This short film captures the gentrification of Sylvia Rivera’s New York

The iconic trans activist spent her life fighting for displaced queer youth and those living with HIV in the city. Eighteen years after her death, ‘This Is An Address’ captures the place she called home.

by Douglas Greenwood
20 October 2020, 8:05pm

Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. Image courtesy of Netflix.

It is a juxtaposition: what was once the home of a trailblazing figure in New York’s queer scene; a makeshift spot hidden from the immensity of the city, is now void of all life save for the chug of boats passing by the city’s Department of Sanitation building. Sylvia Rivera once called this spot home. In 1995, a camera crew interviewed her about the situation for displaced queer people, and those living with HIV who struggled to obtain life-saving medication due to having no fixed address. It’s a clip the filmmaker Sasha Wortzel uncovered in the making of her last feature Happy Birthday Marsha! about the days leading up to the Stonewall riots through Marsha P Johnson’s eyes, which she co-directed with Tourmaline. It didn’t end up in the final cut, but stuck with the director, as she looked out of her office onto that same spot on the banks of the Hudson River. The change made her feel uneasy.

It’s manifested now in an art installation-turned-short film titled This Is An Address, which places footage of Sylvia’s New York next to the city that’s been hampered by gentrification since her passing. It’s a crushing statement on the crises of capitalism and the way cities change when they forget the legacies of the people that truly built them. And to coincide with US LGBT History Month, the film will be premiering this month in full via Field of Vision, who helped create not only This Is An Address, but the major Netflix trans visibility doc Disclosure too.

But before then, you can get your first exclusive look at the film via i-D today, and read more about how Sasha Wortzel captured Syvlia’s shifting New York on screen.

What drew you towards Sylvia and her story in the first place?
When I moved to New York City the summer of 2005, I hit the streets for the annual Trans Day of Action and shortly after got involved with the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a collectively run organisation that uplifts and provides affirming legal services to low-income people and people of colour who are transgender, gender non-conforming, or intersex. I was eager to be an active part of LGBTQ+ movements for racial and economic justice and prison abolition. I was also following a deep desire to connect to a radical lineage and learn about the people who, in many ways, have made my life possible, like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson.

Ten years ago, my friend Tourmaline and I began collaborating on a project about Marsha P Johnson, Sylvia Rivera and STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) that would eventually become a short film, video installation, and live-cinematic performance called Happy Birthday, Marsha! We watched some of the archival footage she had been collecting including Randy Wicker’s 1995 interview with Sylvia and folks who had taken up residence on the Hudson River piers. That footage did not ultimately become part of our project, but it moved me, and I thought that I might return to it in the future.

In 2015 I was hired to work in the education department of the Whitney Museum of American Art, newly opened in the Meatpacking District. My first day in the office, I gazed out at the window at the Hudson River and it hit me that the Museum overlooks the very site where Sylvia had been living twenty years earlier. Over the course of my 4 years with the Museum, I witnessed rapid redevelopment and gentrification of the waterfront and surrounding neighborhood occur as homelessness in the city rose to the highest levels since the Great Depression. Considering the long legacy of displacement and erasure at this particular location, I began to film the changes I was seeing, placing my present-day documentation in conversation with the archival footage of Sylvia.

This is a film about change in a number of ways: societal change, personal transition, and the way landscapes change under the duress of capitalism. Did you actively choose to highlight contrasting changes here? 
I’m concerned with the nuances of these entanglements. One cannot separate self from land, or from larger communities in which we are embedded, especially those of us who are made marginal by dominant socio-political structures. In my practice, I’m searching for a sonic, visual, and cinematic language to not only honour and give back to those who have been systematically erased from history, but one that can interrogate the very processes by which that erasure occurs.

This is an Address is about the experiences Sylvia and John describe, of being blocked access to HIV/AIDS care on the basis of having no address, of being harassed and surveilled by the police, and of living under the constant threat of eviction. The film is also about the afterlife of systemic violence that their experiences are rooted in. How is Sylvia’s experience intimately tied to the forced removal of the Lenape from the very land she’s on; to former incarnations and histories; to a larger collective experience of illness and resistance; to the violences of policing, the border, and prisons today?

The structures that Sylvia spent her life resisting are intimately tied to the past. Though erased and rendered almost invisible, their traces and imprints remain, inextricably shaping the present moment. How can cinema, as a tool, make these dominant power structures that regulate our lives more legible, so as to be able to better see, unpack and dismantle those structures?

It’s also a film about crises, something that Sylvia was keen to highlight throughout her life, particularly when it came to homeless LGBT youth. Did you look into this during the making of the project? Or figure out where these pockets of queer youth have moved to since? 
During the time when I was making this film, I was working in partnership with organisations that actively support and uplift unhoused LGBTQ+ New York City youth, particularly The Door and The Center’s youth programs, so issues facing young folks in the city were always on my mind.

I am now based in South Florida, where I grew up, for my new film project. Crisis is very much at the forefront of my mind. This summer we emerged as a pandemic hot spot, where our unemployment system was intentionally set-up to fail, where the state’s eviction moratorium expired, and hundreds of Miamians have received notices to vacate their homes, and where climate collapse is already displacing people, particularly low-income people and people of colour, and threatening to make climate refugees of us all. Unfortunately this is nothing new. However the pandemic has further exposed inequities and revealed to many more people just how irreparable this project called America is.

In the midst of disruption, how do we understand “after” when the destabilisations continue? How do we process unfathomable loss? How do we care for one another? How do we create space to grieve, and continue the struggle for equity and liberation?

In that encampment on the pier and throughout her lifetime, Sylvia modelled a practice of radical solidarity and mutual care and of refusal to assimilate. There’s a lot to be learned there. Despite and in spite of the failings of a system that deems some worthy and others disposable, they were caring for one another and building worlds together outside of a fundamentally irreparable system. It’s what Fred Moten says in The Undercommons: “It can't be repaired. The only thing we can do is tear this shit down completely and build something new.” As we continue to weave something new, how can we continue to centre collective care and healing for ourselves, each other, for other forms of non-human life and the land?

The film was originally an installation-based video art piece, but it’s been transformed into a short, one that will be widely available, for its wider release. How important is access to you, in terms of queer art?
Very. I want to live in a world where we understand that we belong to each other. I strive to model that through both the form and the process of making art. Iteration and repetition are things I’m interested in conceptually, and also as strategies for situating work in different contexts. I want the things I make to be seen within and outside the walls of institutions, to be accessible and widely shared.

This is an Address will be available to stream in full via Field of Vision on October 23.

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