Friday, October 21, 2011

Trying to landmark a Bill Finger building in NYC

There is no permanent tribute to Batman in New York, the city in which he was created.

As far as I know, there is no tribute to any superhero in New York, the city in which many of them were created—the unofficial superhero capital of the world.

(Nationwide, the only memorials to superheroes that I know of are for Superman—Metropolis, IL boasts a large statue and Cleveland, where Superman was created, is home to a historical marker and recently installed commemorations at the sites of the former homes of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.)

Though the superhero most commonly associated with New York City is probably Spider-Man, Batman predates him by more than 20 years and his Gotham City is clearly a New York analog. Therefore, I feel that the first superhero memorial in New York (and it’s inevitable that there will be some) should be for Batman.

And naturally, I feel Bill Finger should be the focus. (At the least, the impetus.)

So I proposed it.

Of the various buildings in which Bill lived throughout Manhattan and the Bronx, I felt the one to start with was the building that housed his Grove Street apartment.

Bill's Grove Street building in 1935, roughly eight years before he moved in;
source: Museum of the City of New York

It wasn’t where he lived when he co-created Batman. Or Robin. Or Joker. But in my mind, and in the minds of some of Bill’s peers whom I interviewed, this apartment is “vintage Finger.” He loved Greenwich Village and it was probably quite an exotic departure for him to move there from the Bronx. He lived on Grove during Batman’s early success, from late 1943 or 1944 to 1950, during which time he did create the Riddler.

There are distinctions between landmarks, heritage sites, and likely other historical designations, but I’m not informed enough to discuss them. This much I did absorb: that entire neighborhood is already landmarked, meaning no buildings within it can be individually landmarked.

However, that wouldn’t preclude putting up a plaque. As such, I was directed to the company that owns the building and spoke with a kind man named Alex. (The Landmarks Preservation Commission must approve the location, design, and content of a plaque, but the owner of a building must first approve having a plaque.)

Alex knew of the building’s connection to John Wilkes Booth but (unsurprisingly) not of its connection to Bill Finger. He wrote “If we are going to place a plaque, it would also be helpful to combine the more important historical details on the building together with the Batman details.”

Though various notables have indeed passed through the building, I inferred he was referring primarily to Wilkes Booth.

In my proposal, I’d written, “I believe the Batman connection is [more significant than the Wilkes Booth one] because Finger was not a visitor—he actually lived in the building. And as of now, there are no other Batman commemorations in New York, so if we were to install a plaque at your Grove Street building, it would be Batman fan destination #1.” In other words, I felt that a potential plaque doesn’t need to include the building’s other history to be worthwhile.

I sent additional info to hopefully further explain Finger's impact. I acknowledged that he’s no Lincoln, but emphasized that Batman has had as much influence on our culture as a fictional character can.

In early July 2011, which was about two months after first contact, Alex and I spoke again. He said his kids had Googled me and were excited about my proposal, even suggesting that the laundromat currently occupying the bottom level of the building be converted into a Batman store. (I’m all for that.)

This seemed positive.

But the problem, he told me, is that it’s a residential neighborhood already crowded by tourists, and the owners don’t want to encroach upon their residents’ privacy. He did ask where I envisioned placing a plaque but was able to shoot down each of my suggestions. (Street-level stairposts—they have six or eight sides which are too small for a plaque. Stairs—if people trip trying to read it, they could sue. Front door—people need to take the stairs to get to the front door. You get the idea.)

What is the word for such a post with six sides? Hexagonical? No, a hexagonal prism.

His suggestion was to contact the block association to ask if we could install something on the window box on the corner. That seemed weak tea to me but in case it was my last option, I did leave the block association president a voice mail. He didn’t call back.

I tried one more time with the building owner, trying with all my passion to convey the grander reasons for agreeing to this relatively small gesture.

His response: “We have made our final decision. It is not workable for us to have any kind of plaque in front of the building.”

I have begun to inquire elsewhere with promising results.


Liza Martz said...

My gosh! I just don't see the problem with mounting a small plaque on one of those posts. I think it's a fabulous idea.

madrid said...

some years from now, this building will end up having to settle for being batman fan destination #4 or 5.

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

Thank you both!