(Under)Privileged Spaces: On Martha Rosler’s “If You Lived Here…”

by Nina Möntmann

The big social groups (consisting of classes, parts of classes, or institutions … ) act with and/or against each other. From their interactions, strategies, successes, and defeats grow the qualities and “properties” of urban space.

—Henri Lefèbvre

(Under)Privileged Urban Spaces

By the end of the 1980s, during the period in which Martha Rosler was realizing her three-part exhibition and action project If You Lived Here…, New York was frequently described as the city where social distinctions and disintegration were the most blatantly visible, a “localized unity of the sharpest contradictions,” a “city of contradictions, of rich and poor, of glitz and gloom.”1 The homeless here represented the tip of the iceberg of unbalanced state and urban social policies, the “principal conservative government objective being to make these people invisible, to get them out of the way, to neutralize them.”2 In 1990 there were 70,000–80,000 homeless in New York and 250,000 who were at risk of losing their homes.3 The drastic cuts in social spending, together with the increasing rate of inflation due to the worldwide financial crisis at the end of the 1980s and the cutbacks in jobs, entailed a rapid pauperization among the middle and lower classes. Additional cuts in state subsidies for affordable housing further exacerbated the housing situation:

The Reagan Administration slashed low-income housing funds steadily (from $32 billion to $7 billion) while inflation rose, the minimum wage stagnated, deindustrialization threw tens of thousands out of work, and social “entitlement” programs were cut.4

The (in)visibility of the socially underprivileged and the properties of the urban spaces they inhabit formed the starting point for the If You Lived Here…project, a concrete and participatory realization of Rosler’s thinking on the topic.

Martha Rosler, “Messages to the Public” a project of the Public Art Fund, Times Square Spectacolor Sign, 1989.

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