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Fragile Dwelling
Photographs and text
by Margaret Morton

Introduction by Alan Trachtenberg

[Aperture, fall 2000]
128 pages, 90 photographs

A portion of the proceeds from the book, Fragile Dwelling, will benefit Coalition for the Homeless, New York.

You may drive by here and see that they are shabby, but I think that if you look again you see this person took the time to build a place that could be comfortable for himself. If you saw it up close, you could see that we’d turned it into a home. . . . The person who will take the time to build for himself is the person who still has an interest in himself.
— Douglas, resident of the East River encampment

Over a ten-year period, Margaret Morton documented the inventive ways in which homeless people in New York City have created not only places to live but communities offering a sense of pride, place, and individuality. Fragile Dwelling depicts a world immediately recognizable to anyone who has lived in, or even visited, a major American city. Yet these photographs tell a story far more profound than most of us, streaming past on our way from home to office, would ever imagine. Together with compelling oral histories recorded by the photographer, they demand that we confront not only the bleak consequences of economic inequality in America, but also the diverse and wonderful humanity of those who, in the midst of a booming housing market for developers, strive to create shelters for themselves from the most meager resources.

To Morton, these assemblages of crates, scrap wood, broken furniture, and other debris of the modern city are not an eyesore to be quickly glimpsed and then forgotten. They are in fact, as she shows us, homes—laboriously and ingeniously built, little by little, piece by piece. Most of these structures exist no longer—whether vacated as a result of changing economic conditions, destroyed by arson, or razed by police bulldozers.

In these photographs we visit Mr. Lee, a Chinese immigrant whose house,
a perpetual work-in-progress, was constructed without the aid of boards or nails, instead held together by an elaborate system of knots. We meet the residents of Bushville in lower Manhattan, whose improvised casitas, with their porches and flags and decorations, recall the Puerto Rican villages where many of them were born. We meet a community perched along the seawall between the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges, where residents look out over a peaceful, luminous East River.

The river offered me the first stability I’ve had since 1988. From here you can see the mistakes you made, you can see the things that led you to be here.
— Mizan, resident of the East River encampment

Within these miraculous constructions we find people sustained in exceedingly difficult times by an abiding faith: faith in their ability to make something of value from their lives and their surroundings; faith in the power of community; religious faith sometimes.

When you want something, no matter if it weighs two hundred pounds or three hundred, you can carry, because God helps you. With God you can carry everything.
— Hector, resident of Bushville

Alan Trachtenberg, Neil Grey Professor of English and American Studies at Yale University, is the author of numerous books on photography including Reading American Photographs: Image as History, From Mathew Brady to Walker Evans (Hill &Wang). He writes and lectures often on American literature, photography, and cultural history.

Reviews for exhibitions of Fragile Dwelling

Other books: The Tunnel, Transitory Gardens

Fragile Dwelling has been partially supported by The Buhl Foundation, Coalition for the Homeless, and The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. Margaret Morton's ongoing project has been partially supported by grants from the Graham Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the New York State Council on the Arts.

Order Fragile Dwelling

Fragile Dwelling cover
Fragile Dwelling

Mario building, Bushville

Hector (Guineo), Bushville

Mr. Lee's house
Mr. Lee's house, Bushville

SoundPepe with cross and Bible, Bushville

Mizan with cleaning pans, East River

Boo's house
Boo's house guarded by "Girl", East River

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All contents copyright (C) 2000, Margaret Morton. All rights reserved.
Revised: October 2000