— Art in Common

Tony Rosenthal, Alamo, 1967

It’s no masterpiece, but then again nothing in Astor Place is very nice, and in comparison to the hideous Charles Gwathmey condo with its dispiriting Chase branch underneath, drunk kids spinning Alamo around comes almost as a mercy. Like several others in town, Alamo was a temporary installation that stuck: the locals, back when that meant something very different, had grown to use Rosenthal’s sculpture as a meeting place.

There is one thing to love about Alamo, though, and that is that it’s still there. The area has changed beyond all recognition, and Alamo was threatened first by endless graffiti tags, then by safety concerns; the thing weighs a ton (literally, one ton), and perched on its axis it was, so someone in the civil administration decided, bound to kill someone. First they fixed it so it couldn’t revolve. Then they removed it completely. But Alamo returned in 2005, gleaming, with Rosenthal still around to celebrate. Cooper Union takes it upon itself to repaint it each year. A studio apartment in the neighborhood will now cost you $3,000, but Alamo testifies to a history of downtown that someone’s got to stick up for.

Rick Moody wrote a radio play in 2002 called Alamo, featuring New Yorkers calling an answering machine to rave about what the cube means to them. There’s a drug dealer, a precocious Michigander, a taxi driver, even an art historian. You can read it in the Paris Review, but really, get the MP3. Listening to Moody’s play, you remember what is too easy to forget: that the city belongs to the people who move through it, and the art they behold, even unambitious art, marks too many lives to fathom.

Alamo stands smack in the middle of Astor Place. A similar work, Memorial Cube (1972), is outside the art gallery of Connecticut College, designed by the one and only Gordon Bunshaft.