Ever wonder what happened to all those trailers from the Bushwick Trailer Park, the arts collective/trailer haven that popped up on a vacant Bushwick lot a few years ago? Shortly after the park’s demise in 2011, collective founder Hayden Cummings told City Room that a third of them were sold on Craigslist; but what about the rest? Well, a few — four Airstreams from the 1950s through the ’70s, to be exact — have made their way to a smallish lot on the border of Greenpoint and Williamsburg. And Morgan O’ Kane, a banjo player and subway busker, lives in one of them.
After being dispersed from the trailer park, O’Kane, 35, spent the next year living in a church on Bushwick Avenue that ironically (or not ironically, at this point) was cleared out for redevelopment. “When [the fire department] kicked me out of there, they gave me 24 hours to get out, and I called my trailer park friends and they [were] like, ‘Come here!’” said O’Kane. That was a year ago. Now, making his home in a 1955 Airstream satisfies his desire to live on a boat, which he can’t do because his five-year-old son, who stays with him half the week, is too young for the life aquatic. “When he’s older,” O’Kane said optimistically. “For now this is like a land boat; this is the closest I can get to [the real thing].”
Though he wouldn’t reveal an exact amount, O’Kane’s rent is half as much as that of any other apartment he’s had in New York, even though the land boat is as big or bigger. When I inquired about the “stuff” issue (i.e. where was all of it?), he looked at me like I’d just punked him. “What do you mean stuff? I don’t have any stuff,” he said, deadpan. But his Airstream is in fact quite charming and thoughtfully decorated, with, of course, some stuff in it. There are a couple of guitars and banjos, a flat-screen television, a desk he found on the street, and Christmas lights; his Halloween-loving son’s toy spiders and pumpkin artwork adorn the walls.
O’Kane hasn’t actually spent all that much time living in traditional apartments, though. Even before the trailer park and the church, he rode trains and was homeless for eight years, and when he first moved to New York he lived in squats on the Lower East Side and in Brooklyn. “I’ve never been able to do the rent thing,” he confessed. “This is rent, but it’s different — [I mean] like, landlord, apartment, box — it’s just always been really hard for me. It doesn’t seem right. . . . I think rent is kind of theft.”
The number of residents living in the mini trailer park — mostly musicians and artists like O’Kane, ranging in age from their twenties and forties — constantly fluctuates between around three and six. Between them, they all share the cost of the lot. Each trailer functions like a single apartment unit, with the communal outdoor space serving as a courtyard. Pointing to one of the trailers, O’Kane explained that it used to be home to all the shower stalls in the old trailer park. It has since been fixed back up, and is now livable again. Another Airstream serves as a second space for a couple with an apartment elsewhere in the city.
The day I met O’Kane, his eponymous band had been over for a rehearsal and barbeque the night before. O’Kane plays with anywhere between two and five musicians at a given time. When he’s not practicing or gigging (the band is doing a winter residency at Black Bear Bar in Williamsburg, in anticipation of a record that comes out in March), he’s performing in a subway station, three or four times a week for a couple hours at a time. He fluctuates between Washington Square, Union Square — and Bedford only if he has to. “I don’t like to play Bedford,” he said. “[It’s] kind of like Disneyland for cool people, and it drives me crazy.” Washington Square, because it’s made up mostly of students and tourists, is always an easy score, but Union Square is his favorite because it’s “everyday people.”
If people ask O’Kane where his place is, he shares that he lives in a trailer but he doesn’t say where. “It scares the shit out of me,” he said. “Something bad always happens when it comes to [this kind of thing].” Let’s hope this time is the exception.