Skyscrapers of Light

Brian Michael Murphy
October 11, 2013
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In 1938, Westinghouse buried a time capsule in a section of Queens described as a “valley of ashes” in The Great Gatsby. The time capsule was supposed to contain a “cross-section” of life in the 1930s, and included microfilm reproductions of encyclopedia entries, magazines, news articles, and works of art like “Guernica” and “American Landscape,” as well as material culture like women’s hats, a can opener, and a baseball. This “letter to the future” had a target opening date of 6939 C.E.–some 5,000 years after Westinghouse deposited it in Flushing Meadows Park as a publicity stunt for the upcoming New York World’s Fair of 1939/1940.

For decades, Flushing Meadows had been a dumping ground for garbage, as well as ashes from coal-burning furnaces. I spent the better part of last week up to my ears in confidential memos, drafts of speeches, press releases, full-color magazine ads, and news clippings while researching the time capsule at the Westinghouse archive in Pittsburgh. I came across a training manual for attendants in the Westinghouse building at the Fair, where the masses would come to be awed by the power of scientific discovery and its various applications that improve our lives. In addition to offering summaries of the various exhibits in the “Hall of Power” and “The Playground of Science” in the Westinghouse building, the anonymous writer of the manual noted that “The ground below is all filled mostly with ashes, to a depth of over fifty feet.”

By the time F. Scott Fitzgerald sped through Flushing Meadows in the early 1920s, during the writing of Gatsby, the ash heaps rose up 90 feet high (Robert Moses had this waste removed a few years before the Fair). At the time, the novelist was tossing around a few titles: Trimalchio, The High-Bouncing Lover, and On the Road to West Egg among them. Another was Among the Ash-Heaps and Millionaires. I remember reading Gatsby for the first time when I was much younger and wondering what he meant by a valley of ashes, what symbolic meaning it might have had, for I couldn’t figure out why that many ashes would have existed in such gigantic heaps. Of course, I grew up in a house where heat came from a coal-free furnace and occasionally from a fireplace, so I really had no framework for imagining the massive loads of ash a coal-burning metropolis like New York must have generated.

The scene of the ash heaps, forever lost to us in real life, paved over with the asphalt and manufactured landscape of urban renewal, appears this way in Gatsby: “About half way between West Egg and New York the motor road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile, so as to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land. This is a valley of ashes–a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.”

The ashes reappear here and there in the story, haunting the living bodies that glitter and glow through equally sparkling prose, bodies filling what Fitzgerald called a “sincere yet radiant world” with empty laughter. All that glitters is not only not gold, but is ash in the end, the story seems to say, and the Westinghouse Time Capsule attempted to save something for the future by creating an object that would never become dust. How ironic that they buried their permanent record of civilization in the sedimented layers of human refuse.

Nowhere in all the futuristic speculation that fills the documents in the Westinghouse archive does anyone imagine that the archaeologists of the future might ignore the time capsule altogether, and find much more interesting (as some archaeologists today already do) the ground around it–composed not of soil but of the remains of burnt trash, petrified horse manure, and coal cinders. Perhaps the time capsule creators of the past underestimated future archaeologists. Perhaps these future explorers of dirt and rock will attain, or even surpass, the impossibly extrapolative, near-mystical investigative powers we now see displayed on shows like CSI, where a fleck of dust (which we find out is dead human skin, which contains DNA) yields a complete world and all the events that have happened in it. These futurians will shine their science through a grain of ancient cinder and a whole New York City will flash up into appearance, skyscrapers framed with light instead of steel.

Unlike the microfilm newsreels and asbestos cloth swatches and safety razors ensconced in the time capsule, perhaps this projection of New York will pulse and move, and archaeologists will walk through it, encounter characters wearing Brooks Brothers suits and Tiffany diamonds, who smile and dance and truly believe they are alive. Will the archaeologists have the heart to tell them, as Fitzgerald once did, that beneath their rotgut radiance, their shimmering surfaces, they are all made of ash?

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