During the 1975 fiscal crisis in New York, lots of things fell apart. Broken windows, crumbling walls, piles of bricks, and exposed wiring were everywhere. For everyone involved, these served as visual reminders of the shocks to the city’s system rendered by the crisis. For some, this physical decay symbolized the breakdown of the social order, a sign that the postwar welfare state was a massive failure. For others, this decay represented a new frontier: a site of risk and opportunity that could stimulate aesthetic creativity in the visual arts, sculpture, theater, music, literature, and critical theory.
What emerged, eventually, was a familiar question: what if the arts could flourish in the rubble, fixing both the city’s politics and economy at once? What if, in other words, a creative class could be inspired by the decay to make a new city, and, moreover, do it themselves, without much government funding? By many measures, that’s exactly what happened: the city was never the same again, and notions of a creative class became core to redevelopment stories everywhere.
But none of this happened easily. The transition from crumbling building, to funky gallery, to professional’s loft was ridden with conflict: the impoverished don’t want to move out, the art fails, the writer becomes an activist, the drywall never arrives. These discomforts provided inspiration too, with artists like Gordon Matta-Clark, Christy Rupp, and Martin Wong, developing projects that foregrounded the politics of their changing environment. Other artists, though, used the neighborhood as a kind of blank canvas or exploited its aura of danger.
For writers like Kathy Acker, David Wojnarowicz, Miguel Piñero, Sylvére Lotringer, Lynne Tillman, Gary Indiana, Joel Rose, and Catherine Texier, all of this generated story after story. Moving in and out of apartments, listening to voices through open windows, glimpsing homeless women on the street, exiting galleries to marvel at a neighborhood’s changes, staging conversations in doorways, these writers use settings and emplaced objects to offer a nuanced, complicated take on the neighborhood and its diverse residents. The ruins of the city and the art that emerged in between the rubble were, for these writers, media. The opportunities for turning environment into form were everywhere: from Wojnarowicz’s short narratives of cracks and doorways, to the homesteading aesthetic of the Nuyorican poets, to the self-construction of apartment and “printing press” by Rose and Texier, to the embeddedness in space evident throughout Indiana’s oeuvre, to the material objects in the pages of Semiotext(e), to Acker’s transposition of maps into her written work, to Bimbo Rivas figuring Tompkins Square Park as a stage.
Examining the literature written in the Lower East Side after the crash, DIY/LES reconstructs the crisis’s fallout and pieces together how its ruin and renovation inspired reflections on the welfare state, ascendant modes of post-Fordist management, as well as what literature, art, and theory could–and could not–do about it. DIY/LES is a cross-disciplinary work that draws on archival research, original author interviews, and primary as well as secondary sources in order to develop new claims about the writers who were living and working in the Lower East Side in the crisis’s aftermath, when galleries and artists began playing a major role in neighborhood redevelopment. I attend specifically to writers who experimented with genre and medium in ways that brought them into contact and collaboration with artists, critics, entrepreneurs, and activists. My chapters stage encounters between writers and art objects, uncovering narratives that explain, challenge, and diverge from such objects and their networks. In doing so, I emphasize the political stakes of the Lower East Side’s aesthetic renaissance, and I uncover the ways literature afforded unique opportunities for engaging the financial crisis’s fallout.
DIY/LES reveals how a post-Fordist sense of “do it yourself”—now installed widely as an ideology of neoliberalism—took shape as the welfare state receded and the long networks of the Fordist economy broke down. Geographically constrained, temporally focused, the literature produced in the Lower East Side from 1975-1990 presents a laboratory for thinking through the rapid, tectonic shifts in governance occasioned by Fordism’s decline. Because of the neighborhood’s concentrated geography, it bears witness to a range of urban issues at once: the transformation of sixties activism, the disappearance of manufacturing jobs, the rise of the service economy, the growing assertion of queer identity, the cutting of public services, the rise of the creative economy, the assemblage of the “projective city” of contractual work, as well as the literary and theoretical movements that both tried to make sense of these changes and just as often obscured them. Allegorically, my study tracks a tenement apartment first occupied by working-class Puerto Ricans who work in manufacturing, then by bohemian artists who read French theory, then by post-Fordist culture workers who imagine themselves as artists. The literature here traces the contours of this apartment, noting the different ways it is occupied through time, and absorbing such changes into its form.
DIY On the Lower East Side: Books, Buildings, and Art After the 1975 Fiscal Crisis is forthcoming from SUNY Press in 2020.