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The Ghosts of Governors Island

The former Coast Guard base is a modern time capsule, a deceased little village awaiting its next life.

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Governors Island, like every bit of New York City, has seen endless metamorphoses. But what distinguishes it today is an eerie stasis. Since 1997, when the island’s nearly 200 years as a military base ended, it has lain silent, unpopulated but for a handful of caretakers. It is the closest thing New York will ever have to a Western ghost town—all of 800 yards from lower Manhattan.

It wasn’t always so quiet. Starting in 1800, Governors Island became a U.S. Army base, built to defend Manhattan. In 1966, the Coast Guard took it over, and stayed for three decades. This was no small encampment but a town of 3,000, with family housing, a public school, a clinic, a bowling alley, a Super 8 motel, a Burger King, even its own Boy Scout troop. The tallest building has eleven stories.

Today, the National Park Service runs 22 acres of the island as a national monument. Two forts, predating the War of 1812, are landmarked, ensuring their preservation. The city owns the remaining 150 acres, and that land won’t stay still for long—not while potential takers, from CUNY to the economic-development czar Dan Doctoroff, have designs on the island.

Hence the work of Lisa Kereszi and Andrew Moore, who were commissioned by the Public Art Fund (sponsored by Target) to record this endangered place. Kereszi says she was engaged by the island’s mundane yet spooky human traces. “I was drawn to the more recent past—things that are ugly, but not to me,” she says. Moore was taken by the architectural aspects of the place. “The interesting thing is, Governors Island is not a ruin,” says the photographer, who’s also shot the crumbling buildings of Havana. “It’s in fantastic condition, perfectly maintained. There’s very little patina.”

The series, including the photos shown here, goes on view at the Urban Center Gallery, at 457 Madison Avenue, on May 24.


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