In busy cartoons and archly entertaining prose, New Yorker artist Wertz (Museum of Mistakes, 2014, etc.) serves up a grandly alternative history of Gotham.
There was a time, not so long ago, when Times Square was a locus of hookers and nude dance shows rather than Disney-fied tourist traps. More pointedly, writes the author, it was “a garbage covered shithole full of strip clubs, porn theaters and seedy characters”—which, naturally, she characterizes as representing “the good old days.” As Wertz cautions, the sordidness hasn’t entirely disappeared; you just have to know what to look for, and then look. This graphic book, rendered in a style that seems a distant cousin to that of Roz Chast, is all about looking. Wertz is a transplant from the Bay Area who came to New York, found her nirvana, and began exploring the history and actuality of the place. It’s a tragic note that, evicted from her studio in an up-and-coming Brooklyn neighborhood, she couldn’t find affordable digs anywhere in the city and returned to California, where she discovered that “it was an absolute fucking torture drawing and writing about a city I no longer lived in but desperately loved.” It’s easy to gauge that affection from her pages, which recount long walks through the city fueled by a steady diet of histories and trivia (“Pinball was banned in NYC until 1978! It was a ‘pinball prohibition,’ and officials would smash the machines with sledgehammers, and dump them in the river”) that she recounts in ever salty prose. Wertz, for instance, revisits the history of the many instances of Ray’s Pizza, a synecdoche of a kind: founded by mobsters as a money-laundering site, the operation became legit in the hands of immigrants who worked there, quit, and opened their own versions of the place, name and all, so that there are now somewhere between 20 and 40 unrelated Ray’s outlets in the city.
A delight for New York aficionados. Every city needs a version of this artist and her book.