Drifting with the NYPA

June 1998

In the middle of the afternoon of Wednesday 10 June 1998, Little Billy not de Bored made his second visit to the former site of the Brooklyn Eastern District Terminal (a huge stretch of abandoned waterfront property in Williamsburg, Brooklyn), in preparation for the second meeting of the New York Psychogeographical Association (NYPA), scheduled to take place there on Saturday 13 June.

(Let it be noted that the first meeting of the NYPA, which took place in Blackout Books on 1 February 1998, was a total disaster. Little Billy [LB] was an hour late in coming to the meeting; and so, when he finally got there, everyone -- a total of ten people -- had already left. Using the list of names and e-mail addresses [sic] that these people had thoughtfully left behind, LB contacted them all, apologized for his lateness, and expressed his desire to try again some time soon -- that is, to arrange a "meeting" at which the only order of business was to explore a particular place in the city. To a person, those who responded to LB's message indicated that they were more interested in exploring virtual or cyber space than real space; that is to say, they took the word "psychogeography" -- which appeared in the announcement of the meeting that appeared on the Blackout Books' internet events calendar -- to mean the drifting through and mapping of a computer-generated [representation of] "space." Shit : even an imbecile such as Simon Sadler knows that "cyberspace represent[s] a retreat into a virtual rather than a real space, and, therefore, an impoverishment of situationist aspiration"! Still, LB was disappointed that he missed the opportunity to meet these people, as both individuals and as a group, face-to-face.)

Entering from the east, through the unlocked and open gates to the property at North 10th Street and Kent Avenue, LB proceeded westerly on his bicycle, towards the water.

(The circumstances of his coming to explore this particular part of Williamsburg are worth mentioning. Almost as soon as he moved to Williamsburg [a working-class district of Brooklyn] in April 1998, LB had heard about an important upcoming public hearing about the State of New York's plans to permit the construction of a huge garbage-processing plant on a large slice of abandoned waterfront property in Williamsburg that had originally been ear-marked for the creation of a park. There is only one place in the entire Greenpoint/Williamburg area -- it is the former landing point for the Grand Street Ferry (service to Houston Street in Manhattan from 1800 to 1918), just three blocks from the factory basement in which LB lives, if you must know -- at which it is permitted to walk down to the water, that is, to the banks of the East River, and contemplate the awesome spectacle of Manhattan, laid out along the western horizon. Think of the sunsets, of the bruised light pushing its way through the heavy, polluted air! Unfortunately, this one bit of public space -- ironically wedged between a sweet-smelling sugar warehouse on the south and a fugly battery of steel storage tanks on the north -- is tiny . To make matters worse, Brooklyn already has more garbage dumps than any other borough in the city. Quite obviously, the answer here is more parks, fewer dumps. Or is it?

(Anyway, Little Billy and several activist friends went to the public hearing, which was attended by over a thousand loud, angry, slogan-shouting, sign-holding protesters -- all of them "from around the neighborhood." It was an incredibly inspiring experience to be part of that huge, unruly crowd: there was so much energy -- so much noise -- in that high school auditorium! But it was also an incredibly dispiriting experience to find that -- despite the overwhelming evidence of consensus on the part of the people of Williamsburg that a garbage-processing plant should not be constructed along Kent Avenue between N 7th and N13th Streets -- the business of the "public" hearing went on as if the people had not spoken with one voice. That is to say, the representatives from USA Waste, as well as a whole slew of slimy politicians, bureaucrats, and officials -- none of whom actually live in Greenpoint or Williamsburg -- were allowed to speak, to "state their case," to demonstrate their utter contempt for the people in the room. The decision about the future of the abandoned property was deferred until later, when only USA Waste's representatives and the politicians, bureaucrats, and officials would be in attendance. It was intolerable: it seemed that the only sensible thing for the crowd to do was to get some gasoline and burn down the offices of USA Waste. But this was not likely to happen, despite the anger of the crowd; and so LB left -- but not without promising himself that he [and his friends] would explore and utililize the abandoned property in Williamsburg as thoroughly as he [and they] had the abandoned grain elevator in Red Hook, Brooklyn, during the summer and fall of 1996.

(On his first trip to the site, Little Billy -- riding a white bicycle -- had quickly but thoroughly covered the entire place. The overall atmosphere -- despite the fact that the site had evidently been abandoned and left to deteriorate a long time ago [back in 1982, in fact] -- was inviting, even pleasant. The place reminded LB of a meadow: it was open, flat and very green in spots. The sight of the wide and active East River -- it's actually an estuary and not a river, for the current flows both ways -- was both stirring and calming. And there was, of course, the totally unobstructed and truly spectacular view of Manhattan, the city that stands tall atop an island of granite; the only city in the world in which one's eyes are always drawn upwards, ever higher, toward the blinding sun. One is never alone in New Babylon! There were fishermen at the end of the long ruined peers that extend into the East River. Small but diverse groups of people -- older Poles, young Latinos, middle-aged black women, white kids in couples, even tourists in cars -- all babbling away in different languages, were wandering around, exploring the place for themselves, unafraid to nod "Hello" or say "Hi" when confronted by a fellow wanderer.

(On his first trip to the site, LB's attention had been drawn, among other places, to a large single-storey building. On the inside of this huge -- and burned out -- shed, on all four of its walls, were a great many large, very colorful and very imaginative spray-painted murals. As with some of the murals LB had seen on the exterior part of a different building at the site, these murals were highly abstract and very "lettrist" in their way: they formed their complex images out of letters, not out of pictures. To turn this abandonned building into an open, public art gallery, all one would have to do is sweep the floor clean and find some way of illuminating the place at night. The art is already installed, already ready for viewing! The idea was such a good one that Little Billy, during his first visit to the site, set a tentative date for its realization: Friday, 31 July 1998. But there were concerns: in the building adjacent to the potential art gallery, there was a sign that said, "Not a hangout, for Family only," which LB took as a clear indication that a gang had already laid claim to it. The question was: Had they also laid claim to the art gallery next door as well? It would therefore be necessary for LB to scout the place out several times -- and, if possible, to talk to members of the "family" at least once-- before the exhibit's "opening" on 31 July.)

After going about 200 feet towards the west and the water, Little Billy stopped and sketched a map of what he had passed so far: the art gallery was on his left (south) side; some more incredible graffiti was on the exterior of one of the buildings on his right (north) side. But as soon as he was done with the sketch, he realized that it wouldn't do: to get the whole site on one piece of paper, he would have to begin again, and start on a much smaller scale than before. And so the map was discarded. Continuing along the path in the middle until the row of buildings on the left side came to an end, LB turned left. Once he had gone a few yards in this direction, he saw a group of men standing around and drinking on a kind of plateau. Since this plateau had caught his attention -- and imagination! -- during his first visit, LB decided to approach them and see if they were friendly.

The plateau on which the men were standing was very unusual. It was totally swept clean and there were upon it benches that someone had made, with great care, out of boards and bricks. The whole arrangement created the impression of an outdoor school. (It turns out that this area was originally designed as part of an outdoor cinema, with the movies being projected onto a huge white spot painted on a nearby building.) Evidently, the men spent a great deal of time on this spot. Their tolerance for the presence and activities of the NYPA -- especially the gallery show scheduled for 31 July -- would be crucial to its success.

After he approached and introduced himself to the group as a whole, LB found himself in conversation with a large bearish man named Charles. The two men hit it off immediately, despite huge differences between them when it came to attitudes about women, minorities, Jews and foreigners. Charles, like the other men in the group -- which they called The Patrol -- seemed like the type of man who might have belonged to a militia or some other right-wing group. He could have been a veteran of the illegal war in Vietnam: he said he spends a lot of his time playing the video game called "Panzer General," in which he tries to take over the world from the side of the Nazi Germany. In any case, LB was smart enough to steer away from certain potentially explosive topics and to remain focused on others.

He and Charles had plenty of other things in common: a taste for conversation; pleasure taken in smoking marijuana with a new friend; questions of strategy and tactics in games like chess; and, most importantly, a hatred of work. Like LB himself, Charles and the other men out on the plateau that afternoon were not homeless; they rented apartments in nearby buildings; they did not work, and got their money from unemployment or disability benefits; they spent their time totally at their leisure. Every day, they have come to this spot, hung out, looked at Manhattan, which Charles said they rarely visit, and called it "Ratland." Equipped with binoculars and a healthy sense of curiosity, they knew what was going on everywhere on the abandonned property, which they explained used to be a railroad freight depot in the 1970s. (Charles warned LB away from the building at which the "Not for hanging out; Family only" was hung: there were low-level thieves and drug dealers there, he said. All of the other buildings appeared to be squatted by poor Polish or Latino people.) On the day LB met them, they also had with them books and beer and bicycles, one of which -- owned by Charles and called The Impressionist Bike -- was painted to resemble (you got it!) an impressionist painting.

Little Billy now believed that he had sufficient information about the site, and departed.

The second meeting of the NYPA took place as scheduled, despite occasionally heavy rain, on the afternoon of Saturday 13 June 1998. In attendance were Spike, Hector Rottweiller, Jr., Laurent (a Parisian living in NYC) and Little Billy -- all whom live in Brooklyn. (Little Billy is the connection between the other three people: Spike is his ex-girlfriend; Hector is someone Billy met on an internet listserv focused on the situationists; and Laurent is someone who intended to meet Billy at some point, and did so quite accidentally in Blackout Books.) Together, this group explored, talked about and photographed the entire abandonned site. They covered the ruined piers; the plateau on which the Patrol meets (though they were not there that day); the garden near the Patrol's plateau, in which someone had planted poppies; a huge concrete platform that faces Manhattan and looked like an abandonned airplane runway; a nearby wall on which incredibly complex and colorful graffiti had been created by the "Crazy Brooklyn Kids"; and the inside of the building in which the "gallery exhibit" is to take place on 31 July 1998.

The group was on its way out when it encountered Eddie, a fast-talking man with a bottle of beer in one hand and a walking stick (a metal pipe) in the other. Over the course of the next hour or so, the assembled members of the NYPA learned a great deal about Eddie: that he is 35 years old, and half-Latino and half-Irish; that has only one kidney and has struggled with drug addiction; and that he is sqautting a neighboring building with his girlfriend Monica (German-American), their two dogs and their two cats. Though he only talked about himself and did so uninterruptedly, Eddie was very engaging. The content of his rap was almost entirely centered on the nature and functioning of language; he was also interested in mysticism and spiritual contemplation. He played question-and-answer with Hector, much as Charles of the Patrol had played the same game with Little Billy when the two of them met. But Eddie was also an excellent tour-guide and host: he showed us where he, Monica and their pets had lived previously (a building upon which a previous resident, a rock 'n' roller, had spray-painted an exquisite and very large Egyptian-style talisman), and where they lived now. Though all four members of the NYPA were a little uncomfortable with Eddie -- eventually he asked each of them for some money, which was forthcoming -- they all found sufficient grounding in Monica, in their pets, or in the experience of taking photographs together to stay awhile and make friends.

Later that day, in a nearby Thai restaurant, the members of the NYPA ate, drank and discussed at great length their experiences, focusing on Eddie and what they had each made of him. It was the perfect way to end the drift.

The following Monday, Little Billy and Hector were to meet and pass on to Eddie and Monica the pictures they had taken, but the pictures weren't developed in time, and thus the meeting didn't come off as planned. It wasn't until Friday that LB, without Hector (who couldn't make it that day), bicycled to the site in an attempt to find Eddie and give him the pictures. For the first time in LB's experience, the gates to the site were locked. Alarmed, LB tried to find Eddie, but could not. After bicycling around the area for several minutes, LB finally caught sight of Eddie entering a building with which LB didn't associate him. When LB caught up with him, Eddie -- uncharacteristically laconic and rushed -- explained that the police had ordered him to vacate the property; he was only going inside to get identification. LB sped off to get the people and tools necessary to break the chain and open the doors to the site. Within two hours, he and his roommate John were back at the site. They had seen the thick black smoke at their way there. The building immediately next to Eddie's was completely engulfed in flames; the place was surrounded by police cars and fire trucks. LB and John tried to tell any cop or fireman who would listen that there were people and pets in there, but no one listened to them. Eddie and Monica were nowhere to be found.



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