Image: Pencil and ink sketch by the article author of a NYC bedroom referencing the original photo of Patricia O’Grady’s room.
(* This essay is the second in the series ‘Precarious Lives’ presented by the author. It was written the month before the COVID-19 pandemic hit New York City. A follow-up reflection on the questions and ideas raised by the author here is in development. Passages in this essay marked with ** are points that will be reconsidered in a future essay.)
New York City was one of the few places in the world where I experienced loneliness for the first time.
– bell hooks, Belonging: A Culture of Place (2009, 24).
In May of 2018, Patricia O’Grady was killed by a car and, in the wake of her death, it was discovered that she may have had the cheapest rent-controlled apartment in Greenwich Village. She had been paying only $28 and change a month for her cold–water flat.
She also had an IMDb page. She had moved to NYC from California in 1955 and had worked mostly as an off-Broadway actress. Hers is a classic story of why one might try to make NYC her home. After she died, her two-bedroom apartment became a $5000 per month rental.**
There is an absurdity in the way we have come to determine the worth of O’Grady’s home. So, I think it may be worth challenging what the value of home itself ought to be.
It may be worth a discussion about how we come to the price per square foot or even question the cost of land and what is expended by our land use because often progress is the same as the interest of big corporate development. Ecofeminists have done much to challenge how ‘expense’ is calculated, especially in the name of global capital accumulation. From Vandana Shiva, activist and author of many books including Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development (Zed Books, 1989), writing for The Guardian, “When every aspect of life is commercialised and commoditised, living becomes more costly, and people become poorer.”
Thinking of NYC as rich with landmark value, homes and buildings can become ‘historic’ and therefore claim value through preservation rights and the cost is that we maintain their value without further ‘lived’ occupancy. We memorialize these spaces, yet this is exactly how NYC is also a ghost story of erasure. Again, we need to reassess the stories we tell ourselves about the land and place we adopt as home, disorient what is assumed to be the ‘value’ of living in NYC, especially as it may often confuse what is privilege and what is right.**
In this way, I would like to suggest that Manhattan Island cannot rightly be ‘home’ to anyone. And for those who could afford to rent or own in Manhattan, they usually have many other places to call ‘home’; as a place predominantly occupied by those ‘from elsewhere,’ there is no longer indigeneity for New York City proper. Through the critical lens of settler colonialism, it is a built, living environment so contrived through a history of exploitation and violence through capital that it can never be treated as neutral fact in the present tense.
Therefore, it is worth a turn toward the question of how one can claim home if that home is not sustainable, life-affirming, and a place of comfort and return.**
A thin reading of the case of O’Grady gives us a story of a white, elderly woman frugal and invisible enough to keep her rent controlled apartment as long and as cheaply as she did. A thick reading needs context by which it is a caricature of what it is to live in NYC and understood as such. Therefore, I would like to set her into a frame by which we can understand competing narratives of home and survival when it comes to finding and keeping stable, safe housing in NYC. As much as Manhattan is the epicenter when one calls NYC ‘home,’ so few get to actually claim home-ownership Manhattan Island proper as such; the outer boroughs, the suburbs, even those who live in the larger ‘tri-state area’ (which includes New Jersey and Connecticut), we revolve around its geography like Maypole dancers.
Samuel Stein writing for Metropolitics in 2015, describes the feedback loop when it comes to public policy, market accumulation, and gentrification:
Feedback loops are flows of information or energy that reinforce each other, creating an escalating circuit of cause and effect that amplifies each side of the equation. In this case, labor precarity causes mobility; public policy translates mobility into rent increases; rent increases and frequent vacancies cause …an elevated cost of living; an elevated cost of living limits the power of workers’ paychecks; weaker paychecks lead workers to take on additional jobs; juggling jobs increases precarity; and the cycle continues.
Economic precarity begets political precarity. Political precarity is when one is eroded to an alienated individuality, not as a member of a care community; this is the dismembering mechanism of an ableist society. New York style capitalism – crony capitalism, wolves and bulls of wall street, commodity fetishism as its own economic drive – thrives on tightly compact economic class hierarchy. Who rents, who owns, who may enter or not enter which door or which building, who ‘ubers’ and who takes the subway is a geography of place highly choreographed by the free hand of the market. It is ageist, racist, heteronormative, xenophobic and far, far away from the imagined cosmopolitanism of a 21st century urban technometropolis.**
Here I am suggesting a turn in the reading of the magical quality of this $28 per month rent-controlled apartment into a critical reading of whiteness and class, starting with the work of critical geography in the way that critical geography can “illustrate that landscapes do not merely reflect racial patterns, but are a fundamental component of processes of racialization” (Bonds & Inwood 2015). There is much work to be done in reassessing a complex problem like rent pricing in Manhattan, not just as an issue to ‘fix,’ but to radicalize the problem with a more complex tool of assessment. Bonds & Inwood continue:
The analytic frame of white supremacy connects the discursive construction of race to the structural, material, and corporeal production of white racial hegemony. This locates whiteness more broadly than a collection of unearned privileges and reveals the way white privilege is part of a broader white supremacist, settler socio-spatial dialectic.
This assessment is thoroughgoing and not moderate in its approach. It is meant as a provocation like the one issued by the Anti–Eviction Mapping Project (from 2017) about the relationship between white supremacy and its code:
First and foremost we need to point out that Trump is not an anomaly. … This is a tendency that has always had power in the US political sphere and indeed has been a core part of the neoliberal agenda that has characterized the Democratic administrations of both Clinton and Obama … In this sense Trump’s white supremacist stances represent a continuation and deepening of trends … that include increased forms of racialized displacement, police violence against communities of color, and neoliberal urban policies that criminalize the poor. Thus, … we suggest that the very fact that Trump and his family have acquired capital through real estate investments is not an exception but is in fact integral to understanding the ideology that connects private property, white nationalism, and violent social policies together.
The authors of the Mapping Project go on to demonstrate how subsidized, urban housing is opportunity in the free market to forfeit basic rights and obligations to the most precarious in the city. Along with housing insecurity and the mechanisms of eviction, complicated by additional factors like the criminalization of black and brown communities, low income housing is infrastructure closer to a model of warehousing than a site of sustained rootedness and homeplace; it is on these latter two concepts that I would like to offer further thought.
“Many folks feel no sense of place” (hooks 2009, 1).
In this reframing of operative political and economic precarity, I would like to suggest that the foundational framework of NYC infrastructure has been a long-term investment in settler colonialism, which brings predominantly invisible and intergenerational harms to both landscape and peoples. While colonialism – its material and ideological history – is built into the fabric of the infrastructure of NYC, settler colonialism is sedimented into the socio-cultural infrastructure built out of white European oppression, violence and exploitation, yet operates as if politically neutral, erasing any trace of continued oppression, violence, and exploitation. This is also why any critique that addresses settler colonialism must also unpack the invisible operations of white supremacy.
Lorenzo Veracini, in the Introduction to Settler Colonial Studies (2011) states that:
Settler colonialism … covers its tracks and operates towards its self-supersession …whereas colonialism reinforces the distinction between colony and metropole, settler colonialism erases it. … Colonialism reproduces itself, and the freedom and equality of the colonized is forever postponed; settler colonialism, by contrast, extinguishes itself. Settler colonialism justifies its operation on the basis of the expectation of its future demise.
Settler colonialism does not carry the same visual and affective trappings of an oppressive colonized state; , such that the issue of rent looks like a natural, common-sense problem of trying to live in a big urban center like New York City. Worse, even when reforms are in place, the fundamental structures of the problem have not changed but address the issue only topically and as mostly a remedy for the optics of homelessness.**
The radical question I pose here: what will be enough to provide protection from the city’s most precarious?** The uprooting quality of housing and how it is a corrosive to one’s quality of life, destabilizing protections from the precariousness of life, remains the force of the ethical concerns I raise here.
With a critical view of the mechanisms of settler colonialism, as Kyle Powys Whyte also then argues in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Race that:
One should not underestimate the physicality and scale of the US settler homeland creation process. … [The] homeland process involves the creation or adaptation of stories, customs, histories, and so on, that justify settlers’ own desires to have the right to live there and to make their occupation an inevitable part of their heritage and future trajectory.
The “industrial” aspect of this process has involved and continues to involve the ways that capitalism and other economic forms exploit natural and human resources as part of the support-system for settler homeland inscription, maintenance, and development. (2017, 96)
The assumption that homelessness is a ‘natural’ fact of living in a big city is actually a product of the industrial aspect of US settler homeland creation as described here. Homelessness in this context might get addressed but in ways that instead further dehumanize, from hostile architecture to the new requirements attached to shelter housing. In settler colonialism, homelessness is a problem for the homeless or near homeless, not symptomatic of a dehumanizing built environment and exploitive political economy with the message: if you can’t afford to live here, then you should leave.
Yet, according to the Coalition for the Homeless, “In recent years, homelessness in New York City has reached the highest levels since the Great Depression of the 1930s.” What ought to be more compelling as to the depth of the problem and our obligations to those made most precarious by our politics and policies, is that many in this population are working New Yorkers.
So I suggest here that homelessness and housing insecurity is a non–natural fact and a construct of setter colonialism. Understood as a non-natural fact, homelessness in urban centers is a product of the built environment as a neoliberal, ableist infrastructure in favor of vacuous development and the normalization of hegemonic control over populations; simply stated, for the most precarious, there is a constant threat of possible homelessness. I would argue that a common misperception as a corollary to the incorrect assumption that homelessness is a ‘natural’ fact, is also that people who are homeless have ‘chosen’ to be so.**
While safe haven models of housing, meant to address the more complex situations that lead to persistent homelessness, are considered ‘arduous,’ they can be effective in reducing the homeless population. From The New York Times: “Other factors contributed to the increase, from high rents to a jump in both the number of patients discharged from mental health facilities and inmates released from jail and prison.”
Further, these ‘other factors’ include the poverty of community care infrastructure. Only with a new initiative by NYC’s Mayor is there a creative alternative to the increased homelessness: “After Feb. 14, City Hall will match shelter residents to affordable units that go unclaimed in the Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s lottery, …. The city will pick up the tab — an estimated $2.5 to $3 million in rent annually — for approximately 200 units, many of them in luxe, highly desirable buildings.” Those eligible must also not have mental health or substance abuse histories to qualify.** Some policies have requirements for housing that are not sustainable for people who have experienced homelessness. Still, the local initiatives, without the support of the Federal Government, including withholding necessary subsidies for Section 8 housing, despite the Mayor’s direct appeals, can only go so far. The Mayor’s plan to end street homelessness is here.
The politics of homelessness makes permissible a rhetoric of ‘reluctant reduction,’ as if it is enough to just make homelessness less so by taking on some kinds of homelessness like ‘street’ (read: visible) homelessness or only when the ‘increase’ in homelessness becomes unconscionable.
The ethical demand I make here requires dealing with the phenomenon of white supremacy and settler colonialism as it contributes, further burdens and further compounds already established and inherited socio-economic precarities. Again, as maypole dancers, we continue to dance around the problem of housing insecurity as if a natural and inevitable condition of the built environment of NYC, but unlike dancers, this aesthetic is not fruitful and celebratory, rather, it elicits sustained and accelerated harms to those who might take root in – not merely survive – the landscape.
Defined here politically, ‘Home’ is a place to rest as well as resist, suspending the many neoliberal and middle-class fantasies about what ‘makes a house a home.’ Returning again to hooks’ rich insights, she offers an important and politically charged definition of ‘homeplace’ in Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics (1990):
Despite the brutal reality of racial apartheid, of domination, one’s homeplace was the one site where one could freely confront the issue of humanization, where one could resist. … [It] was about the construction of a safe place where black people could affirm one another and by so doing heal many of the wounds inflicted by racist domination. We could not learn to love or respect ourselves in the culture of white supremacy … [this] task of making a home a community of resistance, has been shared by black women globally, especially black women in white supremacist societies.
As NYC is only accessible according to conditions of compulsory ablebodiness and ablenormativity and the pre-requisite to having a home here is that one is expected to keep up in a city ‘that never sleeps.’ Crip Theory (see here and here) challenges these expectations of value when it comes to living and finding a home, despite the fact that the need to sleep is prohibitively ‘expensive’ in an ableist society. As Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha in Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice (2018) describes it, “Capitalism says that disabled, tired bodies that spend too much time in bed are useless. Anyone who cannot labor to create wealth for owners is useless … crips are useless to capitalism” (181-82). This is the crip-queerantagonism that makes Manhattan no longer a tenable place for a diverse aesthetics of living.**
At the same time, a place to return and securely sleep is distributed as if based on a meritocracy. Sometimes home is not home when it cannot be a site of rest and resistance; rather it becomes a site of further abuse and exhaustion. As Piepzna-Samarasinha testifies:
Everyone I knew was doing the exact same rate of work, to survive being low income, queer, Black or brown, and sick and disabled in a skyrocketing gentrification economy. (220)
There was a lot we weren’t supposed to speak about outside the home, there were a lot of secrets, and there was a lot of fear of The World. … During those years when I was very sick, … very poor … I almost died from the isolation. I did not have social capital. … I believed that if I proved myself to be indispensable, to be useful, I would not be thrown away, I would have a place, I would be useful and thus loved, or something like loved …
No one told me. … It is okay and good to build relationships where you are loved and not just for your labor. … You are a renewable and also limited resource. You deserve to be held. (222-224)
There was more. I wanted to interrupt the cycles of abuse and intergenerational violence in my family. … To know pleasure, not martyrdom … to know freedom, joy, and liberation. … These are powerful, fierce survivor freedom dreams. (231).
Finally, what of O’Grady and her ‘spinster-ism’? This assumed tragic trope of the old woman living (and dying) alone in NYC? In this series of articles, I want to defend what makes a life a ‘grievable life’ despite the disproportionality of distributed precarity. In NYC, some lives are rendered more valuable than others because there is usurpation of protection from precariousness by the privileged from those considered less valuable, or worse, disposable.** The ideals of living are not suggestive, they have become a form of governmentality. As discussed in Teen Vogue as to “Why Heteronormativity is a Bad Thing” (2016):
The National Coalition for the Homeless reports that while 10% of the youth population in the U.S. are LGBTQ (and this is only the reported figure), 20% of homeless youth in the U.S. are LGBTQ. And the Trevor Project puts that figure closer to 40%.
Family rejection and discrimination, caused by cultural views that anything not straight or cisgender is abnormal or even dangerous, are huge factors. … And even then, not all homeless shelters are exactly havens of acceptance — it’s not just on the literal streets where youths can encounter discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
In this way, where one lives and how one lives may continue to be a site of sustained harm if not also abuse. Without a place of resistance and refuge, one bears the burden of homesickness through persistent uprooting.
From Shelley Tremain in her Introduction to Foucault and the Government of Disability (2015, 4):
For Foucault, the question that political philosophy should ask about power is this: How, that is, by what means, is it exercised? … (Tremain 2001; 2002).
When O’Grady’s landlord went into the apartment in 2005 and saw that there was no heating system and a pull-chain toilet, according to a report in Forbes, “he offered to paint and update the apartment, to which O’Grady politely declined. ‘It’s clear she preferred to be left alone. Since she was a nice tenant who had always paid her rent on time, I decided to respect her wishes’.” She was reported to later state: “I’m not worthy of these repairs and these improvements. I don’t pay enough in rent to warrant this … I’m perfectly fine keeping it as it is.”
O’Grady exemplifies the category error in thinking that one’s worth against precariousness – as a grievable life – is relative to one’s ability to labor and ‘be useful.’ Her isolation and her perceived ‘value’ are products of an economy of neoliberal futures that is catastrophizing while it is at the same time coercive and coopting. This aesthetics of business-as-usual is one in which no ‘one’ survives, under constant threat of uprootedness and displacement, unless, of course, one can be exhaustively compliant.
In Queer Phenomenology (2006), Sara Ahmed suggests that:
To queer homes is also to expose how ‘homes,’ as spaces of intimacy and desire, are full of rather mixed and oblique objects. … If homes are queer then they are also diasporic … [and] the intersection between queer and diaspora might precisely be to show how the ‘where’ of queer is shaped by other worldly horizons – by histories of capital, empire, and nation – which give queer bodies different points of access to such worlds, and which make different objects reachable, whether at home or away. (176)
I offer little in the way of originality here when it comes to the history of queerness and NYC living, but write this instead as a kind of post-it note, as a ‘re–minder’; there is a long history of queer aesthetics, especially in the place of O’Grady’s modest home, Greenwich Village. This is a history of practices and lives lived in a place now whitewashed, gentrified, and erased to make way for more non–democratic future planning.** The history of housing in NYC does not coincide with a livable, democratic future. My last thought again comes from bell hooks (2009, 42-43):
The task of making homeplace was not simply a matter of black women providing service; it was about the construction of a safe place where black people could affirm one another and by so doing heal many of the wounds inflicted by racist domination. … The act of remembrance is a conscious gesture honoring their struggle, their effort to keep something for their own. … I want to speak about the importance of homeplace in the midst of oppression and domination, of homeplace as a site of resistance and liberation struggle.
Is it possible to make homeplace in NYC?**
Sites worth visiting:
- Tenement Museum
- Museum of the City of New York
- National Museum of the American Indian
- Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space
- New–York Historical Society Museum & Library
Jennifer Scuro (@jenniferscuro) is an artist, philosopher, wife and mother living in Westchester, NY. She is the author of The Pregnancy ≠ Childbearing Project: A Phenomenology of Miscarriage (Rowman & Littlefield International, Feb 2017) and Addressing Ableism: Philosophical Questions via Disability Studies (Lexington Books, Oct 2017).