greetings from the land of heat and fire,
I returned to Santa Fe last week and was slightly shocked that it hadn't rained since I left for Portland a month before. Days and days of rain and glowing semi-overcast-skies and electrically green vegetation and ground that is always semi-wet will make New Mexico seem shockingly brown and dry and hot for the first time in 6 years. Arizona is burning right now and the air quality in Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and other parts of New Mexico, and even Colorado, is suffering because of it. We can smell the smoke from a couple hundred miles away. And the fire danger all around us is huge.
And I'm sunburned.
This Friday I begin my residency at Santa Fe City Hall. I will spend all day of every Friday of this summer at City Hall. I will even have an office, because the City has no money to hire new employees when old ones leave, and there is more office space available than usual these days.
Last Friday, I met with the Mayor and was introduced to some of the City employees I will be working with. There were varying levels of excitement about the prospect of a summer "artist in residence at City Hall." My introduction and pitch of my presence there varied from person to person, and their responses of excitement weren't proportional to how well I delivered it, or at least that's how I took it. I think some people are just thrilled with the idea or the concept of an artist working with them at City Hall, without any justifying details, and I'm pretty sure one or two people looked at me with skepticism for the same exact reasons.
I'll be updating this blog each week with a few details specific to the residency's week-by-week process.
Touring the Santa Fe City Hall a little bit, and talking with the people who work there, oddly, or appropriately reminded me of the weekly visitations me and my grandpa used to take to Passaic, New Jersey's City Hall. I remember eating the formative bagels of my youth in the City Clerk's office. It's only recently that I actually understand what a City Clerk does. Grandpa worked for the City for more than 2 decades, and finished his career as the head of Passaic's Department of Code Enforcement, the department that deals with zoning, building inspection, the enforcement of all building/development codes, and probably other things lost with time. Grandpa retired in the early 1980s, and the department doesn't appear to exist as such anymore.
This moment of connection between the two City Halls became part of a constellation of thoughts around home and roots and Passaic that have been brewing in the back of my mind, and they're going to form into some kind of long-term project that involves constructing a history of that place from 1922 to 2022.
I've been thinking a lot about history, and who gets to construct its narratives, and how there's probably more truth in a fucking magical realism fiction than there is in an average, mediocre history book that lots of high schoolers read. I'd like to attempt to construct history with people, and acknowledge it as something different than the absolute narratives that are presented to us by the empowered in our cultures. Could history be accepted as something as imperfect as memory, more human than textbooks and archives, motivated by emotion and experience, told in different voices by people who usually get excluded from the annuls and cannons of what we are accustomed to calling "history?"
This idea was sealed for me when I started doing research this evening. (I can already tell that this project is going to become an obsession.) I had a long conversation with my mom about Passaic history. I was most struck by the discovery that my great grandparents met on the street that my grandfather was born on, which was the street that I went to elementary school on, which was the street that my family owned a restaurant on for more than 50 years-- here are the roots and continuity I've been seeking.
But the punchline found me when I started to do Google searches about Passaic in general and about my family: I couldn't find any trace of my family's long-running, but long-gone restaurant, or my grandfather's history, or the various local news items that define a lot of my perception of Passaic. All of these items are pre-internet, and it's a little freaky to me that you can Google my name and find all kinds of useless shit I'd prefer the world didn't see, and yet these meaningful, significant moments, institutions, and people are gone to the world of the internet, which is where history-seeking increasingly occurs.
This absence of history is like some weird form of cultural Alzheimers to me. Passaic is more than the fastest growing city in New Jersey, more than the site of the first Communist-led strike in the US, more than what Robert Smithson said it was, more than "the birthplace of TV," more than the shithole people think it is as they drive by on the Parkway, more than gang violence, more than pollution, more than abandoned industry, more than demographic data, more than anything you can find on the internet, and I only know it through 12 years of experience that ended more than a decade ago.
So, I'm fucking committed to this. You heard it here. I'm going to get knee deep in some archives, and basements, and attics, and tea dates and coffee dates and beer dates in Passaic at the end of the summer, and presumably for a while to come just to research this. I'm looking forward to receiving old photographs of the city and photocopies of the books of newspaper clippings that my grandpa kept.
There's something terrifying to me about the idea of tangible artifacts and human histories being lost to migration and the primacy of the internet, which is so ephemeral and unnatural that we can't even touch, smell, or taste it. My moment of searching the internet for real, meaningful history I know of and bore witness to, and finding nothing just crystallized for me how false our assumptions of the internet's essential usefulness and breadth of knowledge really can be.
Instead of ranting more, I'm going to offer readers of this blog the opportunity to allow me to create a portrait of you based on your downloaded facebook information. If you're interested, email me.
I'm also hopefully going to start a very exciting tourist venture this summer, but more on that later.