by Andrew Irving, Social Anthropology, University of Manchester
This piece tells two stories, that of New York City and its obsession with money, advertising and rebuilding over the last 200 years; and the story of Frank Jump, a teacher and photographer who has dedicated much of his life to documenting the gigantic, hand-painted, advertisements that line the city’s long straight avenues.
New York City was in large parts founded upon immigration, trade and the distribution of goods and its infrastructure and buildings are the outcome of a complex relationship between the vulnerability of the human body to infection and disease and the forces of money and merchandise. Throughout the 1790s and early 1800s disease was rife throughout the city, including regular outbreaks of yellow-fever caused by mosquitoes thriving in the island’s stagnant swamps and pools, and whose symptoms included skin eruptions, black vomit, incontinence, jaundice, and eventually death. After the terrible epidemics of 1794, 1795, 1798 and 1805, it became apparent that action needed to be taken. Would it be possible—the city’s commissioners thought—to combat disease and facilitate the body’s well-being by building health into the city itself through the physical alteration of its layout?
It was not known to medical science at the time that yellow-fever was caused by mosquito bites and the disease was instead attributed to the foul smelling air and odours of a population living cheek-by-jowl in dirty streets. What if a more orderly city, purposefully designed to encourage the “free and abundant circulation of air” and the regulation of physical space, could prevent disease, contagion and “promote the health of the city,” (Morris, De Witt, Rutherford 1811). Action was imperative because New York’s population was increasing at an incredible rate, having tripled in just twenty years, from the 33,111, sometimes feverish, souls registered in the first census of 1790, to 96,373 in 1810.
The commissioners engaged twenty-two year old surveyor, John Randel to survey the entire island, with the purpose of transforming its woods, swamps and grasslands into a place “composed principally of the habitations of men, and that straight-sided and right-angled houses” (Morris et al. 1811). Randel spent three years painstakingly measuring and mapping Manhattan’s entire topography, with a resulting 7 feet 8 inch-by-2 feet 1 inch map, which offered unprecedented levels of detail about the island. However, Randel’s does not simply map Manhattan’s topography, streets, and buildings of the time, but also imposes a design for the island’s future, in that a grid-system is laid over the land, determining where future streets would be built. The grid proposes that all roads should be straight and sequentially numbered rather than named. Streets ran horizontally across the island and were numbered 1 to 155, while avenues ran vertically and were numbered 1 to 12, with an additional A, B, C, and D covering the swell of land on the Lower East Side. It was decided that no consideration was to be given to natural variations in the land, existing roads or property divisions.
The map’s official ratification in 1811 marks the point at which the city council confirmed that they would try to build reason, rationality and bodily health into New York by transforming its topography and in doing so they created the city that is known today. The grid is New York’s nervous system upon which the city’s essential operations and street-life are built, and like the human nervous system is never in the exact same state twice but is in a continuous process of renewal and regeneration over time.
Manhattan’s population expanded beyond all expectations of Randel or the city commissioners from a mere 33,111 in 1790 to 2,284,103 in the 1920 census. As such a new sense of industrial scale and materiality emerged, against which individuals, born when farmland still covered the island, could compare their muddy agricultural practices and desires. Construction expanded rapidly northwards and the thousands of buildings constructed along the grid’s long straight lines began to form a set of highly visible canvasses for businesses and advertisers to sell their goods, services and dreams. A new industry emerged that used size, scale, and colour to convey its message to the people below. Huge, hand-painted, advertisements were painted in bold attention-seeking colours on the sides of many buildings, up to fifty feet tall and twenty feet wide, and designed to stir New York’s citizens from their reverie and make them lift their eyes from the grid. The majority of advertisements have now disappeared: they either perished when the building they were painted upon was knocked down or were covered over by the endless procession of bigger, newer buildings being built as part of New York’s restless desire to reinvent and remake itself. However, the destiny of some advertisements was more gradual and much less dramatic. For regardless of the thickness of their original paint or intensity of their colours, their fate has been to slowly fade out of existence while exposed to the city’s scorching summers and freezing winters: remaining open to the relentless cycles of sun, rain, snow and ice in a dense urban climate of pollution and humidity. What remains are the faded remnants of the these gigantic advertisements.
For the last twenty years, New York teacher and photographer Frank Jump has spent his evenings and weekends roaming the city’s streets capturing and archiving these disappearing giants before they completely fade into oblivion. Jump has photographed and archived, somewhere in the region of 5000 signs across New York’s five boroughs, of which perhaps only 1000 can still be seen today. Mostly they advertise products that can no longer be bought, made by companies that no longer exist, painted on buildings whose original occupants are forgotten, by men long since departed and were often considered eyesores in their day.
When Radway’s Ready Relief (1890) and Omega Oil (1910) were first painted, tens of feet high in bright marine blues, they suggested to the aching bones of the commuters walking below, that the solution to their discomfort could be found in the simple purchase of their magic elixir. At the time, the world was a very different kind of place: many people did not travel at more than the speed of horse drawn cart and the average life expectancy at birth was around 43. Medicine, as we know it, had not been developed, women were unable to vote and colonialism was still in the process of subjugating vast swathes of the world’s population. It is no exaggeration, therefore, to claim that the course of a single advertisement’s lifespan, was not just an extraordinary period in New York’s history but also the world’s. Some of the advertisements Jump has documented were painted in the 1860s and in the time they have stood there proudly advertising their goods and services to successive generations of New Yorkers, the world has undergone unprecedented social, cultural and technological changes. Indeed a single advert may have witnessed the invention of the film camera, the automobile, the first airplanes, two world wars and the great depression, television, the jazz age, the jet engine, the rise and fall of Nazism and the Soviet Union, McCarthyism, JFK, the discovery of DNA, The Beatles, nuclear fusion, the civil rights movement, space travel, Picasso, the first men on the moon, punk and hip-hop, post-modern architecture, portable computers, the Internet, 9/11, the gentrification of Times Square, Obama and much else besides. Who would have thought a simple advertisement would endure the rise and fall of empires and nations as the world changed beyond recognition. Certainly not the men who painted it, whose livelihoods depended upon their ability to make citizens look up and desire the goods and services on show to the extent that they became convinced that their lives would be a better place with that particular soap powder, those particular shoes, these particular garden shears.
In the mid-1980s, some two centuries after the city’s yellow fever outbreaks, New York once more found itself throes of a citywide epidemic. This time it was called, in a terrible and macabre coincidence, GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency) later to be renamed HIV/AIDS. By the 1990 census, exactly two hundred years after the city’s first census, people with HIV/AIDS filled 8.5% of all New York hospital beds and there had been 72,207 known deaths from AIDS in the city (including almost 10,000 infants) out of 116,316 people diagnosed: a figure nearly four times the entire population in the city’s first census.
In the summer of 1986, when Frank jump was twenty-six years old, he too found out he was one of the many New Yorkers diagnosed with HIV/AIDS and was told he had “a couple of good years left.” Consequently, the long commerce-lined streets built on the grid, shouting out their assorted messages of pensions, retirement homes, medicines and other aspects of a long healthy life, ceased to have any meaning for Frank and many others. Ordinarily, the grid enables New Yorkers to look far into the distance and guides the eye toward a vanishing point on the horizon: a destiny distant in time and space that seemingly provides an effective metaphor for the promises of capitalism: look to the future, work hard and save for your pension your retirement awaits.
In New York alone, many thousands of men and women were thrown out of the straight lines of capitalism by HIV/AIDS and instead confronted a destiny of impending death. Frank took himself out of the workforce and filled in all the offers for new credit cards and bank accounts that came through his door, thinking “I’ve never got to pay any of this back.” But Frank was lucky and did not die and instead lived to see the advent of anti-retroviral medications in the late 1990s that re-opened time and space for thousands and thousands of New York men and women living with HIV/AIDS: triggering a massive shift of mind, body and emotion away from death and back toward life.
Bankrupt Frank re-enrolled in college, became a school-teacher and got back on the straight lines of capitalism. He remained acutely aware of the fragility of the human body in an urban landscape. A body which, like the painted advertisements that surround was fading and not supposed to last long but somehow remained part of the city. Accordingly, Frank sees his reflection not in the mirror but in the fading advertisements that line the vast surfaces produced by New York’s grid. They continually provide him with evidence of his existence and provide us with a visual record of the ongoing effects of time on the city and the body. To date, Frank has been living with the disease for half of his life and still hasn’t documented every fading advertisement in New York.
To see more of Frank Jump’s work and archives see his book
Jump, F 2011. The Fading Ads of New York City. History Press.
While his Fading Ad Campaign can be found here: