'Tenements, Towers & Trash' Brings Clean Lines To The City Of Failure

Oct 4, 2017
Originally published on October 4, 2017 1:46 pm

New York City can be the place where you go to "make it," but as cartoonist Julia Wertz points out in her new book, it's as storied for its failures as its successes. A 300-page visual epic, Tenements, Towers & Trash captures the New York that's risen up by stacking failure upon failure as implacably as residents toss bags onto curbside garbage piles. This isn't The City That Never Sleeps, it's The City Where Dreams Go To Die.

But as far as sweeping histories of dead dreams go, Wertz's is a pretty upbeat one. She has a passion for abandoned places (her urban exploration blog, Adventure Bible School, offers plenty of photographic evidence) and she adores uncovering tangible remnants of fizzled ambitions and cockamamie schemes. She sketches page after page of charming flops. There are long-closed businesses whose signs lend charisma to generically gentrified neighborhoods. There are phased-out technologies that once provided cleanliness, safety and transit. There are notorious citizens whose spectacular acts of moral nihilism included theft, arson and murder. In Wertz's hands, even these people have some appeal — they're pathetic, but scary.

It's no accident that Wertz identifies with the washed-up denizens of this hope-crushing city. In the introduction, she recounts how she herself endured the ultimate New York failure: She was forced to leave. Evicted last year from the Greenpoint studio where she'd lived for a decade, she moved back to California. "Living in my mom's garage attic in my mid-'30s facilitated a bit of an existential crisis," she writes. "It was an absolute f-----g torture drawing and writing about a city I no longer lived in but desperately missed. My love for NYC, which was strong when I was a resident, seemed to grow even more in its absence."

That love is tangible and moving. For the book's through line, Wertz recreates old photos of city blocks, then shows how the same places look now. Back in 1915, 1540 Broadway was dominated by billboards for Birth of a Nation and the Knickerbocker Theater's "New Mirthful, Musical Medley: Fads and Fancies." It also hosted a cigar shop, Dell's Soda and Chocolates and a chiropodist. Today, just a few massive ads for multi-platform entertainment properties have blotted out any vestiges of charm. In Wertz's "East Village Then and Now," the city's evolution is indicated by the changing businesses on either side of the B & H Dairy Lunch restaurant: in the '70s, a Stetson hat shop and Calvin's Burgers; today, a Tibetan doodad store and Nori Okinawa ($1 sushi special every day). Wertz memorializes extinct subway tokens, keys from shuttered hotels, street sweeping machines from the 1920s and corner fire alarms. She investigates the pneumatic tube system that once transported mail up and down the length of Manhattan and visits Staten Island's boat graveyard (depicted, in an odd misstep, through photos rather than drawings).

The general outline of this territory has been sketched before, of course — particularly by Ben Katchor, that maestro of nostalgia — but Wertz's technique distinguishes her. Her style is spare, almost antiseptic, not what you'd expect to see in a drawing of a 1950s dry cleaner. Eschewing hatching and other devices that would lend a vintage feel, she emphasizes the geometry of old and new buildings alike, making all look sparse and tidy. It's a nice reminder that even the facades of Eisenberg's Sandwich (Continuing Fine Quality Since 1929) and Bushwick Pork Packing Co. seemed modern in their time.

Her restraint does sometimes feel lifeless. The dense clutter in the Tenement Museum doesn't breathe. Her drawings of "holdout buildings" that huddle beside their larger neighbors lack their real-life incongruity. Usually, though, Wertz's style functions as a kind of visual democracy: Dead or alive, all her subjects get a fair shake at capturing the reader's interest. Through these cool lines, the Apple Store must compete evenly with United Cigars/Telephone Booths, the Pussycat Live Nude Show with a three-story billboard for Wicked. Which, in the end, will be the biggest failures? Wertz knows time will tell, and she'd like to be there when it does.

Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com. She tweets at @EtelkaL.

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