Photo courtesy of author.

Furtive Scurries: The Ancestors of Pier 52

On June 15, 2020, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protected gay and transgender employees from workforce discrimination. Poignantly declared amidst pandemic-related cancellations of Pride parades and festivities, this long-awaited declaration of protection rang with particular sobriety as Aimee Stephens, a trans woman, died in the month before the ruling. Her lawsuit against R.G. and G.R. Harris Funeral Homes in 2013 provided the basis for the court’s decision. While this could be seen as a cruel twist of fate, that Ms. Stevens’s courageous fight for equality in the workplace ended before the victory, one could also say that this victory was aided and abetted by her ghost. The timing of Stevens’s death, sung as a bittersweet byline in the media narrative of June 2020, offers a through line to considering how our ancestors animate our paths. If we choose to acknowledge them, how may they offer themselves as guides to us?

It’s an appropriate fate for American culture that has all but lost its connection to the very land which sustains us, to the individuals such as U.S. Representative John Lewis, who have fought our fight before us, both providing knowledge to be received and fostered. The role of the ancestor, the spirit of those who lived before us, has all but been vanquished from Western culture. Outside of funerary rituals, many Americans are discouraged from having traditions that keep alive those who have passed to the next world. Our very cultural fabric exists in opposition to, and denial of, the deeply connective relationship with the ancestral.

Throughout the tumultuous first half of the year 2020, having a history, or histories from which to learn, remained an elephant in the room. We would not, had we learned from the past, be in the current errant boat. This cultural unmooring is directly re-affirmed throughout the time-warped months of 2020, when American skylines and cities continued ceaselessly in blatant disregard of the economic and social landslides occurring around them. In a moment when topographic stories were actively being buried, I have returned, time and again to thoughts of New York, where I hold a deep connection to a type of ancestral knowledge. The alleys and waterways of New York have been and continue to be liminal locations that refute the present moment, operating instead as containers for a family of ghosts. Skirting over the Willis Avenue Bridge, and around St. Nicholas Terrance before flying down the A Line to 14th Street, my physical experience of New York is deeply connected to a notion of anteriority, inhabited in the present, by those who came before.

Over the spring months of 2020, I spent much time reflecting on the recent history of New York’s West Side piers, a location that has seeped in my memory where, like so many other parts of New York, maintains a space for its ghosts. Earlier in the year, the Armory Show, which symbolically kicked off the start of spring activity in New York, had announced their plan to relocate from Piers 91 and 92 to the Javits Center. The latter location now easily accessible from Midtown and the boroughs by the 7 train line extension that terminated at the adjacent Hudson Yards, a mall-like plaza of high-end shopping, condominiums and stray tourists that has come to epitomize the fall of New York to a uniquely accelerated form of global gentrification.1 Growing up in New York during the 1990s and early 2000s, the city has, in my lifetime already lost much of the grit and grime associated with its recent past, yet for me, attuned to the ghosts of this history, I knew how to find it, and relished in a knowledge that allowed the city to resist its age.

This submission and active participation of the art world to the destruction of the city that it should seek to protect is not news. New Yorkers grow up with small business that disappear with the seasons, and the near mythic story of the original Pennsylvania Station, a neo-classical interpretation of Hadrian’s Baths that even the passion of Jacqueline Onassis could not save from its current rat-infested subterranean mall fate. In the last half decade, the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 2015 move to the Renzo Piano designed location on Gansevoort Street and the West Side Highway (leaving the iconic Breuer building in the decidedly “uncool” Upper East Side neighborhood to a dubious future) seems increasingly revealing in the history of New York’s cultural self-destruction. The move generated much excitement for New York arts writers, who mourned the loss of the Breuer Building, while lauding the museum’s move to the touristic, trendy Lower West Side as a progressive and accessible move. Sorely missing was critical analysis of the new location’s history, and the implications for a storied New York cultural institution to take root there. It took until late 2019, via a commission from Chicago-based artist Pope. L, for the Whitney to programmatically, or otherwise curatorially address the museum’s new relationship to the Hudson.2

My visits to the “New Whitney” assured a check-in on the state of the now derelict West Side piers. Located from Tribeca to Lincoln Center and concealed behind sections of chain link fence along the Hudson River run and bike path, or adapted, prior to my own adult life, into skate parks, soccer fields, or piazza-like social spaces for sunset pictures. Those untouched by the “regeneration” of the West Side, a movement led by then New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani and furthered by successor Michael Bloomberg, remained most enticing, empty spaces bearing signage from the New York Port Authority or Sanitation Department. Pier 52 located directly across the West Side Highway from the floor to ceiling glass walls of the Whitney’s West-facing galleries was, in 2015, an active garage and storehouse for the New York Sanitation Department. With each of my visits to the Whitney, the structure had been further broken down, a death both rapid and incremental, which I began to document through my own photography. With each visit the structure itself had, seemingly in cycles, lost another wall, gained another few hundred feet of chain link fence – the cement driveways cleared to expose an expansive blank plots of weeds and sand. Despite the remarkable changes, the site remained in a shifting state of ruin, without clearly moving towards the finished product. Seemingly ignored by the majority of the museum-going public, mingling on the Whitney’s west-facing terrace, the pier site seemed to be an ever-changing, yet invisible earthwork. The Hudson River Park website indicates plans to develop the site into a landscaped “large green oasis” that will include a public art commission by David Hammons, Day’s End (projected 2020, but under development), “a monument that reflects the city and its diversity.”3 An “invisible, yet very present” structure, the sculpture is a steel and aluminum outline of the now obliterated Pier 52, a ghost of its former architecture. Paying homage to Gordon Matta Clark’s structural intervention (also entitled Day’s End) in 1975, Hammons obliquely reckons with a memory of an old New York.4 Where the Whitney’s curatorial team eagerly has elevated the work as a “monument,” in the vein of Hammons’s practice, which embraces the subtitles and internationality of visual culture, Day’s End (2020) appears more as a ghostly apparition.

In a 2015 interview, commemorating the opening of the new building, Piano recognized part of his identification of the site for the Whitney was the concept of the urban periphery, stating, “There are energies there, there are desires.”5 Piano acknowledged, if albeit indirectly, a deep-rooted cultural history of the West Side piers as a space of sexual encounter and artistic production constructed a shared “public intimacy,” of a now almost mythic time of post-Stonewall and pre-gentrification.6 This history, immortalized through the photography of artists including Alvin Baltrop, Peter Hujar and David Wojnarowicz, has contributed to an art historical familiarity with, and connection to, this waterside architecture.7 Baltrop, whose black and white, part documentary, part anthropological, partly formalist photographs of Pier 52 during the mid-to-late 1970s allude to the seductive quality of this history, “the frightening, mad, unbelievable, violent, beautiful things that were going on.”8 As Baltrop rarely exhibited his work during his lifetime, and has remained largely unknown until recent regeneration of a post-Stonewall queer art history, his images function as visitations from ghosts. Baltrop often frames his subjects, mostly nude, young men as casually sitting, lounging in, against, and around the Meatpacking District waterfront. In Pier 52 (Gordon Matta-Clark’s “Day’s End”) from 1975-76, Baltrop views a small group of his peers socializing against the south edge of the then-abandoned pier. Matta-Clark’s structural intervention, slightly perceivable in the background of the frame offers a backdrop to the social interaction of the men in the image. Here, as in many of Baltrop’s works, his subjects are often viewed through architectural elements, doors, windows, holes in deteriorated rooftops. Intimate rather than voyeuristic, the compositions at once imply the artist within the landscape—unseen, he too is perching, lounging, kneeling in the start shadows of the summer sun along the West Side. The framing devices, in the context of a posthumously study of Baltrop’s work, suggest a contemporary awareness of the fragility of the moment, an acknowledgment that Matta-Clark’s monument would not last the decade, and a desire to capture the fleeting rendezvous of his moment.

For Wojnarowicz, the West Side piers of Lower Manhattan were, by the mid 1980s, modern day ruins, where contemporary mythologies could be enacted, “sexual hunting grounds …as far away from civilization as [one] could walk.”9 Speaking about the West Side piers in relation to Peter Hujar’s practice, artist Nayland Blake acknowledged their construction as a utopia by the following generation, a space easy to veil with a type of nostalgia as seen through the black and white frame of intimacy and freedom. Blake acknowledged how New York, epitomizing a neoliberal urgency for newness has successfully squashed the concept of “dis-use.” “We don’t have these types of spaces anymore, things are made anew. . . It is [then] easy to feel a nostalgia, but what are the options for queerness in a world that has rationalized time and space beyond comprehension?”10 This holding on to the liminal space, the queer space, has become increasingly as important as the piers themselves, and anything resembling a geography where social functions could exist against the grain, so much that their mythic status has become adopted and integrated into the very neoliberal systems which spelled their ruin. As art historian Fiona Anderson has pointed out, following, and even during their use as liminal urban space for behaviors then prohibited from existing as part of a mainstream culture, the image of the pier became part of commodity branding even during the late 1970s. The Ruins and River Club—two gay clubs on Manhattan’s West Side appropriated the imagery of piers as urban ruin in their branding and even interior spaces.11 Are works like Baltrop’s Pier 52 (Gordon Matta-Clark’s “Day’s End”) queer in this acknowledgement of its place in time? Can we look at Baltrop’s ability, in his own time, to treat the spaces he haunts with the respect with which on treads the ancestral, the haunted, as a model for a modality of existing with our own ghosts?

The power of the remaining presences of those already gone has been taken up more recently within what could broadly and tenuously be termed queer theory.12 Avery F. Gordon’s 2008 text, Ghostly Matters bespeaks of the power of haunting social forces (working on levels of good and evil) as highly potent elements to be considered in any social theory, and in 2009, film theorist Bliss Cua Lim applied the term “haunt” across spatial, as well as temporal spaces, allowing for more entangled, and outwardly relational possibilities.13 Where these theories can aptly be applied to our current reckoning of the continued fight for racial equality in the United States, and to the aforementioned power of the past on the current legal battles surrounding LGBTQ rights, the specter of ghosts’ effect on place, on architectural and art history, is often not directly acknowledged enough as such. In urban areas undergoing rapid gentrification, and accompanying architectural and resident erasure, attuning to the voices of those displaced, and their ghosts becomes all the more essential for any move towards a cultural understanding of the place.

In the twenty-first century, the ghosts of these spaces haunt through the glossy stainless steel and AstroTurf remnants of the piers. The joyous Pride parade through Greenwich Village is then infiltrated by the furtive bodies which thirty years prior, scurried through shadows and cruised through whispers. Is this, then, a story of holding space for ghosts, for allowing the echoes of the past to live alongside a present, collaborating towards a future modus operandi which honors the ancestor, lived and unlived? Taking Hujar, Wojnarowicz, and Matta Clark as guides, and their queer space of the West Side piers as terrain, we can begin to develop the beams of a cultural construction that holds space for the ghosts of the past to inhabit and contribute towards the present. We can embody artist Patrick Staff’s suggestion to be promiscuous in how we inhabit time, and allow the impetus of desire to inform an approach as much driven by memory, both felt and known.14 For desire haunts us, the way we once desired for, or were desired, or felt desired. The desire to touch a lost lover’s skin persists, not as feeling, but as a haunting echo, sharper, hungrier, more painful than the initial want. When exposed, briefly to the thing we most desire, we permit it to haunt us, transforming attraction to obsession, and return to a lifelong quest. Stéphane Mallarmé, after years of attempts to transcend the banalities of humanity resolved to a bitter complacency in L’Azur (1864), “Je suis hanté. L’Azur! L’Azur! L’Azur! L’Azur!” This permission is also a grounding, a holding of what is tenable and what is truth. The ghosts of the West Side piers remind those who listen what went wrong, what is lost, and what our limitations are, as our ancestors remind us what the battles are to fight, what has been won, and what we still need to seek.