Archaeology of Homelessness (Part 2)

This week, I’ve been reading and enjoying some of the most recent work on the archaeology of homelessness to update and revise a chapter in my book on the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. Yesterday, I blogged about Courtney Singleton’s very recent dissertation documenting archaeological evidence for homeless activity at Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx. 

Today, I’d like to look at Ann Elena Stinchfield Danis’s 2020 dissertation from the University of California, Berkeley, “Landscapes of Inequality: Creative Approaches to Engaged Research” 
that includes a substantial section dedicated to the documentation of a group of houses illegally constructed on a spit of land infilled with construction debris in the San Francisco Bay. The decision to transform this peninsula, known as the Albany Bulb, required the relocation of the residents and the destruction of their homes which were largely built from the construction debris dumped to form the peninsula. 

Danis’s dissertation is well worth reading and demonstrate the potential of sensitive reading of an archaeological landscape. If Singleton’s work represents the privileging of rigorous archaeological methods, Danis’s work, while no less rigorous necessarily, engaged more specifically with the former residents of the Albany Bulb to ensure that her documentation of their homes reflected their experiences in the landscape. As a result, this work offers distinctly different insights into ways in which people who lack traditional housing make homes in and around American communities.

Danis work is dynamic, complex, and thoughtful, but three things really stood out to me.

1. Consent. First, she was particularly attentive in getting the consent of the individuals who lived on Albany Bulb. This was partly because she began her project shortly after the residents were evicted from the site. This drove home the point that despite the illegal status of the buildings on the site, they were people’s homes and the scattered objects remaining on the site were people’s possession. 

Getting consent of many members of the Albany Bulb community also created opportunities to collaborate with the former residents in their efforts not only to save their right to live on this site, but also to to tell their own story.  

2. Presencing. Danis introduces the idea of presencing in her work. One part of the strategy surrounding the removal of these homes from the Albany Bulb and its conversion to a public park, is the erasure of the evidence for its past use. This meant destroying and removing the homes from the peninsula even though many of the consisted of materials recycled from the very substrates of the peninsula itself! By removing all signs of this community, the city could transform the space from an autonomous community constructed from the detritus of contemporary society and settlement, into a carefully curated “public space” with paths, views, and nature. Here Danis evokes similar practices designed to make invisible the suffering of individuals who crossed the Sonoran Desert and entered the US. By cleaning up the things that they left behind (or simply allowing the vast desert to swallow their remains), various groups work—sometimes intentionally and other cases in the name of environmental concerns—to make invisible the pain, suffering, and tragedy that the crossing of the Sonoran desert inflicts on human beings. 

In the context of homeless individuals, efforts to disappear their traces from public spaces works to occlude both the homeless and the conditions that have led to housing insecurity. This has the additional effect of further marginalizing homeless individuals and historically has led to the criminalization of both homelessness and the poverty and the social challenges that often contribute to these situations. Ironically, the individuals living on the Albany Bulb were not homeless in a narrow sense of not having home, but instead were made homeless by the state’s actions to claim the Bulb as explicitly public space. Thus by making the space public, it excluded individuals who had carved private space from the Bulb, on the one hand, and, after a settlement included a proviso that they not return to the Bulb for a year, explicitly excluded them from the public space. By working to retire the community evicted from this landscape, Danis makes clear the contractions inherent in our notions of private and public space as well as the human cost of enforcing such distinctions across the diverse range of lifeways presents and possible in contemporary society.     

3. Survivance. Danis developed the concept of survivance to describe the homes and lifeways of the community on the Bulb. They carved our meaningful and practical spaces for themselves from the detritus that formed this peninsula. The concept of survivance combines notions of survival and resistance. Gerald Vizenor coined the term in reference to Native American groups whose very survival reflects both resistance and continuous engagement with contemporary culture. This stresses that Native American groups are not some kind of unlikely survival from the past and somehow out of place in the present. In this context, then, survivance becomes a strategy for negotiating the pressures of colonialism and violence.

Danis proposes the value of the term survivance in the context of the community at Albany Bulb not to suggest they they have some claim to indigenous status, but to show how their strategies to live on the Bulb were more than strategies associated with “bare life.” Instead they reflected ingenious approaches to home making that reflected both the distinct character of the Bulb and paralleled home making strategies present in, say, American suburbs. For example, Danis documents a well made and preserved brick surface that served as the floor of one of the homes on the Bulb. The floor reflected the deliberate reuse of building material quarried from the former dump, but also a deep sense of craft and care in constructing it. Residents of the Bulb showed similar care in constructing gardens filled with succulents and bounded with carefully build edges. Danis parallels this with efforts by the residents in 1940s Japanese internment camps to build elaborate gardens despite their dire situation. I can add that gardens were a not uncommon site around the temporary workforce housing sites associated with the Bakken. 

Of course the appearance of features associated with the suburbs represent distinct expressions of survivance. They reflect contemporary attitudes toward homemaking anchored in the post-war normalization of suburban life as the dominant paradigm for domesticity. On the other hand, these gardens appear not in spaces neatly defined by the concepts of property and ownership, but in land that occupied a much more ambiguous space in the contemporary landscape. Albany Bulb was reclaimed land, made of construction debris, that existed at the very margins of the public and the private. The creation of homes on this land allowed its residents to live comfortable and meaningful lives that neither reproduce models of ownership that contributed to the inequality made manifest in the notion of homelessness nor operated completely outside of normative expressions of domesticity.

In fact, it may be that the residents’ approach to domestic space on the Bulb and its inability to be clearly defined as public or private that led to their eviction and its suppression.  

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