During the 1980s, there was a severe housing crisis in New York City. The building of residential properties had declined during the economic depression of the preceding decade and the limited supply of affordable housing caused a sharp increase in homelessness. In neighbourhoods like the Lower East Side, absentee landlords permitted old buildings to fall into neglected decay, causing many low-income citizens to live in substandard conditions. Vacant lots and abandoned buildings riddled the streetscape as property owners defaulted on their taxes. By the middle of the 1980s the city possessed over 100,000 tax-foreclosed properties, making the government the largest landlord in New York City. [1] Squatters and self-described homesteaders took over many abandoned properties, attempting to reclaim lost neighborhoods.

Community interest groups and politically motivated artists gathered to promote awareness and to lobby city leaders for more affordable housing. The Lower East Side artists’ collaborative Bullet was founded in 1985 out of a belief in “art as a means of resistance.” [2] The group was named after a brand of heroin and after Bullet Block, the rough neighbourhood on the Lower East Side where drug related crime was rampant. In 1991, the collaborative produced a lead-bound book of street posters entitled Your House Is Mine. The posters, printed at the still thriving Lower East Side Print Shop, address a multitude of issues including drugs, homophobia, AIDS and homelessness. Copies of individual posters were hung throughout the city while a limited edition of the books was donated to museums or sold to benefit the squatter movement.

The graffiti artist Lady Pink contributed this poster of a homeless child spray painting an idyllic image of a family home on the side of a cardboard shanty. The Brooklyn Bridge and a ghostly city skyline loom in the background. The poster embodies a movement where artists combined urban materials and aesthetics with an activist consciousness in hopes of making New York City a better place to live.

 

1 Michael Leo Owens. God and Government in the Ghetto: The Politics of Church-State Collaboration in Black America. Morality and Society Series. (University of Chicago Press: 2007), 114.

2 Leonard W. Boasberg, “Prints of the City: A Show of Posters that Protest,” Philadelphia Inquirer, June 08, 1991, http://articles.philly.com/1991-06-08/news/25787267_1_posters-exhibit-agit.

 

Rebekah Pollock is a New York-based design historian. She has a Masters in the History of Decorative Arts and Design from Parsons The New School for Design and is a Research Assistant in the Department of Drawings, Prints & Graphic Design at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. 

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