On the corner of Irving and 16th there is an old service station. It stands alone, a tiny garage with car park area in front. At first glance it looks intact, as though the owners have simply stepped out for lunch, having no cars to work on. The fencing that surrounds the lot makes the truth clear. The brick facade is cracking in places, and the pavement is uneven. In one corner the hole for an underground tank is visible, and behind the station there is a stand-alone garage, part of a more recent expansion, likewise fenced off and abandoned. Lubrication, the back building offers, in letters more than a foot high. But this second structure is not the point, it holds no sentimental value, a simple concrete structure. It is the front building, smaller and older, with windows cracked and dirty, that calls to curious passers-by.
Why has it not been refurbished, they wonder, on this street of continual repurposing?
Is it a Super Fund site, home to toxic chemicals leaking from an old underground tank that any new owner would have to first remove?
Is it simply the property of a mechanic in his later years, far too old to crank up a car and have a look beneath, but not yet dead?
There is no way to tell without searching out the deed, without making a study of this small property gone quiet on a busy street.
This is the legacy of America, this tiny garage and others like it, old schools on Long Island and hospitals upstate. These are the history of a country born late and with so much space. In some countries the repurposing is faster, and giant drive-ins do not sit empty for years, their screens slowly rotting in the shifting weather, accompanied by cars no longer used by young couples. America’s history is one of left behind creations, of still standing attempts at greatness, and quickly forgotten industries. In a place so focused on the future and the new, where reclamation is a civic project rather than a necessity, things no longer needed simply stand empty. In the desert outside of Phoenix hundreds of airplanes sit waiting, just in case, their bodies wrapped in plastic against the heat.
This is a result of youth, but also of time. America has no structures built by small towns over centuries, it has no grand cathedrals that bankrupted kings. Instead, like many places, it has the mansions of the very rich who built until they died and left no heir, whose fortresses and castles became museums after long periods of abandonment. Boldt castle on Hart Island in the St. Lawrence lay empty and incomplete for seventy three years before restoration began, with the aim not of completion, but of returning to the moment of abandonment. All across America these monuments stand, tales not of grandeur and history as much as of waste and desire. They are not unique to this country, but in a land of such sprawling youth I can not but be amazed at what we have built and left behind.
This is America, and our history is short, filled with dreams and old achievements cast aside and forgotten, yet still visible.
Walking by the little service station on the corner of 16th and Irving I remember all those others, likewise waiting for the weather and the graffiti artists.