Powerhouse Books, 2015
Reviewed by Leo Hsu
In 1992 Ash Thayer moved to New York to attend The School of Visual Arts; unable to find affordable housing, she eventually moved into See Skwat on Avenue C. See Skwat was one of many Lower East Side squats that had been established in New York in the 1970s and 1980s after landlords abandoned buildings that they could or would not maintain. The city assumed ownership of such buildings, and squatters battled the city’s often forceful attempts to evict them while working to bring buildings up to code in order to acquire the buildings’ titles. Kill City presents pictures that Thayer made in a number of Lower East Side and East Village squats through the 1990s.
Thayer, with her insider position, created images like “Joey Looking at a Map, See Skwat, 1997” that visually organize the information-dense environments of the squat, and do so with affection. Every square inch of this picture is rich with detail, from the paint cans on the carpet to the Missing Foundation poster and the Homeless book, to the shoes lying by Joey’s socked feet. At the core of the picture is Joey, sitting on the edge of a leather sofa, soft light on his tattooed face, studying a map of Canada. The designs on his face echo the electric cables wound around a mannequin’s torso, the atlas’s ribbon bookmark and the lines on the map dividing the Northwest Territories from the Yukon, and British Columbia from Alberta. The world is waiting to be known; his surroundings describe the world that he has already made.
Similarly captivating is “Famous, Pregnant and Building Windows, Seventh Street Squat, 1994”. A young woman stands by a ladder, her body in light but her face in shadow. She looks up, perhaps she is inspecting her work. She wears earrings, a bra, a toolbelt, work gloves, and a bike chain around her wrist. Her pregnant belly is cast in sunlight. The picture is at first surprising – it is not a common representation of women, let alone pregnant women – but it fits in with the broader story here. Here she is, as she was.
Kill City feels like a family album. While Thayer made photographs to document the work that squatters had done, to support their claims that they had improved the buildings, the book offers a far richer narrative. In their intimacy and everyday-ness, Thayer’s pictures are reminiscent of Nan Goldin’s work, which Thayer acknowledges as an influence. Thayer explains in an interview with Dana Hoey:
[There] was a heightened sense of urgency and secrecy, and the feeling that you were ‘getting away’ with something very positive. It was a privilege to have my camera out and about and I did not take it for granted. I believed very strongly in what we were doing and I felt that I was living and breathing my ideals, and my camera was the best way to express my experience of it all. I was more interested in political theory than art theory at the time, though, to be honest.
Thayer’s photographs are beautiful, romantic, and optimistic. We see her friends through her eyes, and we see what she finds compelling about them. The photographs are infused with a political conviction that is rarely overt or didactic. That is, the politics are completely woven into her and her subjects’ lives, and pervade everything that she chooses to show us. The bare walls and rough supports of the building and the ubiquitous towels, blankets and rugs invoke a bohemian tradition, but her clear-eyed subjects appear to have no pretense; they are all in. Thayer describes youth flourishing in independence, finding their own way and confidently making their own corner of the world according to their own vision. The broken buildings are splendid, not because – as with today’s “ruin porn” – they act as some memento mori of past glories, but because they are evidence of a will to build and create the life that one wants.
Kill City brings to mind another book about dispossessed New Yorkers and expectations for reasonable living conditions in relation to a constructed status quo: Jacob Riis’ 1890 landmark of documentary photography How the Other Half Lives. Riis, a police reporter, took his audience into the tenement slums of downtown New York, where immigrant communities crowded in airless and lightless apartments. His advocacy contributed to the introduction of housing laws that significantly improved conditions.
In one hundred years the roles and expectations of the actors have shifted, at least as seen in the narratives of these two books. In both cases the apartments are worlds unto themselves, where the status of their residents is at odds with mainstream discourses about how people should live. But where Riis’s pictures highlight the squalid and the sordid, the reclaimed buildings in Thayer’s pictures appear as havens of light and space. The squat residents shed their dispossession by renovating abandoned buildings. The city provides opportunity or censure, depending on how the political wind blows.
In Kill City Thayer’s subjects are not the “other half”; they are the community to which the photographer belongs. Where there is a shift in the storyteller, so there is a shift in the apprehension of power in the story. Riis underscores the moral correctness of providing humane living conditions, but he also tells his readers that they stand at a crossroads: ensure proper living conditions for the working people of New York, or see them take their anger out on the more comfortable city residents. That is: Riis’ readers must see to improved conditions so that the “other half” will not seek “the solution of violence”. In Kill City, the violence threatened is not from residents but from the police. As squatters try to bring buildings up to code before they are evicted, police raid squats with battering rams and the city demolishes buildings.
Kill City invites many different readings. It’s a story about New York City, resonant with critiques of the city’s ongoing transformations and high cost of living. It is a story about an intentional community, echoing photographic projects on other such communities from Slab City at the Salton Sea to Freetown Christiania in Copenhagen. Both readings are compelling. Ultimately, however, it’s a personal story about the past, nostalgic and heroic.
In 2002 See Skwat, along with eleven other squats, were sold by the city to the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, a squatter advocacy nonprofit, for $1 each. See Skwat was then turned over to its residents as a low-income cooperative.