You could blame Robert Moses, which seems to be the fashion, or you could say it’s just the American way, that unique form of active amnesia we seem to have that means forgetting vast swaths of our history, and either painting over or demolishing the rest; either way, huge amounts of our urban landscape have been “made new” and made over, with much history — architectural and cultural — being lost along the way. We can see those faded fingerprints around us still, sometimes in lingering architectural details on the buildings that have survived one renewal or gentrification too many, and other times in the faded, hand-painted signs that cling stubbornly to those same buildings.
That brings us to Fading Ads of New York City, written by Frank Jump, the curator of the long-running Fading Ad website. I’ve lost track of how many websites have spawned books in the last few years, and how many of those books I’ve passed up because I couldn’t see myself reading them more than once, regardless of how many times the website in question made me laugh, made me think, or gave me goosebumps. With that said, I was very happy to come across this book, which takes some of Jump’s best shots and writing, and puts the lot of it between covers.
So what moves this book into the “buy” column? For starters, there are the photos. Yes, you’ll be able to see them on the website, but you won’t see them like this, in all their warm Kodachrome glory.* The signs, 70-odd of them, are captured in just the right light, and at just the right angles. These are not, in other words, half-assed snapshots from street level.
For another thing, there’s the writing, and lots of it, tying Jump’s own life story — including his struggle, and an uneasy truce of sorts, with HIV — to the project that’s become his life’s work. When he was diagnosed in 1986, he was told that he had perhaps four years left to live, but then he lived and kept right on living. That life, in all its ups and downs, informs not only the writing, but also the structure of the book, the sections of which are thematically grouped by parts of the body. There are also essays and reminiscences scattered throughout, some taking up bits of urban archaeology, some the long plague years of the AIDS crisis, and many of them exploring the intersection and similarities of the two, ’til the whole reads a bit like a cross between Luc Sante and Randy Shilts.
Fading Ads operates on several levels at once: personal history, urban exploration, archaeology, and reportage. And yet, it’s also much more than that, at once a witness to times and people long gone (some much too soon), as well as a testament to the longevity of a tenacious documentarian and his surprisingly tenacious subjects.
*I’ll spare you the whys and wherefores of this (for now). Suffice to say that photos reproduced on the printed page are of higher quality than those in your average e-book or on a website.