Hobo Living in Alphabet City
(This is a guest post by Kid Krusty, a traveler, hobo, and deconstructor of alternative living spaces for transients, tramps, and people who couldn't make rent. This article originally appeared in the pages of Hobo Living, the premiere lifestyle magazine for train hoppers and those who live on the road. As Kid Krusty is a big fan of the Green Wizards website and philosophy he gave us permission to reprint the article here.)
In the era of anorexic buildings (read: supertall, undernourished, skinny skyscrapers) the robust cardboard shacks and multicolored tents clustered in groups in the alleys and sidewalks below them tend to stand out. No two shacks or tents, situated beneath the high-rises of the moneyed and managerial elites are the same. The haphazard cluster of makeshift dwellings becomes progressively incongruous as the latte wielding women in yoga pants navigate their way to the entrance of their downtown lofts.
Taken as a whole the block of tents at the bottom of the building looks unstable, as shaky as the arms of the guy with DT’s coming out of his box looking to spange some money for a bottle of Wild Irish Rose. The sight tends to remind the pedestrian fortunate enough to walk through it of a bunch of alphabet blocks thrown around the floor at random during the height of a hangry toddlers temper tantrum.
“This community was iconic before it was even built,” says Crawdaddy, the hobo mayor and leader the of the deconstruction council. Looking out from the flap of his expansive Boy Scout tent to the squatted sidewalks around him he is filled with a sense of pride. He grabs an old tin cup and fills it with some Folgers instant coffee crystals and hot water from his coleman stove.
“It’s an extraordinary feat of human will to survive off the scraps of those above us, all while shoving it in their foie gras fed faces.”
What Crawdaddy brought to the sprawling tent city, with its oil drum fire pit, its battered and duct-taped camp chairs, its plastic piss-and-poop buckets stashed behind the bushes, was the typical can-do sense of a weather beaten man who has ridden the rails back and forth across this great continent of ours.
“The first of us who moved in here had the idea that the typical American finance banker and his revolving cadre of trophy wives have never had the good fortune of tasting the freedom that comes from living on the streets. They don’t know the beauty that comes from holing up inside a hobo jungle, or hunkering down in the storm drains beneath Las Vegas. And since it ain’t likely they would ever come visit us or stay at one of our air bnb’s –that stand’s for box and a beer, bye the way- we thought we’d bring the jungle to them.”
Crawdaddy designed the Manhattan street jungle space to be an exciting educational experience for the whole family. He played to the tastes of the stock market trading parents and their love of vapid contemporary art and meaningless combinations while providing sensory stimulation to the children by having his friends in the folk-punk band Rat Picker’s Union play their typical mix of washboard and saw, with electric mandolin for accompaniment.
“You can’t be too polished in a family friendly jungle,” Crawdaddy said. “Sure, you can still have your moonshine and your crack rocks, your opioids and whatnot. But kids will be kids. So we try to keep the fornicating and shooting up inside the tents where it belongs.”
He also said he tried to sidestep a “Fisher-Price” color palette by incorporating a scheme of freshly spray painted hues based on whatever cans of rustoleum he was able to swindle.
Because contemporary transient architecture tends to favor a salvaged and trash picked sense of aesthetics, Crawdaddy could not have hoped for a better location , close as it was to the skyscrapers dumpster. In the entry to his rag-tag collection of dwellings he sought to create a “warm, down home” welcoming feeling with a playful mural tagged by street artist Konnie Memester. To create a soothing, “you never have to work again” atmosphere for the permanently laid-off Crawdaddy made tikki torches out of old socks stuck on top of mop handles. The socks had been doused in a potpourri of petroleum jelly and paraffin to help them burn.
“When you come into this community you get the sense that it’s going to be relaxing and you can let it all hang out, and there is going to be a big adventure.”
A left turn into the cardboard shack of his friend Soapy confirms this notion. The open expanse is a medley of plain pale brown with a hint of the exotic due to the tiger-print duct-tape holding it all together. A sofa that had has had most of the stuffing chewed out of it by Soapy’s pit bull Ragnar anchors the space. Crumpled cans of malt liquor hang on fishing wire from the ceiling to give the place a party vibe.
Since the tent city is technically illegal and haphazard at best, moving between the vignettes of each domicile is a seamless experience. As in a Gothic Cathedral the open spaces around the oil drum fire pit act as a kind of apse from which the chapels of the outdoor kitchen (where ramen noodls, hot dogs and sardines simmer together in a Korean inspired update of the classic mulligan stew). The entertainment room radiates off the kitchen and is conveniently located next to the bush-latrines.
When not working on their homes the hobos like to play dice, cards, and arm wrestle. If the wine has been flowing too heavily things sometimes escalate into knife fights so there is also an open space where people can spread out to watch the brawls.
Up above them all are the palatial spaces of the bankers, stockbrokers, designers and architects.
Crawdaddy admits that the Alphabet City project was one of the more challenging of his thirty-year career as a hobo and deconstructor of improvised homes. Balancing the sophistication needed to mesh with the tower above, while maintaining the integrity of their own street community, and making sure form and function fit together was not easy. In the end he was able to make sure none of the gorgeous vistas on view in the jungle were obstructed. It was a lot to juggle, but it also made the project fun.
“Designing this tent city,” Crawdaddy says, “Was like playing with alphabet blocks of my own.”