Thanksgiving 1990 - August 17, 1993


In the middle of the night on Thanksgiving 1990, the same weekend that Dances with Wolves opened, artist couple 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, Forsyth, and Chrystie Streets. The tipi was dedicated 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 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 for having drawn the eyes of over 80,000 motorists that crossed the bridge each day. The tipi compelled them to engage directly with how our society treats its most down and out. Improbably, the powers that be let the tipi stand and they ended up living there for 2 1/2 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 a journal, to be published by Autonomedia, [contact her for access] 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 Dinkins era (elected to clean up 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... after one day the unspeakable happens: Mr. Lee, their most innocent neighbor, burned to death in his hut in an arson fire that was targeting someone else.

With the 30-year anniversary approaching, it is time to finally recount this epic bit of New York City history. Mr. Lee and his shantytown neighbors –– heroic, hilarious and deeply flawed –– deserve to have their life stories celebrated and memorialized.

The work on The Hill was extensively documented, both contemporaneously in articles (The New Yorker, The New York Times) and over the years in museum retrospectives, books and journals (contact Gabriele for details). In 2020, NYU's Fales Library agreed to incorporate this archive into their permanent collection.