Boroughed Time

Urban Legends: The South Bronx in Representation and Ruin BY Peter L'Official. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 320 pages. $30.

The cover of Urban Legends: The South Bronx in Representation and Ruin

GIVEN TIME, every discussion of New York in the 1970s becomes a discussion of the South Bronx. When documentary filmmakers need to indicate the decade of New York’s municipal failure, the rubbled lots of the South Bronx mark the moment and do the failing. When overpaid Netflix directors need to gloss the Black experience in New York in the 1970s, an abandoned tenement is cast as the silent buddy. The South Bronx is a real place dogged by the surreal, somehow always most itself when on fire. But New York in the ’70s was not a burning dumpster, and the South Bronx was not a crater full of dancers and bad guys. Many artists have been slow to renounce the feast of that particular assumption, and keep remembering the same period of the South Bronx, forcing their needles to skip back again and again.

Into this metonymic fog comes Peter L’Official’s Urban Legends. L’Official shows us, slowly and precisely, how novelists and artists and civil servants have deployed myths of the South Bronx as both backdrops and blank screens. Some of those myths have been canon for decades. “The Bronx is burning,” as L’Official reports, was not something announcer Howard Cosell made up (or even said!) during the 1977 World Series, though this origin story for the phrase is plausible. During the second game, as the Yankees played at home against the Dodgers, an abandoned school building burned near Yankee Stadium, visible to everyone watching at home. But those four words are the title of a 1972 BBC documentary about the borough’s arson epidemic. Myths are tenacious when one parent is a fact. Buildings did burn, and, as L’Official quotes one historian, the South Bronx was the “most extensively abandoned piece of urban geography in the United States.”

Urban Legends is a parabolic dish microphone pointed at history, collecting the waves that outsiders have bounced off the South Bronx. L’Official gathers representations of the South Bronx found in fiction, like Don DeLillo’s description of urban tourism in Underworld, and the ways it has been filtered through journalistic language. He proposes that classifications like “inner city” and the “ghetto” are also “versions of urban legends as well.” L’Official presents these ideas as euphemisms and “coded spatial signifiers for race,” which they are. In fact, the focus of Urban Legends is squarely on the views of those who never lived in the neighborhood. Very little of it touches on how the residents of the South Bronx represented themselves, and L’Official acknowledges this several times, best of all in the conclusion: “Though Urban Legends falls short of discussing ‘all kinds’ of artists, its aims were, and are, aligned with those of the Fort Apache Band, as articulated by Andy González: showing that art can, and does, emerge from an imperiled environment.” L’Official seems to know that hip-hop and graffiti don’t need his help at this point. He writes that graffiti artists in the South Bronx—“most of whom pointedly referred to themselves as writers—would no doubt tell you, graffiti was Bronx literature, and a populist form at that, which hardly required an agent or a publishing contract to reach an audience.”

The triumph of the book is the first half, where L’Official corrals visual depictions of the South Bronx and builds a lattice of history and shadows. One conceptural artist L’Official brings back into the fold is Mayor Ed Koch himself. In the early ’80s, the New York Department of Housing Preservation and Development, under Koch, began the “Occupied Look” decorative seal program. These seals were vinyl decals painted by city workers. The idea was that their rudimentary freehand intimations of curtains or windowpanes would give abandoned buildings a “lived-in” appearance. Though these decals are often referred to as trompe l’oeil, that tradition demands a high level of photorealist versimilitude. The weirdness of “Occupied Look” lies half in its ineptitude and half in its condescension, all of which combined to suggest that the administration saw the residents of the South Bronx as children, easily fooled.

Robert Jacobson, director of the Bronx office of the City Planning Commission, was more direct about the purpose of the decals. As L’Official quotes him, “The image that the Bronx projects—and projects to potential investors—is the image you see from that expressway, and our goal is to soften that image so people will be willing to invest.” That investment was slow to come, but it came. L’Official reports that, in October of 2015, a real estate firm in Manhattan threw a party in the South Bronx with the social media hashtag #thebronxisburning. Their “pop-up” event used “fires burning in trash cans and a sculpture fashioned from bulletriddled cars.” Their goal? “A $400-millionplus residential and retail complex on a stretch of industrial waterfront on the Harlem River.” Where one myth prettied up the block for public funds, the other brought back the ornamental grit for the private investor.

The Bronx, New York.
The Bronx, New York. Pablo/Flickr

L’Official examines the work of visual artist Gordon Matta-Clark and photographer Ray Mortenson alongside a huge stash of tax photos taken in the 1980s, and the book blooms. Having synthesized this cohort, L’Official offers us an understanding of “the elasticity of both the archive and fine art to represent subjects with occasionally remarkable intricacy.” Matta-Clark started cutting slices out of buildings in the late 1960s, and each particular cutting had its own logic and style. Day’s End (1975) was a massive crescent moon cut out with chain saws on the side of an abandoned West Side pier. Aside from the film and photos of the event, it existed for less than a week from start to finish. Bronx Floors (1972–73) was multivalent and left a more permanent trace. Matta-Clark cut large squares from the floors at 960 Third Avenue and other abandoned buildings in the South Bronx. One result of this process was “Threshole,” a series of photographs taken at the moment of cutting, and which allow you to look from one floor down and out through the window on the floor below. The sight lines Matta-Clark captures allow the buildings to be a kind of Yellow Submarine funhouse, freed from any logical task beyond subdivision and parallelism.

Bronx Floors was shown at 112 Greene Street in 1972, and it presents the inverse of “Threshole.” Not photos but the sections of floor themselves, huge Fig Newtons of quatrefoil linoleum and lath. L’Official describes Matta-Clark here as “a kind of archivist who, with ramshackle precision, extracted samples of rapidly deteriorating sections of the city as both testament to and protest against the prevailing urban condition.”

Ray Mortenson, familiar with the work of Matta-Clark and Robert Smithson, created a series of South Bronx photos between 1982 and 1984. His interventions are less violent than Matta-Clark’s—he’s just looking—but his photos make absence thrum. Untitled, 30 January 1984 is a masterpiece of perspective, lodging the camera between two apartment buildings and looking out and high, creating a small vista of the street below, and then stretching out into gradations of white and gray manifested by miles of tenements. Does this look west? South? The picture suggests that the South Bronx is a vast continent unto itself, possibly about to erupt. Untitled (19 October 1983) is a close shot of an abandoned upholstered armchair sitting in a sea of paint flakes. On the wall, the first Kalima is written in Arabic above two crossed swords: “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.” The framing allows a soft bloom of light from the side. It seems like the chair will not be vacant for long.

On September 7, 1978, Mayor Ed Koch signed Executive Order No. 19, which called for the “physical re-evaluation of all real property within the boundaries of the city at 100% full value.” This attempt to properly assess taxes was too late to stop the bankers from taking over the city, but it created more than 85,000 photographs of the South Bronx. L’Official sees that the tax photos recorded the building just as Bernd and Hilla Becher “grouped storage silos and coal bunkers” in Germany. The South Bronx images also extended back in time, as L’Official notes that “the photographic conventions of the 1980s New York tax photo project remained largely unchanged since the Depression era—predating the work of the Bechers by at least a decade.” Surprisingly, at least to me, a project to track and tag property ended up recording lots of people. There are two friends in guayaberas, a clutch of women in parkas with shopping bags, a pair of men shaking hands. It’s like the South Bronx itself defeats the official eye. As L’Official writes, “the municipality’s own efforts toward ‘total representation’ had the consequences of assuring that the South Bronx could not pass entirely into myth.”

The crown jewel of these photos is E. L. Grant Highway. Department of Finance, Bronx 1980s Tax Photographs, 1983–1988, dof 2 02520 0012. The photo “is both representational and abstract,” as L’Official points out. It shows a corner where two streets meet at an acute angle. In the foreground, blurry because the focal point is way behind it, a photo slate presents the Department of Finance file numbers in black and white: 2, space, 2520, space 12. But that building is gone, now a triangular absence. Behind that, the left flank of an apartment building and the thin right flank of a storefront combine to make the new front-facing surface. The building missing from that triangle exists, and it doesn’t. One building a myth, the others real—the clave of the South Bronx.

Sasha Frere-Jones is a writer and musician living in the East Village.