World AIDS Day & The World We Want

Over the past two years, like many New Yorkers, I’ve been preoccupied, at times obsessed, with how the city will reconfigure itself amid the COVID pandemic. Also like many others, I’ve been poring over texts about the city’s past, to search for clues about the present. I often return to a book first gifted to me by my friend Joan a few years ago when we were both working at an urban resilience organization. Sarah Schulman’s Gentrification of the Mind, Witness To A Lost Imagination, fleshed out so many inchoate ideas that I and many others who are either from here or have been here for a long time, walk around with as part of our geographic, moral, and historical compass. They are the vague and sometimes more subtle and substantive flashes of insight about change, gentrification and how and why the city has evolved in the ways it has – the fiscal crisis of the 70’s; the subsequent years of austerity measures and scaling back of basic services; white flight; Reagan; the artists and the marginalized who saw the possibilities within all of that; those who had no choice but stay put; the Bloomberg years and the remaking and rezoning of the built environment– those of us who care deeply have always had our narratives.

Schulman, for me at least, was the first to make the radical but clear link between AIDS, and not only gentrification of the built environment, but with the erasure of the past that has delivered a more passive and less livable present (for all of us). Schulman shows how the years of AIDS’ peak, when tens of thousands of New Yorkers were dying (over 80,000 New Yorkers have now died of AIDS) coincided with the years of massive changeover of tenants, skyrocketing rents, and an untethering to what was displaced, and who was displaced (‘81-‘96). The acceleration of the process by, as she notes, the suburban children of white flight, remade the Lower East Side and East Village especially, in a tide that washed over the differences that provided the area with its historical cultural ferment and vitality.  She engages with the arguments about artists being just as responsible for laying the groundwork for this, she is not naïve. But she makes a very compelling case about how the replacement tenants often engaged with the city so differently, arrived here for such radically different reasons.  She quotes from Penny Arcade’s 1996 performance piece, “New York values”:

Bohemia has nothing to do with poverty or with wealth. It is a value system that is not based on materialism…There are people who go to work every day in a suit and tie who are bohemian and will never had a bourgeois mentality like the loads of people who graduate from art school and are completely bourgeois…There is a gentrification that happens to buildings and neighborhoods and there is a gentrification that happens to ideas. (Schulman, p. 29)

Schulman writes about exactly the definition of privilege that so many people become hysterical over today – moving into and within a space, within a time and place, as if it had no past at all.

I was reminded of Schulman’s book very specifically a few months ago when I first met Jane Friedman (no relation) and Susan Martin. I was lucky to be connected to them and to the new Howl! HA/HA space on the Bowery and learn about the new gallery and archive that helps restore and continue the legacy and lived experience of the neighborhood in the face of its near permanent erasure by gentrification and AIDS.

As I wrote then in The Economist:

The marginal eventually turned mainstream, however, and such hip enclaves drew people back to the city. The price of property increased, and many artistic institutions and long-time residents were forced out by rising rents. The AIDS crisis of the 1980s also decimated the community that had formed in the East Village. Many singular talents died from the disease, taking with them both the spirit and the specific history of the place. Their deaths helped spur the area’s gentrification, as landlords leased apartments in this now-trendy sector to new, wealthier tenants.

Jane Friedman, who did publicity for the Woodstock Festival in her 20s and later managed the career of Ms Smith, says she founded Howl! Arts as a non-profit organisation in 2003 “as a direct result of [her] concern about the loss of East Village history due to the AIDS pandemic” and because of the ageing of the artists. She opened the first permanent Howl! venue in 2015, a space celebrating the work and legacy of Arturo Vega, who had died in 2013 and was known as the “Fifth Ramone”. (He was the band’s art director—see picture—and created their famous logo.) Ms Friedman’s colleague, Susan Martin, one of the company’s creative directors, says that Vega embodied the spirit of Howl! because he “represented someone who was completely immersed in the culture, and also reached out to and encouraged younger creators”.

Schulman’s book is critical for understanding the erasure of a collective past that is central to New York City’s story and yet which remains so underexamined. The lives lost to AIDS remain mostly an unindividuated mass without an appreciation for their impact on the city and the role of memory. This near-criminal oblivion (homophobia, racism, classism, blame and then subsequent oblivion of the marginalized led to far more deaths than would have occurred otherwise) spurred an erasure accelerated by death and a replacement by many who do not see a past in their present world. The value of the individual lives lost and our collective ability to feel that value concretely (say as concretely as we feel the deaths of those who died on 9/11), must be an ongoing effort if we are to reclaim a more active role in our present history, as it continues to furiously unfold before us.

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