On And About

The messages are urgent—create more art now, document your experiences in these times, don’t sweat over if what you’re creating makes sense, the world needs it, you need it. I create art, mostly short fiction, and I have to do it while battling with depression and anxiety. No, I cannot write through my depressive and anxiety episodes. I wait patiently for those rare moments of mental clarity to create art. These moments of mental clarity have become even rarer during this pandemic with my Twitter feed choked with news about yet another confirmed case of the Covid-19 virus or how testing is still inaccessible for most people or how health workers are on the frontline with limited personal protective equipments. So any attempt to write funnels into hours of staring at a blank word document until I exit the window with a What am I doing? Does the world really need this?

Away from my crushing anxiety, the world outside my window is in sharp contrast with the one inside my head. It is bubbly and almost detached from the present. This is the world I’ve grown to find solace in during these times. As part of the strategy to contain the virus, the Lagos State Government shut down schools. So, the schoolchildren in the block of apartment I live in have devised a means to keep themselves busy.  Just before noon, they gather in the quadrangle and take turns teaching themselves literature, mathematics, and science. There are breaks in between and assignments. Their laughter and arguments over who got the multiplication problem wrong wake me from my afternoon nap.  In the evenings, the once-busy street is filled with kids playing football. Neighbors who could go weeks without seeing each other because of their busy jobs sit in front of shops drinking beer and eating street food. It is an infectious atmosphere (no pun intended). There is a growing sense of community and a growing interest in other people’s well-being. This is something people normally do not have time for in this rise-hustle-and-grind city. 

Not creating fiction of my own has also given me more time to do what I love; discovering and rediscovering the beauty of other people’s works through reading. I have tripled my reading, from published works to solicited drafts from friends. There is a comfort that comes with the assurance that someone else is writing and documenting about/through this epoch when you can’t. I am also thinking about if and how this period will leave a mark on my craft? How lasting will this mark be? Will it be me doing too much? Will it be me doing too little? And when these questions begin to overwhelm me, I look at the world outside my window and find the calmness I seek. 

 

—April 5, 2020

The Pandemic Residency

Nearly a year and a half ago, I applied for a residency. Massey University, paired with the Square Edge Community Arts Centre, has a writer-in-residence every year. I only applied to practice applying for things. I didn’t expect to get it—and I didn’t. The 2019 residency was given to another writer . . . but would I be interested in coming in 2020? Yes, I said, I would.

This residency has never been given to a speculative writer before. I think they gave it to me because New Zealand is hosting WorldCon this year, and having a science fiction writer would be thematic.

WorldCon is a virtual convention now. Pandemic put paid to that. It has put paid to a lot of things.

I arrived less than a week before the entirety of New Zealand went into lockdown. Even then, contagion was changing the expectations of residency. My library reading got postponed. So did the workshop. Then the library closed entirely. The welcome event at the university was scaled down, and then cancelled. I have an office, apparently, in the department of English and Media Studies. Somewhere to be creative.

I’ve never seen it. The university is shut down as well.

Both Square Edge and Massey asked if I wanted to go home. They were very kind; it would be understandable. I chose not to go. I can self-isolate just as easily here as there . . . and there is something very present about a residency that is so very divorced from expectation. We are all of us, up and down the country, forced to live in the moment.

We are also, I think, forced—speculative writers particularly—to examine our expectations, and how they have turned to prejudice. Many of us have engaged with apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic writing at some point. It’s a literature of desolation, and mine has been no different. The experience of emergency, however, has shown our narrative bias in a clear light. People are being kinder, mostly. Across the country, they are putting teddies in windows so that kids, out on their lonely daily exercise, can have a bear hunt. This is not the stuff from which dystopia is made. We’re better than we think we are.

As artists, our creations should reflect that.

I’m struck, particularly, by two of my own post-apocalyptic, post-plague stories, written a couple of years apart. The first was published in Reckoning. “The Feather Wall” was about a conservationist, stuck on an off-shore island with an endangered species of bird. Alone. Unhappy. The second, which has just received a tentative acceptance from another publisher, tells of community recovery. People coming together, learning to write about—to talk about—the effects of apocalypse in diverse and inclusive ways. It is a far kinder story.

It is, perhaps, also the more realistic, because it is the kinder story.

Pandemic is a terrible thing, it’s true. But it is not the only thing, and it does not define us.

 

—April 2, 2020

We Exist Together

As the devastation of the pandemic over the coming months pulls into focus, that the deaths from this virus will in a best-case scenario outweigh the total lives lost in the Vietnam War, I am brought into contact with my personal experiences of grief: my father’s death, friends with chronic illnesses, romantic relationships ending, and my feelings of insignificance in impacting global catastrophes: systemic violence, discrimination, land theft, factory farming, environmental pollution. How do you exist in a world where pain and loss exist on such incomprehensible scales? How do you create art? Is it selfish to?

As a strong believer in maintaining a morning routine not only as a spiritual practice, but as a way to intentionally move into my day with clarity, this is where I’ve found my grounding. Wake early, free write and sketch, meditate, bring my dog outside or better yet for a long walk, take my coffee to my desk and write until my alarm goes off, which signals the start of my work day. Knowing there’s an alarm set to bring me into awareness of my responsibilities allows my mind to roam freely.

Then I sit and reply to emails from my stream of freelance clients, switching between tasks, checking off to-do lists as I make a smoothie, walk the dog in a proximity of my home that feels safe and not a selfish risk. After working, I move towards possibilities for community within our new, shared reality. I assist with virtual screenings from my local film society’s archives. I have a Zoom happy hour with old friends. My sister-in-law sends me dance videos. I exchange yoga sequences and recipes with a friend in Colorado. I attend virtual sessions with my acting coach. I edit a short film. I attend virtual writing groups. I commit to providing myself with evidence that there are endless possibilities to create, that I am enduring. I commit to joy.

Also apparent in my routine is that I am not dealing with illness myself, nor that of anyone in my immediate circle. Though I’ve lost thousands of dollars in work and will likely lose more, I am able to live temporarily with my family while I regain my financial independence. I have food. I am safe. These are necessary gratitudes.

But safety is only one metric to track. Though I am staying connected, in service, active, laughing — in my own words written over and over when colleagues and friends check in, “I’m doing well,” there are moments when I am not. After a recent two-hour trip to the drive-thru pharmacy to refill medication for my grandmother, I found myself pulling over to scream. I stopped the car a block away from my house and hollered, banging my fists against the wheel. It felt like I was only now aware of weeks of fear and anger I’d pressed deep into my body with all of my doing, all of the habits keeping me afloat. Humans are resilient, adaptive, and flexible. The challenge of thriving under these conditions has obvious parallels to the climate crisis and any international tragedy. As with the climate crisis, I wonder how much optimistic visioning is warranted, and possible, under such conditions. How much creative imagining is necessary in order not merely to survive but for a solution to emerge? How many hours before our daily alarm do we need to wake in order to keep ourselves moving forward, and who are the ones doing the waking?

Global, shared grief and (for the most part) shared, large-scale community response reveal a great potentiality within us. This experience also reveals the enormity of bureaucratic and political delays that produce such long held-in screams of why the hell did it take so long to do something? Because I see myself as an artist, and am fortunate to be connected to and engaged with other artists, such as those at Reckoning, who refuse to let our time under any horrid condition result in total silence, I hope for now what I would hope for during any enormous loss: renewal, rebirth. To begin again. To believe in the simultaneity of loss and hope.

 

—April 1, 2020

COVID19

I’m in Tasmania, and here, it’s starting to look like we’re beating the virus. Every day, the numbers fall. Yesterday, there were zero new infections.

We closed our borders hard and early. We sent people home; we made rules. We’re in total lockdown – that’s why we’re winning.

The streets are so quiet and empty I feel as though I’ve been transported back to my childhood in the 1980s, to a world only half as crowded as the one we inhabit now. There’s no more struggling out of bed on too little sleep to sit in the car among too much traffic on a commute that runs too long. No constant hum of engines outside. No takeout meals. No rushing from work to university to side gigs to home. My schedule filled every second of my life, before. Now I can suddenly breathe again, and it’s shocking. We lived in a world that guaranteed – that required – constant growth: more work, more money, more efficiency, more fitness, more possessions, more, more, more. When constant growth occurs in the body, we call it cancer but when it happens in society, in industry, we call that normal.

It’s all stopped – paused, anyway. And I feel guilty, because though what’s happening to the world is a disaster like nothing in living memory, on a personal level I am free. My creative practice has the space it always needed and never had. My day job has us working from home, giving back all the time I previously lost on commutes. My country has brought in financial safety nets to keep the newly unemployed afloat. Many laid-off casual workers are making more money now than they did before. A surprising number of landlords are easing up on rent and reaching out to their tenants as human beings. The AirBnB owners who sucked all the properties out of the market and left local people fighting for rentals are suddenly, desperately looking for tenants, and we have our choice of homes at reasonable prices for the first time in years. The crushingly overpriced property market is about to crack, giving millenials the long-lost opportunity to own their own homes. We are finally helping the people who need help. The rich have always been able to help themselves.

If we are determined that nobody should have to pay for a cure for COVID-19, why do we accept people paying for cancer treatment? For heart surgery? For insulin? What makes those deaths acceptable over these deaths? Wouldn’t it be better to build a protective society geared towards resilience, so that when things go wrong the ground doesn’t collapse underneath us?

I’m not celebrating what’s happening. I’m saying we need to examine the sweeping changes we’re making, and ask ourselves: was the way we lived before necessary? Was it kind? Was it working? If so, why did we have to change it so drastically when the virus came?

The system had already failed so many of us. It just took the horror of COVID-19 to show us how. Defaulting back to ‘business as usual’ would be a mistake. COVID-19 is the first pandemic of this severity we’ve seen in living memory, but it may not be the last. We have an opportunity to remake ourselves – to grow stronger, and kinder, and better at taking care of each other.

 

—April 1, 2020

Pandemic life.

Pandemic life.

Resting on my bed dayindayout typingmousingtyping frantic to meet these deadlines—Irish immersion, rushing by like the Shannon in flood—tá mé go maith, cad é an t-am é, dé luain dé máirt dé luain dé máirt dé luain dé máirt dé ceadoin—and meanwhile this mad massive dive into all things wild boarwhere did you come from, fine piggy, fine sow? How did you grow so great? And the spear that took you down, and your bristles that crown the helmets of fine Celtic warriors, and all those piglets swinging from your teats.

Till my neck hardens, head pounds, back screams but—ah!—the luxury of unbroken days to work and eat and feed the birds and stretch these aching bits. No appointments. Few interruptions. Ahhh.

But no walks. No visits. Except online, on phone and online; who knew (I knew!) the things that we could do if only we decided. But why did it take catastrophe to bring us here?

Waiting for the words. Who will die?

Here’s a surprise. My sister, never one to look these things straight on if she can avoid it, suddenly and silently working out her will, and who will take her daughter, and who will take her sons, if she should fall?

Saddens me. Unthinkable. One father down. The mother must remain.

We are all afraid. But we are stretching in ways we never thought to stretch. My brother with one lung as of days ago, and all of us scattered across the globe reaching him through telephones and chat forums and webcams. Letting him know, baby brother, we are here.

One friend tells me stayathome! and brings me food. Another puts her scanner outside my door, touches palm to my palm through the glass, picks up the duct tape left there, retreats. One more brings a table and a chair so I can sit outside and be somewhere else but in-here.

There is joy in this calculated loving. There is joy in having time to read and think and write what we must write. A language is trickling into me. A beautiful vision of an enigmatic beast and how another species came to see it, reflect it, live on it, deify it, strive to embody it steadily grows with every paper I consume, every tale I review, every voice that speaks to me of the great and bristled boar. It will coalesce, I know it. Chants will come of it. Dreams will come of it. Looking in and seeing who and what we can be and are—all of this will come of it, and soon. Deadlines, recall.

While on my feeder a red-lined cloak flares and folds: the flicker male with his stabbing beak. Finches settle. chickadees quarrel. Sparrows hophophop.

It is a beautiful thing. There is death and life together in this moment as never before. My brother soon to leave us. My sister fearing for her life—with reason, I should say. And me, alone yet not alone, in pain and relative safety, drinking in the sight of juncoes on my step, the sound of small birds muttering, the cool air settling toward night. And the Irish washes in. The boar rouses my blood and makes me seek. And the kindnesses abounding among friends and strangers carries me away.

 

—March 30, 2020

The Solace of Connection

“Thank God we have the work,” my godmother and I keep saying to each other, “thank God we have the work, I don’t know what we’d do without the work.” She’s a painter, and I write. We said it last year when my dad, her big brother, died unexpectedly. We’re saying it now.

Everyone copes differently with stress. For me, writing is a solace, but I sometimes get afraid of saying so because people use that as a bludgeon on themselves: if someone else can do it, why can’t I? Because people vary. People and circumstances vary. So in addition to the novel I’m still revising, I’ve written two stories I wouldn’t have thought of without this, not about plagues or pandemics or anything like that, but still, two completely new from scratch stories. This happened when my dad was in the hospital, too. Different things came to me. The exhaustion came later.

What kind of world will that exhaustion come into? I honestly don’t know. I don’t think any of us does. My hope is that we will have an awareness of how connected we all are, whatever happens. There will be terrible losses, both of people and of the kind of small, quirky institution that does some of the best work for change. We are long past the point where we can pretend that those losses won’t happen, and to do so would be inhumane. But I do have some faint hope that while we will mourn them individually, we will come away with a clearer understanding of what kind of global ecosystem we really do live in. We can’t say, “this is China’s problem,” or “this is Italy’s problem.” Like so much else, it is a human problem, it is a global problem.

The very act of trying to isolate shows us how isolated we aren’t, we can’t be. I hope we’ll remember and learn from that. Since we have to be here, we might as well look around, look closely, and try to learn something. I hope it’s that no one is truly isolated. I hope it’s that none of us, not one of us, is expendable.

 

—March 28, 2020

Xoxoxoxoxo

I’m bad at leaving. My friends Monica and Jeff hosted a high school graduation party for their daughter Juliana on the back patio of an Oakmont restaurant. They served barbecued chicken and steak kabobs and deep-fried chicken rolls. I drank an eight-ounce glass of wine, which contributed to my not leaving. I told Erik I’d be home by 7, but at 7:30 I texted him to say I was on my way home. It took another half an hour to say goodbye to Leilah and Eric and Annette. I said goodbye to Monica and Jeff twice. I promised Tia we’d make real fried chicken this summer. I hugged Gioia Woods and asked her one more time about how happy her daughter was at Flagstaff High School. I’m spending half my time fretting over where my kids go to school. School choice, like leaving a party, is a miserable thing and takes too long. Rip it off like a Band-Aid. Pick a school. Go home. Leave before kissing Juliana congratulations one more time.

So I do leave, but I bring Karen home with me because if she’s still with me, then the party is not over, even though I really do need to go to bed so I can wake up and pack for Iceland where I get to see you and we can talk about Y and Z.

But then at my house, there’s more wine and more talk about school choice, and Erik comes to hang out even though he swore he was just going to stay in the other room and fall asleep on the couch because he doesn’t have the same relationship to party and people that I have. But really, he does like people and parties and so he has a beer and Karen stays and we have one too many glasses of wine, but that’s okay because it’s still a little chilly at night and the door is wide open and even though Max is asleep on the futon at the foot of our bed, Erik and I wrap our legs around each other all night so I don’t sleep that well, but I get up anyway and make the kids’ lunches and take the dogs for a run and get to work grading and editing and writing about saying goodbye, which I really hate to do.

Every day I don’t die is a good one. It makes me grateful, the prospect of death. Today the plants we call red hot pokers poked their red heads up like matchsticks, friction against sky blue air, and the blue flax, more moisture than friction, lives, and the kitten that got thrown out of a window lives. The kid with the cough lives and the kid who got lost in the forest lives.

Yesterday wasn’t as good a day. The kids immigrating from Libya drowned, and the girl who survived the Manchester bombings succumbed to her injuries, and Denis Johnson died, and although I didn’t love him as much as everyone else seems to on the Facebook, I still hate to say goodbye.

You and I will meet in Iceland where we will not have to say goodbye. The sun won’t set. We’ll stay up all night remembering how we began this project, on a different, warmer beach. We will sit and stare out at the old harbor and think that maybe one of these molecules of water has traveled all the way from the Southern Ocean (are we still calling it that?) to say not goodbye but hello to us. There will be no polar bears there to die, nor any reindeer, and even the puffin is extant enough to appear on the touristy menus.

Maybe if we never go home and maybe if the sun never sets and maybe if we figure out how to linger without drinking too much wine, we won’t have to say goodbye. We won’t have to come to a conclusion. We won’t have to sign off. The humpback whales. I can see it in the distance. They’re coming back. Maybe all intelligent life doesn’t destroy itself. Maybe it just bides its time.

 

Xoxoxoxoxo” originally appeared in The After-Normal in 2019.

Resource Extraction Zone

Sometimes I live in the country

Sometimes I live in town

Sometimes I have a great notion

To jump into the river and drown

—Leadbelly, “Goodnight Irene”

It’s been nine years since the last 500-year flood, which means we’re due for another one in five or ten. Climate change math: the only thing you know for sure is that the numbers are always the wrong order of magnitude.

In the last flood, Irene, I never saw a drop of water. I was high and dry in a second-floor apartment in a neighborhood that got lucky, running an experiment called Let’s Do Local News on the Internet, which had everybody around here pretty skeptical ‘til whole towns started washing away. Overnight, the idea of finding out what was happening before the paper came out next Wednesday began to look a lot more attractive. We spun up a 24-hour live blog, tracked washed-out roads and lists of the missing, and did our damnedest to let the rest of the clueless world know how badly our region had been shattered.

Two hours from civilization, and we might as well have been on the moon. On the Brian Lehrer morning news show, where they patched me in to talk about Prattsville being gone, they were bitching about the subway not running.

The flood before that, in 1996, didn’t have a name. It was freakish warm rain on top of three feet of January snow, and it liquefied the valley. The Batavia Kill behind our house became a sea. We got candles and flashlights, waited for the power to go out, and watched our neighbor’s chest freezer roll end over end through the hay field. I was home from college, and I had pinkeye, so in lieu of more exciting recovery work, they set me to ironing page after page of irreplaceable hand-written ledgers rescued from rising waters at the Margaretville Telephone Company, which kept the locations of all the phone poles.

When the next one hits, I want to be ready, so here I am. It’s September, the bank of the East Branch is heavy with goldenrods and asters, and the night air is still warm enough to be heady. One guy yells out to be careful, the river’s undercutting the bank where they mean to put the strainer into the water. Maybe they’d better find another spot. No, I shout, I can get down there! and scramble down the slick bank like a lizard, along with one of the few other women here. We got it! Hand it down to us! we yell.

I’m brand new on the fire department, I know what none of these parts and valves are called or how they work, and I’m fizzing with the joy of being useful.

The strainer, when it is handed down, proves to be a big perforated tube of steel, locked onto the end of the hose that feeds up the bank and into the chrome-and-glory fire truck waiting above. Heavy as the thing is, the current wants to bend the stiff hose and press the strainer back toward the bank, where it scrapes and bumps in the rocky shallows. We feed it into a deeper eddy, chock it in place with a rock. Useful, by God. Maybe I belong here.

Already a gorgeous monster, the truck is even more magnificent in the green and humid dark, floodlit in triumphant white. When the pump goes on, it makes a huge, thrilling, vibratory sound, the unmistakable sound of important men doing important things. Dials and gauges tremble. The third lieutenant is in charge of running the pump, and he squints at a red LED number display dithering along to the roar of the engine. He’s trying to bring the water pressure up to where the chief wants it. Somewhere in the night, on the other end of the mess of hoses and valves wending through the grass of the riverbank, between the overhanging trees and across Route 28, the water we’re pumping out of the river is leaping in a pretty parabola over the sewer treatment plant. The plant hasn’t caught fire, thank God. We’re doing our annual flow test, for practice, in case it ever does.

That’s the city’s water flowing through our hoses. The city’s sewer plant too, run on the city’s tax dollars, to protect the city’s nine million from the perpetual peril of our shit.

It’s New York City, of course. There isn’t any other city in the world; surely none worth mentioning. We say “the city,” because to say the whole and proper name makes you sound like a tacky fake cowboy in a commercial for salsa, and to say “New York,” like New Yorkers do, is to cede ground that belongs to us, too. We are New Yorkers.

That feels like a technicality, though, a sop to the politically irrelevant. Something Andrew Cuomo might say into a big foam cartoon microphone. So instead, maybe we’ll say we’re from Delaware County, as if that meant anything to anybody; there are too many Delawares just like there are too many New Yorks. We’re from Margaretville, population 560 and falling. We’re from the Catskills, a dark, inchoate place, with no clear boundaries. We’re upstate.

Never mind where we are. If you don’t know the place, it won’t mean anything to you. That’s why people come here, if they weren’t here already. To be nowhere, to get away, to taste that pure elixir.

The water is all the city’s. All the water there is: the river, the wet squelch of the grass, the puddles in potholes, the music of rain rolling off the roof of my old house and landing with a hollow ball-bearing blong on the propane tank in the yard. The land around here for miles is a wrinkled tarp with the Pepacton Reservoir weighing down the bottom of it. 140 billion gallons full to the brim, the Pepacton is the largest and the clearest of the six that filled up the old valleys long ago, and every drop that rolls downhill toward it is spoken for.

Of course the city made it. Of course they did. Only 15 years before the moon landing, and every bit as much of an engineering marvel. People remember; that scab isn’t fully healed yet. They bought what they could, condemned what they couldn’t, moved the graves and dammed up the whole valley. They’re still here. Their lawyers write our laws. They buy more and more of our land every year just so it can lie fallow, so cows won’t shit on it and people won’t build on it. So when it floods, like it does more and more often these days, all that washes down into the reservoirs is trees and rocks and mud, not cars and oil tanks and prizewinning Percherons and the entire contents of the local CVS pharmacy department. The city occupies us. They have their own upstate police force. Where did you think your goddamn water comes from?

In a descendant of the watershed, a full-throated disquisition on this topic is never far beneath the surface.

I have never witnessed anyone deliberately pissing off the Shavertown bridge into the Pepacton, but surely some son of the valley with the blood of drowned Arena in his veins makes a regular religion of it. Never mind. Worse things ended up in there during Irene. The solution to pollution is dilution.

The city is far, far larger than its maps. Beyond the five boroughs’ borders, beyond the thousandfold glittering points of light, beyond the listening ear of the last cell phone tower, lies the resource extraction zone. The poorer we become, the more valuable we are.

The city never stops buying land in the watershed. Year after year, there goes another old farm, another back forty sold off to the DEP. If the city ever stopped buying, the state Department of Health and the federal EPA would force them to build a water purification plant they can’t afford. But ask a local, and you’ll hear the inexorable logic of the paranoiac whose enemies are all too real: the city wants us gone. They’re trying to starve us out, a slow economic war of attrition. Squeeze our towns down into the narrow river valleys, so the floods that grow more wrathful with every generation can sweep them away. Endgame: Depopulation.

Mention any of this to a visiting downstater and watch their brow furrow with confusion. No one wants that. As a topic of concern to your average New Yorker, “people are living in your water supply” doesn’t even crack top ten.

They don’t have to want it. The ecological law of colonization requires no intent. Apply pressure on a critical resource. Watch it eat away at the community, little by little. Shift a variable, watch the landscape change.

Climate change will have winners and losers. The warming world will want more water. We have all we could ever need here, if we can manage to keep from starving, or drowning.

We are all under siege as the world warms: rising seas, rising rivers. The city has a $20 billion resiliency plan, overseen by a growing Office of Climate Policy and Programs. We have the volunteer fire department. Like the village it serves, it’s smaller and grayer than it was.

We drain the hoses and pack up the gear, which is just as much work as setting up for the flow test, and involves more slugs. Me and the other new guy on the department, we’re learning how to work as a pair to uncouple the big ring valves that plumb the hoses into the trucks, one of us holding the heavy metal coupling while the other whales away at it with a mallet. We’re not very good at it at first. We’re getting better.

If I can hack basic fire training, I’ll learn to do swift water rescues. Those who can probably should. At 43, I’m one of the younger ones. It’s long since time I stepped up to volunteer.

When the next flood hits, no one is coming for us.

Two Tides

We stand above the water when we stand at the water’s edge. The foreshore is elevated, offering protection against hurricanes that come with harvest moons. Williamsburg began with rowboats, and then came steamboats, and then a bridge, and then many forms of forgetting about the river.

Recently, we started to remember.

Williamsburg is not the Brooklyn that most people inhabit, but it’s the Brooklyn that most people talk about, the Brooklyn that has become an international brand. Before I moved to New York, I knew this neighbourhood’s narrative, that it had once been an industrial centre, and then a place where artists lived and worked, squatting in lofts, and that now tourists often spent a day there, returning to their homes to tell their friends that they went to Brooklyn, that they saw more than just Manhattan, and that it was really quite nice. I, too, once visited Williamsburg as a tourist, sampled artisanal chocolate and giggled at a neon sign outside an underwear store reading “LOVE, LUST, PANTIES.”

It is not only tourists talking about this part of Brooklyn, though. Sometimes it feels as if everybody in New York is at once complaining about Williamsburg and dreaming about Williamsburg. I myself have spent an hour on the subway travelling from my home in another Brooklyn neighbourhood, Sunset Park, and arrived with notebook and camera to look at a place that seems to slip through my fingers, more famous than understood. Williamsburg is a place with an outsized significance, like a bellwether for the twenty-first century. It is a microcosm of the larger city.

The world is changing, and Williamsburg is changing first.

Williamsburg was once a major manufacturing hub, an industrial centre considered a rival to Wall Street. Pfizer Pharmaceuticals and Standard Oil had factories and refineries here. Domino Sugar’s factory is still standing, one of the last signs of those industrial decades, but it’s being converted into condominiums. After World War II, the role industry played in the life of the city changed, and factories fell vacant; jobs disappeared. In the 1980s and 1990s, rents in Manhattan began to increase and artists moved across the bridge, to Williamsburg.

The city has rezoned Williamsburg three times in the twenty-first century under the pressures of development. The City Council prioritized waterfront access and low- to mid-rise housing in 2002; Mayor Bloomberg presided over a major rezoning in 2005 that rendered the factories closest to the waterfront residential; and in 2009, the city tried again, attempting to correct the excesses of 2005, with a new zoning plan that claims to protect the character of certain inland streets by requiring that they remain residential and by creating height limits for new construction.

It may have been too late, or it may have provided the wrong incentives; Williamsburg is disappearing under scaffolding, replaced by computerised renderings of an anodyne future.

I attend a panel discussion, organised by Open House New York, that contemplates what we might learn from Williamsburg. Gregory Wessner, the organisation’s Executive Director, suggests that the changes taking place in this neighbourhood have “nothing to do with New York City,” but spring instead from changes in the way things are made today. Leah Archibald, Executive Director of Evergreen, claims the problem is money. In the last rezoning, the government agreed to create a twenty million dollar fund for manufacturing, but deposited money in it slowly, reaching only half of the promised total. Archibald’s job focuses on assisting working-class businesses in Williamsburg, trying to help these businesses find financing and navigate regulatory issues, and also in trying to get public acknowledgement of their continued presence.

“We probably lose a little more than we win,” she says.

There is no discussion, here, about the tide. We are not thinking about Williamsburg as the edge of Long Island, as a fortified coast. Access to the water was a reason that Williamsburg became an industrial center, and it’s a reason, now, that people want to live here. This is short-term thinking, because this neighbourhood will be submerged.

The waterfront was evacuated in 2012, when Hurricane Sandy struck. People taped up their windows and bought alcohol and snacks, caught taxis to hotels in Manhattan. The water rose above the shoreline, and sandbags sealed the entrances to towers. Further inland, too, there were flooded streets.

Another storm could turn Williamsburg into a peninsula and Greenpoint, just north, into a small archipelago. The tides are always getting higher.

Williamsburg’s rezoning was intended to promote affordable housing, but instead created an influx of luxury units, the most jarring of which are the towers clustered beside the pier for the East River Ferry. These are all glassy and forgettable, taken individually. These are non-places, bearing no trace or memory of what was before. They have no history. They have no connection to the earth. They have names like “THE EDGE.”

It could be anywhere in the world, perhaps, save for the Chrysler Building across the water. Those who live in Williamsburg and work in Manhattan—most of those living in these towers—have an enviable commute, boarding the ferry and jetting across to Midtown or south to the Financial District. This is one of the most expensive neighbourhoods in New York City, which some people find hard to believe because Brooklyn, until Williamsburg, was the place where people moved when they couldn’t afford Manhattan. But you could go weeks, living here, without setting foot on a Brooklyn street.

There are benefits to building and living in towers. In theory, dense living frees up land for parkland and agriculture, meaning food can be produced and transported efficiently. In theory, these towers could relieve pressure on the market for apartments. But in Williamsburg, they don’t. Their main effect is to create a hard barrier between Brooklyn and the river, with only small paths between them for people to permeate.

I close my eyes outside a bar on Bedford Avenue and the crowds of people laughing, chattering over one another, sound almost like gulls calling out as they scavenge for food. I imagine animals that might replace people in the waterfront condominiums, picture birds perched on fifteenth floor balconies, lizards on the mezzanine, fish swimming up from the basement and over lobby tiles.

If we think of neighbourhoods for people in the same way that we think of ecosystems for animals, we remember that we don’t just need homes, but also jobs that suit us nearby, and food, too, that we can access and afford. Our conversations about gentrification often focus on affordable housing, but when applications for one such scheme in Greenpoint, just north of Williamsburg, closed recently, over half the applicants were rejected because they didn’t make enough money to rent the units. Developers speak of creating jobs, but the jobs they create aren’t the jobs that people want: hotels where there once were foundries.

I don’t know which species are, or will be, native to this habitat. I don’t know to whom Williamsburg belongs. The histories are obscured; the futures are uncertain.

Opposite the Brooklyn Brewery is the Wythe Hotel. “Everybody knows the Wythe Hotel,” says a woman with curly hair, as I stand on the street looking at a map. It’s in Wallpaper*’s guide to New York City. “The Wythe has given Brooklyn the grown-up hotel it deserves,” reads the guidebook.

“I don’t know if grown-up is the right adjective,” my companion says, looking at the crowd outside. I’m not sure about deserves.

The Wythe Hotel is a very busy place, with guests and visitors to the bar and restaurant constantly moving through the lobby and elevators. The staff are preparing for a wedding party later in the day. There are signs in a corner to direct visitors to the Northern Innovation Happy Hour. In the basement’s private dining room, I see a copy of Forbes’s ‘500’ issue lying atop a stack of boxes.

The Wythe Hotel used to be a barrel factory. There were still people working here when Morris Adjmi Architects were invited to work on the building’s conversion into a hotel. Jeremy Reed, giving us a tour of the hotel, points out the many features the architects chose to keep—the tracks in the ceiling, the details around the doors—and those they changed. The floors can hold a lot of weight, Reed tells us, because they’re made for heavy industry.

It’s a decadent hotel, in more ways than one. The owners, reportedly, were not concerned about making a profit, and the financial crisis bought Reed and his team the luxury of time to finesse their design before any construction took place. There’s a rooftop bar, where a cocktail called Brooklyn View costs $18: visitors look out across construction and warehouses, dusty lots, and the Brooklyn Brewery.

In the guest room, the focus is not on Williamsburg, but on Manhattan. The architects kept three of the building’s original façades, but cut off a bay on the building’s western side and replaced it with glass, differentiating the façade facing Manhattan from the others. In the guest room on the southwest corner, exposed brick obscures Brooklyn; glass, from floor to ceiling, directs the eye out of the hotel and beyond low-lying warehouses, west across the East River, to the city’s skyline.

The design is nice, and the architect is friendly, and perhaps the Wythe Hotel wouldn’t have felt quite so cruel in 2006, before Williamsburg fully became the place it is today. Reed tells us that the owner, looking for furniture, walked around the neighbourhood until he found somebody making beds, and then commissioned a prototype. The bed we see is beautiful, made of wood with rope stitching around the frame that suggests an old-fashioned box-spring. I wonder if the woodworker is still based in Williamsburg.

“These logos are all taken from companies that don’t exist anymore, to add authenticity,” says Reed, directing our eyes further down, to a brick wall opposite a lower floor.

On the evening Hurricane Sandy hit New York, in September of 2012, high tide was at 8:46 PM. The tide, that day, was not much higher than any day that year, but was accompanied by a nine-foot storm surge and high winds.

Kinfolk is less than a block from the Wythe Hotel, and it used to be a garage. Now it’s a coffee shop and a clothing store and a bar, with space for live music and other events. There’s a sign outside the clothing store reading “I spent half my money on liquor and fancy t-shirts. The other half . . . I wasted.”

John Berg, the architect who designed the interior, is meeting groups of visitors outside the entrance to the bar. The client told him that they wanted something that felt like it was designed by “an off-the-grid hippie mathematician from the Pacific Northwest,” and that caught his attention. Williamsburg has almost no trees and none of the dramatic coastline of the Pacific Northwest, but rather an artificial waterfront under which we’ve lost the real one. This neighbourhood is on every grid—even the streets line up as a grid. I am taken by the coolness of the concrete and the way the light filters down through the ceiling, made with Douglas firs from Washington State, but it must take an incredible lack of self-awareness to ask, in Williamsburg, for a design along these lines.

If you come on a Friday or Saturday night, Berg tells us, there are huge crowds of people and, outside, “a line of cabs to take you back to Manhattan.”

When Hurricane Sandy struck, some Williamsburg residents disobeyed the order to evacuate and stayed to watch, making their way to the forbidden waterfront. Some leaned against the winds on the pier, while police tape waved in the air behind them, and others held empty plastic bags up to the sky, holding the handles and attempting flight.

The water is a playground and a threat.

“As an architect,” Peter Zuspan says, “preservationists are my nemeses.”

We are in a room that Zuspan designed, a performance space with black lines crossing patterned white aluminium panels at a range of angles, disappearing into the dark voids that form doors and a recessed balcony. This room is at the centre of National Sawdust, a non-profit music venue in a brick building, once a sawdust factory.

The capital that allows National Sawdust to operate came from rising property prices, with a model in which investors own the building. The metal components in the sleek central room were made locally, though the manufacturer has since moved elsewhere in the borough. The neighbourhood’s development, here, has been leveraged to benefit local artists and local industries.

It feels impossible, in Williamsburg, to be pure in ideological commitments, to keep one’s place without allying oneself with the financial forces that are driving change. I think of the imaginative commitments of art and music as at odds with capitalism’s value systems. I think of architecture and design as fields with social commitments, as arts which aim to solve problems and create affordable solutions that work for everyone, and I forget that, for some, art and design are business opportunities, part of a process of creating products that sell.

It could be water that breaks the system, that resists in a way that people cannot. Water, already, is pushing at Williamsburg’s infrastructure. It will be necessary, soon, to close the tunnel through which the L Train, the neighbourhood’s main subway line, runs, in order to repair the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy. It only takes a tiny amount of rain, less than a quarter of an inch, before sewage tanks overflow, sending waste into Newtown Creek, just north of Williamsburg. We saw the hurricane as an anomaly, as an event, but the emergency is continuous, invisible to those looking elsewhere.

A few blocks south, at FACE Design and Fabrication, a woman in a floral dress is talking passionately, to a man who doesn’t seem impressed, about how she thinks “the community needs to see makers,” about how she’s trying to get spaces for industrial fabricators that people can visit, close to green spaces. Reuben, working in the next room, tells me they’re worried developers will notice them if the community does. It’s a noble intention, he suggests, to encourage general awareness that manufacturing is still taking place in Williamsburg, and isn’t just a thing of the past—but what if developers see another opportunity and come after the block they’re working on?

“I hope we can stay here,” Reuben says. FACE were pushed out of the East Village, and then the Meatpacking District, and then moved to another site in Williamsburg, on which condominiums now stand. The William Vale Hotel is close, and very visible, and Reuben tells us another hotel is going up beside it. I notice a sign reading “FOR LEASE” on a building across the road.

There are so many predators, ready to pounce.

In the evening, during the hurricane, after hours of sirens and loudspeakers urging evacuation, after the wind and rain had combined to scare everybody from the pier, after Williamsburg’s streets had filled with water, there were still people by the waterfront, watching, as the Con Ed Substation across the river exploded and lower Manhattan lost power. In a video taken that night, a crowd on a corner are illuminated by the explosion; they are silhouettes in raincoats surrounded by shimmering water. I think of Guy Debord’s idea of spectacle as something larger than people, something that people watch and absorb, silently, without forming a critical commentary. There is silence, for a moment, and then there is shock, exhilaration, voices saying “woah,” “fuck,” and, to the person holding the camera, “did you get that?”

We are thinking, in architecture, about how to disappear. We do not presume, now, that our buildings will last hundreds of years. We don’t think about buildings that will last forever, but celebrate the temporary, predict dilapidation, imagine surfaces wearing thin, structures breaking down entirely. It is wasteful; it is exciting.

Industry, of course, is not innocent either.

In 1978, a streak of oil appeared in Newtown Creek, and over fifty acres of soil is still contaminated today. On a map showing where chemical and petroleum spills have occurred, Williamsburg is covered in dots. There are brownfields and superfund sites everywhere.

We did not know, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, about the larger consequences of oil. We did not expect hurricanes or floods. We are nostalgic, now, for a flourishing industrial centre that we could not accept today. Williamsburg has always been tipping toward crisis.

In many places, contaminated soils overlap with floodplains. Nine months after Hurricane Sandy, samples showed that contamination from industrial areas had migrated to residential ones.

I suppose the basements will not fill with fish after all.

Across New York, the areas that flooded during Hurricane Sandy are being watched by developers. Red Hook, further south, was evacuated entirely, with water reaching seven feet on some buildings. Over a year later, businesses were still closed for repair. The city hasn’t yet invested in work to mitigate the effects of similar events that will occur in future, but there is a complex for tech companies under construction, and 45,000 apartments being planned. The waterfront warehouses of Sunset Park, where I live, are in the first evacuation zone, and developers are currently campaigning to bring a hotel to one of them. Their dream, it seems, is to make the neighbourhood like Williamsburg.

The only exception thus far to this desire to build where the water went is in Oakwood Beach on Staten Island, where the city has started buying houses that were damaged in the hurricane and returning them to nature, transforming the neighbourhood in a strategy of managed retreat. There are wild turkey and deer where once there were harried commuters and high school students.

There are many buildings in Williamsburg that used to be something else. Diviera Drive, which I walk past as I return to the subway station, was once a garage; it’s now a bar and an Italian restaurant with a boat named “El Dorado” decorating the yard. I don’t know, yet, if it floats.1

Architecture, across this neighbourhood, is being used as a means of creating links with the past, an attempt at reconciling the changes taking place with the place itself. Everybody wants to move to Williamsburg, but as they move to Williamsburg, Williamsburg disappears.

The dust from construction makes me thirsty.

It will all, one day, wash away.

1. Diviera Drive has since closed.

From the Editors: Holding On When All That Is Solid Melts Into Air

I wrote this issue’s call for submissions thinking of architecture. Thinking of drowned cities and burning ones, of sun-cracked concrete where the water can come in and fields gone too fast towards some warmer version of themselves, not even fallow any longer so much as lost. Of waiting for the next hurricane, on the twelfth floor of a Manhattan apartment building, thinking well, we won’t drown, but what’s going to be left—and of years later, watching wildfire trackers from a house in the high desert, wondering how fast, how far, how many dead.

I wrote the call with all of that grief on my tongue—I am a thing that loves cities and loves deserts and wants to lose nothing, and will lose anyway—and asked for the point of contact where human alteration and ecological alteration touch; fantasias of density and of absence; blurs between organic and inorganic forms, places, and persons. Asked for stories and essays that would think of architecture, of the built environment, and not merely write pain, but instead think of symbiosis, of touch, of memory. Of what could be built out of what has been built already.

The stories and essays in this volume of Reckoning are a gift to have received. They are anguished, vicious, exquisitely gorgeous; they speak, over and over again and in a thousand different ways, of place, of connection, of making and remaking. Of coming home, and never being able to come home again, and what you might do afterward.

The issue is dark, and it does hurt: but the world is, also. Dark, where it is not burning. And this is not a darkness of despair, or retreat, but one of recognition; a display of a wound, and a cautery—or a rope spun out in the dark, hand to hand, voices over the flood. It is an honor to share them with you.