Random Acts of Preservation

The big ugly Kentile sign, emblem of a lost industrial Brooklyn and Instagram subject for commuters coming to and from their much more beautiful neighborhoods, is done: The scaffolding has gone up, the letters are coming down.

Who is nostalgic for Kentile, the company that manufactured asbestos-laden flooring and collapsed under the weight of lawsuits two decades ago? Nobody: This is about the object. The sign’s appeal was that it was very large and conspicuously old, and it had decayed, naturally, just so, in a location where such a thing would never be built today. It is the most general possible signifier of change and history, and one more instance of a phenomenon playing out in cities across the country: This thing used to be new, and now it’s old; it used to be clean, and now it’s dirty; but it used to be, and it still is, so that’s cool. Now all Brooklyn makes is yoga. Brooklyn used to make tiles, in the Kentile factory!

BUT:

The President of the Gowanus Alliance, Paul Basile, has announced a partnering with local officials in an effort to preserve The Kentile sign’s iconic letters for continued display in The Gowanus area. He and the Gowanus Alliance will arrange to preserve, to hold, and to repair the letters while local officials seek a permanent location for the sign…

It will be rebuilt, possibly, somewhere else in the neighborhood. This seems both unlikely to succeed—the sign is very, very large—and counterproductive. The sign earned affection because it was stubborn and incongruous, not because of its specific history (or, to put it another way, the only part of its history that matters to people is the stretch where it had no reason to stand but still did, despite the odds, lingering for years); rebuild it in a location where it’s welcome and it loses its only power. Preserving it will have the unfortunate effect of turning it into kitsch. Or maybe that’s the point?