One balmy spring night around the turn of the last millennium I had my first orgasm pressed tightly against the lanky object of my teenage lust on a pier jutting out from downtown Manhattan into the Hudson River. I certainly wasn’t the first grinding my way to jouissance on those old splintering piers: in the ’70s and ’80s people with nowhere else to go, or who perhaps just liked the feeling of showing their bare ass to New Jersey, flocked to the piers to fuck for fun or funds. The Chelsea Piers, for example, had long stood not just as a cruising mecca but an artistic and creative hub, where you could get a blowjob in a disused maritime warehouse while leaning against an original Keith Haring painted just for you. David Wojnarowicz found the piers not just a convenient source of NSA fun but a site of creative inspiration, fueling artistic production that emphasized the city’s belonging to those who were courageous and crazy enough to claim public spaces to fulfill needs and not the dictates of commodity exchange. Alas, the long, horny history of downtown piers ended sadly, like most stories in this city, in wreckage and real estate.
Today that pier, and others like it that once served so many cheeky functions, has been completely sanitized. There is nary a splinter nor a bare ass in sight. By day the pier is buried beneath astro turf and commodified cookie cutter “fun” appealing to tourists and bankers whose idea of excitement is a $25 dollar round of mini golf.
In the litany of losses NYC has experienced in recent decades access to what urban planning nerds call “loose spaces”—places like my beloved pier, that can be adapted, reappropriated, remixed, and reused according to people’s needs, and ahem, interests—may seem minor. But reclaiming spaces in the city as a means of meeting our own needs is more profound than it may appear, as it renders us more able to access, or perhaps more accurately reminds us of the power that people with little other access to traditional forms of power, actually do possess.
Consider for example, the remarkable welfare rights movement of the 1960s and ’70s, which fought for rights and “more money now!” for welfare recipients who were often subjected to humiliating and inconsistent policies designed to keep people from accessing the support to which they were entitled. Although it was a national movement, more than half the activist recipients were located in New York City. Here their rowdy tactics of sit-ins and occupations of welfare and government offices were so effective that in one month of the summer of 1968 alone, they managed to extract over $13 million dollars in special grant checks. A drop in the bucket compared to what has recently been gifted Amazon from the new New York, but adjusting for inflation it is nonetheless nearly $100 million extra dollars some of the poorest and least politically powerful women in the country were able to win for themselves. They weren’t able to do so by lobbying or appealing to the morality of those in power. They did it by seizing places, disrupting business as usual and insisting institutions work for them.
Contrast this with a scene that played out recently in a similar setting: in early December Jazmine Headley was brutally arrested by the NYPD for the crime of sitting on the floor of a welfare office with her infant, because there were no other seats available, while she waited for a meeting with a caseworker to restore her unjustly denied child care benefits. The NYPD’s response (and de Blasio’s extended silence on the matter) underscores how stamping out suppleness or “looseness” of spaces, insisting on monofunctionality and control has been an explicit tactic of post-industrial urban restructuring to wrest control and power back from everyday people, like the welfare activists of the 1960s and ’70s. With a vise-grip around the places we frequent, it becomes more and more difficult to tap into the sine qua non of militancy: the notion that this city, the spaces in it, the money in those offices, belongs to us. Instead, we are cognizant at all times that if you step out of line for a second you could spend, like Headley, at best a weekend in Rikers.
In my early twenties, I fled New York’s lifeless post-9/11 security state for Marseille, a city I’ve often described as the LES on the Mediterranean: not just because of its graffiti covered walls, but because working-class people, immigrants, and artists alike could still eek out a living, managing in their little ways to ensure work was a means to a life, rather than life itself as it was in New York.
In weeks before the Yellow Vest protests kicked off all across France, Marseille witnessed some of the largest, militant mobilizations it has experienced in more than half a century in response to the undemocratic, gentrification-hastening redevelopment of the city’s largest and most popular square, taking place smack in the heart of its working class center while only blocks away apartment buildings in active disrepair are collapsing on its poorest residents.
Marseille, in its fight to retain its city center, reminds us what New York has too long forgotten: It’s not that these spaces are themselves precious—a giant concrete square, a rickety old pier, a welfare office. These are not in and of themselves magical or even transformative, but what we are able to do in them can be. A highway roundabout turned boules court by Yellow Vest protesters reminds people not just of the power they have when they come together, refusing to cooperate with normal life and opting instead to reclaim shit for themselves, but also asserts what we’d like to see more of: more free fun, more pleasure, more leisure, less work, fewer cops, and yes, fewer goddamn tech bros.
Wilson Sherwin is a Doctoral Candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center, where she is completing her dissertation “Rich in Needs: The Radical imaginary of the National Welfare Rights Movement.”