John Freeman Gill
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How My Mother Saved New York
My mother, Jill Gill, calls herself a Manhattan orphan because every apartment she lived in and every public school she attended before age 13 has disappeared without a trace. These vanishing acts in the city she loves drove her to save what she could by becoming a painter in the 1950's. In the half century since, as entire blocks have been demolished by New York's elbow-jostling relationship with time, my mother has relentlessly kept one step ahead of the wrecking crews, preserving scores of her favorite, now vanished street scenes in evocative watercolor-and-ink.

Throughout my childhood in the 1970's and 80's, the razed landmarks of old New York were alive and well on the walls of our home: the 57th Street Automat served up cheesecake in the kitchen; the windows of the Fifth Avenue Bonwit Teller displayed haute couture dresses in Mom's bedroom; subway trains hurtled along the Third Avenue el in our front hall. So cluttered were our rooms with this mad eternal rush hour, there was scarcely space left for family photographs.

From the beginning, my mother's passion for rescuing pieces of the city's streetscape was at odds with the behavior then expected of a young married woman with a small child. Rather than sit in the playground with the other mothers (""all they talked about were babies and schools and recipes"), she wheeled her first-born, Tracy, along Third Avenue in a stroller, photographing towering cranes as they ripped down block after block of tenements between 17th and 34th Streets. Sometimes she preserved the buildings by making paintings of them before their destruction; other times she bought architectural ornaments from the workmen, ousting Tracy from her stroller to make room for a snarling gargoyle keystone or a florid terra cotta spandrel.

Like most worthwhile pursuits, my mother's had its costs. Grocery money sometimes wound up in the pockets of demolition foremen, while the chassis of my sister's stroller collapsed under the weight of its historical responsibility. The single time my father succumbed to the preservation urge, salvaging a ponderous limestone ornament from a destroyed French-style chateau on Fifth Avenue, he balanced it on the basket of his Raleigh three-speed bike and abruptly swerved into the hedge of the Stanhope Hotel's cafe, depositing the carved treasure at the feet of an astonished, late-night imbiber.

By the time I was born in 1966, the youngest of three children and the only boy, my mother's affection for Manhattan had reached the point of obsession. As the city reinvented itself again and again, her paintings spoke of the aspect of urban flux that longtime New Yorkers feel perhaps most viscerally: the loss of buildings as memory markers, as touchstones of personal and common history.

Trouble was, my childhood also tended to get lost in my mother's race against the wrecking ball. While other mothers took their kids to Best & Company's Lilliputian Bazaar for a new sailor suit, or to the East 87th Street Papaya King for a hot dog with everything on it, my mother was photographing these doomed storefronts as references for her paintings.

Mine was a good and loving mother, but she was not the standard model. A dark-eyed, Gypsy-looking woman, she was an elegant sweep of shawls and scarves, jangling bracelets and dozens of rings. When my two older sisters brought me home after school to our East 89th Street brownstone, my mother could often be found painting or making woodcuts in her basement studio, smoothing the paper against the carved blocks with a precision many of her peers reserved for cake frosting. My best friend's mother was scented with butter and chocolate; mine smelled of turpentine.

The reasons my mother spent so much time in her studio may have been more complex than I understood as a small child. I believe an unspoken warning lurked within her renditions of Manhattan's now-you-see-it, now-you-don't landscape: treasure the things you value, because no matter how stable anything seems, next week it may be gone. Among the works she most prized were her tenement demolition pictures, scenes of low-rise buildings with their facades ripped off, the once-private rooms laid bare before the public, bright wallpaper hanging on exposed floorless walls, ghostly outlines of torn-away staircases leading to nowhere.

The disintegration of our own household was more gradual. At the time we lived in a Queen Anne town house, one of six contiguous brownstones built in 1886-87 by a grandson of a famous sugar merchant, William Rhinelander. It was beautiful, but the design was lost on me, soured by the arguing that issued from my parents' parlor-floor bedroom. Soon after my sixth birthday, my father moved out for good, and around Valentine's Day 1979, the house was sold.

Short of cash to pay her divorce lawyer, my mother bartered scenes of lost Manhattan in exchange for legal services, but enough works remained to overcrowd our new, much smaller living quarters on West 81st Street.

Before long, alarming numbers of additional streetscapes began shouldering their way into our apartment. My mother now worked like a woman possessed, often painting through mealtimes to depict the soon-to-be-demolished West Side buildings that were taking on meaning for her. With a cluster of overlapping snapshots as reference, she worked on her bed, the painting-in-progress lying flat on her quilt, where two cats also reclined, their paws extending into the scene, disrupting Broadway traffic or obscuring the gaudy Mediterranean facade of Mamma Leone's restaurant. From the age of 12, I cooked and ate most of my meals alone.

Later, as my sisters and I grew up and moved out, more of the vanished city moved in. When I graduated from college, my mother lost no time in gutting my bedroom and redesigning it as an art studio.

The first visit back, I was unsettled by her decision to rebuild so quickly on the site of my adolescence. But as I scanned the neighborhood scenes that now covered the walls, I began to notice that my own past was very much present in those paintings as surely as if my bedroom had been left untouched and I were looking at personal artifacts of my teenage years.

Staring at the paintings of two of my favorite, now-defunct movie houses, Trans-Lux 85th and the New Yorker, I was startled by the reel of long-forgotten city memories that suddenly ran through my head. Because I remembered not only the theaters but their watercolor images taking form beneath my mother's paintbrush, the mood of that period of my life returned to me with remarkable immediacy. My mother's paintings, the very artworks that had cost me some of my childhood, had done so in the name of preserving it.

Nowadays when I return home, I invariably spend a little time in the studio, revisiting the landmarks of my growing-up years. My mother has been assembling 80 of her most vivid street scenes into a proposal for a book of lost New York, to be called "Site Unseen," and as a result the city streets of my youth are packed into my childhood bedroom cheek by jowl.

These watercolors allow me once again to play handball against the brick wall of the Lexington Avenue Finast supermarket, to run up and down the East 86th Street Gimbel's escalators in the wrong direction, to go on a ninth-grade midnight double date to the "Rocky Horror Picture Show" on Broadway. No Manhattan orphan am I.

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