Speculations on the Origins of the Jersey City; or, Geographies of Drinking, cont’d. 21 February 2015 No Comments

ABC of Cocktails coverSome months back, I chanced upon an unfamiliar book on a shelf in my parent’s kitchen: a little volume on cocktails that was jazzier than the venerable Mr. Boston (the book to the left) and less learned than William Grimes’ Straight Up or On the Rocks (the book to the right). Published by Peter Pauper Press in 1953, The ABC of Cocktails was part of an extended series of whimsical, food-oriented primers edited by Edna Beilenson and illustrated by Ruth McCrea (and now reissued in kindle editions). Though filled with lightweight rhymes (“Alcohol’s a temptress, alcohol’s a flirt, She’ll either raise you to the skies, Or drop you to the dirt.”), the recipes were intended for “experienced drinkers,” rather than “amateurs [and] maiden aunts.” Being an experienced drinker myself, I gave The ABC serious consideration. The cocktails it included went well beyond the standard repertoire, even that of our expansive updated-classics era: Ward Eight, High Hat, Third Rail. But what really caught my eye, vis-a-vis a broadening interest in the nexus of geography and spirits, was an impressive number of drinks with place-based names.  Not just usual suspects like Manhattan and the Bronx, but Hong Kong, Havana, Kingston, Monte Carlo, Nevada, and Florida. Of these eponymous drinks, one in particular stood out.Jersey City recipe

The Jersey City appears on page 34, in between the Jack Rose (immortalized in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises) and the Jersey Sour. Like both of those drinks, the key ingredient in the Jersey City is apple brandy, a.k.a. applejack. As noted in an earlier discussion of the Newark cocktail, applejack can rightly be considered the state spirit of the Garden State, having been produced in Jersey since shortly after the first European settlers arrived. Though grains don’t grow well in New Jersey, fruit trees do; apples, in particular, have been called the foundation of the state’s “fruit culture.” It goes without saying that in the 17th and 18th centuries, folks were drinking those apples as frequently as they were eating them, the fermentation of excess harvests having long been an economic, as well as social, necessity.New Jersey in 1834 detail

According to some sources, the need to get applejack from producer to consumer was critical to the development of the state’s infrastructure, spurring the construction of plank roads and gravel highways north and south, east and west. Early in the 19th century, supporters of the Morris Canal reversed this logic, arguing that the speed and efficiency of an engineered waterway meant that New Jersey growers could bring their apples to the markets of Philadelphia and New York without turning them into spirits. When the Morris Canal finally opened in the 1830s, the supposed result was “a large increase of profit to the farmer and of good morals to the community.”Morris Canal Locks, Mules, Boats

That may be, but it’s hard to imagine not needing a few slugs of Jersey Lightning during that five day, 100+ mile journey from Phillipsburg on the Delaware to Jersey City on the Hudson, through the canal’s 23 locks and, especially, its 23 incline planes (which lifted each barge a whopping total of 1600 vertical feet). Regardless, given how quickly the railroad made the Morris Canal obsolete (completing the same journey in about five hours), its impact on the state’s morals was probably as short-lived as its profits. By the eve of prohibition there were more than 400 applejack distilleries operating in New Jersey.Laird's Pre-Prohibition Bottles

Today, only one is left standing: Laird’s of Scobeyville, Colts Neck Township, Monmouth County. Members of the Laird family have been making applejack in New Jersey for twelve generations (even if their apples now come mainly from Virginia). Their outfit is the oldest licensed distillery in the United States and one of the oldest family owned and operated businesses in the country. Applejack’s bona fide New Jersey terroir is, therefore, unimpeachable. Having adequately explained the presence of “cyder spirits” in a cocktail named for New Jersey’s oldest, if not yet largest, city, we can now turn to less obvious dimensions of the Jersey City‘s cultural geography.Jersey City Cocktail Recipe

To put it another way: what’s up with the pineapple juice? As Imbibe recently observed (about a different drink with a similar provenance), “Jersey City isn’t exactly a tropical paradise.” But what kind of a place is it? More precisely, what kind of a place was it when The ABC of Cocktails appeared? The WPA Guide to New Jersey (1939) had this to say: “Millions of people carelessly regard Jersey City as a necessary rail and motor approach to Manhattan.”Arthur Rothstein, Jersey City in 1939, Seaboard Terminal & Refrigeration Company at Holland Tunnel Approach

[For drivers en route to the Holland Tunnel, necessary evil is probably a better description, whether in 1939 or today. Above is an Arthur Rothstein photograph shot for the FSA/OWI; below is an iPhone photo shot by a commuter sitting in what he called “ridiculous” traffic. The Seaboard cold storage building is evident in both.]Holland Tunnel Traffic by Keith Lam via flickr

And yet, the Guide continued, “the propitious location of the city, close to the tremendous financial and consumer markets of New York City and metropolitan New Jersey, is an advantage equaled by its geographical position on upper New York Bay. This favorable situation has furnished Jersey City with shipping facilities which, in turn, have drawn motor routes and rail lines.”1891 Map of New York & Jersey City detail

This is not a minor point: Jersey City is On the Waterfront, even if Elia Kazan’s iconic film (1954) about longshoremen, unions, and corruption was shot on location one town over, in Hoboken.Baker's Schooner Telegraph at Port Antonio in 1870, illustration by Edward A. Wilson

It is a little known fact that the enterprise that became the United Fruit Company began in Jersey City in 1870, when a sea captain named Lorenzo Dow Baker returned from Jamaica with 160 bunches of bananas and sold them on the streets of JC at a considerable profit. In 1899, Baker merged with his nearest competitors to become the United Fruit Company of New Jersey (state laws passed in the 1880s were famous for their generosity to big business; Standard Oil of New Jersey incorporated in 1885).

Florida Pineapples & Walker Evans Photograph of Pineapple Seller in NYC 1930Around the same time, the United Fruit Company started growing pineapples in Florida, which was then the world’s largest pineapple exporter, and then shipping them north to the “tremendous” consumer markets of the NY/NJ metro area.  Thus, however tenuously, we have established a connection between the pineapple and Jersey City, between the pineapple juice and the Jersey City.United Fruit Company Banana Building in Weehawken 1953

To conclude: by the middle of the 20th century, in between propping up Central American dictators and violating anti-trust laws, the United Fruit Company continued to dock its ships at Pier B (at the foot of Exchange Place) in Jersey City, while also operating the world’s largest mechanical banana handling facility in nearby Weehawken (at the foot of the Lincoln Tunnel ventilation towers). My research to date has not revealed where the pineapples were handled at mid-century, but today they are processed further inland on Jersey City’s West Side. The anonymous container warehouses hard by the Newark Meadows may lack the romance of the Hudson River, but the work still has its hazards: in 2013 a stevedore was nearly crushed when 1500 pounds of sliced pineapple came toppling out of the container he was unpacking.Jersey City Waterfront 1975 & 2015

Back on the waterfront, Jersey City has a post-industrial sheen that will be familiar to anyone who’s followed urban transformation since the 1970s. As for the Jersey City, even without the backstory, it’s a damn good cocktail.Jersey City in Manhattan










Motor City/Brick City Comparative Ecologies, Part I: Geographies of Drinking 2 November 2014 No Comments

DesignInquiry‘s Year of Agitation commences with a follow-up to its DesignCities expedition to Detroit: a residency at MOCAD‘s Department of Education and Public Engagement. The DEPE Space “enables adventurous, multidisciplinary programming in which the museum and city of Detroit function as sites for investigation and experimentation,” and that pretty much sums up the exploratory nature of DI and the DesignCities initiative. My own contribution is still very much a work in progress. As installed at MOCAD, the rawness of the thinking is reflected in the roughness of the presentation: a series of 10 typewritten cards, as in TYPED on a 1957 Halda portable with plenty of typos and, most likely, a few hasty conclusions to match. 

Geographies of Drinking at MoCAD

This is research towards a colloquy between Detroit, Michigan and Newark, New Jersey, two urban centers (the largest in their respective states) that are cataclysmically in flux, with compelling parallels and equally compelling divergences. This research does not explore the reasons for crisis and decline in Detroit and Newark, as these are well documented [see Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (1996) and Kevin Mumford, Newark: Race, Rights, and Riots in America (2007)].

Detroit & Newark Map details

LEFT: Detroit, detail of Shell Oil Motoring Map, 1956; RIGHT:Newark, detail of Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, 1926

Instead, this research probes fault lines of rebirth, retrenchment, resurgence, and renaissance that have defined each city in recent decades, especially since the uprisings of 1967. As an urban ecological exploration, this research considers profound differences in urban identity and urban scale, of physical and cultural infrastructure, and of physical and cultural interventions.

Last Word Cocktail at Pony Ride

Last Word mixed at Pony Ride, February 2014

The Last Word Cocktail

3/4 oz. gin [pref. Two James Old Cockney, made in Detroit]

3/4 oz. green Chartreuse

3/4 oz. maraschino liqueur [pref. Luxardo]

3/4 oz. fresh lime juice, strained

Shake ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled glass. According to tradition, this venerable drink was invented in the Grill Room of the Detroit Athletic Club at some point during Prohibition. With the privatizing of public drinking in the wake of the Volstead Act, members-only clubs like the DAC became a focal point for socializing while imbibing. And Detroit’s proximity to Canada meant the city was awash in bootleg liquor. Though some claim it was the rotgut quality of bathtub gin that required masking by the herbs and cherries of the mixers, there is no evidence to support this. Chartreuse, made by French monks since the eighteenth century, has always had a rarefied air. Maraschino may well have been produced locally back then, northern Michigan being a major cherry growing region. The origin of the cocktail’s name is lost to history though the drink’s potency (Chartreuse is 110 proof) is an obvious source. In the past decade, the Last Word has rebounded in popularity due to the craft cocktail movement. This recipe is based on one published in Imbibe, borrowed from mixologist Murray Stenson of Seattle’s Zig Zag Café, who discovered it in Ted Saucier’s 1951 book Bottoms Up.

Detroit Athletic Club 1915

Detroit Athletic Club Founded in 1887, the Detroit Athletic Club moved to its present downtown location in 1915. There, a block east of the Grand Circus, Albert Kahn designed an imposing, freestanding, six-story palazzo seemingly more appropriate for the Gilded Age than the Motor Age, but absolutely in keeping with the parvenu ambitions of Detroit’s new industrial elite. The building featured state-of-the-art facilities for sporting and socializing, including a swimming pool, a gymnasium, meeting rooms, and banquet halls. The Club’s original restaurant, the Grill Room, had room for more than 200 members who dined in neo-Renaissance splendor.

Detroit Athlectic Club Grill Room Bar

At the back of the Grill Room was the Club’s first and, until 1936, only bar, notable for its dark woodwork, vaulted ceiling, and a large saloon nude called Lilly (painted by Julius Rolshoven in 1900). Sensuous and mildly exotic, with just a hint of the louche, Lilly presided over the mixing of the first Last Word at some auspicious, gin-soaked moment between 1920 and 1933. The Detroit Athletic Club was restored in the 1990s; today it has more than 4,000 members.

Newark Cocktail in Manhattan

Newark cocktail mixed on Upper West Side of Manhattan, October 2014

The Newark Cocktail

2 oz. Laird’s Bonded Straight Apple Brandy

1 oz. sweet vermouth

¼ oz. Fernet Branca

¼ oz. maraschino liqueur [pref. Luxardo]

Combine ingredients, stir with ice, strain and serve in chilled glass. This early twenty-first century cocktail is a Jersey-accented variation on the Brooklyn, a drink that dates to the classic cocktail era (circa 1900), but has long been overshadowed by the inner borough’s iconic Manhattan. The Newark has no connection with New Jersey’s largest city, having been developed by two New York City barmen and served at their East Village speakeasy. They looked west across the Hudson and, even further, across the Meadowlands when naming the new drink because Laird’s has been making applejack, a.k.a. Jersey Lightening, in the Garden State since 1780. During the colonial era, applejack had a place in New Jersey culture that parallels that of bourbon in Kentucky: it was distilled and consumed in great quantities and was sometimes used as a currency in trade. According to tradition, George Washington himself asked Robert Laird to share his recipe for “cyder spirits.” That Newark never had a cocktail to call its own is not surprising: historically, it has always been in New York City’s outsized cultural and economic shadow. Even during Newark’s heyday as a manufacturing center, it frequently stamped its products with a “made in New York” label because Gotham’s marketing power was so much greater than its own. This recipe for the Newark is based on one published in Imbibe, borrowed from one developed by Jim Meehan and John Deragon of PDT.

Newark Athletic Club circa 1990, photo: HABS

Newark Athletic Club circa 1990, photo: HABS

Newark Athletic Club once stood on a prominent downtown location overlooking Military Park, a few blocks north of the city’s main commercial crossroads at Broad and Market. As designed by Jordan Green in 1923, the Club was a façade-oriented riff on the commercial palazzo typology that was as formulaic and routine as Kahn’s Detroit Athletic Club was robust. Though established in a moment of Roaring Twenties optimism, the Newark Athletic Club was bankrupt by the mid-40s, a victim of the Great Depression, which also caused the suicide of several of the club’s founding, businessmen members.

Lapidus renovation of Newark Athletic Club, lobby in 1944

Lapidus renovation of Newark Athletic Club, lobby in 1944

With 300 guest rooms, the Club was easily adapted for use as a hotel, and this transformation seems to have prompted a lobby refurbishment by Morris Lapidus. Though more restrained than the over-the-top eclecticism that would characterize his later work in Miami Beach, Lapidus’ design for the club-cum-hotel provided a modicum of swank and glamour—enough to imagine the lobby bar as the setting for the creation of a cocktail named for the city. Alas, this would remain a wishful fantasy: not even the Newark novels of Philip Roth make fictional mention of such an event. By the time a Newark cocktail appeared in a Manhattan cocktail lounge, the Newark Athletic Club had been abandoned, demolished, and replaced with the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. Though NJPAC has two different bars, neither serves a Newark, and recent efforts to order one in the city were met with polite incomprehension.



Postcard from Jaffa 14 July 2014 No Comments

Old Port of JaffaThe port of Jaffa is a very ancient place, and though it looks somewhat sleepy today, it was a bustling, working harbor for many centuries before the Egyptian Pharaohs took note. Located on a high tel on the eastern coastline of the Mediterranean, Jaffa’s strategic position (evident in maps both old and new) guaranteed its geo-political-economic importance into the modern era.Jaffa Mapped

Despite the treacherous waters around the Andromeda rocks, merchants, pilgrims, and colonists all passed through Jaffa, coming from somewhere else and going to somewhere else. The Cedars of Lebanon en route to Solomon’s Temple, the Empress Helena en route to the via Dolorosa; the Shamouti [a.k.a. Jaffa] Oranges en route to the world. And then there were the soldiers, legions of them across the centuries, commanded by military legends like Thutmose, David, Alexander, Richard the Lionheart, Saladin, Napoleon, and Allenby, each of whom regarded Jaffa as key to victory.Gros Napoleon Visting the Pest House at Jaffa

When Napoleon turned up in Jaffa in March of 1799, the French army d’ Orient had already laid siege to the redoubt as part of its Syrian Campaign, ransacking the port city and slaughtering approximately 3,000 Ottoman prisoners of war. Bonaparte entered Jaffa on March 11th on a mission of damage control, seeking to minimize the significance of an outbreak of bubonic plague and to quell rumors that he had ordered a military doctor to poison the victims, including members of his own army. Boldly, he enters the military hospital temporarily installed in the Armenian Convent on the Jaffa waterfront; dramatically, he reaches out towards an afflicted French soldier. Fearing neither disease nor grandstanding, the General touches the swollen lymph nodes of the soldier’s armpit. At least that’s how Antoine Jean Gros depicted the event five years later, in a canvas commissioned by the newly declared Emperor Napoleon with propagandistic intent. Le tricolore flying on the hill in the background didn’t waive over Jaffa for long. By June of 1799, Napoleon had ordered a full-on retreat, south through the desert and back into Egypt.Jaffa Port Cafes

Walking the waterfront today, past the trendy cafes and fashionable boutiques that are hallmarks of urban revitalization across the planet, it takes a sharp eye to locate the remains of the Pestilence House of Jaffa–and not just because most of the buildings lack the exaggerated Orientalist details that Gros so hotly imagined (I wish I had laid eyes on a courtyard with such a crazy, ziggurat-like, corbeled parapet).Armenian Convent sign

Even the most studious tourist, upon locating a sign identifying the Armenian Convent, might be forgiven for confusing the Pestilence House at Jaffa with a luxury condo, mainly because the Pestilence House at Jaffa is a luxury condo.Armenian Convent at Jaffa

Though the small Church of St. Nicholas is still intact and open for services, much of the complex, including parts of the monastery and the pilgrims’ hospice, has been transformed into a series of private residences by “a bespoke property development company” based in London. The sandstone walls, the arches and openings, the woodwork, it’s all been stabilized and restored with the exterior imperfections so perfectly preserved that it could only be the product of 21st century historical self-consciousness.Luxury Bathroom at Nativ Hamazalot 18

This is hardly the exclusive purview of the folks responsible for the work at the Armenian Convent. A few doors down, Sotheby’s International Realty is offering a 5 bedroom apartment for $13.7 million, one that inserts the “ultramodern” into a “[framework] of ancient archeological architecture.” Which likely explains that bidet tucked inside a 12th century vault.Armenian Convent Apartment

Back at the Armenian Convent, while keenly exploiting the monastery’s “steeped in history” Napoleon-was-here marketing potential, the company website tactfully avoids any mention of swelling buboes and dying soldiers. Nothing takes the sheen off of high end real estate like an infectious disease, except maybe the fraught legacy of displacement, abandonment, and settlement that has characterized Jaffa since 1948. Needless-to-say, these are not mentioned either. But that’s not really surprising.W Residences under construction

In the 21st century, it may well be that the only force strong enough to overcome political and religious factionalism is the one that replaces it with gaping class divisions and staggering income inequality: restless and relentless global capitalism.W at Jaffa

And unlike Napoleon, the W in Jaffa (opening summer 2015) shows no sign of retreat.



Up In the Air 26 January 2014 No Comments

2014 marks a decade since since Google acquired Keyhole Corporation, a Silicon Valley start-up whose mapping technology transformed the way we see the world. Keyhole created the seamless combination of high-resolution satellite and aerial imagery that provides the geo-located guts of Google Earth and Google Maps, the satellite view that has become a ubiquitous part of our digital lives.

As a descriptor, satellite is sexier than aerial, conjuring Sputnik and the space age instead of the drifting balloons and lumbering dirigibles in which photography first took flight. Somehow, the view from space has managed to retain its romance. But then I was one of those kids in the 70s who wrote to NASA for views of space–photographs of Mars sent back by the Viking orbiter.

They arrived in a big manilla envelope stiff with cardboard and emblazoned with NASA’s brand new logo. Richard Danne and Bruce Blackburn designed the so-called worm to replace the Administration’s original meatball logo (to which it returned in 1992). With its sleek continuous letterforms and missing cross strokes, the NASA worm looked absolutely like the future to me–and so did the pictures inside the envelope.

Today, we spend more time engaged in the planetary equivalent of navel-gazing. It’s not the red planet that captures our imagination; it’s our own “big blue marble,” a preoccupation that also dates to the 70s, when Apollo 17 astronauts sent back the now iconic view of the illuminated face of the earth. If photo #AS17-148-22727 gave us a sense of the earth’s wholeness (as in Whole Earth, which used a comparable 1967 view on the cover of its first catalog), it was Charles and Ray Eames who provided a sequential point of view.

In 1968, the Commission on College Physics (which promoted physics education during the space race) asked the Eameses to make a film to explain exponents. Their famous response used Kees Boeke’s Cosmic View: The Universe in 40 Jumps as the starting point for a dramatic human-scaled visualization of moving through space by Powers of Ten. In the revised and expanded version of 1977 (which my elementary school screened in an assembly), it takes just over a minute to move out from a couple picnicking on a lawn near Lake Michigan to the whole earth view of 10,000,000 meters (10 to the 7th power).

What was mind-blowing then, we take for granted now.  Even though the jumps are not as regular as in Powers of Ten (in Google imagery they shift back and forth between meters and feet, kilometers and miles), with a few mouse clicks, we easily apprehend how different Chicago’s Burnham Park looks today.

In 1977, the couple picnicked on a flat expanse of lawn hard by the northbound lanes of Lake Shore Drive and the parking lots of Soldier Field. In 2014, they would spread their blanket in a picturesque landscape of grassy berms, walking paths, trees and a winding roadway–the results of a 1996 road relocation and a 2003 renovation of the stadium (the one that resulted in its de-listing from the National Register). Attempting to show us “the relative size of things in the universe” and “the effect of adding another zero,” the Eameses anticipated a crucial aspect of contemporary visuality.

We zoom in, we zoom out; we locate ourselves with geospatial precision. We encounter bytes of biography: the Street View of my block of the Upper West Side captures one of those rare days when my very own car was parked outside of my very own building. We spot details that produce a frisson of familiarity: the outline of the Central Park reservoir, the shadow of an oversized winged “radiator cap” on the 31st floor of the Chrysler building.

Mostly, though, we click and drag with detachment; blame it on digital mediation or, less virtually, on the routine nature of the aerial view in a world of $99 round trips. But even in the 21st century, in between the flat screen at hand and the pressurized cabin at 30,000 feet, we can still find moments of visceral visual experience, of emotional resonance and maybe even joy–as I discovered when I climbed aboard an Airbus Eurocopter AStar 350 for a 30 minute ride.

My companions had hoped for a Sikorsky (departing from the Westchester County Airport, we were very nearly in the Black Hawk‘s home territory of southern Connecticut), but I had no preference, my ignorance of helicopters trumping my customary localism. As it applies to metropolitan development and centralized urbanization, localism wasn’t so much trumped that morning, as radically intensified.

Flying from White Plains to Midtown, we knew what to expect: low rise giving way to high-rise, greenfield to asphalt, open space to density, suburb to city. Even if we didn’t reside in Greater New York, even if we’d never been to the Panorama in Flushing Meadow, this particular urban morphology belongs to the collective memory of the 20th century. We knew it instinctively, even before the helicopter left the ground.

But there it was, the periphery giving way to the center with startling clarity and autumnal color (it was mid-November) at somewhere around 1500 feet. If the birds-eye perspective does little to improve the view of McMansion subdivisions, it gives even undistinguished corporate and college groundscrapers an aura of geometric abstraction.

Structures already possessing geometric abstraction–like the Breuers in the Bronx (originally NYU/now Bronx Community College)–appear even more potently sculptural. Even the Cross Bronx Expressway, when seen from above, looks less “hacked with a meat axe” (as Marshall Berman memorably described it), the graceful curves of its interchanges almost convincing us that it is not the ring of hell we know it to be from behind the wheel.

We followed the East River until we could see the towers clustering at the lower edge of Central Park, and then we turned toward the middle of the island. Looking south, you could see the skyscrapers giving way to mid-rise blocks of the 20s and 30s, where, according to tradition, the Manhattan schist is too far below the surface to support tall buildings (recent research has rendered this more urban legend than geological fact).

Between the thumping of the chopper blades, felt bodily, and the isolation of the headsets, experienced aurally, we hovered above midtown in a warp of dislocation. And yet we were absolutely in the city, maybe even of the city–if we accept verticality as urban essence. Flying in that helicopter was like a shot of hyper-reality (in a simple literal sense, rather than Baudrillard’s), the urban condition as adrenaline, imagined, actualized and exaggerated.

If the city I witnessed and photographed from the helicopter is nearly identical to the one captured in images accessible on Google 24/7, there’s one critical difference: looking at midtown on Google Maps or Google Earth has never made me weep.


Sheepish 1 November 2013 No Comments

In 1934 Robert Moses kicked the sheep out of Central Park to make room for Tavern on the Green. Though the New York Times applauded their contribution to park maintenance–the flock kept the meadow trimmed and fertilized for more than half a century–Moses claimed the 49 purebred Dorsets were deformed from inbreeding, so he sent them packing to Brooklyn, where they were kept in line by two Scotch collies who worked the pastures in Prospect Park.

They don’t look particularly deformed here, and it’s hard to imagine anyone who encountered them in 1930, when this photograph was taken, being concerned about genetic mutations while contemplating such a lovely contrast of pastoralism and urbanism. But then I’m partial to this sort of juxtaposition.

I live happily with Eva Sauer’s Rohbauten 03, which combines the high-key naturalism of William Holman Hunt and the Pre-Raphaelites (note the grazing sheep) with the sober objectivity of Bernd and Hilla Becher (note the concrete structure). Though the work has definite end-of-empire overtones, it seems to depict occupation more than abandonment.

That same effect, though with a large measure of surreal sweetness, lingers about Sheep Station, an installation by the late François-Xavier Lalanne in a former gas station in Chelsea. Lahanne built a four decade career on “les Moutons,” epoxy stone and bronze ovine sculptures that supposedly “demystify art and capture its joie de vivre.” It’s not clear how much demystifying is taking place on the corner of West 24th and 10th, but there is something quietly joyful, or maybe just goofy, about 25 cast sheep standing under the canopy of what was, until quite recently, a functioning filling station.

Corralled by white horse fencing and rows of junipers, the sheep stand about on artificial berms and a rolling lawn covered in real turf.  They cozy up to the ice machine; they huddle around the pumps, as if waiting for their tanks to fill. Except there aren’t any cars, because the gas station is now a sheep station, get it? 

And the sheep station is an art station–Sheep Station at Getty Station, get it? So much self-satsified word play distracts us from larger narratives that are worth considering–about oil and art and art and real estate and real estate and oil.  

There’s nothing ironic about conjoining Getty and art since, after all, the world’s richest museum was established by an oil man. But the gas station that is now the Getty Station severed its ties to J. Paul’s original, eponymous company some years back.

Getty Oil organized a realty division in the early 70s to handle all property transactions related to its retail outlets and distribution terminals. This division remained part of the company that Texaco took over in the mid-80s, in one of the ugliest deals of a decade rife with notorious mergers and acquisitions. But during yet another takeover in 2000, when what remained of post-Texaco Getty was acquired by the Russian giant Lukoil, Getty Realty Corporation was spun off as an independent REIT responsible for around 1300 gas stations nationwide. Getty Realty promptly leased many of these stations back to Lukoil, which began rebranding them as part of its global chain.

On 24th and 10th, that meant an over-sized canopy with a distinctive K-profile and a red and white color scheme on the canopy, pumps, double-height free standing sign, and small CMU box housing a convenience store. This was hardly gas station retail design at its most heroic–nothing close to Walter Dorwin Teague’s work for Texaco in the 30s and 40s or Eliot Noyes’ and Chermayeff and Geismar’s work for Mobil in the 60s and 70s.

Instead, the Lukoil conversions offered only modest examples of what John Jakle and Keith Sculle call the place-product-packaging that was critical to the acceptance of the automotive service station as a ubiquitous feature of the American landscape in the 20th century. Lukoil’s lack of inspirational design is hardly surprising: in a New York Times article on the 2000 deal, an oil industry analyst observed that “these aren’t the nicest gas stations,” speculating that the company’s real motive was to burnish its reputation by acquiring (and then effacing) an American brand.

But Getty technically still owned these Lukoil gas stations, even though, with each passing year, it seemed to look at them more and more as real estate. With both oil prices and property prices at all time highs in the past decade, Getty began to evaluate its portfolio from a different perspective. When oil prices are high, it’s tough to make a profit selling gas (even with a convenience store attached); when property prices are high it’s easy to make a profit selling property, especially when those properties are in some of the hottest real estate markets in the country.

In the first six months of 2013, Getty Realty Corporation sold 77 of its properties, including the gas station on 24th and 10th, which developer Michael Shvo purchased for $23.5 million with plans to turn the site into “the premier collection of luxury residences near the High Line.”  When luxury condos became collections is the subject for another post; in the meantime, the newly rebranded Getty Station serves as an exhibition space. Cue the sheep.

It’s easy to grumble that yet another high-end condo will inevitably push the art out of Chelsea, exactly the way the high-end retail pushed the art out of SoHo, which is what caused the art to decamp to Chelsea in the first place–beginning with the Matthew Marks Gallery nearly 20 years ago. We all know how this works: the industry leaves, the artists move in, the dealers follow; the art lovers come to look at the art, the fashionistas arrive to attend the parties, the developers follow, jacking up the prices and causing the whole thing to start over somewhere else. We also know that in the 21st century how this works has gotten a whole lot more complicated. In Chelsea, for example, those complications include the redevelopment of the High Line into a tourist-jammed park, the rezoning of the neighborhood’s west side to encourage residential high-rises, and the coming-in-2015 institutional presence of the Whitney Museum, which is technically in the Meatpacking District, but feeds off, and contributes to, the area’s identity as contemporary art central.

Another complicating factor is that a certain sector of the industry never quite left, at least not until the art people and especially the real estate people forced it out. (Historical note: picking up my ancient Honda after having the interior steam-cleaned in the West 20s early in the century, I asked an innocent question, prompted by an urbanist’s curiosity about a rapidly transforming neighborhood: “Do you guys own your building?” The attendant’s eyes narrowed suspiciously, “You one of those art people?”) In between the warehouses and factory lofts west of 10th Avenue were garages, auto repair shops, and service stations in sufficient quantity to amount to a veritable gasoline alley by 1920 or so. By the time Berenice Abbott photographed the area in the mid-1930s as part of Changing New York, it was possible to see in them a certain kind of beauty.

Beautiful or not, gas stations and other auto-oriented businesses don’t fit tidily into most gentrification scenarios. They are slippery, liminal places: half industrial, half commercial, full of grease, grime, and low margins. And if they’ve been around long enough they are frequently contaminated brownfields in need of remediation. At the same time, whether we like it or not, they are absolutely essential to our car-bound way of life, even in as transit-oriented, bike-friendly, and walkable a place as New York City.

All those taxis have to get their gas somewhere, just not, anymore, at 24th and 10th. Recently, the Times took note of a phenomenon it called “Manhattan’s Vanishing Gas Stations,” though it’s happening in all the boroughs, and, in fact, across the country. Manhattan lost 44% of its stations in less than a decade; the city lost 35%; the nation as a whole lost 25% in two decades. So it turns out that Sheep Station at Getty Station is more appropriate than its developers realized. Their aim was “to incorporate a classic twentieth century American icon into the contemporary art dialogue,” but in Luxury City, the gas stations are quickly becoming museum pieces.