Metaphor Machine

At Rikers, reality exceeds language.

Is Rikers Island part of New York City? Geographically, the jail sits on a hunk of landfill where the Long Island Sound narrows into the East River, just before you reach the Hell Gate, a narrow strait whose penchant for wrecking the ships, bodies, and plans of mariners prompted the hardening of Hellegat, a Dutch term of murky derivation, into its more evocative Anglicization. A narrow bridge from the mainland, reachable only by bus, reinforces the sense of apartness, the sense that one is crossing a threshold. The geographical history of New York City is the story of the knitting together of island territories, of making movement feasible. Rikers is different. Rikers exploits the capacity of islands to act as barriers, as machines to arrest the movement of people, to reduce human abilities. In the years following the Bolshevik seizure of power, revolutionary Soviet architects referred to their projects as “social condensers,” buildings designed to facilitate the transformation of byt, or everyday life, in the direction of comradeship and cooperation. Rikers acts lik…

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