Walk to Brooklyn

On my two previous visits to New York I had failed to venture beyond Manhattan, it seemed more than enough for me and I had little idea what lie beyond it. This time I had a motivation to cross the water – to interview Joe at the Perogi Gallery for my ongoing documentary about Bob and Roberta Smith. This was also a chance to cover a bit of ground on foot beyond my habitual drifting.

Downtown from SoHo all is quiet, sun out, an April like the first time I came here in ’98. As warned Brooklyn Bridge was heaving with walkers – at once a brilliant and heart-sinking sight. Is this what the pedestrian highways I once proposed to Wycombe District Council would look like – a sweating mass of agitated perambulators.
From the bridge I got a very different sense of what New York appears to be – I think it’s often easy to forget that many cities are defined by what is at the periphery; so caught up are we by the buzz around the urban core. Maybe that’s the city dweller’s fear of nature – the force in that water so evident when looking down from the bridge; we scamper inland to cower behind bricks.

On the other side of Brooklyn Bridge I am without bearings for a bit and follow my nose. I have a strong image of Henry Miller wandering round here implanted by several readings of Tropic of Capricorn.

I want to find the apartment that Bob lived in on 3rd Street and amble in that direction.
Smith Street is a real hive of activity – loads of heaving cafes – people really lunch here eh? I go into Book Court and literally the first book I see is Alfred Kazin’s ‘A Walker in the City’ – “When I was a child I thought we lived at the end of the world”, he writes of Brooklyn.
The literary version of Brooklyn I’d built up was of somewhere rough-and-ready work-a-day and I see straight away how out of date that has become because at times I feel like there must have been a mass photo shoot for American Apparel in the neighbourhood. It’s a nice vibe though, a comfortable place for a wander.

I turn into 3rd Street and the mood soon changes – becomes run-down industrial, deserted except for a few cyclists. I stand on the bridge over the Gowanus Canal and suck in the rust. I don’t find Bob’s apartment – must have been knocked down. I move on round the corner to Perogi on 9th Street, hungry and stiff legged now.

This is the Brooklyn of my imagination.
The American Legion club, people milling around outside Liquor Stores. 177 9th Street is a locked industrial unit. I ring Joe, “North 9th Street Williamsburg” he corrects – miles away – but only about 4 subway stops from my hotel it turns out. I laugh, my walks are always wild goose chases – mis-guided excursions following after lost scents. People had very kindly offered to show me round Brooklyn but I know at heart that I need to get lost to find what I’m looking for.

I jump on the subway back to Manhattan then over to the gracious Joe who gives me a great interview at Perogi, complete with accounts of the show he did in Bob’s shed – The Leytonstone Centre for Contemporary Art. Strange how a walk round the corner from my house in London one evening led me here to Brooklyn.

Montreal > New York


Montreal took me quite by surprise with its Frenchness. It stands in as a European city in numerous Hollywood films and somewhere in its psyche there dwells an innate confusion – the French city in the French province in the former British colony with the English monarch on its currency and a sat on the shoulder of the world’s pre-eminent (English-speaking) cultural and political power.

The paradoxes and the underlying tension is palpable as you wander its deserted streets.



New York never loses its Wow factor and as I did 10 years ago my gaze was ever drawn skywards.

I seemed to lose myself this time, unable to locate the spirit of drift boxed in between the solid blocks that confined me within 63rd and 42nd Streets.

I found freedom by chance in the Beaux Arts magnificence of the New York Public Library where I was seeking an exhibition of contemporary photography and the city called ‘Eminent Domain’. It was a building that you could spend weeks in.

The exhibition was excellent, Bettina Johae’s ‘borough edges, nyc,’ particularly catching my eye – a series of digital stills taken on bicycle boundary circuits of the city’s five boroughs in an act of ‘remapping’ – redolent of mine and Cathy’s Remapping High Wycombe project where we too drifted to the urban edges to get a fresh perspective on what lie within.

I bagged the last copy of Jennifer Toth’s ‘Mole People’ from the library shop and read it on the subway – gazing out of the window in the hope of catching a glimpse of one of the legendary underground dwellers.