The current vogue for “ruin porn” – the sensationalized and aestheticized images of dereliction and decay – was on our minds when Salome Oggenfuss and I visited the Uranian Phalanstery on a hot and humid day last September. Salome had heard from a colleague about two decrepit old interconnected brownstones on East 4th St, between Avenue C and Avenue D occupied by hoarders who gave their disposophobia artistic and spiritual pretensions. They were set to move at the end of the month and we decided to plan a visit before they vacated the premises. We knew a bit about the Uranian Phalanstery from an online search and would soon find out more from our guide, Medhi Matin, who was living in a room on the top floor. In 1959, artist couple Richard Oviet Tyler and Dorothea Baer founded the Phalanstery in New York City while living in a still-active synagogue serving Ukrainian immigrants. When the synagogue closed in 1974 the building became the headquarters of the Uranian Phalanstery. Designed as an “anarchist utopia commune for practitioners of art and cosmology,” the name comes from the philosophy of the visionary Charles Fourier, who in the beginning of the 19th century designed the Phalanstère: a sprawling structure that would hold his own imagined utopian community. Soon the couple would buy the building next door and create the First Gnostic Lyceum of New York.
Just around the corner from the Nuyorican Poets Café, the Phalanstery and Lyceum were very active until Richard succumbed to face-cancer in 1983. During this period they hosted a Tibetan Burial Society and spiritual tattoo studio (at a time when tattooing was illegal in New York), celebrations of various solstices and equinoxes with music and dance, and a printing press for artist publications and Gnostic pamphlets – all the while envisioning the space itself as a constantly evolving artwork. From the outside there was nothing extraordinary about the Phalanstery, which looked like a normal, if shabby, building in Alphabet City. After answering the door Matin, 32, introduced us to the place and their dedication to individual and communal expression and creativity. At the time of our visit, only he and Dorothea were living there. It was only three weeks before they had to move out, after selling the buildings for over $3 million to partially pay a tax lien and relocating uptown to Hamilton Heights.
After our quick chat Matin handed us a pair of flashlights and graciously offered to let us wander around for a bit. There were no overhead lights and the electricity came from extensions chords anchored in the building next door. The piles of folk art, musical instruments, stuffed animals, tchotchkes, etc., make it tempting to think of the Tylers as so-called outsider artists, but the fact that Richard and Dorothea had studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and that the former had sold works to the Museum of Modern Art, the Rockefeller collection and the Smithsonian bellies that somewhat condescending label.
We followed Matin down a dark creaking staircase into Richard’s basement studio. Entering the room, the first thing he pointed out was the bed in the corner where Tyler died. Matin said he’d show us Richard’s series of self-portraits detailing his facial deterioration but he never mentioned it again and it felt too macabre to remind him. The studio perfectly provided the context for Richard’s work, both temporally and thematically. My flashlight first fell upon newspaper clippings of mug shots from the Chinatown gang the Ghost Shadows, prominent in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The roof of the studio was completely covered with A4 posters, Tibetian prayer flags and prints reminiscent of William Blake. Chapbooks from the Uranian Press sat on a pushcart, seemingly ready to be hauled to the market. Bookshelves lined the walls crammed with artist books, books on cosmology and assorted esoterica. FBI most wanted posters for the likes of Mark Rudd of the Weather Underground and Puerto Rican separatist William Guillermo Morales, and other members of the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberaction Nacional, sat besides a hand-written quote about beautiful destruction from Dostoevsky’s The Possessed. Medhi left us alone to explore and I nearly stepped in cat vomit as I looked up at a print of Goya’s Saturn Devouring his Son. On one table there is a series of photos of Richard in the Pacific Front in World War II. Despite the mélange of objects and images the aesthetic felt oddly coherent.
The rest of the house, starting in the Lyceum on the ground floor of the next building that held their collection of rare musical instruments from around the world and an assortment of folk art, did not feel as unified in its aesthetic as Richard’s studio. Nothing really felt out of place in the rest of the house: not the flat-screen in the temple room, not Matin’s laptop sitting on a desk in his living quarters, not an icon of Jesus with four arms holding a hammer and sickle, nor the working kitchen.
Matin lived in a room on the third floor of the Lyceum. On the second floor landing, the walls covered by a mural, we passed the door to Dorothea’s room. It was locked and off limits during our tour. We continued up the stairs to Matin’s room. At first, walking in felt like walking into a normal East Village apartment. There was a mattress on the floor, a shelf with clothes and books, and the afternoon sun and the cross breeze made the room feel light and airy. Adjacent to his room, however, was the space that felt the most remarkable in the entire house. There was nothing in the room but an old mattress, covered with dust and rubble, sitting on a rusty iron frame. The roof is half caved in, the light fixture hanging on by a bit of wiring. Two dead monarch butterflies sat on the windowsill, the remnants of a performance. I immediately thought of one of Dorothea’s works we saw in the basement studio: the skeletons of small animals – a bird and some kind of rodent – that had simply been left to decompose. Perhaps counter-intuitively, despite being devoid of the clutter of accumulated objects, the room somehow felt like the most personal and private space in the house. It was where, via the display of the decay of the architecture and the decay of bodies, the weight of the passage of time itself bore down upon us.
Decay is intertwined with the experience of time and the philosopher Dylan Trigg claims that the philosophical value of decay is its resistance to representation and stasis. Community groups failed in getting the city to grant landmark status to this pair of brownstones to prevent their redevelopment, claiming that the buildings were built around 1840 and have been virtually unchanged since – they hadn’t even been rewired since the beginning of the 20th century. While it’s difficult not to feel as though the neighborhood lost something when the Phalanstery moved uptown, there is a sense that it is perhaps not a bad thing that it moved before becoming monumentalized as a sort of time capsule from a time where artists could actually afford two buildings in the East Village to pursue their esoteric creative goals individually and communally, as a subsequent stop for tourists visiting the nearby Tenement Museum.
Conceiving of this piece as another obituary resulting from of the wave of gentrification that has now subsumed all of Alphabet City also seems both obvious and beside the point when considering the Phalanstery. It was a time capsule, but not one that has been hermetically sealed. Richard’s studio had not been preserved so much as it was left alone. Decay also powerfully evokes the death and nothingness that awaits us all. Unlike visions of death that focus on continuity and the life that emerges in and from death – pullulating, swarming, breeding – there was a musty stillness to the Uranian Phalanstery. I asked Matin how they plan to recreate this milieu in their new building uptown. “Recreate isn’t really the right word,” he answers. “More like reassemble.” What one imagines would be impossible to transpose is the palpable sense of rot that one felt walking into the Uranian Phalanstery.
We left Matin and went out into the ridiculously humid afternoon, our clothing smelling of a combination of mildew and cat piss. Unlike the ruins in places laid waste to by deindustrialization like Detroit, which bears witness to a society squandering its resources, there is nothing tragic about the fate of the Phalanstery. Not coupled to dereliction, the structure had been allowed to decay while it was inhabited and culturally active. The Phalanstery was never intended to remain cemented in the riverbed against the flow of history or to serve as a bulwark against complete and total gentrification. For better or for worse, Alphabet City has changed drastically since Richard and Dorothea founded the Phalanstery. The Phalanstery changed as well, although at a considerably slower pace. Walking through the different levels of the house, one was exposed to not only the history of the neighborhood, but a more geological, natural history – to living ruins.
All photos by Salome Oggenfuss