30 April 2005

...more bare, more ruined...

St. George Ferry terminal
4/30/05 5:33 pm

The 5:30 boat was just canceled "due to circumstances beyond our control" -- looks as if the Andy B is disabled. Maybe it ran into the pier again, as the man across from me is proposing, laughing, to anyone who'll listen. Nearby, a father describes the scene slowly and in great detail into his cell phone, punctuating his commentary with barks at his 2 daughters fidgeting in a single seat next to me.

Reconstruction on the new St. George terminal is nearly done, a big improvement over its predecessor, which was just going under the knife on 9/11, 4 & a half years ago now. The Whitehall terminal on the Manhattan side has also been renovated, and was opened officially a month back despite the fact that the observation deck isn't quite ready and the sign out front still reads only N ISLAND FERRY.

Our house is about a mile away from here, a 20-minute walk along the harbor that, if prosecuted briskly enough, I can (with only a wisp of a qualm) regard as a good day's exercise, especially if I walk home on the return trip, which I usually do. Along the way, I pass through what will one day be the campus of the National Lighthouse Museum, but which as yet is still the ruins of the old Coast Guard Facility, itself built upon the ruins of the old Quarantine Station. Sometimes the plaza is thronged with people, as it has been for the NYC Marathon in November, and may be tomorrow for the 5-Boro Bike Tour. But this evening, in the fog, it was pretty spooky: the blasted out shells of the Old Lamp Shop & the Laboratory loomed eerily in the gathering dusk -- & even the pigeons clutched onto the Barrack's fire escape railing looked ominous as I passed underneath.

In my wife Deb's blog yesterday, she invoked (called in) the shade o' the Bard, whose "bare, ruined choirs" from Sonnet 73 evoked (called out) for her the spirit of sacred spaces. For me, this collection of wrecks beneath the ferry bus ramp constitutes a rent in the time-space continuum.

A building falls out of time when it falls into disuse. Once it was an idea, first in the planner's mind, then the architect's, then the builder's, until it finally became entirely itself upon being completed, occupied, and used as it was intended -- at which point it becomes not only an idea but an experience in the lives and minds of everyone who comes anywhere near it.

Once abandoned, however, a building reverts to being an object, a mere piling up of molecules escaping promiscuously into other bondings. If it retains any trace of being an idea, it's only in the arifacts of its construction -- the records in City Hall and in the archives of the various enterprises who erected and equipped and staffed it -- and in the stories of the people who built it or worked there once upon a time. The building itself is no longer itself: now it's just part of a landscape, and though it may inspire the odd reminder of mortality in passersby such as myself -- the flow of my thoughts touching on it as lightly and as fleetingly as a stream briefly touches on a stone it passes on its way -- it does nothing else but fall apart.

Or maybe now the building is *only* itself, now that all the ideas and stories and experiences that once were attached to it like tags on merchandise in a department store have fallen away, and its "thingness" can shine forth unoccluded -- a Buddhist take on the subject, perhaps. But the same could be said for the stone in the stream, so that discussion's going nowhere.

I'm not sufficiently disciplined as a philosopher to carry this meditation much further, but I do find it a remarkable thing to consider the difference between the new ferry terminals and the forthcoming Lighthouse Museum, for all that they're being reconstructed by people working for the same company, and using the same tools, materials, and techniques. Besides, I've got some empty time between now and when the boat comes, so let me try to fill it.

It's easy to figure out what purpose the renovations of the two ferry terminals will serve: the enterprise of ferrying folks back & forth across the harbor. They are nodes in a network of public transportation, where people on their way somewhere stop to change conveyances; they are also stations where people sometimes have to wait (remain stationary) on their journey, and so provide facilities that make the wait more bearable: seats, telephones, food concessions, rest rooms -- and *someday* there'll be an observation deck for those *really* long layovers.

"Terminal" is of course a relative term, referring only to the two ends of the ferry leg of the trip: no one lives here, so it can't be either the beginning or the end of anybody's travel plans -- though the Staten Island end is often the apogee of a sightseeing junket. (It takes about an hour round-trip from Manhattan, and the quiet sail across the harbor and back is not only gorgeous but restful -- depending, of course, on the weather and the time of day: rush hour is not especially pleasant, and in the fog, well, what's the point?)

But the Lighthouse Museum.... There isn't much use for a lighthouse in this neck of the spatio-temporal woods. Radar, sonar, and other fancy technology make it possible for ships to enter, traverse, and leave the harbor safely when visibility is zero, in pretty much any weather this side of a hurricane. And in any case, the lighthouse that once stood near the Staten Island Ferry was never used as a navigational aid, but rather to test out new equipment for implementation elsewhere. The Mission Statement of the new Lighthouse Museum avers that its purpose will be "Broadening the Public's Appreciation and Understanding of America's Lighthouse Heritage," and then goes on to detail how it plans to accomplish this noble mission (and I should say that, as mission statements go, this one is relatively non-toxic).

But what is this Heritage, especially with a capital H like that? I could reach for my _Webster's New Collegiate_, but that wouldn't give me the technical sense in which such a ponderous word is wielded in a non-profit's mission statement -- not to be cynical, but its value in such an instrument is its unassailability: no one's gonna come out in favor of destroying a Heritage, for crump's sake, as my father used to say.

Seems to me that Heritage is something somebody wants to keep just the way it was, as impossible as that is -- ask any Buddhist. Or rather to *restore* it to just the way it was, which of course is absurd in more than just the dharmic sense: like the faux lighthouse at one end of the promenade, the restored Machine Shop at the other end won't really do anything like what it was built for, but rather will re-present what it *used* to be for. When these buildings were in operation, nobody visited them in order to have their understanding or appreciation broadened, and I would bet that there wasn't much of a sense that America even had a Lighthouse Heritage, though there were plenty of working lighthouses at the time. It may be that for something to be a Heritage, it can't work any more.

This is the Age That Remembers, as someone once said (ironically, I can't remember who). I'm not sure if that's good or bad. No question the renovation will make the place safer and better looking, the whole project will create lots of jobs, and as a tourist attraction the Lighthouse Museum will contribute substantially to the local economy -- let's face it: a major reason ferry tourists turn around and go right back to Manhattan is that there's nothing to see when they get here, unless they want to get on another dang conveyance to Snug Harbor, Fort Wadsworth, or the Tibetan Museum. (Well, there's the ballpark next door, but the season's short and the SI Yanks aren't here half the time.)

A true cynic might draw an analogy between the new museum and a graveyard plot lovingly tended -- but this fails to take into account the motivation behind such tendance, to preserve (or in this case restore) a sense of how things were, perhaps to get some perspective on how things are with us now.

This is an act of imagination, not of recollection -- how many members of the planning committee, the architectural firm, or the contracting company, was even around when these buildings were alive? They're writing a script, laying down tracks, preparing a future for the past in this place.

Hesse once said that the third dimension of history is always fiction. But that's another rant.

Just now these buildings have nothing to say but "all things must pass." I'll be interested to find out what else they can tell me once they wake from their haunted sleep.

Boat's in. Gotta go.


At 15 December, 2005 13:39, Blogger neuage said...

We are doing a reading of 'We Descend' at Albany Academy for Girls - Albany New York. Grades 9 - 12.
Is anyone else doing this 'work' in the high school classroom?


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