Gold is atomic number 79, weight 196.967, and is symbolized on the periodic table by AU. A metal used widely in everything from medicine to jewelry, gold’s principal meaning was as an international standard for money during its classical period (loosely 1880 to 1914 – its “golden” age). Yet, gold has remained as a dominant metaphor for the highest evaluation in any assessment of value i.e. the Olympics. In decoration, it is an index of expensive symbols of luxury and is included in and frames masterful works of art (and reproductions to give them the aura of status). From Cleopatra to contemporary Royalty to ghetto gangstas, gold (or its affect) is the visible analogue of wealth (and thus, power).
Often called the Crown Building on 5th Avenue in mid- town New York, it is an historic edifice emphasized by its elevated and highly embellished gilded ornamentation at the roof level that is LED lit at night, resembling, what else, a crown. With three gilded female figures (The Graces, I suspect) above the entrance at street level, The building is also a reminder that gold is also used as a necessary accoutrement to urban space as well, especially during particular economic periods. And “gold” is recurrently popular as an image of power. Who can forget when the evil boss Auric Goldfinger asphyxiates his betraying secretary by painting her body gold in one of James Bond’s most iconic movies?
The three figures of the Crown Building being re-gilded were featured photographically on August 22nd, 2014 when the New York Times dedicated its fashion “On the Street” half page to “Golden Days” with pictures of golden or golden-flecked bags, beads and dresses as well as the Graces’ new surfaces. The next day I went to look at two golden houses in Hudson, New York.
Two houses, joined and dilapidated to the point that not only are they boarded up similarly but they seem to slump together like wounded veterans might, for mutual support. The same entrepreneur owns both houses, a Swede named Per, who renovates such buildings and then either rents or sells them. In this case, he bought one and then the other later and applied to the local City Council to build five one- bedroom apartments with 750 square feet apiece on both properties. A very miserly city council with an intransigent, appointed lawyer stifled him and prevented the application’s progress, using arcane and inappropriate rulings. After a legal appeal challenged it and won, eight months later, such applications in general were reluctantly accepted. But, by that time the capital for Per’s housing project had migrated elsewhere.
The houses are on Columbia Street (Formerly named Diamond Street during the halcyon days of sin in Hudson – a street renowned for its brothels – the half way stop between New York and Albany for earlier corrupt state officials and politicians; none today of course although Eliot Spitzer is clearly a traditionalist in this sense.) The street is only one block North of Warren Street, the central axis that de facto divides the town into New Hudson versus Old Hudson. And a sense of an opposition is almost palpable. The older inhabitants often endure the recently landed urbanites more than they object to the recently landed urbanites who have made the voyage upstate to either buy or sell in the widely known antique stores on Warren Street, or who have increasingly raised the real estate prices considerably over the past decade in the town by purchasing property in the town or nearby.
And there are new inhabitants on the poor side of town, too, especially a large Bangladeshi community, who are part of a large diaspora that is globally spread. And of course, everyone is aware of the global phenomenon of seemingly inevitable gentrification – an arts community develops an area only to find that it was acting unconsciously as a developer’s avant-garde. There have been many such emergent real estate tsunamis from Brooklyn to Marfa, to name only two, and Hudson is the just the latest new summer destination with the arts as its proffered economic heartbeat (along with upscale restaurants owned and run by the people the natives call “citidiots”). Angie Keefer, an artist who has lived in Hudson for several years told me that when she used to travel in Europe no one knew where Hudson, NY, was, but now, due to Marina Abramovic and her foundation, everyone does.
Per sought ideas from artists he knew to alter the buildings from their forlorn state to make them, at the very least, visually useful. Standing next to a series of thoughtful Habitat for Humanity houses that grace the street along with a beautiful old Chestnut tree which is a real natural treasure, the street has been wonderfully described as the “backstage” to the theater that is Warren Street or New Hudson. Like any backstage, it, and its primarily Afro-American and Bangladeshi inhabitants of the ward, is not meant to be seen. : Keefer, who originally moved to Hudson from Brooklyn to drastically cut her living costs, made a proposal.
Using metallic auto-body paint that is a hybrid of acrylic and enamel, Keefer had the two residence’s facades and their slanted front roofs painted gold. Here, of course, “gold” immediately becomes ironic and not decorative in the least. Like a homeless person dressed in Gucci and furs and decorated with pearls and gold earrings, whether real or fake, the flat painted buildings immediately found a surprising dignity not afforded them in their former relapsed and decaying state. Over turning a transparent civic agenda that is clearly petty and meant for specifically targeted demographics, improvements only in Keefer’s public intervention dazzles and bewilders expectations. There are artistic precedents for Keefer’s work in public, but, strangely and interestingly, the houses seem to work more in the way that monochrome paintings do. The one-color covers various textures and surfaces and is, as such, a ready- made abstraction as well as a considerable feat of secular politics.
The buildings also immediately frame the rest of the neighborhood in which other buildings are variously colored and not as coherent – not as urgent. This is a punctuation mark in the street’s narrative and one that is simultaneously another kind of delay – not the bureaucratic kind but the poetic kind where experience is suspended and hovers – a deliberate detour from its miserable prospects. If Hudson is now “on the map”, these two houses act as a glowing reminder – even a lucid bemusement – to deliberately counter the entitled and exclusive improvements that are easily permitted.
Glistening in the noonday sun, the houses are a temporary aide memoire that it is not just gold that doesn’t always glitter. Instead, in theatrical terms, the two lumped houses act as a “prompt” in the enduring staged fairy tale of “progress”. The Emperor’s new clothes in the Hans Christian Anderson tale were made of gold threads woven by the kind of hoodwinkers who continue to deceive people to their own ends. If Hudson is to mature, it will have to become attuned to the fact that someone somewhere will always innocently call out that the poor guy is naked.