Travels underground

By Erick Lyle

San Francisco Bay Guardian

Three books look at the secret histories of cities

REVIEW A lost bit of San Francisco’s secret history involves how Food Not Bombs may have made the old fountain at Civic Center disappear. During the mid-’90s, when the SFPD showed up daily at Civic Center to arrest members of the group for giving away food, the volunteers would often grab the box of bagels and the soup pot and jump into the fountain to evade capture. The cops got soaked every time. It is said that a certain Officer Lindow even acquired a special pair of police-issue waders for the purpose of making arrests. True or not, when the plans for a newly renovated Civic Center were announced a couple years later, they called for – surprise! – the removal of the fountain.

Aiming to “tell the history of Paris from the point of view of ‘the dangerous classes’ – insurrectionists, vagabonds, immigrants, sexual outsiders, and criminals,” Andrew Hussey relates a similar tale in Paris: The Secret History. After the rebellion of May 1968, in which student protesters literally ripped up the streets of Paris and threw cobblestones at the police, the French government, like – it seems – the SF planners, sought revenge against the city’s very infrastructure. “One of the first actions of the city authorities was to lay tarmac over the historic cobbles of the Latin Quarter,” Hussey writes. “In the new, mechanized Paris of the 1970s, [these protests] would no longer be possible or conceivable.”

Such charming examples of cause and effect are rare in this sometimes seemingly random assemblage of centuries’ worth of such anecdotes. Yet Hussey approaches the sweep of this unruly history with a novelist’s eye for rich detail. We learn that the Paris streets of August 1939 were “heavy and airless” just before the war with the Nazis started, and we see the “urine trickling down the concrete sides of the stadium” where 7,000 Jews were held before deportation to the concentration camps in July 1942.

This cinematic approach of layering fact after fact is sometimes haunting. Does the Parisian public’s fascination, for example, in the summer of 1939, with the murder trial of a magnetic German con artist demonstrating a “cool demeanour and a predatory sexual manner” foreshadow the evident fascination many would have with the Nazis, whom France would soon be collaborating with? However, it is disappointing when, again and again, Hussey misses chances to tie these loose facts together. He notes that the drug of choice in late-’50s Paris was Algerian kief, but fails to make anything of the fact that Algeria was supplying drugs to France’s student intellectuals while fighting a bloody guerrilla war of independence with ruthless French authorities.

Instead of offering analysis, Hussey often simply points out cheerful ironies. The location where Paris’s patron saint Denis was decapitated around AD 250 is now the heart of Paris’s red-light district. A street named for an Italian torture device used in the 16th century to stretch Protestants’ limbs to the breaking point as they were slowly lowered over a fire is a “gentle and green crossroads in the heart of the Latin Quarter.” In Secret History, we never really learn whether drug smuggling funded the Algerian independence movement – just that the once-interesting places are all cafes and boutiques now. But that’s hardly a secret, is it?

On the other hand, it was a secret, now safe to reveal, that New York City’s 1960s underground press avoided censorship by having its publications printed by non-English-speaking businesses in Chinatown, as noted in Free Press: Underground and Alternative Publications 1965-1975. Edited by Jean-Francois Bizot, who founded the Parisian underground paper Actuel when the tarmac was still drying over the paving stones, Free Press cobbles together long-lost art from the era’s radical international press. Produced in the format of a coffee-table book, with only a brief foreword and afterword, it mostly allows the groundbreaking experimental look of papers such as the San Francisco Oracle and the East Village Other to speak for itself.

The book is hardly a definitive account of the underground press’s heroic efforts to break Vietnam War-era stories. But examined back to back, 10 years of cover pages form their own secret history of the movement’s relatively swift journey, under the intense pressure of Cointelpro repression, from idealism to paranoia to sleazy cynicism. Featuring eight-color bleeds, handwritten articles superimposed over photos, and text that ran in any direction, the early youth movement papers burst off the page with a confidence that the Revolution was maybe only months – or days – away. But as early as 1970, Detroit’s Fifth Estate would ran a cover photo of hippies posing with guns, headlined “Armed Love,” and by 1976 the Berkeley Barb was filled with the lurid ads for San Pablo Avenue massage parlors that were, by then, paying for the Revolution to stay in print.

Today many of the pages reprinted in Free Press are depressingly dated or nearly illegible, but they also represent something beautiful and irreplaceable. In the book’s foreword, East Village Other writer Barry Miles muses with Hussey-like irony – and slight geographical inaccuracy – that the area where Ken Kesey once held his acid tests is now Silicon Valley. “The advent of personal blogs now means that everyone can publish their own paper!” Perhaps. The framework of the Underground Press Syndicate is easily recognizable in today’s online Indymedia movement. But I doubt anyone will be reviewing a book titled Best Blog Art of the Zeros 30 years from today.

Still, maybe someone will still be talking about the parties we threw, or even what we wore to them – the kind of minutiae of city life obsessively collected in David Wojnarowicz: A Definitive History of Five or Six Years on the Lower East Side by interviewer Sylvere Lotringer and editor Giancarlo Ambrosino. In this book of mesmerizing interviews with the late artist and his friends and collaborators, breathless recollections of famous graffiti, the night the dancing almost caved in the floor of the attic at PS1, and who worked the door at the Mudd Club gradually paint the very finest brushstrokes of a neighborhood’s impressionistic history.

In the demoralized decade after Free Press’s revolution failed to appear, Wojnarowicz and friends inherited a broken-down Big Apple as gloriously decayed as the Paris in any of Hussey’s lost, secret centuries, and they exuberantly remade its squalor into art. (When we first meet Wojnarowicz in the book, he has just let loose thousands of “cock-a-bunnies” – live cockroaches with paper bunny ears and cotton tails stuck on – in a guerrilla art attack on an exhibit at PS1.) As dying New York birthed hip-hop and punk rock, Wojnarowicz and company fucked strangers and put on art shows on rotten, abandoned piers; made art out of discarded patient files from Bellevue mental hospital; and drove around stealing stuff to make the sets for Richard Kern movies such as You Killed Me First. The bombed-out Lower East Side itself might have been the artists’ biggest influence. Kern remembers that the butcher shop on East 13th Street would sell you real blood for $1.50. Just six years before his exhibit in the Whitney Biennial, Wojnarowicz was breaking into upscale art galleries in Soho to pour cow’s blood and spray paint stencils in the stairwells.

Things were less fun after a Time article on the neighborhood’s art scene. Some careers took off; some didn’t. But Wojnarowicz continued to hook up his friends. In one of the book’s most hilarious bits, uptown collectors pay the up-and-coming artist a ton of money to do an installation in their mansion’s basement. So Wojnarowicz and friends drive around for weeks scavenging garbage off the street for an exhibit that causes his patrons to beg, “Can you kill the bugs before you bring this stuff in here?” This sort of fascination among the very rich with “the dangerous classes” foreshadows the Lower East Side’s ’90s real estate explosion. As the rents started to climb, “we were eased out like cockroaches,” one scenester remembers, fittingly. Or as Hussey might write, where the cock-a-bunnies once marched is now just a quiet street of shops, cafes, and boutiques.

But this book makes it clear that Wojnarowicz – a queer survivor of childhood abuse – made art of his life because he knew all along, even before being diagnosed with AIDS, that others would attempt to erase the evidence of it. Wojnarowicz gained stature from his illness, from the censorship attacks on his art by the Christian Right, and from his public role as an Act-Up protester, until the secret history he embodied became something more like an undying myth. If you squint your eyes just right, can’t you see the enormous, snorting bull he once painted across the entire intersection of East 12th Street and Second Avenue, because he knew it would look good from his best friend’s window? Or for that matter, can’t you see Officer Lindow in his waders, trying to capture a box of bagels? As one of Wojnarowicz’s friends notes, “without the myth, we’re left with dry, dull, important information. But who wants to learn that?” *

Erick Lyle is the editor of Scam magazine.