Wherefore Art: Casey Walker on the Ghosts of New York City

by Casey Walker

Wherefore Art is a series of essay addressing place in the work of literature. The following Wherefore Art essay by Casey Walker tells of how the ghosts of New York City buildings informed his story "Sky & Telescope," which appears in the Fall/Winter 2017 issue of Epiphany, and includes an interactive map of locations in the story.

When I first moved to New York, I spent hours walking around the city. I had no idea where I was, so everything counted as a discovery. Hoping to learn something about the architecture in front of me, I bought a used copy of the AIA Guide at the Strand, but I found it too heavy to carry around with me, so I would note down towers, odd houses, and lesser-known squares and look them up in that brick of a book when I was back in my apartment. I still think nothing but walking allows you to enter the dreamlife of a city. But it helped that I was familiar with exactly one line of the subway system and I didn’t have the money for taxis.

The more I learned about the New York that existed, the more I found myself drawn to traces of what was gone—an old white-paint advertisement on the side of a building, an undisturbed carriage house, looming signs above defunct factories. I was drawn to these, in part, for their rarity. New York is a palimpsest with little patience for ruins—the moment a building is out-of-fashion, or there’s the slightest hint that something more profitable could take its place, the demolitionists assemble. Rome has ruins. New York has ghosts—immaterial hauntings around what used to exist.

And so, as I used the Penn Station ant-farm three or four times a week, I would find myself dreaming of the ghost that preceded it, with its high-ceilinged Great Room and travertine marble. I would walk down Broadway, between skyscrapers, looking for the site where the Singer Building, briefly the tallest in the world, once stood. I sat in Washington Square wondering if anything remained of the potter’s field it once was, where the dead from yellow fever were buried safely away from the population in those years when the city hadn’t advanced much above Canal Street.

It was with these ghosts in mind that I wrote the earliest draft of "Sky & Telescope," with the thought that it would take place only in buildings in New York that had been destroyed. There’s more than a little bit stolen from, or in homage to, Henry James’s New York ghost story “The Jolly Corner.”  But even with that model to work from, it took something like ten years of pulling this story out for a yearly overhaul before I felt I’d matched the haunted clairvoyance of the dying boy narrator to the ghost-city I was imagining. 

In the time between when I began this story and when I finished it, I witnessed for myself the churning machinery of New York real estate. I came to have my own ghosts—the Underberg building that preceded the Barclay’s Center, the Domino Sugar factory now being molded into condos, Flatbush Avenue transformed by so many indifferent apartment towers that I could finally credit Henry James’s cantankerous description of the skyscraper as “a huge, continuous fifty-floored conspiracy against the very idea of the ancient graces.”  There are bars where I celebrated birthdays, and countless restaurants, that I have watched become three or four different businesses, or vanish entirely, or blow up from gas leaks—all the ordinary destructions.  And that’s what I wanted to capture—the city in its continual erosion, and what remains of it in the thoughts of someone who has grown attached to it, and only wants it to remain still long enough to understand.