Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Absent Mindfulness

There's nothing like seeing a movie at BAM's Rose Cinemas, especially when seated snugly beneath that super ornate blood red plaster ceiling. Imagine a giant nurturing placenta with stadium style seating. It's one of my favorite places to view films. I wouldn't mind seeing a monochromatic themed film festival there someday, maybe a double feature High Plains Drifter and Le Ballon Rouge could start the thing rolling.

I just saw the movie trailer for I am Legend starring Will Smith at the Rose. I'm no continuity geek, but seeing Will (Robert Nevil) wading chest high through waves of amber grain in the middle of NYC's Times Square got me thinking about our last remaining vacant lots in my part of Brooklyn. In the movie it appears it only takes 1001 days post Apocalypse for Mother Nature to take back the streets, yet in my neck of the woods there exist(ed) much older vacant lots with nothing more to show for their time snoozing than a 5 o'clock shadow's worth of straggly growth. How could this be? Maybe in Brooklyn the "clean in-fill" they use to dress the site after a demolition comes from some place like the ballast tanks of a Chernobyl super freighter, or worse still, Williamsburg, but whatever its origin, this top soil seems to have an uncanny ability to inhibit plant life of any kind.
Their is a two block stretch of 17th Street between 8th Avenue and 10th Avenue in Windsor Terrace, that up until very recently had several of the finest "before and after" natural history tableaux-like examples of urban self-reforestation one could expect to find (behind protective glass) in a world class museum. A pristine botanical timeline of sorts, of what's photosynthetically possible, or not, over time.

Flashback twenty years ago when I first moved to New York... I found employment with a pair of doctors who were developing property in Alphabet City and the Lower East Side. They were buying up 5 story walk-ups for something like $30,000 a pop and converting them to cooperative apartments, and when the market collapsed, rental apartments again.
I started work for them doing general construction. My first job was on a gut renovation on Avenue B and 12th Street clearing out the occupied glue-traps each morning. “The rats were bothering the electricians,” I was told. "Get rid of them."
My boss would buy the glue from an exterminator, wholesale, in 5 gallon buckets to save money. It’s basically the same kind of thick clear super sticky goop you’ll find in the ready-made hardware store bought traps, but you needed to provide your own mounting surface. To make it work you had to first dip your bare hand in water, then quickly grab a fist full of snot from the bucket and fling it down on some scrap piece of plywood. We used plywood because it was heavy enough to keep the stuck rats from running off. By wetting your hand, the water acted as a kind of resist, providing a few seconds of free working time. If you hesitated for too long before slinging you could end up catching yourself.

Rats caught on a Friday night had a full two days head start at trying to free themselves by gnawing off whatever body part held them hostage, often leaving me little more to dispose of than a bit of tail, a clump of fur, or a bloody hind leg. Unfortunately for the electricians Monday mornings meant there was a really pissed off 3 legged rodent holed up somewhere waiting to extract his rightful revenge. My favorite- dying inside some hollow chase behind the wall and stinking the place up to high heaven for the next 48 hours.
Not all of them escaped. The rodents I found still breathing got "buried at sea", drowned in a compound bucket full of water. The dead ones got thrown into the dumpster out front, or more likely, launched out the second floor window into the vacant lot behind the building. Sometimes I had-a-heart and tossed them out still hissing.

In the back yard killing field, the chest high weeds did a great job of hiding the carnage. I’m sure the plague ridden vampires who came to shoot up heroin in peace and quite, assumed my plywood-mounted trophies, scattered about the yard, simply belonged to some frustrated amateur taxidermist. It didn't seem to stop the undead from climbing in through the hole in the fence, twice daily, like clock work.

Many of the empty lots on the LES, the ones not being used for shooting galleries or make shift pet cemeteries were far from empty, some having been reclaimed by the Green Guerrillas for community gardens. I remember one particularly large lot behind Clinton Street that had what seemed like an acre of corn growing on it for a while. Back then every block had it’s own Puerto Rican "La Casita" with free range roosters holding court. No Hollywood art direction needed for this set.
Some days on my way to work I would venture out during the day, not unlike Mr. Nevil, "into the wild" and take the diagonal shortcut through Tompkins Square Park past the concrete band shell. The band shell was a miserable hovel. The marinated stench of urine and all matters fecal would singe the nostril hairs of even the most seasoned sanitation worker. It smelled, well... too human.
For some time all abandoned city owned  property was fair game to squatters. For slow food entrepreneur's like cannibal Daniel Rakowitz, even Tompkins Square Park seemed like just another neglected vacant lot among many, where you you could pretty much help yourself to... help yourself to anyone.


Brooklyn Bucolic’s Anonymous.

Present Day:
Only a handful of people even knew the new owner of the property. Mr. Absentee Landlord would respond infrequently to the very frequent pink sanitation tickets taped to his rickety plywood fence, but other than that he was seldom seen. Neighbors picked up the slack by cleaning up, painting over the graffiti and shoveling the snow as if it was theirs to worry about. For all those years the lot had remained relatively green, untouched, even resisting the evolutionary forces to adapt and transform into an bio-diverse storage habitat where one needs to park all species of automobile.

They just finished building this new multi-family condo building on the site. Now when I pass by, I have to grimace. That long vacant land, once a home to a washing machine and delinquent grove of 30’ tall Ailanthus trees is now, in all regards… a concrete parking lot. The man made structure in the background seems like just an afterthought. Some of the SUV's out front probably have the same amount of square footage as their bedrooms, but then you can’t deny curb cut appeal. It looks like parking was your destiny all this time lot. The wheel of life is a double belted steel radial size 315/70R17 after all.

Five years after the fire.
Seventeenth Street in Windsor Terrace has (had) more than it's fair share of undeveloped land. There is a big empty void  in the middle of the block past Prospect Park West. It’s actually two lots. My friend used to own a home on what's now the vacant lot on the left side of the photo.

One night in May of 2002 their drug addicted next door neighbor, Jeffery Lundy, left his unattended smoldering crack pipe on his mattress, catching it on fire. The apartment he was "living" in was in the process of being renovated and had been completely gutted, the plaster removed back down to the wooden lath covered studs. The entire first floor was nothing more than a bone dry tinder box.
As the fire quickly spread, Lundy simply left the building telling no one. Mr. Richard Lang Sr., the second floor tenant, was killed in the fire.
My friends and their new baby barely escaped with their lives. She remembers, waking by chance in the middle of the night and seeing a strange orange light glowing down through their hall skylight. Shortly after, the wood frame building next door collapsed on top of theirs.

The next morning I went along with them to help retrieve any personal belongings left behind in their mad dash to escape. Their cat Bob for example, who had miraculously survived the fire by hiding under their bed the whole time and then showing up that morning unsinged. Almost everything not destroyed by the fire and smoke was completely ruined by the vast amounts of water used.
The fire department was still working under the belief that there may have been other tenants who perished and had already begun sifting through the vast pile of charred debris for bodies. This was being carried out one careful back hoe scoop at a time. Each load sprinkled in the middle of the barricaded street, a pair of twenty-something looking fire fighters in full protective gear taking turns poking about several blackened mattresses with their pike poles. In the end they didn't find anyone else.


This by far is my favorite 17th Street lot just down the block from the tragic fire. This place is way off the grid. It still has what remains of a tiny free standing house. Nature has had its way with the property for a very, very, long time. The deep front yard has this giant old crooked tree that dwarfs everything. It's the kind of tree a kid would expect to find a creepy doll carved out of soap into his likeness, a broken pocket watch with chain, or maybe even two shiny sticks of Wrigley's Juicy Fruit gum with the outer wrappers removed, tucked into a hollow cavity.
Somewhere beneath the underbrush there is a path leading from the cast iron gate to the rotting front porch. Up until this past week, not even our area Chinese restaurant guy dared to enter and drop off one of his menus.
Recent activity however, foreshadows the possibility that the long sleep may finally be over. It seems that an estate was settled and the property's deed changed hands. This is how the place looks this week after some landscaping. Not so scary anymore. Almost civilized.

Scorched Earth
It's seldom that you are actually there to witness the birth of a vacant lot, temporary as it may be.. There's a hole in the middle of Jackson Place. Raw tar paper bandages cover the exposed wound. Things pass so quickly into obscurity. I have already forgotten most of the details of the building that occupied the space. There are some nice before and after pictures posted on Brownstoner. to help us remember.

Another gap (pictured above) on Sixth Avenue between 10th and 11th Streets. At one time all three houses were empty. Two were eventually renovated. The third one, in the middle of the two, was so neglected and had decayed over time to the point where it had to be torn down. The street tree out front even died and then fell over and crushed a car. Has the ground beneath this lot been salted in spite?

The "parking lot" on 6th Avenue just below Webster Place is probably the largest piece of undeveloped land left in the South Slope. It would make a nice pasture for raising heirloom goats don't you think? Or...  the place where we witness the final showdown between the last man on Earth and flesh eating vampires? Remember this tag line, "God didn't do this, we did."

Not all land has to be developed. The Community Garden on 6th Avenue and 15th Street, part of The Trust for Public Land. Once a garbage strewn, drug infested, eye sore, now an oasis.

On Stress and Mindfulness.
These days while cruising about, the windows rolled down on the Bugaboo, I am becoming aware of these few vacant lots that have resisted condofication. These holdouts. These slackers. Like fallow fields they lie idle. A kind of architectural crop rotation is taking place. Even the weed seeds have failed to germinate, speculating as to whether it's worth putting down roots just yet with all the frantic construction going on. Who knows when the grim excavator will arrive.
But I have come to depend on these quiet spaces. They are my designated environmental cues. Part of my mindfulness training exercises "to be in the moment".
Pass by and take a breath. Inhale... feel my lungs filling with air. Now exhale... feel my lungs empty of air.
Inhale... feel my lungs filling with air. Exhale...wondering what it's like to burn to death...
Obviously I need to keep practicing. Of coarse it helps if you don’t know the tragic reasons why some of the land became vacant in the first place.

1 comment:

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