Manhattan Interzone

While we’re on the subject of Domus #948, that issue also includes a short profile of Luc Sante‘s home book collection, including titles by Kafka, Walter Benjamin, and the Situationists. The article itself is by Gianluigi Ricuperati, a young writer who spoke long ago in the medieval days of Postopolis! New York and whose novel Il mio impero è nell’aria has recently been published in Italy.

[Image: Luc Sante in his home writing room; note the copy of Learning From Las Vegas. Photo by Yoo Jean Han, courtesy of Domus].

Back in 2007, meanwhile, in an interview with The Believer, Luc Sante suggested that New York “was a wild, one-in-a-million conjunction of circumstances, a sort of black pearl of world history, when New York City was at one and the same time both the apex of Western culture and the armpit of the Western world.”

In the 1970s New York City was not a part of the United States at all. It was an offshore interzone with no shopping malls, few major chains, no golf courses, no subdivisions. We thought of the place as a free city, where exiles and lamsters and refugees found shelter. Downtown we were proud of this, naturally.

In Sante’s book Kill All Your Darlings, he continues to riff on the city. There was, for instance, in Sante’s terms, a fantasy New York, a canyon’d utopia taking shape in the gleam of postwar growth; but there was another, more everyday—a more used—New York.

“The New York I lived in, on the other hand, was rapidly regressing,” he writes. “It was a ruin in the making, and my friends and I were camped out amid its potsherds and tumuli. This did not distress me—quite the contrary. I was enthralled by decay and eager for more; ailanthus trees growing through cracks in the asphalt, ponds and streams forming in leveled blocks and slowly making their way to the shoreline, wild animals returning from centuries of exile.”

“At that time,” Sante suggests, “much of Manhattan felt depopulated even in daylight.”

[Image: Otherwise unrelated to this post, photographer Marlis Momber explores an era in NYC when “entire blocks east of Avenue A consisted of little more than rubble-strewn lots”; photo by Michelle V. Agins for The New York Times].

A nonhuman dimension was thus free to move into the metropolis. It became a city “where on winter nights troops of feral dogs would arrive to bed down on the heating grates.”

On Canal Street stood a five-story building empty of human tenants that had been taken over from top to bottom by pigeons. If you walked east on Houston Street from the Bowery on a summer night, the jungle growth of vacant blocks gave a foretaste of the impending wilderness, when lianas would engird the skyscrapers and mushrooms would cover Times Square.

“The tenements,” Sante adds, “were aspects of the natural landscape, like caves or rock ledges, across which all of us—inhabitants, landlords, dope dealers, beat cops, tourists—flitted for a few seasons, like the pigeons and the cockroaches and the rats, barely registering as individuals in the ceaseless churning of generations.”

This semi-feral city was less a topic of anthropology, we might say, than it was of natural history: an interzone of species, as well as human culture.

2 thoughts on “Manhattan Interzone”

  1. Glad to see you mention Marlis Momber's Loisaida photos….in the context of this blog, you might find it interesting that she was first attracted to the rubble down there because she was born at the end of WWII in Berlin–and so her childhood memories were formed in that postwar environment. She told me once, that when she arrived in NYC in the 1970s, Loisaida "felt like coming home"!

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