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Amodern 10: Disability Poetics
December 2020

THE DISABILITY POLITICS OF BLIGHT

Grappling with Urban Cure in Brenda Coultas's “The Bowery Project”

Davy Knittle

Cure of Bodies, Cure of Cities

In his 2017 collection of essays, Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure, Eli Clare critiques the language of cure as it is applied both to bodies and to ecological landscapes. Reflecting on how his understanding of cure changes over time, he writes, “I begin to understand restoration – both of ecosystems and of health – as one particular relationship between the past, present, and future.”1 Clare offers a reading of cure that is both intersectional and polyscalar. As Clare links frequently ableist advocacy for the cure of disabled people to large-scale demands for the cure or rehabilitation of landscapes, he argues that grappling with cure “also requires dismantling racism, poverty, and environmental injustice.”2 Clare argues that analyzing the implications of cure is essential not only to discussions of disability but also to broader conversations about structural inequality. He proposes that disability critiques of cure are applicable to many other contexts in which both marginalized people seeking equity and state and private entities seeking control argue for the need for improvement, remediation, or repair. Clare makes evident that the desire for improvement is neither inherently radical nor inherently predatory. He also suggests that state and private entities seeking to retain and consolidate social, political, and economic power and resources often use the rhetoric of cure to exploit the idea of a utopian imaginary in which circumstances improve for marginalized people to justify and exacerbate the inequitable distribution of resources. Engaging with what Clare refers to as “the ideology of cure”3 is necessary for considering how advocacy for the redistribution of resources can identify and resist stratifying discourses of improvement, rehabilitation, and repair that have been applied variously to people, ecological landscapes, and the built environment, and have assumed and reinforced racial, gender, sexual, economic, and ableist norms.

In addition to detailing how cure is applied to people, groups, and environments at various scales, and to resistant and predatory ends, Clare also demonstrates how the language of cure identifies the co-constitution of bodies and landscapes. His description of cure as implicated simultaneously as an approach to the rehabilitation of bodies and to the rehabilitation of the environment recalls the body-environment relation that Stacy Alaimo refers to as “trans-corporeality.” As Alaimo explains, a “trans-corporeal” relation is one “in which the human is always intermeshed with the more-than-human-world.” “Trans-corporeality,” Alaimo argues, “underlies the extent to which the substance of the human is ultimately inseparable from the environment.”4 Disability studies would have us consider which bodies are most commonly positioned as the focus of trans-corporeal analysis. Clare’s focus on cure would additionally have us consider the ends to which trans-corporeal relationships are put. Links between bodies and their environments can be used to generate greater awareness of human-nonhuman interdependence in order to advocate for new ways of valuing non-human life, as Alaimo suggests. But, as Clare cautions, trans-corporeal relationships can also be used to justify harmful programs of rehabilitation that interpellate both bodies and non-human environments in a normative and inaccessible goal of “repair.” In disability studies, a consideration of the relationship between bodies and environments has long been at the core of approaches based on and extending from a social model of disability. These approaches understand disability variously as the experience of spaces, systems, practices, and ideologies that fail to accommodate the cognitive and embodied needs of their users. Recent work at the intersection of disability studies and ecocriticism further expands upon a focus on how built environments fail disabled people by describing how policies and practices that disadvantage disabled people intersect with those that devalue and imperil non-human life.5

In this essay, I focus on the gentrifying city as one important site at the intersection of environmental and disability justice. In disability scholarship, urban areas are often discussed as built environments whose design frequently creates barriers to access that can be addressed by the introduction and maintenance of physical changes, including curb cuts, elevators, even and consistently surfaced streets and sidewalks, and accessible public transportation.6 Disability scholarship about the city, and in particular material histories of disability like recent work by Aimi Hamraie and Bess Williamson, often focuses on how disability activists and designers have advocated for the physical transformation of urban built environments to accommodate people with physical and cognitive disabilities.7 I supplement this work by considering how the ongoing accessibility of urban areas is additionally influenced by calls for the repair or redevelopment of “decaying” or “blighted” neighborhoods that apply ableist conceptions of disability to disinvested urban areas in order to justify programs of redevelopment that harm marginalized residents. I identify how ideas of improvement and repair shape both the lives of disabled people in cities and the environmental and social transformation of urban neighborhoods. If, as Clare argues, the rehabilitation of environments and of bodies are linked, then analyzing how disability is implicated in calls for city-scale repair or improvement can demonstrate the relationship between how urban planners and city governments justify the transformation of urban environments, and how they approach the accommodation of disabled people. In my discussion of the disability politics of urban blight and cure, I build upon Alaimo’s argument that “the environment is not located somewhere out there, but is always the very substance of ourselves”8 to ask how the association of bodies with their environments has been used not only to generate greater awareness of human interdependence with non-human life but also to punish marginalized residents for the structural disinvestment that caused the dispossession of their neighborhoods. I ask how body-scale critiques of blight and cure can be brought to bear on discourses of neoliberal urban development in order to identify the gentrifying city as an important geography of both disability and environmental justice.

The discourse of urban blight, and related discourses of decay and its improvement through repair or rehabilitation, employs a particularly harmful trans-corporeal logic of cure that frequently uses the presence of marginalized urban residents and environmental disinvestment and contamination to justify damaging and displacing gentrification and redevelopment projects. The racialized discourses of decay and blight frequently operationalize the rhetoric of disability to facilitate the under-resourcing, clearance, and neoliberalization of urban neighborhoods. As Andrew Herscher argues, “‘blight’ can be posed as one of the paramount forms by means of which nonwhite urban communities have been denied and dispossessed of real estate in the American city.”9 And as Dorceta Taylor argues of how the language of blight is applied both to marginalized urban residents and to their neighborhoods, “the pervasive use of terms such as ‘slum’ or ‘ghetto’ to describe Black communities has rendered them vulnerable to being declared blighted and earmarked for clearance.”10 But while the discourse of blight is frequently analyzed in urbanist scholarship as racially marginalizing, its reliance on ableist ideas of disability and repair as inextricable from its racial implications is not generally included in common critiques. I add to a discussion of the racial politics of blight an analysis of blight’s co-constitutive reliance on ableism. I consider specific uses of the rhetoric of blight alongside other manifestations of racialized and ableist justifications for stratifying urban improvement in descriptions by journalists and city officials of disinvested urban neighborhoods and calls for redevelopment.

Accusations of “blight” use the extended metaphor of illness and disability to anthropomorphize urban areas, framing them as in need of treatment and cure. On the scale of individual human lives, Clare begins his inquiry into the politics of cure by stating, “[m]ost nondisabled people believe that I need to be repaired.”11 He ends his inquiry by reminding us that “[c]ure promises us so much, but it will never give us justice.”12 On the city scale, cure is also frequently imagined as an appropriate response to blight and disinvestment. Headlines in the New York Times relate “blight” to “cure” as early as 1970, as the city entered fiscal crisis. Among those headlines were the provocations: “Rent Plan is no Cure for Blight”; “How to Cure Abandoned Car Blight”; “Cure for Urban Blight: Plant Lots of Sculpture”; “For Queens Blight, Preventative Medicine”; and “In a Valley Pockmarked by Poverty, Developing a Cure for Suburban Blight.”13 The 2014 Detroit Blight Removal Task Force Plan argues, “‘[b]light is a cancer . . . [b]light sucks the soul out of anyone who gets near it.’”14 Blight maps onto the city what Kelly Fritsch argues of discourses that identify disability and illness caused by exposure to toxic substances as primarily an individual problem. She posits, “[i]f problems get the solutions they deserve, then the problem is not toxicity or disability but rather our continued emphasis on disability as an individually economically quantifiable toxic condition.”15 Blight, similarly, employs a logic of what Fritsch calls “neoliberal biocapitalism,”16 in which health is associated with individual economic viability. Following this logic, a comparison of urban disinvestment to human illness associates metaphorical disability as it applied to urban areas as the cause of disinvestment, rather than as a product of the structural devaluation of human lives and the neighborhoods in which they live that results in dangerous and harmful living conditions.

In my discussion of a disability politics of blight, I take as a case study Brenda Coultas’s work of documentary poetics, “The Bowery Project,”17 published in her 2003 collection, A Handmade Museum. “The Bowery Project” details everyday life in the Bowery neighborhood on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the late 1990s and early 2000s as it underwent large-scale clearance and redevelopment as part of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s execution of a longstanding plan for the Cooper Square Urban Renewal Area. Many of the people who stood to be displaced were homeless or precariously housed people living in shelters or single room occupancy (SRO) buildings that were demolished as the neighborhood was redeveloped. “The Bowery Project” is not a work of disability poetics. I bring it into a conversation about disability justice, however, because of its relevance to discussions in disability studies that identify the transformation of built and non-built environments as inextricable from advocacy for the rights of disabled people.

In the poems, Coultas expresses a homology with the Bowery’s homeless population and notes the difference of her own situated experience. She writes, “I’m not a public character nor do I sleep in open spaces or sleep on bum bed pads in public; rather I sleep and toilet in private and think of public spaces.”18 She explains of her project, “My intent was not to romanticize the suffering or demonize the Bowery or its residents, but rather to observe the changes the Bowery was currently undergoing and to write about my own dilemma and identification as a citizen one paycheck away from the street.”19 Even as she observes the changes in her neighborhood, Coultas struggles to avoid using ableist or marginalizing rhetoric to describe many of her homeless neighbors. I analyze her project both for how it exposes the assumptions about disability that shape the redevelopment rhetoric of public and private entities who have a stake in gentrification, and for Coultas’s own struggle to use non-ableist language in her descriptions of her neighborhood’s transformation. Coultas’s documentation of the Bowery, its material culture, and its residents is a record of her trans-corporeal relationship with her neighborhood. It is also an elegy for a place, community, and sense of self that Coultas stood to lose to the Bowery’s impending redevelopment. Coultas extends Alaimo’s discussion of trans-corporeality by illustrating how the environment that is the very substance of ourselves is in a constant state of transformation. The destruction and remaking of various kinds of environments – both built and non-built – changes the substance of which we are made.

I read Coultas’s collection as a critique of the redevelopment of the Bowery and its ableist rhetoric of improvement and rehabilitation. Coultas refuses the normalizing rhetoric of rehabilitation, even as she uses ableist language to refer to her homeless and disabled neighbors. In my reading of her poems, I trace the complex trans-corporeal relationships that Coultas describes as they are used by city government to justify the further marginalization of her poor, Black, brown, and disabled neighbors, and to facilitate the neoliberal gentrification of the Lower East Side. In dialogue with “The Bowery Project,” I ask what a critique of cure at the intersection of disabled bodies and built environments can reveal about how the implicit conceptions of disability that structure urban redevelopment rhetoric have justified the discrimination of marginalized urban residents. How can body-scale critiques of cure and trans-corporeal reading practices help articulate refusals of city-scale advocacy for “improvement” or “restoration” at the expense of marginalized urban residents? What sorts of counter-narratives of disinvested neighborhoods and their residents can texts like “The Bowery Project” provide? How can those counter-narratives disrupt the devaluation of disinvested neighborhoods implicit in the logic of redevelopment? How might advocacy for disability justice that problematizes cure focus on the transformation of built and non-built environments as key sites of “the ideology of cure”?

 

Against Blight:
Counter-Narratives of Urban Change

In opposition to the proscriptive and diagnostic logics of the rhetoric of urban blight and cure, Brenda Coultas’s “The Bowery Project” aims to observe the transformation of the Bowery in the final years of the twentieth century and initial years of the twenty-first. The project is composed of prose poem fragments that document Coultas’s observations of the people and objects that constitute the Bowery. Coultas seeks to offer a counter-narrative of the neighborhood and its residents, and to account for what and who the proposed redevelopment of the neighborhood will displace. Coultas’s documentation of the Bowery displays what could be identified as an “urban trans-corporeality,” in which the Bowery of her project is composed of a relation between marginalized people and disinvested spaces that constitute one another. The relationships that Coultas describes complicate a narrative of cure in which the gentrification of the neighborhood is presumed by many public and private advocates for redevelopment to be generally beneficial. As Coultas observes, the call to redevelop the neighborhood relies on a racist and ableist frame narrative that characterizes both the built environment and its residents as not economically productive and therefore disposable. At the same time, Coultas acknowledges that many of the neighborhood’s current systems fail her homeless and disabled neighbors. She argues not for the stasis of her neighborhood but for an approach to transformation that considers the needs of everyone who lives in the Bowery.

Even as she worries about what will happen to her neighborhood’s many homeless residents, a number of whom Coultas believes are disabled, she also doubts the efficacy of redevelopment that seeks to remove both non-human life and homeless and disabled people from the Bowery. In one passage, she writes, “[t]he lot had been emptied by the police/city who put up a new fence and padlock, took down the trees and crops, and replaced soil with gravel. This year some crops pushed up again. Objects returned, this time under plastic.”20 Coultas’s illustration of the Bowery offers a framework for recognizing how urban redevelopment shapes the terms of access in cities. Coultas’s project is committed to witnessing and caring for the Bowery as it is, but also to identifying the forms of structural oppression that shape daily life there, and to refusing a logic that ties the worth and importance of both subjects and spaces to their legibility within a system of neoliberal biocapital. Coultas’s descriptions of the Bowery offer an alternative approach to the future of the city, in opposition to the Cooper Square Urban Renewal Area and its redevelopment.

Coultas posits “The Bowery Project” as a form of alternative city planning in a lineage with urbanist Jane Jacobs who, in Coultas’s words, issued a “landmark attack on urban planning” in her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Coultas frames “The Bowery Project” as a refusal of the city’s plan for the Bowery.21 She writes, “The Bowery Plan goes something like this: there are explosions and condos arise Las Vegas-like from the smoke . . . That is the mayor’s plan, however mine is different.”22 In her comparison of her work to the plans reanimated in the late 1990s for the Cooper Square Urban Renewal Area, Coultas emphasizes a difference in method rather than a refusal of urban change altogether. For instance, by identifying “explosions” as what produce condos that arise “Las Vegas-like from the smoke,” she suggests both the violence of demolition and the eerie instantaneous restructuring and erasure of the neighborhood’s material and social systems caused by large-scale development projects.

Adapting the idea of “public character” from Jacobs’s documentation of her neighborhood, Coultas frames her project as “an experiment in public character.”23 She seeks to complicate narratives of the Bowery that diminish or obfuscate the personalities, kinship networks, desires, and daily lives of neighborhood residents that risked erasure by redevelopment. Coultas is also interested in her own public status as a documentarian. As she notes in the introduction, “I began to think about the possibility of leaving the anonymity of the page and becoming a public character, that is, a public poet.”24 Coultas describes the poems as a form of counter-planning that acknowledges the insufficiency of the city’s proposed redevelopment plan, while acknowledging that the current circumstances of the Bowery are unsustainable. Reflecting on Sal, a presumably unhoused person she knows, Coultas writes, “I’ll miss our homeless although we don’t do anything for him.”25 Coultas repeatedly indicates her desire to produce a record of the Bowery, to generate a “firsthand observation of this last bum-claimed space, a small record before the wrecking ball arrives. I’m taking only pen and notepad. Everything I truly need will appear – I’m not an archaeologist, but am a studier of persons and documenter of trails (Bowery & 1st St).”26 Coultas’s documentation frequently includes those she identifies indiscriminately by using the derogatory term “bums,” which in her usage includes both unhoused and precariously housed people, and seems to relate more to presentation and behavior rather than to housing status. Coultas’s descriptions of people she refers to as “bums,” a term she uses affectionately but also as a term of disidentification, often includes people engaged in behavior she records as at once common and non-normative. Coultas’s reliance on the term “bums” to describe her unhoused and precariously housed neighbors exemplifies her simultaneous opposition to narratives and policies that are displacing and further marginalizing her neighbors who are unhoused, disabled, and/or in poverty, and her usage of normalized derogatory language that participates in the marginalization to which she objects.

Coultas’s documentation of the Bowery finds traces of the neighborhood’s history across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the present of the late 1990s and early 2000s. As Coultas works to document the residents and material culture of the neighborhood, she laments both their loss and the loss of a version of herself co-constituted with the Bowery. Many of the poems enumerate the material culture of public spaces in the Bowery and brief interactions between strangers occasioned by the Bowery’s object world. In one fragment, she writes: “[i]ce cream or frosty drinkmaker machine on its back. I stopped to examine it and to help a man who was lifting a wheelchair up and over a 6-ft high fence. He shook my hand. . . . (June 15, 2002, Lower East Side).”27 As exemplified by the lifted wheelchair in this passage, assistive devices appear in a number of fragments as part of the ephemera of the Bowery, but often their purpose is opaque. In this fragment, it is unclear if the man is lifting his own wheelchair, or if he is lifting the wheelchair of a person who, displaced from the Bowery, has left it behind, a metonym for the end of that person’s economic, and therefore physical, access to the neighborhood.

In other instances, Coultas’s documentation includes portraits of people Coultas problematically identifies as disabled, often using derogatory language. For instance, Coultas laments the likely displacement of people with cognitive and psychiatric disabilities, even as she writes, “[a]ll the mental hospitals had been emptied out due to a tax cut and there were crazies everywhere or rather more so than usual.”28 Coultas also frequently articulates a responsibility to her neighborhood that motivates her documentation. In a poem referencing September 11th, 2001, entitled “After the 11th,” she writes, “In my city were people and no ark to save them, just arms to carry them in. To say that I loved a city, a deeply flawed one, but to know that I did and that my life might end because I couldn’t abandon her now.”29 Coultas records for the Bowery’s human occupants, material culture, and non-human life a set of trans-corporeal relationships that constituted the Bowery of the late 1990s and early 2000s. She preserves a record of the bodies displaced, the environments lost, and the versions of personhood constituted in relations between residents and locations that have both since disappeared.

Coultas repeatedly identifies her project as a form of counter-planning. In an opening statement dated August 6, 2002, Coultas explains the project as follows:

The Bowery Project is centered on the observations of activities that occurred and of objects that appeared on a brief section of the Bowery between Second Street and Houston, an area that contains the remnants of SRO (single room occupancy) hotels and the remains of the 1890s Bowery that are slated to be demolished by The Cooper Square Development Plan in the next year.30

The plan Coultas refers to is a set of approaches to redevelopment that focused on the Cooper Square Urban Renewal Area, a district designated in 1970 by the New York City Board of Estimate to “facilitate the development of new and rehabilitated housing.”31 The plan went through a series of approval processes between 1970 and the 1990s, but as of the mid-1990s the proposed large-scale redevelopment had not occurred. In the 1980s and 1990s, as luxury development projects began to be built in large numbers elsewhere on the Lower East Side, Deputy Mayor Fran Reiter began a task force to “work with a consultant team to identify acceptable redevelopment options and financially viable strategies.”32 Initial proposals for the area’s redevelopment included multi-agency community centers and new housing, 25% of which was proposed to be reserved for low-income residents.33

Many sites originally proposed to contain low-income housing offered only market rate apartments when they were completed. For instance, one building of importance to Coultas is 295 Bowery, the former location of McGurk’s Suicide Hall, a dive bar, dance hall, and hotel built in the nineteenth century, and occupied by an artist collective in the 1960s, who remained for several decades. In its final decades, 295 Bowery was home to a number of artists including the feminist artist and activist Kate Millet.34 After 35 years of deliberation and protest, 295 Bowery was finally demolished in 2005, and in November of 2007, the 361-unit luxury development Avalon Bowery Place opened in a large parcel made up in part by the former location of 295 Bowery.35 One effect of the demolition of 295 Bowery and other key buildings was the displacement of the large unhoused and housing insecure population who had for more than a century congregated on the Bowery, which had housed a number of social service agencies.36

Read in the context of the area’s drawn-out redevelopment history, Coultas’s comparison of the city’s redevelopment plan with “a series of smoky explosions” points to the lack of clarity that the neighborhood’s residents had as to the intended method and timeline of the transformation of the Bowery. Coultas herself lives in a state of uncertainty about the timeline of redevelopment. She repeats “a mantra [she] had been saying all along in [her] head”: . . . “When they demolish the Bowery / When they revise the Bowery / When they renovate the Bowery / When they rehabilitate the Bowery.”37 By the time Deputy Mayor Reiter reanimated the plan for the Cooper Square Urban Renewal Area in 1996, urban renewal as a strategy of “having to destroy the city to save it”38 had been long retired as the dominant governmental approach to the revitalization of urban areas. Most of the projects associated with urban renewal occurred in the 1950s and 1960s. In New York, Robert Moses, the city’s former Parks Commissioner who proposed and carried out the vast majority of the city’s urban renewal programs, resigned from his position in 1960.39 The usage of the district’s urban renewal plan to facilitate the neoliberal gentrification of the Bowery demonstrates the embeddedness of the processes of renewal and gentrification. At the same time, it points to the fact that the people who lived on the Bowery from 1970 until the early 2000s inhabited a constant state of uncertainty about the area’s redevelopment, as a series of a failed attempts were made to facilitate the demolition of buildings important to the district’s cultural and social history. During the period in which the Bowery remained in limbo, larger patterns of globalized privatization and economic restructuring emerged, which contributed to the neoliberal transformation of many large cities, including other parts of the Lower East Side.40 As an alternative to the Mayor’s plan for the Bowery, “The Bowery Project” advocates for planning efforts that view the restoration of urban neighborhoods as having a responsibility to the past that inheres in residents’ relationships to place in the present and future.

One curious element of Coultas’s poems in the context of her explicit interest in documentation is the fact that she largely does not address questions of the racialization of the Bowery’s redevelopment. Coultas does choose to include in the majority of her observations her perception of the gender identity of strangers (by selecting gendered pronouns for them). But she does not include her perception of the racial demographics of the Bowery, or how they are changing. Given her commitment to documenting who and what is displaced from the Bowery, it is notable that Coultas does not explicitly note her own racial identification or the racial transformation of the Bowery or of the Lower East Side more broadly.41 Furthermore, what is evident in Coultas’s reading is that a material transformation of the neighborhood is both impending and presently occurring. What is less evident is the dramatic economic change and steady increase of wealth that had already been occurring since the ratification of the Cooper Square Urban Renewal Area in 1970.

Coultas’s repeated description of her project as an effort to document the people and objects in the process of being displaced from the gentrifying Bowery refuses the idea that the neighborhood would be “rehabilitated” by being “demolished.” Coultas’s observations effectively expose the elision between demolition and repair assumed by the city’s redevelopment plan. She asks her reader to be skeptical of what gentrification improves and for whom, and whose trans-corporeal relationships with their neighborhood, constituted by their memories and objects and practices and relationships, are lost by redevelopment. Her observations identify how the language of rehabilitation and cure that Clare notes as being applied to disabled people is also applied to the Bowery.

 

Access, Blight, and Urban Futures

New York City’s plan to rehabilitate the Bowery is an example of rhetoric common to urban redevelopment projects that operationalizes disability or ignores the experience of marginalized residents who are likely to be displaced in order to justify and facilitate neoliberalizing urban change. The imperative to rehabilitate urban areas is often paired with the identification of “urban blight” as the “disease” that is in need of being “cured.” Many uses of “blight” to refer to urban landscapes that bear visual evidence of widespread poverty, ecological crisis, and/or structural disinvestment produce meaning by using human illness and disability as a metaphor for the effects of disinvestment.42 Redevelopment as an approach to blight compares clearance, rezoning, and building projects that frequently displace residents of color to a necessary medical intervention designed to treat and heal the city. As I noted above, the metaphor of blight implicitly anthropomorphizes the city, asking urban residents to imagine opposing redevelopment as akin to denying a human being necessary medical care. The discourse of “blight” frames the results of racialized disinvestment and their subsequent gentrification as a public-private response to nonpartisan quasi-medical need. “Blight” appeals to a pseudo-universal medical ethics to mask the intention of gentrification projects that actualize further stratification.

Blight as it refers to disinvested urban areas indicates the generous permissiveness with metaphor in urban scholarship and public writing that uses the term. The primary definition of “blight,” in the Oxford English Dictionary relates to disease or illness that appears upon the leaves of plants: “[a]ny baleful influence of atmospheric or invisible origin, that suddenly blasts, nips, or destroys plants, affects them with disease, arrests their growth, or prevents their blossom from ‘setting.’” Additional definitions include disturbances that appear or are “[a]pplied to affections of the face or skin.” These definitions appear in the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, respectively. The twentieth century application of “blight” to urban areas draws analogies both to plant disease and to illness as it manifests in human facial or epidermal appearance.43 The discourse of cure and treatment that surrounds urban blight elides a metaphor of plant disease with a metaphor of human illness, evidencing a relation between body and environment in its imprecise collapse of referents.

While many uses of blight employ disability as a metaphor for disinvestment, others collapse human disability, specifically psychiatric disability, as both metaphor for and evidence of disinvestment. These usages also often conflate homelessness and disability as symptoms of blight, and make evident the particular need for new language around homelessness that is specific about the experiences of people who are both homeless and disabled. As a 1983 review in the New York Times of the television documentary Asylum in the Streets argues, “Homeless mentally ill people sleep in subways, they wander in parks, they shuffle along the streets. We see them. On the other hand, they have no names and faces, they are only urban blight.”44 This review elides blight, disability, and homelessness and problematically identifies homelessness and psychiatric disability as a metonym for individual body-minds.45 A 1986 article in the journal Public Interest entitled “The Homeless Families of New York” similarly conflates disability and homelessness. It opens, “We now know that there are different kinds of homeless individuals: street people (both men and women); the mentally ill; the otherwise disabled; battered wives; runaway children; and so on.”46 When David Dinkins campaigned for mayor of New York City in 1989, his office published a proposed action plan on homelessness, entitled A Shelter is Not a Home, which began by presenting and debunking a series of myths about the nature of homelessness. Myth 3 reads “[h]omeless families are the ‘worst’ of New York’s welfare families. Family homelessness is the result of drug addiction, mental illness, or behavioral dysfunction.”47 Dinkins’s myths operate by playing into public narratives of an individualized medical model of disability that identifies discrimination related to non-normative experiences of embodiment as a result of a personal failing rather than the result of the structural devaluation and under-resourcing of disabled people’s experiences of embodiment and cognition. The myths at once critique and perpetuate narratives of urban change that use ableist rhetoric to explain structural poverty and disinvestment. Furthermore, the plan objects to the identification of “mental illness” as a characteristic of the “worst” of New York City’s “welfare families,” an accusation that uses psychiatric disability to devalue urban residents, and evidences Dinkins’s critique of the city’s disregard for the overlapping – though not synonymous – categories of disabled people and people in poverty. In these examples, urban blight is both like a city-scale disability and is evidenced by the presence of disabled people who are homeless and/or experiencing poverty. Both by indexing disabled people as evidence of the inadequacy of particular urban areas and by using disability as metaphor, a discourse of blight privileges cure over access. Premised on the logic of displacement, blight forecloses the rights of people who live in urban areas that might be redeveloped by invalidating their claims to the present, and their importance to the future of the city.  

Coultas’s example of urban trans-corporeal inquiry identifies the importance of the city as a key site of advocacy for both disability and environmental justice. Coultas shares this advocacy with environmental disability scholarship that considers both non-human and built environments. As Alison Kafer argues, “the natural environment is also a built environment, one shaped by and experienced through assumptions and expectations about gender, sexuality, class, race, and nation.”48 Kafer argues against “long-standing assumptions that nature and the environment only exist ‘out there,’ outside of our houses and neighborhoods.”49 These assumptions, she notes, increase the challenge of working toward environmental justice. As Kafer posits, “Seeing nature as only ‘out there,’ or faucet water as categorically different from ocean water, makes environmental justice work all the more difficult.”50 Coultas complexly agrees. Linking the categories of ecological analysis to the built and social environments of urban space, she writes of New York, “there is nature in this city . . . still human nature is what the city grows best.”51 As counter-examples to one another, Coultas’s poem and the ableist expectations of the discourses of blight and cure evidence the need for language that promotes accessibility as it addresses urban change as a constitutive element of both disability and environmental justice.

Environmental disability scholarship often puts its emphasis on how environmental factors condition the terms of access. Recent scholarship on urbanism and ecological catastrophe similarly reveals that the design and management of the urban environment is contingent upon the conceptions that planners, developers, and government officials hold about the body-minds who are valuable to urban spaces. In dialogue with Clare’s emphasis on access as the refusal of cure, scholarship on urban ecological crisis explains how the discursive representation of the effect of environmental disasters on cities conditions the kinds of redevelopment that are possible. Sociologists Kevin Fox Gotham and Miriam Greenberg argue that the language that shapes responses to urban catastrophe is integral to the responses that private and public sector actors produce. They write, “historic moments of rupture cannot be acted upon, however, without discursive frames which enable political and economic elites, as well as other organized interests to assess causality, attribute blame, and define ‘recovery.’”52 Gotham and Greenberg share with Clare a focus on the people, discursive orientations, and systems of power that determine what counts as “recovery,” as well as whose body-minds and lives are shaped by these determinations. They also draw attention to urban redevelopment as a process facilitated increasingly not only by gentrification and the intensification of urban global capital, but also by responses to ecological disaster. Clare asks on the body-scale what Gotham and Greenberg ask on the city-scale, “recovery and rebuilding for whom, and for what purpose?”53

As “The Bowery Project” evidences, urban spaces are dynamic in small and large ways. To advocate for access rather than cure is not to argue against urban change but to advocate for an approach to urban transformation that considers how to manage change on all scales and for all bodies. Coultas’s documentation of the trans-corporeal relationships threatened and remade by the redevelopment of her neighborhood presents a model for how to approach the lived practice of this negotiation. Coultas’s project is compatible with arguments about the work of disability poetics. As Michael Davidson argues, “A disability poetics, while forged within the liberating ethos of the Independent Living movement, creates a site where the putative normalcy of bodies, sensations, and agency can be understood differently.”54 Davidson explains that works of disability poetics help to expose the social construction of the conditions and terms of access. Reading Coultas’s “The Bowery Project” at the intersection of disability, urban, and environmental justice illustrates that advocating for access requires focusing on urban redevelopment as a key context for imagining and creating body-environment relations. Furthermore, “The Bowery Project” illustrates that urban planners, developers, and government officials are key actors in producing the “putative normalcy” of ableism by governing the terms of access as a dynamic body-environment relation. Coultas’s representation of the transformation of the Bowery suggests that an urban trans-corporeality that shifts between body and city scales is a necessary feature of both environmental and disability justice. “The Bowery Project” illustrates that the spectrum of rhetorical positions around embodiment are themselves composed of affective and physical relations among bodies, and between bodies and places. As Coultas’s writing indicates, an urban gloss on the relationship between disability justice and experiences of trans-corporeality demonstrates that city making, and more importantly, city remaking, condition the affective and physical manifestations of access, and how those manifestations can and might be maintained as cities continue to transform as a result of the interrelated processes of redevelopment and ecological catastrophe.


  1. Clare, Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), 60.  

  2. Clare, Brilliant Imperfection, 62.  

  3. Clare, Brilliant Imperfection, xvi. 

  4. Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2010), 2. 

  5. For instance, in her advocacy for disability scholarship that more substantively addresses the non-human environment, Alison Kafer argues, “[a]lthough concern with the environment has long been an animating force in disability studies and activism, ‘environment’ in this context typically refers to the built environment of buildings, sidewalks, and transportation technologies.” Alison Kafer, Feminist, Queer, Crip (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2013), 129. 

  6. Bess Williamson, Accessible America: A History of Disability and Design (New York: New York University Press, 2018), 213–14. 

  7. See Williamson, Accessible America, 2018; and Aimi Hamraie, Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017). 

  8. Alaimo, Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self, 4. 

  9. Andrew Herscher, “The Urbanism of Racial Capitalism: Toward a History of ‘Blight,’”Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 40, no. 1 (2020): 59. 

  10. Dorceta Taylor, Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility (New York: New York University Press, 2014), 230. 

  11. Clare, Brilliant Imperfection, 7. 

  12. Clare, Brilliant Imperfection, 184. 

  13. David K Shipler, “Rent Plan is no Cure for Blight,”New York Times (New York, NY), Jun 14, 1970.; “How to Cure Abandoned Car Blight,”New York Times (New York, NY), Jun 22, 1988.; Betsy Rubine, “Cure for Urban Blight: Plant Lots of Sculpture,” New York Times (New York, NY), Oct 30, 2009; Lee A Daniels, “For Queens Blight, Preventive Medicine,” New York Times (New York, NY), Jan 29, 1982. Barbara Whitaker, “In a Valley Pockmarked by Poverty, Developing a Cure for Suburban Blight,” New York Times (New York, NY), Feb 5, 2000. 

  14. Monica Davey, “Detroit Urged to Tear Down 40,000 Buildings: First Step in Plan to Stem Blight in a Bankrupt City,” New York Times(New York, NY), May 28, 2014. 

  15. Kelly Fritsch, “Toxic Pregnancies: Speculative Futures, Disabling Environments, and Neoliberal Biocapital,” in Disability Studies and the Environmental Humanities: Toward an Eco-Crip Theory, ed. Sarah Jaquette Ray and Jay Sibara (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017), 376. 

  16. Fritsch, “Toxic Pregnancies,” 376. 

  17. I refer to Coultas’s project as a work of “documentary poetics” to identify the poem’s commitment to chronicling events that Coultas is witnessing in a way that is both a record of those events and a critique of dominant narratives of those events as produced by news coverage and statements by New York City government officials. As Philip Metres argues, documentary poetry is that which employs “documentary materials to give voice to stories of people and movements that the mass media tend to ignore or misrepresent. . . .  Such poetry arises from the idea that poetry is not a museum-object to be observed from afar, but a dynamic medium that informs and is informed by the history of the moment.” Philip Metres, “From Reznikoff to Public Enemy,” Poetry Foundation, November 5th, 2007. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/68969/from-reznikoff-to-public-enemy

  18. Brenda Coultas, A Handmade Museum (Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press, 2003), 13. 

  19. Coultas, A Handmade Museum, 11. 

  20. Coultas, A Handmade Museum, 24. 

  21. Coultas, A Handmade Museum, 11. In the introduction to “The Bowery Project,” Coultas notes that she read Jacobs’s landmark The Death and Life of Great American Cities as well as Sidewalk, sociologist Mitchell Duneier’s 1996 updating and response to Jacobs’s important work of anti-renewal investigative urbanism (2003: 11). 

  22. Coultas, A Handmade Museum, 13. 

  23. Coultas, A Handmade Museum, 13. 

  24. Coultas, A Handmade Museum, 11. 

  25. Coultas, A Handmade Museum, 13. 

  26. Coultas, A Handmade Museum, 15. 

  27. Coultas, A Handmade Museum, 40. 

  28. Coultas, A Handmade Museum, 19. 

  29. Coultas, A Handmade Museum, 31. 

  30. Coultas, A Handmade Museum, 11. 

  31. A handout accompanying an April 1996 internal memo signed by Deputy Mayor Fran Reiter identifies the Cooper Square Urban Renewal Area in the following terms. The area “[c]onsists of vacant land and occupied buildings on approximately 8.25 acres, and is bounded by Stanton Street to the south, the Bowery on the west, East 5th Street on the north, and Second Avenue and Chrystie Street on the east.” “Cooper Square Urban Renewal Area,” Box 02/06/001, Folder 15. Rudolph W. Giuliani Papers, Deputy Mayors Series: Fran Reiter. Municipal Archive. City of New York. 

  32. “Cooper Square Urban Renewal Area,” Box 02/06/001, Folder 15. Office of the Mayor. Rudolph W. Giuliani Papers, Deputy Mayors Series: Fran Reiter. Municipal Archive. City of New York. In a 1996 memorandum to the chairpeople of the Cooper Square Committee and Community Board 3, Deputy Mayor Reiter wrote: “As you know, many of the original conditions needed to move these important sites forward no longer exist. Most important, City and Federal development funds no longer exist, political and community support has waned and a number of contentious site development issues exist. Nevertheless, almost everyone in the community would like to see something positive happen on these sites and a number of alternatives have been proposed.” “Advancing Redevelopment of the Cooper Square Urban Renewal Area,” April 9th, 1996. Box 02/06/001, Folder 15. Office of the Mayor. Rudolph W. Giuliani Papers, Deputy Mayors Series: Fran Reiter. Municipal Archive. City of New York. 

  33. “Cooper Square Urban Renewal Area,” Box 02/06/001, Folder 15. Office of the Mayor. Rudolph W. Giuliani Papers, Deputy Mayors Series: Fran Reiter. Municipal Archive. City of New York. 

  34. “The Bowery Historic District,” National Register of Historic Places Registration Form. October 27, 2011, accessed September 4th, 2019, 66, https://www.nps.gov/nr/feature/places/13000027.htm; J.A. Lobbia, “Bowery Bummer,” Village Voice, March 16, 1999. 

  35. “Avalon Bowery Place I and II,” SLCE Architects, accessed September 4, 2019, https://www.slcearch.com/project/avalon-bowery-place-i-ii/; Francis Morrone, “A History of the East Village and Its Architecture,” Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, December 2018, 60. 

  36. Michael T. Kaufman. “Last Call Sounds for Last Gin Mill on the Bowery,” New York Times (New York, NY), Dec 25, 1993. 

  37. Coultas, A Handmade Museum, 26. 

  38. Samuel Zipp, Manhattan Projects: The Rise and Fall of Urban Renewal in Cold War New York (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 364. 

  39. Paul Goldberger, “Robert Moses is Dead at 92,” The New York Times (New York: NY), July 30, 1981. 

  40. Marxist geographer Neil Smith identifies gentrification as a response to “global economic expansion in the 1980s; the restructuring of national and urban economies in advanced capitalist countries toward services, recreation, and consumption; and the emergence of a global hierarchy of world, national and regional cities . . . Nowhere are these forces more evidence than in the Lower East Side.” Neil Smith, New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City (New York: Routledge, 1996), 8. 

  41. Also not evident in Coultas’s analysis is how drastically the class dynamics of the Bowery had been changing over the past 30 years. For instance, the 2000 census indicates that the population of Census tract 36.02, a 3 block by 2 block area that includes the site where Avalon Bowery Place was subsequently built (and many of the specific sites Coultas notes in her project), in 1999 was 57.94% white (compared to 54.34% in all of Manhattan, and comparatively 66.27% white in the 1990 census (compared to 58.3% in all of Manhattan), 51.3% white in 1980 (compared to 76.01% in all of Manhattan), 76.4% white in 1970 (compared to a Manhattan average of 71.39%). Over those 40 years the census tract became much wealthier. In 1970, the average household income in the census tract was $6,695 compared to an average in Manhattan of $14,242. In 2000, the average family income was $45,000, compared to a Manhattan average of $47,030. Persons: White, 2000. Social Explorer, (based on data from U.S. Census Bureau; accessed September 1st, 2019); Persons: White, 1990. Social Explorer, (based on data from U.S. Census Bureau; accessed September 1st, 2019); Persons: White, 1980. Social Explorer, (based on data from U.S. Census Bureau; accessed September 1st, 2019); Persons: White, 1970. Social Explorer, (based on data from U.S. Census Bureau; accessed September 1st, 2019); Average Household Income, 1970. Social Explorer, (based on data from U.S. Census Bureau; accessed September 1st, 2019); Average Household Income, 2000. Social Explorer, (based on data from U.S. Census Bureau; accessed September 1st, 2019). 

  42. As Susan Sontag famously argues, “Illnesses have always been used as metaphors to enliven charges that a society was corrupt or unjust . . .  For purposes of invective, diseases are of only two types: the painful but curable, and the possibly fatal . . . Disease imagery is used to express concern for social order, and health is something everyone is presumed to know about.” Blight follows Sontag’s logic, assuming common public knowledge about the contents and desirability of health, and serving to vaguely indicate social problems so that they might be cured by redevelopment. In the case of blight, urban disinvestment is evidence of a failed social order, although it is the consolidation of capital, rather than minoritized residents, whose needs are prioritized in the project of repair. Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1977), 72. 

  43. “blight, n.”. OED Online. June 2019. Oxford University Press, accessed Sept 4, 2019). 

  44. John Corry, “About the Homeless Mentally Ill,” New York Times (New York, NY), Dec. 29, 1983. 

  45. As Clare notes of his own usage of the term “body-mind” “I settled on body-mind in order to recognize both the inextricable relationships between our bodies and our minds and the ways in which the ideology of cure operates as if the two are distinct – the mind superior to the body, the mind defining personhood, the mind separating humans from nonhumans.” Clare, Brilliant Imperfection, xvi – emphasis in original. 

  46. Thomas J. Main, “The Homeless Families of New York.” Public Interest, Fall 1986, 3. 

  47. Thomas J. Main, Homelessness in New York City: Policymaking from Koch to de Blasio (New York: New York University Press, 2016), 71. 

  48. Kafer, Feminist, Queer, Crip, 130. 

  49. Kafer, Feminist, Queer, Crip, 145. 

  50. Kafer, Feminist, Queer, Crip, 145. 

  51. Coultas, A Handmade Museum, 31. 

  52. Kevin Fox Gotham and Miriam Greenberg, Crisis Cities: Disaster and Redevelopment in New York and New Orleans (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 224. 

  53. Gotham and Greenberg, Crisis Cities, x. 

  54. Michael Davidson. “Disability Poetics” in The Oxford Handbook of Modern and Contemporary American Poetry, ed. Cary Nelson. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 581. 


Acknowledgements: I would like to extend my thanks to Brooke Jamieson Stanley and Orchid Tierney for their feedback on earlier drafts of this essay. I additionally express my gratitude to the two anonymous reviewers for their careful engagement with my work and for their helpful recommendations.

Article: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Image: "our feelings thru," by bill bissett (2020).