She unearths so many strange, wondrous facts that my exclamation marks in the margin resemble elaborate Morse code.
âYou are a New Yorker when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now,â Colson Whitehead wrote in his ode to his hometown, âThe Colossus of New York.â The palimpsest of the city is Wertzâs obsession. She draws the route of one of her 15-mile walks, pointing out what catches her eye â âpatches of old slate sidewalkâ and intricate, antique doorknobs. âI spend the whole walk in current New York City looking for evidence of the past New York City,â she writes.
The graphic form, more than any other, can play host to this desire, monkey with chronology and reveal how the past creeps into the present â no special effects or laborious exposition required. In âHere,â Richard McGuire followed a corner of a living room from 3,000,500,000 B.C. to A.D. 22,175. Wertz doesnât attempt quite so ambitious a span, but the effect she achieves is no less transporting. She juxtaposes sketches of street corners then and now: the cigar shops on Broadway that gave way to an Apple Store and a Jamba Juice; Harlemâs fabled Lenox Lounge, lit up like a chandelier in the 1940s, shuttered and fallen into disrepair in 2016. She traces the evolution of food carts and street sweepers. On one page she pays homage to the heavy, embossed âhotel keys of yore.â
Pete Hamill called nostalgia âthe most powerful of all New York emotions.â Itâs reached a particular pitch in recent years with rising income inequality, the influx of investors for whom New York represents property not home and a lack of affordable housing that has come to constitute what some are calling âa humanitarian emergency.â There has been a drove of elegies to the lost diversity of the city: âSt. Marks Is Deadâ by Ada Calhoun, âVanishing New Yorkâ by Jeremiah Moss, âArbitrary Stupid Goalâ by Tamara Shopsin, âThe Lonely Cityâ by Olivia Laing. Roz Chastâs graphic love letter to the city, âGoing into Town,â also published this month, is more sanguine than most about the evolution of New York but still strikes a melancholy note. (âI try not to freak out every time a favorite restaurant or bookstore closes. I remind myself that life is change, and that life in New York is definitely change.â) These writers long for what the city was once, a place people moved to find alternatives to the suburbs, not to recreate them, a place that allowed for failure, for reinvention.
Wertz registers the changes but without polemic. Thereâs no need; the coda to her project is enough. After 10 years in the city, she was priced out of her Brooklyn neighborhood last year. She wrote this book in California.