The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2021

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JUNE 2021 Issue
The Miraculous The Miraculous: New York

56. (The West Side Highway)

On December 15, 1973, an 80-foot-long section of the elevated highway that runs along the western edge of Manhattan collapses under the weight of a dump truck, plunging the truck, and a passenger car behind it, to the street below. The drivers of both vehicles survive. Ironically, the dump truck is loaded with asphalt intended to repair the dilapidated road. Subsequent inspections reveal that the expressway is in a dangerous state of neglect. For the safety of the public, the entire route is closed to traffic and slated for demolition.

Too costly to pull down, the crumbling, weed-filled structure remains standing for the rest of the decade, sparsely populated by joggers, bicyclists, and aficionados of urban decay. One day in 1977 an artist selects it as the site of a performance titled West Side Highway Drag: Superman 51.

This action involves him using lengths of rope to attach 51 pieces of wood (2-foot lengths of 2-by-2s from a lumberyard) to his arms, legs, waist and feet. On each piece of wood he writes the name of one of the 50 U.S. states, adding Puerto Rico on the 51st piece of wood. Wearing nothing more than gym shoes and a pair of boxing shorts, he begins to run back and forth along the abandoned highway, pulling the heavy tangle of wood and rope behind him. His intention is to continue until his has run 51 blocks. For the artist, who was born in Puerto Rico but left at the age of 18 to travel the world as a merchant seaman, the number 51 refers to Puerto Rico’s recent failure to become the 51st state of the Union, as well as to the number of votes needed for a simple majority in the 100-member U.S. Senate, or any other similar body.

At first, as can be seen in a black-and-white film documenting the event, he takes quick strides and keeps consistent pace, but gradually he slows down until, as he nears his goal, every step becomes an ordeal. When this Puertorriqueño-Superman finally reaches the 51-block-mark, he collapses onto the empty roadway. Rising in the distance before him are the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

(Papo Colo)

Contributor

Raphael Rubinstein

Raphael Rubinstein is the author of The Miraculous (Paper Monument, 2014) and A Geniza (Granary Books, 2015). He is currently writing a book about the Jewish-Egyptian writer Edmond Jabès. A Professor of Critical Studies at the University of Houston School of Art, he divides his time between Houston and New York.

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The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2021

All Issues