The sidewalks of New York are extraordinary, if overlooked human documents. Found on them—as though on the tablets of a lost civilization—are accumulated inscriptions comprising a chronicle of the city’s existential complexity. There are the marks and scratches of the ceaseless movement of people and vehicles; the stains of spills large and small; the ruptures and cracks of destruction and repairs; the often jarring juxtaposition of diverse materials; both fresh and long-faded symbols indicating this and that; and the mysterious black spots that are everywhere, which I have thought were ‘the souls of the departed’ that somehow sank into the gritty surfaces, but which my wife assures me are only the marks of chewing gum carelessly thrown away. The task of deciphering the stories imbedded in even a square meter of any sidewalk in the city would be overwhelming, particularly if we consider that a story they might reveal could read like this:
The light gray is the bottom layer, infused here and there with sandy tan and gravelly blue speckles, and even some dull red flecks that were part of the original matrix. Then comes an almost transparent layer of black soot, deposited unevenly across the entire surface, probably ten years ago when the building across the street almost burned down. Then comes a layer….
Or, like this:
The Con Edison surveyor sprayed-painted a mark indicating where the water main is, six feet below the surface. A woman in soft-soled black shoes stopped abruptly just here, dropping a bottle of ketchup she’d gone out to buy, while dinner was on the stove (she was in such a hurry that the ketchup was unbagged), unaware that the water main was slowly leaking. A drunken man stumbled and….
Not exactly compelling stuff. No beginnings, middles, or endings. No climaxes or conclusions (unless you consider the faded bloodstains of a fatal shooting still visible, but which only an experienced forensic investigator would recognize as such), just the on-and-on of everyday life. Yet we could fill books, even libraries with such stories. Imagine what future anthropologists could make of them, if only the sidewalks would survive a few thousand years—but they won’t. Like the daily lives they portray, they slip unnoticed past our consciousness and beyond the reach of memory. During the next street-digging project, the sidewalks will be broken up and carted in unrecognizable chunks to a landfill, even as new sidewalks are being laid down.
Without the stories, the sidewalks fall prey to gratuitous aestheticizing. They are visually very seductive, if we are not bound by classical standards of beauty. The layering, the diversity, the clashes and unexpected harmonies of textures, colors, tones, lines, dribbles and dots, cracks and joints. They combine to form a vast mini-terrain that is almost entirely of human invention, but not intention. Fusing accident and design, they form a visual field that is unique in part and whole, and inimitable. It can never be repeated or reproduced. Yet sidewalks can awaken the imagination of the visual artist who is easily intoxicated by a depth of possibility that seems, in its contradictions, inexhaustible. Just like the city, at once timeless and ephemeral, monumental and immemorial, they are close—very close—to the heart of things.
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- February 24, 2008 / 9:50 pm
- Lebbeus Woods