Mapping a History of Activist Real Estate
A new online project reveals the hidden history of a pioneering nonprofit
A radiant pre-Sex and the City Sarah Jessica Parker, about to enter a store, turns to the camera and asks flirtatiously, “Think I’m out shopping? Well, I’m not! I’m here to make a donation.” She takes us inside on a jaunty tour, telling us that “by donating to a Housing Works thrift shop, you’re helping homeless men, women, and children who are living with AIDS and HIV.” It wraps up thirty seconds later, with Parker, smiling mischievously and eyeing a rack of dresses, admitting she might not leave empty-handed after all.
This service announcement from 1997 is part of a collection of long-unseen documents, ephemera, and videos on display in Housing Works History, an online multimedia archive that surveys the history and accomplishments of the New York-based nonprofit. Many of us have frequented the Manhattan thrift shops and SoHo bookstore without ever knowing that Housing Works was founded by members of ACT UP, and that since its inception, it has built more than 200 units of housing for its clients. That would be an accomplishment anywhere. But to do so in New York, against antagonistic political forces and an impossible housing market, is heroic.
These are a few of the revelations contained in Housing Works History. Conceived by curator Gavin Browning, who has a background in urban planning, the project was motivated by a desire to tell the hidden history of this pioneering nonprofit. Housing Works granted him full access to their scattered archives, and he developed the website, which also includes five short original documentaries, with support from the Graham Foundation. Organized as twenty-five-year timeline, it elegantly links milestones in Housing Works’s history and the supportive housing movement, and maps known statistics of those living with HIV/AIDS in New York.
By design, Housing Works History lets history speak for itself. Browning presents the material matter-of-factly, providing just enough commentary to give context, without editorializing. The timeline invites visitors to enter the story anywhere and to make their own connections across time. Rather than aiming to be authoritative, the project is choral. “My approach was to try to be expansive,” Browning explained, “and to include as many voices as possible, with the hope of putting these perspectives back out into the public realm. I thought of it as a Studs Terkel or Howard Zinn-type oral history project.”
In doing so, it illustrates the far reach of Housing Works’s radical proposition—that housing is health care. The idea is that those suffering from disease, mental illness, and homelessness, cannot heal and improve without first having a home underpins every project undertaken by the organization. From the start, Housing Works recognized that housing wasn’t enough, so each housing development is paired with onsite medical, legal, and job training services. And, it applied the lessons of ACT UP, organizing direct action protests against the Giuliani administration, developing savvy graphic design and media campaigns, and culling celebrity support. Who knew that Glenn Close and David Letterman dressed teddy bears for an auction or that Tippi Hedren was honorary chair of the Dada Ball at Webster Hall? (Her response to a CNN reporter asking her to define “Dada” is classic: “You got me! I think you know it when you see it.”)
At the project’s launch event in February at the New York Public Library, Browning said it came as a surprise to discover that “some of the lasting effects of ACT UP are actual brick and mortar structures that people live in to this day.” He sees Housing Works as a New York story about how people banded together to fight crises through architecture. “Housing Works gave shelter and dignity to people the government didn’t care about or even deem house-able,” he explained. “So, I thought of this as a story of activist real estate development.”
A map included in Housing Works History displays the nonprofit’s successes in property development and scattered-site housing across the five boroughs. But the project also details the constant battle to win these victories. For a liberal island, New York’s attitudes can be shocking, and Browning’s research uncovered some responsive gems. Take a 1993 pamphlet distributed by the Lower Manhattan Coalition for AIDS Care. Entitled “Lifestyles of the HIV Positive and Homeless,” this tour map of sites offering services in Manhattan has the caustically funny subtitle: “Your guide to the exciting, sordid world of AIDS-phobic NIMBY’s, demagogic politicians, and red tape bureaucrats.”
Then there’s the “Housing Works Activist Christmas Carols” from 1995, which gives us “Rudy the City Hall Moron” to the tune of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” It’s activism with wit, and one of the pleasures of Housing Works History. Unsurprisingly, Giuliani holds a special place in the nonprofit’s history (not to mention in hell). Not only was his administration actively responsible for exacerbating the housing crisis (he closed a record number of Single Room Occupancy housing units, or SROs), he defunded Housing Works in 1997 in direct retaliation for the nonprofit’s attention-grabbing protests against his draconian budget cuts. In repudiation of the mayor’s actions, the city was later forced to pay Housing Works nearly five million dollars in a 2005 settlement.
Housing Works History shows history moving in cycles, too often backtracking and, on rare occasions, stumbling forward. The ephemera on display capture the immediacy of what it felt like on the ground fighting a hostile political environment that, until recently, might have felt like distant history. As the timeline reminds us, the decades-long battle for healthcare rights for the homeless and those with HIV/AIDS demanded not only tenacity on the part of activists and advocates, but also imagination. They fought hopelessness with humor and creativity, in the streets and in their backyards. They made the struggle visible, and now so too does Housing Works History. Just in time.
PAUL DALLAS is a film writer and programmer with a background in architecture. He also writes for Filmmaker and Interview, and has programmed for the Guggenheim and the Maysles Cinema.