Why celebrate the dead?

marsha p. johnson.jpg

New York is dead! Long live New York!

They were saying the same when I lived there, between 2003 and 2009.

Of course 9/11 was still etched in the mind of many, when I arrived. My first trick was in an apartment on Park Place. It looked directly onto the deep, gaping hole.

For a couple of years, I ran a furniture store on West 24th Street, between 6th and 7th. This was a nondescript block behind the Chelsea Hotel. Location filming often took place here, for its sheer anonymity. Celebrities would take this street to avoid being hassled so often by passers-by. I saw Chris Meloni (most importantly, obviously!), Alan Bennett, Anohni (then still Antony), Bill Clinton, Tim Robbins… Meryl Streep came in to browse once.

I also saw firsthand how unchecked wealth and gentrification were herding the dispossessed off the streets of Manhattan. The twenties as far as midtown were schizophrenic and not glamorous, a land of subterranean parking garages, wholesalers, and not much else. Gang members literally heaved lots on and off trucks for furniture dealers like us, while dealing drugs, or taking them. Occasionally they faced off in the street, over some unfinished business. The Manhattanites paying them cash-in-hand at the end of the day got nervous. This is a rich seam of stories I won’t be telling today.

24th between 6th and 7th was also where GMHC (Gay Men’s Health Crisis) used to be based, in the Tisch Building. It was founded in 1982 as a response to the Aids crisis, by Larry Kramer and Edmund White, among others and is still a vital beacon of hope. Our street was certainly colourful (also gay porn mogul Michael Lucas had his offices there, and was interested in renting props from us for shoots), as these kids, often not out their teens rocked up and treated the block as their catwalk. They were mouthy, fierce, alive, but so brittle. They were homeless, for the most part. I couldn’t understand how parents could disown their kids, throw them on the street, much less New Yorkers, the place where so many of us came to be welcome, and be ourselves.

Martha P. Johnson’s death in an earlier time, 1992, went unnoticed outside the community, but since then her legacy has gained in stature. She has been the subject of a documentary (‘The Death and Life of…’) and is nowadays recognised for her unique, monumental spirit - and let’s be clear, fabulousness - in the face of so much adversity.

When I did this wax crayon work from a black and white photograph (color wax crayon, evoking childhood, reclaiming and sprinkling fairy dust on our past), coming under my broader project Colorizing our History, I did it to remind myself of those kids on 24th between 6th and 7th. When I think back, often, I still feel their burn.