I first passed in front of the Coignet building at Third Street and Third Avenue in Gowanus, Brooklyn, in, must have been 1990, to visit the studio of an artist, just across the avenue.
I thought it was the house at the end of the world. It had an abject-stately haunted film noir aura. Reminded me of the isolated house at the end of Staten Island in Sorry, Wrong Number. This painting from 2012 by Brooklyn artist Kara Smith kind of captures the feeling I’m talking about, though in my version the clouds would be dark and the story scarier.
And then I moved to Brooklyn and twenty years pass and for all that time it remains a haunted ruin which I populated in stories for my kids with all sorts of eccentrics but now with Whole Foods coming in all around it the strange little bit of classical architecture in cement is being given the plaintive piano sepia tone preservationist dipped in formaldehyde treatment in a documentary video, At the Corner of Third and Third, by filmmaker Max Kutner, screened last week at the Greenpoint Film Festival yet, see info on the Kutner website.
Wild space is a concept from psychogeography. A wild space is a space adjacent to civilized space, where the imagination of the civilized go, to run and indulge their fantasies. I extracted the term from an article on urban geography which lamented that with the onset of video game culture, now the predominant entertainment industry, kids have internalized and mediated their wild space, and do not go roaming in those adjacent side places, railroad tracks, ravines, cemeteries, empty lots, empty houses, valleys, no trespassing zones, etc etc, which have been the haunts of kids seeking adventure for generations.
But the concept also works on a broad cultural level. Other wild spaces in the mythology are the Valley of the Kings, relative to Deir el Bhariah on the Nile, west of Luxor; the German cliffs of the Rhine, relative to France; the cliffs of Cornwall, relative to ‘civilized’ England; the bluffs of Kleinschmitt, relative to a block and a half inland—and then the Gowanus.
Wild Space in the mythology
Among the various ways in which the neighborhood of Castle Garden “reminded me of where I grew up,” even though they were quite different, the psychogeography was in fact similar, and it struck me as odd that I ended up living a block and a half from the wild space of the Gowanus, when in my childhood I had lived a block and a half from the wild space of the bluffs overlooking Lake Michigan, in both cases the block and a half on a west-to-east orientation. Odd, indeed: it occurred to me that that convergence mystically inspired much of the writing in that place and time.
In the mythology, related to Castle Garden, is the Gowanus. The Gowanus in the mythology is routinely depicted as the wild space, where monsters dwell. This is a reflection of what the author found was a general perception of the area, in the minds of those who lived ‘up the hill.’ The social topography of the old neighborhood was, clearly, up the hill, good, down the hill, bad. Though that line blurred over the past fifteen years, the ideas persist in the place and time of the stories. As a result, these confabulated geographies are latticed over the real Gowanus. Examples of the use of the Gowanus:
In an early adventure story, likely Fleece, the Gowanus is fantastically linked to up the hill by way of Marco Polo Restaurant (before it was renovated).
In Drucilla, a retelling of The Vampire Lovers, in the context of the Riemenschneider family mythology, Drucilla lays at rest as a vampire in abandoned buildings along the Gowanus.
In the story about the Michelangelo, based on an actual four feet high Isis lamp found, then smashed on the corner of Smith and DeGraw in summer 2006?, and the hand of which I still keep in storage, the site of the makers of the plaster lamp was the Guffati brothers on Carroll just off the canal, where there was in fact an actual maker of decorative plaster busts of Elvis etc.
Another early story, name uncertain at present, is a retelling of the movie The Grasp of the Lorelei, placing the monster in a girl who lived on Carroll Street opposite the canal and would on certain nights turn into a monster that lived in the canal. At several other points, the Gowanus is compared to the Rhine around the cliffs of the Lorelei, this partly having fun with developer visions of it as another Venice.
In Wax House, or the Thing in America, Gowanus in the 1850s is imagined, as is a wax museum opened up in the upper floor of a saloon at the corner of Carroll and Bond Street. In Merinanka (2009), if I recollect, she too revisits 19th century Gowanus.
In Mith Street (2010), the main characters set out in the beginning of the story to seek the magic maraphasia plant that grows in the Gowanus, and it is there that they encounter a werewolf. In this, the Gowanus is a translation of the site of the Tibet episode at the beginning of The Werewolf of London.
In Pillar of the Moon (2012), Rhys, her dealer, and others come out to visit longtime resident artist “High” Highsmith who operates a defunct forge at the twist of the Canal by the concrete factory past Third. This then becomes a translation in story of the forge in Cornwall held by the mad artist in Crucible of Terror.
In this story, Jack Dracula is High’s factotum, and he lives around on Third Avenue, in the Coignet Building, where he does his business as a tattoo artist/vampire, possibly as a squatter, this part of the Gowanus imagined as in the settings in the movie, The Witch Who Came From the Sea. This is partly a response to my rainy walk back from Third Avenue Extra Space Storage as one of the final walks of my frantic exiling in March, 2013; and partly a memory of almost buying Gen a black guitar at a guitar shop on Third up by Carroll, in 2005?, putting $50 down, and then never coming back for it.
We also made a place of pilgrimage in ‘daddy camp’ of the pizza place there, and I always pointed out that we came very close to living in the block at Third Avenue of Carroll Street. Finally, in later years, the spooky stick was harvested from the streets of Gowanus, and the second spooky stick, which was then made use of from 2008 on, and only destroyed with the move out in March, 2013, was found broken off of a tree on Third Avenue near Third Street, within site of the Coignet, on a rainy day run back from getting ink at Staples at Third Street and Fourth Avenue.
Therefore, it might be said, the Gowanus runs through the Von Hohenheim mythology.
Final note: though Hartog, in its Euro and in its American forms, is the pole city of the mythogenetic zone in which the VH storying is situated, all of the stories were uncovered or told from a base in what is termed in fiction Castle Garden, located near the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, NYC.