In New York dingy, overpriced studio apartments manage to command bidding wars, while longtime city-dwellers with sweet rent-regulated deals have come to expect landlord harassment. Meanwhile, archaic affordable-housing lotteries regularly have something like 56,000 people fighting over a handful of slots. We’ve all hear these stories (many times) before– but this city is so wildly unequal that it sometimes feels like we’re all living in separate bubbles, ones that are often completely different from the ones where our neighbors dwell.
But what if you could actually step into the shoes of (or slide into bed with) a New Yorker on the other side of the tracks, so to speak, for a few nights?
That was the starting point for Month2Month, William Powhida and Jennifer Dalton’s ambitious public-art project on housing and inequality held in private apartments over the course of May. They hoped to explore how, in their words, “class aspiration and income inequality shape the concept of affordability, especially as recent ‘affordable housing’ plans have become tied to luxury development.”
After a year and a half of preparation, the project, produced by More Art, has finally come together with a rotation of discussion evenings, open-call events held by other artists, and IRL short-term stays in private “affordable housing ” apartments and luxury apartments across the city for a lucky few who won the artists’ own version of a “housing lottery.”
As we’re all well aware by now, the hyper-gentrification that’s sweeping the city is pretty much the topic on every New Yorker’s mind these days (there’s even an awesome WNYC podcast exploring the many layers of the phenomenon). Dalton referred to a trend toward “intense monetization of the culture of New York” as a factor that influenced their thinking on the project. Powhida added that he felt particularly drawn to this subject because of the art world’s role in the city’s rising rents, often acting as first wave gentrifiers. “As artists, we maybe feel a different kind of responsibility since many times art is implicated or discussed around gentrification,” he said. “Like, ‘Here come the artists, everyone hide. If you see an artist coming then real estate agents follow.’ Also, in the way real estate development ties its luxury branding to art, which has a really high cultural value.”
The project brings together diverse slices of city stakeholders who don’t interact too often, from oft-maligned developers to city journalists, to doormen. The small events, held evenings Saturday through Tuesday each week at 6 pm, swing drastically from earnest activism to slightly absurdist events that satirize or poke fun at privilege, including “Of Bubbles and Bubbles,” an evening of champagne and discussion on the housing bubble with Fusion writer Felix Salmon. Most events (which are usually capped at 20 or 30 members of the public) last two or three hours, with time to mingle and chat with the guests before and after a presentation.
The artists say they worked hard to try to mix up class and socioeconomic backgrounds in slightly unusual ways. For example, dinners last weekend flipped the script on two groups from polar opposites of the housing market. One dinner– with high-flying developers and real estate professionals discussing gentrification, community building, and the sharing economy– was held in a cramped apartment designated as affordable. “Once the tables were set you couldn’t move,” said Powhida. “It was like an airplane.” Another dinner, held the night before with housing policy experts working “in the trenches” (journalists, public servants and academics), took place inside a spacious luxury apartment. This week there will be a dinner with doorman (which, honestly, sounds like it will be the chillest of them all).
“This project has a lot to do with class and ethnicity and the ways that homes are used,” explained Powhida. “There is a lot of intentional awkwardness to the events, and some events really address and encourage that sharing and crossing [of] racial and economic boundaries.” One developer who attended the real estate dinner even thanked Powhida for getting him out of his usual circles to see a different side of the conversation.
Some event ideas were contributed by other artists. “Gentrifiers Anonymous,” conceived of by Oasa DuVerney and Mildred Beltre, had a more participatory and performance premise, asking attendees to confess their “sins of gentrification.” Dalton and Powhida said it went deep, beyond the I-feel-guilty-for-shopping-at-Whole-Foods kind of obligatory self-flagellation that people usually laughingly brush off, to wrestle with feelings of complicity.
In tandem with the conversations and events, Powhida and Dalton held their own lottery to mimic the real-life, labyrinthine New York City affordable housing lottery. Each week one of the winners lives in a private luxury apartment for four nights and another takes over an”affordable housing” apartment. The artists originally hoped to arrange the stays in real affordable apartments in a flashy new development, maybe with a poor door, like The Edge in Williamsburg. This, unfortunately, turned out to be impossible through their networks and budget, so instead they rented Airbnbs in Bushwick and even used Powhida’s own apartment for one of the stays.
The idea behind the residencies was to push people out of their regular routines to consider how housing influences their lives and identities. They hope that short-term residents will, in Dalton’s words, “reflect on what it’s like to wake up in a different neighborhood, what it’s like to be a guest in someone’s home who is actually a stranger to you, and try on a different lifestyle temporarily.”
By injecting absurdism and bringing together so many different voices, Month2Month is hopefully a step towards imagining a sustainable, better New York (and if you dream it, sometimes it actually happens, right?). “A lot of times we say it would be great if we could talk to our neighbors and talk to other people about [gentrification] and we could share outside of our own kind of social circles,” said Powhida.
“I think there’s, a lot of time, discomfort,” added Dalton. “But we’re finding ways to, like, live with the discomfort or even embrace the discomfort.”
The events are so small and so popular, many already have wait lists. But, if you’re fast, you still might be able to snag a free ticket to attend “Civilized People Potluck: Knife Collection Drive,” which will explore “the subjective nature of the concept of “civilization” by asking them to turn in their forks and (dinner) knives in exchange for cookbooks featuring non-violent eating methods like chop sticks, injera, and fufu.” There’s also “Who Stole the House,” a murder mystery based on homeowner scams in East New York and a few others..
Otherwise, follow along with livestreams on the Month2Month website. Though you might want to wait– Powhida and Dalton said that once they recover from this (exhausting) month, they’ll edit the footage down to the highlights and perhaps even produce a publication.