The book The Hill (Autonomedia, 2021) by Gabriele Schafer traces the steps of how a shantytown went from the anonymity of waist-high huts hidden in the weeds, to a tour-bus, school-group and celebrity stop; from addicts and recluses just getting by, to a drug supermarket; from a close-knit encampment, to a crime scene that entangles everyone from drug dealers, to users, to cops, to Schafer and Nick Fracaro… when one day tragedy strikes.
In the middle of the night on Thanksgiving 1990, the same weekend that the film Dances with Wolves opened, life partners Schafer and Fracaro erected a 25-foot-tall replica of a Lakota tipi in New York City’s then longest-existing shantytown, known as “The Hill,” located at the foot of the Manhattan Bridge at Canal and Chrystie Streets.
The tipi was dedicated that December, on the centenary of the Wounded Knee Massacre, 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. Schafer and Fracaro thought that if the tipi stood for even one day it would be a success, drawing the eye of over 80,000 motorists that cross the bridge per day, compelling them to engage directly with how our society treats its most down and out. But the powers that be let it stand, and it ended-up being welcomed on the Hill for 2½ years ― getting to know and love their neighbors in all their complexity, cooking with them, performing art with them, quarreling and making up, and watching many of them die.
Until August 17th, 1993, when the City finally bulldozed The Hill, tipi and all. Schafer kept this journal that details their day-to-day lives as they navigate drug dealers, one of New York’s largest-ever police corruption scandals, city politics in the era of David Dinkins (elected to solve the homeless problem) and journalists looking for a quick story.
It traces the steps of how a shantytown went from the anonymity of waist-high huts hidden in the weeds, to a tour bus and celebrity stop; from addicts just getting by, to a drug supermarket; from a close-knit encampment, to a crime scene that entangles everyone from pushers, to users, to the cops, to the artists themselves, until one day the unspeakable happens.
Gabriele Schafer was born and raised in Germany, educated and trained in theater in the US. She is a producer, actor and author committed to socially engaged art for many decades. Since 1981, she has been co-artistic director (with husband Nick Fracaro) of Thieves Theatre, later renamed International Culture Lab. She holds an MFA from the Yale School of Drama and BAs in Criminal Justice and in Theater from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
The book can be purchased at Autonomedia.
Books noticed on the New York Almanack have been provided by their publishers.
Bob Meyer says
I was living in Washington State at the time but as a New Yorker, I was home for a visit and remember visiting the site around ’91. It was scary, even to this jaded jazz musician, and fascinating at the same time.
The contact high was unavoidable, LOL, if you got within 1/2 a block of the encampment. Part of me wishes they had left the tipi or some other artifact as a memorial and educational “monument” to the reality of a persistent segment of the population of NYC.
Gabriele Schafer says
Thanks for reminiscing with me, Bob. Always nice to hear from someone who was there.
The venerable Municipal Arts Society did, at the time, list it as one of eight NYC “Memorials of War & Peace” in its publication The Livable City. Other than buying the book for the 42nd Street Research Library, however, I have a feeling the City itself would just as soon forget it existed.
Bob Meyer says
Indeed it is always sad when the powers that be want to “conveniently” forget history, especially when it is uncomfortable.