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Urban Lines

Home for me is Brooklyn, New York, at the terminus of a once busy industrial waterway known as the Gowanus Canal. I have lived on the canal for eight years in a drafty loft that is chilly in the winter, stifling in the summer, and leaky when it rains.

As I cross over the canal today, I am no longer cautioned by flashing lights or forestalled by dropping gates. The bridge deck no longer cantilevers up and gapes open as the oil barge clears beneath. The large, brown and black dog guarding the depot is gone. Grass and weeds have grown taller along the walls of the canal, around the edges of old warehouses, and up through the cracks in the sidewalks as the last vestige of industrial commerce has slowed to a halt. Over the years, as the cement crumbled and the asphalt cracked, nature has reclaimed space to sprawl and spread its unkempt way around the neighborhood. In the decay of this old industry-based neighborhood green things still exist with an unruliness that reflects nature along more urban lines.

Nature is messy, unruly in growth and disorderly in death, sprouting and shedding and rotting where it will. As a photographer, I am drawn to this mess and the particular wildness of line that nature provides. Areas where urban attrition and ungroomed nature are in juxtaposition intrigue me. Nature’s interruption of, or intersection with, the man-made line creates a less rigid or formal composition where texture and pattern run outside the grid and shadows both assert themselves at right angles or waver and curve erratically out of line. As the seasons change and the growing cycle gears up, or winds down a whole new set of visual elements appear.

I love the Gowanus neighborhood. Its look. Its feel. Its particular brand of neglect. Here, nature and coincidentally, a sizable artistic community, have managed to survive in a similar marginal way. Until now, that is—the neighborhood is about to change. The rulers and pencils are out and the levels and sights will soon follow, straightening up the neighborhood and relegating where nature will be allowed. Each block, now an intriguing palimpsest of graffiti and peeling paint, carved cornices and scrolling vines, spattered shadows on textured tin, will soon be replaced by a row of linear and homogeneous facades painted with a fresh coat of borrowed money.

Architectural renderings now designate where a few potted ornamentals will appear and the neighborhood’s unique visual composition will disappear. My favorite scrappy trees and exuberant flowering weeds, which have survived in this marginal place, will be torn up and bulldozed over. The interesting lines, textures, and erratic shadows that free ranging nature is so exceptional at creating will be gone.

It is most evident that our culture has little tolerance for nature’s untidy ways and is preoccupied with keeping it all in check. In rural areas, nature is delineated neatly, and most straightly, along economic lines. Zones of domesticated nature are planted in repetitious pattern; the thorny and troublesome chaos of the wild edible now tamed. In the suburbs where people grow and groom things, nature as backdrop is lush but neat, controlled, well managed—a preoccupation that keeps suburbanites particularly busy on the weekends. In suburbia, nature’s well-planned process of regeneration becomes detritus to be bagged in plastic and transformed into garbage instead of next year’s fertile soil. In the city nature is allotted. We spread asphalt to concrete, pour concrete to abut brick and stone, and send steel farther and farther up and out over our heads. In cities we are encased. With these materials, humankind has shown a particular single-mindedness in creating the impenetrable. Poured, riveted, and mortared in place, these products taken from the earth are ironically used to seal and separate us completely from the wild nature of nature itself.

Though, I am an enthusiast of the resilient plant growth in my neighborhood and find a certain beauty, even harmony in nature striving in this industrial urban spot, it is impossible to lose sight of the reality of this struggle, to lose sight of the marginalization of nature and its devaluation. Nature is mimicked but curtailed, always being conformed to a generic idea of beauty instead of being appreciated for its primal function and left alone to develop in its own spontaneous and messy way.

Over time, the resilient and exuberant growth of both nature and artist in this neglected neighborhood has slowly altered its hard and barren industrial image. Trees have sprouted and grown tall along the narrow banks of the canal, sunflowers edge a sidewalk along a crumbly stretch of brick where local tag artists and figurative artists merge their work into one long neighborhood mural. I can find chicory growing wild and blue under fire escapes and hand-sown morning glories twining up through them. Here spring arrives dotted with unexpected caches of green and yellow, summer expands while the Ailanthus bursts purple and the mimosa sheds pink, and fall lingers, carpeting the crooked sidewalks with golds and reds that crunch underfoot.

The less than scenic truth of the neighborhood, however, is that each day as I pass over that last bridge spanning the Gowanus Canal and gaze down into its murkiness, it is obvious that time has brought little change to these depths. Though the propaganda of those with a vested economic interest in the land along the canal hints at ecological recovery, in truth, neither science nor nature has made much progress here. Across the surface of the canal all the visuals associated with water are there to see. Rippling and shimmering and reflecting take place but exactly what fills this canal, I’m not really sure —I hesitate to use the word water. To take any sort of pleasure from this view I must isolate what I know from what I see and what I smell. With this historically foul canal this is a difficult adjustment to make and one I generally fail at making. Even as I watch, on a quiet night, a luminous full moon reflecting its mesmerizing light across this dark slice of water, I still see a depth of watery poison.

The canal serves to remind that there is always a danger in the visual isolation of nature. Attention only to surface image is what allows people to feel fine about dumping their sinkable refuge in a body of water, loading their status-implied lawns with pesticides, and filling office lobbies with living things that will soon be torn out and thrown away, simply for a new aesthetic. When nature is seen only as adornment, as window dressing, we underscore the damage that is caused by disregarding its true function. Like art, nature will thrive in the cracks of our culture and can bring beauty to desperate places, but to do this it needs its freedom from domesticity. Its wildness is not a threat to order; it is the natural order.

The rumors that the Gowanus Canal is getting cleaner appear to be an attempt to morph its historic identity as an oil-slicked industrial dumping ground into a more scenic locale. Drawings hint at the greenways and gondolas that could someday be the view out of glass-faced living rooms, associating the word “canal” with more distant and exotic corridors. It is not concern for marine life that drives these rumors. It is all about creating a storyline of beatific nature, a veiled image of reality to lure potential buyers.

<i>All photos by Jane Coffey</i>
All photos by Jane Coffey

I love my neighborhood, although its toxicity makes me nervous. I put up with the less than ideal conditions because, for the moment, my rent is still inexpensive. My building is undergoing change, however, and when brought up to code it will most likely be transformed into luxury condominiums.

Soon too, the heavy equipment will move in with newer brick to replace the crumbled, fresh cement will seal the cracks, and tall steel will block the sun. The unruliness, the mess that is nature will disappear from this urban neighborhood and for that matter, I guess, so will I.


Jane Coffey

Jane Coffey lives in a big city, but grew up in a small town


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2008

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