Ariel Eisenberg on the 1980s NYC Homeless Crisis


arielAriel Eisenberg received her Ph.D. in History from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in December 2014. She is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Oklahoma State University, and will soon begin a new position as Assistant Professor of History and Interdisciplinary Studies at Kennesaw State University. Ari is currently adapting her dissertation, “‘Save Our Streets and Shelter Our Homeless’: The New York City Homeless Crisis in the 1980s,” into a manuscript for publication.

What drew your attention to this topic?

I first began to think about homelessness as a child growing up in and around New York City in the 1980s and 1990s. This was the height of the phenomenon known as the homeless crisis, and what always struck me the most was the tension between homeless and non-homeless people encountering one another in the city’s public spaces. My interest in the topic really stems from those first moments of thinking about the social construction of difference and the politics of public space. As I grew older, I became more aware of the city’s efforts (enacted primarily through the New York Police Department) to minimize and control homeless people’s public presence, and of the efforts of groups like FIERCE (Fabulous Independent Radicals for Community Empowerment) to draw attention to the plight of homeless queer youth of color in the gentrifying city. I began to wonder what studying the first decade of the homeless crisis might reveal about the ongoing issues of poverty, economic stratification, and conflicts over public space in American cities in the late-twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Whose work encouraged you to pursue this topic?

My dissertation, a history of the phenomenon known as the homeless crisis, reflects my interest in how categories of knowledge and identity become intelligible and change over time, and how this can provide insight into the construction of social problems. This theme runs through many of the works that have most influenced me. I entered graduate school as an urban and environmental historian, and my advisor William Cronon’s essay “The Trouble with Wilderness” was an early source of inspiration. But I soon became equally drawn to the history and theory of gender, race, sexuality, and disability—all fields in which scholars trouble essentialist notions of the human body and categories of identity. Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, Vol. I, and Judith Butler’s Bodies That Matter provided crucial theoretical models, as did David Valentine’s Imagining Transgender and Nayan Shah’s Contagious Divides. Later in my research, Khiara Bridges’ Reproducing Race provided a brilliant model for analyzing what she calls deracialized racialist discourse, and Susan Schweik’s The Ugly Laws revealed the historical intersections of disability, poverty, and public policy in American cities. Through these works, I came to understand “the homeless” as a category that was contingent and contextual, but also by the 1980s increasingly legible, that embodied intersecting issues of race, gender, sexuality, disability, cleanliness, and bodily comportment that emerged in tandem with (and as a result of) struggles over housing, neighborhood change, rising economic inequality, deinstitutionalization, and fears of crime during the Reagan Era.

How did you engage and use the methodologies of other scholars in beginning a project of this scope?

The topic of homelessness had long been on my mind, but it took me years to formulate an approach to it that reflected my varied scholarly interests. The seminars that I took in graduate school were absolutely crucial to this process—especially those taught by Susan Lee Johnson, the late Jeanne Boydston, Suzanne Desan, Nan Enstad, Cindy I-Fen Cheng, A. Finn Enke, and William Cronon. These mentors helped me to name what was important, to hone my research methods, and to develop a lexicon that would allow me to convey my findings to a broader audience.

One of the major challenges of my project was the lack of a designated archive or collection on homelessness, which reflects both how recently homelessness has become a definitive category of analysis, and also the marginalization of homeless individuals and communities from governmental and non-governmental realms of power and activism. Queer theory—especially books like Jack Halberstam’s In a Queer Time and Place—helped me to think through the idea of the archive as itself a political and ideological domain through which information is organized and hierarchized. (My first introduction to this idea was in an undergraduate seminar led by Christina Hanhardt, whose book Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence also greatly influenced my work.) In searching for archives through which to construct a history of modern homelessness, I knew that I would need to search widely and read documents creatively and against the grain, so to speak. The best models for this method were Nayan Shah’s Contagious Divides and George Chauncey’s Gay New York. Both Shah and Chauncey use maps and reports produced by municipal governments, social reformers, and businesses to gain insight into the social worlds of their subjects and the social and political forces working to define and control them. I take a very similar approach, using documents produced by New York City and state policy makers, housing activists, and self-identified homeless people themselves to piece together an image of how the homeless crisis became a phenomenon—and “the homeless” a legible group—in the late-twentieth century city.

Can you tell us how you put your archive together?

I engaged with a wide range of sources, including government documents, newspaper and magazine articles, television programs, and documents produced by community and activist groups. Aside from the newspaper and magazine articles, few of these sources have yet been used by other scholars to tell the story of the homeless crisis, and finding them was a pretty time-consuming process. At the New York City Municipal Archives, I spent weeks combing through hand-written collections catalogues (a small fraction of them have since been digitized) and scrolling through reels of microfilm. One of my best early finds was two small collections of letters that New York City residents wrote to Mayor Koch in 1981 concerning the presence of homeless people in public spaces, and the proposed construction of a homeless services center (commonly known as the “derelict assessment center”) in Manhattan’s Upper West Side neighborhood. These sources provided crucial early insight into the ways that non-homeless New Yorkers crafted complex opinions about the growing population of visibly un-housed people in the city, and allowed me to contextualize these sentiments in broader historical issues of urban disinvestment and re-investment and struggles over community control that began in the 1960s and evolved through the 1980s and 1990s.

The sources that proved especially difficult – but ultimately most rewarding – were those from the Tamiment Library’s Squatters’ Rights Collection. Some of these documents—most of which were created by active members of the squatters’ rights movement—used the terms “homeless” and “squatter” interchangeably, which confounded my understanding of these two groups as distinct. Other documents contested this conflation, including one fantastic home video of a rally in which a speaker pointed out in very concrete terms the gulf between some activists and the poor people with whom they identified. My initial confusion was ultimately instructive, as it helped me to better think through the contestations taking place over housing rights and group identification in New York City neighborhoods like the Lower East Side, where most of this housing activism occurred (most famously in Tompkins Square Park). Neighborhood housing activists, squatters, and self-identified homeless people actively debated the terms of solidarity and belonging during these struggles, a point that became most clear to me when I analyzed the sources.

What future direction do you see for this work?

I am currently working to develop my dissertation into a book manuscript, and I envision it becoming a useful source for academics and non-academics alike. Homelessness is still a pressing problem in the United States today, and many of the policies governing housing, aid to homeless individuals, and the geography of visible homelessness first took shape in the 1980s. Many of the same social concerns remain as well: on February 15th of this year, the journal City Limits published a piece on recent not-in-my-back-yard struggles over homeless shelters in New York City neighborhoods, and residents had many of the same concerns over the presence of shelters that New Yorkers did in the 1980s. I hope that my work can help people to have dialogues grounded in historical understanding, and to recognize that issues surrounding homelessness in U.S. cities connect to broader issues concerning poverty, race, gender, disability, and social justice.

What limitations or drawbacks did you experience in working with your sources and methods?

The most difficult part of my research was incorporating the voices and experiences of self-identified homeless people into the story. Aside from occasional quotes in newspaper articles, very few written documents contained the words of un-housed New Yorkers. I had originally intended to conduct oral histories, but it was near-impossible to locate people who had been homeless in New York City in the 1980s, especially working as I was from halfway across the country. This did feel like a major limitation, but it made me work harder to not only incorporate homeless people’s words when and where I could find them, but also to critically analyze the texts that contained their words, rather than to receive them as objective truth. Doing this work helped me to better understand the discursive practices through which the group known as “the homeless” was constructed.

Did you find any unexpected sources?

Yes! Cornell University had a small collection entitled “The Housing and Feeding the Homeless Program.” It turned out to be documents connected to a course offered through Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration, and I thought it was wonderful and fascinating how the professor offering the course saw the work of housing and feeding the homeless as an important component of training for hospitality professionals. The most valuable parts of the collection by far were the dubbed videos of television programs on homelessness from the 1980s, including episodes of talk shows and news programs. It appeared that the course’s professor had simply dubbed these programs off of her home television set to show to the class. I’d searched numerous media archives for some of this footage, and then found it on dubbed videotape in the basement of a library in Ithaca, New York!

What advice would you offer to others beginning or working on dissertations?

Do what you can to remind yourself that people believe in you and want you to succeed. Don’t let the loneliness of research and writing make you feel that you are in fact alone, or that your work is unimportant. Reach out to mentors and peers. Read and re-read their positive feedback. Dwell on it; bask in it. (Pay attention to the constructive criticism too, of course.) Know that you have their support, and let it bolster you through this process.


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