Monday, March 13, 2006

Books and Buildings (includes Chronicle: Loss of a Local Landmark, and Reviews: #13 & #14)

I was surprised, perhaps foolishly, by this article in the Times the other day about the commencement of the destruction of the Underberg Building. Abandoned and already crumbling on Flatbush Avenue, the building stands in the way of a proposed (and highly controversial) sports stadium and mall complex under the auspices of the sinister-sounding Forest City Ratner. I'm a little torn myself about the Ratner complex. The theory is that it will bring jobs and more affordable housing to Brooklyn, which is hard to argue with. But it's also sort of a corporate monolith, and it seems as though it will make the neighborhood a lot less neighborhoody.
The ALP and I walk past the Underberg on jaunts to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the irresistible temptations of the Brooklyn Target, or the Atlantic Avenue subway station. I've always been charmed by the combination of odd green paint and the brick that shows through where it's peeled and faded, and the old-fashioned lettering stenciled on the side. I had forgotten that the building also features in Jonathan Lethem's FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE – along with (still functioning) Brooklyn hardware store Pintchik, the Underberg is one of the places young Dylan Ebdus shops with his mother, and shoplifts with his friends when he gets older.
The building is structurally unsound and totally unsafe at this point, of course, which is the ostensible motivation for tearing it down. But it is a beautiful wreck that will go out of our lives forever. Living in New York means dealing with changing neighborhoods, with the loss of what have become your personal landmarks. It's a fact of life. But it's always a little painful.

Coincidentally, this week's books are both at least partially concerned with the destruction of buildings.

Review #13
by Katherine Weber
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, June 2006)

This novel by Katherine Weber (author of THE LITTLE WOMEN, a modern update of the Alcott tale) centers around one of the most famous destroyed buildings in American history: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, ravaged by a fire in 1911 which killed 146 workers who were trapped due to management neglect and maliciousness. (The factory, repossessed and renovated, later became a New York University building, and I studied literature in its classrooms as an undergraduate.) The central character is Esther Gottesfeld, the last survivor of the fire in 2001, who has spent her life telling the story of how she escaped when her sister, Pauline, and her fiancé, Sam, died in the blaze. Esther's unborn child also survived, though he died in an accident as an adult, and her granddaughter Rebecca is now her only family. Rebecca and her longtime partner George, a composer, are crazy about Esther, and don't think to question her story until after her death, when a humorless (and thus hilarious) feminist scholar approaches them with questions and theories about what really happened the day of the fire. The eyewitness accounts – women burning, bodies falling as workers jumped out windows – are harrowing and effective, and Weber lets the reader figure out Esther's secret along with Rebecca, never making things too explicit. The novel spends a little too much time on George's music, which is interesting but doesn't seem related to the story; however, the final scene, an oratorio dedicated to the victims of the Triangle, is moving and well-earned. This one is definitely worth a read if you're interested in Weber's skillful re-imagining of women's history, and the way it breaks into the present.

Review #14
by Sam Savage
(Coffee House Press, April 2006)

This one was recommended by fellow booksellers, for which I'm very grateful. Firmin is a literate rat, but not in a charming Charlotte's Web sort of way. His devouring of literature (literal and figurative – he has to chew something, and has interesting insights into the comparative flavors of JANE EYRE, Emily Post, and Proust) make him an outcast from his own kind and unable to connect with the human world he has so internalized. Born in a used bookstore in Boston's Scollay Square, he spends his life observing the bookstore owner, Norman Shine, and a local author, Jerry Magoon, who takes him in, and watching the old-time porn at the Rialto Theater. Poor Firmin's vermin angst is of course hilariously self-deprecating, and his diction sometimes reads like a translation of Kafka or Clarice Lispector – an existential Everyman who takes literature very seriously, but finds their own existence ridiculous. His only happiness comes from his pseudo-friendship with the semi-crackpot Magoon (who calls Firmin "civilized" but of course can't understand how articulate and well-read he is, since they don't share a common language) and romantic fantasies of glamorous lives and Ginger Rogers. The novel turns dreamily tragic at the end, as the end of Firmin's short rat life coincides with the destruction of Scollay Square by the city. Like the Underberg building, the square is considered dangerous and an eyesore, and the bookstore, the Rialto, and all the other neighborhood buildings have been slated for demolition.

Firmin's description of the history and the destruction of the long-abandoned Howard Theater is a fitting epitaph for the Underberg, too, as it becomes part of the city's past. Maybe it will always be necessary to remove the old in the interest of progress. At least we have literature to keep in memory the value of what is lost

Things were ending fast. The ship was sinking, and a week after Shine started tossing books overboard, the Old Howard burned. This was a theater that a long time ago had been famous all across America. I used to trudge by its abandoned hulk on my way to the Rialto. Façade of gray stone, enormous gothic windows, it looked like a church except for the huge sign jutting halfway across the street with THE OLD HOWARD spelled out in lightbulbs… It looked like a church for a reason – it had been built as one by the Millerites, a religious sect whose zealots believed that the world was coming to an end… I loved reading about those people. They were just like me, carrying around with them all the time this huge sense of calamity…The church became a theater – Edwin Booth played there – a vaudeville house, and finally a strip joint. In 1952, which was still long before my time, the city closed it down for good…

And now at last the world was really ending, and the Howard was going with it…

The sirens wailed on and off the whole afternoon, and when I went by that night only the outer walls were still standing, a smoking ruin, and the street was full of ashy mud. A few people were walking up and down in the mud holding signs that said SAVE THE OLD HOWARD and PRESERVE OUR HERITAGE. It had never looked to me like anything particularly worth saving, and I had never cared for the low-life rats who lived there. Good riddance, I thought. At dawn the ruin was still smoking, when they brought in the huge crane. It had an enormous iron ball on the end of a steel cable, and when the crane moved its arm back and forth the ball began to swing, and it swung higher and higher until, with the ball high on the backswing, the crane suddenly surged forward, and the ball swung forward and down and up and crashed against the side of the Old Howard. The walls must have been really strong, because they couldn't knock them down with the crane. And that was when they sent in the sappers, who put dynamite under the walls and set it off. They did this three times, and each time another wall came crashing down, and a billowing wave of ash and dust rolled down the street for blocks and made the dirty buildings a little bit dirtier.