Sunday, April 29, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #119: Tenements, Towers & Trash by Julia Wertz

Everyone living in a big city has a different experience of that city -- and the longer you live in one place, the more particular and idiosyncratic your version of it gets. (Some places are too small to be seen that differently: I've lived for twenty-five years in the same small NJ town of less than 10k people, and all my mental efforts have left it as boring as ever.) Julia Wertz lived in New York -- Brooklyn, actually; NYC is big enough that you need to specify at least that much, and most people would think you need a neighborhood as well -- for a decade, from 2006 to 2016, and she didn't leave by her own choice.

Tenements, Towers & Trash is her very idiosyncratic history and/or record of the city she lived in for ten years. How idiosyncratic? A large portion of this book is made up of paired drawings of a particular streetscape -- in some past year and the last time Wertz saw it. That idiosyncratic.

And that's entirely a good thing: there are a million boring histories of big famous places like NYC already. We could use a few more deeply quirky, oddball histories of them instead.

In between the random looks at Mott Street in 1935 and 2012 (note: this is my characterization of the content; I don't recall if she actually drew Mott Street in any year), there are short comics stories about interesting bits of NYC history and Wertz's life there. Wertz isn't interested in tourist stuff, and she isn't interested in fancy rich-people stuff, either -- she's more about infrastructure (subways, street cleaning), colorful mostly-forgotten women (Typhoid Mary, Nellie Bly, Lizzie Halliday, Madame Restell), only-in-NYC stories (the "Hess Spite Triangle," Kim's Video, Ray's Pizza, the odd drink called an egg cream) and offshoots of her urban exploring, like examinations of that haven of trash and detritus, Bottle Beach, and its much more famous older sibling Fresh Kills.

Wertz also likes making pages of pictures of various related things: old hotel-room keys, hidden bars of NYC, historic subway entrances, some independent bookstores, holdout buildings. Sometimes that merges with the "then and now" impulse as well: she has pages of past-and-present pictures of bakeries, apothecaries, snack carts, bakeries, subway etiquette signs, the theaters of Staten Island and Brooklyn, several neighborhoods (Times Square, three bits of the Village, Greenpoint, Bed-Stuy, Carroll Gardens, Williamsburg), and the vaguer "neighborhood shopping and dining."

So Tenements has a lot of stuff in it: it's as much the visual record of what one cartoonist noticed in a big, teeming, busy city over the course of a decade as it is anything else. Any general, overview book will be influenced by what the author notices and cares about, obviously, but most writers try to hide that under a facade of impartiality and authority. Wertz is particular and unashamed about it: this is her NYC.

It's a big book: physically oversized (which heft and implied seriousness intersects interestingly with Wertz's deliberately simple drawing style) and around three hundred thick pages. And it contains a lot of stuff. It's not a definitive look at NYC: no book is. But it's a record of what one particular observer noticed and cared about and wanted to save, which is even better.

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