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At some point there will be some more broadside texts, rambly rants, etc. up here.
For now, here are two chunks of writing:
... and then this essay from 2006.
(This also exists in a pamphlet version, with two illustrations and a screenprinted cover, for those who like to read things on paper and hold things in their hands. They'll be up in the store sometime soon, once I finish binding the third printing of them...)
Drawing in the Shadow City
Providence, Rhode Island — September 16, 2006
The city that I loved is gone. Wait, don't get defensive (condo-buyers, developers, city-planners, etc) — it's not your fault: there was no way it could stay, at least not the same as it was when I first loved it. I had never seen it before, remember, and a lot of that love was because it was completely new. I loved it as soon as I saw it, every new corner, every new patch of sky, I dived into it with my whole body, and it opened itself to me. I biked hungrily down the streets as if they could never end, getting lost over and over again. I rambled, kicking chunks of asphalt, across the vast overgrown parking lots that seemed to belong to nobody. I followed glimpses and premonitions, looking down the narrow driveways between orderly triple-deckers for a corner of decrepit red-brick wall, listening for the rush of dirty river water, seeking another clue to the part of the city that I loved the most: the old, the abandoned, the marginal, the fertile with potential.
The city that I loved — my Providence, Rhode Island of the summer of 2001 — was the shadow of the living, inhabited, renaissanced, trumpeted city. Nobody knew about it. It was the abandoned areas behind houses and next to overpasses, what was left after the curve of the highway went through, the marginal zone between train tracks and river. The buildings had long ago been discarded by the industries that shaped them, written off by the capitalists and big investors, and re-inhabited by a multitude of second-stage tenants: small electronics and jewelry concerns, flea markets, fabric stores, stained glass workshops, bookbinders and box-makers, storage and warehouses for other businesses, silkscreeners and printers, t-shirt embroiderers, bike mechanic shops, metal platers, candle and novelty makers, loud musicians and bands, picture-frame artisans, photographers, woodworkers, a remote-control car club, a collection of archaic mainframe computers...
Becoming aware of all the life in these old buildings was like noticing a dead tree still standing in the woods: at first it seems empty, an eyesore, a fire hazard. Then, you realize that there are birds flying to and from it industriously — there must be at least a couple of nests up there, in the holes they have made. If you stick around till after nightfall, you might catch a glimpse of the raccoons that live in the hollow trunk, hear the owl hoot from the top branches, see the mice sneak out from the burrows around the roots. Closer up, harder to see, there are insects, centipedes, and spiders, inhabiting different parts of the tree and its dead limbs. A troop of ants climbs up under the bark and out of sight, and when you look close enough to notice the thousands of tiny mites, almost invisible, that crawl in the cracks of the tree's wood, you understand finally that you are not looking at a dead tree, you are not even looking at individual living things, as much as at a single, unified existence.
In the old industrial buildings, it was not the lifestyle that was important, nor the objects or spaces, the physical artifacts of "mill living", nor the personalities and identities that had blossomed in the buildings. I was fascinated by the piecemeal, self-initiated re-inhabitation itself, as an organic, small-scale process taking place within what had once been a vast, centrally-controlled system. The late-20th-century re-inhabitors would not have existed without the careful structural engineering, thoughtfully chosen materials, and elegant design of the original builders of the mills — who, a hundred or more years earlier, could never have imagined what kind of motley tenants and uses their buildings would serve. It was beautiful and complicated, a dynamic history in action: it had no relevance to most of the scrubbed and presentable structures that were held up as examples of "historic preservation", no bearing on the shiny-facaded towers that were starting to sprout up in the new empty lots where the train yards had been. I had never experienced anything like it in a city before, and consequently, inevitably, I loved it.
That summer, one of the giant mills burned every month, or another was razed for a parking lot, and it seemed that the shadow city I loved, the physical record of its past and the structure for its future possibility, was about to disappear forever in a pile of smoke-stained bricks and demolition dust. I desperately needed to try to catch it, to hold it somehow. Often, in the late afternoons, I ended up at the back of blind alleys, embraced by the tall shadows of the old industrial buildings. I sat on a milk crate or cross-legged on the pavement as the last of the sunlight caught the paint-peeling cornices, the dark brick, the translucent leaves of weed trees. I had a little homemade box for watercolors that a friend had squeezed paint into, a plastic water bottle, a cut-off brush, and a pencil that I sharpened with a knife. That was enough to mark out where the verticals of corners and windows lay over the paper, where the parallel lines of cornice, sills, and foundation converged; enough to approximate how shadows fell from rooflines or smokestacks across walls and missing bricks and window frames, the color of the light on the cinderblock, the granite lintels, the small misaligned glass panes, the moss that grew where the downspout had long been gone.
I measured with the pencil's stub end, made a mark, checked it against another dimension, continued the line till it reached a turn or another object, measured again, marked, and went on. The point of the pencil moved over the page distractedly, trying to reach some kind of accord between the physical objects, with their infinite detail, their complexity in three frustrating dimensions, and the gray lines sketched across the paper. As I worked, the lines started to find an acceptable place on the sheet. Little by little, they became darker and more fixed, and in doing so departed further and further from the reality they were trying to capture. I drew until the light faded from the sky and I could barely see to pack up my sketchbook and materials. Leaving the alley, I was amazed, as I still am every time this happens, to magically step into the perspective I had just drawn, pass by all the things I had just given my attention to for so long, and walk through them, leaving them behind. For an extended moment, the landscape and the drawing were merged as a living thing, its angles and truths (my compromises and mistakes!) revealed anew, humming with the dissonance between my vision and the messy pile that is reality.
This will always be the task of the person who draws: to open yourself to the world, to hold it all within your gaze as a totality, and then to let it go, admitting finally that the lines on the page, that your idea of the world, cannot contain it or control it. There was no way I could have held onto the buildings of that summer, held them the way they were, dynamic, organic, full of life. There was no way I could have known that my beloved, invisible shadow city was on the brink of being seen and discovered, and in some cases already had been colonized; that my drawings themselves would help to glorify and historicize it, would come to symbolize what had been important about it, would be used as inspiration and as justification for those who took over its physical structures and changed them irrevocably. I didn't know, then, that the person who draws from life must come to understand that the vision of a single human, however clear or all-encompassing, is not enough to represent or transmit anything more than a single, one-point instant — that all the actions of one creator, however skilled or thoughtful, cannot approach all the complexity bundled into ordinary things by history, by memory, and by the act of living.
And this is where we part ways, you condo-buyers, you developers, you city-planners. Our actions, not our lifestyles, determine that. You reach out over the city: you exert your money and power, your influence, over its structures and over its history. You think you can fix it in place, make it stand still, re-point all those bricks and redo the roof, maybe even gut it and replace the whole ancient rotting structure if that's what's necessary. You'll reinforce the sagging walls, climate-control it, triple-insulate it, police it, stabilize it, in any way that you can. To counter the activists and rabble-rousers who say you are taking away the places where the lively, cheap, and dirty life of the city can thrive, you will claim that cities change, and buildings change, that nothing on the margins can stay marginal forever, and that this phase of re-investment and development is just part of the natural cycle of life of the physical fabric of the city. Yes, you will preserve the physical structure of the buildings, turning your money into bricks and steel and skillful cabinetwork, like the old industrialists did — so maybe you will be laying the groundwork for something else that will come, a hundred years or more from now, sprouting like weeds up from between the polyurethaned floorboards.
But for now, for at least a couple of lifetimes to come, you will try to stop the cycle of life that exists so strongly in the shadow city. It still survives, in some of the old buildings as well as in other places, in pockets of vitality and self-created order: flea markets, practice spaces, shared workshops. When you look at these spaces, however, you can see only blight, failing structures, preservable artifacts and objects, investment opportunities — your vision only allows for a well-lighted, carefully cleaned order imposed from without. Instead of letting the city live, you will try to kill it. You will pin it down, cast it in epoxy resin, and then, you will own it. You will devote the rest of your period of ownership to thinking about it, worrying about it, trying to keep it the same. It will weigh on your mind. Will the roof leak? Will the units sell? Will kids write graffiti on the newly power-washed walls? Will the river flood? Will I make my money back? Will the tenants pay their rent? Will the bricks spall, the gutters freeze, the finance committee not approve my tax break?
When you take ownership of a gigantic building, out of scale with the needs of your life, the building takes ownership of you. Instead of facilitating your life and making it more vital, it weighs down on you with its thousands and thousands of pounds of cast iron and timber and brick and tile, adhesives, rubber membranes, copper pipe, fixtures and fittings, drywall and paint, electrical conduit, heating and ventilating systems, replacement windows. In asserting control, you become controlled. In crushing the vitality and possibility of abundant life, you make that life oppressive and hateful to you wherever it surfaces.
And me? My heart is sad sometimes when I bike past the places where the most graceful of the mills used to stand, or when I see the old brick walls newly patched, varnished, and pointed — but I'm still drawing. I live in an apartment now. I can't claim any kind of righteous anti-propertarian non-ownership, since I have a pile of stuff that has followed me as I've moved around, books, furniture, art supplies and tools, shelves to hold all the stuff, and paper. Lots and lots of paper: other people's drawings, other people's prints, my drawings, old sketchbooks, and stacks of my posters and prints. Boxes and folders and shelves, and a whole flat-file, full of attempts to grab on to the world and to understand it, to see it clearly for a moment, to hold it fully in the heart and then to let it go. And if my roof leaks? I do worry about that. I would be sad to lose the old drawings, the old posters and flyers — in some instances they are the only record of the city that I loved, the only way I have to share those fleeting visions with other people. There are always new places, however, where life springs up in the shadows, and there is a lot of blank paper out there, waiting for lines.
PO Box 244 — Providence, RI — 02901