There Are Places in New York City That Do Not Exist
by Dolan Morgan
There are places in New York City that do not exist. Fresh examples are found every day. There’s no conceivable limit to what they may or may not contain, and now these unreal rooms, vaults, buildings, shafts and tunnels are the subject of an investigation being undertaken by the Pratt Institute. The impetus for the project remains, comically, a 100 year old Brooklyn ghost story.
As is so often the case, it begins with a curious newspaper account, a sarcastic 1894 Times article about Bushwick (a “rocky, bleak, lonesome district”2), wherein the area’s most notorious ghost is depicted as “a woman, who goes about in the scantiest of attire, with disheveled hair and bare feet, and falls into a fit of hysterics as soon as any one approaches.” 2 Though five petrified women swore they’d seen her and a “calcium light” in November of that year, most likely the ghost was just a cold and raving drunk, one more casualty of the booming alcohol industry that so defined the neighborhood in its youth. Skepticism aside, over 200 men still set out to kill, capture or exile the apparition in the middle of the late autumn night. Yet nothing appeared before the angry citizens beyond their own breath and chatter. After shuffling back to their beds and daily routines, the woman went all but forgotten — until a rogue investigator returned her to the spotlight.
“He declared that while walking across the lots near Irving and Knickerbocker Avenues,” pursuing an exclusive interview with the drunk/ghost, “he was confronted by the spectre, who performed the serpentine dance while he remained rooted to the ground,” 2 immobilized and unable to complete or even begin his line of questioning. Imagine a plastered hobo subduing a reporter with her languid, swollen rumba — what impossible moves could make a man confuse a woman for a ghost? Whether reinvigorated by this attack on Freedom of the Press or excited about the prospects of a New Dance Craze, a mob of over 300 strong — including a police task force and patrol wagon, numerous citizens armed with “rusty old army swords,” and even one man “arrayed in fragments of an ancient suit of armor” (of which “the breastplate did not fit him very well”) — stationed themselves together as a mighty Bushwick battalion to finally run the spectral woman out of town, swiveling hips and all. 2 It’s a classic NY scene: so many strangers gathered together in costumes and accessories, hoping to catch a quick glance of their own deaths before them, a theatrical end dolled up in spectacle and circumstance. They failed, of course, but not for a lack of trying. That is, if “trying” in NY means milling about empty streets into the wee hours, talking into a corner and waiting for your life to change, which it does.
Rather, city officials themselves claimed credit for her expulsion, saying that “there is not to-day, or, rather, to-night, a place in the city of Brooklyn where a ghost can walk without being run in” because “a general order was issued, directing the Captains to be vigilant and rid the city of apparitions, spectres, and all sorts of ghosts.” 2 Though obviously tongue-in-cheek, the accomplishment is no less astounding or profound; that ghosts are not real serves only to make more amazing the police department’s success in eradicating them. That is, it ought to be impossible to do anything at all to non-existent entities, such as ghosts, yet the officers still managed to usher them, i.e. nothing, out the city gates with authority. Have you ever tried to remove a nagging emptiness from your life? — the task is more arduous than its imperceptible weight would imply.
At the time, Brooklyn was its own urban entity, separate from NYC proper, and the regulations noted above were listed as “one of the reasons why we don’t want to have our city consolidated with New-York. If such a dire disaster should befall Brooklyn, all our anti-ghost orders would be rescinded, and our streets would become haunted night and day.” 2 That Brooklyn has since been incorporated as a borough of NYC is firmly established and incontrovertible — and that the non-existent ghosts therefore have returned in order to not-haunt the streets is merely a matter of deductive logic. Zoning and county limits have changed in the dead’s favor.
But where, exactly, are (or aren’t) they?
To put it bluntly, the dead have been priced out. This is easy to imagine, considering the rising real estate prices in Brooklyn, “with the average price per square foot rising from $421 in last year’s third quarter to $443 this time around,” 4 and that the average income of a dead person is abysmally low, remaining unchanged for centuries at somewhere around $0 annually, not to mention the unemployment rates in this demographic, which run at roughly 100%, depending on the year. Nor is this a weak attempt at humor or levity, but instead a sad and unchangeable fact. If America has an equivalent of what the Indian caste system calls “the untouchables,” it is the dead. We are not allowed to interact with them, to employ them, to wash or bathe or feed them, to date or even kiss them, and we are told to regard their very existence as suspect. Becoming dead all but eradicates contractual agreements and nullifies marriages. They have almost no rights and can’t even vote in a country that calls itself free. A few among them are revered and given preferential status, but these dead-to-riches tales of stone monuments and enormous murals are anomalies that serve only to veil the inequities so endemic to the population.
Like many outcasts with nowhere else to turn, the dead may very well have taken to the streets, homeless and destitute. Yet, reports of hauntings in the city are at an all time low, and those made in shelters and hostels are often revealed to be the grumblings of the mentally unstable or the scared whimpering of traumatized children. Much of this remains beside the point, however, given that ghosts and the dead are hardly allowed lodging at all in shelters or even hospitals — as soon as they’re discovered in these places, they are sent off to be buried and hidden from public view. Yet, this is a clue: looking for them underground is a place to start. Traditionally, the most reviled and exiled of New York’s pariahs take to the network of subterranean spaces that stick like mollusks to the bottom of city infrastructure. With nowhere else to turn, the ghosts may have taken residence in the abandoned subway stations and platforms, the bricked over rail lines, boxed in developments, roped off storehouses or barricaded drop shafts.
The most comprehensive popular report on such places is Jeniffer Toth’s “The Mole People,” a book that describes in detail much of the lived in, searched over and rumored infrastructure beneath the city. Though widely read, much of its claims are, according to scholars at Columbia University, patently untrue and blatantly falsified. This embellishment is disappointing, especially in the search for lost ghosts. Oh, how desperately we want to believe in “the secluded tunnels that run beneath the busy streets in an interconnected lattice of subway and railroad train tunnels, often unused now, that in some areas reach seven levels below the street,” 5 all running outward, waiting to be discovered and explored, a whole city mirroring our own, both empty and full of hope, but as we plow through the earth and our dreams every morning, we must face the fact that “there are rather few unused sections of tunnel, and they are short,” and we must consider how much “work and expense it takes to construct a tunnel,” and how much “documentation in the form of corporate charters, franchises, contracts, bond and stock offerings, and news reports of construction” there are, letting all of our romantic notions deflate and collapse under “studies, public hearings, annual reports, contract bids, and other public record.” 1 No, the vast warren of limitless space does not exist, neither underneath us nor even anywhere. The places simply are not there. This is what makes non-existent spaces the most valuable real estate in NYC. Their not being there doesn’t mean we cannot look for them, cannot hope to find them, or wish to be in them, finally, but only ensures their lucrative supply/demand ratio. In an amazing feat, the supply is so low (zero), that it can hardly achieve the demand (infinite), a demand borne out of our longing to believe in something just out of reach, something waiting for us around corners and over hills, a spectre hoping to dance us into stillness, impossible people and places stretching outward from the paths we pad over repeatedly, something to shake off the feeling that this is it, these stairs and platforms and doors and vesitubules, archways, atriums, and halls are the limits of the world, the end of the earth, such that nothing could ever be more expensive than these dream places, their unimaginable prices bordering on myth, or fetish or religion or the place where all of these things meet our ambitions in a dance we don’t understand, a tango, a buck-and-wing or cabriole, a “vigorous rhythmic dance originating with Gypsies,” a “sinuous Polynesian dance with rhythmic hip movements,” a “Breton dance resembling a quick minuet,” a quadrille, rigadoon or samba, a “dance where partners move around each other” 3 — all of it, everywhere, mocking us not with its deadly living, but with with its never occurring, never happening, never existing and simply not being, not here or anywhere, the one thing we can never really have, to not be, so meet me on the corner of Knickerbocker and Irving, because — if only out of spite alone — we too should assemble to kill it, again and again, right where it isn’t, until it lives.
- Brennan, Joseph. “Fantasy in The Mole People.” Abandoned Stations. Columbia University, n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2011. www.columbia.edu/~brennan/abandoned/mole–people.html
- “Brooklyn Ghost? Phsaw!.” New York Times 23 Nov. 1894: n.pag.nytimes.com. Web. 20 Oct. 2011.
- Chrisomalis, Stephen. “Word List: Styles of Dance.” The Phrontistery: Obscure Words and Vocabulary Resources. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2011. http://phrontistery.info/dance.html.
- Polsky, Sara. “Real Estate Industry Issues Quarterly Notice of Rising Prices – Market Reports – Curbed NY.” Curbed NY: The New York City neighborhoods and real estate blog. N.p., 11 Oct. 2011. Web. 22 Oct. 2011. http://ny.curbed.com/archives/2011/10
- Toth, Jennifer. The Mole People: Life in the Tunnels Beneath New York City. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 1993. Print.
Illustration by Jessica Mack.
Dolan Morgan lives and writes in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
Jessica Mack is a painter and illustrator who lives and works in New York City.