In 1672 a French engraver, Jollain, presents to the world a bird's-eye view of New Amsterdam. The map1 is completely false. Yet, it is a depiction – perhaps accidental – of the project of Manhattan: an urban science fiction. At the center of the image appears a distinctly European walled city. Only the large number of facilities for the treatment and storage of animal skins in the city testifies to its location in the new world. The island's landscape ranges from the flat to the mountainous, from the wild to the placid; the climate seems to alternate between Mediterranean summers (outside the walls is a sugarcane field) and severe (pelt-producing) winters. An utopian Europe, the product of compression and density. Already, adds the engraver, “the city is famous for its enormous number of inhabitants…”. The city is a catalog of models and precedents: all the desirable elements that exist scattered through the Old World are finally assembled in a single place, staged as a theater of progress.
When I moved into a former tenement building in Lower Manhattan in 2013 and the cold weather began to settle in, I slept poorly due to the desert-like conditions the radiator would produce in my room. The building super recommended that I cover the radiator with a towel and put a bowl of water on top. I sleep better now, but the poultry warehouse at the bottom of my building often wakes me up early in the morning with the sound of chains dragging across metal, a forklift in reverse, and yelling men. I turn my box fan on every night throughout the year to drown out these sounds. Up high on the 5th floor, I don’t notice the smell of decay from the poultry warehouse, which caused New York Magazine to call my block “the smelliest block in New York”.
This past fall a New Building Project Manager from the Whitney Museum asked me to make a training video2 for the team that would set up their flood mitigation system in the event of extreme weather. Designed in Germany, it’s a 15 ft tall aluminum wall that can be set up in a few hours, extending the full length of the museum on Gansevoort St and as far north as the loading dock on 10th Avenue. Standing in the rain on the day of the shoot, I asked the Manager if projections of disasters in films like Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow were being considered, and if she believed the tranquil scenes of Steven Spielberg’s A.I., in which New York is a half-submerged city of ruins, was inevitable. “Tsunami’s aside”, she said, “this will buy us a lot of time”. Meanwhile, the Department of City Planning tirelessly promotes and actualizes waterfront development.
After the shoot I told my parents about the job on the phone, because discussing my economic activity puts them at peace. Per usual, we had a conversation about our respective weather for several minutes and Dad joked that he was glad they sent up some rain to rehearse the flood in. What is utterly banal for them produces a persistent daily anxiety in me, particularly when I’m in a dense city like New York. Their formative years occurred before humans became acutely aware of their ecological impact on Earth.