Friday, December 22, 2006

What Lies Beneath; Our Skeletal Streets

I once heard horror defined as what you feel when things that are supposed to be safely hidden away inside a living body suddenly become visible on the wrong side of its skin. When some poor girl gets sliced open by a Texas chainsaw, for instance, and her insides come spilling out all over the big screen. Even though that's what you came to see, you can't help but cringe and turn away, for just a second, until you turn right back to get an eyefull. That gush of blood, those oozing organs, they're just like yours, after all, it's only natural to be curious about them, isn't it? But then again, curiosity did kill the cat, and they are just like yours. You do want yours to stay safe inside where they belong, but how can you not look at hers, so big and shiny up there in front of you? She's looking at them too, so slow to die. That moment there, that's horror.

I've been thinking about this lately, trying to figure out why I'm so horrified, which is indeed the word for it, by the ongoing construction of the Trump Soho condo-hotel down on Spring Street. It's not just that Trump's heading downtown, bringing his gleaming modern towers with him, where they are not necessarily wanted. I thought that was bad enough, but no. In mid-December human remains were found at the construction site. The Department of buildings issued a Work Stop order, but that only lasted one week, then the work started up again, churning up more bones and bits and pieces.

I didn't think I could be shocked anymore, by anything to do with Manhattan real estate. Tell me you're planning to pave over the East River, fill that up with luxury lofts, I'll smile and nod politely, maybe wonder what the prices will be like. Or perhaps you're thinking you'd like to do a condo conversion, in the Statue of Liberty's torch? Someone's probably working on that one already, but good luck. This indifference to the dead though, has really thrown me for a loop. Something about continuing construction, right over all those dead bodies, is just horrible.

The bones are most likely remnants of the Spring Street Presbyterian Church's graveyard. The church stood on Trump's site from 1811 until 1968, though it was nearly burned down by an angry mob in 1834 because of its abolitionist activism. There's been recent speculation that it might have been a stop on the Underground Railroad. As far as I'm concerned though, it doesn't matter much whose they are, when you start digging up bones, you stop building. Someone else beat you to the space. It happens all the time.

Even before the remains were found, the building had already been controversial in the neighborhood. People are skeptical about the concept, suspicious that it's nothing but a way to get around the zoning laws, which allow a "transient hotel," but not a residential building. People can buy their hotel rooms, or suites, or whatever. They are allowed to stay there, but not to use them as permanent residences. When they aren't around, their rooms generate income, for them and for the hotel, by being rented out to guests, like any other. To me, this plan has no appeal whatsoever, buying something I'd never really quite own. The simple fact of not being able to leave my things in the closets, or in the dresser drawers, defeats the purpose of the pied a terre, if you ask me.

The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation doesn't think it's such a great idea either. Director Andrew Berman has said, "Mark my words, you will see a boom in condo-hotels in manufacturing zones as soon as the city allows this." That sounds about right to me. The developers insist it's meant to offer a "a place to stay while you're in the city; a glamorous address - you can rent it and make money." Not a permanent year round residence for anyone, they promise. I'm wondering though, for all this talk of transience, once the building's built, the condos sold, who's going to enforce those rules, and how? Once the precedent is set, the model tested and successful, Berman's boom will begin. He has suggested that "If we're going to open up manufacturing zones to luxury residences, there should be aboveboard hearings and reviews." Do we really want a neighborhood taken over altogether by residential towers, and with the people who think it's a good idea to buy condo-hotels? People who will be getting the good tables at our brunch spots, snagging all the cabs, and clogging up the sidewalks. How much investment, or even interest, will these part time residents have in our communities? I'm thinking those are not really the neighbors I'd most like to have. But of course, it isn't up to me.

If this project didn't have such neighborhood destroying potential, I might not feel so strongly about those bones. I do spend half my life in Washington Square Park, without worrying over its history as a potter's field and public hanging ground. I've walked through City Hall Park without giving a thought to the city prison that once stood there, with its attendant graves and gallows. I know perfectly well that I'm walking over bodies, or what's left of them, all the time. Those bodies though, and all their parts, are still decently covered up underground.

At the Spring St. construction site, they're bringing the bones out into the light. An archaeologist is participating in the excavation now, which, I guess, is meant to offer some assurance that they won't be destroying anything of significance. The archaeologist they've hired would never allow that,would he? The developers further assure us that the area in which the remains turned up is going to be used as an open plaza space, no part of the building will be built over it.

Archaeologists and open plaza spaces sound lovely, don't they? But they are still pulling out all those bones, and no one's talking about putting them back, or putting them somewhere, anywhere. I can't help thinking they're going to end up in dumpsters, on dusty office shelves, maybe a few in a museum. A soft, familiar, muddy grave sounds so much more appealing than those options.

It's easy enough, necessary even, to ignore what's all around us, most of the time. Not just the bodies underfoot, but those still above, sleeping on our sidewalks, asking for our change. The guy on the subway, ranting to himself, or perhaps to an imaginary audience, about who nature is a whore, and the end of days is nigh. The old friends too, who serve as such good reminders of out old selves, and our old aspirations, who's calls we almost never answer or return. Everyone's got one or two of those. Old loves and longings, opportunities dismissed, chances wrongly taken or not, so many things not to think about. We don't have time for all of that. We have too much to do. It takes a lot of work to keep our city running smoothly as it does.

Buddhism teaches us that attachment to our physical selves, to the very idea of a self at all, is nothing but a distraction. A delusion to be shattered, if we hope to come to any understanding of reality's true nature, to liberate ourselves from the endless karmic cycle of rebirth, and the suffering it entails. Letting go of that attachment creates a space in which the world's endless possibilities can begin to open up, to give you a glimpse of the unimaginable.

Legend has it that, once upon a time, Tibetan practitioners could sometimes be found meditating in charnel grounds. Surrounded by the rotting flesh and dusty bones, they sought to realize their own impermanence, the inevitability of death and decay, the uselessness of the self, in the face of death. Death isn't going anywhere, no matter how many towers we build over it.

Maybe it doesn't matter what happens to those unearthed bones on Spring St. What use are they now, without the flesh, that fat and muscle they upheld, the hearts and lungs they enclosed, the eyes staring out of their sockets? Not much , if you think of it that way.

No comments: