Vinegar Hill to the Pencil Factory

Yesterday I went down underneath the Manhattan Bridge to pick up my rejected manuscript from a publisher. Feeling a little blue, I shoved my hands in my pockets, kicked at the dirt like a ragamuffin, and walked all the way back to Greenpoint, sticking as close to the East River as possible. It took two hours.

If you follow Navy Street to Flushing and head north to Kent Avenue, you’ll see the scotch tape and wires that hold the city together: emergency systems and impound lots, chewed up docks and steaming smoke stacks, auto auctions and lost property storage. Ambulances idle next to the river, waiting for the next heart attack. Rings of razor wire cordon off rows of Red Cross trucks and disaster relief vehicles and SWAT jeeps.

And those shattered mansions. Admiral’s Row: ten stately homes dating back to the Civil War, built for naval officers and their families. Look through the barbed wire and you’ll see abandoned tennis courts and a greenhouse and head-splitting bureaucracy. The Army Corps of Engineers still owns the property and, nearly forty years after they were first abandoned, the debate continues about whether to restore the homes or build a supermarket in their place.

I peer through the fence, feeling the sucker punch of wrecked architecture and systematized neglect. Somebody taps me on the shoulder. A guy with muddy shoes asks if I’m a reporter. He runs a hustle, shaking my hand and clapping me on the back. He says he can break me into one of those mansions. He talks some junk about the neighborhood that I can’t follow. He gets pushy. He says I owe him five bucks for his stories. I tell him he owes me ten for my sparkling personality. He gets upset. We argue. We part ways.

I push north. After snaking beneath the legs of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, the scene turns orthodox fast. Over 60,000 Satmar hasidim live here. A ramshackle van circles the block, broadcasting Yiddish from a public address system lashed to the roof. The architecture gets heavy and the bicyclists get hip with black glasses and ironic tattoos as the apartment towers give way to warehouses and bars.

To my left, the sun sinks against strange industrial snapshots backed by the familiar Manhattan skyline: shipping containers and parking lots, oil tankers and barges spread before the Chrysler and Empire tops.

Along these four miles, it’s surprising how much of it is fenced off with barbed wire.

This post originally appeared on KinoSport, the notebook of James A. Reeves (Update: The post can now be found on Reeves’ site Big American Night).

James A. Reeves is a writer, educator and designer. He is currently working on a book about America called ‘The Awful Making of an Optimist.’ He lives in Greenpoint.