The Resistance of Anarchy Row

In March, Mayor Eric Adams gave orders to dismantle every homeless encampment in New York. Within days, “task-force teams” of police officers, sanitation workers, and homeless-outreach agents cleared out hundreds of sites, in all five boroughs. At a string of encampments under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, where more than a dozen people had been living, city workers confiscated tents, mattresses, shoes, coats, hundreds of hypodermic needles, and at least one rocking chair. In Chinatown, workers waited as a man and woman, who had been living together on the corner of Eldridge and Canal Streets, decided which of their possessions to pile onto a couple of shopping carts, and which to surrender to the back of a garbage truck.

One encampment, situated below some scaffolding on Ninth Street, near Tompkins Square Park, has been the target of multiple sweeps. It is known as Anarchy Row. The name is about as old as Adams’s administration: a few months ago, a resident named Johnny Grima painted a large anarchist circle-A on the side of his tent; another resident then wrote the name “Anarchy Row” on a piece of cardboard and propped it up against the scaffolding. Often, Anarchy Row is no larger than two tents. There’s not much to distinguish it, physically, from any other encampment in the city. But Anarchy Row has held out against the Mayor’s efforts more loudly and aggressively than any other encampment in town.

When task-force teams started showing up at Anarchy Row, in March, residents refused to budge. In the ensuing weeks, several sweeps at the site devolved into angry standoffs between city workers, residents, and community activists. (City Hall prefers the term “cleanup” to “sweep,” which is the term the city press corps has gone with.) During a sweep of Anarchy Row on April 6th, police arrested seven people, including Grima. “I want apartments for all my homeless people!” he chanted, over and over, as officers collapsed his tent on top of him. (City Hall says that Grima is the only unhoused person who has been arrested during this year’s encampment cleanups.) Despite the city’s efforts, Grima and other residents have continuously reassembled Anarchy Row. After a sweep, they will often pitch new tents at the site within hours.

While all this was happening, a seventy-one-year-old man named Jose Hernandez began staying at Anarchy Row. Hernandez, who said he was a military veteran, would often sleep beside a woman named Amy Jordan, his partner of several years. Hernandez was a gruff old guy, and a heavy drinker, but Anarchy Row is a relatively welcoming place. He quickly came to be considered a member of the community. The other residents called him Joe.

In early June, Anarchy Row got word that Joe had died in a hospital. They decided to hold a vigil for him. Last Monday morning, in the shadow of the scaffolding, they set out dozens of tea candles and a bouquet of purple sweet william. Grima, Jordan, and others wrote prayers and remembrances on pieces of notebook paper, and taped them up. “We miss you.” “Hold us a place in heaven.” “Lo quise mucho.” “Joe, may there be music for you & from you.”

As the vigil was being set up, a task-force team arrived for a scheduled sweep. It was a stark scene on a gorgeous spring day in New York City. Down the block, an Amazon reboot of “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” was being shot. On Anarchy Row, officers in short sleeves stared down activists in flip-flops. Residents lit tea candles as sanitation workers tossed a red bag full of someone’s belongings into the back of a garbage truck. Grima had taken down his tent in advance, to prevent it from being confiscated. His neighbor, a sixty-six-year-old former transit worker named Kevin, who has been slowed by the effects of a stroke, wasn’t so lucky. While the candles for Joe burned down, Kevin’s tent was junked. Moments later, the sidewalk below the scaffolding was swept clean.

The following afternoon, two tents were standing on Anarchy Row. The tea candles and flowers had been moved to a spot between the tents, and, beside the remembrance notes, a photograph of Joe, seen frowning in a raincoat, had been taped to the scaffolding. Another item had also been added to the memorial: an empty tallboy can of Crazy Stallion Classic Lager.

Jordan, who sat in a rickety plastic chair, told me the story of how she’d met Joe under the Williamsburg Bridge. “This man approaches me, and he asked me if I was hungry,” she said. “He was watching me and I didn’t know.” Jordan is fifty-one. She grew up on the Lower East Side, and speaks with the local lilt. After she met Joe, the two of them spent several years together. “He loved me in his own way,” she said. “I used to take care of him.” He was difficult to be with sometimes, but he made Jordan feel safer staying out on the streets. They had talked about getting married.

They had also struggled with their demons, which, for both of them, had included alcohol. “He started drinking vodka, vodka, vodka,” Jordan told me. One day, Joe started vomiting blood. He was taken away in an ambulance, and Jordan never saw him in person again. She did see a photograph of Joe in the hospital, tubes everywhere. “No one lives forever,” she said. “He used to eat a lot. I barely eat.” She stopped to think. “Who is going to look over me now?”

Jordan supposed that she would need to go back into the shelter system. Like many other residents of Anarchy Row, she had spent time in shelters before, but had decided that life on the streets was preferable. This is one of the reasons that Adams’s sweeps—and Bill de Blasio’s before them—have failed to eradicate encampments; residents are much more likely to relocate, or start over again in the same spot, than they are to accept the forms of municipal aid that city outreach workers have to offer. But, with her protector gone, Jordan felt that she didn’t have much of a choice. “I’m just going to have to go detox, and then shelter,” she said. “I started drinking again,” she explained. “Who wouldn’t?” She’d been at the vigil the day before, but had to leave, overcome. “I used to write poems and stuff,” she said. “But I’ve been homeless for so long, I stopped.”

Nearby, Grima, who was wearing a New Orleans Saints cap, flip-flops, and two pairs of drugstore reading glasses, sat atop a cardboard box. He is thirty-seven, and calls himself “second-generation” homeless. He has been staying at Anarchy Row, on and off, since 2020. He was worried about Jordan. “I just don’t want to see her die out here,” he said. “I don’t want to see her die in a shelter, either.” Many city shelters are overcrowded, bureaucratic, and dangerous. Acknowledging that reality, the Adams administration, supported by some advocates, including people with direct experience of homelessness, has been championing so-called safe-haven facilities, which are smaller, have fewer rules, and sometimes offer more privacy. But Grima was suspicious of those facilities. “You come through the door, and have to go through metal detectors, by security,” he said. “They can go through your stuff. You don’t have tenant rights in these places.” What he really wanted, he said, was some kind of “socialized” housing. “My thinking on that is that you can’t end homelessness and pay rent,” he said. “Those two things are not compatible.”

On the same day as the vigil and the sweep on Anarchy Row, the Mayor and the City Council agreed on a budget deal for the upcoming year. The deal included five billion dollars for affordable and public housing over the next decade—a significant increase—but many advocates were disappointed that, owing to a drop in pandemic-related federal aid to the city, spending on the Department of Homeless Services was being reduced from 2.8 billion dollars this year to 2.4 billion next year. The Mayor then released his long-in-the-works housing plan, which calls for treating the city’s affordability crisis, public-housing crisis, and homelessness crisis as interrelated issues. Among its most lauded planks is a proposal to build fifteen thousand units of “supportive housing”—individual housing where residents can access on-site services—by 2028. The question is whether this is enough to tackle the enormity of the city’s housing crisis. Sixty-one thousand people spent at least one night in a New York City homeless shelter in April, according to data tracked by City Limits. (A much smaller number, estimated in the thousands, sleep on the street.) Meanwhile, rents and apartment prices are skyrocketing, even as Wall Street collapses and fears of a recession loom.

On Anarchy Row, the sweeps will likely continue. From the day Adams gave his orders, in March, through the end of May, the city conducted more than a thousand encampment cleanups, a figure which includes repeat visits. Only forty-eight sites “remain active,” according to City Hall. In total, during these operations, the city “engaged” with four hundred and eighty unhoused persons. Only fifty-eight accepted help entering the shelter system. On Anarchy Row, while Jordan and Grima were talking, Kevin, sitting in a blue metal walker, mostly listened. But eventually he perked up. “Do you remember the mole people?” he said, referring to a 1993 book by Jennifer Toth, about people living in the New York City subway, railroad, and sewage tunnels. The book had been the subject of some controversy after it came out, but Kevin remembered it admiringly. “What interests me is that, all these years, people didn’t know people were living down there,” he said. “What amazed me is that everybody down there stuck together.” ♦

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