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What closes and then darkness,
what opens and then bright?
Before the horn has risen,
where hides the lord of light?
A Chinese Book of Origins
How you frame something is a moral decision.
On Mercer Street, on the island of Manhattan, and just before the city paused, walking in a southerly direction from Houston to Canal, there was a decimation. A Chicxulub. Even then, in prophetic unease, the stores had shuttered in blatant proportions, without much replacement or activity. This was not restricted to SoHo or the other high-rent districts. It was also the small enterprise on the side street: tailor and small baker, laundromat and diner, deli and shoe repairer.
The reverse direction of occupancy is decay. It has nothing ceremonial. No ribbon cutting or fresh flowers, no eager attendants. Empty, the precious architectural image relaxes into anti-heroic and shabby availability. But there is a scale of concern. In prior days, on its own, an empty store evoked a light curiosity and anticipation for its future. At a larger frequency of closures, there is a different kind of memory at play, closer to dread than nostalgia, a bereavement for a city rapidly becoming something else. I walked the city, intent on documenting retail stores that had failed or closed, existing in an amalgamation of abandoned objects, archaeologies, and recent intervention. The gouge next to the mastic that had held a mirror, mysterious interim brush strokes, the re-emerging ferrous column cast in sand moulds. An Arte Povera of sorts decided away from the professional class. Space while in use exists in the constraint of intention. Specific and close to tyrannical in the way it is experienced, it supersedes the conflicting remains of the accumulated past. But with time, these times, through surrender or exhaustion, the space becomes a hasty victim itself. Tools tear at its obsolescence, revealing its labors. Permanence and absence, ruins and remnants.
Walking the city, I found myself drawn to these spaces as a refuge. I found solace in these fleeting compositions that lack intent. Their sculptural logic and painterly rhythms, so at ease, which at some point, in the churn of our resumed ways, will never be seen again.
In these hybrid spaces, a spirit of labors comes through, anonymous labors that have come and gone, disparate hands that built the years, the same hands that built the city. In these worlds, there is ambiguity and hope, the emotion of aesthetic surprise. A return to a city we once knew. Our broom-swept Acropolis. The temporal majesty of scarred, wide-open ghosts.
Long based in New York City’s SoHo neighborhood, Mark Hage has taught at Parsons, Harvard, and Yale on the narratives of form and structure from ancient times to the present. His work has appeared in literary publications including NOON, LitHub and A Public Space, where he is a contributing editor.
All images and text copyright © 2020 by Mark Hage. From Capital by Mark Hage, excerpted with permission of A Public Space Books.