Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Mannahatta Project in this week's New Yorker

Lots of good reading in this week's New Yorker, including Nick Paumgarten's eight-page article "The Mannahatta Project."

I've done a bit of research on my neighborhood, Woodlawn in the Bronx, but my starting point is in the late 1800s. The street was less crowded; my lot of land was four times as big (it was divided into four lots later on); the neighborhood wasn't as built up. But The Mannahatta Project, spearheaded by Wildlife Conservation Society landscape ecologist Eric Sanderson, takes New York City back to 1609, the year of a New York-based jacht ride by Henry Hudson and crew.

In 1609, everything was nature (and nature was everything). A four-mile beach ran from the Battery to West 33rd Street; lots more hills populated the city, before they were levelled; Manhattan was narrower; and there were 54 "ecological communities" in all.

Sanderson, whose office is at the Bronx Zoo and lives on City Island, is using 3-D pictures and the Muir web to determine what the City looked like before the humans invaded.
The Mannahatta Project aspires to minute verisimilitude, down to the varieties of moss, and will facilitate a kind of naturalist's version of George-Washington-slept-here. Eventually, Sanderson would like to put up plaques around town calling attention to this or that bygone pond or dune, or even to post recreations of 1609 vistas on the city's next generation of bus shelters. A visitor to Times Square, standing alongside the Naked Cowboy on the traffic island at Forty-fifth Street and Broadway, might be encouraged to see a convergence, under what is now the Marriott Marquis, of two freshwater creeks, one flowing out of a marsh beneath the headquarters of the New York Post, and the other from under the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis High School. The creeks were dammed by beavers to create a red-maple swamp, frequented by wood ducks and elk. The idea of all this, of course, is to get us to appreciate the remnants of the natural world, even in this degraded place, and then to work harder to preserve them, here and everywhere else. Still, although Sanderson might not admit it, such visions also have a way of helping us to savor our particular range of degradations. We've made a fine mess.
Harry N. Abrams is going to publish the book, though no publication date is mentioned. One of the more anecdotal portions of the article sees Paumgarten visit Inwood with Sanderson and Mannahatta project helper Markley Boyer. ("This is one of the few parts of Manhattan where you can get around successfully with a 1782 map," says Sanderson.)

The short paragraph about the human response to knowing this type of history was fascinating:
The attempt to strip one layer from the other, and to see where they match up, seems to simulate some as yet undiscovered cerebral nodes devoted to before-and-after visualization. The fantasy of depopulation, whether retroactive or futuristic, appeals to our sense of vanity and self-loathing. It may help explain the success of the book "The World Without Us," in which the author, Alan Weisman, describes what would happen to the earth if humans were no longer around. (In short, it would both bounce back and go to hell, in interesting ways.) It's Mannahatta in reverse. Weisman devotes a few pages to Sanderson's project, surmising that its findings will give us a clue as to what Manhattan would become in our absence. But, of course, the Manhattan of 1609 is lost. The city is far more than a flesh wound.
I think that the human response to most things is completely self-centered, even by the most enlightened people. My first photography criticism professor, Bill Jenkins at Arizona State University, once asked our small class why the nude was the most-photographed subject. "Narcissism" was my immediate response, although I couldn't explain why. Jenkins told me at the next class meeting that he'd thought about my reply and understood. I'm not sure which of these characteristics - narcissim, vanity, self-loathing - are inherent to the group of human beings (ie: a group trait) and which are individual.

The World Without Us is now on my reading list. Looking at the book's website timeline (sparingly done to maintain interest in the book), The World Without Us is about the beginning of decay and the return to nature. The concepts of decay and birth are definitely linked, to what extent I have yet to decide; do they have the same relationship as birth and death?

The article isn't online in its entirety, but The New Yorker's website has an accompanying slide show.

NOTE: Since writing this post, I was informed that that this book will be published in 2009, coinciding with the quadricentennial of the explorations of Henry Hudson and Samuel de Champlain in 1609, as well as the 200th anniversary of Robert Fulton's first steamship voyage along the Hudson River.

Passenger series. Indiana Sand Dunes; July 2, 2007; 11:49 a.m.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Furnace Press' Call for Submissions

I've started to do some work with Furnace Press, a small independent press formed by Ars Subterranea (of which I'm a Director) and Place in History. Below is a call for submissions; we will be publishing books about New York State ruins. Please spread the word to anybody you know who may be interested, or send me a link to anywhere where such a call for submissions could be listed.

Call for Submissions:

Furnace Press announces an author competition for its new publication series on urban ruins.
The Decomposition Series will consist of books focusing on noteworthy abandoned sites in New York State. The five books in this series will be 40-60 pages in length with black & white illustrations. The first of these publications will center on the ruins of Sea View, a former tuberculosis hospital in New York.

We're looking for proposals on interesting neglected structures with captivating visuals and intriguing histories. The text can consist of documentation, history, speculation, fiction, and/or personal experience. We're primarily looking for material that engages, arouses interest, and adds to the appreciation of forgotten ruins in New York.

There is no entry fee; the winning author will receive publication and contributor copies. The submission deadline is October 22, 2007.

Support for the Furnace Press Decomposition Series has been generously provided by the New York State Council for the Arts (NYSCA).

About Furnace Press
Furnace Press highlights obscure and neglected architectural subjects – urban decrepitude, industrial ruins, and disjointed neighborhoods – by publishing work that records the history of places facing obliteration, capturing them in transitive states. Co-founded in 2005 by Brooklyn-based arts groups Ars Subterranea and Place in History, Furnace Press publishes traditional paperback books, architectural pamphlets, and handmade books. Recent publications include Long Island City in Context by Paul Parkhill and Katherine Gray and Abandoned Tulsa by Alison Zarrow. Upcoming publications include The Space Between by John Law, short stories about bridge explorations; a handmade book Funeral Play by Julia Solis; and a Decomposition Series of publications focusing on urban decay in New York State. Furnace Press can be found online at

Monday, September 24, 2007

Ladies and gentlemen, set your schedules!

Open House New York is quickly approaching. This year, it's Saturday and Sunday, October 6 & 7. I am volunteering again this year, and I'll be at the Brooklyn Lyceum on Sunday from 10-2. (They tried to put me at the Woodlawn Cemetery for a second time, and I asked for a different assignment.)

One of the benefits of volunteering is that you get a button which allows you and a guest to jump the line at locations when you're not on shift, so I'll be running around the City on the Saturday. Volunteers also get a free tee-shirt, and this year there are several designs of shirts. This is the one I'll be wearing.

an intellectual curiousity

I was asked recently to write a short piece about an intellectual curiousity. This is what I wrote:

In between my undergraduate degrees in Sociology and Business Management, I spent quite a bit of time taking studio photography and photographic history classes. The photos without people were topically of the most interest to me, although I disliked traditional Western landscape photography - photos of mountain ranges and the red rocks of Sedona, for example. My favorite subject was photos of bedrooms, taken without the resident(s). To me, this was an authentic portrait.

Since 1998, I've been interested in abandoned buildings and locations. Any kind of abandoned building: sanitariums, hospitals, courthouses, train stations, even bridges that are off of the beaten path. Peeling paint, rusted ironwork, holes in the floor, and debris-filled rooms have all looked beautiful in a photograph.

Entering abandoned locations is called urban exploration (UE). Wikipedia's definition of UE is "the examination of the normally unseen or off-limits parts of human civilization."

Some urban explorers like the thrill of infiltrating a space in which they aren't allowed to enter, while others enjoy the physical challenge of entering such a site. UE photographers are capturing images of a location way past its prime: mental hospitals twenty years after the last patient left or a subway station that hasn't housed a subway car in fifty years. Is the fascination in the aesthetic, the lack of permission, or is it something else? Probably each UE photographer has a different philosophy. To me, UE photography is portraiture of a location captured during a transitive period with respect to the location's memory and its current state. The space's history is not completely separate from its involvement with people, but is divorced from that activity and stands on its own.

One of my photography teachers received a good amount of grant money to rephotograph photos from the early 1900s. In other words, he went to the same place at the same time of the year, decades later, and took the same picture. Sometimes the image looked the same - same mountaintop, same river, etc. But often there was evidence of man in the second photograph that wasn't present in the first - maybe a telephone wire, a car, or a dwelling.

I was traveling the Viking Trail in Newfoundland last year, and the photos that I enjoyed taking were those of a moose running, as seen through the passenger's window of a car; oil on a hiking trail; and a weathered bench in a forest of burnt trees. To me, today's urban exploration photography is last generation's rephotographing of the Western landscape. The abandoned building is not just an aesthetic perception. The musky smell, wet air, and the layers of muted color among decay are aesthetically appealing on some level, but it is the unspoken intellectual response that fascinates me and what I think about when looking at a photo of an abandoned building or exploring one with friends.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

meeting Camilo Jose Vergara

Camilo Jose Vergara is a Fellow this year at the New York Public Library's Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, and I had the opportunity to meet him a couple of weeks ago at a reception. Vergara's work is truly inspired and inspirational, and I love that he combines sociology (one of my undergraduate degrees is in sociology), photography, and urban exploration. There were lots of things I wanted to say to Mr. Vergara, but he seemed a little bit shy. I did attend with my copy of American Ruins, and I asked him to sign it. When I handed him my copy of his book, he retreated to his office and started flipping through the pages to ascertain which printing of the book I owned. I was elated when he noted that my book was well-used -- oh, the empty lots it's laid in -- and he recommended a few places for my upcoming trip to Detroit. He signed my book "for Gayle a fellow enthusiast of ruins."

Vergara is speaking about his Harlem project (see Invincible Cities link) on Wednesday, October 10 at the Museum of the City of New York. The program is titled Harlem: The Unmaking of a Ghetto. I'll report back afterwards.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Make sure you have your shots!

I actually have several blog posts I'll be writing once I get a couple of hours of "me" time that doesn't involve watching the new season of Survivor China.

I've spent the last few weeks doing a horrendous amount of bureaucratic life things -- getting new insurance for our house, responding to tax audits, scheduling an appointment for an energy audit, taking possession of old 401Ks from former employers...the really fun stuff.

It's also doctor's appointment time-of-the-year, and I really like that. I'm in good health (knock on wood), but I meet with all of my doctors on a regular basis, get a lot of tests done, etc. This week, I visited my opthamologist and my general physician.

My GP asked if I wanted a tetanus shot. "You can wait until 2009 if you want," he said, "or you can get it now." In May, I had a small amount of rust fall in my eye, and I have an exciting trip to downtown Detroit planned for next month, so I decided to go for it. Now it feels like a large, hard marble was implanted in my right bicep.

I got my last tetanus shot in October 1999, the week I got married. In a last-minute anxiety attack in NYC, I broke a glass and got a small chard in my foot. When I got to Arizona two days before my wedding, I went to see a doctor, who told me that it was going to be more painful to have the chard surgically removed than to temporarily live with it. (My question: "What should I do? I have to wear three-inch heels in a few days!") Luckily, our wedding suite, which we stayed in the night before our wedding, had a jacuzzi. I got in and massaged my foot; eventually, the small chard came out, and I walked down the aisle the next day with no problem at all.

You never know when you'll need your tetanus shot!

Sunday, September 16, 2007

starting the blog

I've been wanting to start this blog for a while now, over a year, but I was distracted by my life, MySpace, and by the urban landscape around me.

Urban Landscaped will encompass a lot of what is my life.

According to Mirriam-Webster online (, "urban" is "of, relating to, characteristic of, or constituting a city". Definition 2b of "landscape" (my husband says that I often use the most obscure definition of a word) is "a portion of territory that can be viewed at one time from one place".

I'll probably spend a notable amount of space taking about artists whose works excite me. One of my favorite photographers is Frederick Sommer. I own a couple of posters from his exhibitions, including the one featured in this post, which is framed and in the guest bedroom of my house. I like Sommers' image (the top one) much, much better than Adams'. Sommers work is so reality-based, no BS from that guy. And Sommers' reality is indeed achingly beautiful.

A couple of weeks ago, Ed and I rode our bikes out to City Island for a Labor Day get-together. One of the party attendees said that she had written extensively about Sommers' work in college. There are some topics that are good party talk and some that aren't. It took all my effort to not initiate an hour-long talk about Frederick Sommer, and I went swimming instead.