in a Greek Revival/Italianate style, they're attributed to the architect Joseph Trench. As before, this building incorporates Queen-Anne-style alterations, such as the cornice; the main entrance was also moved to the basement.
Previously: The East 10th Historic District—Photos
The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission voted unanimously this past January to elevate the north side of East 10th Street between Avenues A and B to the status of historic district. The district contains 26 buildings, most of which were built in the 1840s, '50s, and '60s, following the opening of Tompkins Square Park, which the buildings face, in 1834. A few of the buildings went up around the turn of the twentieth century, including the McKim, Mead, & White-designed public library at 331 East 10th.
These buildings, though not the library, have been altered greatly since their construction, and as such they're fascinating historical assemblages. I live near the block, and since I'm addicted to Instagram, I thought I'd photograph and post each of the 26 structures. Above is building one, on the northwest corner of the block: 293 East 10th. Originally built (circa 1846) in a Greek Revival/Italianate style, it was later updated with a Queen Anne-style cornice. (This information, and all subsequent information about these buildings, comes from the East 10th Street Historic District "designation report," prepared for the preservation commission.) Other alterations—they are numerous, as you can glean from the image—include moving the main entrance to the basement and removing the window lintels. The current occupant of the storefront is the Horus Cafe and hookah lounge, which has a sidewalk cafe.
My parents went on an 11-night eastern Mediterranean cruise earlier this month that sailed from Rome to Istanbul and back again. They sent me postcards from each of the six ports of call. Above is the first, along with its stamp and postmark.
Yesterday the New York Post ran my article on what may be the country's first bar inside a full-time motorcycle garage. Called The Shop Brooklyn, the innovative Williamsburg outfit is located three blocks from me; I watched the space transform into what it is today over the last three years. Keep your eyes peeled, as they say.
(Photograph by Zandy Mangold.)
Author Jill McCorkle read Tuesday night at Rutgers-Newark, and it was mentioned that she was once given the iconic vodka treatment. The above ad is from 1994 (per this awesome compendium), but other details seem to be scarce.
I have the good fortune of tutoring at the Rutgers-Newark Writing Center this semester, and every student I work with is amazing. One of them, an adult student originally from Liberia, has been laboring over an essay for his English 101 class on the timeless themes of two Wislawa Szymborska poems. One is "The Century's Decline", from the great Polish poet's 1986 volume The People on the Bridge. The other is "Could Have", from her 1972 collection of the same name.
I was thinking about timelessness today while reading in a brick-walled garden along one side of Thomas Jefferson's famed Lawn at the University of Virginia, my alma mater. I'm here this weekend for Young Alumni Council meetings, and whenever I come, I seek out the gardens, which, despite restoration, largely resemble their original early-19th-century designs. For good or bad, that's what resonates with me the most when I return to the "academical village": history both "nearer" and "farther off," as Szymborska writes in "Could Have." "Listen, / how your heart pounds inside of me."