Monday, January 11, 2010

Aimless Reading: The F's, Part 18 (Sesshu Foster)

Foster, Sesshu
City Terrace Field Manual

Purchased at Rust Belt Books.

On one of his visits to town, I brought Ammiel Alcalay to Rust Belt Books, Buffalo's great used book store. Ammiel is basically a walking encyclopedia, so it was a ball following him around the store, watching as he pulled one book after another off the shelf, asking me had I read it, then telling me what a great book it was.

By the time we were done, he had gathered a stack of books two feet high that he had to have shipped back to Brooklyn! When we were in the poetry section, he pulled City Terrace Field Manual off the shelf and asked if I had ever read it. I said no, that in fact I had never heard of Sesshu Foster. "Great book," he said, "I can't believe this is just sitting on the shelf." So, I bought it. I think I contacted Sesshu within a month to see if I could get him to come to Buffalo, which he did the following fall.

When I bring visitors to Buffalo, I take them on one of three tours -- The Niagara Falls tour, the Buffalo Architectural Sites Tour, and my personal favorite, The Entropy Tour. The Entropy Tour takes the viewer through the blighted, surreal cityscape of which much of Buffalo is comprised. It begins with a drive south on the 5, over the skyway, where we pass the hockey arena at roof level on our left and Lake Erie below us on the right. We take the exit for the Tifft nature preserve and drive up to the turnaround that takes you under the 5 and back in the direction from which you came.

At the turnaround stands an old grain elevator. It sits on a little outcropping of land in Lake Erie. There used to be a huge, rusting ship docked next to it -- the two of them together, ship and elevator, made a stunning picture. For some reason, they removed the ship, thus diminishing the sublimity of the Entropy Tour and the city itself.

Following the turnaround, we pass by the nature preserve and into the Old First Ward. Just before crossing the bridge into the ward, we see on our right the great ruined city of grain elevators that once fueled Buffalo's economic rise. We usually pause on the little bridge the crosses the Buffalo river into the Old First Ward to admire the view of the elevators that rise on the banks.

Passing quickly the cute little worker's cottages on Louisiana St., we find ourselves in the middle of several city housing projects. For irony's sake, I usually make a quick left on Perry back toward the hockey arena to show the visitor the corner at which the projects meet up with the high-end lofts and the half-built casino. It's kind of funny, and kind of sad.

Turning north we drive to William and turn right, where we pass by the anomalous suburban homes built right into the decaying cityscape, as if to let everyone know that we are embarrassed by our decadent urban lifestyles and that it is only a matter of time before the rest of the city is leveled in favor of an all-encompassing suburb of vinyl-sided homes with two car garages and neat little lawns.

This little fantasy quickly gives way to the reality of Buffalo's East Side, where whole blocks have been demolished, whole others need to be, and where one wonders what holds the buildings still standing up. We take William about as far east as we can without leaving the city, make a slight left on Memorial, where the jewel in the entropy crown, Buffalo's Central Terminal, rises out of the fields. While much has been done to preserve this ruin from total decay, it still hovers over the neighborhood like a vast and lonely ghost.

The Entropy Tour concludes with a drive down one of the many formerly grand avenues leading back downtown. I usually take Broadway, as that still has enough life left to give one the sense of past and present awkwardly mingled that defines life in the Queen City.

Which is all a bit of a roundabout way of saying that I took Sesshu on this tour when he visited. City Terrace Field Manual performs a similar kind of exploration, mapping the life of this East LA neighborhood that is not only not on any tour routes, but isn't even incorporated into the city itself.

from City Terrace Field Manual

I saw their bodies steaming, lying on the avenue. The motorcycle was crammed up under the car. Their bodies were unmoving and gray under the streetlights, and I could not see what they were looking at. I had not seen that before. The bodies were steaming on the ground. People were coming out onto the street to look at them. The people were not shining like the car dealerships. I kept going, driving down skid row at midnight, looking for my brother.


Anonymous said...

That was a great tour! Wish I had more time to investigate and document!

Michael Kelleher, Buffalo, NY said...

Sesshu! Were your ears ringing? Chris Abani was here last week and were talking about you and the entropy tour and your website tour of East L.A. You'll have to come back for a visit one of these days! Hope yr well.