In September 2015, we published “This Building is Yours,” an essay by Adrian Shirk which retells the story of how feminists in 1971 took over an abandoned building in New York before NYPD seized control twelve days later. Shirk’s essay was part personal narrative, part architectural history; this intersection continues with “Then and Now,” her monthly column which examines the personal and cultural histories of some of New York’s architecture, from a closed sugar refinery factory in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn to the former headquarters of Robert Moses , perhaps most instrumental in the redesign and reshaping of New York during his tenure as Parks Department commissioner. The author of the upcoming book And Your Daughters Shall Prophesy, Shirk and I chatted via Google Hangouts to discuss her column, her fascination with architecture, and more.
Mensah Demary: Let’s start with your background and your column, “Then and Now.” The column highlights various buildings found around New York City, and the history behind each one. How and when did you discover your interest in architecture?
Adrian Shirk: I wonder about this, too. I went to college in Brooklyn, at Pratt Institute, and during that time I became really interested not really in architecture, at first, but in urban renewal. Specifically, the legacy of urban renewal in the city and how profoundly the designs that came out of that (public housing, expressways, razing entire neighborhoods) shaped the way the city functioned, changed the way lives were lived inside of it. Around that time, I started writing mostly fiction about the city as a way to explore this—and I was paying really close attention to where it was I could see evidence of the past next to the present when I walked around Bed-Stuy, DUMBO, wherever. I was looking for physical evidence of how those urban architectural decisions of the 1950s and ’60s was still at work on the city landscape, and on the people.
This is a kind of roundabout way of answering your question—but basically it was through that process that I started to look at buildings, architecture, all built space, in this same critical way, looking for narratives, looking for ways in which the present and the past were in conversation with each other. But I also feel like my architectural vocabulary was already weirdly extensive before this—as far back as I can remember writing, I’ve always had a penchant for naming things, using architectural lexicon. I guess my sense is that I had a predisposition to architectural awareness, but I’m not sure why—and it wasn’t until I immersed myself in the architectural narratives and experiences of urban renewal that this pre-existing interest was really put into action.
Mensah Demary: With that architectural awareness in mind, is there anything you’ve noticed about the architecture in New York, about how the past and present converse with one another?
Adrian Shirk: That’s a great question, and one that I think I am constantly answering differently in each essay. It’s so risky to say anything definitively about this, and yet each essay is a profession of some new idea—writing is always an act of definition, even when the author specifically wants to resist definition. Anyway, I have noticed that the past and the present are often not aware of one another. I have noticed that there’s a wonderful absurdity that arises as a result of this—I guess I think of Father Divine and the drag queens sharing space in the Rockland Palace , or the now-sad optimism (no one could have guessed how sad, at the time!) of the World’s Fair towers in Flushing , or how a suburban dream arose from the ashes of the most decimated, marginalized part of the South Bronx . In New York, the conversation between the past and the present is one that happens out of necessity—the shifting phases of every park, every building, every apartment, every storefront, are so swift, have no time to breathe between eras and occupants, so the buildings are just forced to hold space for all of it—and not comment.
The conversation is: You can try to preserve the “history” of this space, but what history would that be, even? Do you know how many things have happened here? So the landscape resists preservation because the past and the present are always right next to each other, all of the time. OK, this is what I’m thinking: As I’ve walked through New York City over the last decade, and other places, too, my understanding of preservation has changed, and will continue to, I’m sure. But I think that preservation, at least as far as cityscapes go, has to do with preserving the palimpsest, the layers, the stories. All I can do at any given moment is offer a cross-section of that palimpsest, or I can pause the mainframe of the perpetual metropolis at a more or less random frame and just look at it.
The conversation between the past and the present in New York is always kind of ambivalent—the buildings and built spaces reveal things about themselves, and their histories, when we need to know something, when we need to change, when something about the present needs to be brought into high relief.
Mensah Demary: A personal favorite of mine, your first contribution to Catapult, is “This Building is Yours,” on a feminist takeover of an abandoned building in New York in the seventies. Talk a little bit about the piece and how you came to write it.
Adrian Shirk: So, that essay is about the 5th Street Women’s Building takeover on New Year’s Eve 1970, when one hundred women stormed an abandoned building in the middle of the night and for two weeks held it down as a radical, multi-purpose community space before the city broke it up and turned the building into a parking lot for the 9th precinct of the NYPD.
This story came to me in college, though it worked its way through me in a variety of ways for five years before ever becoming this essay. I was taking this course called “Recuperative Poetics and Cultural Sustainability” with the poet Rachel Levitsky. The class was a sort of theoretical investigation of how to document and “preserve,” especially how to do this when the thing itself has disappeared entirely or lacks any concrete documentation. We looked at early arctic exploration texts, Lewis and Clark’s journals, Darwin, Ellie Ga’s video work, Cheryl Dunye’s amazing “The Watermelon Woman,” many other things, too.
We all had to work through these ideas and come up with a project we could present in a small gallery. (We had managed to get twenty-four-hour access to a small storefront that was for rent near Fulton and Grand.) And I just did a lot of exploring, some with my friend and photographer Cait Oppermann—walking around the Lower East Side as she collected images for her own project, wandering around New York on the internet. Then it was International Women’s Day and Rachel sent me this slideshow of the ERA marches and I was looking up names associated with that, and stumbled across a physical intersection of everything I’d been thinking about: the 5th Street Women’s Building. I would recuperate it. I would recreate the history where there was none.
So I did, with faux pictures, et al. And every couple of years I would return to this project and add something to it—new research, a new interview. It was still a living document when I pitched it to Catapult —I was still interviewing, dreaming, thinking about it. I think the way I wrote these pieces is palimpsest-like . . . like the spaces themselves.
Mensah Demary: Your first book is coming soon from Counterpoint, And Your Daughters Shall Prophesy . Anything about the book you’d like to share, as well as the process in writing it?
Adrian Shirk: Yes! And Your Daughters Shall Prophesy is a personal exploration of some American women prophets and spiritual celebrities. There are so many more than most people know of, women who’ve started churches, cults, movements; they are preachers, priestesses, faith healers, mediums, writers, though, in a weird way, I guess I suggest that they are all prophets. In the book, I look at their lives and some particular aspect of their cultural or religious contribution, and I do this as I wend through my own personal narrative: raised deeply secular humanist, became drawn to religion in my early twenties, and now trying to figure out what it means to have religious belief, but in a sort of radical/matriarchal/heretical way, like many of these women. Though, it’s not as though they are saints or radicals or models; it’s just that they model some really wild ways of thinking about God.
I wrote the book over the course of four years, and for some of that time I didn’t think of it as a book—they were just discrete essays about Mary Baker Eddy, Linda Goodman, Sojourner Truth, Eliza Snow. So I would research and travel and interview and go to pilgrimage sites, without much methodology or goal, and a piece would emerge, but it was a slow, wandering process. It helped that I was in a supportive, funded MFA program early on in this process. MFAs allow for wandering—constructive wandering. Academic institutions allow for this generally, I guess, which is why I feel so lucky to be teaching now, at Pratt actually, even though it wasn’t the plan.
Mensah Demary: Thank you for your time, Adrian. Anything else you’d like to add or mention?
Adrian Shirk: Maybe just that—I feel very excited to be writing essays and creative nonfiction right now, and particularly in the context of Catapult , because there is so much energy around this form, so many amazing new nonfiction voices and approaches, a lot of discovery, hybrid, etc.