A look back at what was, what is no more and what should be part of a new Downtown ...
Remembrance of Downtown Past
“New York Ripple,” a 1978 installation by Patsy Norvell for “Art on the Beach,” a project
on the Battery Park City landfill.
By HOLLAND COTTER
September 1, 2006
FROM my apartment near the top of Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001, I watched two lines of black smoke as thick and slow as oil spills pour across the sky far downtown. In my mind, that morning, I also stood in another apartment, just below the World Trade Center, and it was 1974.
That year I had moved into a small 19th-century tenement with plank floors and two blocked-up fireplaces on Greenwich Street. I shared it with an artist, two cats, grow-light-dependent plants and a xylophone.
I recently revisited that narrow, leftover stretch of Greenwich, once cut off and isolated by the Twin Towers, and found pretty much the same tawdry jumble I remembered. Our old block, a short walk from the Battery, has kept its three superb late-18th-century brick row houses, but only because they shelter late-20th-century trade, notably an upstairs-downstairs bar called the Pussycat Lounge. Almost certainly, garbage trucks still show up at night, choking and shrieking as they grind up debris from the back of the American Stock Exchange across the street.
By the time I got to the neighborhood, the Twin Towers had been open for two years, but were hurting for tenants. The 92 acres of nearby Hudson River landfill were ready for Battery Park City, but there was no cash to build it. So for years, the long-planned revitalization of Lower Manhattan consisted, basically, of two squared-off, pinstripe-patterned 110-story structures set beside a riverside lot of scrub grass and dunes.
We all saw the Trade Center for what it was: a supersize real estate venture, a monument to corporate power. At the same time its towers were also so freakishly large that they were fun.
When the acrobat Philippe Petit strung a tightrope between them in 1974 and walked across, doing little jigs, to the awe and delight of a crowd below, he captured the spirit of the place as a surreal and largely unsupervised playground.
Inside the buildings, it seemed that anyone could go anywhere. We used to ride the powerful pneumatic elevators up and down. If you timed a jump to the very instant they whooshed to a stop, you could float on air for half a second, or feel that you were. The doors might open on offices or raw, unfinished spaces; you never knew. At night, you could take a boom box to the circular plaza between the towers and roller-disco till dawn.
This unguarded, nothing-to-lose atmosphere extended to the depressed financial district as a whole. It made an oddly nurturing environment for creativity. Art and geographical isolation were the elements that cemented a pocket community in the Trade Center’s shadow. And cultural ghosts of all kinds were everywhere. Our building had once housed immigrants: Eastern Europeans, Greeks, Middle Easterners. In the 1890’s, Washington Street, directly behind us, was known as Little Syria, and was almost exclusively Arabic-speaking. That community — Jacob Riis barged through once taking pictures — extended into Washington Market to the north, 13 blocks of low-rise houses and shops that were bulldozed in the 1960’s to make way for the Trade Center. Many residents were forced out, though we could feel their presence.
One night every year, a band of men and women carrying candles and a bier with a recumbent crucifix passed under our windows, singing. They were parishioners of the tiny St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, which stood across from the South Tower. They had long since relocated to Brooklyn, Queens or New Jersey, but came back every year for Easter.
In the early 19th century the same part of town was comfortable bourgeois and home to some leading literary figures. Herman Melville’s birthplace was a short walk from where we lived, across from Battery Park. Whitman had cruised the streets as a journalist. Somewhere we read that when Edgar Allan Poe arrived by boat from Baltimore with Virginia, his teenage bride, they had lived for a while in a Greenwich Street boarding house — it would have been a few doors from our building — where the landlady’s huge and affectionate cat kept Virginia warm.
A century later, in the 1950’s and 60’s, a distinguished group of artists — Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, Robert Indiana, Lenore Tawney and Jack Youngerman — had lived as a loose community around the corner from the Melville birth site, on Coenties Slip. Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were nearby at that time. Most of the people who lived in the area when we did were young artists too, as well as writers, dancers and musicians, all willing to put up with hassles for a cheap rent. The closest supermarket was a subway ride away in the West Village. We occasionally took to living off the land, growing tomatoes on the roof and fishing at Broad Channel. Air-conditioning was an unthinkable luxury. But the Staten Island ferry on hot nights was not; nor was a 3 a.m. stroll to the South Street Seaport to see the Brooklyn Bridge glowing noirishly through a haze.
By 1974 New York was bankrupt, and no one was going to bail it out. “Ford to City: Drop Dead” went the famous Daily News headline. An odor of decline was pervasive, and it extended to culture.
The New York Times; satellite image by Sanborn via Google Earth
Art had had a fizzy run in the late 1960’s, with Minimalism, Conceptual art, earth art, video and performance all setting off sparks, many of them generated by the artist-intense enclave of SoHo. But by the early 70’s, the energy was winding down. SoHo had shifted from being primarily a place where arts was made to being a market where art was sold. And suddenly, art wasn’t selling so well.
Nor was real estate. The World Trade Center had been conceived in the early 60’s as the first giant step in the rejuvenation of the downtown financial district. And even after progress was stalled, grand claims continued to be made for it. Its architect, Minoru Yamasaki, spoke of his record-tall Twin Towers as a “living symbol of man’s dedication to world peace.”
There was a lot of that kind of spin, and you get a good sense of it in a new exhibition titled “Looking Back From Ground Zero” at the Brooklyn Museum, which focuses as much on how the towers went up as on how they came down. A short film, “Building the World Trade Center,” produced by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in 1983, is on view in the galleries. It is, in part, an invaluable document of the neighborhood the Trade Center wiped out. It’s also a classic example of promotional advertising as history.
We were young and self-involved, and for better or worse focused on a different history, the cultural history of the present and the recent past. And we were lucky in our neighbors.
Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Life MagazineAn image by Alfred Eisenstaedt, from
“Looking Back From Ground Zero.”
Ann Wilson, the youngest of the Coenties Slip group, lived in the apartment next to us, and was a link to that past. When we met her though, she had just been working with the theater artist Robert Wilson and his Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds, an experimental performance workshop. Mr. Wilson was about to bring “A Letter to Queen Victoria” to Broadway, and “Einstein on the Beach” to the Metropolitan Opera a few years later.
A small flock of Byrds lived in the building too, rehearsing Philip Glass music and doing Sufi spins. A new form of dream-theater was developing around us. It was an art very much of that exhausted, tamped-down, post-hippie moment, an art of slowed time and expansive silence that required lots of open space, which was exactly what Lower Manhattan, with its surplus of empty real estate, had.
In 1974 two nonprofit art organizations, Creative Time and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, formed in direct reponse to this availability. Not that Wall Street had not been doing its dutiful bit for culture. The Whitney Museum of Art had a corporate-sponsored downtown branch, and commissions for public sculptures were many and growing. But the opportunities in the fiscally stagnant 1970’s were different, dramatic and immediate.
Creative Time, led by Anita Contini, struck gold when she persuaded the Battery Park City Authority to let her use its empty landfill for art events. The location, which we were already using for sunbathing and kite flying, was stark, stunning and slightly eerie. The art critic Craig Owens described it:
“Fragmentary evidence of past human presence has accumulated here: oxidized I-beams upended in the sand, what seemed like miles of dilapidated snow fencing. Even the sand underfoot seems to testify to some forgotten disaster — small bits of broken asphalt mix with the gray, sandlike charred remains.”
There in 1978, Creative Time inaugurated its multidisciplinary “Art on the Beach” program. Dozens of artists and architects, among them Alice Aycock, Andrea Blum, Maren Hassinger, Nancy Holt, Patsy Norvell, Dennis Oppenheim, Jody Pinto and Nancy Rubins, were invited to install large-scale, temporary, site-specific sculptures, the kind of work they could never do indoors.
WIND ANTENNATemporary work formerly at Art on the Beach, NYC.
Art on the Beach, NYC 1982
The aluminum parabolic dish functions as a resonator
and provides ideal focus of wave frequency transmissions.
This work is an exploration of energy conversion systems.
Wind Antenna uses both mast and parabolic dish to convert
wind energy into sound waves.
“Eye of the Garden,” Lenora Champagne: Art on the Beach, New York
Don Hogan Charles/The New York Times
A recent view of an area near the site of the “Art on the Beach” project in the 70’s.
The aesthetic of ephemerality was further extended in performance pieces by Charles Dennis, Eiko & Koma, Melissa Fenley, Simon Forti, Bill T. Jones, and Sun Ra. Many of the artists directly responded to presence of the river: it was right there; you could reach down and touch it. Others made oblique, sometimes resistant reference to the overshadowing forms of the Twin Towers nearby.
Creative Time also wrangled the loan, from Orient Overseas Associates, of a cavernous street-level bank space at 88 Pine Street, where a series of major indoor projects were created from scratch. The most popular of them by far was the 1975 installation by Red Grooms, Mimi Gross (then Mr. Grooms’s wife) and a team of 20 other artists, called “Ruckus Manhattan.”
The enormous piece, every inch of it handmade, was in progress almost daily for seven months. Everyone downtown, from artists to office workers, followed its progress from the street, and lined up to have the Mr. Grooms and Ms. Gross draw their portraits. The final product, with a crazily tilting 30-foot high model of the Twin Towers made from wood, paint and papier-mâché, was a big success. It was the right thing, at the right time, in the right place: a loving, leering walk-in cartoon of New York that let a bummed-out city feel good about itself.
Photo © 1981 Robert E. Mates
"Ruckus Manhattan" (1976)
Red Grooms, Mimi Cross
and The Ruckus Construction Company
"Subway" from "Ruckus Manhattan" (1976), Red Grooms
Art kept coming way downtown. It was as if acute urban anxiety was creating a fresh audience for vanguard culture. The United States Customs House on Bowling Green, empty beginning in 1973, was given over for a few years to art installations and performances. Its oval rotunda, lined with “Ruckus”-worthy Reginald Marsh murals, was a setting for ambitious programs of new music by Laurie Anderson, Richard Landry, Charlemagne Palestine, Steve Reich and Mr. Glass, sponored by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.
The Cultural Council itself had found quarters in the World Trade Center, with artists-in-residence studios on the 91st and 92nd floors on the north tower. For almost three decades, through market bust and boom, this organization helped keep art percolating downtown. Then on Sept. 11, 2001, it lost almost everything, including one of its resident artists, Michael Richards, who had stayed in his studio space overnight.
I thought of those studios as I looked downtown that morning five years ago. I had paid a visit to them not long before. The elevator opened on the 91st floor to the sight of wide-open space with wraparound windows, precisely what I remembered seeing, by chance, on those elevator rides in the half-empty towers in the 1970’s.
An image by Nicole Carstens of her fellow artists in residence in a studio in Tower One of the Trade Center.
Young Sam Kim
The artist Hoon Kim in 2000 with his installation “Electricity III” in his studio on the 91st floor
of Tower One of the World Trade Center.
The Cultural Council was all but paralyzed by the 9/11 losses, but is getting back on track with new programs. One, titled “What Comes After: Cities, Art and Recovery,” sounds especially noteworthy. An international gathering of artists, performers, writers, lawyers, activists and scholars, it is designed to address cultural trauma in cities that have experienced profound violence, from New Orleans to Sarajevo to Beirut. It is scheduled to run from Sept. 14 to 17.
The council also has a hand in the upcoming River to River Festival, sponsored by the Lower Mahattan Development Corporation, which will offer free dance, theater, and art programs in the financial district Sept. 6 to 10. The participating institutions, the Joyce Theater, the Signature Theater Company and the Drawing Center, are among several established organizations with plans to relocate to Lower Manhattan as part of what is being advertised as a post-9/11 cultural renaissance.
However it shapes up, it’s likely to be a different sort of renaissance from the happenstantial, fugitive, transient one I experienced in the 1970’s. The nasty flap last year over the Drawing Center’s showing of art deemed politically incorrect by conservative watchdogs, is certainly not auspicious of cultural rebirth.
But, then, Lower Manhattan is a different place from what it was 30 years ago. The South Street Seaport, home to artists in the early 1970’s, is a shopping mall now. Part of the former “beach” is a gated community. The World Trade Center is, of course, gone, taking the little Church of St. Nicholas with it. To my amazement, my old apartment building is still there and still occupied. The names on the buzzer, including mine, have been overwritten by hand many times. I moved out in 1981.
The big change is that, when you walk out the front door and look north on Greenwich, you see nothing. Or rather, you see light, distance, sky and space above ground zero. If I were asked to choose between reconstituting the solid weight of the past, even a past dearly loved, or preserving the open space of a swept-clean present and future, I’d go with space. Years ago, art in an empty field, by a wide river, in an ever-changing city, under an endless sky, taught me that.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company