Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Steel Sky, Rusted Ground

FOR A MAY AFTERNOON, it was grey and dusted with drizzle today. It made for a drab departure from the Hoboken terminal. Rolling along the rails between the waterfront and the tunnel that separates the coastal plain from the estuaries of the Meadowlands takes you through a striking blend of new and old construction. The path the train takes was laid down well over a century before my birth. The tunnel I mentioned was built in 1908. A canal dug in the 19th Century that permitted longboats to offload cargo from their entire length at once still glitters between the light rail terminal and the rest of the Hoboken railhead, home now to geese and garbage. Each day I use a mode of transit that, in its most basic form, was perfected before the Civil War, and it passes million-dollar condo developments growing from the sidings where once children might have followed the trains picking up fallen chunks of coal for their parents' furnaces or stoves.

The grey sky lent an unwarranted sad air to the rust and weeds that overgrow some still-undeveloped tracts of western Hoboken. I tried to find fingerprints on the fading human constructs lining the rails. In tracing my eye over the dark bricks of a boarded-up blockhouse near the terminal, I wondered about the people who placed each row of masonry, who scraped a trowel along each line of mortar to trim the excess. Did they live in Hoboken? As they worked, did they smoke Lucky Strikes or Camels? Was their next destination after work a bar, a dinner table, a quickie? Did they wonder, as they stacked bricks, how long their work might last? When they were on their deathbeds, did they think back to their work and feel content, or regret, at how they earned their money?

Hoboken, like many old industrial waterfront cities, is slowly mulching its disused links to the past. Not all of it happens at once. As the shiny new skyscrapers rise over these districts, as warehouses become lofts or are demolished to make way for condo towers, the remaining landmarks of a fading century — tomblike gashouses like temples to Prometheus; spindly smokestacks tearing at low clouds; the sawtooth roofs of prewar factories, windows perforated with rock-sized holes; docks drooping into harbors, bereft of commerce but bristling with trees from windblown seeds — stand out all the more baldly. People need homes, and the ever-ravening tax base needs to expand, but it's sad to hear the drum beats of eternity echo off of the walls of these structures that once served so ably.

Is anyone going to regret the decrepitude of a luxury condo tower? Will the shell of a light rail car evoke sepiatone memories of a mighty generation bundling off to fight European fascism? Will any of our works endure into another century and be cherished, or merely be paved over at the highest bid?

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