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COMM-ORG Papers 2006

Four Narratives of Anti-Poverty Community Mobilization:

Housing Works, FIERCE, Human Rights Watch, and the More Gardens Coalition

by Benjamin Shepard


    The Fleming Center
    Fighting Starbucks, Supporting Charas
    Gentrification, Neoliberalism, and the Politics of Fear
    Giuliani’s New York and an Attack on Difference     
    A History of Opposition    
    The Lower East Side Collective  
    A Revitalization of Activism  
    Community Gardens and Healthy Neighborhoods
Part I -- Notes on Housing Works: From Welfare Rights to Welfare Reform, and a Poor People with AIDS Movement
    An Overview
    From Welfare Rights to Welfare Reform
    From Welfare Reform to Ryan White
    A Different Approach
    Housing Works as a New Type of Anti-Poverty Organization
    Housing Works and the History of AIDS Advocacy
    Initial Phases of AIDS Activism
    From ACT UP to Housing Works
    Housing Works as an Alternative to ACT UP, GMHC, and AIDS, Inc.
Part II -- Fences and Pier: An Investigation of a Disappearing Queer Public Space in Manhattan
    Why Snip a Fence
    Fences and Boundaries
    Social Movements and Narrative Perspectives
    Street Youth  
    A Short History of Piers
    Public Space
    Death of an Autonomous Zone                                            
    Fences, Barriers, and Lost Networks
    Different Identities      
Part III -- Human Rights Watch: An Oral History                                   
    Bridges and Tunnels
    Sustaining a Campaign                                                         
    More Than Anecdotal Problems
    Credit Cards                        
    A Human Rights Movement
Part IV -- Community Gardens, Creativity, and Seeds of Green Possibility: The More Gardens Coalition  
    Community Gardens
    Gardens as Representational Spaces
Text Notes
Citation Notes
About the Author


In a global economy, the welfare state has become a warfare state. Within the post-welfare, neo liberal city, threats of displacement, the global war on drugs, the revolving door of incarceration and parole, repression, and low wages play out first in urban neighborhoods. Yet the ways in which community organizations respond to these threats suggest a future global city that is open, egalitarian, safe, just, and joyous. Despite the many threats, neighborhoods sometimes manage to thrive, as community organizers fight displacement, build syringe exchanges, plant gardens, and ride through their streets in a pulsing cavalcade and example of what healthy neighborhood life can be. The following reports consider how four distinct anti-poverty organizations --Housing Works, FIERCE, the New York City AIDS Housing Network, and the More Gardens Coalition-- struggled against a series of social and economic threats to build caring, healing communities and effective coalitions.

The notion of the welfare state’s transformation into a warfare state was first identified by Frankfurt School social theorist Herbert Marcuse. In 1964, Marcuse eluded to a merging of mass media, corporate power, and the blurring of social welfare into social controls and militarization. “The society of total mobilization, which takes shape in the most advanced areas of industrial civilization, combines in productive union the features of the Welfare State and the Warfare State.”[1] He continues, “The main trends are familiar: concentration of the national economy on the needs of big corporations, with the government as a stimulating, supporting, and sometimes even controlling force; hitching of this economy to a world-wide system of alliances, monetary arrangements…”[2] Along the road, elements of mass media, public opinion, and market pressure creative a coercive context which blurs opposites and opposition, further eroding the line between welfare and military operations. Over the final decades of the 20th century, the policy landscape in the U.S. shifted from an emphasis on public welfare toward policing.[3]  The prioritization of ‘law and order’ over human needs during the recent New Orleans Katrina non-response is only the most recent example of this long term trend.  If the journey from the welfare state to the warfare state has a theme, it’s the use of distraction to support the re-appropriations that allow this military-entertainment-corporate-real estate industrial complex to expand and thrive at the expense of social policies aimed at aiding urban areas or poor people.

The foundations for this shift in social policy can be traced back to the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1978, Stuart Hall and colleagues’ Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order detailed the workings of an elite-engineered model of moral panic, which closely resembled the emerging politics the American New Right.[4] By 1968, years of race riots had created fertile ground for a political shift; the anti-crime strategy succeeded with Richard Nixon’s election. By linking crime and race, this coalition justified an ongoing expansion of federal authority under the guise of the War on Drugs, which thrived at the expense of other public services.[5] Fulfilling a Marxist “mass-manipulative” role, Hall argued that panic over urban public spaces diverted attention away from the real problems of capitalist society, which if solved could shift power arrangements out of the elite’s control. Thus, elites utilize institutions of the state to promote campaigns that generate and sustain public anxiety over perceived threats from specific, targeted population groups--often youth, immigrants, people of color, and “sexual deviants.”  From here the media serves as a de facto sounding board for the process.   In an effort to legitimize greater social control, urban spaces became battlegrounds. By the 1990s, waves of “three strikes,” “get tough,” and “broken windows” policing strategies found favor across the country, making it seem that Hall’s prophesy had come to complete fruition. By 2000, well over six million American citizens found themselves subject to incarceration, parole, probation, or other forms of police supervision.[6]As incarceration rates rose, displacement followed, social controls increased, income inequalities widened, and the concentration of wealth among the affluent congealed.[7]

Marx described this sort of crude concentration of wealth as “primitive accumulation.” “The basis of the whole process,” Marx explains, is a violent, coercive use of force by the state to displace the peasantry from lands where they have worked, followed by ‘bloody legislation’ used to regulate the consequences of jarring separations from traditional ways of life. Social outsiders, beggars, vagrants, drug users, and poor people generally endure the most immediate consequences.[8]

Skipping ahead from feudalism to mercantilism to the present era’s transition into cross-border economic integration, social welfare scholar William Sites borrows from this idea to frame his theory of “primitive globalization.” For Sites, today’s primitive globalization follows a similar pattern of reactive politics. As before, today’s ad hoc pro-business coalitions support policies that displace the urban poor as the state dismantles safeguards such as welfare programs. And regular people are displaced yet again without a safety net to soften the impact of the economic dislocation. Inequality increases, instability grows, and communities fragment.[9]

The “Four Narratives of Community Mobilization” presented herein acknowledges that neighborhoods and community groups face immense problems in the era of primitive globalization. The story of late 20th century New York City and its Lower East Side (LES) neighborhood can be viewed as less of a narrative of globalist transformation or resurgence than a story of community fragmentation. Yet this very process of impoverishment and dislocation has simultaneously inspired a series of solutions and modes of activist engagement. While recent treatments of this phenomena  effectively describe the transformation of New York City through the process of globalization,[10] many lack of attention to the many urban actors in the housing, labor, or community organizing fields who have successfully bucked these trends. And this is a problem. It is all too easy to ignore the possibilities and innovative modes of urban struggle while giving into cynicism. Otto Rank has suggested, "Pessimism is the absence of creativity. "Rather than throw one’s hands in the air, it is useful to consider some of the imaginative organizing responses to the era of corporate globalization.

This introduction and the “Four Narratives of Community Mobilization” detail a few such examples. These stories present a number of neglected “best practice” efforts--such as community-labor alliances, theatrical neighborhood defenses, activist struggles with harm reduction housing, carnivalesque public space activism, as well as traditional welfare rights activism--that represent effective forms of community organizing and mobilization in the era of corporate globalization. If these essays, interviews, and reports suggest anything, they offer the premise that thoughtful activist engagement in urban areas is as essential and often as effective as ever.  In his famous treatment, Let the People Decide: Neighborhood Organizing in America, Robert Fisher suggests that while contemporary activism may not be as glamorous as the ‘golden era’ of US activism, it is perhaps smarter and in many cases more effective.[11]  The “Four Narratives” are presented from a similar vantage point. 

Situated in New York City, many of these struggles--such as the birth of Housing Works, and the group’s struggle to pass Local Law 49 in New York, and the continued effort to see it fully implemented--serve as practical examples of campaigns which set out to identify a goal and succeeded. The four narratives are stories of mobilizations to create and preserve neighborhood spaces for regular people. Each essay speaks to different perspectives of community life and organizing.

The first narrative--“Notes on Housing Works”--tells the story of a struggle against historic forces and trends to create a radical housing agency for low-income people with HIV/AIDS, which bridges a divide between direct services and direct action. While provision of individual services historically has been a major dilemma for social movement organizations, Housing Works is part of a trend that suggests political advocacy is consistent with, and even a necessary component of, service provision.[12]

The second narrative--“Fences and Piers”--involves fights against displacement and eviction in the context of a global economy. This story details the painful plight of those struggling to find a place to call home, as public space has moved from the province of the welfare state to the police state.

The third narrative--“Human Rights Watch: An Oral History”--considers the efforts of a small group of homeless advocates to ensure the New York City Human Resources Administration actually followed the letter of the law and housed homeless people with HIV/AIDS. In order to achieve this, activists would have to stand outside the welfare center for well over a year, through hot summers and snowy winters, before the city came into compliance with the law. If ever there was a successful anti-poverty campaign, the New York City AIDS Housing Network (NYCAHN) Human Rights Watch campaign is it.

The forth narrative--“The More Gardens Coalition”-- builds on the same public space activist ethos as FIERCE.  Like Housing Works, NYCAHN, and FIERCE, the More Gardens coalition fights to preserve public space for those at the margins.  The Coalition does this by creating actual physical spaces – community gardens – in urban spaces where land space is dense, green space is rare, and asthma rates are high.  By preserving space for both low income housing and gardens, More Gardens makes urban space livable and vibrant.   Garden activists recognize that gardens create oxygen, which helps create oxygen and reduce asthma.  Thus, community gardens are vital parts of a public health strategy for a healthy neighborhood.  In the interview featured below, Aresh Javadi, of the More Gardens Coalition, explains: “Almost everywhere if you charted the community gardens, it would be in areas of poor neighborhoods, highest asthma, highest density of housing, lowest income, and, of course, people of color who are directly affected by these things.  And if you went to this area (the South Bronx) you would noticeably feel strangulated.  You could feel the toxins that are around you.  You’d know the cancer rates are high.  In Harlem and the South Bronx, they call this asthma alley – 14 times the rate of other parts of the city.  And so all of these factors compound to suggest this is the most obvious space for more green spaces.”  Yet, this is also why gardens are politicized.  Once gardens beautify neighborhood, the forces of gentrification are quick to follow.  This was the case in New York City in the late 1990’s as the community gardens first become sites for urban redevelopment.  By 1998, some 400 community gardens on what were vacant lots were slated for development by the Giuliani administration, which planed to sell off the plots, which had been turned to community gardens after the New York City fiscal crisis of the 1970’s. “What they all have in common is that they’re located in low-income neighborhoods and they’re being sold for middle-income projects,” explained L.A. Kauffman, a garden activist with the Lower East Side Collective public space group. “They’re selling it at bargain-basement prices to cronies of Giuliani.”[13]  The More Gardens history in part four situates the successful campaign to beat this auction and create a deal to save the urban gardens.

These four community narratives offer images of how regular people can stake a claim and successfully build the components necessary to create healthy communities--with Critical Mass bike rides, neighborhood meeting spaces, affordable housing, community gardens, harm reduction programs, and community centers. Before the ’Four Narratives,” it is useful to situate their struggle by briefly highlighting a few examples of emblematic campaigns, coalition efforts, and dilemmas facing those struggling to preserve public spaces in the global era. Before moving back to New York City, we detour to Washington, D.C.

The Flemming Center

While countless spaces have been lost to local gentrification and primitive globalization, the story is not all bleak. Countless other spaces and struggles have emerged to counteract this blandification. Take the Flemming Center in Washington, D.C., a community space created by a group of cultural activists, musicians, and punks who successfully collaborated with a senior citizens group to develop a 13,000-square foot complex of rehabbed row houses. The driving approach to the project was a cultural ethos of creating music and building community with whatever resources are available, using the “do it yourself” ethos of anarchism. Mark Anderson, who helped spearheaded the project, describes how the space will be used:

Positive Force will be there, we’ll have a gallery and an archive and a creative space, we’ll have direct service stuff, the Peace Center will be there, Catholic Worker bookstore will be there. Also the Brian Mackenzie Infoshop. You’ll have the Catholic anarchists on one side of the wall and the secular on another side of the wall (laughs). And an office space, at night, will be a performance space where you can show movies, have concerts, have political meetings, have poetry readings, all sorts of stuff. A building with a lot of powerful possibilities. I think there is a common spirit between all of these groups and we need all of these elements, we need the arts, the creative element, we need the direct service stuff, because as much as we want the revolution, the revolution is not going to be here tomorrow. To ensure a long-term vision of transformation, you need to make sure people are being fed, clothed, and housed in the short term. Hopefully the Flemming Center will bring a lot of people together across cultural and racial and faith lines and will create in a small way precisely what we need on a larger level.[14]

The resourceful creativity that brought the Flemming Center to life deserves to be recognized as much as the familiar downsides of gentrification.  Yet it’s no wonder activists and scholars sometimes fret about the prospects for community sovereignty in the era of globalization. The four narratives that follow suggest gentrification is a formidable problem that is not going away. If the attacks on public spaces, services, and the people who use them represent anything, they must be understood as politically motivated struggles to turn urban space into a mere commodity. Thus, activists have a choice. They can either disengage or they can fight the notion of urban space as growth machine.[15] Attacks on public spaces where gay men cruise, neighbors build gardens, and citizens gather for community meetings, are attacks on the idea of community and democracy itself. And this is quite intentional. After all, without community, there is very little chance for democracy to thrive.[16]

In few places does public space represent a commodity as much as in New York City. The following two examples discuss complex and creative approaches to fighting this trend.

Fighting Starbucks, Supporting Charas

“God is the absence of gentrification,” the Rev. Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping has frequently proclaimed.[17] And it is hard to argue with him on this. Through his joyous, self-deprecating street persona--a preacher guilty of the sin of shopping too much--Bill Talen has created a playful messaging device effectively used in campaigns addressing sweatshop work conditions, protecting community gardens, preserving historic sites, and defending the First Amendment. In response to the diversity-crushing gentrification steamroller, the Reverend has organized neighborhood defense actions to prevent the corporate big boxes, such Wal-Mart, and mega-stores, such as Starbucks, from planting their “sea of identical details” where citizens once conversed and difference was acknowledged.

The problem with Starbucks is that “they seek out community,” the Reverend explains. Starbucks’ encroachment into small neighborhoods has been efficient and startling. There were no Starbucks in New York City in 1994. As of 2002, some 124 outlets have popped up on the island of Manhattan alone.[18] At the same time, the city has bulldozed countless community gardens and locked up countless sex clubs, both unique places where community members meet and share space. As New York becomes more welcoming to tourists, it becomes more like the shopping malls in the hometowns from which the tourists came. In response, the Rev. Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir have engaged in “retail interventions” in neighborhoods where the predatory Starbucks plans to open a new outlets.

Shortly before the Republican National Convention protests in New York City in August 2004, the Reverend even traveled to Barcelona to defend a small community there. He reflected on the trip:

God in heaven, we need a place like Barcelona on the earth…We were met at the airport by 60 laughing radicals who wanted to go straight to a Starbucks. We had to shake-and-bake a sermon just to get to baggage claim. “Our neighborhood is our body. And when our heart is cut out and a new heart is cut in, then our body accepts the new love muscle or throws a fit. CHILDREN, STARBUCKS HAS COME TO BARCELONA!! That is pre-emptively preposterous, we are outraged --but let us give the Green Mermaid With No Nipples the chance we would give a cut-in heart. Let’s find out if our neighborhood, our body, will accept this foreign object. What does the immune system think? Let’s have a test. LET US NOW EAT THE FAKE CAFÉ!! LET US TAKE IT INTO OUR BODY! LET US LICK IT!!”…And so we did. It was a breakthrough moment in our comic theology advancing toward us through a jet-lag fog; we knelt before the transnational corporate mermaid in the public square, as the mildly interested tourists and Bobos (Bourgeois Bohemians) watched us go native. We shouted LICK A LULIAH! LICK A LULIAH! LAM ER LULIAH (Espanola)--and rushed the stage [the store itself]. We licked everything, really everything, including the cappuccino spouts and latte sippers’ computers.[19]

While this playful spirit may seem irrelevant to social activism, it has inspired many actors to stay engaged.[20] Thus, the approach is worth briefly examining. The Rev. Billy project finds its inspiration in a number of sources, including an Emma Goldman, “if I can’t dance” type of ethos.[21] "I would believe only in a god who could dance,” Talen preaches, borrowing from Nietzsche.[22] This muse inspires his work. After all, Nietzsche writes, “I do not want to be pushed before moving along. Now I am light, now I fly, now I see myself beneath myself, now a god dances through me.”[23] The struggle is all about threats to neighborhood, the Reverend explains:

We are witnessing now the suburbanizing of New York City, in which America finally swallows it. Ascendant "developers" and transnational chain stores accomplished this, in their relentless destruction of our neighborhoods. But realize that New York City equals its neighborhoods....The deluded believe New York City is actually a gathering of elites: Wall Street, the Fashion District, Madison Avenue. We have co-existed with those elites for some time, but now they want 40-story condos in Williamsburg, gated communities along the East River, bulldozed community gardens in the Bronx, a 19-story corporate dorm where Charas Community Center once stood--if the elites assimilate our neighborhoods into an endless monoculture, then New York City will no longer be a voice of peace, a voice of tolerance, a voice of imagination. New York City cannot converse with the culture of the world if we allow its neighborhoods to die... New Yorkers yell at each other in the doorways of diners along 10th Avenue, the gossip makes them laugh in barbershops in Fort Greene. We live in the gardens and stoops and bars (with unlicensed dancing, even) and eccentric little shops and farmers' markets and basketball courts and the F Train on Saturday night--that scathing music is the real city...In that music, I see the flight Nietzsche wrote of. Public space hijackers oppose our flight...[24]

Emerging from this passion for authentic community democracy, opposition abounds. Recent successes cited by the Rev. and his Church of Stop Shopping include the victory by the citizens of Inglewood, 113,000 of whom recently voted to ban Wal-Mart from their neighborhood. Talen himself used his theatrical microphone to organize with neighborhood activists to successfully prevent the destruction of a New York landmark, the Poe House in Washington Square.[25] Yet for every step forward, there is a step backward.

In recent years, the Rev. has preached about the fate of the old PS 64, longtime home of Charas/El Bohio Community Center, which was sold off to a developer in 1996. Charas/El Bohio was a former public school building which functioned as a community center on 9th Street between Avenues B and C. Between its founding in 1979 and its takeover by the city of New York in January 2002, Charas offered affordable classes, studio space, tutoring services, after-school activities, a recycle-a-bike program, and meeting space for community groups.[26]

Charas’ origins can be found in the squatter movement of the 1970s and 1980s. Charas/El Bohio began when directors Armando Perez and Chino Garcia moved their group, Charas, into the then-abandoned school building in 1979. At the time, the building was in disrepair and functioning as a "shooting gallery" for heroin users. Charas rechristened the building "El Bohio" (the hut) and renovated the building with sweat equity. By 1982, their efforts were so successful that Community Board 3 recommended Charas be given a lease on the property. The New York Department of City Planning, the City Planning Commission, and the City Council all upheld this request. But in 1996, the building was sold to real estate developer Greg Singer for $1.71 million.[27] Resistance to the sale among community members continued over the ensuing years, until legal appeals finally ran out and the building was taken over by the city in January 2002.

In the years between the building’s sale and its final occupation by the developer, the space became a symbol of the hazards of neighborhood gentrification. In the days right before the city evicted community members from the space, the New York Reclaim the Streets (RTS) group passed out flyers asking: “DO YOU EVER WALK AROUND THE NEIGHBORHOOD AND NOT RECOGNIZE A Fxxxxxxx THING?”[28] Their broadsides continued:

It’s funny. There has been so much progress in the last decade that there is almost nowhere to go to organize a meeting, put on a play, or sit down without paying an entrance fee. In the days since September 11th, people all over the world have commented on the sense of common purpose, their appreciation for community of New Yorkers. So why is the city fighting to take away one of the bedrocks of the East Village community?[29]

In response to the eviction threat, RTS threw a street party to defend the space and called for activists to contact the mayor to push for help. Yet more than anything, the street party was a final moment to enjoy what Charas has meant to the community. The broadside described the coalition supporting Charas:

This rag-tag group of vagabonds, dot-comers, anarchists, newcomers, and old-school neighborhood hang-abouts is here to call for something simple: that we SAVE CHARAS. We’re here to dance, make noise, and create a bit of the carnival of community Charas has always inspired. RECLAIM THE STREETS AND SAVE OUR COMMUNITY CENTER![30]

A number of advocates suggested that the loss of Charas/El Bohio presented a useful example from which to learn. In order to succeed, the space might have benefited from an innovative community development partnership, which could have helped the project generate enough income pay for itself. Other groups, such as New York’s Housing Works (discussed in the first narrative below), have used such strategies to build spaces for regular people in their communities. (Still as of today, some four years after its eviction no new group has moved into Charas because of the continued community mobilization and the owner may be forced to sell the space.)

Still, while Charas is gone, many of the squats and community gardens that were also born of its spirit of community engagement remain.[31] They still exist, despite threats to the neighborhood, because organizers fought for them. A core theme runs throughout the four narratives that follow: When activists fight for something, they don’t always win. But if they do not fight, they do not stand a chance of winning. And quite often they do win if they put up a fight.

Gentrification, Neo liberalism and the Politics of Fear

Charas was a central part of the East Village of Manhattan, which stretches north from East Houston Street and eastward from Broadway toward 14th Street. Since the late 1970s, this area has also been referred to as “Alphabet City,” due to its lettered avenues.[32] One description of the neighborhood always seems to remain constant: the East Village has become a model case of urban gentrification. The literature on the area’s history and gentrification is extensive.[33] While many of these studies concentrate on the loss of community sovereignty to market forces, corporate globalization, and gentrification, a few consider how competing groups of urban actors have successfully brokered compromises that allowed them to survive despite immense pressure from the corporate globalization. Take, for example, the Lower East Side Collective, a community coalition comprised of neighborhood gardeners, trade unionists, public space advocates, and a “Ministry of Love” to handle process issues and help people get involved, which successfully worked to thwart these trends. Before presenting their case, it is useful to situate the context of their struggle within the neo liberal, post-welfare urban landscape.

There is no denying that countless community spaces in New York’s East Village have been displaced by real estate pressures. Blackout Books on Avenue A was forced to move out of its storefront and relocate in the less accessible lobby of the Theater for a New City. The Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center on Avenue C was forced out of the East Village and into Chinatown when it could no longer afford the rents in the increasingly popular neighborhood. Further, queer sex spaces have been shut down and replaced. Writer and queer activist Jim Eigo explains: “I live in the East Village, an arty, mixed-race neighborhood with a large gay population. At the start of the campaign to sanitize the city, in 1995, the East Village boasted six commercial, explicitly sexual, gay male meeting places. By early 1999, none of these six sex spaces remained.”[34] The Crowbar, formerly located on East 10th Street between Avenues A and B, was replaced by a hip, upscale bar. In many ways, the neighborhood’s sense of difference and “otherness” has been repackaged as a highly marketable and sanitized neighborhood, without many of its previous rough edges.[35]

Still, in many ways, the East Village has thrived as a somewhat anachronistic--perhaps even utopian--experience in community building in the midst of hostile market forces. The neighborhood continues to occasionally produce social relations and representational spaces of opposition, despite market pressures from corporate globalization, gentrification, the increase of hip cultural capital, and official dismay. While use values have found themselves at odds with the exchange values that can be realized in real estate throughout the East Village, the rules of community and collective consumption have occasionally sustained themselves despite the pressures of the rules of individual consumption, which turn urban spaces into commodities.[36],[37],[38],[39] Such a politics of community occasionally thwarts the politics of fear and panic propelling the logic of primitive globalization and the “Revanchist City.”[40]

“This is a free market economy: welcome to the era after communism,” Mayor Rudy Giuliani taunted after announcing plans to sell off dozens of Lower East Side community gardens in 1999.[41] In response, community members cried foul, noting that there was a cost to the mayor’s policies. With his election as mayor of New York in 1993, Giuliani initiated a series of efforts to “improve the city” and enforce “quality of life” policies that facilitated middle-class renewal of mixed-income neighborhoods such as the East Village.

The mayor’s efforts were largely a response to the politics of fear, which had overwhelmed the ways New Yorkers viewed public space during the early 1990s.[42]Within this context, the mayor skillfully played on this feeling to deploy a classic series of narratives of moral panic related to mugging, race, and sex to justify hitherto unacceptable encroachments into public space in the name of redevelopment.[43],[44],[45],[46] Giuliani’s tactical manipulation of social anxieties was consistent with a dominant theme of urban political thinking. As geographer Neil Smith explains: “In the 1990s an unabated litany of crime and violence, drugs and unemployment, immigration and depravity--all laced through with terror--now scripts an unabashed revanchism of the city.”[47] In regards to “revanchism,” Smith explains:

More than anything the revanchist city expresses a race/class/gender terror felt by middle- and ruling-class whites who are suddenly stuck in place by a ravaged property market, the threat and reality of unemployment, the decimation of social services, and the emergence of minority and immigrant groups, as well as women as powerful urban actors. It portends a vicious reaction against minorities, the working class, homeless people, the unemployed, women, gays and lesbians, immigrants.[48]

Giuliani’s New York and an Attack on Difference

This politics of fear found its genesis in New York City’s fiscal crisis of the mid 1970s. Narratives of decline were easily manipulated into a politics of blame and resentment of those who utilized public assistance.[49] As Sites explains: “[B]lame tended to resurrect time-honored themes in U.S. politics--the unworthy and dependent poor, the misguided generosity of social reformers, the unreasonable demands of racial minorities, the irresponsibility of free-spending politicians.”[50] These themes would become the cornerstone of the Reagan Revolution. By 1993, Mayor Giuliani skillfully played on the politics of “revenge as an antidote to insecure identities.”[51] He rode this resentment of the homeless, those on public assistance, and social outsiders to victory. Over the next eight years, he played on a “prurience” of decay of public spaces, stirring anxieties about urban decline to justify shifting public resources away from services for the socially vulnerable and toward urban policing.[52]

Giuliani's New York is one of disrespect for those groups mediating between his new authoritarian state and civil society. Housing Works, an ACT UP-NY affinity group that evolved into an organization which provides housing for low-income people with HIV/AIDS, had to sue the city for the right to hold a press conference on the steps of City Hall. The group planned to protest the city's neglect of a local law (Local Law 49) that provided services to people with HIV/AIDS. Housing Works won the right to exercise a basic principle of Madisonian democracy only after a long legal battle. Mayor Giuliani, who had no problems with Yankee World Series victory rallies at City Hall, appeared to favor the space being available for less controversial groups than those who advocated for services for poor people.[53] Rather than acknowledge these different perspectives, the mayor advanced a narrative of decline.[54]

Discourses of decline resulted in calls for criminalization rather than service provision and public welfare. And a profound shift unfolded. The welfare state shrank while policing increased. This is not to say the need for welfare services decreased. Instead of health care or welfare reform bills supported by social service advocates, 1994 witnessed the passage of a federal crime bill, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, followed by the passage of the Patriot Act in 2001. As Clinton-era budgetary surpluses were spent and the War on Terror took hold, the journey from welfare state to warfare state found its fruition. Along the road, social policies increasingly favored renewed government control of public spaces in an effort to generate support for their redevelopment.[55]

 At the same time, services for poor people fell out of favor. Giuliani asserted that he would like to end welfare by the year 2000.[56] He argued that it would take about 150,000 new jobs to clear the welfare rolls of their 763,000 recipients. Yet state-wide data on welfare reform suggested that only 29 percent of those who had left the welfare rolls in New York state had found work. Other data was withheld from the public by the mayor. The New York Times had to sue the city to get further evaluation data, and they still do not have all of this material.[57]

In Urban Fortunes: the Political Economy of Place, James Logan and Harvey Molotch note, “The nature of the growth machine, including its tactics, organization, and effects on local populations, has been little investigated by students of community power.”[58] Under the conditions of a neo liberal, neoclassical approach to growth, Logan and Molotch argue, “The only actors who matter, if any actors matter at all, are the corporate capitalists, whose control of the means of production appears to make them, for all practical purposes, invincible.”[59] While proponents such as Giuliani suggest that a pro-growth regime should not be augmented or inhibited, others counter that such a strategy actually “organizes inequalities among jurisdictions and their residents.”[60]

Mayor Giuliani adopted a pro-growth approach, running New York in a way that improved the city’s image as well as its property values. He proposed wiping signs of “decline”--including squats and community gardens--off the streets and out of the neighborhoods.[61] The underside of the “quality of life” campaign was increased police brutality, social control, and the “blandification” of urban space. Recent histories of police violence in New York City devote considerable attention to Giuliani’s aggressive policing approach aimed at countless elements of urban life.[62] The litany of complaints is not short, yet the mayor’s pro-growth and social control model of urban governance is being emulated across the country--most recently in Los Angeles--and even in Mexico City.[63]

A History of Opposition

Nevertheless, there remained significant opposition to these forces. As Logan and Molotch note, “Much of our work tries to show how much activism is a force in cities.”[64] A subtext of this essay is the competing narratives involved in the struggle over urban public space in New York City during the “quality of life” years. Despite its inherent contradictions and inequities, the city remains a place of countless possibilities. When Mayor Giuliani’s draconian policy toward broken windows and zero tolerance policing resulted in 99 bullets in the body of unarmed African immigrant, Amadou Diallo, the incident united New Yorkers in protests opposing this aggressive approach.[65]

On a neighborhood level, the East Village remains a place where numerous  actors have successfully thwarted elements of the growth machine, even when they have been cloaked within the politics of fear. Despite increasing rents and social inequality, community activists have created counter narratives to the “quality of life” crusade. To do this, they worked to established compelling and workable alternative strategies which preserved public spaces, livable working conditions, and even a few squats among other models of affordable housing in the East Village.

In The New Urban Frontier, Smith points out that cities as diverse as Hamburg, Amsterdam, and New York have all had contemporary squatting movements. Squatters maintain a distinct image in the popular imagination, both in New York and internationally. The East Village squatters have been the subject of a number of academic treatments.[66] Although different writers date them back to different times, it is generally accepted that New York City’s squats began in the 1960s. To introduce his subject, Andrew Van Kleunen quotes from a 1990-1991 statement from the Lower East Side squatter community, of which the East Village is a significant enclave. “We are young and old, black and white, Latino and Asian…We are people of the Lower East Side. The majority of us are low-income people. We can no longer afford the skyrocketing rents in our own neighborhood.”[67]

There is a philosophical point inherent in the East Village squatter scene: for this movement, housing is an essential human right. Additionally, squatters are associated with the counterculture, youth subculture, punk rock, deep ecology, anarchism, and the philosophical approach to praxis understood as do –it –yourself (or DIY) culture. For the squatters, the gentrification of the East Village was about more than real estate, it was about a state-sponsored strategy to establish forms of social control over poor people and people of color and counterculture youth.[68] Thus, the Lower East Side squatter statement elaborates, “[W]e have taken charge of an this important area of our lives: housing.” To this end, squatters moved into vacant, unused buildings. “Through our resources and creativity we are rebuilding structures left abandoned by the city for years.”[69] In one battle with the police, the city actually brought in a tank to evict the determined squatters, who were willing to be arrested to defend their homes and their ideal of a human right to housing. In 1994, some 500 people lived in 20 squats in the Lower East Side.[70] After years of highly publicized battles with the city, the remaining squat in the East Village were finally granted permanent status in 2002 after the Bloomberg administration brokered a deal with the squatters.[71]

Despite such successes, critics such as Sites contend that activism in the Lower East Side basically ended after 1989. “The dramatic confrontations in Tompkins Square Park also reemerge in a new light: no longer the culmination of a movement, they are symptoms of its endgame.”[72] As this introductory essay suggests, this assertion is suspect. The squatter struggle--which set the stage for these activists to get to the table to cut a deal with Bloomberg Administration some 14 years later[73]--must be viewed as a success for community mobilization. This was not the only success during these years. The David Dinkins and Giuliani years witnessed the emergence of Housing Works.. This, too, was not an isolated example. For many, the Giuliani years presented community members with a compelling imperative to act.

The Lower East Side Collective

A primary example of activist engagement that found its inspiration in the regressive policies of the Giuliani years was the Lower East Side Collective (LESC). LESC was born in 1997. An advertisement for one of the group’s "Radical Love" benefit dance party in 1999 describes the group, “LESC is an activist group based on the Lower East Side. We have been fighting for community gardens, defending community arts centers, disrupting City auctions, organizing immigrant workers, unfurling guerrilla billboards, jamming phones and faxes, demanding affordable housing, sponsoring poetry readings, holding fabulous parties, working for real "quality of life" in the Lower East Side, and generally making life miserable for landlords, bureaucrats and developers since 1997.”  The flyer ends with an invitation to a new sort of political ethos, “Come celebrate the neighborhood's vibrant political culture with some of its most unruly elements.’  For years since the legendary Tompkins Square Park police riot in 1989, people had suggested that the battle against gentrification in the Lower East Side was lost. Yet for others, the long history and culture of activism in the Lower East Side presented an opportunity. Many--including the daughter of one of the organizers from the Motherfuckers, the Lower East Side chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)--borrowed from this history, carefully picking and choosing elements to embrace and others to reject.

One observer described the Motherfuckers as “a street gang with an analysis.”[74] Allen Ginsberg considered them as pleasure advocates, activists, and “’[p]rofessional revolutionaries’ totally dedicated to social activity and community work.”[75] LESC worked from a similar ethos. The group was a convergence of students, teachers, organizers, and newcomers who came to activism with a new, pragmatic approach, carefully picking and choosing their battles. It aspired to be an effective, playful collective of multiple affinity groups with both a strategy and an analysis. While many of the issues the group addressed had a long history of struggle on the Lower East Side--fair wages, critiques of consumerism, police accountability, etc.--the group embraced a new ethos of activism, rejecting the dourness and culture of competing oppressions that characterized the declining old-style activism. Radical street performance, block parties, barbeques, and picnics were as much a part of the group’s attitude toward community building as demonstrations. LESC projects included a community and labor coalition, a police and prisons project, a public space/gardens/housing group, an environmental justice group, and Reclaim the Streets.

A number of activists came to LESC after years of work with the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP)--or groups, like WHAM! (Women’s Health Action and Mobilization) and the Lesbian Avengers, that were heavily influenced by ACT UP--and a desire to translate those skills into neighborhood organizing. LESC members consciously sought to emphasize activist work and praxis over long discussions about philosophy or ideology. Every three weeks, the project groups would meet to present their work in five minutes or less. As result LESC--and by extension Lower East Side activism in general--was infused with an immediacy that focused attention on projects, not personalities. Ideas, tactics, strategies, and themes intermingled at each meeting, forcing activists to grapple with how their issues overlapped and how they could share resources. Along the road, the group was able to articulate what protest and community building were for as much as what they were against: green space, affordable housing, a dynamic mix of cultures, living wages, and public space.

A cornerstone of LESC’s work was the linkage of apparently unrelated issues, such as labor and public space. Project members from the LESC Community Labor Coalition worked successfully with members of its public space groups to defend community gardens, successfully winning concessions from Mayor Giuliani in the spring of 1999. The public space activists, in turn, supported the Community Labor Coalition’s work on behalf immigrant greengrocer workers, who labored in the delis found throughout the neighborhood, their pay often far below the minimum wage. In many ways, these immigrant workers were the product of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which had pushed laborers and farmers out of heir historic workplaces and farms in Mexico and into the dire conditions of New York City sweatshops. Pro-labor and pro-environmental chants--“no more green sweatshops” and “no justice no peas”--rang out through the air during the 1999 May Day immigrant’s rights march, in which both laborers and community gardeners participated. Over the next two years, the Community Labor Coalition only increased in strength, derived from its close association with other elements of community activism.

By May Day 2001, members of a number of LESC project groups, including RTS, community gardeners, and other activists within the still burgeoning global justice movement, converged with members of the Community Labor Coalition and other workers and immigrants demanding higher wages and dignity on the job. Street performers from RTS and the Community Labor Coalition staged street theater performances of wrestling matches between Super Barrio Man, a cartoon character based on a Mexican folk hero, versus Union Busters Large and Small. Super Barrio Man was played by the campaign’s lead organizer. The groups took the matches and the May Day march to the front of a number of the greengrocery stores where workers were being paid sweatshop wages, thus highlighting the plight of the workers and the campaign in a unique, edgy fashion. In doing so, the organizers brought the case to the attention of the state attorney general.

The day after the May 2001 protests and the wrestling matches, New York Attorney General Elliot Spitzer filed claims against four grocers for all back wages due to employees, who were being paid an average of $2.60 an hour. The win was a direct result of the work of union organizers, workers, and community residents who had waged a tireless campaign, which included organizing new workers, community pickets, and street battles against employers willing to oppress workers. As a result, the working conditions at a majority of the New York greengrocers vastly improved. The greengrocer campaign was an example of a politics that successfully embodied the demands of the global justice movement for citizens to think about the local implications of neo liberal global trade polices.[76]

A Revitalization of Activism

While it is certainly possible to suggest that displacement has robbed the Lower East Side of its character and that all that was unique about the neighborhood is lost, globalization has also spawned a revitalized mode of activist engagement. The second of the four narratives below details the struggles of activists to make sense of this process, despite the many wrenching losses. Globalization, like modernity itself, is pregnant with contradictions and new approaches to activism. As some activists have been priced out of the physical area of the Lower East Side, the culturally engaged activist community has created the notion of a “Greater Lower East Side” that stretches frrm Chinatown to Brooklyn, Queens, Jersey City, and anywhere activists can take trains to make community meetings.

Sites theorizes that, “cities no longer produce successful movements because, in today’s globalized “space of flows,” places no longer serve as a basis for social power.”[77] Here, the author fails to acknowledge the expanding and complex literature on Lower East Side activism, which addresses the challenges of globalization head on while advancing models of successful campaigns which make use of culture and unique coalitions to create wins in areas ranging from green space to labor rights for immigrant workers.[78] Indeed, what has emerged in the last decade is a Lower East Side activism that has successfully linked its demands within those of the global justice movement.[79],[80] While Sites suggests that “the community mobilization in the Lower East Side represents an unsurprising failure,” others would counter that the community organizing propelled by the Coalition for a District Alternative, the Margarita Lopez Campaign, LESC, the Community Labor Coalition, and harm reduction programs spawned by ACT UP)--which substantially decreased the rate of HIV infection among injection drug users substantially--represent real victories. In recent years, the literature on the theoretical, aesthetic, and practical contributions of urban activism, much of it propelled by New York activists, has only increased.[81],[82],[83],[84] As the Narratives which follow suggest, this literature presents best practice case studies on fighting neo liberal social and economic policies manifest on the local level. A major recent example is the successful campaigns to preserve the community gardens in New York City addressed in Part Four.

Community Gardens and Healthy Neighborhoods

Community gardens are sites that once were vacant lots, often full of litter, that have been transformed into green spaces for plants, vegetables, and safe open urban space.  The final narrative, the More Gardens Coalition, offers an expanded discussion of this best practice approach to activism against gentrification.  Having lost the element of surprise that propelled the global justice movement’s early convergence actions, neighborhood struggles over spaces such as urban gardens, waterfronts, and big-box stores represent a primary target for fruitful activist engagement. As the “Four Narratives” suggests, when neighborhoods are threatened, citizens have successfully responded.[85]

The notion of being able to imagine a better world and then strive to create it has been a cornerstone of this organizing approach.  Ron Hayduk, a member of the Lower East Side Collective from the beginning, explains:

The interconnections of the inside outside strategy is where the action is at.  If you want the Utopian ends, you gotta find the means that works and that's the inside outside.  You gotta start here, where the people are at.  That's where the play comes in.... Its where you can engage people.  You got 'em in...  You gotta be willing to see where they are at. Its an experience of learning how do you play.  Part of the fun is the dance.  You aren’t going to go anywhere unless you try to imagine it....You gotta have a positive vision of a utopian future so we can try to create it.” 

Of course, there are downsides and limits to such thinking.[86]  Yet, Hayduck continues,

If the Civil Rights folks had listened to those who said, ‘you can’t overthrow Jim Crow,’ history would be far different.  Same thing with Apartheid.  If they didn’t imagine another world, they would have given up to the nay sayers.... If they hadn’t imagined a positive alternative vision and believed it and worked for it and made trouble for it, the world would be a different place.  Its the bridging of the inside/outside strategy. If you hadn’t heard of Ella Baker you wouldn’t have heard of MLK.  All those local activists made it happen, bridging the local to the global. 

Janet Abu-Lughod said globalization is the big problem and the Lower East Side is lost and we’re defeated.  LESC started from a perspective  that globalization exists.  And low and behold, they won some things – the gardens, the community labor coalition, the squats – despite the nay sayers.  If people had believed the naysayers – Sites and Abu-Lughod, you couldn’t have had those wins. 

In the months after September 11th--as conservatives and liberals alike heralded its death--a number of activists suggested that neighborhood activism could be most effective next wave for the “movement of movements” described as the global justice movement.[87]  In 2002, activists held a book release party for The Battle of Seattle: The New Challenge to Capitalist Globalization. One of the volume’s editors, movement theorist and bard Eddie Yuen, argued that local community organizing--not the Seattle-style mass protests--remained the most effective approach towards reaching the movement’s aims.[88] Translating the goals of the global justice movement into local struggles, such as the community-labor alliances described above or the fight for housing discussed below, thus becomes a central challenge for those involved in this movement of movements.


In June 1872, Frederick Engels published the first in a series of essays he titled, “The Housing Question.” In these essays, Engels suggested that short-term reforms aimed at providing immediate relief were no substitute for a radical revolutionary class politics. He summed up this argument in his final segment published in February 1873 "[I]t is not that the solution of the housing question simultaneously solves the social question, but that only by the solution of the social question, that is, by the abolition of the capitalist mode of production, is the solution of the housing question made possible."[89] For many, the purist argument presented in “The Housing Question” was a low point for Engels’ work.

Unfortunately, many contemporary critics of corporate globalization make a similar argument.[90] So do those who rehash the “Golden Era” narrative of U.S. activism, which suggests that everything happened in the 1930s and the 1960s, after which activism effectively ended. “Following the 1960s, when mobilizations in cities had successful impacts on social perception and public policy,” Sites explains, “urban-based activism seemed to become more attenuated and diffuse.”[91] Yet reading accounts of the urban activism of the 1960s, it is difficult to suggest that the Mobilization for Youth projects--on the Lower East Side or nationally--represented any sort of halcyon days.[92],[93] On the contrary, one could argue that these programs’ use of federal funds to protest against funders created a backlash that prevented future generations from enjoying federal support for local community organizing. In the years since, organizers have worked without such funds. And despite facing a better-funded opposition and numerous setbacks, these activists have continued to broker deals and compromises that continue to make cities livable.

Today, local community organizers continue to compile research, provide data, preach, scream, pressure targets, and use direct action to communicate their messages to the multiple policy bodies necessary to create change. Without this community involvement, globalization from above will only become more pronounced.[94] If future studies of the social and economic impacts of corporate globalization are to do more than identify a problem with which most are already familiar, they must consider the “best practices” of opposition to this growth machine. Perhaps “Four Narratives” amounts to a small snapshot of just what effective urban-based activism can look and feel like.

Part I -- Notes on Housing Works: From Welfare Rights to Welfare Reform, and a Poor People with AIDS Movement

An Overview

Through the 1960s and 1970s, the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) pushed for a different kind of public welfare system, one that no longer stigmatized people receiving public assistance. They did this through a strategy that began with fierce legal advocacy and ended with a wide range of disruptive tactics, including direct action. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Housing Works--the nation’s most militant AIDS service organization--again pushed for a different kind of public welfare, and for a consciousness about the lives of homeless people with HIV/AIDS whose diagnoses were complicated by histories of chemical dependence and mental illness.

Like NWRO, Housing Works utilized a strategy that began with fierce legal advocacy and ended with a wide range of disruptive tactics. Both organizations struggled with a dwindling welfare state, a conservative backlash, and questions about the difficulties of reconciling service provision with advocacy. Eight years after its formation, the NWRO met its demise. Fifteen years after its formation, Housing Works reached a budget of over $41 million dollars. The following case study considers the life, times, and survival strategy of Housing Works, and its relationship to a reluctant welfare state.

From Welfare Rights to Welfare Reform

Some words about the course of NWRO and the backlash it engendered are useful to situate the study of Housing Works. The final chapter of Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward’s (1977) Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How they Fail offers a narrative history of the Welfare Rights Movement and the National Welfare Rights Organization.[95] The movement advanced a number of goals: to challenge the stigma of public assistance, to force governments to implement laws, and to increase the number of public assistance recipients to the point where the old public assistance system would collapse and be replaced with a guaranteed income for all citizens. Within the context of the Civil Rights Movement and the national War on Poverty, organizers demanded services and pushed for legal relief for poor people, even if they offended political leaders.[96]

The roots of the NWRO in New York City can be located in the Mobilization for Youth (MFY), an unconventional program run by organizers with Henry Street Settlement. Rather than focusing on delinquency or other aspects of social “pathology,” MFY organizers suggested that major issues facing their clients included poverty and the lack of benefits.[97] Thus, like many in the New Left, MFY recognized a patter of oppression overlapping from to poverty to race to American public policy.[98] For the leadership involved with MFY, the aim was to create a different, less punitive type of public assistance and a form of organizing based on democratic principles.

For Cloward, Piven, and the leadership in the NWRO, the aim was to expose a gap between welfare law and practice, which would stimulate a crisis in the current welfare system. Many in NWRO hoped this crisis would bring about an end to the current stigmatizing system that defined clients as “worthy” or “unworthy,” and replace it with a model designed around guaranteed income. To do this, NWRO organizers informed the poor of their right to public assistance, encouraged them to apply for services they were entitled to, and urged them to use legal means to sue if the system failed them. The overarching aim was to overwhelm the current system and replace it with something more humane.[99]

By building on the social unrest of the era, the organization ushered in a new chapter of aggressive community organizing among social workers and people on public assistance. Rather than shy away from confrontation, NRWO organizers used every tool at their disposal--from legal tactics to organizing the poor to protest the policies and practices of local public assistance centers. Organizing efforts challenged social inequality, economic injustice, and the stigma of poverty with direct action by advocates and public assistant recipients themselves.[100] For example, NWRO organizers in Boston arranged sit-ins at the Welfare Department offices in 1967. When the police beat the demonstrators, rather than quiet down they screamed even louder. Their cries could be heard through the streets of the surrounding neighborhood. Riots followed the demonstration. The attitude of those on public assistance shifted as well. No longer humble or apologetic, those applying for benefits became angrier and more confident. Inhibitions against applying for relief ended as the NWRO pushed to flood the system. And with each new riot, seeds of a movement aimed at economic justice came to fruition. By engaging in defiant acts of disruptive action, public assistance recipients became keenly aware that they could create a fiscal and political crisis. For many recipients, just being able to assert themselves was an amazingly appealing feeling.[101] As Piven and Cloward recall: “The early meetings were like rallies, full of indignation and full of joy that the occasion had finally come for the people to rise up against the source of their indignation.”[102]

While the Civil Rights Movement had achieved administrative remedies for segregation with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, relief for deeply entrenched forms of poverty was not as forthcoming. Thus, in late 1968 and 1969, NWRO members launched a campaign for a “right to welfare.” To kick off the campaign, members organized a Poor People’s March on Washington. Coming shortly after Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot and Richard Nixon had been elected president, few recall the campaign as a success.[103] While many progressives appreciated the goals advanced by NWRO, they worried about the tactics. Others were uncomfortable with the leadership of low-income people, especially minority women. While self-determination was fine in theory, the practice of community action programs in the 1960s felt very different. Mismanagement of funds, the approach to challenging those who funded their programs, and most of all a new sense of welfare entitlement, fueled resentment of the movement among conservatives.[104] The very idea of “welfare rights” would enrage conservatives of a future generation.[105] The result was a broad backlash and a hard line on controlling benefits.[106]

Nixon’s election in 1969 was followed by the first rounds of a discussion about controlling welfare and welfare reform. By 1973, the NWRO collapsed. Welfare benefits began to lose their value with inflation. The subsequent Reagan/Bush era produced a more punitive approach to benefits and a 50% drop in purchasing power from 1970 to 1997. The welfare protests helped cultivate a feeling of antipathy toward social programs among conservatives and a frustration with the limitations of the system among liberals. This combination ultimately produced the racialized anti-welfare climate that helped bring about the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which gutted the system without producing any of the safeguards or the safety net Piven and Cloward had hoped would emerge with a guaranteed income in the 1960s.[107]

From Welfare Reform to Ryan White

While the backlash against welfare was reaching its culmination in the mid-1990s, a different set of policy approaches emerged in response to the growing AIDS epidemic. From the earliest days of the pandemic in the U.S., the AIDS crisis has interwoven itself in the troubled web of poverty in America. Throughout these years, the AIDS epidemic threatened many of the same socially vulnerable populations that had organized with and benefited from the work of the NWRO. By the mid 1980s, for example, some 25 percent of people with HIV/AIDS in the U.S. were African American, and an estimated 57 percent of all children with HIV/AIDS were black.[108] The responses to this policy landscape were equally complex.[109] But the struggles and challenges were not unlike those faced by the NWRO.

Yet while the politics were similar, the results were strikingly different. HIV/AIDS policy and the politics of AIDS have always been loaded with double meanings. While many features of HIV/AIDS policy in the U.S. are unique, public policy created to address the epidemic cannot be understood without considering larger social and economic trends as they influence the allocation of resources, budgets, and public administration. Much of U.S. HIV/AIDS policy has been guided by the notion that people with AIDS face “exceptional” circumstances and should be treated outside the traditional public health approach to the outbreak of disease.[110] Even in the most politically conservative of times, AIDS activists made headway while other interest groups experienced cuts. For example, the budget for the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act, which provides funds for AIDS-related services in the U.S., has expanded almost tenfold—from $220 million to $1.9 billion—through three presidential administrations and despite power shifts in Congress over a decade and a half.[111] By 1996--the year Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) was “reformed” (meaning guarantees of assistance for poor families were reduced), thereby radically transforming the American social safety net--the Ryan White CARE Act was reauthorized with increased funding.

Still, HIV/AIDS policy in the U.S. has never been beyond the influence of larger policy trends involving the privatization of social welfare services, expanding income inequality, the lack of nationalized health care, dwindling Social Security provisions, an affordable housing crisis, and the disproportionate incarceration of people of color and poor people. Not unlike the old “poor law” approach to charity work and social welfare provision, HIV/AIDS policy is still enacted with a moralizing approach aimed at social control rather than addressing or alleviating conditions of poverty--such as lack of housing and inadequate health care--experienced by low-income people.[112]

A Different Approach

A prime mover for much of the safety net for people with HIV/AIDS in New York City was Keith Cylar, the co-founder of Housing Works, a New York-based AIDS service organization. As an AIDS activist, Cylar effectively pushed for the development of federal legislation to create and fund HIV/AIDS service programs, including the Ryan White CARE Act, Housing Opportunities for People with AIDS (HOPWA), and HIV-related chemical dependence and mental health services within a framework described as harm reduction. With Housing Works, Cylar pushed for advances in state and local HIV/AIDS policies and funding.[113]

In an interview before his death in 2004, Cylar described the Housing Works approach to advocacy around public welfare services in light of the shifting contours of a shrinking welfare state.

Well, I actually hate the words ‘welfare reform,’ because when you say welfare reform, again you are talking about individuals’ process of reclaiming their lives,” he said. “They didn’t want to be on welfare, they wanted the same things people like you want. They wanted a roof over their heads. They wanted to take care of their children. They wanted to be happy. I mean, we all want that. I hate the term ‘welfare reform.’ It isn’t about reforming welfare--its about creating opportunities for people to reclaim their lives. And welfare reform is baggage. It has such connotations about welfare recipients that people then lose who they are.[114]

Cylar also described his approach to doing antipoverty work:

First of all, the number one rule is that an individual has to have a stable place to live. And if you have a stable place to live and you have food and you have safety--the basics of Maslow’s theory--if you have those components first, then you can start working on issues of education; you can start working on employment; you can start working on spirituality; you can start working on all those other issues that may lead to a decrease in negative behaviors that those people may manifest. Self-destructive behaviors--you can start labeling them all sorts of things, right? But we’re talking about creating a safe space for people to change and to grow. And every opportunity is a chance to grow either towards the light or towards the dark. That’s kind of the classic way that people like to look at life in this world.

So when you’re talking about welfare reform or you’re talking about poverty, or whatever you want to call it, then you are talking about creating opportunities for people to enter into mainstream society and become employed and be able to manage an apartment and to be able to have the life skills to function. But the deck is stacked against them because they are black, they are poor, they may not know how to read. They may have come out of abusive family backgrounds with sexual abuse going on; they may never have had an opportunity to sit at a dinner table and eat in what most people would consider a normal fashion. And so when you talk about reform, you are talking about having to start off at very basic levels and move up over a long period of time to allow those people to gain skills that they may never have had or never have had a chance to get. But hey, that’s where we started. We started, literally, in terms of a psychotherapeutic process, at square one--which was to give people a house.

Housing Works as a New Type of Anti-Poverty Organization

Building on the legacy of aggressive HIV/AIDS advocacy advanced by the AIDS Coalition to Unleash (ACT UP), the community-building spirit of the Settlement Houses, and the community economic development movement, Housing Works imagined itself as a different type of anti-poverty organization.[115] The organization’s mission is to reach the most vulnerable and underserved among those affected by the AIDS epidemic in New York City—homeless people of color whose HIV diagnoses are complicated by a history of chronic mental illness and/or chemical dependence. In the years since it was founded in 1990, Housing Works has had to balance between being a social service organization and a social movement organization. Through programs such as the Second Life Job Training Program, Social Ventures Development Program, and primary care clinics, Housing Works utilizes the tools of community economic development to open up spaces for an often-invisible population. As the group’s literature notes, “The Social Ventures Development Program includes several entrepreneurial ventures which were created to meet two critical challenges facing most AIDS service and anti-poverty organizations: the need to generate unrestricted income for our social service programs and the need to create employment opportunities for clients who wish to enter or re-enter the workforce.”[116]Still despite its development role, the agency was founded within the tradition of activism.[117]

In The Trend of Social Movements in America (1973), John McCarthy and Mayer Zald suggested that by the late 1960s and early 1970s, professional advocates had become effective agents for translating the political claims of ordinary people into political advances. Their challenge was to serve as mediators between movements and elites, constituents and resources, policy targets and policy-makers.[118] The task was no different for the combination of professional and grassroots advocates involved in organizing with Housing Works. In asserting that social movements and movement organizations are rational, goal-oriented, and organized rather than impulsive and merely spontaneous, theorists have come to describe McCarthy and Zald’s framework as part of the “resource rationalist” school of thought. This line of thinking asserts that organizing succeeds or fails depending on connections to resources and political opportunities.

It is easy to describe Housing Works’ organizing within a resource rationalist framework, yet there is much more to its work. By addressing the group solidarity of mostly homeless low-income people of color and linking their needs with those of other stigmatized groups, such as injection drug users, transgender people, and promiscuous queers, Housing Works also advanced a cultural agenda with their often colorful, flamboyant actions and view that everyone – regardless of their lifestyle – still deserves a place for shelter, a place to call their own. Thus, Housing Works also recognized the importance of a messy, queer sort of collective identity among its clients and the movements in which they operated. [119]  By acknowledging the emotional and expressive needs of social actors, Housing Works helped those it organized create meaning in their lives through community building, creative direct action, housing, work, and other often joyous pursuit of happiness and democratic political engagement. Housing works did this by recognizing the importance of play, pleasure, and culture, as well as the need to advance a political agenda through the calculated mobilization of resources. In this respect, the group fails to fit completely into either a resource rationalist or a cultural approach to social movement organization.[120]

In contrast to Piven and Cloward’s view that professionalization and organizational development undermine acts of group solidarity and advocacy, Housing Works strived to maintain its position as a radical advocacy organization that combines activism and services--despite the conventional view that this combination is not sustainable.[121] Piven and Cloward argue that, “it is not possible to compel concessions from elites that can be used as resources to sustain oppositional organizations over time.”[122] Yet Housing Works bucked this belief, aggressively and successfully attacking government, bureaucracies, and even agencies that provided funds for the organization. And it survived and thrived despite these attacks.[123] Notwithstanding these pressures, Housing Works “stayed the course,” an approach which is known to provide advantages for the organizational survival of women’s and ethnically-based social movement organizations.[124] By focusing on organizing and advocacy while using tools of community economic development to take control of its own resources, Housing Works provided support for a newer trend in social movement research, which suggests that radical beliefts are often quite consistent with professionalization in activism and service provision.[125] The group made use of a wide range of tools, including research, aggressive legal and service advocacy, direct action, street theatrics, and media savvy to successfully demand services for the most socially vulnerable populations.  Thus the group made use of a wide array of both professional and street based  ‘tools’ to steak a very, very radical claim that active drug users, sex workers, and unglamorous homeless people all deserved a place to sleep and eat, as well as the right to earn a paycheck. 

Perhaps the most useful means of assessing an organization’s existence over its life course is through the case study.[126] Thus, the following report functions as a case study of the life, struggles and survival strategies of Housing Works.

Housing Works and the History of AIDS Advocacy

To fully situate Housing Works’ place in the history of public welfare policy, it is useful to briefly consider the evolution of HIV/AIDS policy and advocacy. This evolution can be divided into three phases: (1) community organizing and mobilization during the late 1980s; (2) treatment and legislative breakthroughs through the mid 1990s; and (3) the imposition of social control following the treatment advances of the late 1990s. Yet, these phases overlap with varying degrees in differing places.

Social control is imposed in differing manners with differing ranges of severity in different municipalities.  Stillas the mobilization of the late 1980s and early 1990s shifted with legislative and treatment breakthroughs--due to the advent of protease inhibitors and highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART)--both the issues and the methods of fighting the epidemic changed.[127] Throughout the years strategies toward appropriate HIV prevention have included tensions between social control and harm reduction approaches which incorporate the complexity of people’s lives and needs, rather than simple slogans.[128]  Yet, over and over again panic has accompanied the sexual presence of people with HIV/AIDS, in much the same way that panic is a part of the history of lynching and race relations in the US.[129] Activists have attempted to fight these panics over public sex and queer sexuality with differing degrees of success.[130]  Since the turn of century, many AIDS activists have focused on global instead of domestic AIDS (as the face of HIV in the US. becomes increasingly poor, of color, and female.  Housing Works’ national leadership is a notable exception).   Instead, global AIDS is where the most aggressive advocacy (as well as the liberal ‘feel good’ activism is now directed).[131]  Yet, with the differing demographics of HIV in the US, consensus about the exceptional nature of AIDS has dwindled, much of HIV/AIDS policy has shifted from tolerance to coercive approaches.[132]  The following discussion helps situate Housing Works within the larger trajectory of HIV/AIDS public policy and service provision.

Initial Phases of AIDS Activism

The first phase of the response to HIV/AIDS involved community organizing, mobilization, and the establishment of a network of service providers to help those getting sick—primarily gay men in Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco. Along with gay men, those at highest risk for HIV/AIDS included socially vulnerable populations such as Haitian immigrants, injection drug users, sex workers, and low-income people of color. Because of the marginalization of these populations, organizing around the epidemic took on an inherently ideological character. This organizing emerged in part as a response to the ongoing backlash against the gains of the gay liberation years of the 1970s, which AIDS threatened to wipe out. Just three years before the first reports of the disease appeared in 1981, queers had effectively beaten back antigay campaigns by Anita Bryant and John Briggs, as well as a national movement by the Christian Right to repeal recently passed gay rights laws. Throughout the early to mid-1980’s gay groups fought what they recognized was revitalization by the Christian Right and their conservative view of homosexuality.  The Christian Right sought a discursive link between HIV/AIDS and punishment for queer sexuality.  In response, gay activists started to create the first programs and services for people with HIV/AIDS as well as flight the Reagan/Jesse Helms right wing onslaught.[133]

Service Provision as AIDS Activism

The first AIDS service organizations (ASOs)—the San Francisco Kaposi’s Sarcoma Foundation (later renamed the San Francisco AIDS Foundation) and Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) in New York City—were born of this grassroots organizing and the concurrent contraction of the gay liberation movement. Gay liberationists had struggled throughout the 1960s and 1970s to end homophobia, not to build organizations to fight it. Both impulses can be seen in the dual missions of the early ASOs: to end the AIDS epidemic and to build organizations to better serve those infected and affected by the disease. Many ASOs struggled to function as quasi-social movement organizations, pursing the broader goal of social change through the delivery of services. ASOs, like all social movement organizations, had to contend with inherent competing ideological pressures. Their social-movement orientation was sustained by values and an emphasis on social change, while their agency orientation focused on caring for those in need of services with minimal resources. All the while, those involved fought to gain increased government funding on the local, state, and national levels.[134]As such, ASOs had to contend with the challenge of blending their movement emphasis with their agency orientation, which depended on a detente with the powers that be.[135]

Not only did the early AIDS movement have to demand resources, but it also had to contend with the stigma and fear of HIV/AIDS.  Thus, AIDS activists had to fend off repressive social control measures, such as quarantines and mandatory testing and names reporting.  AIDS activists succeeded in creating policies based on notions of AIDS exceptionalism, which assumed that HIV must not be treated like other communicable diseases.[136]  Thus, community organizing and advocacy have always been essential components in the struggle to define, make sense of, and create appropriate responses for HIV/AIDS.

The Settlement House model proved to be an effective approach for movement-oriented ASOs such as Housing Works. The framework of placing people in housing, providing services, and getting service participants involved in neighborhood activities has become a standard model for housing providers and community organizers around the country. For Settlement House tenants, advocacy would be an expectation of residency, but only after they had been housed and their primary needs addressed. The wisdom of the Housing Works movement was that it understood this principle.[137] 

These early years of AIDS were characterized by neglect and on the federal policy level (and hostility on a local and state level. Ronald Reagan, the American president under whose watch the epidemic first exploded, failed to utter the word “AIDS” for the first six years of his two terms in office. This neglect translated into countless difficulties on the clinical level. The first HIV clinical trial, testing AZT, took place in 1985 and 1986. Nineteen members of the placebo group died within the first six months of this placebo-controlled, double-blind trial—designed to produce the “cleanest” data—before the study was halted. The blunt reality was that the early AIDS clinical trials were designed with “a particularly nasty way of determining whether a drug worked: whether the patient died.”[138]Yet, there seemed to be no other way of collect data.[139]  Yet, while HIV/AIDS was neglected on a federal level, it got a great deal of attention from the far right in terms of terms for quarantine and mandatory testing, as well as increased fear and stigma generative toward homosexuality in general and HIV in particular.[140]

Policies Driven by Consumers, Not Professionals

The treatment of people with AIDS as a stigmatized group spurred the emergence of a radical advocacy movement propelled by the passionate involvement by people with AIDS (PWAs) fighting the image of themselves as docile "victims." In an indicator of trends to come, Michael Callen, who had helped invent the notion of safer sex, and other PWAs disrupted the orderly meeting of the Second National AIDS Forum held in Denver in 1983. Their action was similar to the way Science for the People had disrupted the smug confines of scientific conferences during the Vietnam War. While in Denver, Callen, Bobbi Campbell, and others drafted a statement—which became known as the Denver Principles—on the rights of PWAs to enjoy civil rights, healthy sex lives, and self determination, just like everyone else.In so doing, they laid the groundwork for a PWA advocacy movement that successfully challenged the prevailing hierarchical medical model of a passive patient/god-like doctor relationship. The roots of ACT UP, born in 1987 under the rubric “ACTION=LIFE,” can be located within this work.

Throughout the 1980s, the social and economic repercussions of the epidemic escalated. The years 1985 and 1986 were marked by bathhouse closures from coast to coast, a Supreme Court decision (Bowers vs. Hardwick) upholding state sodomy laws, and increased pressure from the resurgent Christian Right. In July 1986, Lyndon LaRouche introduced a California ballot initiative, Proposition 64, which aimed to quarantine PWAs while barring them and those at risk from a range of jobs. Proposition 64 lost by a wide margin that November, but the attack it represented was very real.[141]

Recognizing that no one else would do the work, queer activists pushed back.[142] The initial service-oriented mobilization around the epidemic was followed by a second, angrier wave in the late 1980s that gave birth to ACT UP, the Names Project, World AIDS Day, and a wide range of grassroots political action groups.[143] ACT UP helped create a sense that the AIDS crisis required action by policy-makers. In doing this, the group’s work was marked by a theatrical flair. Building on the lessons of the Civil Rights Movement, ACT UP cultivated a creative tension that stimulated action. When faced with a policy impasse, the group made use of effective disruptions--such as interruptions of formal policy bodies--that broke down barriers to proactive policy formation. These disruptions created a climate in which policy-makers felt compelled to move.[144]

To be successful in dealing with the health crisis, activists realized that they needed to challenge a medical model that sought to control people by forcing them to wait for the bureaucracy to work. While some died waiting, others created a new approach to HIV/AIDS prevention that sought to engage gay men, drug users, prostitutes, and others at risk where they had sex, shot up, and made a living. Syringe exchange policy was born within this milieu. The case of syringe exchange incorporates ACT UP's use of street theatrics, sense of urgency, and political savvy to achieve a desired policy outcome. Throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, ACT UP successfully redeployed the Ghandian/Civil Rights era repertoire of nonviolent civil disobedience techniques to fight for effective therapies for people with HIV/AIDS. With the mantra “drugs into bodies,” the group successfully fought for treatment, services, and expedited approval of HIV drugs. What emerged was a practical approach to service provision. "Our services were informed by the theory of ‘harm reduction,’ the belief that change is not all-or-nothing, and that even incremental changes could be valuable in helping people save their own lives," ACT UP member Richard Ellovich recalled.[145] Having established a community-based strategy to prevent the spread of the disease, the group pushed for widespread use of this intervention.

From 1987 through 1994, ACT UP led the second wave of AIDS activism. The group’s victories resulted in more responsive public policies involving expedited Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval of lifesaving HIV drugs, a successful drive to push the first Bush administration to expand the definition of AIDS to reflect the different ways the disease affects women, the recognition that housing is an AIDS issue, and the adoption of harm reduction rather than moralistic approaches to HIV prevention.

The push for a more humane policy strategy for containing the disease was a core component of ACT UP’s work. When the AIDS epidemic first began, traditional public health approaches to address the outbreak of communicable diseases called for contact tracing, names reporting, and other policies that compromised the civil liberties of those with disease. Conservative commentator William F. Buckley even proposed that people with HIV/AIDS should be tattooed.[146] But AIDS activists suggested that circumstances surrounding the AIDS epidemic were unique, and thus required exceptional approaches. The term “AIDS exceptionalism” was born from this idea. Within this policy framework, anonymous HIV testing, rather than contact tracing, became the standard practice across the country.

Legislation, Treatment, and the Birth of AIDS, Inc.

The late 1980s through the mid-1990s witnessed the advancement of a number of policies, laws, and services, followed by new, more successful treatments for people living with HIV/AIDS who could afford the drugs. Among these were the passage of the Ryan White CARE Act in 1990, the passage of the Housing Opportunities for People with AIDS (HOPWA) Act in 1992, the approval of city and state syringe exchange laws across the country, and the consolidation of the Department of AIDS Services in New York City in 1996. The Ryan White CARE Act distributes federal monies to community-based AIDS service organizations, following the “San Francisco model” of AIDS service delivery.[147] The act includes the AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP), which pays for medications for people with HIV/AIDS. HOPWA is a program of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) designed to provide federal funding for housing and supportive services for people living with HIV/AIDS. HOPWA was a response to organizing by groups including Housing Works, then an ACT UP affinity group, which insisted that adequate housing was an AIDS issue.[148]

While the Ryan White CARE Act was perhaps the most sustained expansion of the U.S. social safety net in the past two decades, many viewed it as a short-term solution to the AIDS crisis. As advocates translated their gains into funding, many groups became not-for-profit organizations, while grassroots activists bemoaned their movement’s co-optation. With the advent of funding--and especially with the election of a potentially sympathetic new Democratic presidential administration in 1992--social services supplanted advocacy as many organizers shifted from critique to coexistence with the establishment.

This pattern is not unfamiliar.[149] Funding often has the effect of creating a means/ends inversion as policy-makers focus on securing continued funding rather than alleviating the issue or problem—AIDS, poverty, lack of housing—for which they sought money in the first place. As Joel Handler and Yeheskel Hasenfeld note, “[T]he welfare bureaucracy itself becomes a powerful interest group aimed to preserve and enhance itself.”[150] As the AIDS epidemic progressed, many ASOs began orienting themselves toward perpetuating their existence over the long term rather than calling for a cure. This shift necessitated building stronger infrastructures to support increased funding.[151]   

A definitive battle of the second decade of AIDS activism involved the institutionalization of the epidemic. To receive funding, organizations had to present themselves in a professional fashion. While government subcontracting can sometimes offer non-profits fair and manageable means with which to provide services, in other cases these contracts can function as tools of demobilization. To build infrastructure and accommodate funding requirements, many organizations look to the insights of professionals rather than to their grassroots bases. Daniel Patrick Moynihan describes this phenomenon as the “professionalism of reform.”[152]  The process unfolds as advocacy groups come to favor administrative remedies over grassroots mobilization and direct action. Countless movements—including the civil rights, environmental, and consumer movements—witnessed this pattern in their organizations in the 1970s, as lobbying and legal strategies supplanted community organizing. The result is an approach that favors the work of elite professionals instead of the rank-and-file.[153] It is no different with HIV/AIDS organizations.

 New York's Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC), the first AIDS organization on the East Coast, provides a case in point. Originally formed to fight for people with AIDS, as funding increased, the organization's grassroots character was overshadowed by public policy advocacy and service delivery. By the end of the decade, GHMC had become an arm of local and state governments seeking to enhance their legitimacy among the economically powerful gay community in Manhattan.[154] By the early 1990s, GMHC had become caught up in contradictions of the welfare state that dated back to Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. Then, War on Poverty programs encouraged community participation in handling local problems. Successful groups were funded. In turn, many used the money to lobby for more funds. By the early 1970s, a backlash emerged (as illustrated above in the discussion of the NWRO). Future grants were provided with stipulations regulating political speech and lobbying. This limited the message of cash-strapped groups who accepted federal monies--a pattern that was later repeated with GMHC.

The rapid growth of GMHC easily falls into Moynihan’s pattern of “professionalization of reform.” Although a new class of professional reformers was employed, there is little evidence that these professionals were able to achieve the stated goals of reducing poverty or ending the AIDS crisis.[155] With increased funding, GMHC shifted from critique to coexistence. Participation of community members dwindled as they were replaced with professional staff. In the process, a community organization was supplanted by a social service agency. GMHC had undergone a mission slip.[156]

Funding also has the effect on an organization of separating the management from its membership base. The base loses influence on the leadership as staff is hired and policy decisions are made based on criteria other than the needs of the affected community.[157] The result is that those lobbying for community programs are not the affected community members themselves, but rather professionals confident that they know what community members need.[158] All too often, groups such as GMHC, in undergoing institutionalization, ignore their membership base.[159] The evolution of GMHC as an organization embodies a phenomenon that would divide the loyalties of gay community groups for the next decade.

From ACT UP to Housing Works

 "Do you want to start a new organization devoted solely to political action?" GMHC founder Larry Kramer screamed in front of a crowd at New York City’s Gay Community Center the night of March 10, 1987. Kramer had grown increasingly frustrated with GMHC's reticence to engage in direct action or to use its influence to aggressively fight for new HIV drugs.[160] A generation earlier, labor organizer Saul Alinsky had bid good riddance to similar grassroots groups for leaving his methods behind: "Not only is pressure necessary to compel the establishment to make its initial concession, but the pressure must be maintained to make the establishment deliver. The second factor seemed to be lost on [The Woodlawn Organization].”[161]

ACT UP was born in Alinsky's spirit. While GMHC represented mainstream interests and courted grant monies, ACT UP members racked up arrests. To the extent that AIDS activism had been defined by service provision, ACT UP redefined the crisis in terms of sexual politics.[162] By the mid-1990s, the group could boast a list accomplishments that included forcing expedited FDA approval of new HIV medications, pressuring Burroughs Wellcome (now GlaxoSmithKline) to reduce the price of its antiretroviral AZT, highlighting the need for health-care reform, and pressuring the National Institutes of Health to increase spending on HIV research.

One of the group's more difficult tasks involved implementing harm reduction principles in the area of HIV prevention. When New York City Health Commissioner Woodrow Myers took the moralistic position that drug users need to face the consequences of their behavior, ACT UP/New York organized an illicit needle exchange program on the city's Lower East Side. Ten ACT UP members were arrested for distributing clean needles. They later successfully challenged the case in court, arguing that needle exchange was "a medical necessity" required to stem the spread of HIV.[163] Housing Works would build on this work to be part of the second generation of syringe exchange programs advanced in New York City.  From its pragmatic approach to drug use to its unapologetic queer identity, ACT UP taught America that the country had better face its demons and get over its biases.

Housing Works as an Alternative to ACT UP, GMHC, and AIDS, Inc.

Housing Works was born of this milieu. Its founders, Keith Cylar, Charles King, and Eric Sawyer, had all been active members of ACT UP from its formation. Throughout the 1990s, ACT UP evolved with the ever-elusive nature of the virus, staying together longer than anyone could have expected. Leadership changed, activists died, and Monday night meetings continued. With each new level of carnage, the task of halting the epidemic's progress become more daunting. AIDS was fully entwined within the mosaic of poverty. Within this context, the group struggled to maintain its focus.[164] Dealing with AIDS involved addressing endemic social problems of racism, income inequality, and discrimination faced by the truly disadvantaged in America.[165] Housing Works--which began as an ACT UP working group--assumed a leadership role, recognizing that the demographics of the AIDS pandemic would continue to shift toward underserved high-risk groups such as low-income women and people of color.

Housing Works’ founders--veterans of homeless services, housing, social, and legal services--noted that there was another epidemic facing people with HIV/AIDS.  Sawyer recalled seeing a different picture of AIDS in Harlem, where he worked: “I knew a couple of people in the neighborhood who were homeless, who didn’t have housing....I just started reading a lot about it and, because of the connection with drug use, started learning that there’s this whole other AIDS plague, tied to drug use, that is very prevalent in homeless communities, and it’s a whole area where there are no services.” Sawyer described the floor debate over creating a different organization, outside of ACT UP, to address these needs: “ACT UP didn’t want to do housing. They didn’t want paid staff. They wanted to do activism. They didn’t want to do housing or provide services. We would come to the floor and tell people about our search for buildings or whatever, and there was a huge outcry of, ‘You can’t have paid staff, you can’t get governmental contracts. That’s going to limit what we can say. It’s going to compromise our voice.’ And we were like, ‘Hell--that’s bullshit. We’ll not only bite the hand that feeds us, we’ll chew it off, if it’s trying to slap us. And we kind of took that motto to Housing Works.”[166]

“The strategy was to push, push, push,” Cylar said in describing the approach of the early Housing Works years. “It wasn’t different than the general ACT UP strategy about inclusion. But it was always to get those populations also included. It was easy for the world to deal with gay white men. People of color were so far off the Richter scale, and it was also to hold people-of-color organizations accountable.” This meant creating an organization in which aggressive advocacy for unpopular causes coincided with the group’s unique institutional needs. “Housing Works started when, after demonstrating, fighting, and working in the AIDS community, the people that I cared the most about were the people least likely to get served,” Keith Cylar elaborated.

“And so we decided we had to do it ourselves. All of a sudden, we got this arrogant streak. Fuck it--nobody else can do this. We’re gonna do it. So we started writing about it and talking about it. And we started a process that involved actually twenty to thirty people. And we talked about what kind of bylaws and organization it would be that was a shared responsibility and would empower clients. Then we recruited a whole lot of people who were in this group, AIDA--AIDS into Direct Action. It was made up of homeless and formerly homeless people, many people of color who did direct action around these issues. We included them in all of the discussions because it was important to design something that they had insight into. It was important for their voices to be heard throughout. We got a lot of them on the board so that if push came to shove, they could stop it [the growth of Housing Works if necessary]. We wanted to be different than AIDS, Inc.”[167]

The creation of Housing Works was not a comfortable situation for many advocates who had come of age with ACT UP (or even Student for a Democratic Society years earlier). Many in ACT UP were familiar with social theorist Herbert Marcuse’s idea of “pure refusal,” a position which held that participation in a problematic system is tantamount to complicity.[168] ACT UP would follow this mantra. While few social movements are able to remain entirely outside of the policy framework of service provision, ACT UP maintained this position and the group persevered, yet not without difficulties. While some members of the group found a way to the policy table, others continued to scream from the street.

Over the next fifteen years, Housing Works would remain true its founding ethos, even as the organization grew, and straddled between direct action and direct services.  The organization would both create spaces for socially vulnerable populations to call home while fighting the industry which would grow and profit the epidemic.  Walking through the Lincoln Tunnel during the first day of Housing Work’s 2005 Campaign to End AIDS,[169] Eric Sawyer reflected on the effort to fight AIDS Inc and actually end this, not profit from its chronic nature.  He explained, “That’s parts of what’s so infuriating about the approach to any sort of problem like AIDS.  It becomes something to fuel the economy because drug companies are making so much money producing medications to keep people with AIDS alive.  They have no interest in actually curing AIDS. And therefore neither do any of our politicians, whose election to office is paid for by those very same drug companies.’  Ivan Illych always said hospitals make people sicker.  Schools make people dumber. 

Sawyer reflected on Housing Work’s fifteen years. “When we founded Housing Works, our whole mission was to speak truth to power and to help those people who were getting no help from anyone else.  And I think as long as Housing Works continues to fight the good fight and to do god’s work, its going to survive.  And thats what it does.  Housing Works speaks truth to power.  It bites the hand that feeds it.  And it tries to bring a reality to the world while it cares for the most disenfranchised people in our community.”[170] 

Part II -- Fences and Piers: An Investigation of a Disappearing Queer Public Space in Manhattan

On October 5, 2002, two women from ACT UP cut a hole in a fence separating a walking path from a Hudson River pier facing toward New Jersey on Manhattan’s West Side Highway, “as a gesture of solidarity” with the queer youth who used the space before the fence went up. “We could hear a bunch of my girlfriend’s kids cheering us on across the street, and as soon as we started it was over--the police were there, dragging us off the fence,”[171] one of the explained. The police immediately arrested both women.[172]

Why Snip a Fence?

Author Naomi Klein, a journalist who has spent years covering the convergences, riots, and worldwide confabs of the new global justice activism, explains that conflicts over public and private spaces are at the center of the movement. And so is the theme of fences. For Klein, fences serve as “barriers separating people from previously public resources, locking them away from much-needed land and water, restricting their ability to move across borders, to express political dissent, to demonstrate on public streets… Fences have always been part of capitalism.”[173] As areas of life ranging from health care and education, to intellectual property, seeds, and genes, to even water and air are commodified, fences become part of the “invading of the public by the private.” Those with antiquated skills are fenced out as fences of social exclusion discard entire countries and peoples.[174] Corporate globalization creates a lot of fences.[175]

Fences represent political barriers. After five years of an often unpopular “quality of life” campaign, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani erected a fence separating citizens from City Hall. Activists tried to cut that fence open back in 1999. A year later, many members of this same group tore down a fence surrounding a plot of land that had been a public community garden just days after being bulldozed for redevelopment.[176]

New York has lots of fences. Even before the elaborate anti-terrorist functions of post 9/11 New York, ”Giuliani-ism” as a mode of urban governance favoring blandification of public space, replete with elaborate security, racial profiling, and “stop and frisk” policing, had become a model many cities hoped to emulate. The results of Giuliani-ism can be witnessed in the details of the transformation and control of New York’s physical spaces. Fences are part of a methodical process used to target “communities of difference” as urban areas are redesigned and governed as if they were sterile shopping malls.[177] In order for these entertainment zones to thrive, the state must heavily regulate their use. Anthropologist Jeff Ferrell explains: “The caretakers of these newly segregated spaces—politicians, business leaders, community associations—contend that such closed spaces are essential to the economic vitality, interpersonal safety, and emerging identity of the city.”[178] They bring down the weight of the law on those, such as pier users, who trespass on spaces once considered open to all. The process has not been without opposition.

What emerges in the following report is one flashpoint in an ongoing class war between "corporate control of public space” and a do-it-yourself public space activism aimed at preserving public space for the people.[179] The struggle involves the West Side Highway in New York’s historically queer West Village, where fences cut queer youth of color, sex workers, runaways, and the homeless off from the piers and the feeling of safety and place once found there. This analysis focuses on the history of access to this space, considering the phenomena of queer space as a liberatory geography and counter-public, the ways users congregated there, and what happens when they are fenced out of the space. Countless groups have fought the process. Their challenge--the fences they face--speaks to circumstances facing public spaces in cities around the world.

Fences and Boundaries

Fences mark boundaries. When boundaries between private and public space are lost, distinctions between inside and outside, us and them, disappear. In their wake, conviviality often abounds. Spaces displaying this sort of openness stimulate public discourse, while fences emphasize distinctions, separating the site in question from its users.[180]

For as long as most can remember, queer people have made use of the piers as a public commons. While they have no legal claim on the space, the piers have come to represent a sort of sacred space and home for queer youth, some homeless runaways, others with nowhere else to go.[181] At one point in the mid-1970s, one enthusiast actually self published his own mimeographed Warehouse Newsletter, with a circulation of 2,500, which he distributed along with food and supplies at the piers. While the space has long been an arena for the public imagination, appropriated in myths, stories, and poems, to own such a commons means little except to those who crave power.[182] "It was a secret place with all sorts of treasures, including file cabinets, antique chairs…," Barton Benes recalled, eluding to the beauty in the ruins found there. "I knew every hole in the ground, every broken piece of wood." Once a concept like the commons enters the hearts and minds of the people, the only way to halt its use –is to shut it down completely.[183]

“Queer Youth of Color, Pushed off the Piers, Pushed into Jails,” the flyer read. On October 5, 2002 a group of pier supporters, called FIERCE, organized a rally under the slogan, “Reclaim Our Space.” The event was billed as “a public celebration of the resistance of Queer youth to the gentrification, harassment, race and gender-based profiling and brutality that have become commonplace under the pretense of ‘cleaning up’ the West Village.” FIERCE was organized to “increase public awareness of the criminalization of marginalized people in a neighborhood that has long been a hub of their communities.” The day began with a speak-out in Sheridan Square Park, followed by a march to the newly fenced-in Christopher Street Piers.


The following analysis draws on many of the testimonials presented during the October 5 rally. More specifically, its data sources consist of nine testimonials and six interviews taken during the Reclaim Our Space event. A complementary snowball sample of nine information-rich respondents was drawn among clients at a South Bronx syringe exchange and others who have used the pier and watched it change.[184] To account for validity, data is triangulated using three forms of data: historical materials on the queer presence in the West Village and redevelopment of its piers, my observation of the piers, and interviews with those who use the piers. Qualitative inquiry generally makes use of combinations of data from interviews, personal observations, and excerpts from documents.[185]

Much of the investigation emphasizes the narrative truths and interpretations of those who use the piers. Building on social standpoint theory, this report emphasizes the life stories representing the reality of a queer counter-public and its interplay with larger dominant public spheres.[186] At the center of study are questions about fences, access and impediments, and the contested nature of the use of space by social outsiders.[187] Essentially, the inquiry explores the physical and cultural barriers to the use of the piers--the iron fence, the political walls of the Community Board, the police, the real estate industry, the often hysterical responses to the presence of queer youth (mostly of color), and a “quality of life” campaign which aimed to sweep deviance off the streets while working in concert with a corporate globalization project designed to privatize all things public.

Social Movements and Narrative Perspectives

Countless reports have considered the relationship between contested spaces and democratic participation.[188] A central goal of American social movements involves redefining norms of public and private space.[189] The following is a series of stories of struggle for access to a particular public space, New York’s Christopher Street Piers. It builds on an increasing recognition of the interplay between narrative and discursive practices of social movement mobilization.[190] Striking cultural tales often propel social movements, creating spaces that allow actors to locate and construct new identities.[191] In this case, oral histories and testimonies mark the link between the Gay Liberation Movement of the 1970s and current public space activism.[192] In recent years, this space has been a flashpoint for police crackdowns over public sex as part of the “quality of life” campaign. A flyer for a 1997 SexPanic! rally to save the piers, titled “Queer Pier Facts,” announced:

In the past we fought to claim this space -

In the present it is under attack -

Will we let them take it from us in the future?

For many, the narrative in question involves the legacy of the Stonewall Riots, where homeless street youth who frequented the piers fought back against a police raid and sparked the birth of a worldwide movement. Jay Dee Melendez was one of many speakers who referred to a new generation’s responsibility to build on the lessons of June 1969: “That was the moment when our veterans said ‘no more, we’re tired’ and fought back. They started it for us.” Such narratives allow movement participants to integrate their experiences within larger historic struggles. These movement stories guide participants, serving as the basis for projections, expectations, and memories.[193] Many pier users locate their lives and struggles within this story. It helps them find meaning in a difficult world.

Street Youth

If there is one activist who has witnessed the ebbs and flows of queer activism, it’s 76-year-old Bob Kohler. He was around the nights of the Stonewall Riots, helped organize with the Gay Liberation Front in the 1970s and with Sex Panic! and Fed Up Queers in the 1990s. Today, he still works with AIDS Housing Network and ACT UP. Much of the link between today’s activism around the piers and the legacy of Stonewall involves the difficult conditions of the lives of queer youth. Kohler explains how he got involved:

By the end of the 1960s I said I was going to take two years off. I used to go in the park [Sheridan Square] all the time and that’s where the street kids were. I got very friendly with them and, even though I was older and represented a father figure to them, I wasn’t old enough to be the dirty old man, so they trusted me. And they’d confide in me. They lived in the park. And those were the kids who rioted. I’d gotten to know them. I kind of thought I had seen what happens to black people in Harlem; I had seen what happens to poor white people--but I had never seen this with gay teenagers. It was something I just didn’t know about. Fourteen-, fifteen-year-old kids with cigarette burns all over their bodies from a father who found out they were gay--or were permanently scarred, and certainly mentally scarred forever. And thrown out and living out of bags in Sheridan Square and washing in the little fountain. I did not know that. I had never understood that there were groups like that.

So I got to know them very well. I would collect clothes for them. I was doing that for months and then Stonewall happened. We were doing the same thing of listening to their bullshit. A couple of them were primping to go down to cruise at the piers where the Jersey cars came…

But I was there and suddenly all of the things that had been welling up inside me about these kids came to fruition. Not in any way a revolution. I still will defy anybody who tells you that... these kids started a riot because that was the only thing that they knew to do.

Kohler recalled that legacy during the October 5 speak-out.

Stonewall started right here in this park by some kids. Some of them were only 14, 16. They were all homeless. They lived in the park… These kids were at the bottom of the heap. There was no way out for them.

Yet even after they made history, many residents in the West Village looked down on the street youth who hung out in neighborhood’s public spaces. They viewed the youth who frequented the piers as “outsiders.” In part, tension arose between a mainstream gay public and queer counter-public.[194] This conflict is expressed in a play, Queer Pier, about the space written by Frank Aqueno in 1996. “That's Robert. He sorta lives here,” the protagonist explains. “One of those disposable youth. Runaway throwaways. Standing on a beam under the pier… Oh yeah, he lives under there; smokes his crack under there... This is Robert's home. We're just visitors… That's where Robert sleeps...” Implicit is a split between “visitors” who have homes and the “boyz,” a code word for African Americans, who “live under there.”[195]

The anxiety about the presence of street youth at the piers dates back at least to the mid 1970’. An August 14 edition of Warehouse Newsletter from the summer of 1975 blames a prison and street youth for the change in climate at the piers.

Now that the Federal House of Detention has been closed and all the men moved to the new prison downtown, the immediate area in front of Pier 48 has become more deserted during the day hours and at night. When you go up those stairs to the second floor of Pier 48 ask yourself how you are going to get out of there when the local teenage gang invades the pier?[196]

Over the years, antagonism toward street youth has only increased. West Village residents regularly throw water from their vestibules onto queer youth who pause nearby, or call the Guardian Angels to patrol spaces where they hang out. At the Save Our Space Rally, FIERCE made a point to respond, wearing signs stating, “We are not trash.”

Within such a context, the narratives of liberation remain compelling for these youth. Leslie Feinberg, another eyewitness to Stonewall, also spoke at the October 5 rally:

It is an honor to be here to speak from the podium on the site of a rebellion that took place not just in that bar, the Stonewall Bar, for people who could afford to go in. But took place in this park where homeless youth, many of them African American and Latina and Asian, and youth with no homes to go home to, who had to turn tricks to share a hotel room or to share a hamburger, were in this park and helped spark that Stonewall Rebellion. There was a social chemistry that had nowhere to go but explode under the heat of police repression. The police and the authorities and the big money in this city don’t think it’s going to happen as they drive the youth of color [from this city]. There’s gonna be an explosion. They are gonna help combust!

We’re gonna stand with you shoulder to shoulder against the big developers in this city, the big real estate magnates, the billionaire mayors, this racist police force that has not changed much since the day they raided that bar. You know, after the police raided that bar, they learned a lesson--because people started pushing back. They started throwing their precious pocket change. They began looking for cobblestones. They drove the police back, not just under the hail of tiny projectiles, but they taught the cops this: those youth that the police had ridiculed and humiliated as being limp-wristed sissies taught them that a stiletto high heel, in the hands of a drag queen, changes repression!

The crowd roared throughout the ebbs and flows of Feinberg’s narrative of liberation. The legend of the piers emerges within just this legacy of resistance to social controls. Places such as the piers resonate as spaces where their users have countered spatial exclusion with the inclusive politics of liberty, diversity, and disorder, recreating them as communities of difference and inclusion.[197]

A Short History of Piers

“The Piers is particularly a place where the LGBT youth go. Programs think of the piers as a place to do outreach. If you are going to meet folks, that’s where they are. The trans community is also there,” Imani Henry, a Caribbean American outreach worker and FIERCE supporter, explained.

Artist, AIDS activist, and hussler David Wojnarowicz hung out and worked on the Piers before his death to the virus.  He filled journal after journal with musings, “coded descriptions of sexuality” and evocations of the space.  For Wojnarowicz, the dying structures of the piers were symbols of what he saw as dying a country.[198]

From the 1950s to the 1990s, queers converged there unencumbered. Bob Kohler elaborated:

It’s very funny. Keeping the youth off the piers. Keeping gay people off the piers. Back in my day, that’s where they wanted us. “Decent” people didn’t go past Hudson Street. That was for us. That was our own personal Casbah. It was called “the trucks.” And that’s where they were so happy we were. They were happy because we weren’t around the Village and they didn’t have to see us as long as we were down there.

In the 1970s, trucks were parked outside warehouses along the waterfront piers. People had sex and hung out here. Dakota, a 50-year-old African American man who hustled at the piers in 1970s, recalled, “It was popular on the street… You come out to Christopher Street, not Hudson, in the AM, it is real.” He elaborated on Kohler’s point:

In the 1970’s, it was big. There was money and everything. Money, money, money. It was drugs. Plenty of drugs. A big fucking party on the piers. You see, there was never a guy or a man walking their dog. They would never come there unless they were gay and they were making a date.

Boo-boo, a 43-year-old African America male-to-female transgender person who actually lived on the piers from 1978 to 1986, described the scene:

It was a lot of white guys coming in from Jersey. It was half Spanish and Black. And lots of Cubans. And lots of traces and natures of heterosexuals, drag queens, sex changers, and gay men that we call butch queens that live down there. These people would live in the warehouses along the piers. They were abandoned trucks and things like that. That was our home. This was where we would do our living.

By serving as an open space in an often closed hostile world, the piers came to serve as an autonomous zone for queers.[199] The theme of libratory space came up again and again. Adonis Baough, a homeless 39-year-old homeless man noted:

In 1981, the piers was a place where you can go no matter what age you were and be you. If you were flame-y or loud or you were boisterous or you couldn’t be that way where you were from--Brooklyn, where I was from--you came to let your hair down. You became you, and then you transformed back when you were home. I became the way I wanted to be. But I couldn’t be that way because the norms of society didn’t allow me to be that way. Other people were being themselves. Drag queens, transgenders. They had androgynous people. Everybody not considered the norm could go there and be themselves and not be looked at any other way.

By transgressing social, spiritual, and aesthetic limitations, the piers offered queers a place to be what they could not be in their homes.[200] For some it was sex, for others, it was just to be out of the closet because you “couldn’t be your real self at home,” as Baough recalled. “It was a place you could go and could be you. It’s a place to flame around. Oh I was in heaven. It was a place I could go.” Its vitality as a libratory space functioned as a welcome contrast to the restrictions in normal space. “You felt alive. You felt happy, then you had to transform when you got home. We were accepted there, more than other places.” Queer theorists describe the tension between normal (culturally straight) space and queer space as being marked by heteronormativity--a series of prohibitive, codes, and administrative protocols that govern appropriate and inappropriate behavior.[201] Faced with the barriers of heteronormativity at home, Baough suggested pier users, “can go out there, meet somebody, have sex, go home and be ‘normal.’” Thus, queer space functioned as a space for a more open self. Movement between these spaces can be cumbersome.


A central plotline within narratives of the piers involves stories of what brought its users there in the first place. “Since the days of Walt Whitman, Herman Melville and Langston Hughes, the promise of a place lured queers to the edge of the city,” a flyer for a lecture on the history of the piers by historian Alan Berube announced. It featured a 1975 photo of an African American man clad in Chuck Taylor sneakers and white shorts performing ballet along the waterfront. For over 30 years, queer youth have sought refuge in the West Village and Christopher Street. "This is their boulevard of broken dreams," explained Kohler, while the piers were a place where dreams came true (freedom, sex, safety, etc.) Despite the current restrictions, the piers remain a Mecca, with queer runaways arriving at Port Authority and making their way there nightly. Some, such as James Place and L.P., came to get away from heroin treatment and foster care homes. Others, such as Steve Rodgers, were running away from non-accepting, abusive homes. Boo-boo left Pensacola, Florida after an uncle raped her in 1978. “They did find that my rectum was torn and it was bloodied. His semen was still in me. They got his DNA and he went to jail for it.” When her family told her to “hush hush it,” she ran away from home and came to New York:

My family up here was Muslim and they didn’t want me to be dressin’ in drag in the house. So they kicked me out to the streets. At the time I was only 16 years old, so I was homeless. So I went to the streets, and I was living under the piers at the time I met my first pimp. He had seen that I was a nice little boy. And he said I could make a lot of money if I dressed like a girl, had sex like a woman.      I heard about Christopher Street from the gay parade. I ended up down there. I used to hang out in the Crisco discos. It was from the summer of 1978 to the summer of ’86 that I stayed down there on those piers--almost ten years. I lived on the West Side Highway on the piers. That was like another different world. And believe me when I say another different world. It was a whole different scenery.

For others, arrival was a far lighter affair. “Curiosity” brought Samaj. Adonis came “wanting to be popular.” For others, such as Dakota, the piers were the end point of a sex migration, a place to connect with guys, free from the closet. Dennis presented a compelling narrative of exploring and arriving with a friend:

[O]ur story started when I was 14 years old. We lived on the Lower East Side. We were really looking for somewhere to feel comfortable. And just be accepted and feel at peace, and where we lived just wasn’t the place. So one day I just started walking around and I found my way to the Village. And I just followed everybody… it was Gay Pride Day and I found my way to the pier. It was just like this amazing thing that I have never experienced in my life. Everything was still going on and it was like one in the morning. Everything was live and everybody was out. We’d found some place where we could be ourselves… So then we started our usual coming out here every Friday night, just to walk the streets, be on the piers, and talk, and just be ourselves and be around people that accepted us, and loved us, and motivated us. And we could be good to ourselves, because we didn’t always love ourselves.

Themes of convergence, acceptance and finding a place to be one’s self run through stories of the space, acting as subplots within a larger tale of liberation. It’s a story reinvented by cohort after cohort.

Throughout the summer before the Save Our Space rally, “Christopher Street was in full human bloom,” Richard Goldstein, a long time pier-goer explained. On a typical night, hoards of queer teens, most black or Latino, stroll west from across the city and spilled onto the waterfront. “Here, where white gay men created a sexual carnival in the pre-AIDS '70s, one of the city's liveliest youth scenes unfolds nightly. It flames with the passion of people who don't feel free to be themselves in their neighborhoods.”[202]

Interviewees described an ideal night there. “Most of the [activity on the] pier wasn’t really sex work,” Adonis explained. “It was meeting and having sex with another gay person in the open. It would be in the back, in the old warehouse or whatever. You meet and you go into a peep-show or wherever.” More than anything, the space offered a panorama. L.P. recalls:

An ideal evening was when there were people there, but not a lot of people.

A lot of friends, you know, people who had been down there for years. And then you have an evening-type community around seven-thirty, eight o’clock. That was the best time to me because it was just getting dark, but it was still warm and the breeze was still coming off the water. You can sit around, down by the water, and look at Jersey. And it’s like the most amazing romantic thing to sit there with your friends, smoking a blunt, talking and laughing, crying, sharing. And you’d move on to the dark corners and pick the person you were going to be with that night.

The openness and intimacy described by L.P. and Adonis partly explains the close connection many have to the space. Much of this closeness involved physical touch.

Boo-boo described a good night after work:

The good times for us were like in the summertime. After working we would find a couple of young guys and we would all get together and get some alcohol and some drugs and we would just get buck naked and we would have orgies down there. And we would laugh. By orgies, it would be straight guys and gay guys and transvestites. Transvestites, chicks with dicks. And we would all get in a circle and there would be like six of us, and we would all switch over with different partners and sometimes drag queens with drag queens, guys with guys... The virus was not out at that time.

Certainly, this level of closeness was not possible elsewhere. Kenyon Martin, another of the organizers with FIERCE, added:

People could come here all hours of the night. When I first came here I didn’t    have any money. I couldn’t go to clubs that cost $20 or $30 bucks. So I would just go hang out. (Laughs). People would have boom boxes. We could dance, hang out, and we didn’t have to pay any money. Even to go into a coffee shop on this block you gotta pay money, just to pee or be in the facility. It was open public space for folks to just be.

It was like a club without an entrance fee. Freedom on many levels was part of the lure of the space. Donald Yearwood recalled a similar feeling arriving in the mid 1960s: “I was 16 when I first came. I had no idea where I was. But I knew when I looked around and saw all these other happy faces, this is where I can be happy and be free.”

Yet, freedom was always mediated within interactions with the larger public.

On an ideal day, Boo-boo continued:

My routine was that I would sleep half of the day. And no sooner than 6 PM I would get up. Now this was the wintertime. Believe me, it wasn’t cold 'cause inside my house I had my kerosene stove. It was my home. And I was with, like, ten other residents there. There was ten other homeless people there. But we didn’t think it was homeless, because we was inside this big old warehouse, which was made out of metal and wood that floated over the Hudson.

Police interference within his routine was a norm of his time on the piers:

The police used to come in there and wreck our homes and turn down our camps and things. And tell us we had to leave. And we would go to the park for a while. The park was down there on the East Side. We would go down there and sit for a couple of hours and come back and fix our homes again. And I would get up and prepare for my night, that I called my workin’ hours. It was called witchin’ hours. I would get up, wash up, throw on some clean panties, lay out my outfit, my stockings, my heels, and my wig on the side. I would put my makeup on and pin on my wig and get my gear on, which is called dragging. And then I would head for the streets. We would come out and walk along the West Side Highway, which is really a truck stop. There were all types of trucks coming in from Connecticut, Baltimore, Washington, LA, Cleveland, Jersey-- all parts of the world and that was the scene.

And there were 60 or 100 of these people that you would have thought were females, but really they was drag queens. And you would be amazed at how they would look because they would look so feminine, so much like women standing out there. Some of these girls just had stockings and a g-string up under these fur coats that we would steal from the second hand stores. We were dressing so nicely you would have thought that we were 6th Avenue whores, but really we were working alongside of a highway.

I would work Monday through Sunday. I was fascinated with what I was doing. Plus, I was young at the time. I’m 43 now, but at that time I was in the prime of my life. I was only in my teens when I first started out there. I was still chic. At the time, the virus had not hit me yet. I was raw sucking cocks and raw fucking. I wasn’t even thinking of condoms. Plus, at that time I liked to feel the nakedness of a man’s penis up into my body. Or I liked to feel the rush of a man’s sperm shooting down my throat.

Public Space

A central question for cultural narratives on public and private space involves what belongs in public. Questions about the meanings of public and private space in New York remain at the heart of discussions about the piers and their surrounding areas. For many, public space is safer than private or domestic space. “See, for me the public made it easier,” Steve Rodgers, a 39-year-old African American former pier-goer, recalled of his first days on the piers in 1978-1981, describing public space as a more friendly geography than private domestic heterosexual space.[203] “In the beginning, I defined that public space as an area to do things that you wouldn’t do at home. That’s public space to me.” When asked about what he couldn’t do at home, he explained. “More or less, I couldn’t bring another male home and have sexual activities. I was still living with my parents.” Thus, public space is defined in contrast to restricted private space at home where one could not bring people. “I couldn’t do that,” Rodgers elaborated. “I wasn’t secure in my sexuality growing up. It was male-female, growing up in that heterosexual life. I just don’t think my parents understood anything else.”

For many years in New York, public space was also a place for sexual contact. Berube explains that these are spaces where “sexual outcasts have created some of the most imaginative, creative, varied, unruly and long-lasting forms of gay sexual culture.” For Berube, spaces such as the piers represent “cracks in our anti-sexual society,” where he has found “creative moments of intimate sexual adventure with strangers I never saw again. These erotic spaces have been little utopias of Whitmanesque camaraderie.”[204]

Interviewees elaborate on the point. “There was a time when the subways had bathrooms at every station. That was another public space to go and do things,” Steve Rodgers recalled. Those who make use of the piers and other public sex spots tend to occupy a worldview of outsider status understood as queer; the places they occupy for sexual and social contact are understood as queer spaces. The notion of queer space emerges as a subaltern public sphere struggling against the ideological and material organization of dominant public spheres.[205] Thus, it is involved in an interplay between dominant and subaltern publics.[206]

Those who use public space describe that use in terms that cast them as members of a subaltern public. Mervyn Marcano, with FIERCE, explained:

Public space is so important, especially for this particular community. We are not recognized in mass culture. Queers are not recognized. Sure, like, gay white men are on TV now and assimilating into the mainstream culture. But we have a whole different culture. And we’ve actually been left behind by the gay movement. It’s not even a liberation movement anymore.

By “left behind,” Mercano appears to be referring to a mainstream gay culture barely resembling its liberationist roots.[207] Class, race, and gender lines tear at many gay communities as a split only widens between radical queers who rely on public spaces such as the piers and assimilated gays who own property and pay for leisure.

Yet the need for public space remains. Samaj, a 19-year-old young black man spoke for a younger cohort of pier users. Wearing pink shoes, a cardigan sweater, a pink oxford cloth shirt, and a gray do-rag, he described public space as a place “where people of all cultures come together to enjoy a safe space.” He drew a clear distinction between his queer counterpublic and the dominant public: “Others have other senses of public space...We have ours.” Like Samaj, most interviewees principally recognized public space, such as the piers, as a place for the pursuit of happiness. L.P., a 34-year-old Latino man and former pier user, elaborated. For him, the piers were about, “drugs, sex, excitement, the possibility to meet someone who is sort of like myself.”

David Gonzalvez spoke to me right after ACT UP cut the fences at the October rally. He suggested the piers could be considered “free space from our oppressive families, from our oppressive schools, from the negative environments where we come from. The pier was a place where we could come and be ourselves and be with each other and be friendly…” The theme of family ran throughout the interviews, as part of a “private” realm from which one needed to escape, and as part of a public realm to which one escaped.


At the Reclaim our Space rally, activists called out the names of lost family members. Some famous queer martyrs and heroes--Sylvia Rivera, Matthew Shepard, Martha P. Johnson, Audre Lorde, Harvey Milk--and some less familiar names, such as Amanda Milan, a transgender women killed in 2001, were remembered. Co-Co Richards began her testimony explaining, “Marsha P. Johnson was my gay mother from the streets.” Marsha’s body was thrown in the water off the piers. Johnson’s former [?] lover, Sylvia Rivera, another Stonewall veteran who died of liver-related complications in 2002, was remembered as the patron saint of transgender activism. Kohler, who had known her since June 1969, was a father to Syliva. She, in turn, was a “mother” to many street “children.” It was Sylvia’s children from her STAR House days of the 1970s who later helped her find housing at Tranny House in the 1990s. “Sylvia was my gay mother. And I lover her to death and I promised her that I would continue the fight,” Mariah Lopez recalled the day of the rally. She was not the only one of the children who recalled Rivera’s legacy.[208]

During the early 1990s Rivera, homeless and battling chemical dependency, formed a squat on the piers. She was also an advocate for others who used the space. Rivera spoke out on September 5, 1997, when SexPanic! held its own rally to save a distinctly ‘queer pier.’. The group’s literature condemned, "the fencing of the piers, curfews and other restrictions imposed on the right of assembly there; and increased arrests and harassment of gay men and lesbians by the Hudson River Park Conservancy, the park police, the Port Authority, and other police agencies."[209] Like many pier users, Rivera expressed mixed emotions about the closing of the space. The piers were a source of sadness for her as the place where Johnson, her long-time comrade, was killed and her body dropped into the Hudson River. On the other hand, she viewed the space as a sort of “safe haven, for the homeless I mean. They can sleep on those piers and know that the presence of non-violent gay men surrounding them at night provides them a kind of protection."[210]

Yet living on the piers was never ideal. For those such as Rivera hustling and living on the streets or the piers, daily living was often consumed with the struggle to find those essentials one needs to survive, producing innovations in locating spaces and seizing opportunities. Abandoned public sites, such as the piers, are quickly re-appropriated as living shelters, squats, and such.[211] Like many dealing with such harsh circumstances, Rivera built intensely close social networks. John Hagan and Bill McCarthy conclude that 54 percent of homeless youth form close social networks of several individuals, which they refer to in terms of family and kinship.[212] These street “families” help make the day-to-day tasks of survival more manageable, even possible. Speaking at the Reclaim our Space rally, Richards recalled how such networks are born of hardship:

So, I came to New York thinking that it would be free-er, gayer. But the only thing that happened here in New York is I got busted up-side the head with a motherfucking billyjack club or whatever you call it. I went to jail. And when I went to jail back in those days, it was 20 fucking drag queens in one fucking bullpen. That was not a pretty sight, wigs were coming off and makeup was all over the place, you know, we kept it real. But I will tell you one thing, if a sister didn’t have anything to get her on the train, those girls in the bullpen came together and put a sister on a train. And if she didn’t have something to eat, we all went out and ate together. You never know when you are going to be needing it. You never know what is going to happen when you are going to need a brother or a sister…

Richards describes a solidarity that is hard to shake. Many street youth establish such strong bonds that they may have little desire to leave street life.[213] L.P. elaborated, “I basically didn’t spend the night at the group home. I just stayed in the streets or with friends and so-called aunts and uncles and cousins.”

References to children, cousins, and so forth speak to a form of family constellation for many queers of color. When he arrived at the piers, Adonis recalled, “You met the house children, competed against the other children.” The “children” were other black and Latino men.[214] A “house,” Baough explained,

…is like a group. There’s different names. There’s the House of Channel. There’s the House of Oman, the House of Ebony, the House of Patricia Fields, the house of everything. And these houses are like a clique, a group, and they’re treated like a family. They’re protected like they are family. They’re helped like they are family. They’re dressed like they are a family. They’re schooled like they’re a family. What they do is they compete against other houses at gay balls.

The children also utilize a lexicon of terms, such as “reading” (giving someone a non-sugar coated assessment), “spooking” (exposing or outing another queer person), and “giving shade” (acting suspicious, as in finding cover in the shadows). Like all families, these queer constellations face their own struggles. A number of interviewees were less enamored of the scene. Steve Rodgers found the rites and rituals “ less appealing,” and did not stay long. “I saw that the lifestyle included so many facets. You know, they have all these little balls and stuff and they have all these categories. That sort of thing just loses me.” Others, such as Dakota, simply shrugged when asked if there was a community on the piers. “No, uh uh. Nope.” Samaj elaborated:

Yea, I knew a lot of people there. But it wasn’t so much of being a community. Gay people, to me it’s so funny. The black gay person, it’s funny, you have to pick and choose. It took me years upon years just to know that they were my friends. Black gay men, its all about dick. Were they friends? Would they be your friends?


Bob Kohler is the last to romanticize the lives of queer youth such as Rivera. “They had their own benches. And god forbid if you took one of their benches…One of them killed another person.” Violence was part of the very nature of the space. Boo-Boo noted:

Sometimes, it would get to the point where it would get vile down there. Guys would come down there and wait till you turned tricks and beat you. The violence was too hard for you to imagine. We had certain guys that would pretend to be your johns, and after turning tricks for them they would turn on you just start pounding you, in your face. Or sometimes a guy would pull out a pipe. And start beating you and you would just suck his cock and then he would make you take off your panties and just constantly rape you. And then take your money and your drugs and mess you up for the night. Then you have to end up going to Bellevue Hospital for a couple of days. And then after you get yourself back together, you are back to your life back down there at the piers.

One of my best girlfriends, she went out one Friday night. It was the three of us. She was a transvestite. And she was in the process of having her sex changed. She had saving up a lot of money. She had it hidden in a hole in the ground, in a can. She went out to see three guys in Jersey. They had conned her. They said they wanted to go with her, but really they was out to brutalize and hurt her. So what happened, they ended up slitting off her nuts and her penis and stuffing it into her mouth, slit her throat and threw her into the Hudson. The cops found her just like she was, with her penis laying outside of her mouth, with her throat split. We identified who she was.

Those were just some of the horrors. One night, another girlfriend was doing a john and he threw kerosene on her and set her on fire. And she had to run and jump into the ocean, the Hudson. She was burnt and unrecognizable, but she’s still alive now, if she didn’t die from the virus. Then I had another girlfriend that was with a guy from Baltimore when two guys jumped out of a trunk, took and tied her to a fender of a car, and drove her almost six blocks down the street, while one guy cheered with his rectum hanging out the car, calling us queers and screaming, “We’re going to kill you all.” She didn’t make it. She was dragged to her death. That was on a Friday night.

To cope with it, you have to turn to drugs just to survive such horror for your naked eyes to witness. (Stutters.) And then some nights you be so afraid that you just saw a guy taking a knife out and he’s just pulling out her guts. She tooked and swallowed the drugs and they fighting over the crack. And he cut her open to get the crack out of her body.

Yet, the danger was part of what made the space accessible for alternate uses. “That particular public space there was no patrolling,” Steve Rodgers recalled. “They found dead bodies in the warehouse or the water. Those things happened.” For as long as any interviewees can recall, danger has been part of the story of the piers. A copy of the anonymously published Warehouse Newsletter from July 31, 1975 specifically warns: "STAY OFF THE PIERS AT NIGHT!!!!! MUGGERS CONTINUE TO PLAUGE PIER 48--WAREHOUSE PIER MADE TO ORDER FOR MUGGERS."

The danger of public gathering places such as the piers, the Central Park Rambles, and “the inevitable subway ‘T’ rooms” was a recurrent theme of the Newsletter throughout the summer of 1975.[215] For the author, the danger of public sex has more to do with its proximity to unregulated, outdoor spaces, than the sex itself. In a homage to his times, he concludes that sex in private spaces--such as backrooms in bars--offer little risk beyond “a case of the clap.”[216] Still, the author acknowledges that gay men are resourceful enthusiasts. “Many times I have thought the motto of promiscuous gays, including myself, should be a variation of the Post Office motto: Through rain, hail, sleet and snow, the ‘gays’ will get through!!!”[217] While the anonymous author’s newsletters acknowledge the dangers of public sex, he clearly offers his support for these spaces. “Am I against the piers or nite activity in this area?? No, certainly not. My days of the trucks, street cruising, fucking, and all the rest have been right along with some of the rest of us who are ‘charter members’ of the truck cruisers club.”[218]

Death of an Autonomous Zone

Autonomous zones are often transitory by their very nature.[219] As early as 1983, pier users remember the space changing. Rodgers recalls: “Then they knocked down this warehouse in 1983. They took that off. Then they started building up the pier.” Over the next 20 years, flux was constant. AIDS was a central part of that flux. “I’m one of the last of my kind from that group down there, of the 100 or so drag queens that grew up with me,” Boo-boo mused. Most were lost to either violence or AIDS. Throughout all of her years of sex work there in the late 1970s and early-to-mid 1980s, she would never know of the disease she called “The Killer” or “The Four Sisters”--AIDS or Debbie, Allan, and Susan [she failed to mention a forth name]. Boo-boo did not start hearing about the disease until 1987. “We never knew that there was a horror out there till it started to killed us.”  She recalls early signs. “From ‘82 to ’85, a few of my friends started getting sick. And you could see the changes of the piers.” By the late 1980s: “The disease was so fierce that it wiped out all of my girlfriends.”  Boo-boo recalls a pale of silence at the Piers with the AIDS years.

The piers started looking like ghost town, grungy, like bodies just started disappearing. People was dying. The beauty of the piers started looking like a dull darkness. You had a disease that was out there wiping away a lot of people, not just the drag queens but the johns too. And still we were not knowing what was up.

One of my girlfriends died right there in my tent. We went in one night and… I will tell her name ‘cause she would like for me to tell her story ‘cause she was a legend. Her name was Nicole. She was mixed with Indian and Spanish and white and she was a very, very beautiful child. It’s a shame, ‘cause she was only about 19 or 20 when she passed. She was being eaten up by cancer. That’s what the hospital told her. She told them she didn’t want to be in the hospital. She wanted to be in the street. She wanted to be with her family. She came back to the piers. We was her family. She died right there in my tent. I woke up, she was laying beside me cold as ice. And I just started rubbing her hair and I started crying.

The piers was beautiful from 1981 to 1986. It started changing from ’86 to, well, about ’90. Then it was no more. From ’89, it was no more. And the piers just absolutely rotted down in ‘88 and ‘89. All the gay people were all gone--literally all gone. It was like a big hurricane just swooshed all the people away.

And then straight people started living down there. And it used to be all children. And by children, it was nothing but gay people. Then the piers [started] deteriorating. It was falling down. The wood started eating up. The warehouse started falling to the ocean floor. It was time to make a change down there.

“Now, of course, their property has increased. Its money,” Kohler acknowledged. With the 1990s economic boom, property values increased at the expense of social tolerance. “They just don’t want you on these streets,” Kohler continued, because when youth hang out, “their money, their property, is going to go down.” Propelling the controversy is the status of the Hudson River Park between highly developed Battery Park and the cleaned up Times Square.[220] For years, this space has been debated at the Community Board, where landowners are pitted against homeless youth and public space advocates. Tensions were only ignited and re-ignited by the "quality of life" campaign to clean up New York, which began in 1994.[221] For cops, the “quality of life” crusade was implemented with an aggressive “broken windows” approach.[222] This meant targeting the smallest possible signs of problems, some of which were determined by aesthetics as much as policy. Cleaning up the city meant sweeping away many of the undesirables, and subsequently much of the color and pulse of New York’s street life. Much of this began when the homeless emcampments at the Piers were torn down during the David Dinkins administration. Boo-boo’s home was physically destroyed:

The police came down there and started cleaning it up. They came down there with the city and the city had an army. They had trucks and they told us that we would be arrested and locked up for trespassing. This was in ’89.

For Boo-boo, simply attempting to connect with a space that had been her home was considered trespassing:

They tore down our tents. They just bulldozed them. They took our stuff and threw it up on dumpsters. And some people actually went to jail because they refused to leave and they sat town. They fought back by saying, “No, we’re not leaving.” And a lot of people laid down so the trucks couldn’t come up in there. And the cops just came in and handcuffed them, lifted them, and beat them up, and police brutality. And they got away with it. Dinkins told them to clean it out, by any way necessary is how he said it. Really. And then they started locking people up for turning tricks for like a year. It wasn’t any more two days or three days. He started giving them six months to a year. A lot of people got tired of going to jail back to back. One time I got out after six months and I was out not even two hours before I was back in the precinct facing another year. And they gave it to me. So it was like a revolving door for me, from jail to Rikers Island, and back. Not even getting to turn one trick or suck one dick. And I was back in jail doing another year. By the time that I got out, the piers was gone. When I got out there was nothing down there. It was a fence up there and everything was torn down. And to me, I was betrayed, I was like, “Where is everybody?” I asked people. And people was looking at me like I was crazy. There was no more of us down there.

Despite these barriers, the need for public space to connect with like-minded people remained. “The pier is a sentimental place to me,” Kenyon Farrow, an organizer with FIERCE, explained. “When I first moved to New York, it was one of the first places I was introduced to as queer space. I remember the first day that I came down three years ago when the fences went up. It was really depressing.”

Fences, Barriers, and Lost Networks

“It looks just the same to me, but they got a big-assed fence all over the place. You can’t get in there any more,” James Place recalled from his last trip to the pier. “I think they are giving out tickets,” he concluded, alluding to the changing character of the space. FIERCE organizer Kenyon Martin elaborates, “I’ve been kicked off of the Pier with other folks at 10 o’clock at night. Even that is subjective depending on whatever they feel at the moment.” While recent barriers include the metal fence surrounding the area, pier users described countless others--including the use of AIDS as a justification for the crackdown, the ongoing quality of life crusade, and gentrification. David Gonzalvez of FIERCE explained, “The fences, the so-called redevelopment, the revitalization of the Village. It’s crass. It’s another way to say, “Yeah, we want more white people in. Why don’t you just leave?’”

“Every year, it [the police patrolling] gets worse,” Samaj elaborated. “They are trying to fix it up, but at the same time they are kicking us off of our own space, our own home…What are you trying to balance out here?” This mode of policing is a citywide problem. Within its darkest expression, this aggressive approach toward policing public space meant people of color--including Patrick Dorismond and Amadou Diallo, whose only crime was to fit a racial profile--lost their lives to police bullets.

“That’s their only place of comfort. That’s the only place they can come to… to meet their friends at the pier. They don’t have anywhere else to enjoy their self.” Samaj was not the only interviewee to wonder about the implications of the dispersed networks lost in the wake of Hudson River Park’s arrival on the once abandoned piers. “It breaks my heart to see that it’s no longer there, to see that people will not have that opportunity to find people who will teach them that it’s ok to be who you are,” Dennis noted wistfully at the end of his presentation. “Why couldn’t you do it to any other spot?” Samaj wondered. “It’s not like they don’t know that that place was gay central. That’s our space.”

Without the safe haven presented by the piers, “you lose a bit of community,” Steve Rodgers noted. While the space may not have been perfect, “you were seeing familiar faces, and once you saw a few familiar faces, you felt a little bit safer as opposed to going out and seeing people doing maybe the same thing you are doing, but when you are out there with unfamiliar faces, it’s not as safe.” Many of those who did sex work at the piers kept an eye out for each other. Kenyon Martin wondered, “ What happens to people once the space is gone?” Imani Henry offered an answer: “I definitely know from folks that when you don’t have any place to go, it isn’t as safe. It is more dangerous. And people are in more jeopardy. And they don’t have a sense of community.” Without this community, street hustlers are forced to work in more isolated private spaces including cars and escort services. Henry continued, “You’re now disconnected. You’re now working alone. And things can happen to people and we don’t know it.” The concepts of community and belonging and safety are highly associated for respondents. Alternatively, isolation and lack of safety are described as consequences of displacement.

Without access to the space where she had built a family for so many years, Boo-boo felt lost when she found piers cleared out and fenced off after returning from jail:

I did something ridiculous. I went down there and copped drugs from an undercover and went back to jail for six years. I was lonely. And at least I could be in jail where I was loved and around people who could respect me. That was jail.

Jail was better than outside:

You was lonely. The piers was changed. There was no more balls. All your friends was gone. You go down into the park and there were all the people down there with dogs. You couldn’t really make a tent. You just had to live on the ground. You couldn’t live like that ‘cause there were straight people who would go down there and hassle you, put urine in your face. It was happening because the 1990s were getting ready to come in and it was changing.

"When they put the fence up, they closed everything off,” James Place explained, elaborating on how the environment for hustling has changed. “You can't get in there. Now you have to go to the arcades. But since 9/11, there are more DTs [detectives] in there. They got machine guns and shit. You can get arrested just for answering, "how much?"

The question of safety speaks to a number of dilemmas. “My fear is that without open public spaces,” HIV prevention is compromised, Kenyon Martin said as we discussed where else the pier kids could go. “Part of it is that this was where people came to do outreach to people and those people are now going underground,” Martin elaborated. “If they don’t have anywhere else to go, then we can’t do our work to reach them. Then they are going to participate in higher risk behavior because they don’t have the tools to practice safer sex with the information.” Sex clubs and the piers were  spaces where prevention activists and peer outreach workers could reach people where they were having sex and establish healthy patterns and community norms for grassroots models of peer-based approaches to HIV prevention and mutual protection.[223]

“Today, you have Prospect Park; you have Central Park. You have the Ramble,” Rodgers noted. Many piers users have moved to the countless other “spots” for sexual contact and commerce--the train stations, the Port Authority bathrooms, the parks, the McDonalds at 34th Street, and so forth. “Well, all those old spots. They still exist and people still go there in the pitch black,” Rodgers continued. “Today, there are few spaces as opposed to in the past. You had so many different options in the public spaces to go to. Today, those spaces are limited.”

Different Identities

Countless permeations of queer identity have emerged and been altered within the shifts in access from open public toward restricted private spaces. Without safe spaces, many have resorted to more closed expressions of their queerness. L.P. referred to men of color who have sex with other men, without being openly “gay”:

Now they call them “mo thugs” or a “thug mo.” Like a homo thug. And that means he’s a homosexual but he’s a thug. In other words, he’ll take you out and rob you, beat you, but he’s a homosexual on the low. If you go to the warehouse up here in the Bronx, there are these boys running down the street with their baggy pants on and their Sean John jeans and coats and their bandanas and their glasses and they are getting in and out of jeeps and they are dancing with each other. Then they go home to their high school life and nobody knows. And they are as hard as any thug you want to run into.

Different people have differing readings of the “mo thug” or “down low” phenomena. Adonis explained that even Brooklyn has a pier, yet people are more “down low” there. “It was tired,” he sighed. “Everybody was so in the closet. It wasn’t the same as the regular pier. You see “homeboys” walking past, but you didn’t know that they were cruising because everybody was acting like a homeboy in case they ran into somebody they knew.” Samaj elaborated: “Its an act. They don’t want feel all crunched up inside, like I have to act like this when I am around this person. But then when I go down there… They don’t want to be like that, and they don’t have to be like that.”

Different people also have different readings of what “being like that” means. For many, it’s any association with mainstream gay consumer culture, the rainbow flag, and so forth. AIDS prevention workers have long been aware of a counter public of “men who have sex with men,” often men of color, who have no interest in relating to or being associated with the trappings  of “gay” life. Rodgers noted that it was more fun for him to be in the closet and keep things secretive at home, especially in African American communities where many associate gayness with being effeminate, or “wearing hot pants and boots.”

For others, the explanation involves the ongoing reality that some 20 years into the epidemic, AIDS still creates fear, which generates hysteria and stigma. L.P. explained: “Although they have drugs that will keep you alive longer, its still very hard to function in society today with AIDS and not be ostracized. People are still scared to death.” Panic triggers control cultures and restrictions of movement in public space--more fences.[224] In turn, many interviewees specifically suggested, AIDS was used as a justification for closing queer meeting spaces such as the piers.[225]

AIDS fear still prevents possibilities for openness. “Running around, you gotta be hard,” L.P. continued. “You can’t be ladylike anymore,” outside of safe havens like the piers, where there was room to “waltz around.” Outside of queer spaces, panic takes over, but “ can’t let it out. ‘Cause then you’d be like, ‘Oh shit, I let this thing out to my crib and my crew.’” L.P. was arrested and went back to jail shortly after the interview, a destination that has seen many former public space.

“Now the kids are about to get the piers back,” said Boo-boo. Again, they stretch out into the water facing New Jersey, creating a striking urban panorama. Yet much of the context has changed. Today, more affluent people walk their dogs and ride their bikes there, something that would never have happened before. Unlike previous years, this area is now "safe" for the affluent. Further, their very presence acts as a type of policing and normalizing force--they are backed by the police, but the policing is not exclusively done by the men in blue. At the same time, white middle-class gay men have taken public sex indoors (via the internet or sex clubs) rather than depend on outdoor venues such as the piers.

In the days after the birth of gay liberation, many turned to the spaces where liberation was first won, such as the piers, within shouting distance of the Stonewall itself. Inspired by the narratives of liberation, many constructed new identities and world around its promise. Throughout the 1970s, narratives of sexual liberation created new identities and cultural spaces. This narrative shifted in the 1980s and 1990s as spaces for liberated stories shifted and dwindled, fenced off like the piers themselves. While affluent queers made use of virtual space to arrange sexual encounters, others continued to make use of public spaces, with their inherent risks. Stories need spaces just like people.

Yet as the Warehouse Newsletter explained back in 1975, gay men are very resourceful. “The West Village is by no means the only safe haven in the five boroughs,” L.P. (like many interviewees) explained. Others report crawling under or through holes in other fences blocking them from public spaces to be reclaimed. [226]

Part III -- Human Rights Watch: An Oral History

An Interview with Jennifer Flynn and Bob Kohler

From the squats of Amsterdam to New York City to the land occupations in Brazil, citizens around the world are engaged in a struggle for shelter. The core sentiment that everyone deserves a roof over their head runs across these various movements.[227] The implicit argument remains: Housing is a human right.

In New York City, where gentrification has put housing costs beyond the reach of many working people, the need for shelter is no different. Here, the AIDS crisis compounded the problem as people who were once able to house themselves fell ill, lost their jobs, faced eviction, entered the homeless population, and gridlocked the hospitals. Keith Cylar, co-founder of New York’s Housing Works, described the challenges faced by social workers as the AIDS crisis emerged:

Let me tell you what was happening. There was a gridlock in the hospital system.

Charlie King, Ginny Shubert, and Eric Sawyer started recognizing the issue in ‘88, ‘87. For me working in the hospital… I couldn’t get people out of the hospital because they didn’t have a place to live. We’d get ‘em well from whatever brought them in; but then they wouldn’t have a place to live. They’d stay in the hospitals and they’d pick up another thing and then they’d die. Remember, ‘88, ‘90, ‘91, ‘92--New York City literally had hospital gridlock, that was when they were keeping people on hospital gurneys out in the hallways. That was when people were not being fed, bathed, or touched. It was horrendous. You can’t imagine what it was like to be black, gay, a drug user, transgender, and dying from AIDS. So housing all of a sudden became this issue. ACT UP recognized it and formed the Housing Committee.[228]

The core argument became “Housing is an AIDS Issue, Housing Equals Health.” In linking housing and health care, AIDS housing activists linked the co-epidemics of homelessness and AIDS into a struggle to house homeless people with AIDS (and any number of other co-occurring conditions, including substance dependence). Since the epidemic’s earliest days, homeless people with HIV/AIDS in New York have been placed in Single Room Occupancy hotel rooms. Yet even getting these rooms remained a battle for most of the mid 1990s.

To guarantee a right to shelter for homeless people with HIV/AIDS, housing activists fought for the creation of the New York City Department of AIDS Services and Income Support(DASIS)  within the city Human Resources Administration (later renamed HIV/AIDS Services Administration (HASA) in 1995. They also fought for a law passed in 1997, referred to as Local Law 49, that guaranteed people with HIV/AIDS the legal right to be housed by the city within a day of a request for housing placement. Yet the fact that the law was on the books did not ensure its implementation. The spirit of the local law would not find its full expression for another five years. And not without the work of activists in the New York City AIDS Housing Network (NYCAHN), whose watchdog role brought their volunteers into the streets outside New York City’s welfare centers for nearly two years. There, NYCAHN members ensured that either people with AIDS got placed that day, or else lawyers, politicians, and newscasters would be notified that the city was violating the law.

In a campaign reminiscent of the 1960s National Welfare Rights Organization campaigns, NYCAHN workers spent well over two years monitoring the city’s compliance with this local law. [229] The core organizing principle remained the demand that the City of New York obey its own law. By the end of the campaign in 2001, the city was compelled to do just that--some four years after the local law’s passage.

In this interview, conducted in September4, 2004,NYCAHN co-founder Jennifer Flynn and long time homeless advocate Bob Kohler explain how they forced the city, mayor, and welfare offices to obey the letter and spirit of Local Law 49, requiring that the city house homeless people with HIV/AIDS. (Readers of the second narrative will recognize Kohler s voice from the essay “Fences and Piers”).

Ben Shepard (BS): What were housing conditions like for people with HIV/AIDS ten years ago? What was some of the activism you used to fight for the right to housing?

Jennifer Flynn (JF): Well, prior to the early 1990s, people with AIDS [PWAs] lived in the shelters like homeless people in New York do. In New York State we have an interpretation in our constitution that gives us a right to shelter. However, there was a tuberculosis outbreak in the shelters. People living with compromised immune systems in the shelters were dying. So there was a court case, Mixon vs. Grinker. That court case said that shelters are not medically appropriate housing for people with compromised immune systems. As result of that, the city really did start to send people to single room occupancy hotels, the same hotel system we use now.

So throughout the 1990s PWAs, when they identified themselves, were being sent to these hotels. But from there, there really wasn't anywhere else to send them, until 1993. Bailey Holt House was really the first AIDS housing residence that was created (on the East Coast). Housing Works was started in, what, 1990? And then a few other organizations were created. There was an initiative that was created through HRA [Humans Resources Administration]/Welfare in New York, the Department of Health, specifically to provide housing for people with HIV/AIDS who were suffering from tuberculosis. There was some funding that was brought in as a result of the Haitian immigrants who were being held in Guantanamo Bay and were allowed to be brought to New York, and that created the system of what we now have as AIDS housing. And a lot of this housing now started as a result of those funding streams.

Bridges and Tunnels

JF:  Then in 1994, when [Mayor Rudolph] Giuliani came into office, it was really interesting. This is something that we take for granted, but it really wasn't that long ago, it was the first time since the 1970s when we were in serious fiscal crisis. Certainly, 1994 was the first time since then that New York actually had money. It was a good year, a good bunch of years, the city was making money.  It was the first time that social services across the board were cut. So it wasn't just cuts to, say, child-care clinics while everything else was getting funded. Straight up every single social service program was being cut. That led, in 1995, to this kind of unified cry out for attention to fight back those cuts. And that led to the 1995 Bridges and Tunnels action.[230]

BS: Do you want to talk about that?

JF:  Sure. It happened because all social services were being slashed. There were also a few high-profile police brutality cases. And people really thought that was the result of the policies of the Republican mayor, which they were. It was also that he was talking about cutting welfare in a way that predated federal welfare reform. He talked about changing welfare. One of the first things he did when he came into office was try to shut down the city agency that provided welfare benefits, including housing for PWAs, the Division of AIDS Services. And there was an enormous outpouring of anger over that, and he was stopped in a number of different ways. First he was stopped because of the publicity. ACT UP had been doing a lot of organizing against Giuliani around his attempts to dismantle DASIS, which would have resulted in homeless PWAs going back to the shelters. Because there wouldn't have been this special agency that would make sure that they got into some sort of better emergency housing. Also there had been all sorts of huge cuts to, like, hospitals, cuts that no one had seen.

So some members of ACT UP made some calls to other organizers throughout the city. I think that the first call that they made was to Richie Perez, who was at the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights. He'd been organizing this coalition of parents whose kids had been killed by the police and had looked at some changes in policing that were resulting in increased cases of police brutality in New York City. And also he had a history of doing sort of an ACT UP type of direct action…. or ACT UP had a history of doing a Richie Perez type of direct action.

Bob Kohler (BK): Yes. Then they brought in some other groups, such as Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence, Coalition for the Homeless, and Urban Justice Center. At the time also there were huge cut to public education. So CUNY [City College of New York] students were organizing. In the months before April 25, 1995, they had had ten thousand students just descending on City Hall. New York City hadn't seen those numbers in a few years. It was pretty remarkable. So they brought in the CUNY students. Those students were called STAND and Student Power Movement, which were the student power movements. Then those groups kind of morphed into SLAM. All of these groups still exist today. Some of them formed as a result of Bridges and Tunnels, but didn't do any street action until this summer (during the Republican National Convention protests in New York City), and certainly not in coalition with other people in this sort of broad-based coalition.

So there was a complete shut down of the East Side of Manhattan. ACT UP and Housing Works had about 145 people arrested at the midtown tunnel, the one that goes to Queens. And Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence took Manhattan Bridge. And the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights. The CUNY students took the Brooklyn Bridge. Coalition for the Homeless and Urban Justice Center actually had homeless people getting arrested, I guess on the Williamsburg or the Manhattan Bridge. And the entire East Side was tied up for a good two or three hours as a result of that.

It was the first time, actually, that activists engaging in direct action in those years had been put through the system, which is something we now take for granted. It was also the first time that a lot of the ACT UP activists who had gotten arrested hundreds of times had spent a full 36 hours in jail, which we also now take for granted. So two things happened then: one is drastic cuts across the board to all social services. We fight it every year as if we just accept it. The second was that activists go through the system. I think it’s actually proven that the city allows people to be put through the system for minor acts of civil disobedience instead of receiving desk appearance tickets.

BS: It’s illegal. I have two suits against the city for this. But it’s also about enforcement. If a judge is not going to fight it, then it’s allowed.

BK:  I mean, no lawyer is really going to waste their time on that.

JF:   So we beat back a lot of those cuts that year, but never really got back to the point we were at before.

BS: Within that day of civil disobedience, did it translate into a conversation about the cuts? It’s really very difficult. This summer on the August 31 day of direct action, we were trying to promote one general “No!” to Bush and a “Yes!” to many, many things from different groups, along the lines of the Zapatista "One No, One Thousand Yeses". The message was confused and often lost. I've always been interested in how this strategy of one general “No” to Rudy on one side of the flyer and different groups against this, this, and this on the other side translated. How did that message disseminate?

JF:  I think that it was an attempt to do some sort of cross issue, with particular attention to cross-race organizing. The failure of it was that ACT UP had really such a sophisticated media machine that ACT UP and Housing Works dominated the press. I mean, they were on the cover of the papers. I think the press package the next day had, like, 30 or 40 articles and they were all about ACT UP. That caused a lot of resentment from a lot of the community of color organizations. I mean, the CUNY students didn't really get a lot of press. And they actually had been getting a lot of press on their own before they worked in coalition. On the other hand, that’s a byproduct of an existing infrastructure. ACT UP had the knowledge. They had the people in the media who were members. So of course it was their message that got out. It’s also the byproduct of, when you are working on so many issues, it’s also watered down.

I remember in 1995 and 1996, people were still thinking, “well, Giuliani seems reasonable.” And they were surprised he made those cuts.

BK: It wasn’t that total wall of hatred like it was.

BS: I guess that was in the second term.

BK: Yeah. It started in the second term. In the first it was tolerated.

BS: ‘Cause there was that stuff in the summer of 1997, after Abner Louima was sodomized by a plunger while held by the NYPD.

JF:  People just thought that it was, like, an ideology difference, and if we could just educate him then he would come around. The other thing he kept doing in every budget was to do away with the Department of AIDS Services. He really hated it. He was always trying to weaken the welfare system, anyway. And he hated that there was this separate agency that served PWAs.

BS: He was also cutting child welfare services and had become a national case study in problems around this. We were talking about him in Chicago in 1996-7. Can we talk about the politics in 1997, which allowed Local Law 49 to pass. What were the groups involved? What was the politics that made that happen?

JF:  What actually got that law to happen took place before 1997. It was almost, “Thank god it happened in 1997, because if it had happened any later, with the AIDS movement getting weaker, it wouldn’t have passed.” It was like he decided to dismantle DASIS as soon as he came into office. City Council members, particularly Tom Duane, and his then chief of staff, who was Christine Quinn, and Drew Cramer, who was in his office, started to write the legislation. And they really worked to pass that legislation in the next two years. I think they have a lot to do with it. I mean, Tom Duane was essentially a member of ACT UP, so it kind of came from ACT UP. People say that it was an insider strategy, but Tom Duane really was not an insider kind of guy at that point. His power really came from ACT UP. It was a grassroots strategy. He was able to say to other council members ‘If you don’t sign onto this, I will have 1,000 people at your door in the middle of the night.’ They knew that that was possible. They also knew that those 1,000 people were not just a bunch of bodies. They were people who had money and resources and had everything that they should be afraid of. Then by that point there were AIDS service organizations, who sort of came to the table. And Housing Works was really turning out folks.

There was this huge march across the Brooklyn Bridge in 1996, the year before the law was passed. It was organized by ACT UP and Housing Works. About 1,000 people marched across the bridge. About 300 people stood outside of the gates of City Hall waiting to get in. And they really were sick people with AIDS. I guess it was early 1996, so people were looking sick.

BS: It wasn’t until the summer that news about the protease inhibitors got out, at the AIDS conference in Vancouver.

JF:  It was that hearing that swayed all the rest of the council members. And that was played in the press. So a lot of people kind of attribute that, and the fact that it was raining and people still stayed there.

BK: I think it’s important what Jennifer said about the backing that Duane had. Matt Foreman, at one point in ESPA (Empire State Pride Agenda), told me that if I could deliver him a radical organization, he would hand the organization $3,000. I said at the time that I couldn’t. I asked him why and he said because of the old ACT UP. He was always able to use it. He said that in Albany they were scared stiff because of the money and the people who were in it that they would need in other areas. He could always say that he’d go to ACT UP and get what he wanted…because that group had so much power.

BS: What did Local Law 49 guarantee, and what was the struggle necessary to make sure that it was put in place and enforced?

JF:  What was so radical in Local Law 49 was that it says that the city has to provide PWAs medically appropriate emergency housing. It says that they have to be given the emergency housing the same day that they requested it. It created a one-stop welfare office. You go one place, you are supposed to be able to fill out everything. That doesn’t necessarily always happen, but that’s what the law was intended to do. It’s funny, because it was written before welfare was changed in 1996. But it was sort of like the legislation that you would write to counter the changes to welfare: one office providing services, small caseloads so you didn’t have one case worker dealing with thousands of people, emergency housing, what the housing should look like…they should have refrigerators. It would fill their basic needs. It also codified the city agency so that no mayor, no administration, could ever get rid of it. It passed overwhelming in the City CCouncil. The mayor vetoed it. They over rode the veto. So it became law. He finally had to sign it. And then he took credit for it.

BS: And then, of course, it can become pork-barrel politics.

JF:  The one thing about that whole time was that Giuliani brought new people into the poverty game. In New York we have people making money on it in a whole variety of ways. And then of course with welfare reform it just grew. All these for-profit organizations came in to provide social services and throw people off welfare and made money providing services for them.

BS: Well, of course it’s easier to cut the rolls than to make poverty go down…if you want to define success by cutting your rolls. You can cut them off and there will be more poor people and then you can cut them somewhere else. When did you come along in this case? I know NYCAHN was around before this campaign, but when did you get a sense that the law was not being enforced and there was nobody watching it? And that PWAs were being turned away from the welfare centers?

JF:  There was already a court case that said that the city was not following the same-day emergency housing procedure.

BS: What was that court case?

JF:  It was Hannah vs. Turner. In that case the city was arguing that “same day” meant the same 24-hour period. The advocates, who were the lawyers at Housing Works, and the clients were saying that “same day” means I walk into an office that day and I have a place to sleep that night. And the judge agreed with that. So right after that case was won in 1999, in September of 2000, NYCAHN’s office started getting calls from a bunch of clients saying they were at the welfare center and they were told that they can’t get same day housing.

A lot of times there are glitches in welfare; like, you find that all food stamp distribution will be shut down at one center or for one day. So we thought that it was one of those things. But then we started getting calls from caseworkers. We actually got a call from a hospital in the Bronx. And this was becoming multi-borough. It wasn’t just in one center. It wasn’t just in Manhattan. There were also staff members who said, “My client went to this place and was told that he can’t get housing.” Then we started getting emergency housing, non-profit organizations like the Crown Residence and the YMCA, saying, “I discharged somebody back to DAS,” which was their word for saying that they were discharged or not accepted for the program, saying the program is closed to them. And the staff still feel OK about themselves, because the deal is, the clients go back to DAS and DAS will get them housing at some other place that night. There were all these people that [the non-profits] were discharging and then they didn’t have any place to sleep that night. They did at least want the person to be able to sleep some place. So there were a few little press conferences and we were going to the welfare centers and then, immediately, volunteers came out like Bob.

BK: Well, you put out the call seeking volunteers. That’s when I heard about it.

JF:  Yeah. We were going into welfare centers and putting up cell phones for the press inside the welfare offices. And you could hear the announcement over the loudspeakers saying, “If you’re here for housing, there’s no more housing. Go home.” Which had its own irony: “Go home.”

It was really interesting that first week. It was right before Labor Day… for that weekend, which was a long weekend, there were tons of people who were just left to sleep in the streets. A lot of them became NYCAHN volunteers with Bob.

And the funny thing is, when we first talked about it, they said this was as a result of welfare reform. Diversion was a common tactic that was used. They said people would have to prove that they needed housing before the city would give it to them. So their initial plan, which was to just shut down emergency housing, failed immediately. [Councilwoman] Quinn did some press bits. She stood in front of a center for a little while. But then they decided that, well, we won’t wholesale do it. We’ll do it in a little trickle way. That’s really where the constant monitoring with Bob [became necessary].

BK: They [the welfare centers] did everything to get us out too. I remember three days in a row they asked for cops… The precinct guy came by and said, “I don’t know, I’m going to go talk to the captain.” The captain came over and said, “I don’t know. I’m going to have to go find a ruling.” He came back and said that it was a public space until 5 o’clock. That’s when they literally closed and we were not allowed in there. But they still called the cops again the next day. And the cop, who was a nice guy, he was on our side, said, ‘Look, I’m not going to come anymore. You people are allowed in here until 5 o’clock.’ It was ridiculous. They were told. But this was the way they operated.

JF:  And if were not there they would tell people there was no housing. We would get there, at say 11, and meet some poor guy who got turned away at 9 AM.

BK: We had one case up in that little hotel in the theater district, the St. James. Seventeen people had gone up there and been told there was no housing for them. And this was at 11:30 at night.

JF:  It’s funny. Bob used to stay in the welfare center until 4:59 and 30 seconds. They literally would have a team of security guards, who we eventually became friends with, just walk him out. They would be waiting, and at 5 o’clock they were going to lock the doors, lock him in, call the police, and have him carted out.

BK: They’d come up and say, “Its 5 o’clock,” and I’d say, “I know what time it is.” But I wouldn’t leave until 5. They’d be waiting. They had their clocks synchronized so they could throw me out. But we had another group of people going up to the Habitat, on Sixth Avenue or wherever the hell it was. And they were told, “We don’t want people like you here.” So they were sitting in the lobby waiting for one of us. It was after we had to establish confidence.

BS: I remember you guys tracking people who were turned away on Thursday, and it [THE WELFARE OFFICE] was shut down on Friday, so they’d spend 72 hours riding on the subway to stay out of the rain.

JF:  Yes, and sleeping on grates to stay warm by the bushes... [The grates sent up warm air.] Its perfect to sleep in cause its by the bushes.

BK: These people were so used to being turned away. That is important--it happened so many times that they had their own little ways of coping. The subway was one way; the grates were another. They all had a plan B, because they were so used to being turned away.

JF:  The really crazy thing was, the interference with housing people really was from the top. Caseworkers used to say to us, “I found a place for him, but I called up central and central said we could not do anything for him.” And then we would call up central and central would say [whispers], “Jennifer, I can’t do anything for him. Its from the top.” For some reason this was a policy. I wish people could know that about the Giuliani administration.

BK: They would send people to places where they would be turned away. They would send females to the YMCA, and that was deliberate. They knew what they were doing. Wrong addresses, East Side of town, West Side of town.

BS: I remember at one point they sent folks to Long Island.

BK: That was the worst. Beautiful hotel. Best Western. But it took an hour and a half to get out there. They get there around midnight. They had no way of getting back in the morning. And they were isolated. They couldn’t buy a bag of potato chips…

JF:  One guy walked back to New York City from there.

BS: Then you finally got back to New York City and you had to go back to DASIS.

Sustaining a Campaign

BS: The other interesting part of the story is the organizing strategy. You know these conditions continue and continue. As an organizer, you identified and highlighted and arranged the story in really interesting ways. You did some direct action in one of the offices. I think Louis Jones and Charles King from Housing Works were involved with that. It was impressive how you kept the story going through the press, in lots of different kinds of press outlets.

JF:  We actually tried to keep a story about it coming out every week. It was part of this campaign strategy called “Trickle Media.” At first we thought that it would be a big thing and then it would be over. There was a big thing. There was a New York Times cover, a big kind of media blitz, City Council hearings. But then we realized that it wasn’t going to be over any time soon. I don’t think that we thought it was going to last quite as long as it lasted. (Bob and Jennifer laugh.)

JF:  But it started to become clear, like, two months into it, that this is going to go on for a while. We just didn’t know what to do, so we just tried to keep the story in some kind of media once a week. And we got that. We would do whatever we could think of. We did the direct action where we went to the wrong address and said that the city had sent us to the headquarters of HRA. We brought our pillows and our sheets. We got there and said, “Well, what else are we going to do but sleep here, in the lobby.”

BK: See, that action had a residual effect that I don’t think any of us realized. It was early on when people starting volunteering. It was hard. It was very hard. And I remember I was having a very difficult time. I was an old white man. Who was going to trust me? At first they didn’t trust me. We had done some things, but they still weren’t buying.

And this action was incredibly good. We had blankets and pillows and it was very well choreographed. The way we were able to chain ourselves--I mean eleven people. It was Jennifer and Craig, I think, around the post, and then we all did it. And we all spread out. We were homeless, so we had our pillows and blankets. It was very funny because the security guard who was down there had been the security guard up on Sixth Avenue, and he was the one who liked us. He was always getting in trouble for talking to us and whatnot. He was laughing and I heard him say to somebody, “They are my friends.”

And then the cops came with the wrong saw. Then they had to go back. We were on the floor for, like, an hour and a half. So it was really great. They couldn’t get us in and out. I was in jail three nights.

But when we went back to the Welfare Center, one guy was saying, “Papi, where were you?’ And I said, “Fuck you. I was in jail.” And he said, “Why?” I answered, “For you.” And that did it. Then the word spread that we went to jail for them. “These people went to jail for us.” That established a trust that we never could have gotten. It would have taken me another two or three months to get [the level of trust] that happened immediately after that bust. It was incredible. All you needed were a couple of people who would tell a few others, “You trust me. It’s OK. He went to jail for us.” That was really important. That was a turning point for us. That action gave us more than we bargained for in that respect.

More Than Anecdotal Problems

BS: The city was never comfortable admitting that it was a widespread problem. It was always “anecdotal.” That was always what they said to other service providers. It was one case here and one case there. But people I had worked with were able to collect enough names and enough circumstances with the human rights complaint forms. Was that was they were called?

JF:  Yeah, we actually had a complaint form before this happened. So we were monitoring welfare centers before this happened. I guess that’s one thing about being a membership organization, we hear from our hundreds of different people. We hear from a range of staff members and clients and different kinds of organizations. It’s hard for the city to be saying, “Oh that’s just one.” We had the numbers. Bob had stacks of stories  and clipboards full of complaints.

BS: It struck me as a classic example of social science. You are supposed to identify a problem in a neighborhood, collect your data, make your case to the city council, and they’ll be so moved that they’ll do something about it. It doesn’t always work, but I think you were able to do things that got them to pay attention. So they were no longer able to say that it was anecdotal.

JF:  No, they were not able to say it was anecdotal. It was also about consistency. I think Bob was there every singe night for practically two years, 700 days. (Everyone breathes a sigh of acknowledgment.) 

BK: It was like, every day in the fucking winter. There was one lady whose hands were cold, Jennifer gave the woman her gloves. And I was thinking, “That was nice, but why did you do that, Jennifer?” It was so fucking cold (laughs).

Credit Cards

BS: You also took your credit card out, right?

BK: Oh, please.

JF:  But it wasn’t just me. [Councilwoman] Quinn did it too.

BK: Christine Quinn came down on a cold night, on a terrible rainy night. She came at midnight. They [the hotel manager] said, “We’re closed, they can’t come in.”   She replied. “Oh no.” And in she went. She took out her credit card and put people up.

JF:  We could always call her. There were times when we failed. We really tried not to let anybody leave the welfare center until they came out with a housing slip. And then we learned we needed to verify the address they were given. We would call the hotels with our cell phones.

BK:We couldn’t take their words. People would come out with their slips and a lot of them, at the beginning, would say, “No, no, I gotta get there,” because they [the clients in search of housing] were given a time period. But the room they were assigned to might not be available when they get there. And very often, no, that person was not registered [at the hotel anyway].  And then we’d have to get that person back in [to the Welfare Center so they could get a real room assignment]. We were their [DASIS’] enemy. So they [the DASIS management] did everything they could to keep us out.  

I can remember one night when a woman came up--a very pretty woman--and she had a raggedy fur coat. It was pouring rain and she was standing very close to me and panting a lot. She said that she needed housing. She got to the [assigned to this] place. There was no housing and she was sick. She kept say, “I can’t breathe.” So I knock on the door and I say, “Well, she’s sick. There’s a problem with her housing. I don’t know what it is. But whatever it is, let her inside.” The woman finally started to fall down. I grabbed her, and she just totally collapsed and decided she was dying. She really felt that she was dying. I can’t tell you how cold it was with the rain. They would not help her. They opened the door and threw a chair out and said “here.” Like I said, I wish I had written all these things down when they happened. “Here,” they said. Anytime someone got there and there wasn’t a room. And they came back. They had to wait outside. The guards had the ability to kick them out into the street, even though it was a mistake, of upstairs or downtown. It didn’t matter.

JF:  At the welfare center, they’d go there at, like, 9 AM and they would stay there until sometimes 11 at night. The second they would leave to get something to eat--‘cause there is nothing to eat and no water in there--that’s when they’d get called for housing. The workers watched them like hawks. And the second the left, they couldn’t get back in.

BK: There were no front doors in the bathroom. And no water for them. Now, if you looked around the corner, you’d see that there were water coolers for the staff. Yet the clients were supposed to use the sinks. They are filled with shit. You can’t use the sink in the welfare center. So we screamed and screamed and finally Emmia, who was in Chris Quinn’s office, was a real help. She said, “OK, enough, I’m going to take care of it.” So she called and got the water running and billed the city.

JF:  Emmia just called in a plumber to fix it and charged the city. She acted like she was from HRA. (Smiles.)

BK: But there was no cool water, there was warm water. So then we had to fight that battle to get cold water. Then there were no cups. So they were supposed to go get their own cups. When you go to McDonalds, bring your cup back. These were people who had to take meds. You cannot live that way. It was inhuman.

BS: Well, has it changed?

JF:  I think there was the vigilance of it, but there was also having the experience of the people who had gone through it. Like J.R. and his wife, developing their leadership skills, were going around talking to council members, recruiting others, doing leadership development around it. I think that was crucial as well.

BS: You developed a lot of leadership--some of whom have since died. There was Joe Bostic and Joe Capestani and that terrific story in the Times about the welfare center.

JF:  And that was the sort of stuff we couldn’t have done on our own. That was the sort of stuff that was missing from AIDS activism at the time.

BK: That was totally new to me. I was working with youth.

BS: And ratty activists. (Everyone laughs). Bob stuck it out (from Gay Liberation Front through ACT UP to SexPanic! and Fed Up Queers).

BK: But when I was starting, it was incredible to watch Jennifer go to the hotels and either bullshit them or intimidate them to the point where people who were placed there actually got housed. Jennifer knew speaking up for them was a big part of how they got shelter. She did that a lot.

JF:  Unfortunately, I think it was a little too short-lived. A lot of AIDS service organizations were going through this period of middle age, where they were just trying raise money, be true to their mission, professionalize. And they had really forgotten that things were not just going OK. They were not even getting referrals for homeless people. There was kind of a backlash against activism. This campaign kind of reminded them, “Oh my god, these people are going to die if I don’t do something.”

BS: Giuliani made it very clear that if you do direct action, you were going to lose your funding.

JF:  People were terrified because Housing Works, which was an AIDS housing provider, had gotten their contracts removed. And I think a lot of people were wondering, if you helped more people, if you were nice, or if you were aggressive, would the same thing happen to you. Thank god Housing Works was there.

A Human Rights Movement

BS: The redemptive argument of this movement--from the squats to Housing Works--has been that housing is a human rights issue. It’s a human right to have shelter. You kept on saying it in all the articles. “This is a human rights watch. People are being pushed out on the streets.” As much as people wanted to backlash that, it didn’t fly. The argument always held.

JF:  This was after 1996. The dialogue around welfare was just a given--“everybody who is on it is lazy.” Maybe they had a mental health problem, but regardless, everybody deserves this chance to work and engage in society. So the thought of welfare as this kind of basic necessity was not in the conversation. I remember we were having some conversations and thought, what’s the one thing that brings it all together? You know, I always run things by my father, who is kind of conservative. When I said, “They were violating their human rights.” He said, “Oh, they do that in Ireland to the people that I like.” I don’t think he knows what that means. Especially in the United States, we’ve never celebrated the kind of economic, cultural, and social human rights, which housing would be a part of. But at least rhetorically, I think most Americans are thinking, “No, we’re in favor of human rights--whatever it is. I think it’s a good thing.’

BK: We got to the point where they knew we were not going to go away. [For awhile] they thought we were going to go away, because they used to come out and shout at me, “Why don’t you leave us alone? We don’t want you here.” “Well, that’s why I’m here.” So, they realized we were going to be there. People were getting housing, but they were not getting suitable housing. A man with a severe disability and a wheelchair, they would put him in a fourth floor walkup.

JF:  I actually think that they totally knew about it. They did it intentionally. This is the thing about the welfare system--the people with the most needs get the least help; the people with the least needs get the most help because they can speak out for themselves. You need so much vigilance to get anything. There was this woman who was obviously mentally ill, she had had some traumatic experience. The second you would say “the Bronx,” she would break down crying, fall on the floor, go hysterical. Something happened in the Bronx. So every single time the woman went into the welfare center to request emergency housing, they would send her to the Bronx. And we would say, “Just this one person. We’re not saying to send her some place special. You know, she’s not requesting the Ritz.” Yet, every single time, she’d come out with the Bronx. And I think they did that because they knew that they needed to say that they were giving out placements and people were not showing up. Therefore, people didn’t need the housing. They had other places to go.


BS: And yet things started to change and get better, or it felt like it. I went only a few times, but I remember--I think it was in fall of 2002--going out and you were not there. (Everyone laughs). And it was the first time in, like, two years. It was like one of those markers. I remember the first time that the Bay Area Reporter did not have any AIDS obits in it. I remember thinking, “Wow Bob wasn’t at the welfare center at 5 PM on a Friday.” So I went on my merry way. But there was a policy shift. What was that shift?

JF:  Well, they started housing everybody. I think we stayed out another month and a half or two. It was right after your birthday.  [Bob’s birthday, May 17].

BS: I remember Mayday 2001, when we had the Super Bario Man vs. Union Busters Large and Small street theater (referred to in the Introduction), and we went by all the greengrocers that paid sweatshop wages. It was the peak of the global justice movement because we had local issues overlapping with global issues. I remember walking by the welfare center on 34th street and there was Bob, still out there.

BK: Remember my friend Robin Bird [who runs a local adult TV call-in show] Robin didn’t want to leave.

JF:   There was a time when that was the place to be. More popular than Meow Mix [a downtown lesbian bar]... Of course, that was only when it was warm. Actually, I remember after September 11, 2001, Jackie and I had to ride our bikes to get through. You were in the hospital. But we had to be sure that if there was one place that was going to be messed up, it was going to be that place.

BK: I remember I was speaking to one of the caseworkers, the one who was the alcoholic, who was always going to be fired. He was up at 14th street and he said, “Boy things have really changed.” “Mark, you have to ask why?” I responded. He said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, because of you guys.” He actually never gave us that bad a time. And that worker, Carol, who I still see, said, “Things are a lot different now. I guess you people…” I said, “Carol, you guess?” They had started coming around. We didn’t want their jobs. We just wanted them to do their jobs. We were trying to get the people around them to do their jobs.

JF:  I think part of it was the contempt case. There was a ruling on Hannah vs. Turner in 1999. We felt that the city had violated the ruling, which required providing same day--meaning 9 AM to 5 PM--emergency housing placements to everyone who qualified and everyone who requested it. And a lot of AIDS service organizations had started to get tired of it. We had had a march around Mayday. Body Positive used to come out and give us food. They gave up on that. People had begun to get sick of it. It wasn’t playing well anymore.

We needed to do something, so we begged Armen Merjian, who was the lawyer from Housing Works, and he kept telling us that it wasn’t enough. He had this whole theory of why it was a difficult case. It went through the court of appeals and he was very concerned about it. But finally, he took the 17 people that we gave him [as plaintiffs]. We sent more.

BK: So wonderful in court. And finally, he realized it was a good case.

JF:  What he says is that that legal strategy alone could not have worked. It worked purely as the perfect storm of an organizing strategy, having the testimony of people who were affected, and having your testimony. Everyone says that it was your testimony that threw it over.

BK: Really.

JF:  Yes.

BK: I remember the judge at one point saying to me, “Are you crazy [for doing this]?” This was without a doubt, Jennifer Flynn and NYCAHN’s shining moment. It was your baby. We maybe changed the diapers, but it was your baby. It took a lot of nerve and guts. I don’t know if she saw the scope or the magnitude [at first]. But when she did see it, she ran with it.

BS: We’d done all these hit-and-run actions and some things got rolling and others did not. But this seemed to be a moment when there was sustained campaign. What was your sense of how it all fit together?

JF: If people did not have a right to shelter, then … I would be out of a job. (Jokes). What else was there? It’s not as if this was a new concept, this was a law. It was a city, Giuliani, breaking the law. And if we had lost it, we would have lost it forever. Honestly, all the other shit that we lost, we lost forever, at least it seems that way. I think there was some vague notion of [the overall campaign]. But there were some parts of the campaign that never got pulled together. We really wanted to have big union component. We wanted to work with the workers. We had some meetings, which really didn’t kick off.

BK: But I think there was a point, Jennifer, when we knew we were going to win.


JF:  But for a while, there were monitors [activists who monitored the welfare office] who wanted to stop. They called together a meeting of just themselves… In activism, that’s the sort of stuff that stops you from working on campaigns, because you don’t have a community. You’re just working with each other. Of course, all of that was about power and ego and all of that. But that stuff didn’t even matter because we had people like J.R. and Joe Capestani, who had been through it and they were saying, “No, you’re fucking standing there.” And that’s actually helpful.

BS: There was something mutable there--a clear, definable problem. And it seemed like there was a clear “food chain” of policy makers who could change it. You clearly identified that.

JF:  It was also using everything together. It was targeting Giuliani directly, trying to make policy changes. Everybody wanted to be the one who solved it. At some point, there were, like, insider lobbyists, who were hired by these big AIDS service organizations, who kept telling me they had met with someone in Giuliani’s office and they were going to fix it tomorrow. I think that probably helped. And I think the legal strategy helped. The leadership development and organizing helped. The monitoring--just standing there with a moral purpose. It’s also one case where it was so clear that we were right. There just isn’t any gray area about that.

BS: You could see it. And it wasn’t an academic thing.

JF:  I also think one thing about it, which was hard to re-create, was that anybody could do it. Other nonprofits started to do monitoring in the Bergen Center, up in the Bronx. Other people could just go to a welfare center and track complaints. And it always fixed something. Even if the whole problem wasn’t getting fixed, you got the doors put on the bathrooms stalls.

BK: But once you get one win, then you want more. Once you got a water-cooler and doors, then you keep going.

JF:  A lot of people say that [the policy win] happened because Giuliani was on his way out. But the truth is, he still had a good year left and would have driven that agency into the ground if he could have in that last year. But he did not.

Part IV: Community Gardens, Creativity, and Seeds of Green Possibility - The More Gardens Coalition.

An Interview with Aresh Javadi

More than any other place I have ever lived, public space in New York City is a space where civic life thrives.  People live in the streets.  Social and political life is organized around public culture.  A primary example is New York’s community gardens. Given their orientation to civic rather than commercial purposes, these public spaces face a married of threat of corporate globalizers, real estate, and social pressures against unregulated open public space, especially in the last ten years.  Throughout the Giuliani years, the aim was to clean symbols of urban decay – the homeless, people on welfare, visible dissent - from public space.[231]  The process only continued under Bloomberg.  Throughout the period, the public commons was increasingly privatized.  Inequality and blandification only increased as urban spaces lost much of their character to the steamroller of sameness represented by corporate globalization.  Along the road, New York began to resemble a shopping mall.[232]  Yet, the right to the city means more than this.  

For many, gardens function as directly lived “representational spaces” and spaces of “difference” used to differing degrees by the residents of the East Village and throughout New York’s other neighborhoods.[233]  Thus they claim significant symbolic value to residents. In The Production of Space, Henri Lefebvre defines representational as directly lived through its associated images and symbols, and hence the space of ‘inhabitants’ and ‘users’, but also of some artists and perhaps of those, such as a few writers and philosophers, who describe and aspire to do no more than describe… It overlays with physical space, making symbolic use of its objects.[234]

By their very opposition to the rules of consumption[235] and the growth machine[236], representational spaces, such as community gardens, are linked with “underground and clandestine” sides of social life.[237]  And therefore they are often viewed as threats, as was the case during the Giuliani years.

In Selling the Lower East Side, Christopher Mele refers to the successful campaigns of activists to fight off the auction of community gardens in the East Village and Lower East Side in 1999 in the final pages of his work.[238]  Yet these struggles date back well into the 1980’s and earlier in the Lower East Side and East Village in New York City.  While few of the scholars of gentrification acknowledge these forces bucked the growth machine,[239] there is a comprehensive literature on the history of community gardening in New York and nationally[240] and in the Lower East Side/ East Village.[241]   In addition, there is an increasing literature on the activism related to community gardening in the East Village and New York in general.  Mikalbrown and Will situate the campaign to save Esperanza Community Garden in 1999 and 2000 within struggles for public space in New York City and globally.[242]  While Paper Tiger TV address the history of this campaign as a documentary film.[243]  Shepard addresses the legacy of Esperanza Garden and the temporary restraining order on the bulldozing community gardens placed by Attorney General Elliot Spitzer and the efforts to preserve green space in the East Village and New York in general until Guiliani left office as a struggle for a community ethos necessary for democracy to thrive.[244]  The following presents a narrative culmination of this story.

Community Gardens

Community Gardens are spaces that once were vacant lots, often full of litter, that have been transformed into green spaces for plants, vegetables, and open safe urban space.  A statement of existence by the community gardeners declares: “We are gardeners - and students, artists, senior citizens, workers - living in New York City who believe in more gardens! in all urban areas world-wide.”[245]  The community gardens have a long history in New York.  The advocacy group, More Gardens describes it:

Community gardens are the revolutionary fruits of caring neighbors, taking back our land one seed at a time. Most of the community gardens were created in the 1970's as a response to the city government's systematic abandonment of all critical services; firehouses, hospitals and police stations disappeared from the barrios and ghettos, and so did garbage removal and the expectation of safe mail delivery. This allowed the poorest of neighborhoods to be burnt down by greedy landlords and filled up with garbage, rats, needles, and broken glass. The community gardeners brought safety, food, beauty, fresh air, and communidad back to their streets and people.[246]

Today, there are some 500 gardens in New York City, and 50 in the East Village.[247]  Only with the election of Mayor Bloomberg were a portion of these spaces made permanent as park space.[248]  The following interview outlines a case study in successful organizing to combat urban gentrification. 

The struggle to save these gardens has taken many forms over many years.

Throughout this struggle, many groups, including the Lower East Side Collective, the Bronx Urban Gardeners (BUG), the Guerilla Gardeners, and many other squatters, homesteaders, and other less vocal community members have all contributed. While they have all made enormous contributions, few have come close to the combined work of the More Gardens Coalition and its organizer Aresh Javadi.  He spoke with me in his home at the More Gardens house in the Melrose neighborhood of the South Bronx.  I met him in the summer of 2005 to talk about his work with this project. 

BS: How did you become a garden activist?

Aresh:  I always think that my activism started when I was very young.  I was little and had a grandfather who had a gorgeous garden, and who would pick jasmine and water it every morning.  And I would be there helping him along, watering and helping him to pick up the jasmine.  And so I had an orientation toward greenery and always had been around it as I grew up in Iran and other parts of the world.  And I was like, this is part of my life. And being in New York City seeing how much it was missing that I automatically fit into groups that were out there creating celebrations – from Earth Celebrations to activists who were out there using puppetry and artwork to create space and a vision of a green and sustainable earth.  So, as my art became more rooted I also understood that it had to be rooted toward the environment that needs to be #1) made sustainable and permanent and #2) made more of and to be added to. 

BS: How did the elements of creativity and play and performance fit into the story of the organizing that you were doing?

Aresh:  I came from a background of photography.  Before that I was in engineering.  I always had that vision of I must use my art – be it my photography or landscape to turn it into something.  As I entered the world of galleries, I’d always been working with students in Prospect Heights through the program that I was working with, etc.  So I always had this desire to work with communities.  Yet, there had been this dichotomy where art and the gallery world was really focused on self aggrandizement and fitting into a world where you come, you see, its in this “neutral space.”  And then you become appeased to this status that then picks you as the art person.  And I was sort of doing quite well with that.  It’s a pretty easy game.  But at the same time, it was really unfulfilling.  And I found really wonderful examples of like Group Material with Felix Gonzales Torrez, who was an amazing artist, taught classes at the school where I was going; Bell Hooks came and spoke to us; and David Wojanarowiz, another amazing artist.[i]  They all gave me hope that you can use social activism in the world of art [and vice versa].  From there on, I was working with the kids and taking their photography, taking their poetry, making it into posters and start putting it in the neighborhood.  I was at the point where I was doing installation art.  For me, the question was how then do you push that into communities and into an act that allows youth to be able to be able to show their idealism, their energy into bigger spaces that responded to them backwards and forwards?  As that started happen I realized that I also needed to participate.  I didn’t need only to be a facilitator but then an active member, which is sometimes harder because you have different levels of strength.  And everyone said, ‘You must go to Bread and Puppet.’  So I said what the hell is Bread and Puppet?  I started for two summers in a row working with that energy of live installation, with ideas of what it means to be creative in political thinking, as well as large scale puppetry and music and voice and using the street theatre forms.  And so bringing that back to New York City, we started street theatre, where we were working on home depot and the first Iraq war with the first Bush.  And we were lucky to have a place in the South Bronx, where we were creating that energy with many, many people of similar vision. 

As that expanded we then fell into the moment where the gardens were put into the front lines of the Guiliani administration’s destruction of communities (from 1993-2001).  A primary example was green spaces that helped people come together and have a place of food, creativity, meeting, sustainability, and culture. 

BS: What were the communities that you were organizing around at that point?

Aresh:  At that time, since 114 community gardens were under threat (in 1999).  I think it was time where our group had been meeting.  In the South Bronx, there was a feeling that there were many different voices.  And a fair amount of them were like, ‘Why is the garden coalition fighting for all gardens?  We have active members who show up and do the work.  Those are the ones that need to be going after and preserving.  That was the vision of other groups.  The other groups, which eventually became the core founders of More Gardens, not only thought that all gardens needed to be made permanent; we actually need to see more gardens.  And that became the moment where we said we are not going to be waiting for the bulldozers show up or compromising a lot of our green spaces, no matter what level of community activism that they’re at, but that we need to be proactive, and ask for more green space.  Its always a great move anyway.  Whenever you want to ask something, you are not going to ask for what you want, you are going to ask for something three times more and then you probably get what you want. 

BS: And healthy communities need green spaces. 

Aresh: That’s the vision that needs to be pushed and created. 

BS: Garden activists recognize that gardens create oxygen, which helps fight things such as asthma.  In terms of health issues, just for somebody who doesn’t know, why would a community need gardens?

Aresh:  Sure.  Almost everywhere if you charted the community gardens, it would be in areas of poor neighborhoods, highest asthma, highest density of housing, lowest income, and, of course, people of color who are directly affected by these things.  And if you went to this area (the South Bronx) you would noticeably feel strangulated.  You could feel the toxins that are around you.  You’d know the cancer rates are high.  In Harlem and the South Bronx, they call this asthma alley – 14 times the rate of other parts of the city.  And so all of these factors compound to suggest this is the most obvious space for more green spaces.  All of these piled up people need spaces for a little bit of harmony and a little bit of peace as an antidote to all of the chaos that has been created around them.  A lot of people have said to me that there have been times when by sitting under a tree, actually communing with the earth through this natural thing, that they are able to figure out, even in the harshest of times, they are able to find a peace within themselves that is alive at this moment.  There is something beyond the oxygen and science but something very sustainable when you realize you are more than just an individual in your situation.  But that you are part of the planet and you are the planet. 

BS: That separation between yourself and the planet is where you first find that unhappiness, that alienation.  In my first job in New York in the Zen Community of New York, we would take 30 minutes a week just to sit to slow that separation just for a few minutes.  Green spaces are a great place for this…. So the story of the garden movement, there have always been gardens that have been bulldozed.  Yet, these gardens have been built our of the rubble of neglected neighborhoods during the fiscal crisis in New York in the 1970’s.  They were rebuilt  during the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Aresh:   I always feel like it goes deeper than that.  Before there were building there were trees.  And they were living and earth never died.  It was always underneath.  No matter how much concrete, it finds a way of coming out or we find a way of trying to recreate it.  So when it burns down, its not a by accident.  Its not just that someone got mad.  There are always deeper reasons when the earth uncovers itself.  And when its not just used immediately for money and instant gratification of quick short term things, people tend to do real stuff with it.  They plant trees.  They grow stuff.  And these are people who have nothing.  They could build a shelter.  And sometimes they build a little casita.  And they built a round of food which allows them to do this.  And they plant trees, not knowing if its going to be gone next week or another year, but as a tree and a real connection.

So at that time where the Guiliani Administration said not just one garden here, or three there, but said, ‘We are going after every single community garden.  And we’ll move every one of them out of the Parks Department and move them to HPD.’   It meant that the 750 community in New York that are not going to be existing by the time they were done. And their first event was to put over some 114 our of 300 lots for auction, with gardens in them.  Every one just said, ‘That’s not an accident.’  That’s a very specific targeted act.  Out of 10,000 vacant lots, to put the gardens up for sale, you know what’s happening.  And so that was when a lot crystallization and community gathering came together. [Author’s note: At the time, as Mayor Giuliani planned to auction off the community gardens, advocates, such as the More Gardens Coalition and the Lower East Side Collective Public Space Group organized throughout 1999 in response to the city's announced to sell off ALL 750 then-existing community gardens. “Nueva York Necesita Jardines Communitarios” (New York needs Community Gardens) stickers could be found through out the Lower East Side; Reclaim the Streets, NY took over an avenue in the neighborhood for a street party entitled, “Reclaim the Streets and Build a Garden,” among other acts of creative resistance.]  

The More Gardens Coalition kicked into high gear.  And got very creative.  They said first, we are going to ask them to do the right thing.  We were going up to see Guiliani and Pataki.  And sending letters stating, this is what the people want.  And we crossed the boroughs, saying this is not appropriate and this is just over the top.  And legal was the next step.  And legal meant finding legal methods to fight it with the Puerto Rican legal defense.  Yet, that was not the only response.  The final component was direct action – that’s when people come in the streets and are willing to do civil disobedience to highlight the problem.  Its like a fire.  It shows who’s in the right and who’s in the wrong.  People have to deal with the fire.  Do you put it out or smash it and hurt people or do you actually heat yourself, warm yourself and say I am here for the people.  And that direct action really highlighted where it the fire was – the steps of city hall.  Here is an administration that is taking away the right of people to have any voice.

And that voice may be on the steps or in their own communities, where they have a little green space, where they can gather, and do the right thing.  So, to us green space was never the only issue.  It was not only food or oxygen, its always the culture, the right of people to gather, to feed something of themselves in sustained manner and in a way in which the earth responds to it.  That’s a very key part of that. 

And its not just for rich people to have. Not that they shouldn’t have it.  But they have their own Connecticut farms, we need to be very conscious that this kid who is nine ten years old.  And his only venue of space to dance, sing, laugh, and play is this sort of space.

BS: If you assume that healthy communication emerges out of play then what happens?

Aresh:  You take away their hope to live, to wanna be a person of productive and loving ways, and to us that was the time and the moment when we said enough is enough, we’ve tried everything and direct action need to step up.  The creative ways were to go out to City Hall steps and say we free the steps.  We’re not out here to say we’re selfish of our rights to speak, we’re selfish of everybody’s rights to speak to their voice.

BS: I came into the gardens direct action movement in March of 1999, during the organizing to stop the auction of 114 community gardens.  You’d already been doing theatre in terms of people dressing like a tomato and climbing into a tree in City Hall Park, and lobbying dressed as giant vegetables; our Attorney General even noted that the reason he put on Temporary Restraining Order on the development of the garden lots was because, ‘a giant tomato told me to.’ It was an incredibly creative way of engaging people who were used to engaging lobbyists.  This was a kind of lobbyist they’d never encountered before.  And it almost reduced their defenses.  City Council people Steve Dibrienza and Christine Quinn were sitting around chit chatting with all the activists sitting in the streets.  [Authors note: At the time, some 50 garden activists were arrested for committing civil disobedience to prevent the planned auction of some 125-community gardens. After countless acts of civil disobedience, including the unleashing of crickets at a garden auction, street parties, pageants, and community actions, gardeners were able to celebrate a victory.  Bette Middler and a group of garden supporters the paid over $4.2 million dollars ($1.2 by Miller alone) to put the gardens in a public land trust.  This action saved 114 gardens.]  Theatrical civil disobedience had a way of disarming people and shifting the terms of debate.  What was your sense of that?

Aresh:  Theatre has always been a method, where going back to Iran, where troops, singers, and theatre people would come and do the performance of Hussein, where he is martyred.  But when they did that they came from village to village to village, they would tell the real stories behind what was going on through theatre that was also interactive.  So the whole village would be singing and dancing with it back wards and forwards.  So you were absolutely ingrained in it.  There was no one person to see and the other person act.  It opens you to all sorts of possibilities.  Again, when you see a plant or a vegetable, your automatically come back to a world of childhood, cartoons, something that is not like the, ‘there is a protest and they are against us.’  Rather the reaction is, ‘that’s so magical. That’s so amazing on top on concrete.’  It brings you a recognition of why it is that people care so much about green space when you can’t actually take them to the garden.  Did you see this over here – what it meant to this woman, to this grandfather, this granddaughter, how much its improved their health, their life?  You can do that by having a flower dancing with a giant tomato and then there is the action of someone trying to take that away from people and people are willing to step up and move that.  It allows people to really engage and question their own intents.  It’s a very, very powerful thing that I will say again, Bread and Puppet and other groups have utilized.  But Bread and Puppet tend to be a little bit darker.  We are just like this is fun; its loving; and you are going to see how passionate we are about that. 

The other aspect was that even during the civil disobediences, we would have hats and colorful things.  The police sometimes didn’t even know what to do with the puppets.  And they would be like, ‘We can’t arrest a flower. (Laughs.)  That’s not a person that we can arrest.’   You mentioned David Wojanarowiz, but I’ve always thought that what make ACT UP so wonderful was saying: This is about life.  But we’re saying with creativity and sex and love, this is about life.

Aresh:  Its all a part of it. 

BS: I’ve always thought about that with garden activists as well.  This is about life and community.  How did you plant those seeds of life through those campaigns?

Aresh:  To me it was just like, how can we be a ‘Yes’ group.   Yes, we agreed that this needs to be approved.  We never said, ‘no, you suck.’  We said, ‘Yes, you can do the right thing, like the flowers, like the fruits, like the yeses that have been created and brought forth in visual and even in food.  This is what we’re visioning and this is what we want – a celebration, a bringing together of the spirits, and having the politicians just follow what was right.  And putting facts out.  When we did a banner hang or put puppets up in a tree, we would say:  10,000 vacant lots, Why Destroy the Garden Plots? 

The visual enhanced the words.  We didn’t try and over state it or get wordy, saying, ‘Oh well, housing vs the sunflower.  Do you want a house or do you want a homeless children?  We said, there it is: 10,000 vacant lots and they are being given away to rich developers, while the community gardens that could be there next to real housing, are being bulldozed.  We were not against real housing.  Why not have these two balanced?  And keep both of them.  We want both – real housing as well as real green spaces.  I think any time anyone builds over a piece of land, he or she should automatically be adding community gardens with your money for the community. The point is opening up spaces that are communal and cultural. To me that’s the steps that need to be pushed forward. 

BS: So, its an image of a healthier community that you putting forth. 

Aresh:  Sustainable healthier communities.  From the Romans to the Greeks to the Persians to the Chinese – they’ve always had spaces where people can gather and be part of nature.  And realize that we are nature – no matter how much steel and concrete that break us away from that. 

BS: When you think of your favorite action, is there anything that stands out?

Aresh:  There are so many of them and each one has its own energy.  Like during the organizing to save the 114 gardens, we had moments where we were in the gardens that were like a week away from being destroyed or given away to some developer.  And the children came and took the puppets and automatically told the story.  They would tell the story of the garden.  And they would say, ‘So why do you think we shouldn’t have housing right there?’  And the other kids would say, ‘Look at that house across the street.  That’s not for us.’  And I had nothing to do with that scene.  Yet, these kids represent a future of why New York is going to be such an amazing space. 

As a holistic full on coming together of one particular energy that brought like all the best of all the people into it and myself being like a core part of it – it was with the battle for Esperanza Garden on East 7th street in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.  That was a case where we really were able to work with the community that was being threatened by gentrification in 2000.  It has the dynamic of this huge corporate developer Donald Coppocia buying the administration and coming after community minded groups of people of Puerto Rican origins who had built a community, a block group, co-op housing, and green spaces around them that they were sharing with the community.[ii]  And then garden activists created a magical creature – the Coqui,[iii] which meant so much to their own community and the larger Puerto Rican Community in the world.  And then to allow the gardeners, the local residents, the artists, and activists, as well as thousands of people from all over the world, being able to connect and to share to understand this magic and to come and sleep and stay inside this giant frog – it was just so fantastic.

BS:  And the myth of the Coqui?

Aresh:  There's this little tiny creature the size of your thumb.  And the monster is coming to destroy the forest and the places that the creatures live in.  And so different animals come up and they try to scare it.  And they all get squashed.  And then this tiny little Coqui is making this really loud noise and the monster is like, ‘Oh my god, its so loud and I can’t even see it.  I’m going to get my butt out of here.’  It’s a very apt story – we’re little people, but when we get together, we have a large enough voice.  So they create a large enough space for those who are against humanity, life and sustainability to recognize where their powers end, and where the power of the people starts. 

In terms of Esperanza, we regrettably lost the space and the Coqui was destroyed.[iv] A lot of people said, ‘Get the frog out of there.  You can save it.  The garden is gone.’  And I was like, ‘This is not about a little art piece.  Its about the bigger picture.  The Coqui is the garden.  The garden is that.  And the people who are there who are going to be hurt are part of this frog.  And no matter what this is inseparable.’  Its semi permeable.  Its an art that has the life and heart of the seeds that surround it. 

So what became of that destruction was, to me like, as the frog was destroyed there were seeds that were exploding and flying all over the city.  And we have little froglets that, as JK[v] so wonderfully puts it, who have grown by hearing it, who said, ‘I was not part of it but I want to make sure that does not happen again.  I want to make sure that there is something of this creativity and greenery and there is something coming from it.’

BS: I actually think of the legal settlement [vi] that came out of the Esperanza campaign as a success.

Aresh:  Oh absolutely.

BS: I remember the photo of the garden on the front page of the New York Times.  I talked to my dad the day after we got out of jail and he said to me, no you guys won.  That was the second time we all got arrested for this.  The first time that I met you was after the 114 community gardens were bulldozed and you were dressed like a lady bug. 

I signed up for your organizing list and I think I used my alternate e-mail. 

I was like I don’t know who this guy is.  (Both laughing.)  But my dad’s point was we had won.  I think it was the witnessing with people that were total Guiliani supporters that were like, what's going on with this guy?  You can correct me, but Guiliani did not sign the garden law.  I mean, we spent a year organizing, getting people to sign petitions,[7] but the context for getting a deal with Attorney General’s office started with the Esperanza campaign. 

Aresh:  What became of it is that activists went to court immediately knowing the city was going after Esperanza.  And so the idea was they would wait to hear from the judge before the destruction of the garden or not.  So we’re there locking down to all sorts of devices.  And there are 31 people all saying, ‘We’re not leaving.  We’re staying.  We’ve gotta stay until the police make a decision.’  They were doing something that was so illegal by trying to circumvent a judge by making a choice for what is unjust and wrong.

So, they went ahead and bulldozed it and the judge went, ‘Wow.’  And even at that time, Hillary Clinton was running against Giuliani for the senate and said on the news, ‘You can’t bulldoze your way into the senate.’  And it just magnified a lot of problems.  People were like, ‘This guy is all about money and his buddies.  He wouldn’t wait for a judge for an hour.’  And the judge of course saying that said, ‘There are 350 more community gardens and I will put a Temporary Restraining Order that will stop further bulldozing.  And they had to deal with that throughout the Guiliani administration, till Bloomberg showed up.  And after that one more garden (Cabo Rojo Community Garden) was bulldozed and everyone was like, ‘Oh my god.’ And so, these particular actions allowed the administrations to recognize that people are not going to just take it, they are going to be out in the streets making you really pay for destroying them.  So then, 250 of those 350 gardens were made permanent, 50 for immediate development, and here we are the remaining fifty are in play – subject to development as either gardens or housing.  Its up to communities to decide as legislative bodies.

BS: Where is the battle now?  Are we at an end game as some have said.  It doesn’t feel like it.  A couple of weeks ago, we were in court hearing about another lovely settlement. Three gardens in the Bronx are folded into one garden and it will be in a dark corner.  Where is the struggle now? 

Aresh:  Well, in the South Bronx, the More Gardens crew was like we are back to our home field.  It’s a place if you had to put third world countries.  Reagan and Carter came to this space and said this is the worst in the US and then they walked off.  Its true, this would be the third world.  Mississippi and the South Bronx tend to go back and forth as the worst, the poorest, least supported congressional districts of the United States. There is a huge criminal court house with lots of windows here.  Its like, this is the creation of the buildings that they are building – to send people to jail. That’s their window to slavery and corporate wealth.  That needs to switch around to space where we keep gardens and build more of them. 

The point is building these spaces garden by garden by garden.  We’ve worked with local developers, Nos Quedamos, and community members to create a great plan.  It features lots of compromises from us to create both housing and gardens.  And the local Housing Preservation and Development said, ‘Nope, we’re not going to take it.’  They said we’re going after this garden, and this garden, and this garden.  And then going to court and having the local supreme court saying: ‘Negotiate.’  We’ll do whatever is necessary – from direct action to court – whatever makes it makes it most painful for you to destroy the earth.  And not just hand it over.  We will be there.  We are the earth.  We will be there till the last minute so you will have to drag us like the trees out of the ground; and uproot us; and put us in jail. 

BS: The strategy is such a win win.  You want more affordable housing and green space. 

Aresh:  It’s a mentality that’s been lost that you can’t trust anything but your own pocketbooks.  And that’s something that the communities and the planet needs to come to terms with.  No more short term quick fix things.  People have to start coming in and realizing there are different ways of living with a little bit of green space and realizing what it means to reforest your own city.  Then you stop destroying the forests all over the world.  

BS: Literally, New Yorkers have built the equivalent of their own central park with the amount of green spaces they have created in neighborhoods in the last 25 years.

Aresh:  And one that you have complete control and access to.  So you are not like, oh the parks department comes and kicks you out, and puts a new tree down… Rather it’s a vision of a world for my children, and where I’d like them to be in ten years or thirty years time.  There are so many things that we are leaving out… the amount of creativity that will be fostered.

BS: What happens to children that hang out in community gardens?

Aresh:  I teach a lot of kids.  And I know for a fact  that kids who have grown plants have attention spans magnified of what children that only watch tv and commercials have. 

And knowing they can put their hands in dirt, play with worms, and be themselves.  And you must play this game, wear this lipstick and this clothes.  You are not worrying about clothes.

BS: Its also having a relationship with the earth.  I remember on December 31, 1999 in Esperanza with the tomato.  There was a play you guys were doing in Esperanza.  And Bill TimesUP said to Rev. Billy, ‘I am a tomato! I am a tomato!’  And there was a moment when he seemed genuine.  It was also a moment of saying this is another way of looking at the world for just a minute. 

Aresh:  And kids take that on.  They become the things that they participate in.  And that’s because we can and we are the earth.  We are so much a part of the earth. 

BS: Any final words before we wrap?

Aresh:  One things I am excited about is that we’ve come a full circle.  We’ve come after six years of been assaulted to seeing and having the fruits.  Community gardens now are a permanent part of New York City.  Not that its all over and we still have to figure things out but that’s come around.  And now we’ve come into a phase where green buildings are suddenly the in thing.  Rooftop gardens are becoming the buzzword for people.  Now in this community, there is enough energy and desire to create a community center that would be environmental and cultural.  Now we’re rooting ourselves and planting seeds and they are growing.  And all different cities have them.  And we will be a very strong force as other forces try to make their last hurrah.  So to me I am very excited that in the darkest corners the brightest things are now starting to sprout. 

Gardens as Representational Spaces

Given their function as spaces where social actors organize against the notion of urban space as growth machine and therefore and neo liberalism itself, community gardens function as distinctly subversive spaces. Thus, they can be viewed as  representational spaces.[249]  Each affirms a right to differential space, which not only looks different to but is truly different.  Each garden’s existence in a town driven by real estate dollars thwarts the conception of urban space as commodity. Each garden celebrates a right to the city as a space for community building and possibility, despite the view that differential space can not and must not be allowed to thrive by the powers that be.[250]  When the gardeners are able to push off real estate developers and preserve some five hundred gardens citywide, fifty alone with a handful of squats in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, this represents no small accomplishment.  


The creative organizing used to build a diverse coalition to reject the narrative of decline and defend the community gardens, represents a best practice case study in organizing against urban gentrification.  The problems faced by gardeners can easily be connected to social theory about urban space.   Community gardens often become places for neighborhood members to meet, to share a space, work on a common project, and to plant the seeds of community together.[251]  These are spaces for people to be introduced, to be creative, to problem solve, and to discuss issues of mutual interest.  Yet, like many public spaces in the era of globalization, they are under attack.  In this author’s opinion this is the reason for the ongoing attack.  If the story of the garden movement in New York City constitutes anything, it constitutes a success story in the effort to build community in the era of corporate globalization.

Text Notes

[i] David Wojanarowiz was an East Village artist who died of AIDS in 1992.  Like Group Material, Wojanarowiz, was inspired to involve his aesthetic production in AIDS activism with the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP).  For an example of Group Material’s work see Democracy: a Project by Group Material (1990)  Edited by Brian Wallis.  Bay Press: Seattle.  For a brief discussion of the lives of Wojanarowiz and Torres, see Moore, Patrick. 2004. Beyond Shame: Reclaiming the Abandoned History of Radical Gay Sexuality.  Boston: Beacon.  In addition see C. Carr. 1993.  Portrait of an Artist in the Age of AIDS - David Wojnarowicz.  In C. Carr. On Edge: Performance at the End of the Twentieth Century.  Middletown, Ct.: Wesleyan University Press.  p. 289-301.

[ii]  Throughout the campaign, which began in 1999, La Esperanza, the 22-year old garden, named for hope, had come to symbolize the tensions between privatization at the center of globalization and the civic need for public spaces open to all.  Despite its history as a community center for picnics, refuge for children, and parties, Mayor Giulian's office sold La Esperanza to developer Donald Capoccia back in August 1999 -- a man who had just happened to donate some $50,000 to the mayor's electoral campaigns and acquired the garden site from the city without any fair bidding process. Giuliani claimed that Capoccia planned to construct "low-income housing" on the site, and that garden supporters were "not living in the real world.”  In reality, the 79 apartments Capoccia slated to build are "80/20 housing" -- 80% market-rate, luxury apartments, with a token 20% set aside for low-income tenants.  

In the months after the Bette Middler garden settlement of May 1999,  Mayor Giuliani changed tactics.  In a new strategy, the city began selling off individual gardens, perhaps one or a small group at a time, but not enough to draw city-wide attention along the lines of the May auction.  All the while, the general public believed all the city gardens had been saved. Yet, the city continued to put more lower east side community gardens up for auction.  Then in December 2000, developers ripped the wall off the back of the Esperanza garden, preparing to bulldoze. The scene was a vivid reminder of the way Capoccia had bulldozed the Chico Menendez Garden two days after Christmas back in 1997.  Activists, community members, and friends of Esperanza were determined to prevent the same thing from happening again. 

Garden advocates sought an injunction to save Esperanza after its sale.  Little came of it.  By mid November, Alicia, the original gardener who had planted the seeds of Esperanza back in 1977, received a letter from Capoccia, stating construction would start on the land behind the garden within the week. Having traversed every legal and policy channel they knew of, the activists sought alternate solutions for their struggle against the bulldozers.

[iii] In Puerto Rican folklore, the Coqui, a species of frog, has long been known to successfully vanquish larger adversaries.  Esperanza could use the same sort of patron and mythology.  Garden activists built a giant steel and canvas version of the Coqui for the garden.  The ten foot tall frog faced the street, drawing crowds of sympathizers to the cause of the garden (and serving as an exemplar of public and community art).  Activists could spend the night inside the structure, equipped with telephone lines, a heater, and materials to lock themselves down to the Coqui if bulldozers were to roll in early in the morning.

[iv]  On the day of the eviction – February 14, 2000 - state Attorney General Elliot Spitzer was filing papers calling for an injunction barring the destruction of all gardens that morning.  No injunction could go into effect until 2 PM that afternoon at the earliest, but if activists could stall the police and bulldozers all morning, there was a chance the garden could be saved. Some activists locked themselves to the surrounding fence with bicycle locks around their necks, another group locked themselves to a 45-foot high steel tower of a sunflower and tripods. Five activists locked themselves inside the Coqui.

 Police swarmed the front of the garden, while a bulldozer loomed in the distance to the back of the garden. The activists were locked inside.  The police moved in, tearing down the fence in front of the garden, sawing off the chain of an activist who had locked herself to it. While protestors were being arrested, Giuliani redeployed the usual debate that the city has to decide between housing or gardens. Garden activist spokespeople retorted that with thousands of vacant lots and dilapidated buildings to rebuild in the five boroughs, there is room for both gardens and housing.  The More Gardens Coalition, which organized the Esperanza resistance campaign, successfully constructed a multicultural coalition, mobilizing activists from all over the city. Yet, this was not enough to match the deep pockets of New York’s real estate industry and their influence on New York’s political culture.  Yet, the direct action the city was compelled to make a policy change in the ways it handles community gardens – which resulted in a Temporary Restraining Order on bulldozing gardens and eventually a settlement to make half the gardens permanent.

[v] JktheCat is another great garden activist in New York.  She was a leader organizer during the Esperanza campaign. 

[vi] The Attorney General’s Temporary Restraining Order prevented further bulldozing in the final two years of the Giuliani administration.  After years with a temporary restraining order on bulldozing community gardens, another 200 gardens were made permanent park space in the fall of 2002 in a settlement between the State Attorney General, Elliot Spitzer and Mayor Bloomberg.  While the Spitzer/Bloomberg settlement presented real progress, some 150 other community brilliant community remained vulnerable (see Earth Celebrations, 2004, Mikalbrown, 2002; More Gardens, Undated, Spitzer, 2002, 2002A).  

Citation Notes

[1] Marcuse, Herbert. 1964. One Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon Press. p.19

[2] Marcuse, p. 19

[3] Davey, Joseph Dillon. 1995. The New Social Contract: America’s Journey from Welfare State to Police State. Westport, CT: Praeger.

[4] Hall, Stuart, et al. 1978. Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order. New York: Holmes and Meier Publishers.

[5] Chambliss, William J. 1995. Control of Ethnic Minorities: Legitimizing Racial Oppression by Creating Moral Panics. In Ethnicity, Race, and Time: Perspectives Across Time and Place, edited by Darnell F. Hawkins. Albany: State University of New York Press.

[6] Morone, J.A. 2003. Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. p. 455-6.

[7] Burtless, Gary (ed). 1990. A Future of Lousy Jobs. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution; Folbre, Nancy, James Heintz, and the Center for Popular Economics with the National Priorities Project and United for a Fair Economy. 2000. The Ultimate Field Guide to the U.S. Economy. New York: The New Press; Freeman, Richard B. 1999. The New Inequality: Creating Solutions for Poor America. Boston: Beacon Press; Galbraith, John Kenneth. 1996. The GoodSociety: The Humane Agenda. New York: Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin Company.

[8] Sites William. 2003. Remaking New York: Primitive Globalization and the Politics of Urban Community. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. p. 13-15.

[9] Ibid

[10] Abu-Lughod, Janet. (Ed.) 1994. From Urban Village to East Village: The Battle for New York’s Lower East Side.  Cambridge, MA: Blackwell. Sites William. 2003. Remaking New York: Primitive Globalization and the Politics of Urban Community. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

[11] Fisher, Robert.1994. Let the People Decide: Neighborhood Organizing in America, Updated Edition.  New York: Twayne Publishers. xi-xxiv.

[12] Brooks, Fred. 2005. Resolving the Dilemma between Organizing and Services: Los Angeles ACORN. Social Work 50 (3): 262-69.

[13] Quoted in Wishnia, Steve. 1998.  Lower East Side Activists Fight to Save Gardens.  Tenant.   (Accessed 10/23/2005).

[14] Munson, Chuck (Chuck0). 2003. New Radical Space Set to Qpen in Washington, DC. Infoshop News, February 25.

[15] Logan, John. R. and Harvey L. Molotch. 1987. Urban Fortunes: The PoliticalEconomy of Place. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

[16] Shepard, Benjamin. 2002. Community as a Source for Democratic Politics. In Making Democracy Work: Reforming the American Political System for the 21st Century, edited by R. Hayduk and K. Mattson. New York: Roman and Littlefield. p. 109-20.

[17] Oneil, Michael.2004. Please Steal Christmas! 12/15 at St. Marks. December 12. [I WOULDN’T GIVE OUT INDIVIDUAL’S E-MAIL ADDRESSES]

[18] Prestin, Terry. 2002. Veni, Venti, Grande; Starbucks Strikes Deep in a Wary Land of Pushcarts and Delis. New York Times, April 29.

[19] Talen, Bill (aka Rev. Billy). Undated. Accessed February 14, 2005.

[20]Shepard, B. 2005. Play, Creativity, and the New Community Organizing. Journal of Progressive Human Services (formerly The Catalyst) 16 (2): 47-69.

[21] Talen, Bill (aka Rev. Billy). 2005. Push Back Starbucks! The Stop Shopping Monitor. (9 February). Accessed February 14, 2005.

[22] Quoted in Talen, Push Back Starbucks!

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Talen, Bill. 2003. What Should I Do if the Reverend Billy is in My Store?New York: Free Press.

[26]Charas. Undated. Charas web site. Accessed January 2002 (no longer accessible).

[27] Moynihan, Colin. 1999. Still Mourning, Latino Group Loses 2 Treasured Murals. New York Times (21 November): Section 14, Page 8, Column 5.

[28] Reclaim the Streets/New York. Save Charas (broadside). December 2001. In the collection of the author.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] For a review of the successful struggle to preserve community gardens in New York City and other urban areas, see:

Earth Celebrations. 2004. Earth Celebrations 14th Annual Rites of Spring Procession to Save Our Gardens. Procession (flyer). May 22.

Ferguson, Sarah. 1999A. The Death of Little Puerto Rico. In Avant Gardening: Ecological Struggle in the City and the World, edited by Peter Lamborn Wilson  and Bill Weinberg. Brooklyn: Autonomedia. Ferguson, Sarah. 1999B. A Brief History of Grass Roots Gardening on the Lower East Side. In Avant Gardening: Ecological Struggle in the City and the World, edited by Peter Lamborn Wilson and Bill Weinberg. Brooklyn: Autonomedia.

Ferguson, Sarah. 2000. New York Mayor’s War On Community Gardens Backfires. JINN.February 21.

Hynes, Patricia H. 1996. A Patch of Eden: America’s Inner-City Gardens. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Company.

Mikalbrown, Kerstin. 2002. Saving Esperanza Garden: The Struggle Over Community Gardens in New York City. In From ACT UP to the WTO: Urban Protest And Community-Building in the Era of Globalization, edited by Benjamin Shepard and Ronald Hayduk. New York: Verso.

More Gardens. Undated. Lettuce Bee Leave ing in Peas. Accessed May 24, 2004.

Paper Tiger TV. 2001. Playing for Keeps: the Battle for Esperanza Community Garden.

Spitzer, Elliot. 2002. Memorandum of Agreement between Attorney General and Community Gardeners. Accessed May 23, 2004.

Spitzer, Elliot. 2002. Summary of CommunityGardens Agreement. Accessed May 23, 2004.

Will, Brad. 2003. Cultivating Hope: the CommunityGardens in New York City. In We Are Everywhere: The Irresistible Rise of Global Anticapitalism, edited by Notes from Nowhere. New York: Verso.

[32] Mele, Christopher. 2000. Selling the Lower East Side: Culture, Real Estate, and Resistance in New York City.MinnesotaUniversity Press: Minneapolis. p. xi-ii.

[33] Abu-Lughod, Janet (ed.). 1994. From UrbanVillage to EastVillage: the Battle for New York’s Lower East Side. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.  Also see: Smith, 1996; Mele, 2000; Sites, 2003.

[34] Eigo, Jim.2002. TheCity as Body Politic / The Body as City Unto Itself. In From ACT UP to the WTO: Urban Protest And Community-Building in the Era of Globalization, edited by Benjamin Shepard and Ronald Hayduk. New York: Verso.

[35] See Mele, 2000, p. 4. and Zukin, Sharon and Ervin Kosta. 2004. Bourdieu Off-Broadway: Managing Distinction on a Shopping Block in the East Village. City and Community. Vol. 2, No. 2 (June), p. 101.

[36] Logan and Molotch, 1987.

[37] Merrifield, A. 2002. Metromarxism. New York: Routledge. p. 120.

[38] Zukin, Sharon. 2004. Point of Purchase: How Shopping Changed American Culture. New York: Routledge. p. 253-268.

[39] Logan and Molotch, 1987, p. 17-98.

[40] Smith, Neil. 1996. The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the RevanchistCity. New York: Routledge.

[41] Kifner, John. 1999. Giuliani’s Hunt for Red Menaces: From Transit Union to Gardeners, Mayor Sees Marx’s Shadow. New York Times. December 20, p B3.

[42] Didion, Joan. 1992. After Henry. New York: Vantage.

[43] Cohen, Stanley. 2002. Moral Panics as Cultural Politics: Introduction to the Third Edition. Folk Devils and Moral Panics. New York: Routledge.

[44] Hall, 1978.

[45] Chambliss, 1995.

[46] Crimp, Douglas, Ann Pelligrini, Eva Pendleton, and Michael Warner. 1998. This is a SexPanic! Fountain 6.2 (March), p. 22-24.

[47] Smith, 1996, p. 211.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Beauregard, Robert A. 2002. Voices of Decline: The Postwar Fate of U.S. Cities. New York: Routledge.

[50] Sites, 2003, p. 39.

[51] Smith, 1996, p. 211.

[52] Davey, 1995; Sites, 2003, 31-69.

[53] Ferrell, Jeff. 2001. Tearing Down the Streets: Adventures in Urban Anarchy.New York: Palgrave/St. Martin’s Press.

[54] Beauregard, 2002.

[55]Garland, David. 2001. The Culture of Control: Crime and Social Disorder in Contemporary Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[56]Giuliani, Rudolph. 1998. Reaching Out to All New Yorkers by Restoring Work to the Center of City Life. (10 July). Archives of Rudolph W. Giuliani. Republic National Bank, Manhattan. Accessed April 26, 2004.

[57] Swarns, Rachel. 1999. US Audit is said to Criticize Giuliani’s Strict Welfare Plan. New York Times, January 20, p. A1. Also see New York Times. Ending Welfare. New York Times, July 21, p. 14.

[58] Logan and Molotch, 1987, p. 13.

[59] Logan and Molotch, 1987, p. 11.

[60] Logan and Moloch, 1987, p. 15.

[61] Mele, 2002, p. 10.

[62] Johnson, Marilyn. 2003. Street Justice: A History of Police Violence in New York City. Boston: Beacon Press.

[63] Lipton, Robert. 2004. Giuliani, Selling Public Image, Branches Out for Private Profit. New York Time, February 22, p. A1 and 30.

[64] Logan and Molotch, 1987, p. 11.

[65] McArdle, Andrea and Erzen, Tanya (eds.). 2001. Zero Tolerance: Quality of Life and the New Police Brutality in New York City. New York: New YorkUniversity Press.

[66] Mele, 2000, p. 261-87; Smith, 1996.

[67] Van Kleunen, Andrew. 1994. The Squatters: A Chorus of Voices…But is Anyone Listening? In From Urban Village to East Village: the Battle for New York’s Lower East Side, edited by Janet Abu-Lughod. Oxford, UK: Blackwell. P. 285.

[68] Van Kleunen, 1994, p. 299.

[69] Van Kleunen, 1994, p. 285.

[70] Van Kleunen, 1994, p. 286.

[71] Sites, 2003, p. 169.

[72] Sites, 2003, p. 104.

[73] Sites, 2003, p. 169.

[74] Neuman, Osha. 1995. Motherfuckers Then and Now: My Sixties Problem. In CulturalPolitics and Social Movements, edited by M. Darnovsky, B. Epstein, and R. Flack. Philadelphia: TempleUniversity Press.

[75] Ginsberg, Allen. 2001. Spontaneous Mind: Selected Interviews 1958-1996, edited by David Carter. HarperCollins Publishers: New York. p. 187-8.

[76]Ness, Immanuel. 2002. Greengrocery Workers in New York City. In From ACT UP to the WTO: Urban Protest and Community Building in the Era of Globalization, edited by Benjamin Shepard and Ron Hayduck. New York: Verso.

Bogad, Lawrence M. 2003. Facial Insufficiency: Political Street Performance in New York City. TDR: The Drama Review, Vol. 47 (Winter),  p. 4.

[77] Sites, 2003, p. 101.

[78]Ness, 2002

[79] Duncombe, Steven. 2002. Introduction. Cultural Resistance: A Reader, edited by Steven Duncombe. New York: Verso.

[80] For example, see Kauffman, L.A. 2004. A Short Personal History of the Global Justice Movement (from New York’s community gardens, to Seattle’s tear gas, Quebec’s fences, the 9/11 backlash, and beyond). In Confronting Capitalism: Dispatches from a Global Movement, edited by Eddie Yuen, Daniel Burton-Rose, and George Katsiaficas. Brooklyn: Soft Skull Press. p. 375-88 and Thompson, Nat and Sholette, Gregory (eds.) 2004. The InterventionistsUsers' Manual for the Creative Disruption of Everyday Life.CambridgeMA: MIT and MassachusettsMuseum of Contemporary Art.

[81] Sites, 2003, p. 101.

[82] Springer, Edith. 1991. Effective AIDS Prevention with Active Drug Users: The Harm Reduction Approach. In Counseling Chemically Dependent People with HIV Illness, edited by Michael Shernoff. Binghamton, NY: HarringtonPark Press.

[83]Des Jarlais, D., et al. (1996). HIV incidence among injection users in New York City syringe exchange programs. The Lancet 348: 987-991.

[84] For recent examples of this literature, see:

Bordowitz, Gregg. 2004. The AIDS Crisis Is Ridiculous and Other Writings, 1986-2003, edited by James Meyer. CambridgeMA: MIT Press.

Crimp, Douglas. 2002. Melancholia and Moralism: Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics. Cambrige, MA: MIT Press;

Notes From Nowhere (eds.). 2003. We Are Everywhere: The Irresistible Rise of Global Anti-Capitalism, New York: Verso;

Solnit, David. (ed.). 2004. Globalize liberation: How to Uproot the System and Build a Better World.San Francisco: City Lights Press;

Thompson and Sholette, 2004.

[85] See footnote number 28, which presents much of the literature on these movements, including the material on the 2002 Garden Settlement from the state Attorney General’s office.

[86]Stites, Richard. 1989. Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and the Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution.  New York: OxfordUniversity Press. 

[87] A small number of examples of the literature on the movement of movements includes: Mertes, Tom (ed.).  The Movement of Movements: Is Another World Really Possible? New York: Verso. Also see Notes From Nowhere, 2003; Solnit, 2004.

[88]Gonzales, Juan. 2001. From Seattle to South Central. In The Battle of Seattle: The New Challenge to Corporate Globalization, edited by Eddie Yuen, Daniel Burton-Rose, and George Katsiaficas. Brooklyn: Soft Skull Press.

[89] Engels, Frederick. 1872/1995. The Housing Question. CITY: Society of Foreign Workers. ( Accessed October 11, 2004.

[90] Davis, James. 2004. This Is What Bureaucracy Looks Like: NGO's and Anti-Capitalism. In Confronting Capitalism: Dispatches from a Global Movement, edited by Eddie Yuen, Daniel Burton-Rose, and George Katsiaficas. Brooklyn: Soft Skull Press.

[91] Sites, 2003, p. 105.

[92] Weissman, Harold H. 1969. Community Development in the Mobilization for Youth Experience. New York: Association Press.

[93] Dougherty-Johnson, Lily. 2000. A Casualty in the War on Poverty: Mobilization for Youth’s Lonely Battle. A Prospectus. August 1, 2004. Also see Moynihan, Daniel P. 1970. Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding: Community Action in the War on Poverty. New York: Free Press. [NO NOTE NUMBER]

[94] Brechner, Jeremy; Tim Costello, and Brendan Smith, Brendan. 2000. Globalization from Below: the Power of Solidarity. Boston: South End Press.

[95]Piven, Francis Fox and Cloward, Richard. 1977. Poor People’s Movement: Why They Succeed, How they Fail. New York: Vintage, p. 264-362.

[96] Piven and Cloward, p. 273.

[97] Reisch, Michael and Andrews, Janice. 2002. The Road Not Taken: A History of Radical Social Work in the United States. New York: Brunner-Routledge, p. 144.

[98]Varon, Jeremy. 2004. Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, The Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies. Berkeley: University of California Press, p. 23. In Students for a Democratic Society president Paul Potter’s April 1965 address to the first national demonstration organized by SDS in Washington, DC, against the war in Vietnam, Potter named a system of oppression spreading from the American south to Vietnam.

[99] Reisch and Andrews, p. 145; Piven and Cloward, p. 273.

[100] Reisch and Andrews, p. 143-5; Piven and Cloward, p. 273.

[101] Piven and Cloward, p. 273-84.

[102] Piven and Cloward, p. 292.

[103] Reisch and Andrews, p. 143, 8-152.

[104] Reich and Andrews, p. 152.

[105] Traub, James. 2005. “Cut Out for the Job.” Review of The Prince of the City: Giuliani, New York and the Genius of American Life, by Fred Siegel. New York Times Book Review, July 10.

[106] Reisch and Andrews, p. 152.

[107] Abramowitz, Mimi. 2005. Review of Race and the Politics of Welfare Reform, by Sanford F. Schram, Joe Soss, and Richard C. Fording. Social Service Review, Vol. 79, No. 2, June: 382-87.

[108] Farah, Christopher. 2004. “AIDS: The Black Plague. Jacob Levenson talks about his new book, The Secret Epidemic, which reveals a truth America has refused to confront.”,3/10/2004.  Accessed April 2004.

[109] Cohen, Cathy. 1999. The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[110] Burr, Chandler. 1997. “The AIDS Exception: Privacy vs. Public Health.” Atlantic Monthly.

[111] Health Resources and Services Administration. 2003. Ryan White CARE Act Title I Manual, p. 3.

[112] Reference to “poor laws” involves the historic link between British social welfare policies--or “poor laws”--from which American approaches to social welfare policy were derived. For a discussion of the link between these approaches see Trattner, Walter I. 1995. From Poor Law To Welfare State, 5th ed. New York: The Free Press. For a discussion of the link between moralism and social welfare policy, see Handler, Joel and Hasenfeld, Yeheskel. 1991. The Moral Construction of Poverty. London: Sage. For an updated view of the approach referred to in this essay, see Platt, Tony. 2003. “The State of U.S. Welfare: Regressive and Punitive.” The Monthly Review, Vol.55, No. 5, October 13-27.

[113] “Keith Cylar, AIDS Activist and Co-Founder of Housing Works, Dead at 45.” HIV Dent Public Policy.News Updates, Accessed April 20, 2004.

[114] “Housing Works, Shelter Kills!An Oral History of Housing Works According to Keith Cylar and Charles King.” Edited by Benjmain Shepard. Unpublished manuscript.

[115] For a brief review of the community economic development movement and some of the ideas which influenced the social entrepreneurial spirit of Housing Works, see Grzywinski, Ronald. 1991.“New Old-Fashioned Banking.” Harvard Business Review, May 1. Further, see Stoecker, Randy. 1996. “The Community Development Corporation Model of Urban Redevelopment: A Political Economy Critique and an Alternative.” Accessed July 9, 2005. For a review of conflicts between community organizing and community economic development movements, see Stoecker, Randy. 2002. “Community Development and Community Organizing: Apples and Oranges? Chicken and Egg?”in From ACT UP to the WTO: Urban Protest and Community Building in the Era of Globalization, edited byBenjamin Shepard and Ron Hayduk. New York: Verso Press.

[116] Housing Works. “About Us.” Accessed July 16, 2005.

[117] Shepard, Benjamin. 2002. “Building a Healing Community from ACT UP to Housing Works: An Interview with Keith Cylar by Benjamin Shepard,” in From ACT UP to the WTO: Urban Protest and Community Building in the Era of Globalization, edited byBenjamin Shepard and Ron Hayduk. New York: Verso Press.

[118] McCarthy, J. and Zald, M.N. 1973. The Trend of Social Movements in America: Professionalization and Resource Mobilization.Morristown, NJ: General Learning, p. 28; Moore, Kelly and Young, Michael P. 2002. “Organizing and Organization in the New Sociology of Social Movements” Unpublished report.

[119] Here I refer to the term “queer” as both an abbreviation for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) communities as well as a more expansive or universalizing discourse involving not only GLBT communities, but all communities who, as Douglas Crimp notes, have become a little queerer by their experience of the stigma related to AIDS. For a discussion of broad definitions of queer as resistance to social, economic, and cultural regimes of the normal, see Warner, Michael. 1993. “Introduction,” and Crimp, Douglas. 1993. “Right on Girlfriend,” in Fear of a Queer Planet, edited by Michael Warner. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. For a discussion of minoritizing/universalizing views of homo/heterosexual identity, see Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 1990. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[120] Armstrong, Elizabeth. 2002. Forging Gay Identities: Organizing Sexuality in San Francisco, 1950-1994. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 5-7.

[121] Piven and Cloward, p. xxi; Moore and Young, 2002.

[122] Piven and Cloward, p. xxi.

[123] A brief review of Housing Works’ legal successes against retaliatory funders includes the following wins: Associated Press. 1999. “Judge: NYC Punished AIDS Service.” November 13; Dwyer, Jim. 2005. “City to Pay AIDS Group in Settlement… Housing Works joined a march in 1994 to protest possible funding cuts for AIDS patients. The group said it was punished for criticizing the mayor.” New York Times, May 27. Accessed 27 May, 2005. Housing Works. May 27, “Victory at Last! New York City to pay Housing Works nearly $5 million to settle Giuliani-era free speech claims. Accessed July 11, 2005.

[124] Moore and Young, p.

[125] Reeser, Linda and Epstein, Irwin. 1990. Professionalization and Activism in Social Work. New York: ColumbiaUniversity Press.

[126] For a review of the use of life course analysis to assess organizational change, see Bess, Gary. 1998. “A First Stage Organization Life Cycle Study of Six Emerging Nonprofit Organizations in Los Angeles.” Administration in Social Work, Vol. 22, No. 4, 1998; Koroloff, Nancy M. and Briggs, Harold E. 1996. “The Life Cycle of Family Advocacy Organizations,” Administration in Social Work, Vol. 20, No. 4, 1996. For a review of the case study method, see Yin, Robert K. 1994. Case Study Research: Design and Methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

[127] Rofes, Eric. 2003. Correspondence with the author. November 17.

[128] Highleyman, Liz. 2005.  Correspondence with the author, July 16.  For a review of these tensions, see Siplon, Patricia. 2002. AIDS and the Policy Struggle in the United States. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press

[129]For a recent treatment of this trend see Thomas Shevory. 2004. Notorious H.I.V.  The Media Spectacle of Nushawn Williams.  Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. 

[130] For an overview of HIV related sex panics and the politics of these episodes see Shepard, Benjamin. 2002. Queer theory and its continuing significance.  Radical Society. Shepard, Benjamin.  2002.  “Culture Jamming a SexPanicin From ACT UP to the WTO: Urban Protest and CommunityBuilding in the Era of Globalization.

[131] Highleyman, Liz. 2005.  Correspondence with the author, July 16. 

[132] For a  substantive discussion about the link between African American sexuality and punitive approaches to public health again see Thomas Shevory. 2004. Notorious H.I.V

[133] Highleyman, Liz. 2005.  Correspondence with the author, July 16. 

[134] Rofes. 2003. Correspondence with the author.

[135] Hyde, Cheryl. 1992. “The Ideational System of Social Movement Agencies: An Examination of Feminist Health Centers,” in Human Services as Complex Organizations, edited by Yeheskel Hasenfeld. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, p.122-125.

[136] Highleyman, Liz. 2005.  Correspondence with the author, July 16.  For a review of the early struggles to fight off HIV quarantines, mandatory testing, and the like, see Crimp, Douglas, and Rolson, Adam. 1991. AIDS Demographics. Seattle: Bay Press.

[137] Shepard, Benjamin. 2002. “Community as a Source for Democratic Politics,” in Making Democracy Work: Reforming the American Political System for the 21st Century. New York:Roman and Littlefield, p.109-20.

[138] Siplon, Patricia. 2002. AIDS and the Policy Struggle in the United States. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, p. 25.

[139] As Liz Highleyman notes, “At the time, no one had any idea what would work. They tested new drugs against placebos or nothing because they didn’t have any known good standard of care. The azt trial being stopped in six months is fast as these things go – takes that long just to get the data collated and analyzed enough to see a trend. Certainly the pre-act up clinical trial system was slow & plodding, but I don’t know that it was abusive (in, say, a tuskeegee or nazi-like fashion). Unfortunately, pouring money & political attention into research doesn’t necessarily quickly translate into medical breakthroughs – you won’t get breakthroughs without it, but money doesn’t guarantee you’ll get them either.”  Highleyman, Liz. 2005.  Correspondence with the author, July 16.   

[140] Highleyman, Liz. 2005.  Correspondence with the author, July 16.   

[141] Fisher, John, et al. 1998. A Short History of Discrimination against Gay Men and Lesbians. Gay and Lesbian Issues and HIV/AIDS: Final Report. Montreal: Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and Canadian AIDS Society.  Accessed November 21, 2003.

[142] For a review of ACT UP's early work, see Crimp, Douglas, and Rolson, Adam. 1991. AIDS Demographics. Seattle: Bay Press.

[143] Shepard, Benjamin. 1997. White Nights and Ascending Shadows: An Oral History of the San Francisco AIDS Epidemic  London: Cassell Press.

[144] Shepard, Benjamin. 2002. “The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power: A Brief Reconsideration,” in Left Political Movements Today and Tomorrow, edited by JohnBerg. New York: Roman and Littlefield.

[145] For an outline of the clinical applications of this approach, see Denning, Patt. 2000. Practicing Harm Reduction Psychotherapy: An Alternative Approach to Addictions. New York: Guilford Press.

[146] See Buckley, William. 1988. “Identify All the Carriers.” New York Times, March 18: A27.

[147] Hilts, Philip. 1990. “$2.9 Billion Bill for AIDS Relief Gains in Senate.” New York Times. May 16: A1, 24. See also Shepard, White Nights, p.154-159.

[148] HUD Office of HIV/AIDS Housing. Housing Opportunities for People with AIDS (HOPWA). Accessed October 10, 2003.

[149] Morgan, Gareth. 1997. Images of Organization. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, p.406. Morgan notes that the links between critical theory and the study of organizations must address how ideology, information, accounting, and other organizational practices inform control of organizations.

[150] Handler, Joel and Hasenfeld, Yeheskel. 1991. The Moral Construction of Poverty. London: Sage, p. 8.

[151] Shepard, Benjamin. 1997. Organizational Changes in the Era of Protease Inhibitors. A Donor’s Forum Report. Chicago. Unpublished report.

[152] This pattern is clearly outlined in Moynihan, Daniel P. 1971. Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding: Community Action in the War on Poverty. New York: The Free Press.

[153] Crenson, Matthew A. and Ginsberg, Benjamin. 2002. Downsizing Democracy: How America Sidelined Its Citizens and Privatized Its Public. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

[154] Aronowitz, Stanley. 1996. The Death and Rebirth of American Radicalism. New York: Routledge, p.134.

[155] Nagai, Althea K., Lerner, Robert, and Rothman, Stanley. 1994. Giving for Social Change: Foundations, Public Policy, and the American Political Agenda. Westport, CT: Praeger, p. 29

[156] See Meyers, John and Rowan, Brian. 1977. “Institutionalized Organizations: Formal Structure as Myth and Ceremony,” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 83, No. 2, 1997: 240-63.

[157] McCarthy and Zald, p.18.

[158] Moynihan, p. 24.

[159] McCarthy and Zald, p. 17.

[160] Crimp and Rolson, p. 26

[161] Alinsky, Saul. 1971. Rules for Radicals. New York: Vintage Books, p.142. Alinski had assisted The Woodlawn Organization, a Chicago community group which had successfully fought the University of Chicago's encroachment into the surrounding neighborhood. Like GMHC and countless other community groups, TWO had taken on 501c3 status as a non-profit organization once it achieved a certain level of success through direct action. 501c3 status regulated the group's future advocacy work. For two excellent summaries of the difficulties the group faced and the backlash it received once it betrayed its mission, see Fish, J.H. 1973. Black Power/White Control: The Struggle of the The Woodlawn Organization in Chicago. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; Castells, Manuel. 1983. The City and the Grass Roots: A Cross Cultural Theory of Urban Social Movements. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[162] Aronowitz, p.141.

[163] Springer, Edith. 1991. "Effective AIDS Prevention with Active Drug Users: The Harm Reduction Approach," in Counseling Chemically Dependent People with HIV Illness, edited by Michael Shernoff. Binghamton, NY: Harrington Park Press, p. 149.

[164] See Epstein, Steven. 1996. Impure Science: AIDS, Activism, and the Politics of Knowledge. Berkeley: University of California Press, p. 290,94; Hardy, Robin. 1991. “Die Harder: AIDS Activism is Abandoning Gay Men.” Village Voice, July :33-34; Minkowitz, Donna. 1990. “ACT UP at a Crossroads.” Village Voice, June:19-20; Nealon, Chris. 1991. “ACT UP Splits Up.” Gay Community News, March 18-24:1, 6; Pepper, Rachel. 1990. “Schism Slices ACT UP in Two.” Outweek, October 10:12-14; Levy, Dan. 1991. “Queer Nation in S.F. Suspends Activities.” San Francisco Chronicle, December 27.

[165] Alder et al. 1993. “Socioeconomic Inequalities in Health: No Easy Solution.” Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 269, No. 24, June 23-30; Heclo, Hugh. 1995. "The Social Question," in Poverty, Inequality and The Future of Social Policy, edited by Katerine McFate, Roger Lawson, and William Julius WilsonNew York: Russell Sage Foundation; Moore,et al. 1994. “Racial Differences in the Use of Drug Therapy for HIV Disease in an Urban Community.” The New England Journal of Medicine, Vol. 330, No. 11, March 17; Wilson, William Junius. 1987. The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Witkin, Stanley L. 1998. “Chronicity and Invisibility.” Social Work, Vol. 43, No. 4, July: 293-5.

[166] Oral History with Eric Sawyer. ACT UP Oral History Project. Interviewed by Sarah Schulman. March 10, 2004, p. 15, 32.  Accessed July 11, 2005.

[167] Shepard, “Interview with Keith Cylar.”

[168] Aronowitz, p.138-9.

[169]Shepard, Benjamin. 2005. "A Campaign to End AIDS Once and for All"   Monthly Review Zine. (Accessed 22 October, 2005).

[170] Shepard, Interview with Eric Sawyer October 15, 2005.

[171] Kate Fraser. E-mail correspondence with the author, December 18, 2002

[172] Amateau, Albert. 2002. Queer Youth Protest, Celebrate, FIERCE Caps a Day of Protest with a West Village Street Fair. GayCity News. Vol. 1, Issue 20, November 17.

[173]Klein, Naomi. 2002. Fences and Windows: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Globalization Debate. Picador: New York.

[174] Ibid.

[175]The theme of fences has become a central symbol for the Global Justice Movement.  “For struggling for a better world, all of us are fenced in, threatened with death.  The fence is reproduced globally.  In every continent, every city, every countryside, every house.” These are the first words of We Are Everywhere.  They are placed starkly on top of full pages of photos of anonymous indigenous people with bandanas over their faces.  We Are Everywhere is a striking collage of short essays and photos.  Naomi Klein first outlined the theme of fences separating old world economies from fast paced neoliberal models in her 2002 work Fences and Windows.  For Klein, who wrote the forward to We Are Everywhere, the point remains that those protesting the current race to the bottom approach to corporate globalization are fenced off from the meetings and the policy tables where government and corporate sector actors meet to establish policies aimed privatizing everything from water to healthcare and welfare.  Thus the image of the fence. “Power’s fence of war closes in on the rebels, for whom humanity is always grateful,” the introduction continues, along side images of protestors struggling on countless fences.  “But fences are broken,” the collage continues, along side images of protestors separated from a line of riot police.  The next set of photos is of children, apparently the next generation, a group of boys sprinting after breaking through a fence onto an open horizon on a beach.  It’s a hopeful image of a possible future.  Yet, for now fences separate political actors from political participation; in this they function as a metaphor for restrictions on democracy.  Thus, the social, political, and physical fences – including the holding cells in Pier 57 in Manhattan during the RNC protests in 2004 and those surrounded the old city where the FTAA meetings were held in Quebec in 2001 - become targets of the movement.  In Movement of Movements, YaleUniversity anthropologist David Graeber explains:

At the FTAA summit in Quebec City last summer, invisible lines that had previously been treated as if they didn’t exist (at least for white people) were converted overnight into fortifications against the movement of would be global-citizens, demanding the right to petition their rulers.  The three kilometre ‘wall’constructed through the center of Quebec City, to shield the heads of state junketing inside became the perfect symbol for what neoliberalism actually means on human terms.  The spectacle of the Black Block, armed with wire cutters and grappling hooks, joined by everyone from Steelworkers to Mohawk warriers to tear down the wall, became – for that very reason – one of the most powerful moments in the movement’s history (from Mertes, 2003, 206-7). 

Excerpt from Shepard, B. (2004).Movement of Movement: Toward a Democratic Globalization: A Review Essay on the on the Global Justice Movement. New Political Science: A Journal of Politics and Culture. 26, 593-605.  Books reviewed.

Notes From Nowhere (eds.), We Are Everywhere: The Irresistible Rise of Global Anti-Capitalism, London andNew York: Verso, 2003, 521 pp.

Tom Mertes (ed.), The Movement of Movements: Is another world really possible?

London and New York: Verso, 2003, 288 pp.

David Solnit (ed.), Globalize Liberation:How to Uproot the System and Build a Better World, San Francisco: City Lights Press, 2004, 488 pp.

[176] “In New York City, for example, where I live, there has been a longstanding battle against private luxury development on publicly owned community gardens. The other night, several hundred people calling themselves the Subway Liberation Front staged a raucous outlaw party, taking over first an L and then an A train. A large part of the crowd, juiced by its own defiance, proceeded to the recently bulldozed Esperanza Garden on Manhattan's Lower East Side, where they tore down the developer's fence and began replanting the land. This impromptu action came at a high price: With no news cameras or legal observers to provide cover for the radical gardeners, the NYPD swooped in, badly beating a number of the participants,” from Kauffman, L.A. 2000. The New Unrest. The Free Radical #1. February.  Access 23 September 2003.

[177] See Goldberger, Paul. 2001. The Malling of Manhattan. As distinctions between city and suburb blur, a steep urban price is paid, as the public realm shrinks. Metropolis Magazine. March.

[178] Ferrell, Jeff. 2001. Tearing Down the Streets: Adventures in Urban Anarchy. New York: Palgrave/St. Martin’s Press.

[179]See Shepard, Benjamin. 2002. Liberatory Urbanism versus Control of Public Space: A Review of Jeff Ferrell, Tearing Down the Streets: Adventures in Urban Anarchy. Socialism and Democracy. July.

[180] Sanders, Barry. 1998. The Private Death of Public Discourse. Boston: Beacon. p.167.

[181] People become “aware of the sacred because it manifests itself, shows itself, as something wholly different from the profane,” (Eliade, 1957). A poem offers an example:

Flying high above the Hudson River

the tranquility tingly, crystal-like sensations

…Heaven’s Gates appear through big, fluffy clouds…

Emanuel Xavier, a poet “raised by the many houses of New York City’s legendary West Side piers,” wrote [THIS?] in “Pier Queen Radio Blues” in 1997. Eliade, Mercia. 1957. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. New York: Harvest Brace & Co. Xavier, Emanuel. 1997. Pier Queen. Pier Queen Productions: New York.

[182] Countless authors have written about the piers. David Wojnarowicz (1991) has come perhaps the closest of any writer to conjuring up the haunted loneliness of connection at the piers. In a later treatment of this work, Patrick Moore (2004) notes that Wojnarowicz “insisted there was a beauty to be found among the ruins of the West Village” (p.106). Charles Shively (1974/2001) specifically notes the “trucks” were a place where “a faggot will make it with someone he will not have to live with the next day.” Within such spaces, “occasionally the vision of luxury, even ecstasy of a mutual faggot sexuality can be found.” The only “decadence” involved in these spaces is if queers leave only to emulate the inequalities of the dominant culture. See Moore, Patrick. 2004. Beyond Shame: Reclaiming the Abandoned History of Radical Gay Sexuality. Boston: Beacon; Shively, Charley. 1974/2001. Indiscriminate Promiscuity as an Act of Revolution. In Come Out Fighting: A Century of Essential Writing on Gay & Lesbian Liberation, edited by Chris Bull. New York: Nation Books; Wojnarowicz, David. 1991. Close to the Knives. London: Serpent’s Tail.

[183] Sanders, 1998, p.167-8.

[184] McCracken, Grant. 1988. The Long Interview. Qualitative Research Methods, Vol. 13. Newbury Park, CA: Sage. Also see Patton, Michael. 2002. Qualitative Research & Evaluation Methods, 3rd edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, p.194.

[185] Patton, 2002, p. 47.

[186] Harstock, N. 1998. The Feminist Standpoint: Developing The Ground for a Specifically Feminist Historical Materialism. In The Feminist Standpoint Revisited and Other Essays. Boulder: Westview Press. Also see Warner, Michael. 2002. Publics and Counterpublics. New York: Zone Books.

[187] Becker, Howard. 1963. Outsiders : Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. New York: The Free Press.

[188] Shepard, Benjamin. 2002. Culture Jamming a SexPanic! In From ACT UP to the WTO: Urban Protest and Community Building in the Era of Globalization, edited byBenjamin Shepard and Ron Hayduk. New York: Verso Press. Also seeFerrell, 2001; Shepard, 2002.

[189] Warner, 2002, p. 31.

[190] Fine, Gary Allen. 1995. Public Narration and Group Culture: Discerning Discourse in Social Movements. In Social Movements and Culture, edited by Hank Johnson and Bert Klandermans. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. p. 127-44. Nepestad, Sharon Erickson. 2002. Creating Transnational Solidarity: The Use of Narrative in the US- Central America Peace Movement. In Globalization and Resistance: Transnational Dimensions of Social Movements, edited by Jackie Smith and Hank Johnston.Lantham, MD: Roman and Littlefield.

[191] Somers, Margaret. 1994. The Narrative Construction of Identity: A Relational and Network Approach. Theory and Society 23, p. 613-14.

[192] For activists, attacks on queer meeting spaces have historically been viewed as attacks on gay identity, spurring calls for liberation. From 1997 to 2003, a handful of activist groups--from SexPanic! to FIERCE--built on theses lessons and organized to protect New York’s public spaces, including the piers. During the 20th century, sexual outcasts have repeatedly fought turf wars over the waterfront beginning with the seamen’s strikes of the Depression, as the space became a convergence point for sexual commerce and leather communities through the 1970s. Berube, Allan. 1997. On the Gay Waterfront (slide show). A SexPanic! Event New York City Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center, September 5.

[193] See Somers, 1994.

[194] Shepard, Benjamin. 2001. Queer and Gay Assimilationists: The Suits vs. the Sluts. Monthly Review, May.

[195] Aqueno, Frank. 1996. Queer  Pier. November 30, 2002.

[196] Warehouse Newsletter, Vol. 1, No. 8, August 14, 1975, p.1 (no author).

[197] Farrell, 2001.

[198] C. Carr. 1993.  Portrait of an Artist in the Age of AIDS - David Wojnarowicz.  In C. Carr. On Edge: Performance at the End of the Twentieth Century.  Middletown, Ct.: Wesleyan University Press.  p. 294. See his 1991 Close to the Knives (London: Serpent’s Tail) for his most thoughtful musings on the space..

[199] Bey, Hakim. 1991. T.A.Z. The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism. Brooklyn, NY. Autonomedia.

[200] Desert, Jean-Ulrich. 1997. Queers Space. In Queers in Space: Communities, Public Spaces, Sites of Resistance, edited by Gordon Brent Ingram, Ann-Marie Bouthillette, and Yolanda Retter. Seattle: Bay Press.

[201] Dangerous Bedfellows [Ephan Glenn Colter, Wayne Hoffman, Eva Pendleton, Alison Redick, and David Serlin]. 1996. Policing Public Sex: Queer Politics and The Future of AIDS Activism. Boston, MA: South End Press. p.361.

[202] Goldstein, Richard. 2002. Street Hassle: New Skool Versus Old School in Greenwich Village. Village Voice, April 24-30.

[203] Nothing divides the private from the public more than the notion that the personal sphere is where intimacy appropriately takes place. For many, sex is the most intimate, and therefore the most private, act of all. Recent years have witnessed a new hypervigilance around public order, policing the divide between the public and the personal. For many, privacy is seen as an ideology of capital, heteronormativity, reproduction, family values, and privilege (Berlant and Warner,1999). The public is a place for conversations, for cross-class contact, and for community building (Delany, 1999). Personal lives are categorized according to proximity to public and private space. Social privilege within a “Charmed Circle of Good, Normal, Natural, Blessed Sexuality" is maintained by its position within private space. Stigma and deviance are replicated within "the Outer Limits" of "Bad, Unnatural, Damned Sexuality,” usually unfolding in public spaces. These practices include any number of queer, casual, commercial exchanges outside the home (Rubin, 1984, p. 110). Lines dividing these circles, and the hierarchies they represent, involve public/private battlegrounds (Warner, 1999, p. 25-6). Warner (2002, p. 29) contrasts these meanings:

  • Public                                                    

  • open to all                                            

  • accessible for a fee                             

  • state-related, public sector                

  • political                                                 

  • in physical view of others                 

  • outside the home  

  • Private

  • restricted

  • closed to even those who would pay

  • non-state, often described as private sector 

  • nonpolitical

  • concealed

  • domestic

Within current capital arrangements, those who can pay for private space and related freedoms, usually do; those unable to pay remain exposed to the elements and subject to the state’s whims within public space. Deviance tends to be conditioned and policed more among those with fewer resources to pay for private space and cover. Deviance among the poor is generally harder to disguise (Wagner, 1997, p. 5-6). See:

Berlant, Laura, and Michael Warner. 1999. Sex in Public. In The Cultural Studies Reader, edited by Simon During. 2nd edition. New York: Routledge; Delany, Samuel R. 1999. Times Square Red, Times SquareBblue. New York: New YorkUniversity Press; Rubin, Gayle. 1984. Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality. In Social Perspectives in Lesbian and Gay Studies; A Reader, edited by Peter M. Nardi and Beth E. Schneider. New York: Routledge; Wagner, D. 1997. The Universalization of Social Problems. Critical Sociology, Vol. 23, No. 1; Warner, Michael. 1999. The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life. New York: Free Press.

[204] Wockner. Rex. 1997. Sex-Lib Activists Confront 'Sex Panic'. Badpuppy Gay Today, November 17. Accessed July 11, 2003.

[205] Warner, 2002, p.18.

[206] “The bourgeois public sphere consists of private persons whose identity is formed in the privacy of the conjugal domestic family and who enter into rational-critical debate around matters common to all by bracketing their embodiment and status. Counterpublics of sexuality and gender, on the other hand, are scenes of association and identity that transform the private lives they mediate,” (Warner, 2002, p.57). Contained within this interplay are competing pressures between global capital and community building, market pressure and pluralistic democracy, private interest (isolation/ alienation) and public consciousness (interconnection/solidarity).


[208]Shepard, Benjamin. 2004.“Sylvia and Sylvia’s Children. In Thats Revolting: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation, edited by Matt Bernstein Sycamore. Brooklyn: Soft Skull Press, p. 97-112. 

[209]Nichols, Jack. 1997. Sex Panic! Marches Angrily Thru Manhattan Streets,Protests Giuliani Administration's Elimination of City's Cruising & Gay Social Zones; Veteran NYC Activists Randy Wicker & Sylvia Rivera React Differently to Issues. Badpuppy Gay Today, September 8.

[210] Nichols, 1997.

[211] Hagan, John., and Bill McCarthy. 1997. Mean Streets: Youth Crime and Homelessness. Cambridge, MA: CambridgeUniversity Press.

[212] Ibid, p. 159.

[213] Kruks, Gabe. 1991. Gay and Lesbian Homeless/Street Youth: Special Issues and Concerns. Journal of Adolescent Heath, 12, p. 515-18.

[214] Hawkneswood, William. 1996. One of the Children: Gay Black Men in Harlem.Berkeley: University of California Press, p.22.

[215] Warehouse Newsletter,  Vol. 1, No. 8, August 14, 1975, p.1 (no author).

[216] “There is plenty of cock and ass around without having to go there at nite. There are a few bars around that have fuck rooms in them. If you much participate in this type of games, go there----at least the most that could happen is you get the clap.” Warehouse Newsletter, Vol. 1, No. 6, July 31, 1975, p. 2 (no author). This statement was written years before the onset of HIV/AIDS.

[217] Warehouse Newsletter, Vol. 1, No. 8, August 14, 1975, p.1 (no author).

[218] Warehouse Newsletter, Vol. 1, No. 6, July 31, 1975, p.1 (no author).

[219] Bey, 1991.

[220] See HRPT. 2002.  Accessed January 15, 2003.

[221] Burr, Thomas. 1998. Sleazy City: 42nd Street Structures and Some Qualities of Life. October  85 (Summer). See also see Dangerous Bedfellows, 1996, p. 45-52.

[222] Harcourt, Bernard. (2001). Illusion of Order: The False Promise of Broken Windows Policing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[223] For an elaboration on this point, see Crimp, Melancholia and Moralism, p.43-81;Dangerous Bedfellows, 1996, p. 398.

[224] Thompson, Kenneth. 1998. Moral Panics: Key Ideas. New York: Routledge.

[225] Others writers concur with this point. See Crimp, 2002, p.15; Dangerous Bedfellows, 1996, p.13-21.

[226] The author would like to thank Kate Crane, Michael Fabricant, Kerwin Kaye, and Bob Kohler for their close readings and suggestions for this essay. Further, the author would like to thank Barton Benes for access to his records and photos of the piers.  One of the interviewees told their stories in some of the final days of their lives.  Another suffered a major stroke and has been hospitalized since then.  A final two were sent back to jail. 

[227]Fabricant, Michael. 1990. Commitment, Perseverance, and Social Innovation: The Sheltering Movement. In Serious Play: Creativity and Innovation in Social Work, edited by Harold Weissman. Silver Spring, MD: NASW Press. p. 235-243; Stedile, Joao Pedro. 2004. Brazil’s Landless Battalions. In A Movement of Movements: Is Another World Really Possible? Edited byTom Mertes.New York: Verso, p. 17-48; Van Kleunen, Andrew. 1994. The Squatters: A Chorus of Voices… But is Anyone Listening? In From Urban Village to East Village: the Battle for New York’s Lower East Side, edited by Janet Abu-Lughod. Oxford: Blackwell, p. 285-312.

[228] Shepard, Interview with Keith Cylar.

[229] Piven and Cloward, p. 264-362.

[230]  For a long narrative from two other organizers of this action see Kaplan, Ester. 2002.  This City is Ours.From Shepard, Benjamin and Hayduk, Ron. Eds. From ACT UP to the WTO: Urban Protest and Community Building in the Era of Globalization.  New York: Verso. 

[231] Beauregard, Robert A. 2002. Voices of Decline: The Postwar Fate of U.S. Cities. Routledge: New York. 

[232]Goldberger, Paul. 2001.  The Malling of Manhattan: As distinctions between city and suburb blur, a steep price is paid, as the public realm shrinks.  Metropolis Magazine (March).

[233] Lebebre, Henri. 1974/84. The Production of Space. Translated by Donald Nicholas Smith. Blackwell Publishing: Boston MA. P. 39.  Also Merifield, Andy. 2002.Metromarxiam: A Marxist Tale of the City. Routledge: New York. p. 90-1.

[234] Lefebvre, 1974/84:39.

[235] Zukin, Sharon. 2004. Point of Purchase: How Shopping Changed American Culture.  Routledge: New York City. p. 254-68.

[236] Logan, John. R. and Molotch, Harvey L. 1987. Urban Fortunes: The Political Economy of Place. University of California Press: BerkeleyCA.

[237] Lefebvre, 1974/84:42; Merrifield, 2002: 90. 

[238] Mele, Christopher. 2000. Selling the Lower East Side: Culture, Real Estate, and Resistance in New York City.MinnesotaUniversity Press: Minneapolis. p.302. 

[239]  Abu-Lughod, Janet (editor). 1994. From Urban Village to EastVillage: the Battle for New York’s Lower East Side. Oxford, UK: Blackwell. Also Sites, William. 2003Remaking New York: Primitive Globalization and the Politics of  Urban Community University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, MN.

[240] Hynes, Patricia H. 1996. A Patch of Eden: America’s Inner-City Gardens. Chelsea Green Publishing Company: White River Junction, Vermont.

[241]Ferguson, Sara. 1999. The Death of Little Puerto Rico. in Avant Gardening: Ecological Struggle in the City and the World. Eds. Peter Lamborn Wilson & Bill Weinberg.  Autonomedia: Brooklyn NY. Also Ferguson, Sara. 1999A. A Brief History of Grass Roots Gardening on the Lower East Side in Avant Gardening.

[242] Mikalbrown, Kerstin. 2002. Saving Esperanza Garden: The struggle over community gardens in New York City. In From ACT UP to the WTO: Urban Protest And Community-Building in the Era of Globalization Edited by Benjamin Shepard and Ronald Hayduk. Verso: New York. Also Will, Brad.  2003. Cultivating Hope: the Community Gardens in New York City. We Are Everywhere: the irresistible rise of global anticapitalism. Ed. By Notes from Nowhere. Verso: New York.

[243] Paper Tiger TV. 2001. Playing for Keeps: the Battle for Esperanza Community   Garden.

[244]Shepard, Benjamin. 2002. Community as a Source for Democratic Politics. In Hayduk and Mattson.  Democracy’s Moment.  Roman and Littlefield: New York.

[245] More Gardens. Undated. Lettuce bee leave ing in Peas. Accessed May 24, 2004.

[246]  More Gardens, Undated

[247]  Earth Celebrations. 2004. Earth Celebrations 14th Annual Rites of Spring Procession to Save Our Gardens.  May 22. Procession Flyer.  Also see MoreGardens, Undated. 

[248] Spitzer, Elliot. 2002. Memorandum of Agreement between Attorney General and Community Gardenners. (Accessed May 23, 2004).

Spitzer, Elliot. 2002A. Summary of CommunityGardens Agreement.

[249] Lefebvre, 1974/84:42; Merrifield, 2002: 90

[250] Merrifield, 2002:91

[251]See Shepard, 2002

About the Author

Benjamin Shepard, PhD, is the author/editor of two books: White Nights and Ascending Shadows: An Oral History of the San Francisco AIDS Epidemic (Cassell, 1997) and From ACT UP to the WTO: Urban Protest and Community Building in the Era of Globalization (Verso, 2002). Further my writing has appeared in anthologies including, The Encyclopedia of Social Movements (Sharpe, 2004), That's Revolting: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation (Soft Skull Press, 2004) Democracy's Moment: Renewing Democracy for the 21st Century and Teamsters and Turtles: Leftist Movements Today and Tomorrow (both 2002, Roman and Littlefield), and journals including: Radical Society, Lambda Book Review, Monthly Review, Sexualities, the Journal of Progressive Human Services, Antioch Review, Monthly Review, and Drain among others. He got my start writing for the Bay Area Reporter in the early 1990s'.

He has done organizing work with the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), SexPanic!, Reclaim the Streets New York, Times UP, the Clandestine Rebel Clown Army, the Absurd Response Team, CitiWide Harm Reduction, Housing Works, the More Gardens Coalition, and the Times UP Bike Lane Liberation Front and Garden Working Groups.

He is completed a dissertation on play in social movements at the Graduated Center of the City College of New York. He has accepted an appointment as assistant professor of social work at Cal State Long Beach.

He welcomes ideas and feedback on this report. He can be reached at