The Ghost Town of Memory

American Bond

The church stood over the sunken Brooklyn Queens Expressway (“the Ditch”), its spire visible for miles. For Jimmy Bricks that spire was a memory antenna.

Stretcher Bond

“I hate them shitty cinder blocks, and I’ll say it to anyone. Give me clay bricks any day, from the ground—building the way God intended.”

While passing buildings he had worked on he’d get visions of job sites—up on the rooftops, among bridges and towers, trowel in hand, leaving his fingerprints on the skyline. When he was building something, he didn’t think of himself. He went into a sort of trance. Holding a brick, putting it in place, and then another—simplicity itself. Yet high above the ground, with that dizzying backdrop, he was part of something bigger.

Flemish Bond

Jimmy hadn’t worked in more than a year. He was earthbound and stuck, with a surplus of free time; stuck among the empty spaces and alien structures that stood in place of buildings he had known.

Herringbone Bond

A jackhammer echoed in the distance. “We helped to build this neighborhood, now they’re tearin’ it all down.”

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Map of the Terrain

The auto auction mascot . . . his roar is the endless noise of traffic.

Isaac was the last tenant to move from the last building. All of them had been cleared to make way for the “Future Site of Brooklyn Works,” as the huge sign there proclaimed. He had no lease, so his eviction had been looming for a while. Engrossed in his work, though, and in denial over his imminent displacement, he spent little time trying to find a place. So his last resort became his only option: he had to move into his studio. He’d been dreading the prospect, less because the studio promised little in the way of homely comforts than because he had always thought it crucial to keep his art space separate from the rest of his life.

He would especially miss the walk to the studio. A certain comfort and alertness took hold as he moved through the landscape . . . Flat Fix, auto glass, check cashing, car wash . . . plastic bags snared on barbed wire, flowers of the built world . . . in the distance, the auto auction mascot, a giant blue inflatable gorilla, looming over the highway fringe where the peripheral car trades gathered, his roar the endless noise of traffic.

Etched in the skyline

Layers of history

At a certain point in the walk his stomach would churn with anticipation. Then his pace would quicken, along with his heart, as the pungent smell of petroleum by-products hit his nostrils. That smell signaled his entrance into the industrial zone. It was all steel, brick and concrete. Its black/red/gray palette surrounded him. He felt a ghostly aura—the spirit of industry. Decades of productive energies lingered there with a heavy but elusive presence, like something far-off and epic. Relics from the borough’s industrial prime were visible everywhere: cobblestones and train tracks peeked up through spots of worn asphalt; faded letters on buildings and huge metal signs announced long extinct companies—layers of time etched into the skyline.

Derelict factory: Testament to ruin

Vintage decay

The landscape of working factories and copious decay intermingled created a street-level intimacy that immersed the senses. The enveloping soundscape would grow more distinct with each block, especially on warm days, with the exuberant sounds of hammering, sawing, humming motors pouring out from open doors and trailing him down the street as he walked past. The familiar sights and sounds implanted in Isaac’s head a map of the terrain.

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Temples of Languor

Isaac ordered a shot and a beer from the weathered bartender. She had the face of someone who’d just been exhumed. Her mottled, leathery skin was proudly displayed through her low-cut blouse, along with tattoos on the side of each breast: a skull with a shamrock backdrop on the left one, and on the right a Gaelic harp wrapped in barbed wire.

A row of TVs above the bar displayed horse races and results. Two or three men were studying racing forms. Lottery ads on plastic flaps were draped like bunting all around the dim space, giving it the air of a moribund carnival. Whenever someone opened the front door a thin ray of sunlight pierced the bar’s gloom, then flashed on the video poker machine as the door closed behind them.

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The Street Fair

The street fair was life itself, a vision of the community in its full efflorescence. The atmosphere was autumnal, but the weather was summery and gorgeous.

Junk shops along the route disgorged their items onto wooden tables: videotapes, porcelain figurines, steak knives, picture-hanging kits, a hamper full of American flag belt buckles. These cluttered cemeteries of commercial failure mostly served as diversions for the throngs strolling down the avenue. Yet some of these things had a history, animated by memories and invested with real emotions (not unlike the streets surrounding the grubby stores from which they came).

The siren song of pig meat was the dominant strain, drifting above the crowd and settling into an aromatic porcine cloud. One stand featured a pig on a spit. It was part of an odd homemade rig; fashioned from a 30-gallon drum and mounted on a small purple trailer . . . Isaac chewed the last of his sandwich and closed his eyes, savoring a moment of pure satisfaction. He was standing in front of the barbeque pit, drinking a beer and inhaling pork fumes, hypnotized by the rotating pig.

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Song of Third Avenue

The part of Third Avenue that ran under the Gowanus Expressway was a ten-lane stretch, dominated by the slab overhead. It buried the avenue in shadow, and the surf-like roar of traffic was continual, punctuated by blaring horns and screeching brakes.

Third Ave./Gowanus Expressway & 60th St. (heading south, to junction) (Google Satellite Map)

Pedestrians were all but absent, with evidence of their furtive presence supplied by empty beer cans, filthy clothes, and the odd used condom, everything coated with a dusting of exhaust fumes. It was a blighted place, though it hummed with activity—commerce.

On one stretch the Gowanus was barely two stories high, a canopy over the wide cobblestone lane running down the middle of the avenue. The lane was unlighted and always wet, from the condensation on the pillars dripping constantly. The tight, dark space was an echo chamber for the traffic. Under the slab, the noise was infernal.

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