The Hill



Gabriele Schafer

In the middle of the night on Thanksgiving 1990, the same weekend that the film Dances with Wolves opened, life partners Gabriele and Nick erected a 25-foot-tall replica of a Lakota tipi in New York City’s then longest-existing shantytown, known as “The Hill,” located at the foot of the Manhattan Bridge at Canal and Chrystie Streets. The tipi was dedicated that December, on the centenary of the Wounded Knee Massacre, in remembrance of the lives lost in 1890, and in recognition of the sovereignty and dignity of the most disenfranchised and forgotten members of our society a century later. Gabriele and Nick thought that if the tipi stood for even one day it would be a success, drawing the eye of over 80,000 motorists that cross the bridge per day, compelling them to engage directly with how our society treats its most down and out. But the powers that be let it stand, and G & N ended up being welcomed and living on the Hill for 2½ years ― getting to know and love their neighbors in all their complexity, cooking with them, performing art with them, quarreling and making up, and watching many of them die. Until August 17, 1993, when the City finally bulldozed The Hill, tipi and all. Gabriele kept this journal that details their day-to-day lives as they navigate drug dealers, one of New York’s largest-ever police corruption scandals, city politics in the era of David Dinkins (elected to solve the homeless problem) and journalists looking for a quick story. It traces the steps of how a shantytown went from the anonymity of waist-high huts hidden in the weeds, to a tour bus and celebrity stop; from addicts just getting by, to a drug supermarket; from a close-knit encampment, to a crime scene that entangles everyone from pushers, to users, to the cops, to the artists themselves, until one day the unspeakable happens.


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