Filed under: urban exploration | Tags: alice austen, barren island, bill wetzel, coney island, doing stuff, flux factory, going places, jason eppink, jean barberis, john foxell, liz barry, nyc county state farm, rock the block, yoni brook
Flux Factory’s “artist-led” urban exploration tours are back for its third edition.
For the past two years, I had the pleasure of attending excursions to castle ruins, iridescent quarries and an abandoned subway station in the Bronx. Which doesn’t summarize nearly half of the adventures that can span multiple boroughs in a day. Each tour’s theme is unique. Strangers board a school bus to secret destinations that are revealed only upon arrival. When people sign up for each tour, they receive an email only indicating what to bring and where to meet. The rest is mobile performance art.
This year’s first tour, “Rock the Block”, took place this past Saturday (July 10). The trip was hosted by Yoni Brook, Jason Eppink, Liz Barry and Bill Wetzel (with a few special guests). I received an email that said to meet at 8:15 am and to bring gloves. When I arrived on bicycle (slightly past the 8:15 mark) there was already a cluster of people waiting outside of Flux Factory, kindly handing over the waiver forms we were told to print and sign.
We boarded the school bus, a white and green metal monster powered by veggie oil, which included a curtained off “bathroom” stall with a bucket (The bus looks like it’s leaking if you pee. Otherwise sprinkle sawdust.). In the back was a full-size bed space, ideal for group lounges; the downside is that your head is closer to the ceiling when the bus hits a pothole (ouch).
A campy sign above the driver read: “If you puke, poop or pee sing Happy Birthday.”
On the bus I met a few first timers like Candace Lunn, who said she had heard about the tours a few years ago but wasn’t able to get on the tours until this year. “Every time I wanted to go it was already full.”
After crossing the Verrazano Bridge and passing a 99-cent store, a Perkins’ Family Restaurant and Zion Lutheran Church, we were in Staten Island. On foot we approached a wooded area enclosed by a chain-link fence, which had a slit that we slipped through one-by-one. Down a sloping path of vines and poison ivy, the group arrived at a compound ruin known as the New York State Farm Colony, a government experiment which previously housed indigents in exchange for their labor. Across the street stood Seaview Hospital, one of the city’s first tuberculosis wards. Inside the Farm lay a landscape of empty windows, rubble and broken staircases. A dark-haired woman dressed in Victorian attire graciously recited a monologue as Alice Austen, the photographer who spent her last years at the colony after bankruptcy. The woman’s name was Yvonne Muro, a volunteer from the Alice Austen House. And the monologue was written by Lawrence F. Schwabacher.
After a friend and I made our way to the basement, where the sewer pipes (and perhaps asbestos) were located, it was time to get back on the bus. A few minutes down the road we are told that we would be entering a private residence. Located on a quaint block called Cottage Place, the house’s immaculate exterior showcases stain-glass windows and black trim. The residence is owned by the artist John Foxell, a simple, humble-hearted man approaching 70 who kindly recites an elegant poem to the entourage, entitled “Vespers”, which he had written the night before during a usual bout of insomnia.
He explains that the house’s colors are in the vein of Halloween. Inside were endless bookshelves alphabetized and all read by Foxell. Silver old timey dial phones were located in each corner of the house. Also throughout the house were absurdist but impeccable arrangements of cartoon figurines (One featured the Catholic church, an “abused” baby and superheroes), skulls and bones (“For company, especially those who are good listeners”), and Gothic ornamentation rooted in religious symbolism. On a wall hung a photograph of Foxell with President Truman, whom he had interviewed as a student at NYU. Foxell apparently knew Sarah Jane Moore, the woman who attempted to assassinate President Ford, and the man who grabbed her arm, Oliver Sipple. While speaking to Brook on the bus, he dubbed Foxell a modern-day “Forest Gump.” I agree.
It was time to leave Staten Island. We finally arrived at Barren Island (known by the Dutch as the “Island of Bears”) in Brooklyn, roughly 20 miles from the Empire State Building. The place is also known as Dead Horse Bay, where once stood a rendering plant that disposed of dead horses. The island became a “primitive” recycling ground. Although people had been dumping their garbage since the 1850s, the location became what The New York Times labeled as the “perfect landfill”, according to Brook, because so few New Yorkers knew about the place. There to guide us was historical digger Dan McGee of The Manhattan Well Diggers (special guest #1), who scavenges for artifacts from similar locations throughout the city. The terrain of the island resembled a porcelain and bottle cemetery with glass fragments dating to the ‘50s. McGee admitted that he uses metal detectors, which he says have helped friends find old coins worth $10,000. Further down the beach, we came across a “Marry Me” sign in the sand, crafted out of bottles, beside a reply that read: “Ok.”
On the way to our next stop we got stranded in a rain storm; supposedly the bus’s windshield wipers were broken. A handful of people exited the bus in their briefs to play in the rain and suddenly took off running for the nearby field. Luckily I had packed a swimsuit. I stripped out of my dress and ran to meet the group. Together we all played intense variations of tag until the rain stopped nearly an hour later.
From the Island of the Bears we were finally off to the Island of Coney, where the group roamed the boardwalk on a series of scavenger hunts to locate objects like a feather, penny from 1950, and a condom. We also had to locate people from different countries. Before long, we were on the beach playing a fierce game of Tug and War (gloves included).
Suddenly, Howard Richman, a local square dance caller with us (special guest #2), grabbed a microphone. From atop a bench he began instructing the entourage on the art of line dancing, while blasting hillbilly tunes. As we sashayed and dosey-doed, people on the boardwalk seemed puzzled but interested. We later pulled a few strangers to participate.
After an intense square dancing session, we were told to form a crouched line on the beach for a (loose) game of leap frog toward the ocean. While people were walking, straddling their legs through the line, I heard someone yell, “That’s not how you play leap frog!”
It was finally time to dive into the lukewarm, gritty ocean waters for the finale to our glorious day. A game of Chicken ensued. And being the professional that I was, my petite frame went down instantly – to the detriment of my gracious partner.
But there’s always next time. With one tour down, there’s six more to go.
More photos via Flickr
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