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Glass House

Glass House

2.0 1
by Margaret Morton

Penn State Press interview with Margaret Morton, March 2004.

Your books—The Tunnel; Fragile Dwelling; Transitory Gardens, Uprooted Lives; and now Glass House—always use a place in their titles and often present photographs of sites throughout New York City. Why


Penn State Press interview with Margaret Morton, March 2004.

Your books—The Tunnel; Fragile Dwelling; Transitory Gardens, Uprooted Lives; and now Glass House—always use a place in their titles and often present photographs of sites throughout New York City. Why these titles? Why so many photographs of the places where the homeless gather to find shelter?

From the beginning, my work was devoted not to despair but rather to the courage and imagination with which people face adversity, the ways they manage to build makeshift structures and find warmth and community. I try to show that the term "homeless" is a misnomer that blinds us from seeing how people preserve their sense of home and identity while struggling for survival at the margins of society.

How does Glass House fit into your earlier work?

Unlike my other books, which are about adults, Glass House focuses upon a group of young people—some were runaways—who in 1993 established a communal home in an abandoned glass factory on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

How did you find out about Glass House and get access to the community?

I learned about Glass House from a homeless man whom I had photographed. He introduced me to Gentle Spike, one of the members of the community, who told me to meet him at Avenue D and East 10th Street on a Sunday night at 9 pm. "If no one is there," he said, "just yell 'Glass House.'" When I arrived at the seven-story building that next Sunday, it was completely dark and looked deserted. I waited a few minutes, then yelled "Glass House." Silence. I yelled again. Suddenly, a thick chain came hurtling down. I had the keys. I found my way to the second floor and a dimly lit, unheated room where about thirty-five people between the ages of seventeen and twenty-two were conducting what they called a "house meeting." "A stranger, a documentarian," was on the agenda. I showed them a copy of my first book, Transitory Gardens, Uprooted Lives. Discussion, a show of hands, then a woman slammed a sledgehammer on a table: I had been given permission to take photographs and conduct interviews as they continued their lives in this derelict brick building. After that night and for the next four months, I attended Thursday workdays, Sunday night house meetings, and met with individual residents.

Why do you think they accepted you?

These young men and women in Glass House had had many adults—teachers, parents, police—try to impose codes of behavior on them that they considered cruel or irrational or just too restrictive. I think that from the first they understood I would not judge them by society’s norms of conduct. I accepted them as they were. Then, too, I believe the people in Glass House wanted to tell their stories, to present their experiences to a society they thought had been unwilling or unable to understand them. They decided they could trust me to record their way of life.

Glass House seems to have been a tightly regulated community, indeed, seems to have been better organized than most communities and institutions on "the outside." How did they go about keeping order?

They took turns doing essential duties, built what was needed with what they could find, and took care of one another. Each and every one was required to respect house rules, which were strict and detailed, covering almost every eventuality from overnight guests to police raids. Here, for instance, is the guest policy: "You can’t stay at Glass House unless you are the guest of a member. If you are the guest of a member, you can only sleep in his or her room. Glass House is not a crash pad. You can’t sleep in the community room or in any other part of the house. All guests must attend Sunday night meetings, so we know your face. Any strangers will be escorted to the door.

You photographed Glass House from 1993 to 1994. Why did you wait so long to publish the material as a book?

Four months after I began my work, the police stormed the building and evicted everyone. I put aside my photographs, transcripts, and notes and turned to other projects. Then, a few years ago, a letter from one of the Glass House survivors prompted me to trace all the other former residents. I was saddened to learn that five of them had died, and impressed that many others had dramatically changed their lives. One now lives in a eucalyptus forest on Maui; another is an organic gardener in Costa Rica; yet another is preparing for law school. But all I contacted told me that their months in Glass House had been a turning point in their lives. Also it seems right to present this chronicle of young squatters at a time when gentrification is erasing virtually all traces of the ethnic groups and radical fringe that once gave Alphabet City such great diversity and vitality.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Margaret Morton’s Glass House is an important, richly evocative, and very moving book. It may be an illustrated work of oral history, but it has the momentum of narrative. The characters come fully alive and most become quite attaching. Even if we’ve known all along that the story will end with a violent eviction, by the time the end comes it is still shocking.”

—Luc Sante, author of Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York

“Margaret Morton’s Glass House is a remarkable work, the best of her books on the demi-monde of homelessness and squatting in New York City.”

—Alan Trachtenberg, Yale University

“Margaret Morton has been doing remarkable, indeed invaluable work at the juncture of photography and social documentation. She is our modern-day Jacob Riis. Glass House, her latest project, is a triumph of art and compassion.”

—Phillip Lopate, author of Waterfront: A Journey Around Manhattan

Glass House, which documents a squatters’ community on New York’s Lower East Side, is Margaret Morton’s fourth book about the makeshift homes built by the city’s homeless population.  Since 1989, Morton has honed her skills photographing, interviewing, and presenting the compelling stories of people living on the margins of society.  Her commitment and passionate advocacy justifies comparison with Jacob Riis, the great nineteenth-century photographer and social reformer.”

—Bonnie Yochelson, author of Berenice Abbott: Changing New York

“Ms. Morton’s pictures depict a cozy communal home with more graffiti and less Ikea furniture than the Alphabet City of 2005.”

—Choire Sicha, New York Times

“Margaret Morton’s Glass House is a remarkable, lavish oral and visual history of the titular radical-occupied derelict building (squat) on New York’s Lower East Side from 1992 to 1994. The occupants, a crew of ‘dirty punk rockers’ and hardened street people, proved startlingly disciplined and ingenious in building their communal squat, engaging in elaborate ruses to hide their occupancy from Giuliani’s gentrification-minded police. Although their ignominious ending seems foreordained, the story proves a disturbing alternative narrative in the face of commodity-based urban hipsterism.”

Bridge Magazine

“When I suspended judgment, through Morton's sensitive words and images, I could share in the rich humanity of their lives. Glass House the book is a success as engaged journalism, as photography, and as a tribute to a fascinating social experiment.”

—R.K. Dickson, Bloomsbury Review

“Morton's black-and-white images are crisp and unblinking.”

—R.K. Dickson, Bloomsbury Review

For her pictorial essays Fragile Dwelling and The Tunnel, Margaret Morton has been described as "a photographer of the homeless" and "a modern-day Jacob Riis." In Glass House, she focuses upon a young group of squatters in Manhattan's Lower East Side. Their dimly lit, unheated seven-story Avenue D abode gives the book its title. Morton's stark yet compassionate photos become even more moving when we learn that this cobbled-together sanctuary has ceased to exist: Just four months after Morton began her project, the police raided the Glass House and evicted all its occupants.

Product Details

Penn State University Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
New Edition
Product dimensions:
10.00(w) x 10.00(h) x 0.50(d)

Meet the Author

Margaret Morton is a photographer well known for her work with the homeless of New York City. Her photographs have been exhibited in numerous one-person and group shows in America and abroad. She has published several books of photographs and oral histories, including Fragile Dwelling (2000); The Tunnel (1995); and, with Diana Balmori, Transitory Gardens, Uprooted Lives (1993). Morton is Professor of Art at The Cooper Union.

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