Sunday, July 15, 2012

Hy-Breasail in Manhattan

In May, the New York Times published an article entitled "On the Vaunted City Subway Map, Mistakes and Phantom Blocks" which revealed that the iconic NYC subway map contains wayward streets and hidden realms:

"On the West Side of Manhattan, beginning near Lincoln Center and extending toward the campus of Columbia University, Broadway is seemingly misplaced. It is west of Amsterdam Avenue at West 66th Street when it should be east. It drifts toward West End Avenue near 72nd Street, where it should intersect with Amsterdam. It overtakes West End Avenue north of the avenue’s actual endpoint near West 107th Street, creating several blocks of fictitious Upper West Side real estate.   [...]

On the current map, West End Avenue has inexplicably been extended to around West 116th Street, forging roughly nine blocks of phantom terrain.
Pedestrians on Broadway in this area can stumble upon an Ivy League university or gaze through the windows of Tom’s Restaurant, of “Seinfeld” fame. They can find a copy of “Pride and Prejudice” for $2 at a stand on West 112th Street, and, four blocks south, a taco for 50 cents more. They can even sip mojitos at Havana Central at the West End, near West 114th Street.
But they will never find West End Avenue between Broadway and Riverside Drive."
(For the full article, click here).
I am delighted but not surprised.  Abandoned stations lurk throughout the subway system, realities no longer shown on the map ("The Map"); you can catch shadowed glimpses of them as your train speeds by: Worth Street on the IRT downtown, 18th Street on the east side, 91st Street on the west side, and many others.  On the other hand, the Second Avenue Subway has lived fitfully and half-wrought, a cartographic ghost of endless promises, for going on a century, and now we ponder maps that portray planned stretches of the 7 Line and of the Long Island Railroad.  
Entire new precincts have sprung from the mud and shells of our rivers:  Battery Park City, the East River Park.  Our real estate brokers conjure forth neighborhoods that exist only on paper until pioneers make them real: where exactly is "NoLiTa" or "FiDi" or "Manhattan Valley"?  Equally vague and peripatetic are the boundaries of Chelsea and of Gramercy Park, of Turtle Bay and the Meatpacking District (not to speak of Williamsburg's ongoing annexation of Bushwick in Brooklyn).   On the other hand, very discrete entities such as Grove Court in the West Village, Henderson Place on the Upper East Side and Sniffen Court in Murray Hill exist like Rivendell, i.e., tucked away in plain sight, refuges from the wider world, and not always marked on maps.
The best writers of what is currently called "Urban Fantasy" are exquisitely attuned to such vagaries, to the bizarre, hidden and surreal elements of city life, to the fecundity of the city itself, the city as a seemingly independent actor outside of full human control.   China Mieville specializes in dissecting the hoarsely breathing, patchwork body of the modern metropolis,  most masterfully in The City and The City.  His short story (autobiographical essay?) "Reports of Certain Events in London" details the clandestine movements of feral streets, stealthy intruders that disrupt the maps and go their own way, sometimes playing tourist in other cities altogether.
Catherynne Valente, in her city of Palimpsest (and surely all major cities are palimpsests), describes a train with an impish mind of its own:  "It became apparent to enthusiasts of locomotive travel that there was at least one unscheduled train on the tracks of Palimpsest.  It did not stop at any of the stations, for one thing.  [...] ...the 3:17 northbound Decretal had had a somewhat unhappy affair with the 12:22 eastbound Foolscap.  The mysterious train was their child, and like any child whose parents no longer love each other, it runs wild and does what it likes and there is little at all to be done about it."  And here every NYC commuter nods, thinking of the J train that seems to fall asleep somewhere in Brooklyn because its only constancy is its caprice, and recalling also the quirky G,  while not forgetting the dainty 1-2-3's who apparently dislike water so intensely that the smallest rainfall causes them distress and delay, and the way in which buses travel their routes in packs, creating long caesuras for the anxious or resigned rider-in-waiting.
Theodore Sturgeon in the oft-reprinted "Shottle Bop" captures another reality well known to all big-city dwellers: the cool, curious little shop that you stumble on and then can never find again.  "I'd never seen the place before, and I lived just down the block and around the corner.  ...between Twentieth and Twenty-First Streets on Tenth Avenue in New York City.  You can find it if you go there looking for it. "  Or-- as the narrator discovers--maybe you won't find it.  It happens all the time, this losing your landmark stores, the boutiques and bodegas that orient and anchor you as you navigate the city.  
Delia Sherman knows all about the magic of the city, having mapped out a "New York Between" in her Changeling novels.   Terri Windling and Ellen Kushner know this too, having pioneered and then continued to refine the genre with the shared world of "Bordertown".   Neil Gaiman's "London Below" in Neverwhere,  Ekaterina Sedia's alternate city in The Secret History of Moscow, Marie Brennan's Onyx Court in her Elizabethan historical fantasies, Jeff VanderMeer's City of Saints and Madmen (in which he takes the game to the next brink, which is creating alternate spaces within cities that are themselves fictional),  M. John Harrison's Pastel City with its uncertain addresses and deliberate vagueness... the list is long and worthy, with grafts from Gormenghast (a castle that is a city that is a world, animated by its own desires beyond the petty ambitions of its inhabitants), from the tales of flaneurs in Paris and coffee-drinkers in Vienna, from the calqued realities of Dickens and Mann and Balzac, of Whitman and Kokoschka.
Aren't we all looking for Platform 9-&-3/4 at King's Cross?  For Number 221B on Baker Street?  For Avenue Q, and Coronation Street, and Albert Square, and Sun Hill?
Pardon me, in fact, as I stroll out now into Manhattan's Lower East Side, to stand wondering at the corner of Ridge Street and Grand least, to stand by an official street sign proclaiming the existence of such an intersection in the broadest of daylight, while the ocular evidence yields no such place, only the one street (Grand), with an apartment building of Babylonian proportion and across the way a nondescript but bustling Roman Catholic Church where this alleged piece of Ridge should lie.
I should write Mr. Mieville to inquire if any sightings of a block or two of a "Ridge Street" have been reported in his London neighborhood.

1 comment:

Ellen Kushner said...

Daniel, your love of the city shows and glows! Thanks for mentioning M. John Harrison's *The Pastel City,* too - one of my formative influences! (And his whole Viriconium opus is now out in audiobook from Neil Gaiman Presents: