Revisiting the Tipi on the Manhattan Bridge ‘Hill’
“The Hill.” That was the nickname assigned to the triangular dump of wasteland at the Manhattan Bridge on-ramp back in the early nineties. What is now a public pocket-park called Forsyth Plaza. At the time, it was a squat shantytown of homeless folk. Gabriele Schafer and her husband were regulars on the Hill, and erected the Lakota-replica tipi in 1990, the centenary of the Wounded Knee Massacre. She detailed the experience in her new book, The Hill, an excerpt of which appears below.
By the late ’80s, homelessness was rampant in New York City. Tompkins Square Park and Bryant Park were tent cities and shantytowns were everywhere. The oldest and most prominent one was at the foot of the Manhattan Bridge at Canal and Chrystie Streets. Roughly 85,000 vehicles a day passed this encampment known as the Hill as they traversed the bridge from Brooklyn to Manhattan, including my partner Nick Fracaro and I. As conceptual and theater artists, we were contemplating how to address the zeitgeist creatively.
Our company was named “Thieves Theatre,” in honor of Jean Genet, whose legend was that of an orphan and welfare child turned petty thief, jailbird, homosexual prostitute and nomad, and who in the 1940s turned himself – with the help of Cocteau and Sartre – into an internationally respected author of five novels and five plays. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Genet dedicated himself to backing the political aspiration of marginal groups – the Red Army Faction, the Black Panthers and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. His posthumously published work Prisoner of Love, which served as inspiration to Nick and me, is a meditation on his own life by way of the time he spent with the PLO and, less extensively, the Black Panthers. “Obviously,” Genet said in an interview in the early 1980s, “I am drawn to peoples in revolt … because I myself have the need to call the whole of society into question.”
Thieves Theatre’s first production was Genet’s Deathwatch, a collaboration with a drama group of inmates at Illinois State Penitentiary who called themselves The Con Artistes. After further study of the life and work of Genet, we eventually formulated an aesthetic: “To embody and articulate the voices of those who are stigmatized, quarantined, disenfranchised. To lift the barriers between Us and Them in order to find the common ground on which true community is dependent.”
One day, as we were crossing the bridge in our van, we saw what looked like a dead body near the Hill. We tried to process what it was we had seen. Could it have been? We talked about it. But we didn’t stop. We kept driving. Surely someone else would investigate. A later drive over the bridge confirmed that “the body” was clothes stuffed with tin cans and other detritus made to look human by an artist, but the experience, our lack of action, haunted us.
That year, 1990, marked the 100th anniversary of the Wounded Knee Massacre. It was also the year that Dances with Wolves opened in theaters and was later hailed for reversing film’s trend of negatively stereotyping Native Americans. The Plains Indians depicted in the film lived as a community nomadically, in temporary shelters.
Nick and I decided to approach the residents about installing a replica of a Lakota tipi in the center of the Hill and to live in it.
I sewed the tipi taking Reginald and Gladys Laubin’s book The Indian Tipi as my guide. Instead of regular canvas, I used a patchwork of 78 U.S. Domestic mailbags, opened and flattened into rectangles, intended as a reference to both the canvas the U.S. Government distributed to Indians to replace buffalo skins and to the number of cards in a tarot deck. To erect it required 17 pine trees, 25 feet tall, which we harvested from our friends’ property in the Catskills. The trees needed to be straight and dead to keep their weight down. We were lucky to find a dense grove where the trees had shot up to find sunlight but didn’t survive – dead sticks standing upright. With the help of friends, we felled them, carried them to the side of the road, loaded them unto the roof of our van, stuck a red flag on the tip, and hauled them to Manhattan.
When we arrived at the Hill, the residents for the first time grasped the reality and enormity of our endeavor and changed their minds. Not today, they said. We need to think about it. And with that, our first attempt at erecting the tipi was aborted. That was All Saints Day.
As Nick’s friendships on the Hill grew stronger and he explained what we were trying to do, the idea began to intrigue them, so on Thanksgiving eve the structure went up and we moved in. About a month later, on December 29, 1990, the centenary of the Massacre, we held a dedication ceremony at the tipi “in remembrance of the lives lost in 1890, and in recognition of the sovereignty and dignity of the most disenfranchised and forgotten members of our society a century later.”
What the casual onlooker didn’t understand — the inconvenient truth — is that residents of the Hill didn’t consider themselves “the homeless.” They, like Nick and I, had choices. Most had family, friends or other ties to mainstream communities. They weren’t interested in the city shelter system or in anyone “solving their problem.” Some were alcohol or drug addicts who supported themselves through theft or begging. Some were entrepreneurs working hard all day at odd jobs or converting the city’s ample discards into profit at flea markets. Some were ascetics who just wanted to be left alone.