Re-Covering the Cityscape: Impressions of History Underfoot

Project Description and Purpose

Re-Covering the Cityscape: Impressions of History Underfoot commemorates lost New York City history through the installation of a series of uniquely cast manhole covers. The patterned surfaces of ten new sets of manhole covers have been designed by New York based artist Michele Brody to reference the history and architectural details of eight buildings that have been demolished, as well as two sites in Manhattan that no longer exist. These unique covers will replace a select group of extant ones located in the sidewalks adjacent to the location of these disappeared landmarks: Frederick Phillips House @ 66 Pearl Street; Produce Exchange @ No. 2 Broadway; Assay Office @ 30 Wall Street; Singer Tower @ 1 Liberty Plaza; World Tower @ Pace University, Pace Plaza; Collect Pond @ Foley Square; Five Points @ the corner of Baxter; Worth & Mosco, Tombs Prison @ 111 Centre Street; Jefferson Market Prison @ 425 Sixth Avenue; National Academy of Design @ 320 Park Ave South.

As a combined form of relief sculpture and informative plaque, the manhole covers will subtly accentuate the existence of a familiar fixture within the cityscape. Their twin functions as access portals to the city’s underground services, as well as to its physical history, will serve to enhance the pedestrians' experience of the urban environment as a venue for public art in a wide range of media and applications.

By working with the blank canvas of the manhole cover, architectural details, textual references, and land formations are abstracted through the formation of a radiating Mandala upon which the experience of the city and its history can be meditated. Re-Covering the Cityscape: Impressions of History Underfoot is a public art project that investigates and commemorates lost elements of New York City through the installation of a series of uniquely cast manhole covers.

Historical and Contemporary Connections

The main purpose of Re-Covering the Cityscape is to re-connect the value of public art and the dissemination of historical information to the everyday living environment of the city. The pedestrian is invited to enter into the center of a commemorative mandala designed to facilitate a space from which to reflect upon the City’s ever changing appearances - its throbbing rhythm of tearing down and rebuilding. Through this process, the local pedestrian becomes an active participant with public art and the past by connecting the both of them with a utilitarian part of the existing city.

As the only on-site physical gateway to the City’s vast network of services below ground, these utility covers made up of bold geometric designs, ironically seem invisible to the majority of pedestrian and street traffic. That is until one is blown out of its shaft by an electrical fire, cracked by constant use, or brought into view while steam pours out from the perimeter of its rim. The aim of this project is it to help bring into closer inspection these medallions of cast iron that serve as a threshold between the light and chaotic flow of the city above, to the dark, mysterious and even more intricate current of urban utility traffic below.

Re-Covering the Cityscape: Impressions of History Underfoot proposes to replace 36 contemporary manhole covers. The 10 sites earmarked by the project range from their uniqueness in architectural design, to their social and economic impact before and after their demise, as well as if there existed any major debates and demonstrations in connection to landmark and preservation issues during the time of their pre-destruction. All 36 covers will incorporate an outer ring that will provide the name of the project, the artist’s name, a brief project description, the name of each corresponding utility company, and pertinent historical information related to each of the historical sites.

The manhole covers chosen for this project are all situated in downtown Manhattan. This decision emanates from being a local resident, as well as from an interest in illustrating how the southern part of the island, from 23rd Street to the Battery, exists as a microcosm of New York. This area represents a part of the city that holds the physical and historical impression of a wide range of residents and natural formations. It serves almost like a present day living Tel to the constant migration of New York communities moving in and out as they build on top of, or along side one another.

It is sometimes hard to believe that there is room enough for anything new to be built on the island of Manhattan, in comparison to the finite number of historical structures remaining. And since September 11, 2001 this concern has been forced upon the lives of New Yorkers in even greater magnitude. Re-Covering the Cityscape brings into question this notion by considering how politicians allot developers the necessary permits to raze buildings and re-develop a site, especially when the issues of historic preservation or personal lives are concerned. For all the controversy and anguish created over the years concerning the never ending destruction and re-construction of New York City, the resiliency with which New Yorkers have been able to live with the marriage of the old with the new is the sign of a living, breathing city.

Throughout the development and evolution of Re-Covering the Cityscape: Impressions of History Underfoot the project has kept a continual focus on relating its practices to local communites. Various exhibitions and public programs are in the process or have taken place in NYC schools, libraries, cultural institutions, as well as public events on the site of the manhole cover installations. At the time of this publication the first manhole cover to be installed at 30 Wall Street for the Assay Office was placed on hold due the tragic events of September 11th. It is the hope and concern of artist Michele Brody that the future continuance of this project will reflect a positive addition to the Financial District, as well as a celebration of what has been lost and needed to be remembered.

© Michele Brody, 2001