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When cartoonist Julia Wertz left California for New York City in 2007, historians had just marked its creaking subway system’s 100th birthday. A few rainstorms flooded the archaic drainage network and crippled almost every single one of its lines that year, but the Metropolitan Transit Agency’s trains were relatively punctual compared to now, when a daily ridership that nears six million people is subject to about 75,000 wholly aggravating delays every month. Back then, the L shuffled smoothly between Chelsea and Brooklyn, where Wertz parked herself after a stint in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley neighborhood.
“The first time I visited New York, prior to moving there, the subway was my first experience of the city,” reads Wertz’s all-caps narrative copy in Tenements, Towers & Trash: An Unconventional Illustrated History of New York City. Her chronicling of the subway is just one part of this big, new black-and-white book of comics, fastidious drawings, and nonfiction passages about America’s most densely populated metropolis.
Dazzling depictions of old tokens and “historic entrances,” which hover fluidly on the page, feature Brooklyn’s early 20th-century era Atlantic Avenue station and in Manhattan, an above-ground transit entrance that was called the “72nd street control house” when it opened in 1904. Both were crafted by architects George Lewis Heins and Christopher LaFarge. Wertz lovingly sketches each inch of these structures’ decorative arches and fanciful wrought iron in her singular black line. Her homage to these still-standing behemoths, which look far more like Heins and LaFarge’s famed cathedral designs than train stations, underscores the sensibility of her stirring project. It was years in the making.
“Moving to New York is an unparalleled experience that you only get to do once, and you either make it or you don’t,” wrote Wertz in Drinking at the Movies, her hilarious and occasionally gutting Eisner-nominated 2010 graphic memoir about moving to New York City. Amid its self-deprecating and smart, personal strips, a love of architecture is borne out in diagrammed apartment floor plans and depictions of leafy sidewalks near Greenpoint’s McGolrick Park. The Koyama Press 2015 edition of Wertz’s book included a “New York City Sketchbook,” which heralded the fruitful route taken after she quit drinking (as well as comics, for a time).
For a couple of years, Wertz broke into closed hotels and abandoned hospitals to explore, photograph, and draw forgotten, trash-strewn crooks of the city and elsewhere. “It’s very physical,” the artist said of her “running through the woods, running from cops” in a 2016 Cometbus interview. Her ever-morphing storefronts and nonfiction “Then & Now” comics about New York City — punched-up with wildly improvised dialogue — ran in Harper’s and the New Yorker and sometimes starred Wertz herself, depicted as a diminutive figure whose broadening eye sockets and apple cheeks sit under a black helmet of hair. This minimal exaggeration looks nothing like her because drawing people isn’t Wertz’s strong suit, and because her cartoon portrayal was perhaps conceived to distinguish her comics self from the actual struggles with alcoholism that threatened her health and suffocated her artistically. Heavy drinking confined Wertz to her compact Brooklyn apartment, but when she found a path out of her front door, she produced a body of work that feels peerless for its distinctive storytelling and visual splendor.
Wertz’s glossy magazine assignments and more are included in Tenements, Towers & Trash. Row home backyards and brownstones are expansive and magnified, finally getting the space they deserve. Long-gone theater marquees, snack carts, and the immense hand-painted typography of age-old signage are acknowledged with affection for the city that Joan Didion compared to one’s first lover. There are sporadic comic strips on pizza or street cleaning, too — Wertz is just as committed to producing technical diagrams of street sweepers as she is to sketching piles of festering 19th-century era garbage.
In the West Village, an origin story for C.O. Bigelow Apothecaries (New York City’s oldest functioning pharmacy), takes shape in grandiose exterior studies and comics panels that flaunt its lofty cupboards and aging oak cabinets. Wertz’s swirling strokes detail imperfections in the wood grain from floor to ceiling. Uptown, she pays similar tribute to the Dakota residence, “an architectural amalgamation of styles” per her annotations. An exacting full-bleed illustration of the edifice — once home to Roberta Flack, John Lennon, and the couple in Rosemary’s Baby — gets textured domes and blackened spires, each built out in Wertz’s precise draftsmanship. How might this have looked if restricted to magazine format? It’s enormous in this coffee table-styled volume, the building’s impossibly sloped roof and wiry black iron rails crashing into the generous page borders. These images, and Wertz’s “Then & Now” series in general, are as romantic as they are scientific — an almost painful exercise in their portrayal of how rapidly our beloved buildings are altered irrevocably, bulldozed, or just left to fall into disrepair.
I moved to Brooklyn from the Philadelphia suburbs in 2006, close to when Wertz arrived. My partner and I eventually lucked into a Manhattan Avenue apartment that neighbored one of the now-shuttered Polish restaurants drawn in Tenements, Towers & Trash. We drank cheap beer at Motor City and went to parties at Black Betty or Savalas. On Sunday mornings, we quieted hangovers at Roebling Tea Room or Greenpoint Coffee House. Those places are gone, and I’m still getting over it. But I feel fortunate that when she lived here, Julia Wertz was keeping all of this in a sketchbook.
In 2016, the cartoonist was illegally evicted from her Greenpoint apartment and finished the book in her mother’s attic in California. Her devotion to New York City never wavered.
“During my last years in the city, I spent all my time drawing buildings, researching and writing, and wandering through different neighborhoods,” Wertz writes. “I’d always loved long walks, but it wasn’t until I started obsessively drawing NYC when I started to really see it — the architecture, the people, the history — and to really love it.”
Tenements, Towers & Trash: An Unconventional Illustrated History of New York City is now available from Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers.