There is no doubt that the greatest moment in the history of New York City is when you lived there and the city felt like your own.
Dreaming about New York City is not the sole province of Midwestern kids raised on cultural images of the wonders of the five boroughs. Three boroughs, actually. To this day there are pockets of the Bronx that are better left undisturbed and Staten Island remains a bizarre attachment to the city. It is the borough you can never remember when making the list because the ferry ride that connects it to Manhattan is its sole redeeming quality. The parts of NYC that spark the imagination are Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan. The first two fascinate because they have flourished in proximity to the third, but Manhattan is the place that is the focus of so much imagination. A small island, it is the fulcrum for everything considered New York. It is the place that never sleeps, where punk rock was born and where Broadway shows play eight performances a week.
Manhattan’s powerful mythology says that it is a place you can escape to and find reinvention. While that draws both the disaffected and those driven toward success, the city has become more homogenized in recent decades. Gouging rents pushed all things funky and interesting to Brooklyn and Queens, making those boroughs more popular and eventually too expensive to remain funky and interesting. But people will not stop moving to the city to test their mettle. And for however long they live there they will need a guidebook full of the secret history of New York. They need a book written with an infectious love for the city that will supersede the frustration of long delays on the subway and the intensity of the human mass that daily descends upon the city. They need a book that chronicles past wonders that will inspire the future, and that book is Tenements, Towers & Trash by Julia Wertz.
Wertz is a California kid from San Francisco who heard the call to move to New York. A cartoonist by trade and amateur historian and urban explorer, she began creating short graphic essays about the history of Manhattan. She eschewed subjects like the Empire State Building and Wall Street for more obscure matters like the brief history of tenement apartments and the invention of the egg cream. Her efforts attracted the interest of The New Yorker, a fact she would drop when trying to gain access for her essay on New York City’s oldest pharmacies and apothecaries. Like layers of old paint or the rings in the trunk of a sequoia, the history of Manhattan piles up on itself era after era. Wertz leaves the seemingly loftier topics aside and focuses on more mundane arenas like the evolution of street cleaning from nothing to horse-drawn carriage to modern marvels of mechanical engineering that remove the rubbish of New Yorkers. By doing so, she creates something funny and vital. The city functions on a brittle ecosystem that deserves to be respected and admired.
But Tenements, Towers & Trash offers an even more vital function. When you move to Manhattan you need to find an urban Sherpa to guide you to everything wonderful and cool that remains in the city. With this book, Wertz has created the portable Sherpa to point you toward the great independent bookstores of Manhattan and Brooklyn or—and this is said with all affection—the wonderful sites of literal trash that New Yorkers have somehow managed to make magical despite the fact that we’re talking about trash. Wertz has managed to illustrate the thrill of discovery, and her profound love for New York City will make you a bit wistful with the pangs of lost love if you’ve soured on the place.
Wertz uses two distinct drawing styles in her essays. The first is her avatar, drawn like the rougher, adult version of Ernie Bushmiller’s old Nancy comic strips. Characters rendered in this style populate the profane history lessons throughout the book, but Wertz also creates page after page of intricate pen and ink drawings of streetscapes. These before-and-after drawings show the city that was and the city that is. She offers no specific editorial judgment, allowing the reader to contend with the number of familiar brands that currently fill the retail spaces of Manhattan. Some of us are old enough to remember a city with CBGB and Kim’s Video that didn’t feel like an outdoor mall owned by NYU and Columbia, and Wertz speaks to that mainly in image. She is more interested in the exhumation of old New York from under today’s familiar logos. She sees the details in the city that most New Yorkers storm past.
There is no doubt that the greatest moment in the history of New York City is when you lived there and the city felt like your own. The place seems distant and bloated now, the stress and intensity required to live there ratcheting up with increases in the cost-of-living. It seems implausible that people can afford to live there and make the kind of art that has fueled the place for decades, but there will undoubtedly be documentaries in the next 20 years to show us all what we were missing while we were complaining about the MTA and the price of everything. Or the reverse is true. The aspects of New York that draw people to the city and revitalize it may very well be vanishing, and in that way Tenements, Towers & Trash offers a very real cautionary tale. No one loves New York more than Julia Wertz. That goes without question. With the publication of this book she has reached a new level of success, and yet she can’t afford to live there anymore. She created a beautiful, magical book about New York City before she said goodbye. Hopefully, a generation of artists will use it as their catalyst to find their own best New York. If not, I’m afraid the place is doomed.