The Financial District of Manhattan is ridden with banners declaring New York City the “Real Estate Capital of the World.” You can find them hanging from lampposts on Wall Street, in front of tenement buildings, and even around City Hall and the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) building. The longstanding relationship between city officials, commercial developers, and wealthy homeowners has diverted the city’s ongoing housing crisis to a matter of personal responsibility, and leadership’s only solution is more policing.
As mainstream media demonizes signs of poverty in public spaces, artists around the city are developing pedagogies to expose the power dynamics at play. UnHomeless NYC, on view at the Kingsborough Community College Art Museum, focuses on the materiality of unhoused conditions. Cardboard signs appear alongside photographs of makeshift shelters, upcycled clothing, written testimonials from unhoused New Yorkers, and printed statistics on local evictions. In this way, the show also focuses on materialism in the Marxist sense — through the historical process of capital accumulation, excess production of commodities, and ejection of surplus lives from labor and land ownership.
At the foot of the gallery entrance, a laminated bar graph printed by Martha Rosler visualizes the number of New Yorkers in municipal homeless shelters under each mayor, from 1983 to 2019. Remarkably, the 14,855 figure of Ed Koch’s tenure declined during that of David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani, rising again under Michael Bloomberg and peaking at 62,590 under Bill DeBlasio. Part of Rosler’s series IF YOU LIVED HERE … (1989-ongoing), the stats reveal how party affiliation has little to do with humanist governance, as Democratic leaders maintain the highest numbers.
Rosler gathers similar statistics in colorful graphs and pie charts across a makeshift workspace of tables, chairs, and desks in the center of the gallery. For this iteration of the project, City University of New York (CUNY) researcher Vicky Virgin integrated data on rent burden among CUNY students and its connections to housing and food insecurity. The installation encourages visitors to write sticky-note answers to questions on the root causes of homelessness, reasons that lawmakers criminalize poverty, and details of personal experiences. Anonymous responses range from single words such as “politics” and “heartlessness” to full paragraphs on institutional exploitation and stories from former foster children.
Public collaboration is the show’s greatest strength. Visitors can take pamphlets and zines by housing justice groups and educate ourselves on the process of gentrification. A display by the collective BFAMFAPhD simply shows a plastic container with handouts for upcoming workshops with staff members of the community college. On a large printed map by Manon Vergerio, hundreds of tiny red dots across the boroughs indicate reported evictions. Nearby, printed menus by Nancy Hwang, Michael Mangieri, and Heidi Thomas appear on brown paper, titled “Outdoor Dining” (2021) to hint at pandemic-related displacement.
In their documentary Uneven Growth (2014), Miguel Robles-Durán and Cohabitation Strategies (CohStra) discuss the exploitative housing market, and how New York landlords are often just hedge funds. Renowned author and CUNY professor David Harvey appears along with community organizer Kendall Jackman and journalist Laura Gottesdiener to address rising rents and foreclosures. Still shots of Lower Manhattan skyscrapers cut between subway tracking shots of dilapidated housing in the outer boroughs. Directly behind the television playing this video, illustrated printouts detail CohStra’s manifesto for producing “socially just cities,” including the promotion of urban consciousness, transnational solidarity, and worker control.
Sachigusa Yasuda’s ongoing series Upcycle, Uplift (2020) critiques fast fashion through a retail display of reworked designer clothing. Several racks and tables of shirts, pants, jackets, and sweatshirts are arranged in the gallery’s back corner, with strips of blue tape forming the outline of a house against the wall. Yasuda collaborated with residents of city shelters to sew extra pockets on the arms and legs, arguing that unhoused people are more likely to be robbed than renters and homeowners, even within soup kitchens. A rolling security gate around the display makes it appear like a closed storefront, alluding to capitalist insecurity around shoplifting and petty crime.
Large tags hanging from clothing by Yves Saint Laurent and Dockers describe institutional violence and trauma inflicted on unhoused Black mothers. Other tags include quotes from shelter residents Marcus Moore, Lisa Batts, and Sarah Wilson. On one blazer, a tag written by Moore explains that he “saw over the years how people were labeled” and the stigma of homelessness became attributed to “saggy pants” and a “scruffy” look. These disembodied outfits feel ghostly, yet the sleek streetwear also evokes how corporations like Urban Outfitters and H&M force employees to destroy “dimed-out” merchandise.
Since former New York Police Department officer Eric Adams became mayor, the five boroughs have already undergone a wave of NYPD officers violently dismantling homeless encampments. As such, Willie Baronet’s large-scale collage “We Are All Homeless” (2022) is particularly affecting. Across an entire wall, Baronet compiles cardboard signs collected from city streets since 1993. An abundance of desperate pleas and expressions of grief reach out from the past, conveying generations of suffering under the city government’s organized abandonment. It indicates that of all New Yorkers, the unhoused can teach a masterclass on survival — and that we are all just one stroke of bad luck away from the same fate.
UnHomeless NYC continues at the Kingsborough Community College Art Museum (2001 Oriental Boulevard, Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn) through April 14. The exhibition was curated by Midori Yamamura, Tommy Mintz, Maureen Connor, Jason Leggett, and Rob Robinson.