Fragile Dwelling

Fragile Dwelling

by Margaret Morton

Over a ten-year period, Margaret Morton documented the inventive ways in which homeless people in New York City created not only places to live but also communities that offer a sense of pride, place, and individuality.

Morton's camera reveals the ingenuity of the builders who constructed homes out of discarded materials, such as warehouse pallets, junked

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Over a ten-year period, Margaret Morton documented the inventive ways in which homeless people in New York City created not only places to live but also communities that offer a sense of pride, place, and individuality.

Morton's camera reveals the ingenuity of the builders who constructed homes out of discarded materials, such as warehouse pallets, junked auto parts, and demolition scrap. Her luminous photographs illustrate the intrinsic social significance of housing, while bringing to light the determination and aesthetic sensibilities of people not commonly thought to possess either. Accompanied by compelling oral histories, the photographs in Fragile Dwelling raise serious questions yet unanswered about social policies that leave no room for self-made alternatives to traditional housing.

Margaret Morton, whose previous books include The Tunnel and Transitory Gardens, is Professor of Art at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City.

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Editorial Reviews

Washington Review
Fragile Dwelling is a collection of images, texts and quotations that document these homeless communities. The book visually, more than through written analysis, exposes the displacements to which we have become immune. It also follows the need people have to carve out spaces so that they can create a place to exist.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Using discarded scraps of wood, metal, plastic and any other available materials, formerly homeless New York men and women built improvised housing in the early '90s with care and a need for order, privacy and community. Morton (The Tunnel), a professor of art at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, befriended some of them and documented their structures. The result is this haunting collection of 90 stark, sharply reproduced b&w photos, with captions by Morton, an introduction by housing critic and scholar Alan Trachtenberg, and commentary from the builders themselves. "If I don't do something here, my mind will die," says Hector A. of his Bushville cabin in the East Village. The homes at Bushville, "The Hill" and other areas, often under bridges or on abandoned piers, are shown with the wreaths and religious icons that often mark their entryways, and the pots, cookstoves, couches, beds and furniture drawn from a city full of discards. Since New York systematically bulldozed all of the camps shown (the last was demolished in 1996), Morton's book is an important testament to the will and ingenuity of their inhabitants. (Nov.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

Aperture Foundation
Publication date:
Edition description:
1 ED
Product dimensions:
9.93(w) x 11.79(h) x 0.75(d)

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In 1989, when this project began, there were more homeless people in New York City than at any time since the Great Depression. The economic, political, and social shifts that precipitated this massive dislocation are complex, but a convergence of events from the previous decade undoubtedly accelerated the crisis.

    The 1970s marked the onset of a dramatic reduction in manufacturing jobs, particularly in New York City. Many low-skill jobs disappeared, casualties of automated production and the use of cheap labor abroad. Soaring unemployment coincided with a sudden decline in the real estate market. In the wake of the city's 1975 fiscal crisis, stringent revisions to property tax laws were instituted. But the city's plan to increase revenues had an unexpected effect: a significant number of landlords, particularly in the South Bronx and on the Lower East Side, responded with arson or abandonment, leaving some five hundred vacant properties in neighborhoods where low-rent housing was desperately needed. Moreover, throughout the past two decades, tens of thousands of chronically ill patients had been discharged from state mental institutions, many without provision for housing or community-based treatment. People wandering the streets and sleeping in public places soon became visible beyond the confines of the Bowery.

    By the end of the 1970s, the real estate market began to recover. Rapid gentrification in the city's low-income neighborhoods further reduced the number of affordable apartments and single-room-occupancy (SRO) hotels, inflating the housing market. While theeconomic expansion that continued through the 1980s brought a surge of wealth to the elite of New York, the outlook for the poor became more dismal. Rules governing eligibility for welfare were tightened, above all for single adult men. Those who succeeded in navigating the tangled bureaucracy received public assistance checks that were inadequate in the face of escalating apartment rents.

    A landmark lawsuit filed against the city in 1981, which was settled as the Callahan consent decree, guaranteed single homeless men the right to shelter. Subsequent litigation extended this right to women and families with children. In 1989 alone, some twenty-five thousand homeless poor sought beds in city shelters each night. Converted armories, such as Fort Washington in Upper Manhattan and the Atlantic Avenue Armory in Brooklyn, slept as many as 1,200 men, billeted on floors once used for military drills. These crowded and dangerous conditions led thousands more to sleep outside: huddled in plastic bags or discarded refrigerator boxes, seeking protection in empty doorways, or finding warmth on top of steam grates.

    As the situation worsened, a startling phenomenon occurred: homeless people began to improvise housing for themselves. Shantytowns soon became visible in Lower East Side vacant lots, barren since the mid-1970s when landlords had their own buildings torched to collect insurance money. These encampments, unseen on such a scale since the Hoovervilles of the 1930s, also appeared in public parks, under bridges and highway exit ramps, along the rivers, and beneath the streets in subway and railroad tunnels. The largest of these was in Tompkins Square Park in the East Village, where more than two hundred homeless men and women had set up makeshift tents by 1988. On August 6 of that year, a police attempt to impose a midnight curfew erupted into a bloody clash with park residents, visitors, and onlookers. After the homeless people returned, they were swept from the park by police twice more, in July and December 1989. Each time, they made their way back. Then, on June 3, 1991, ignoring a recommendation from the community board, a phalanx of police in riot gear routed the homeless community from the park and closed it for renovation. When the park reopened in August 1992, a curfew was imposed.

    Over the next six years, homeless New Yorkers continued to be pushed out of their fragile, self-made dwellings by political pressures, police, and bulldozers. Some of these temporary encampments were demolished after only a few weeks. Others survived for several years and gradually evolved into more permanent settlements.


by Alan Trachtenberg

For ten years, Margaret Morton has journeyed with her camera into spaces of New York City little imagined, let alone frequented, by most of its residents. With a combination of determined curiosity and tactfulness, she has visited these occluded spaces and made them visible in remarkable pictures of human survival. One wonders how she achieved this feat, how she managed to break through the protective wall with which city dwellers remove themselves from unwanted scenes of wretchedness and disarray. Moreover, this achievement goes beyond the shattering of a wall or the rending of a veil. Morton shows us something beyond a culture of despair, something to wonder at, to admire, even to celebrate, in an act of courage parallel to the courage she perceives.

    In 1989, Morton observed a settlement of improvised shacks and tents that had mushroomed near her home, a community of "fragile dwellings" pieced together out of every imaginable shred of material at hand for scavengers of the city's bourgeois debris. Here was a kind of vernacular architecture that instantly caught her photographic eye: living examples of bricolage shaped by the most urgent of human needs for shelter, warmth, community, the pleasure of making a place of one's own and calling it home. It's no surprise that the shelters erected without license in a public park were doomed to fall beneath police clubs and city bulldozers, doomed as a public nuisance. Witnessing those makeshift structures so pitilessly scooped into a dumpster marked the onset of her explorations of the underside of the city's multifarious life.

    Drawn at first to the imaginative forms of the temporary housing erected throughout the city out of simple need, Morton found herself drawn to the people themselves, the city's most abused and allegedly helpless underclass. Recording their stories on tape, she came to define her project as something more than the making of photographs. She became an investigator, probing dark, often dangerous places for disclosures of hidden truths. But there is a great difference between Morton's investigations and those of Jacob Riis and other nineteenth-century charitable reformers, who viewed the inhabitants of slums with distaste and some disdain. Without a hint of condescension, Morton gives us images that tell stories of survival in the face of unimaginable odds. These stories tell of persistence and creativity: dwellings get put together, gardens designed and planted, laundry hung out to dry, breakfast and dinner laid out on whatever makes do as a table. It's a precarious existence of the sort impossible to comprehend without having witnessed it firsthand. And firsthand is clearly what these photographs are.

    Morton's pictures invert the pathos and aversion usually attached to the word homeless. Not that they flinch from the facts of abject poverty. But the "culture of poverty" in the usual sense of the term is not quite the issue here. It's not simply the result of unemployment or hard luck we see, but something even more affecting: abandonment, reclusiveness, the outcast condition. Perhaps most striking about the photographs is the way they communicate the effects of recognition that the camera itself produces. We see people see themselves seen, acknowledged and respected. Morton invites her subjects to participate in her pictures of them, to arrange themselves and their surroundings as they want to be perceived. And she shows the places they create as environments nested within and pressing against the larger environment of the city, with all its emblems of indifference and abstract power. She allows her subjects the dignity of presenting themselves as artists in their own right, creators of a domestic architecture which, though it may emerge from despair, gives testimony to the possibility of joy and pride even in conditions of utmost deprivation. Look at the images and icons pinned on shabby walls, the touches of elegance in scale and shape. Fragility itself becomes a whole way of life, certainly not idealized, but taken for what it is: making the best of it with what's at hand. And she allows us to see and feel their world as if from the inside.

    No small feat, this transposition of subject and viewer. And the montage effect of images and voices comprise a phenomenology of living art among the most marginalized of our population. It's with a shock of recognition that we see these people as pioneers of a sort, camping out on the frontier of bottom-rung urban existence. The bleakest of settings become, in Morton's pictures, sites of a kind of "improvement" that comments trenchantly on the shameless claim of real estate values, the "market" that has ruled these lost but undefeated souls out of bounds, beyond the pale of normal existence.

    Fragile Dwelling crystallizes the paradox at the root of Morton's work: not only the coexistence of wealth and poverty in the world's richest metropolis, but the coexistence of despair and hope in the devices whereby the rejected contrive a life for themselves. We have the paradox of fragility itself: the dangers of hanging on by your fingernails, and the pride of creative survival. We see the hardship, the desperation, but also the will to live. Strangely uplifting and affirming, the pictures give a different look to the solidly planted structures towering with disdain above the "fragile dwellings," the improvised and impermanent homeplaces of the "homeless." The pictures compel us to confront not only their despair of homelessness, but our despair at having these encampments in our midst without comprehending what they mean to the assurances of "normal" life. What truths about our common life are we likely to recognize in Morton's pictures? How do they impinge on our "normalcy"? Can we ever imagine ourselves occupying those spaces, dwelling in those structures, living such vulnerable lives?

    Pictures and texts work so well together here that they seem one, emanating from and reflecting each other, urging the reader deeper into the imagination of an underground society brutally shoved to the margins of our awareness. Fragile Dwelling also brings home an unrelenting moral predicament. The predicament of the sympathetic viewer is made more severe by the fact that Margaret Morton's pictures neither stereotype nor sentimentalize, idealize or pity. Like their subjects, they take the world as it is. It's an old dilemma we face here: art or reform, beauty or anger, pleasure or discontent. Nightmares of an underground have haunted modern society since the onset of industrialism. Fragile Dwelling presents a familiar ordeal of modernity: shocking inequalities, exclusions, abjection. But no one looking at these pictures with any degree of empathy can fail to be moved by the thought that we have among us, while socially invisible for the most part, creative and worthy persons capable of fashioning a kind of beauty. In their tactfulness, the pictures do not judge; whatever judgments we derive from them become our own, and therefore our society's, responsibility.

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