Krzysztof Wodiczko and the Homeless Vehicle Project.

Krzysztof Wodiczko, one of the creators of the Homeless Vehicle Project in 1988, recently spoke in New York.  He explored the instability of public space in this age of corporate downsizing and brutal budget balancing.  He stressed the necessity of challenging the norm that only the “History of the Victors” is inscribed in public monuments, showing his projections which appropriated existing monuments at night with images of the disposed.  Wodiczko’s emphasis on performative intervention was an inspiration in this age of diminished public expectations.  But his remarks set me thinking about the altered shape of the public sphere and the impact of the media on the homeless and public space in the last seven years.

As Archithese’s new correspondent in 1989 I used Wodiczko and Lauria’s Homeless Vehicle Cart as a lens through which to look at the many issues surrounding homelessness in America in the 1980’s.  Since then Wodiczko has become the head of M.I.T.’s Media Laboratory in Boston.  His last design for the homeless was a Poliscar (1991), a mobile homeless protection center.  This strange, cone-like capsule with multiple flashing lights was designed to house a homeless person who served as a look-out communications link.  The idea was that these capsules would call help and attention when homeless people were attacked on the street.  The capsule would be in communication with other such look-out stations, setting up a security web for the homeless on the street.  Word would be passed from capsule to capsule by radio when help was needed.  Mutual support and self-reliance might make the streets safer for their inhabitants without involving the police.  Unlike his earlier intervention in the mid-1980’s, which proved highly successful in attracting media attention, this later project disappeared with hardly a ripple.

1. City Action and the Disappearance of the Hometec6 in the 1990.

As a response to a huge media campaign on the homeless, Mayor Koch promised to build 84,000 new housing units and rehabilitate 160,000 city owned units in a 10 year plan projected to cost $5.1 billion. While the city has not reached this goal, it produced one of the largest public-sponsored housing programs in America in a time of savage budget cuts for social programs. To accomplish this, the Koch administration tapped into a variety of constituencies: private developers, not-for-profit housing managers, church groups and associations, as well as national foundations.

In “New York’s Infill Housing” (Design Book Review #23, Winter 1992), E. Perry Winston described various kinds of infill renewal work taking place in New York, ranging from the church-based Nehemiah Houses (which had built and sold 1,600 single-family houses using local contractors on vacant city land) to A.C.O.R.N. in East New York, a grassroots organization of self-help squatters that; with the help of sympathetic press coverage, forced the city to support them as urban “homesteaders.” The city offered low-cost loans while technical assistance was provided by the Pratt Center for Community and Environmental Development. Winston also described the innovative use of prefabricated housing manufactured at a cost of $55 per square foot in an all-union factory at the Brooklyn Navy Yards. “Brooklyn Villas” consisted of 117 3- & 4-bedroom units produced by New York Modular, whose modular, steel-framed boxes can be carried on a truck and stacked up to 3 stories high. The profits from “the Villas” were used to generate 105 cooperative units in 35 townhouses elsewhere in Williamsburg, also using modular construction.

By April 1995 Alan Finder of The New York Times reported that the city had spent $4.2 billion and produced over 50,000 new units. 3,000 apartment blocks were rehabilitated to create 39,000 apartments and 12, 000 new one, two and three bedroom houses were built where burned-out shells had once stood, infilling blocks in the Bronx, Brooklyn or Harlem. While the city did make some costly mistakes at the start, the average cost was about $65,000. Under pressure from the local communities, the Koch administration stopped housing only homeless people in these new units and by 1989 placed homeless people in half the apartments created by the program.

In contrast, the Giuliani Administration finds itself in a fairly untenable situation. The city government is left with small and scattered buildings representing a potential 12,000 dwellings (which it plans to sell to nonprofits or housing associations), as well as another 38,000 units in old dilapidated buildings in need of renovation. 75% of these apartments are in buildings with 10 units or fewer and most of the inhabitants are very poor, earning less than $7,000 a year, half the average for public housing. Guliani currently has budgeted $341 million to continue the Koch-Dinkins effort (a reduction of $29 million or 8%) and tied the future of the program to the health of the New York economy.

2. Artists, Architects, and the Disappearance of the Homeless

Many architects have participated in the campaign to house the homeless, and in the architectural press the issue has become a mainstream media issue. Progressive Architecture had a competition for the design of a minimal housing unit in 1992. The city has sponsored accommodations for single homeless people in group homes, neighborhood shelters and various city-sponsored associations run by organizations like the Volunteers of America. The SRO hotel has been virtually reinvented in this process (the city still has 11,000 people in such hotels). In the best cases, like the recently opened Williams on 42nd Street, these organizations have rehabilitated old hotels and apartment buildings, providing built-in social and medical support systems, with good facilities, 24 hour security and excellent track records of good relations with their host neighborhoods. Jonathan Kirchenfield of Architrope designed an exemplary, small S.R.O. for the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, integrating all the required services into a building which neatly infilled its site, with public amenities for the community on the ground floor (including a garden in the rear).

Meanwhile, Storefront For Art and Architecture, where the Homeless Vehicle Project was first displayed in 1985, has bravely continued to sponsor exhibitions and events on a minuscule budget, in these times of gigantic cuts in arts funding from Washington. The gallery’s interests continue to be pacifist – the conversion of the military-industrial complex, and concern for the plight of the victims of poverty and war. The end of the Cold War was celebrated in such exhibits as Komar and Melamid ‘s satirical, social realist Yalta Conference Memorials and their U.N. project proposal. The terrible fate of contested cities in the Cold Peace informed the “Warchitecture-Sarajevo: a Wounded City” exhibition and the “Detroit Is Everywhere” show organized by Camillo Vergara and Richard Plunz of Columbia University. Last year Storefront also featured Michael Sorkin’s first solo show, a beautiful installation sheathed in transparent plastic, appearing like a diaphanous sea ray ensconced in the gallery. Sorkin’s “Suburbs of Utopia” showed plans to transform the disused Brooklyn Naval Yards into a waterfront newtown suburbia. A mixed use, garden city complex with much ovoid styling, water, parkland and lagoons, the project is optimistically full of new housing and small industries and offers easy highway access.

Storefront has courageously experimented with many permutations of its premises to reach out to the streets of the city. One installation required the fitting of portable toilet capsules for the homeless in the street facade, with steps up to their doors. In a recent transformation, Stephen Holl and Vito Acconci have provided the gallery with an extraordinary space, which on a summer’s evening can extend out easily onto the wide sidewalk. Driving or walking by in summer offers direct views into the interior, as walls rotate in the vertical or horizontal plane to provide moveable exhibition surfaces. The gallery, like the homeless, is fighting for its place on the street, a contested realm in the city. On the interior, the main display wall remains the back party wall, receding rapidly into the acute angle of the gallery’s prow-shaped apex. A couple of columns occupy the center of the space, while the moveable wall in the winter provides another long surface for displays. Rem Koolhaas’s recent show at M.O.M.A. in 1994 tried to make this same connection, importing city bus shelters into the upstairs gallery and displaying text as advertisements in the street and subways. Storefront has the distinct advantage of being much more messy at ground level and, being engaged with social issues, much more direct.

While Storefront still survives as a social advocate on a tiny budget, the most telling images of the disappearance of the homeless have been produced by documentary photographers. Homeless people are still everywhere in the city, transient, collecting their cans and bottles for redemption, sleeping on park benches and in doorways. Over the last 5 years Margaret Morton, an Asssociate Professor at Cooper Union, has documented and constructed oral histories of the homeless. She has shown, with gentle compassion, the hard struggle of the homeless to build themselves elementary human shelters, contesting small public spaces, building small communities and even creating garden environments in the most unlikely places in the city. At the end of her book with Diana Balmori, Transitory Gardens, Uprooted Lives (Yale, 1993), Morton showed city bulldozers destroying many of the structures, gardens and small communities of shanties so carefully constructed on the East River Piers, at Thompkins Square Park and under the raised sections of the East River Drive Highway on the Lower East Side, In The Tunnel (1995) Morton again undertook a multi-year project with the homeless community living underground in the tunnels and hidden niches of the railway system. Even before the book was published, the city sent special police squads into the subway tunnels in response to an underground fire and systematically evicted the inhabitants. This summer a fire in the long distance Amtrak railway tunnel under Riverside Park on the West Side produced the same result. The city had to send its firemen underground again and took the railway to court, forcing it to evict the inhabitants. Some had been living there for over 20 years and had fabricated plastic covered, plywood huts complete with electrical service and television reception. While Morton in some ways documented the elite of the homeless, those with the skill and the will to build their own shanties, the destruction of these fragile shelters was symbolic of the larger situation. The homeless are expected to once again become invisible.

3. Police Action and the Disappearance of the Homeless, in the 1900s.

Wodiczko’s emphasis on the safety of the streets corresponds to a radical change in the practices of the police. NYPD actions have dramatically altered the landscape of New York streets. The police, who left their squad cars and returned to the street on foot and bicycle in a system of “Community Policing” under the liberal-democratic Dinkin’s mayorship, now answer to a mayor who places priority on cleansing the street of undesirables.

In New York, as well as around the nation, the homeless have suddenly become almost invisible. During his run for Mayor, former Public Prosecutor Guiliani promised to get tough on the homeless men who cleaned commuters’ windshields as they entered and exited the city via the bridges and tunnels. In office the new Mayor instituted an aggressive campaign to drive people he deemed unsavory from city streets. He threatened to prosecute “aggressive panhandlers” who intimidated pedestrians on the sidewalks and subways. The police are authorized to harass many street people as drug traffickers, allowing searches for weapons on any minor pretext, despite the outcry from civil liberties groups. The police are also authorized to pick up any young person they see on the street as a suspected truant from school, especially in the mid-town area around 42nd street. Several innocent, youthful-looking African-American working people were held at police stations for hours until rescued by employers, friends or relatives. Civil rights lawyers were again appalled at the flagrant disregard for constitutional rights. In an angry gesture, the Mayor has since cut the budget of the Legal Aid for Public Defenders and blocked moves to institute a Civilian Review Board for cases of police brutality. Despite some vociferous community opposition, Mayor Guiliani insisted that unlicensed, mainly African, street peddlers be driven from 125th Street onto a vacant, church-owned lot at 116 Street, miles from the tourists and their buses. The Mayor also sent police with water cannons and armored personnel carriers to clear squatters who had been living in abandoned city-owned buildings on the Lower East Side for over 15 years (Courts later overturned this pre-emptive strike, reinstatating the squatters as tenants).

This campaign to clear the streets of peddlers and the homeless has been backed up by Special District Plans linked with Business Improvement Districts (B.I.D.). Special District Plans allow highly localized zoning ordinances to control the physical appearance of a small fragment of the city, which are sometimes associated with tax incentives for compliance. The B.I.D.s provide private police forces on commercial streets, where property owners pay a special, additional tax to have the public space of the street managed like private property. The Grand Central Station Partnership B.I.D., successful at clearing the station of the homeless, then took on the streets around the station. Having promised to provide outreach services to link with social agencies, it is now in court answering allegations that it employed “goon squads” to beat the homeless as a means of encouraging them to move to other neighborhoods. This brutal response has been part of a nationwide trend, as formerly liberal cities such as San Francisco and Seattle press anti-homeless ordinances. Given this situation it is not surprising Wodiczko shifted his attention to an attempt to provide a sense of safety to the homeless living on the streets, independent of the police.

4. The Sociology of the Homeless, Neighborhoods, and the New American Ghettos

There were many theories about where the homeless had come from and how the City, State and Federal governments had failed to prevent this human catastrophe. Writing in The Homeless (Harvard, 1994) the sociologist Christopher Jencks conservatively estimated that the number of homeless on the street or in shelters grew nationally from about 100,000 in 1980 to 200,000 in 1984 and 400,000 in 1988. At the end of the 80s he concluded that there were approximately 1.2 million people homeless. Jencks argued that most of the homeless were sporadically sheltered, going between street, cheap lodgings and shelters. Most likely to be long-term victims were unskilled African-Americans with weak families, drug or alcohol problems and/or histories of mental illness. Men or women with social land job skills, and with no records of substance abuse, were not likely to stay long on the street in his view. Jencks saw multiple causes for the growth of homelessness in the 1980’s. He argued that one of the principle causes was the elimination of the involuntary commitment of the mentally ill, allowing the “de-institutionalization” of mental patients without any financing for planned Community Care Centers to support them in normal lives in the cities. David Moberg, in his review of homelessness in “In These Times” (November 14, 1994), pointed out that Jencks understated the housing shortage in his otherwise excellent study. Jencks cited as a contributing factor to homelessness the disappearance of the once-plentiful “flop houses.” These cheap hotels, bars and rooming houses were either the victim of planned urban redevelopment because of their central location or were overcome by gentrification. In New York the old skid row, the Bowery on the Lower East Side, has become the home of art galleries, late night clubs and cafes. The city, citing poor housing conditions, building code violations and general dilapidation accelerated the closure of S.R.O. hotels, which housed many poor people and were the first refuges of the ex-mental ward patients. Residents of these hotels often had nowhere else to go but the street. Tax code changes, high interest rates and high energy costs (from antiquated equipment) made it more difficult for small landlords to make a profit from renting rooms and apartments.

In the late 1970s and early 80s, the cheap housing market in New York collapsed. 65% of Harlem, much of the Lower East Side, parts of Brooklyn and the Bronx were burned for insurance or abandoned by landlords. Other properties fell into the city’s hands through tax foreclosures, making the city the biggest housing landowner in New York (under Giuliani, the city has ceased to take buildings for non-payment of taxes, arguing that it cannot afford to be the landlord of last resort).

Loic Wacquant, Professor of Sociology at U.C. Berkeley, has named this historic combination of the withdrawal of private capital and state services and the concentration of state supported poor and ex-homeless in a small area the “Hyper Ghetto” (in Dissent (Fall 1989). Wacquant speaks of the “de-skilling,” the “de-differentiation” and “de-policing” of the old “Classic” ghetto, which, because of racial segregation laws, contained a mixture of rich and poor African-Americans or immigrants. Today, the inner city enclaves are left with some wealthy areas like Strivers Row in Harlem, a few middle class projects and acres of the poorest of the poor or new immigrants, many subsisting on government benefits of one kind or another. Meanwhile few services are provided by the city, and public health and education are neglected. Wacquant argues that these areas are “de-policed,” left to the tender mercies of the underground economy in drugs, street prostitution and selling stolen goods, resulting in gang dominance and high crime rates. In New York recent police corruption cases have involved officers in the poorest precincts, such as Harlem and Motthaven, one of the most violent drug areas of the South Bronx.

Camillo Vergara, in a series of articles for The Nation in 5993-4, and in a forthcoming book, has shown that the city’s use of its tax-foreclosed housing stock for sheltering the homeless and to create new housing has produced new concentrations of the very poor in what he has termed a “New American Ghetto.” These areas were initially abandoned because of high crime rates, drugs and prostitution on the streets. He drew a map showing street crime, crack houses and new housing units in an area near the regionally significant intersection of the Major Deegan Highway and the Throgsneck Bridge approach to Long Island, where drug trading served a regional clientele. Vergara argued that the placement of single mothers and their children, as well as the marginalized, including ex-mental patients, in these areas was a recipe for disaster. This is especially true because of poor access to public transportation and virtually no access to jobs or job training.

5. The Strange Disappearance of the Homeless, Making the City Sage for Tourists

An effort to improve the image of New York City explains in a large measure the eradication of the homeless from their highly visible position in the city center’s streets and their location elsewhere in areas of poverty. Christine Boyer has written about the new, nostalgic streetscapes created for tourism in sectors of the city like South Street Seaport and Battery Park in Variations on A Theme Park (edited by Michael Sorkin, 1992). The creation of these enclaves of tourism, luxury and conspicuous consumption has become the city government’s planning goal, using B.I.D.s and Special Zoning District powers.

The plans for Times Square and 42nd Street provide perfect illustration: 42nd Street has a long history as an entertainment district leading down towards the large piers on the Hudson River, the present day port for large ocean liners and cruise ships. The street’s descent from roudy entertainment of the soldiers and sailors of the Second World War into the Porno industry of the 1960’s and 70’s was rapid and alarming, associated with the arrival of drugs and high crime rates. High school truants from the outer boroughs and run-aways from across the nation created an especially problematic youth subculture. The city was too poor to undertake a clean-up on its own and worked with the State’s semiautonomous Urban Development Corporation (U.D.C.) to issue bonds and condemn and buy properties in a public-private partnership backed by the Prudential Insurance Company. In exchange the company was awarded the right to redevelop the prime blocks around Broadway and 42nd Street, where they proposed a massive 3 tower scheme designed by Philip Johnson which ignored the city’s Urban Design guidelines. At the same time the city gave special incentive zoning bonuses to developers to shift development away from the East Side towards the west. The result was a glut of office towers just as the stock market collapsed in 1987, leading to many bankruptcies and vacant buildings in the neighborhood. 42nd Street was boarded up and became a ghost town awaiting further development. It was into this vacuum that the Urban Development Corporation projected 42nd Street Now, a booster organization to market the street, and the City established the 42nd Street B.I.D. to encourage development. In the depths of this real estate depression, conceptual artists were asked to design installations to fill the space and remake the city’s image where sleazy night-life and small-time show business suppliers once dominated. Jenny Holtzer, architects Diller and Scofidio, Barbara Kruger and others lit the marquees, animated old billboards and made installations in vacant lobbies for passing pedestrians.

Robert A.M. Stem was hired by 42nd Street Now to create a new temporary (15 year) image for the street and Times Square. Stem proposed a very simple nostalgic, yet futuristic, image of the street at about V-J Day 1945, when all the lights were lit and relatively wholesome entertainment was available. His electronic version of the nostalgic street life included refurbishing the old hotels, theaters, stores and billboards for record stores, MTV studios and gymnasia. As a director of the Disney Corporation, Stem was able to convince the corporation, along with Madame Taussauds Wax Works (owned by U.K. media giant Pearson P.L.C.) to invest in a second major theater on the street. In addition Disney and Architectonica won the competition for the development of the state-owned U.D.C. block at the junction of 8th Avenue and 42nd Street with a flashy tower hotel, time share apartments and more media-oriented stores and themed restaurants. Opposite will be one of the largest multiplex cinemas in the U.S. The sex industry has all but disappeared, relocated by the Guiliani administration and the City Council to peripheral industrial areas also slated for vast retail hypermarkets. The result of all this activity is that 42nd Street, along with 5th Avenue and 57th Street in Midtown, is a safe urban simulacrum for suburban and out-of-state tourists nostalgic for a taste of city life. The potential of the global marketing opportunity of 42nd Street as a tourist mecca for giant media corporations and real estate interests has driven out all other uses. The whole area will be ablaze with neon at night, making an enticing urban Spectacle, an extraordinary and unique place, perhaps only replicated in Las Vegas, downtown in John Jerde’s electronic main street or on the Strip, seen through the proscenium of the windshield.

6. Conclusion; Media, the Homeless and the City

Wodiczko and Lauria’s Homeless Vehicle Cart was highly effective as an intervention, using the media and its powerful imagery to influence our perception of a pressing social problem in the city. The project punctured the normal discourse on the city and fundamentally altered the terms of debate. It exploited the power of the media to carry an image effectively to the electorate. The project highlighted the impact of the media in the city and the city’s housing policy was altered as a result. The “Vanquished” were temporarily inscribed in the contested public realm of the city, its media space, just as they were present in record numbers in the traditional public realm, the city streets, The Homeless Vehicle Project, like the rotating flaps at Storefront, disrupted both public realms simultaneously in a bravura display of public relations and artistic skill. The double nature of the project, its double intervention as media piece and street object, was crucial to its success and effectiveness.

In the succeeding seven years there have been few projects which have had this disruptive double presence, as street object and media concept. It is sobering to realize that the 1995 equivalent of the Homeless Vehicle Project is the 42nd Street Renovation proposed by Robert A.M. Stern. Just as Wodiczko and Lauria produced a few, carefully considered images and a small demonstration on the street, Stem’s project was represented by two carefully considered images and the promise of Disney on the street. From this small germ, the large media and real estate corporations around Times Square, like the homeless before them, were able to leverage much from the city, using the publicity apparatus of the press. The difference between 1985 and 1995 is that, whereas the Homeless Vehicle was disruptive and shocking to the status quo, the promise of Disney is the return to the status quo ante, the reinstitution of the disrupted dream with state financing. While this might seem a shocking use of public money, this procedure has become normal as architects and developers routinely employ public relations firms to manage their image in public forums and the Urban Land Use Review Process. Indeed the media realm of the city has become a preoccupation of owners and investors, whose advertising for their projects demonstrates the conversion of the city into a consumable commodity item, a scenographic, safe image both in the media and at the street level.

The media manipulation of the desire for the city has converted the urban image into a spectacle to be consumed at a price. We have perhaps entered a new Baroque period of the display of power in public, but the display is now electronic and mediated, on a pay-per-view basis. Most people now live in the suburbs in America and the city has become something exotic and extraneous to their daily lives. They long for a sense of community and the proximity that cities provide (cities are constantly used as backdrops in advertisements for luxury items and high fashion), yet they feel vulnerable as suburbanites on the city street. The impact on the city has been enormous, powering the proliferation of urban simulacra in malls, new downtowns, etc. Most new jobs have been and are being created in the “Edge Cities” outside of the Central Business Districts, and city centers throughout America are again in a state of crisis. The push for safety, cleanliness and propriety, driving the homeless from view, can be seen as part of this larger shift in the global economy, as corporations gear for the new mass proletariat who will visit and consume the image of the city in the beginning of the second millennium. In this situation the disappearance of Wodiczko’s second project for the homeless was not so surprising: the liberal consensus surrounding his earlier success had been replaced by a corporate consensus. In an ironic twist, the streets of the American city are being reclaimed by global corporations in the name of their consumers, the media-dependent suburbanized and third world middle class “victors,” who had a low tolerance for the image of poverty and independence represented by the homeless “victims.” Wodiczko’s Homeless Cart has turned out to be only the first round in what promises to be a long media war for the control of the soul of the city.

– Grahame Shane writes and lectures on urban issues, will appear in the upcoming anthology Suburban Discipline published by Storefront and teaches at Columbia University, Cooper Union and University of Pennsylvania

Grahame Shane


Storefront for Art and Architecture: Street Facade, Homeless Portacabins Toilet Installation


Storefront for Art and Architecture: Holl and Acconci Street Facade

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