When I lived in New York City, I spent a considerable amount of time in Tompkins Square Park, in the shadow of the historic Christodora building. Built in the 1920s, the Christodora was conceived as a settlement house, a one-stop shop of services for recent immigrants to the city. Functioning on the principle of “scientific philanthropy,” the building was self-sustaining, and besides living space, offered its residents a library, a school, a gym, on-site medical care and a pool. After its Dorothy Day dream died hard, the building was taken over by the city, and briefly rented out to community groups before falling into neglect for almost two decades. Those in the community not averse to breaking and entering utilized the building for their own purposes: my hero, David Wojnarowicz, took some of his Rimbaud in New York photographs there, and was horrified by the black algae he saw growing inside the pool. Eventually, the Christodora was sold by the city on the cheap, and in the mid-1980s, was cleaned-up, renovated, and turned into luxury apartments. Perhaps fittingly, a cleaned up, renovated Iggy Pop moved in.
The building is the connection point for the diverging storylines in Tim Murphy’s new book, Christodora, but the real story is the AIDS epidemic. Murphy covers forty years in the lives of his characters, from the emergence of the virus in the early 1980s, to its imagined eradication in 2020. We see the human toll the virus takes on the city, how it divides families and forces the creation of new ones. We see how the fight against AIDS gave people a direction in the midst of so much despair. We also see the fatigue felt by activists, and the displacement of identity they experienced once the virus was no longer a death sentence.
At the center of the story is Mateo, the adopted son of Milly and Jared Traum, white upper class artists living in the renovated Christodora building. Mateo is the birth child of Isabel Mendes, a young HIV+ Puerto Rican woman who comes to live in a house for women with the virus that Milly’s mother, Ava, founds. Ostracized by her family, Isabel becomes instrumental in fighting the Center for Disease Control to broaden its definition of the opportunistic infections it uses to define AIDS (a definition that fails to include the infections affecting women), but dies when Mateo is eleven months old. After being adopted by the Traums, Mateo is raised in the environment of art world privilege (his parents have his and her studios, where they often go to “decompress”), but he feels a growing sense of alienation as he prepares to start college. Mateo begins to use heroin, and forms a bond with a former Christodora resident named Hector, a once formidable AIDS activist who has spent the years since the death of his lover in a downward spiral of depression, drugs and anonymous sex.
There is an early scene in the book that illustrates the divide in the characters perspectives: during the infamous 1988 Tompkins Square Park Riot, the Christodora’s facade is stormed by protesters. The newly renovated building has become a symbol of gentrification, and the protesters wield rocks and bottles as they attempt to break in. Inside the Christodora, eighteen-year-old Jared Traum is spending the night with friends in the apartment his father has just purchased as a weekend getaway from their home on the Upper East Side. Jared feels righteously indignant: who are these people banging on his building? Don’t they know that people like him aren’t the enemy? If only he could talk to them, he says to his friends, he could get them to put down their anger. He could get them to understand.
Jared’s friends recognize this as a very bad idea, and manage to hold him back from going outside. Elsewhere, Tim Murphy could have also held back on the Traums.
I felt that the book suffered when the focus was on Milly, Jared and their close friends. While Isabel is speaking to the CDC about her infections, and Hector is anesthetizing himself with meth and prostitutes, Jared and Milly are sharing strawberries, having an exploratory threesome, and cooing at each other constantly with pet names. Their friend, Drew, a writer who finds mainstream success after turning six weeks of college drug abuse into a bestselling memoir (and a lifetime of freely dispensed sober cliches), is a thoroughly obnoxious character, also with her own pet name: Drew-pea.
I understand that the juxtaposition of experience is a hallmark of New York City life, but I found myself thinking, perhaps cynically, if Murphy’s editors had asked him to expand the storylines of these characters to widen the book’s appeal, to tell the story of AIDS in a way that would be more palatable. In Christodora, the people in trouble are fighting to live, while the Traums and their friends make their art, see psychiatrists and have angsty epiphanies.
Christodora is a tome, a sweeping literary epic that covers a period of time in New York City where marginalized people were forced to respond to a deadly crisis on their own, and ultimately, after many bleak years, were triumphant. Almost forty years later, the story of the epidemic itself has remained largely marginalized. With plans already made to make Christodora into a miniseries, and comparisons to The Bonfire of the Vanities and The Goldfinch, has the story of AIDS finally arrived as a middle class interest? If so, when the story is told from the perspective of characters like the Traums, does it risk becoming gentrified? If it does, then the title of the book becomes symbolic of something much deeper.
I find myself wondering what David Wojnarowicz would think.
Fiona Helmsley’s writing can be found in various anthologies like Ladyland and The Best Sex Writing of the Year and online at websites like The Weeklings, The Hairpin, PANK and The Rumpus. A multiple Pushcart nominee, her book of essays and stories, My Body Would be the Kindest of Strangers was released in 2015.