Dealing with Urban Decay

copper1jpg.jpg0e2a7fba-a561-4e54-ae47-2afce2be82afLargerNew Orleans. My last month has been consumed with research about the city’s architecture. As a New Englander by birth (I am wearing riding boots and tippling a little tumbler as I say that), the draw of a city that is ruinously soaked in jazz and bourbon is, well, titillating. I wasn’t disappointed. The story of the city’s architecture was so thick and so rich that I frequently had to set down the huge books I had checked out because of an overwhelming migraine.

Surely, the migraine was partly induced by my chronic lack of decent sleep, but also by pages and pages of stunning, glossy pictures of city blocks in the French Quarter. The transition from just one Creole-style cottage to a Greek revival hotel – side by side on the same block – formed a step between centuries and sensibilities. After the city’s great fire in 1788, the entire aesthetic of the city’s buildings began to change.

The more I learned about this history, as it happens, the more hapless and ill-equipped I felt to write about it. How could I possibly write about New Orleans? Who was I to even want to try?

This process happens frequently to me: 1) Over-researching so I won’t, hopefully, do any injustice to a subject; 2) Gleefully learning about places I’ve never been and people I’ve never met, which is fairly typical for history loons; 3) The onset of a debilitating mental paralysis, as the prospect of tackling any Thing or Event in the right way looms ahead.

Usually, I try to approach challenging subjects – the Thing – as though I were a two-inch high explorer. Clamber over the Thing as though it were a jungle gym. There must be a way to walk towards the Thing from a different perspective! Or, I try to shrink the Subject. If New Orleans was cast in miniature and sitting on a round table, I would walk around it and look at it from the ocean-side, or from its industrial side, or from above.

When you peel open Google Maps, you have the disconcerting vision of thousands of rooftops, and the paired recognition that this is not how we really get to see most cities. And roofs, you learn, are often in disrepair. The sight of a rusting roof is sometimes grotesque, sometimes beautiful.

Perhaps, I thought, I could tackle the city of New Orleans – and our romance of its decay – by starting with the roofs. Looking more closely at the buildings, I thought of the images of New Orleans we have received through literature – Eudora Welty, Faulkner, Tennessee Williams. That image is a romantic one, of a city in permanent decay. Why decay?

In decay and decline we find the story of what had been made, how it was made, and why it was abandoned. Rough, industrial cities, like Baltimore or Detroit, give stories of human vitality within urban decline. Right now, I live in a mid-sized industrial town outside of Boston. I am close to an abandoned shipyard, Fore River, which used to construct some of the greatest naval vessels of World War One and Two. When I walk through the shipyard and look at the docked destroyers, dignified in mucky fish-dead water, I am learning about why humans make things at all.

What came of all this musing? Well, I’m not sure what the etiquette is for previewing a piece that I’ve written on my own site without seeming self-promotional. I don’t think there is any other way. Hopefully you understand this anxiety. I did think I could give you a few of the opening paragraphs, which made more sense than summarizing what I’ve already written:

“When copper oxidizes, it gives us very calming bluish-green called verdigris. This patina is often so thick that the copper beneath is protected from corroding any further. The pigment was used hundreds of years ago in paints; it is also poisonous. The Statue of Liberty was once a bright, flawless copper.

Verdigris is the word I thought of most through Infamous 2, along with corrosion. As Cole McGrath, a parkour world champion with electrokinetic powers, I channel electricity; I course on its force across the open world of New Marais. The city is a model of New Orleans—a former industrial port giant in a complete, unapologetic state of decay. I am forced to engage with the meaning of decay in a city we all know, today, is suffering from near-criminal neglect.

The rooftops are my first play space. Up here, deep cobalt tiles have turned strange, fluorescent colors from mold and wear and wet. Moss edges yellow flowers of grime. I see sights I had never imagined before in 28 years: that the water pipes on roofs are not metal, but an astonishing length of oxidized blue, that a tin roof layered over years looks like a patchwork history of the stages of rust.

As I clamber down from the roofs, I become intimate with the textures of concrete, stucco, wood, brick, iron, and tin. I leap to a lamppost, and then tether myself to a tram line and catapult around New Marais. I grind heavily along wires, along streetcar lines, up wired pipes. I see the veins and guts of buildings as they blow apart in combat: steel girders, drainage pipes, all running down to the thick brick piers on unsteady swamp land. I know the courses of water, energy, gas, and oil, the magnificent understructure above which the city hums.”

To read more, head over to this brief essay, Dealing With Urban Decay, at Kill Screen. Don’t worry if you don’t play games; the essay is about a city, more than anything. I’m looking forward to your feedback and thoughts, as always.

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