You’ve seen these kinds of juxtapositions before: someone will place a photograph of a specific location from a century ago up against a contemporary photograph. Usually, the intent is to make a reader shake their head and wonder about the horrible price of progress: a beautiful old Victorian home in the “before” frame has given way to an ugly strip mall in the “after,” for instance. A field becomes a gas station. A row of quaint row houses is now an ugly and very expensive-looking condominium.
The passage of time, portrayed in the space between those two photos, is almost always portrayed as something deleterious. Spaces lose their power and their beauty and their dignity over time. I don’t know if Robert Crumb’s “A Short History of America” is based on a specific location, for instance, but it’s one of the best examples of the form. Here it is, in slightly animated form in this excerpt from Terry Zwigoff’s brilliant documentary Crumb:
Julia Wertz’s huge new book Tenements, Towers & Trash is packed with those kind of juxtapositions. She’ll draw a New York City street from a hundred years ago, and then she’ll draw the same street in modern times. Readers have almost been trained to drool from nostalgia on seeing this format printed on a page.
But here’s the thing: spend anything more than a minute looking at Wertz’s drawings and you’ll see that they’re not dripping with the kind of judgment that you’ll find in those other books. The past isn’t sainted; it’s not a victim to the merciless, plodding present. It’s just..different, is all.
Oh, sure: Wertz will occasionally focus her loving attention on a particularly beautiful awning or marquee in the “before” picture from the 1930s, and the reader can’t help but notice that the contemporary building has none of the panache of the earlier version. But for the most part, she portrays both drawings as points on a continuum. This isn’t nostalgia, it’s acknowledgement of a past that informs the present. It’s a celebration of city life, where every generation tears down and builds up, and the only consistent fact is that everything will change.
You likely know Wertz from her books The Fart Party or Drinking at the Movies. Her autobiographical comics are funny and piercing and insightful, but they will not likely prepare you for the work you’ll find in Tenements. Wertz’s intentionally simplistic art style in the earlier books is still here — she still draws herself with almost less detail than your standard emoji face — but these drawings of buildings are finely rendered illustrations, with more detail per square inch than you’d find on entire pages of some of Wertz’s earlier work.
Tenements is Wertz’s celebration of New York City — a somewhat bittersweet one. She notes several times that in the course of making the book, she was priced out of her affordable one-bedroom apartment so much of her tribute to the city was illustrated from the other side of the country. The book is packed with NYC-centric digressions about hotel keys and egg cream recipes and the contents of New York’s tap water.
This is a big, dense art book that washes over you, swallowing your attention and overwhelming your senses. It’s like taking a long walk with a friend who loves to shoot the shit about history and whatever she happened to be feverishly researching on Wikipedia at 3 am the night before. It’s a meandering journey with no specific start and end point.
If I had one complaint about Tenements, it’s that it could use a little bit more of a structure. But given a choice, it’s better that Wertz erred on the side of too little structure; it seems entirely appropriate that you don’t know what the hell to expect you when you turn the page in a book about the greatest city in the world. In that way, it kind of simulates the act of walking in New York, when you have no idea what you’ll find around the next corner.
Even though Wertz writes lovingly and in detail about very specific aspects of New York City — I particularly like the biography of Nelly Bly and the short essay on New York inventions like hot dogs, air conditioners, and Tom Collinses — Tenements can also be appreciated by someone who’s never been to New York. The book is a celebration of city life, of living right on top of your neighbor, of those corner shops that barely stay open for a month and the storefronts that last longer than a century.
“Basically,” Wertz admits while on a walk toward the end of Tenements…
I spend the whole walk in current New York City looking for evidence of the past New York City…I’m perpetually fantasizing about a time I never experienced, and imagining a life I’ll never live.
On first reading, this sounds like someone who’s overcome with an irrational love of the past. But really, it’s more just a storyteller coming to terms with the fact that she’ll never be able to see all the stories that came before. She’s always craning her neck to spot those ancient architectural signs of people who once lived where she lived, who walked those streets.
But unlike some foppish nostalgia act, Wertz doesn’t seem beholden to the past. Instead, she’s interested in the relationship between the past and the present. What does it mean when you live where so many others have lived? Are there signs of progress, of actual forward movement, in the streets of New York City? Wertz seems to think so.
Every city is home to countless perspectives — practically an infinite number of perspectives, so far as our limited human understanding can fathom. Tenements is valuable because it provides one talented cartoonist’s perspective on a city. When you really see a city through Wertz’s eyes, you’re likely to understand your own city in a different way forever after.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant