Headlines and in-depth reports track the precarious state of mom-and-pop shops and national chains alike. Retail closings, exacerbated by the pandemic, were already an increasing feature of a world of same-day delivery. In the abstract, we ask: Is retail dead? Across New York City, more than 1,000 chain stores closed last year; according to an oft-cited prediction, up to one-third of the city’s small businesses may shutter permanently. Then there are the material facts. As rents and demand, profit and loss, do their dance, hooks and plaster, paint and particleboard register the churn — and the decay it leaves in its wake. Artist Mark Hage stalked these peculiar, yet all too familiar ruins, in SoHo and elsewhere in Lower Manhattan. His new book Capital is a compendium of purgatories behind plate glass, and an act of “bereavement for a city rapidly becoming something else.”
What closes and then darkness,
what opens and then bright?
Before the horn has risen,
where hides the lord of light?
– Tian Wen, A Chinese Book of Origins
How you frame something is a moral decision.
– Babette Mangolte
On Mercer Street, on the island of Manhattan, and just before the city paused, walking in a southerly direction from Houston to Canal, there was a decimation. A Chicxulub. Even then, in prophetic unease, the stores had shuttered in blatant proportions, without much replacement or activity. This was not restricted to SoHo or the other high-rent districts. It was also the small enterprise on the side street: tailor and small baker, laundromat and diner, deli and shoe repairer.
The reverse direction of occupancy is decay. It has nothing ceremonial. No ribbon cutting or fresh flowers, no eager attendants. Empty, the precious architectural image relaxes into anti-heroic and shabby availability. But there is a scale of concern. In prior days, on its own, an empty store evoked a light curiosity and anticipation for its future. At a larger frequency of closures, there is a different kind of memory at play, closer to dread than nostalgia, a bereavement for a city rapidly becoming something else.
I walked the city, intent on documenting retail stores that had failed or closed, existing in an amalgamation of abandoned objects, archaeologies, and recent intervention. The gouge next to the mastic that had held a mirror, mysterious interim brushstrokes, the re-emerging ferrous column cast in sand moulds. An Arte Povera of sorts decided away from the professional class.
A space while in use exists in the constraint of intention. Specific and close to tyrannical in the way it is experienced, it supersedes the conflicting remains of the accumulated past. But with time, these times, through surrender or exhaustion, the space becomes a hasty victim itself. Tools tear at its obsolescence, revealing its labors. Permanence and absence, ruins and remnants.
Walking the city, I found myself drawn to these spaces as a refuge. I found solace in these fleeting compositions that lack intent. Their sculptural logic and painterly rhythms, so at ease, which at some point, in the churn of our resumed ways, will never be seen again.
In these hybrid spaces, a spirit of labors comes through, anonymous labors that have come and gone, disparate hands that built the years, the same hands that built the city. In these worlds, there is ambiguity and hope, the emotion of aesthetic surprise. A return to a city we once knew. Our broom-swept Acropolis. The temporal majesty of scarred, wide-open ghosts.
This feature is excerpted from Capital, published in 2020 by A Public Space Books.
All photos by Mark Hage.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.