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Authors: Sarah Schulman

Rat Bohemia

BOOK: Rat Bohemia
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Intense and wonderfully written.
Eric Bogosian
More persuasively than any other contemporary novelist, Sarah Schulman traces the ways in which the disenfranchisement that begins as a political evil pervades every aspect of life, from the metaphysical and spiritual to the most intimate moments of two people in bed together. She does this in luminous, witty, sometimes shattering prose, socially and politically serious and engaged... Hers is an astounding accomplishment... with a rage a beauty that will break your heart.
Tony Kushner
A necessary, incendiary book- horrifying, funny- and full of real news about American life.
Mark Doty
Dazzlingly successful.
—LA Weekly
Fresh imagery and original ideas.... Fiction with a purpose.
—San Francisco Chronicle
Unmistakenly authentic and deeply moving.
—New York Post
Not so much a novel as a queer phantasmagoria: dreamy afternoons in Tompkins Square Park at demonstrations or memorial ceremonies, Lesbian Avenger meetings, big juicy sex and food to match. And, behind it all, an aching nostalgia for the counterculture. If you haven't met Schulman's troubled people before, you will want to take them home with you.
—The Observer
Schulman's offbeat heroine is Rita Mae Weems, a savvy, sassy rodent exterminator for the New York City Dept. of Health. Her wry tale of struggling in the Big Apple is both decadent and dead-on, told with street-level accuracy and sardonic style. As she prowls the streets with her best friend Killer, Weems keeps her eyes wide open… Through Weems, Killer and David, their HIV-positive pal, author Schulman exposes the ways gay men and lesbians lead their lives in the shadow of AIDS.
—Washington Post
Rat Bohemia
is a manifesto for people who, after years in the shadows, are demanding acknowledgment from their families as well as mainstream society. Schulman, who lives in New York, knows her characters well, and has them interact with such people lost to AIDS as poet Assotto Saint, activist Bob Rafsky and artist David Wojnarowicz; this makes her book read less like fiction than a urgent dispatch from real life.
—Boston Globe
Also by Sarah Schulman:
The Mere Future
The Child
People in Trouble
After Delores
Girls, Visions, and Everything
The Sophie Horowitz Story
Stagestruck: Theatre, AIDS, and the Marketing
of Gay America
My American History: Lesbian and Gay Life
During the Reagan/Bush Years
Carson McCullers
Manic Flight Reaction
Enemies, A Love Story
Rat Obedience
Last night, I had dinner with my friend, Elissa Perry, in the East Village. Afterwards, we walked around the neighborhood; it was seventy degrees, strange for October. We were sitting on some steps on East First Street, talking and watching folks pass by, when suddenly the street was overrun with rats.
“Rat Bohemia,” Elissa said.
“Rat Conformity,” I said.
I had just been revisiting
Rat Bohemia
to prepare for this reissue from Arsenal Pulp Press. Reading it for the first time since it was published in 1995, I was overcome by a paralytic grief. My sadness was not about returning to the mass death experience that defined my youth in the epicenter of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 90s; I have been facing that pretty consistently in my work with Jim Hub-bard on the ACT UP Oral History Project (
www.actuporalhistory. org
), which we started in 2001. To date, Jim and I have interviewed eighty-two surviving members of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, and we are now developing a feature film,
United in Anger: A History of ACT UP,
which combines these interviews with the thousands of hours of archival footage that Jim rescued in his role as a film and video preservationist.
So the terrible loss that was triggered by re-reading my novel was not about the unnecessary deaths of friends and colleagues. Instead, it was a deep, painful emptiness at the loss of Bohemia itself. The rats remain, but Bohemia is gone.
Now, as New York City becomes a gated community—where many of the high- earning, suburban-born residents are willing to trade freedom for security—the loss of urban values is the cultural and emotional manifestation of the economic consequences of gentrification. New York City is a more obedient, homogenous, and complicit place to live now than it was when
Rat Bohemia
was written. And the loss is profound. If marginalized people cannot afford to live in Manhattan, then Manhattan is subsequently removed from the global map as a place for new art ideas, new modes of rebellion, and new social imaginings. In a cultural arena where there is very little public space for new ideas, prohibiting the creation of mixed (racially, sexually, and intellectually) low-income communities means eliminating the incubation venue for broad visions of freedom.
Many people have written books and had public and private conversations trying to understand how gentrification came to be the primary organizing principle of life in New York City, and in many cities in the Western world. Factually, we know that when the city hit a financial rock bottom in 1974, it stopped building low-income housing and started offering corporate welfare in the form of tax breaks to luxury developers; now, thirty-five years later, a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan costs $1 million, at least. But few, if any, of these New York “experts” bothered to examine the relationship between gentrification and AIDS, both materially and spiritually, and their battle for the city's soul.
At least 75,000 New Yorkers have died of AIDS, which is about twenty percent of the entire number of Americans who have died from it. Compare this to the 3,000 who perished at the World Trade Center. Where is our memorial? Our federal aid to survivors and
damaged communities? Our Congressional investigation?
My communities—the community of innovative artists, and the community of gay people willing to take action for social change (two distinctly different groups, for the most part), located in Manhattan's East and West Village in the 1980s and 90s—had such high death rates that the infrastructures and cultural ways of these groups were basically destroyed. Much of the social value and organization of the gay artist/activist world prior to AIDS is now forgotten. And survivors have been traumatized in ways that are yet to be articulated, although late-age sero-conversion and methamphetamine abuse are two observable consequences.
It is clear, although unstated, that the high mortality rate from AIDS in my neighborhood was a determining factor in the rapid gentrification of the Village, both East and West. Thousands of apartments literally were emptied. In the early years of the crisis, surviving partners or roommates were not allowed to inherit leases that had been in the name of the person who died, so once the leaseholder was no longer alive, those who shared their homes with them were often evicted. This was true in public housing as well as private rentals. Secondly, the typical gay person who lived in this kind of environment was often a refugee from an unsupportive family. In a study of surviving members of ACT UP New York, we found that it was typical for people to die in their own homes, or in those of their friends. Rarely did family intervene, and as has been demonstrated repeatedly, those who do not have the support of family generally have less access to money. Thirdly, and most importantly, those afflicted by AIDS were risk-takers living in an oppositional subculture who paid the financial price for being out of the closet and community-oriented, and for pioneering new art
ideas. Indeed, many significant figures in the history of AIDS—like film theorist/activist Vito Russo, for example—died without health insurance. For that reason, many of the gay people who died of AIDS did not own their apartments, but rather relied on the cheap rents that made the East Village a welcoming homeland; their deaths increased the number of rental apartments available in such large numbers that the demographic of the neighborhood was rapidly transformed.
As a result, their apartments went at market rates, thereby speeding up the gentrification process and turning the East Village from an interracial enclave of immigrants and artists into a destination location for wealthy diners and shoppers in less than a decade. And it transformed the more monied West Village from a long-term gay neighborhood into one dominated by double-income heterosexuals, and then in turn by celebrities, as new gay arrivals shifted to Chelsea. Today, the West Village is predominantly a straight neighborhood, and the gay property owners who remain there are elitist to the point that they have a famously antagonistic relationship with the young black gay men and lesbians who have socialized on the streets and piers of the West Village since World War II. Their gay predecessors, who died of AIDS, socialized on those same streets and piers in one of the most well-known public sex communities in American history. With their disappearance, gay life in the West Village is expected to take place indoors, and thus out of sight, by people who are white and upper-class.
BOOK: Rat Bohemia
5.86Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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