David Wojnarowicz, Gordon Matta-Clark, and the Fordist Crisis in 1970s New York

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As the long networks of the Fordist economy broke down with New York City losing some 500,000 jobs from the late sixties to the mid-seventies writer and artist David Wojnarowicz scoured the remaining landscape for evidence of new life among those segments of the population that were quickly being labeled an unproductive "underclass." Those advocating for the city's redevelopment toward a post-Fordist economy of service work and finance rendered the figures crawling through this landscape as a problem to be solved to be displaced from neighborhoods like Times Square, the Lower East Side, or the waterfront. Wojnarowicz, however, attended to the small, limited networks among these figures, taking shape in what he often termed the city's "ruins." To read Wojnarowicz's The Waterfront Journals (1997, written 1978-1980) is to experience simultaneously the withdrawal of the welfare state, the impetus toward self-creation necessitated by post-Fordist work regimes, and the momentary falling away of Fordist discipline. These short monologues meditate on the possibilities of life in the ruined city, in the cracks and fissures left when capital withdraws its energies.1 They represent the possibility of life persisting even when rent from the social fabric, with all the lassitude, terror, and fragility such life entails. Bare life, but barely.

Wojnarowicz wrote The Waterfront Journals as the city, and the economy more widely, was undergoing vast changes, which, for the purposes of this essay, are best thought of as a shift from the Fordist regime of manufacturing and a relatively strong welfare state, to a post-Fordist regime of temporary contracts and weaker state safety nets. I set Wojnarowicz in a paradoxical relationship to Gordon Matta-Clark, the sculptor-architect whose work intervened in New York City space in larger-scale ways, often highlighting the degradation of the built environment within which the impoverished and working classes suffered disproportionately. While Matta-Clark engaged such problems more visibly, Wojnarowicz's monologues, with their documentary impulse, left a more lasting critique of the effect that economic crisis had on the city's poor populations.

I examine the lives and projects of these two culture workers to theorize the relationship between humans and their built environments in 1970s New York. As Henri Lefebvre emphasizes, such a relationship is by no means simple or direct: (urban) space is "at once result and cause, product and producer."2 Nor can the future effects of any such relationship be easily predicted: Lefebvre describes this difficulty as a "stake, the locus of projects and actions deployed as part of specific strategies, and hence also the object of wagers on the future wagers which are articulated, if never completely."3 My work here attempts to decode the wagers that both artists made in the 1970s. Although both foreground an arresting collision between human life and the built environment, I argue that Wojnarowicz asserts a more halting, more tentative, but ultimately more comprehensive account of the cracks and fissures that become visible in the collapse of Fordist modes of life.

In 1975, as a result of over-borrowing for development, falling tax revenues, and a combination of other problems, New York City nearly defaulted on its debt. Aid to Families with Dependent Children rolls and rising public sector salaries are often blamed for the crisis, but business interests not only benefited from the welfare-state-cutting political agenda imposed in the wake of the cri: sis, they arguably precipitated the crisis by supporting the city-funded office building boom of the late Lindsay administration an undertaking that included the construction of the World Trade Center. Such projects helped to raise the city's long-term debt by 48 percent between 1970 and 1975.4 Federal funding cuts under the Nixon administration also played a role. Moreover, the city's tax revenue, though in decline because of "white flight," was artificially lowered through the reduced assessments regularly granted to the city by corporations like Citibank, Morgan, Met Life, and the New York Stock Exchange.5 Indeed, a number of projects, including the World Trade Center and those around Times Square, were exempted from taxes altogether. Property taxes fell to 50% of revenue, in contrast to 80% for most other large cities at the time.6

The fiscal crisis infamously resulted in Gerald Ford refusing federal aid to the city the Daily News headline read "Ford to City: Drop Dead" and the city's management was turned over to the Municipal Assistance Corporation, a management board comprised largely of private financiers. Philosophically, this board largely concurred with a range of conservative voices, which asserted that the programs of the War on Poverty and the Great Society had not only failed, but had, in fact, caused the crisis. In a 1977 New York Times editorial, for example, the board's head Felix Rohatyn flatly stated that "federal programs aimed at eliminating poverty do not work." He described the "core-city population" as out of "society's mainstream," a realm from which they could only return through the alchemy of private enterprise. "Manufacturing facilities financed by the Development Corporation but operated by private corporations," he wrote, "should be set up in industrial parks created for the purpose in cleared, now vacant ghetto areas."7 Turning away from the long-term, structural causes of the fiscal crisis, Rohatyn and others "focused on welfare and its beneficiaries, deflecting attention from the declining profits and returns on investment that, since the mid-1970s, should have alerted them to the end of unlimited growth and abundance."8 Holding the impoverished inner city (and city worker unions) responsible for the degraded environment in which they lived, such accounts framed the underclass as irredeemable and abject, offering privatization as the only solution to their problems. These voices cast their lot with a range of contemporary commentators, among them President Ford himself, who saw New York City's case as representative of the nation as a whole. In A Brief History of Neoliberalism, David Harvey claims that the 1975 crisis anticipates the neoliberal economic system itself. I see the crisis as indeed portending larger shifts, but I frame these in terms of the shifts in culture and production of post-Fordism.

By all measures, Wojnarowicz started as one of the "underclass." He emerged from a background of poverty and abuse, and, after migrating to New York as a teenager, struggled to survive in the late 1970s first hustling and then working odd jobs, relying all the while on what Lucy Lippard calls "the tenderness he seems to have brought with him to even the most sordid encounters" to make the allies that would eventually yield success.9 (Annie Leibowitz went so far as to describe Wojnarowicz's background as akin to that of a "serial killer.") 10 A writer, artist, actor, and musician, Wojnarowicz was perhaps most famous for his clashes with the Christian Right in the late 1980s. In the spirit of the downtown New York of the 1970s and 1980s, he was a polymath, producing visual art in a number of styles, even as he experimented with acting, photography, film, and punk rock (in his band 3 Teens Kill 4). But before any of this, Wojnarowicz was  a writer. Between 1978 and 1980, he produced a series of vignettes that he called "monologues." Cheap to produce, and highly portable, these formed the initial core of his bid for artistic fame in the years when he lived hand-to-mouth, moving from one cheap apartment to another. Published in various forms over these years, they were collected after his death into The Waterfront Journals. Each of the forty-five vignettes catalogs a fragment of an "underclass" life. Wojnarowicz described these as "a collection of voices" that he'd heard or overheard from "people once met and then left suddenly such as in car rides cross-country, early-morning rail encounters, overheard coffee shop conversations."11 As you can likely hear, Wojnarowicz was influenced by Beat writers like Jack Kerouac and Herbert Huncke, but applied the formal techniques of these writers to a more sociological purpose, a project that became urgent in the context of the fiscal crisis.

Any account of these monologues must begin where Wojnarowicz himself began, with the need to self-create, to enunciate himself as an artist without connections. He scavenged the materials around him a borrowed typewriter, the ability to live cheaply, free access to the ruined warehouses of the waterfront to brand himself as a commodity worth supporting. With little resources, he found means to thrive in a declining cultural economy, assembling his relationship to Fordist ruins with an insistent crawling that attended to dislodged bricks, unlocked doors, and negligent authority which allowed a set of small, temporary human connections to emerge in the post-crisis years.

Better-connected artists like Matta-Clark snapped up some of the last vestiges of state support to enact large-scale projects pointing to the unlivability of Fordist forms of life at the moment of their decline. I invoke Matta-Clark here not because he and Wojnarowicz worked together; by all accounts, they never met. Matta-Clark died of pancreatic cancer just as Wojnarowicz was beginning his career. But Matta-Clark shared with Wojnarowicz an intense interest in the post-crisis New York landscape, in particular the warehouses along the waterfront. One of Matta-Clark's well-known works, Days End (1975), involved using blowtorches and power saws to cut into a disused warehouse at Pier 52, near the end of Gansevoort Street (Fig. 1).

Gordon Matta-Clark, Days End, 1975

Fig. 1. Gordon Matta-Clark, Days End (1975)


The result was a beautiful distribution of light, described by Matta-Clark as a "temple," something like the cathedrals he'd recently seen on a trip to Italy. Radically challenging the limits of art, his grand cuts took on nothing less than the history of Western architecture. His art, in the words of Anne Wagner, "set its sights at uselessness through what are processes of canceling or subtraction of basic architectural functions: what buildings aim to do and house to shelter from day to day."12 For a range of observers, "abandonment" meant the failure of the old order. Cutting into the side of the Pier 57 warehouse, Matta-Clark asserted his own sense of how the old order might transform into the new in part by admiring the old, and registering its contrast with the new. Working in spaces of abandonment, building on a pedigree that included a famous Surrealist father, a Cornell education, and a group of SoHo artist friends, Matta-Clark produced a range of innovative projects, and was supportive to the growing SoHo scene.

Matta-Clark advanced a dissident fidelity to abandoned space, one that cast the improvisatory logic of reuse, long practiced by the impoverished and marginal, into the wide vistas of Earth and situated art. In writing about Matta-Clark, critics return repeatedly to language of the "right to the city." Notions of who could claim space, and what they might do with it, roiled unceasingly throughout the 1970s and 1980s whether such claims came from below (in the form of growing neighborhood movements advocating for more local control of occupied space) or from above (via increasingly strident polemics about unsustainable neighborhoods). In the preface to the 2003 Phaidon retrospective of his work, Corinne Diserens explains, "Matta-Clark was fascinated by the multifaceted implications of occupancy in space, even if at times he had little control over that space as he tried to somehow negotiate its own nature and long-standing cycles and processes."13 In the wake of the fiscal crisis, issues of "occupancy" and "control" became more and more urgent, as city elites moved to refigure Manhattan from a working-class city whose economy centered on the needs of manufacturing, to an upper-middle-class city whose economy centered on finance, insurance, and real estate.14

In both his writing and his works, particularly those addressing housing projects, Matta-Clark offers a warm, albeit sometimes naïve, regard for the impoverished residents of the city. He often described his projects in terms of transforming the lives of those residents, as in a 1976 interview with Donald Hall describing his reaction to a group of radical Communist Milanese youth occupying a factory:

My goal is to extend the Milan experience to the U.S., especially to neglected areas of New York such as the South Bronx where the city is just waiting for the social and physical condition to deteriorate to such a point that the borough can redevelop the whole area into the industrial park they really want. A specific project might be to work with an existing neighborhood youth group and to involve them in converting the all too plentiful abandoned buildings into social space. In this way, the youth could get both practical information about how buildings are made, and more essentially some first-hand experience with one aspect of the very real possibility of transforming their space. In this way, I could adapt my work to still another level of the given situation. It would no longer be concerned with just personal or metaphoric treatment of the site, but finally responsive to the express will of its occupants.15

Here and elsewhere, Matta-Clark figured his projects in terms of altering not just the physical landscape of post-crisis New York, but the social fabric of communities like the South Bronx (though there's little evidence that he ever involved "neighborhood youth" in his work directly).

Asked to contribute to a 1976 show at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Resources, Matta-Clark chose to exhibit broken windows from the Twin Parks housing project in the Bronx, one of the last public housing projects to be built in New York before the crisis. He displayed the windows as an insurrectionary act against the other architects of the show, one of whom Robert Meier  had helped design Twin Parks. He didn't stop there: after a night of drinking, Matta-Clark borrowed an air rifle from Dennis Oppenheimer and shot out the windows of the Institute itself, after which its director, Peter Eisenman, had the windows replaced before the show opened.16 In a 1999 essay written for the Urban Mythologies exhibit at the Bronx Museum of art, Rosalind Deutsche sets Window Blow-Out against James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling's infamous "broken window" theory of policing. Deutsche argues that, anticipating the latent racism and xenophobia of Wilson and Kelling's theory (directed as it was against the "strangers" of the South Bronx), Matta-Clark brought the "dominated" part of the city into the "dominant" space.17 Deutsche's argument demonstrates the complicated project that Matta-Clark undertook and finds him calling attention to the deprivations of the decaying city.

Still, the very nature of Matta-Clark's project cutting into buildings that he understood as useless inevitably involves making decisions about what kinds of residents have a right to make use the city. Indeed, the main impetus for his work was not the lived reality of abandonment in the Bronx, but the "anarchitectural" possibilities of the spaces left by abandonment. Even as his diverse works could call attention to the deprivations produced by uneven industrialization, Matta-Clark was more interested in querying the ways in which people, writ large, lived in the twentieth century inside boxes than he was in critiquing the structural causes of poverty. And even as he worked with destruction, his methods pointed toward renewal. He first learned to cut through buildings by rehabilitating them: his construction skills were honed by carving lofts out of former factories, a practice that enjoyed more and more support from the New York City government throughout the 1970s.18 And despite his critique of mainstream culture, Matta-Clark often framed his work in terms of the same logic of development that would operate in Times Square. Defending his illegal work on Day's End, he stated to his lawyer: "The waterfront was probably never anything but tough and dangerous but now with this long slow transition period has become a veritable mugger's playground, both for people who go only to enjoy walking there and for a recently popularized sado-maschochistic fringe."19 While an avowed leftist, Matta-Clark pointed the way toward private-public models of development that would assume more and more primacy in the aftermath of the fiscal crisis, and which reach a kind of apotheosis in the High Line project completed in 2012.

The relationship between Day's End and the cruising activity of the West End piers has a complex history, which emerges with particular force in the series of photographs that artist Alan Balthrop took of the piers during the 1970s, in which apparent cruisers are visible outside, inside and around the Day's End warehouse after Matta-Clark made his cuts.20 If Matta-Clark's work foregrounded an arresting collision between human life and the built environment, the photographs point to a possible end-result of such a collision. Looking back on the period from 2008, art critic Douglas Crimp (who saw both the art and cruising scenes up close) observes:

Perhaps more than Matta-Clark could have imagined, Baltrop's photographs portray the 'joyous situation' Matta-Clark said he wanted to achieve there; and they constitute rare and indispensable evidence of the proximity and simultaneity of artistic and sexual experimentation in the declining industrial spaces of Manhattan during the 1970s, a time of particularly creative ferment for both scenes.21

Elsewhere, though, Crimp has noted the repercussions of the era for the city's poor, writing in his exhibit essay for Mixed Use, Manhattan that even as artists benefited from the city's crisis, "others lost their jobs and homes at the same moment that social services were slashed."22 On the one hand, through his cuts, Matta-Clark made the waterfront permeable to a larger social; on the other, he helped advance the "creative economy" by changing a site of industrial capitalism into a site of postmodern art. 23

In contrast to Matta-Clark, Wojnarowicz's artistic projects, though they eventually found a wide audience, were small in scale. He explicitly positioned small-scale subjects against the broad vista of the "ONE TRIBE NATION," his term for a homogenous United States. He used such work to scale up, to become visible within the networks of the artistic community. Much of his visual art used collage with human figures rendered as small segments of a larger field. His Rimbaud in New York photographic series (1978-9) used a mask of the French poet juxtaposed against small sections of the city, including the inside of another warehouse (Fig. 2).

David Wojnarowicz, Rimbaud in New York , 1978-9

Fig. 2. David Wojnarowicz, Rimbaud in New York (1978-9)


He also loved to photograph tiny things, such as this frog, from a work entitled "What is this little guy's job in the world?" (1990) (Fig. 3).

David Wojnarowicz, "What is this little guy's job in the world?" (1990)

Fig. 3. David Wojnarowicz, What is this little guy's job in the world? (1990)


With the monologues, Wojnarowicz did what sociologists like William Julius Wilson and Lois Wacquant began trying to do with increasing fervency as the Fordist city collapsed: show that even as the small niches of abandoned buildings and aimless streets were filled with poverty and crime, they were also filled with adaptive intelligence, generosity, and an insistent will to survive.24 In the very process of transforming his life into art, Wojnarowicz showed that parts of the city were written off not just by conservative politicians and developers, but also by leftist artists like Matta-Clark. The residents of these areas had the potential to develop their own futures, albeit futures that would arrive with far less friction if the city had not been allowed to take shape with capital interests as its main organizing forces.

In the monologues, Wojnarowicz's figures almost always resist visibility by virtue of their penchant for criminality and loose ties. He speaks for the remnant left out of both conservative and progressive visions of urban "renewal." This remnant is unruly and uneven, but, like Wojnarowicz himself, it insists upon its right to occupy space to avoid being policed out of occupation by either neighbor or authority. Here, an episode from Wojnarowicz's diaries sets up the material of his monologues: flying on speed, he recounts a tryst with a man with "a couple large feathers hanging from one shoulder by a piece of string, some decoration that perplexed yet gladdened me."25 After they fuck, the two have the following exchange:

Jesus, and I said, Yeah, whew. And he said, The fire really took this place apart, but man if these floorboards could talk.

Yeah if these floorboards could talk, if those streets could talk, if the whole huge path this body has traveled roads, motel rooms, hillsides, cliffs, subways, rivers, planes, trucks if any of them could speak, what would they remember like me?26

In a destroyed building, no longer useful to the post-Fordist city, Wojnarowicz finds human connection, and represents it in terms of buildings talking. Wojnarowicz devoted much of his writing to making the post-crisis New York landscape talk. (Arguably, this was the form of Matta-Clark's project as well.) Even as he drew inspiration and syntax from the mid-century observations of the Beats, Wojnarowicz continually returned his writer's eye to the landscape that he found most significant: the warehouses, piers, streets, and bars of the west side of Lower Manhattan. Throwing his lanky body into this landscape watching, fucking, writing Wojnarowicz gives flesh and meaning to the lives that development swept aside as one more impediment to growth. This was the "sado-maschochistic fringe" of Matta-Clark's dismissive note, the target of what historian Lyn Sagalyn called "social clearance," which "impos[ed] a high-caliber new economic order inhospitable for the return of the sex trade, XXX-rated entertainment shops, loitering, and the drug trade the 'bad' uses."27

If the writings of the Beats eventually found a home in the language of social unrest of the 1960s, their upcycling by Wojornowicz serves instead to draw out the suspended time of the piers in Wojnarowicz's words, "something outside the flow of regularity: streets, job routines."28 The figures in the monologues filter through cracks in the landscape, cracks not made by them, but that they adaptively make use of. We see this filtration in "Boy in Horn & Hadart's on Forty-Second Street," one of the earliest-written and most frequently reproduced monologues in Wojnarowicz's archive. One of six identified as autobiographical, it narrates a tryst with a man who lives in the upper Eighties. As the two have sex, the police start breaking down the door. Fearing arrest, the speaker jumps out of the second-story window and runs into "a big courtyard" that runs "the whole length of the block."29 The next part of the passage highlights the monologues' construction of a symbiotic relationship between body and space:

I kept trying basement doorways but they were all locked and I was afraid if I pounded on them someone would call the police so I ran almost the whole block and finally I went down this alley­way that came to a brick wall and there were some boards laying on the ground. I propped them against the wall and hid behind them. I left a little crack between them so I could see if the police came down the alley looking for me. After about twenty minutes I remembered my subway pass in my wallet so I got up and hid it under some other boards further away in the alley, then I crawled behind the boards again and sat there not moving until it got dark, I kept thinking the police would come any minute. When it got late I crawled out and started walking back through the courtyard trying doors on the opposite Side. I finally found one building that had been burned out and I could walk through it to the front but there were iron bars over the window and an iron door that had a chain wrapped around the bars with a padlock on it.30

Far from desiring the "eyes on the street" that became an important basis for the progressive neighborhood preservation movements of the 1970s and '80s, the speaker maneuvers himself through unseen spaces, taking advantage of burned out buildings. He both resists and makes use of the landscape, asserting his survival. His life takes shape in rattled cellar doors and the hope for unlocked doors.

He is like one of those figures in a Mel Rosenthal photo of the South Bronx, who stand in front of rubbled landscapes with smiles on their faces, or perform flips over discarded beds, or skateboard exuberantly down the street (Fig. 4).

Mel Rosenthal, In the South Bronx of America, 1975-83

Fig. 4. Mel Rosenthal, In the South Bronx of America (1975-83)


Of course, Rosenthal's subjects are often more innocent: he particularly loves smiling children. He sets the vast scale of the South Bronx's destruction against the smallness of his subjects' lives (Fig. 5).

Mel Rosenthal, In the South Bronx of America, 1975-83

Fig. 5. Mel Rosenthal, In the South Bronx of America (1975-83)


But by carefully selecting his subjects, Rosenthal implicitly argues that his viewers' sympathy be reserved only for smiling, productive citizens not citizens who fuck, sell drugs, or otherwise mangle their lives. The Waterfront Journals articulate sympathy for a very different set of citizens, those to whom the abject "underclass" label would seem to apply more accurately. It's perhaps more appropriate to situate Wojnarowicz's monologues in the context of another infamous artwork from the era: the set of bronze casts that John Ahearn made for a Bronx police station in the mid-1980s (Fig. 6). Aggressive, uneven, problematic, these casts came under quick controversy (and were promptly removed by Ahearn) because of the kind of citizen that they seemed to represent.

John Ahearn, Bronx Sculpture Park, opening day, 1991, Bronx, New York. Photograph: Ari Marcopolous

Fig. 6. John Ahearn, Bronx Sculpture Park, opening day, 1991, Bronx, New York. Photograph: Ari Marcopolous


Like these figures, the speakers in Wojnarowicz's monologues are unruly, stubborn, but insistent on survival. He often describes harrowing encounters: a young hustler who escapes death by jumping on a bus after a john pulls a knife on him; a fourteen year old hitchhiker who jumps out of a moving car after being assaulted; a man queer-bashed to unconsciousness.31 In page after page, Wojnarowicz imbues these voices with an insistent will to live, if for no other reason than to tell their story. In doing so, he maps post-crisis New York in ways overlooked by city planners, indicating the empty doorways and risky spaces where such figures suffer, fight, and thrive. Wojnarowicz serves as an implicit interlocutor, conduit, and representative of these lives.

In the monologue entitled "The Waterfront. 2:00 AM. New York City," Wojnarowicz depicts an abandoned, dangerous landscape that becomes the site of a sexual tryst:

The entire façade of the place was covered in a dull gleaming ice, bricks having long ago tumbled down to the sidewalk and a slight smoke still rolling from the edges even now weeks after the fact. Far along the waterfront walkways were large ships with steel meshes of stacks and poles and lights burning effortlessly in the night. I could see stars through the upper stories of the hotel windows. A police car was idling nearby to ward off looters.32

He depicts a scene familiar from accounts of New York in the seventies: crumbling infrastructure, an ongoing fear of crime, even the specter of arson:

We descended into the shadows of a ramp leading down to an abandoned playground, trees catching headlights and casting skeletal lines like X rays against the brick wall of an outhouse that had long ago been chained shut. They had once found some guy down there naked and tied up with his own shirt and belt, his wallet and valuables gone.33

Spatially-rooted, tracking its speaker's movements from the waterfront up to the streets outside the door that opens for others this passage neatly encompasses the multiple threads of Wojnarowicz's project in the monologues. Once a (presumably publicly-funded) playground, this waterfront is now a site of crime. The only presence of government is the police.

The monologue "Man in Casual Labor Office 6:30 AM" presents a bold example of Wojnarowicz's fluctuation between fiction and ethnographic study. It begins with stark words: "I'm tired of being a tramp ... my father was a tramp and he's dead ... I'm a tramp and I don't want to be one ... I stopped drinking ... I wear only old-man clothes ... I wash up every day ... I work ... and I'm still a tramp ... Does anybody want to tell me the secret? How do I de-tramp myself? I read Machiavelli and he done me no good."34 Stripped of the romanticism that Beat writers often attributed to such marginal figures, these sentences long for a social order that will support them. Far from bemoaning the failure of the welfare state, the man here presents a kind of suffering life that exists outside of biopolitics. He is evidence, perhaps, for the continued necessity of such state aid in the long decline of the 1970s. And Wojnarowicz brings an ethnographic curiosity to the man. Listening to the man speak, he notes in an early draft of the monologue:

What is the beginning of tramping? Digging through garbage? Smelly rooms with liquor store signs haunting the windows all night? What lines enclose or remove tramphood? Is it a figure of speech alien to one's condition, used to describe other than yourself? Is it a state of mind or body? Is it a style of walking? Does the idea of it hit you suddenly at a particular age: hold me close....I just had a vision of myself after the tenth grade.35

Driven by poverty in the early years of his career, Wojnarowicz moved from shared apartment to shared apartment, writing on single typewritten sheets that were readily portable as he relocated (Fig. 7). Such sheets provided an effective medium for what Bruno Latour calls "writ[ing] down everything" in the process of slowly assembling a social. Like Latour though out of necessity, not theory Wojnarowicz documents what the actors in the landscape of post-crisis New York had to say about their lived environment.


Fig. 7. David Wojnarowicz, The Waterfront Journals, manuscript


It is only by writing down everything, Latour asserts, that the social scientist might hope to "retrace the social." Building on the entomological metaphor he uses throughout Reassembling the Social, Latour describes such accounting as "methodological treatises [that] might dream of another world," which "written by ants for other ants, has no other aim than to help dig tiny galleries in this dusty and earthly one." Moving through the dusty, earthly spaces of post-crisis New York, Wojnarowicz digs tiny galleries with each of his monologues. They are not, of course, assembled into a formal sociological study, and yet they perform work similar to Latour's social scientists, who, after all "should be inspired in being at least as disciplined, as enslaved by reality, as obsessed by textual quality, as good writers can be."36 In laying out the techniques of Actor Network Theory, Latour calls for a mode of writing that sticks as close to its subjects as possible; the notebooks he describes are designed to replicate the contours of the observer's situatedness as closely as possible. In their brevity, intensity, and lack of authorial intervention, the monologues fulfill this promise of situatedness. The Waterfront Journals points to the work that fiction does in unearthing lost histories of the underclass, written by an amateur sociologist in situ. Taking shape within the uneven physical ruins of the city, but refusing, unlike Matta-Clark, to cut into these ruins, Wojnarowicz crafted a literary form that laid bare such cracks, peering into the dim spaces that they made visible.

The places in The Waterfront Journals are almost literally places that do not exist, or existed for only as long as Wojnarowicz focused his eye on them.37 They are not the site of large-scale transformation; they are not great monuments to a turn-of-the-century past; they are not the background to a sweeping narrative of the city. Their voices assert occupancy of the city even in situations where such occupancy seems utterly denied to them. The figure in "Woman in Coffee Shop on the Lower East Side" offers a vibrant example: "Sometimes when I'm walking through the streets I want my fingernails to grow long and hard so I can make scratches in the concrete or make grooves on the sidewalk or by concentrating real hard make all the windows shatter and rain down on the street."38 This is a personal, small-scale apocalypse, a body occupying space in impossible ways. Likely, that's because when people watch this woman, they don't have good intentions: "[when] men hassle me on the street I wish I could raise my hand and suddenly dimes would be welded on their eyeballs so they couldn't see where they were going. And when guys on the street make kiss noises at me I wish I could make their dicks wither and drop off."39 The woman narrates an experience that urban renewal occludes, the unevenness bound into the seeming goodwill of the community. The woman has no future other than one where she disappears into those streets, an example of the post-Fordist city's reliance on basic human decency, rather than policy, as a foundation for community life. She articulates the invisible hierarchies that pervade New York City, and that Matta-Clark relies upon to craft his vision. Her life is precarious and uncertain, a victim of what Lauren Berlant calls cruel optimism, where "the less formal your relation to the economy, the more alone you are in the project of maintaining and reproducing life."40

Wojnarowicz frames the woman's speech spatially, locating the monologue in a Lower East Side coffee shop. In doing so, he depicts the city as a menagerie of voices, filled with echoing sounds ("in the distance"), instead of abandoned muteness as real estate developers, landlords, and artists would repeatedly frame the city during the seventies. Indeed, the notion of an "empty" city served useful functions for a range of economically-motivated interests.41 By framing the city as a "frontier," real estate developers were able to trade on suburb-dwellers desire for authenticity, working within a long history of the frontier as a site of self-renewal for privileged classes grown decadent and soft. Such visions of emptiness, to be filled with the teeming neighborhoods, dominated accounts of abandoned New York.

Of course, the streets here are dangerous, as visible in one of the autobiographical monologues, "Boy in Coffee Shop on Third Avenue." One of the collection's most chilling accounts, it depicts a figure who "used to hustle in [Times] Square" but doesn't anymore because "too many creeps wackos loonies." The speaker recounts being picked up by a man who pays him twenty dollars. Because the john doesn't have money for a hotel room, the two walk to where city buses are parked on Forty-First and Tenth, where the man, after pretending to be a cop and threatening to arrest the boy, pulls a knife, rapes him and starts walking him toward the river. Thinking quickly, the boy spots an empty city bus and gets the driver's attention by screaming, then runs, jumping between two parked cars to evade the man a second time.

The problem of such irreducible humanity was everywhere in New York policy. This episode brings to life a set of conditions familiar to city planners in the late 1970s and early '80s. As the Beame and Koch administrations sought to redevelop Times Square in the aftermath of the fiscal crisis, the dangers of an unruly underclass of Times Square posed a problem to be solved not through increased services, as critics like Columbia professor Herbert Gans advocated, but through "imposing a high-caliber new economic order" that would make it impossible for people like the boy and john to conduct their business.42 The city's analysis was inspired by Jane Jacobs' 1961 The Life and Death of American Cities, which offered a welcoming, well-knit version of city streets sites in which, while everyone doesn't know everyone, everyone can see everyone. The Beame and Koch administrations' redevelopment plans projected a comprehensive reorganization of urban topography, focusing on the productive middle classes whose return became a policy priority in the years after the crisis. Marked as belonging to no future whatsoever, the Boy in Coffee Shop on Third Avenue has no place in this redevelopment. Disowned from a city increasingly focused on private ownership and from development logics focused on production  the figures in Wojnarowicz's monologues nevertheless assert ownership of their space, however temporary.

By recording the boy's story, Wojnarowicz makes his readers aware of the possibility for a more democratic city, even as he points to the crucial lacunas in government services. While readers don't learn anything about the boy's background, it is likely similar to that of Wojnarowicz himself cast out of a lower-class family, with little means for survival aside from selling his body, but maintaining a desire to live, to "hang out together and do crazy stuff" with a friend he met in summer camp. Like Michel Foucault in the introduction to "Lives of Infamous Men," Wojnarowicz seeks to snatch this boy's life from the darkness, for like the infamous men, he "[doesn't] have and never will have any existence outside the precarious domicile of these words."43 If not for his own stubborn, genial nature, Wojnarowicz himself might have vanished into such darkness, and the conditions of his existence would never come to the attention of other artists and critics. Laid plain, the boy's life summer camp and all bears witness to the bare life of a human actor striving to transform his circumstances, to return to the lost integration of whatever "summer camp" represents to him. Weeds growing in cracks, insects crawling over burned floorboards, these lives are, by and large, passed over because of their small scale. The monologue figures are, in Sara Ahmed's words, "willful," and here Ahmed's words on the spaces of willfulness apply nicely:

There can be joy in creating worlds out of the broken pieces of our dwelling spaces: we can not only share our willfulness stories, but pick up some of the pieces too [...] We can say this, as we have been there, in that place, that shadowy place, willful subjects tend to find themselves; a place that can feel lonely can be how we reach others.44

Speaking from the small-scale, shadowy places around the post-crisis city, the monologues stage scenes of willful subjects reaching other subjects. At the least, they reached Wojnarowicz, and through the monologues, they continue to reach readers.

Their words, however, manifest a desire to scale up (as Wojnarowicz did himself), as expressed in metaphors of perspective and mapping. The very first monologue in the collection describes a man in prison talking to a more experienced convict. As the two stand in the prison yard, looking at the guard tower, the older man tells the younger man "take your fingers and measure how big it is from here." The younger man does so, and the older man tells him "That's how high it really is."45 Through language, the men rework their circumstances, shifting the relationship between the guard tower and themselves. This is the project of Wojnarowicz's monologues: to allow these underclass speakers to set their dimensions equal to the guard towers of city planners and developers. Another monologue describes a speaker pointing out places on a map, drawing a line from Austin, to Colorado, to Salt Lake City, to Vietnam, to Berkeley, saying "see here on this map, that's where I am."46 To Wojnarowicz, maps operated on the wrong scale, missing the granularity of human lives found in the monologues. Maps, incidentally, were a recurring theme in Wojnarowicz's art; he would regularly impose garish drawings on maps, to demonstrate, it seems, the limitations of maps in recognizing human existences like his own. In her biography, Cynthia Carr argues that maps "remained forever mysterious to [Wojnarowicz ] as an acceptable form of reality."47 The earliest self-assembled version of the monologues at the Fales Library has a hand-drawn map on its cover.

David Wojnarowicz, Monologues from the Road (1978)

David Wojnarowicz, Monologues from the Road (1978)


Creeping like an ant (or an Actor Network Theorist) across the devalued landscape of post-crisis New York, Wojnarowicz found lives of brave intensity and stubborn survival the very opposite of the laziness and abstention increasingly attributed to the poor by politicians who used such depictions to justify what city commissioner Roger Starr announced as the "planned shrinkage" of city services from certain neighborhoods. Both Matta-Clark and Wojnarowicz saw their artistic roles as reimagining a derelict landscape. Working from radically different vantage points and with differing results, both men nevertheless sought to interrupt the slow domination of neoliberal capital, those forces that would make every bit of the landscape and its people reclaimable for profitable ends. Still, Matta-Clark's vision of making large-scale art out of abandoned infrastructure would be the vision that eventually won out.48

If Matta-Clark saw in the Fordist crisis an apocalypse that would slouch toward a new Bethlehem, Wojnarowicz saw the survivors picking through the rubble those who used their own innovation to craft small utopias. The city's 2012 renovation of the disused High Line embraced a history of decay while proving a boon to developers, who built condominium towers that start at $2500 a square foot and which, ironically, often sit empty because they serve as investment vehicles. Indeed, the High Line begins blocks from the pier where Day's End stood in 1975. Deprived of the sustaining, albeit disciplinary, networks of the Fordist city, the subjects of Wojnarowicz's monologues would become the precariat, folding t-shirts and serving coffee as they watch more and more of the post-Fordist city cut off from their lives. In words appropriate to the stubbornness of these figures in insisting on occupying their space, Ahmed writes "Willfulness can be a trace left behind, a reopening of what might have been closed down, a modification of what seems reachable, and a revitalization of the question of what it is to be for."49 Though the city's revitalization occurred under different terms, Wojnarowicz's monologues like his life itself stand as a trace, and a reopening, of the city closed down by the onset of post-Fordism.

Andrew Strombeck is Associate Professor of English at Wright State University, and is currently at work on a monograph on the literary response to the 1975 New York fiscal crisis. He has written about such topics as Rachel Kushner, Kathy Acker, William Gibson, Ishmael Reed and the Left Behind novels for journals such as Contemporary Literature, LIT, Science Fiction Studies, African American Review, and Cultural Critique.

Cover image: Photograph by John Fekner, "Broken Promises/Falsas Promisas," 1980, reused under Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

  1. In The Undeserving Poor, Michael Katz offers a historical overview of the ways in which the impoverished have been designated as culpable for their economic situation. In the late 1970s, such discourses emerged in works like Martin Anderson's 1978 Welfare: The Political Economy of Welfare Reform in the United States, which maintained that poverty was no longer a major problem for the United States, and George Gilder's 1981 Wealth and Poverty, a work that more or less celebrated inequality. William Julius Wilson and Lois Wacquant offer major interventions into this debate. With different valences, both point to the structural problems in the wake of Fordism that created an inner city filled with what Wilson calls "the truly disadvantaged." Michael Katz, The Undeserving Poor, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). []
  2. Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), 142. []
  3. Ibid., 143. []
  4. Kim Moody, From Welfare State to Real Estate: Regime Change in New York City, 1974 to the Present (New York: New Press, 2007), 54; For other accounts of this process, see Robert Sites, Remaking New York (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2003) and Joshua Freeman, Working-Class New York (New York, The New Press, 2000). William Tabb's The Long Default: New York City and the Urban Fiscal Crisis (New York, The Monthly Review Press, 1982) provides a contemporaneous analysis on which the later works build. []
  5. Tabb, The Long Default, 58. []
  6. Ibid., 59. []
  7. Felix G. Rohatyn, "Indeed, 'the Moral Equivalent of War,'" The New York Times, August 21, 1977, 163. []
  8. Katz, The Undeserving Poor, 164. []
  9. Cynthia Carr, Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz (New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2013); Lucy Lippard, "Passenger on the Shadows," David Wojnarowicz: Brush Fires in the Social Landscape (New York: Aperture Foundation, 2015). []
  10. Lippard, 87. []
  11. David Wojnarowicz, Memories that Smell Like Gasoline. (New York: Open Road Media, 2014), 36, 45. []
  12. Anne M. Wagner, "Splitting and Doubling: Gordon Matta-Clark and the Body of Sculpture," Grey Room 14 (2004), 29. []
  13. Thomas Crow and Gordon Matta-Clark, Gordon Matta-Clark, ed. Corinne Diserens (New York: Phaidon Press, 2004), 6. []
  14. Joshua B. Freeman makes this case most clearly in Working-Class New York: Life and Labor Since World War II (New York: The New Press, 2001). []
  15. Quoted in Gordon Matta-Clark, 186. []
  16. Reflecting on this episode, biographer Thomas Crow figures this act as itself an intervention: "If this deterioration was intolerable to Eisenman and his colleagues [...] why was it tolerable day in day out in the South Bronx or Lower East Side?"; Gordon Matta-Clark, 105. []
  17. Rosalind Deutsche, "The Threshold of Democracy" in Urban Mythologies: The Bronx Represented since the 1960s, ed. John Alan Farmer (New York: Bronx Museum of the Arts, 1999), 98. []
  18. Gordon Matta-Clark, 31. On city support for lofts, see Sharon Zukin, Loft Living (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982). []
  19. Quoted in Gordon Matta-Clark, 12; Matta-Clark here points to the very activity that would draw Wojnarowicz into the piers, the open sex that regularly occurred in these spaces. []
  20. Fiona Anderson, "Cruising the Queer Ruins of New York's Abandoned Waterfront," Performance Research 20.3 (2015): 135-144. []
  21. Douglas Crimp, "Alvin Baltrop: Pier Photographs, 1975-1986" (Artforum International 46: 6) 262-73. []
  22. Douglas Crimp and Lynne Cooke, Mixed Use, Manhattan: Photography and Related Practices, 1970s to Present (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010), 89. []
  23. Sarah Brouilette, Literature and the Creative Economy (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014). []
  24. Loïc Wacquant, Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2008); William Julius Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012). []
  25. David Wojnarowicz and Amy Scholder, In the Shadow of the American Dream (New York: Grove Press, 2000), 146. []
  26. Ibid., 147. []
  27. Lynne B. Sagalyn, Times Square Roulette: Remaking the City Icon (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2001), 81. []
  28. Wojnarowicz, Memories that Smell Like Gasoline, 146. []
  29. David Wojnarowicz and Amy Scholder, The Waterfront Journals (New York: Grove Press, 1997), 70. []
  30. Ibid. []
  31. Wojnarowicz, The Waterfront Journals, 36, 20, 104-5. []
  32. Ibid., 109. []
  33. Ibid., 111. []
  34. Ibid., 85. []
  35. Quoted in Carr, Fire in the Belly, 100. []
  36. Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007). 128, 124, 126. []
  37. In Cruising Utopia, queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz figures sites of public gay sex, which would include Wojnarowicz's piers, as moments of potential utopias that challenge the rationalistic system of heteronormativity and figure what Munoz calls the "potentially utopian aesthetics of the cityscape" and imagine the "world-making properties of queerness." Surveying a range of texts from postwar urban contexts, Munoz argues that little utopias can be glimpsed nearly everywhere: in photographs of mens rooms, in abandoned Ohio shopping plazas, in Amiri Baraka's The Toilet. Each text, Munoz contents, figures the possibility of alternate queer futures. Jose Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia (New York: NYU Press, 2009), 45, 48. []
  38. Wojnarowicz, The Waterfront Journals, 32. []
  39. Ibid. []
  40. Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press), 167; Berlant describes such cruel optimism in the context of the cultural and economic changes heralded by the 1975 crisis, variously known as post-Fordism or neoliberalism. To Berlant, such changes primarily mean 1) a withdrawal of state support from sites of human desire and 2) an increased experience of temporary labor: "the impersonal pulses of capitalist exchange" (163). Both result, in Berlant's reading, in frustrated desires for the good life, and a new world of precarity []
  41. Christopher Mele, Selling the Lower East Side (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000); Neil Smith, The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City (London: Routledge, 1996). []
  42. Quoted Mele, Selling the Lower East Side, 81. []
  43. Michel Foucault, "Introduction to Lives of Infamous Men" in Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, Volume 3: Power, ed. James D. Faubion, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: The New Press, 2000), 161-162. []
  44. Sara Ahmed, Willful Subjects (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), 169-170. []
  45. Wojnarowicz, The Waterfront Journals, 3. []
  46. Ibid., 7. []
  47. Carr, Fire in the Belly, 256. []
  48. In her own account of the waterfront, Jacobs would seem to be on Wojnarowicz's side. If Matta-Clark sought to privatize the space along the waterfront, Jacobs argues "Waterfront work uses, which are often interesting, should not be blocked off from ordinary view for interminable stretches, and the water itself thereby blocked off from city view too at ground level." Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of American Cities (New York: Vintage Press, 1961), 268. []
  49. Ahmed, Willful Subjects, 138. []