[Victoria Linchong's former home on Avenue C]
I amended parts of the section on her childhood. I was wrong on the chronology.
After a tumultuous eviction process from her apartment of nearly 20 years, Victoria Linchong did something that was very natural for her: The director-writer-actor wrote a play.
"DISPOSSESSED" is a one-woman play about finding and losing home that runs July 19-21 at the HERE Arts Center on Sixth Avenue.
From the press notes:
"DISPOSSESSED" is more than a lament over my eviction; it's also about the history of apartments ... specifically the history of apartments in NYC, and our relationship with our possessions. There are ruminations about the community within cities and tenement housing from Jane Jacobs and Luc Sante. Clayton Patterson and Paul Garrin have contributed some video ... And at the end of the play, everyone gets a book from my ridiculously extensive library.
Linchong was born in Stuy Town on Avenue C and East 20th Street. Her family moved away when she was 3, and they spent time in Taiwan and parts of Queens. In the fall of 1988, at age 17, she ran away from Queens and took up residence in the basement of Theater for the New City, where she had been working part time since age 14.
Linchong answered a few questions via email about the play and her life in the East Village.
What was it like living in the basement of Theater for the New City?
Uncomfortable. I lived in one of those cages downstairs that used to be vendor storage back when the place was a market. It was like 5 by 8 and the floor was cement. I slept on some limp foam thing and tried to prop it up with a couple of milk crates since the floor was disgusting. Next door was a guy from the Living Theater. I was slightly jealous of him since he had a real bed and a bigger cage. He smoked a lot of pot and talked to the television. I remember being woken up one night by him saying, "Oprah, you REALLY have problems."
Did your passion for theater develop at this time? Or had you been interested in the arts earlier in your teens?
I was a 17 when I lived in the basement of the theater but I'd started working there four years earlier. Out of sheer masochism, I've wanted to be in theater since I was 5 years old.
What were the circumstances that led to your eviction from your apartment of 20 years in 2011?
That's a long story and it's one of the threads of "DISPOSSESSED." Basically, it's just hard to hang onto an apartment during a recession when you are a struggling artist, especially if the landlord is all about kicking out rent-stabilized tenants.
So the play is more about losing your home. What other themes are you exploring here?
Living in apartments is so part of life in Manhattan that most people take it for granted, but it took more than 60 years for apartments to become acceptable housing for the middle- and upper-class. Apartments were originally housing for the poor — if there's such a thing as vernacular architecture in New York City, the apartment is it. There's text by Luc Sante about how apartments developed from tenements in the 1830s and I also use text by Jane Jacobs about community within cities.
A third thread in the play is a rumination about possessions. When you're forcibly evicted from your place, you lose a lot of your things and for me at least, it led to an investigation into what makes something valuable. I mean, I've always considered myself not particularly material — I don't have any interests in owning anything and I'm not a hoarder or even a collector — but the loss of various random things hit me really hard. Like a set of hand-made bamboo steamers from my great-aunt... the passport I had when I was 3 years old... stupid things that no one else would value except for me.
And the thing that I realized is that your possessions are valuable to you for how they shape your identity, how they inform your history. So losing certain things is like losing a piece of yourself.
What was your favorite thing about this particular apartment?
I lived in that apartment for 19 years so it really was like I had a longtime relationship with it. I was used to its creaks and dings and drips. I tore off three layers of linoleum and sanded and stained the floor myself. Which is why my friends often got splinters in their feet.
There were a lot of problems with the place, but since it was rent stabilized, it was like the amazing partner every artist dreams of. It was completely and utterly supportive of my work. I had cheap rent that allowed me to spend time on art that didn't necessarily pay. I had the central location where I could have meetings whenever I wanted, where I was never lonely, and inspiration or a much-needed coffee break was always around the corner. Plus the place had a huge outdoor area, really the roof of the building next door, which was supposed to be a fire escape, but I had countless nights of just sitting with a drink and looking at the sky.
Is there room for a struggling artist in the East Village of today?
The East Village used to be affordable, which is why there were so many artists. All you needed to do was find part-time work or get two or three paying gigs a month, and you could pay rent and eat out almost every night. But now everyone either has to work a full-time job or really hustle, so you don't have the time or brain space to do the work you really need to be doing. This is why everyone is moving out to Ditmas Park or Bushwick.
Do you still feel a sense of community in the neighborhood?
There's still the facts on the ground — the gardens, the squats, the evidence of how community action has shaped the area. There's still the small scale of the buildings and streets, and the Park in the middle of it all, which encourages people to walk around and creates great sidewalk life.
But a lot of the newer people come from places where they have to get into a car to go anywhere and their nearest neighbor is a mile away, so they don't have the same sociability. They don't look at anyone in the eyes or talk to people on the street.
I mean everyone always came from elsewhere to New York, but there used to be an extant culture here. And people from other places would get hip to that in a few weeks and start behaving like a New Yorker. But now, all the New Yorkers are leaving in droves because they can't afford living here anymore, so the new people coming in are less likely to get the lightbulb realization that "Oh, right, frat parties with people vomiting off the fire escape does NOT make me cool in New York."
Jane Jacobs said this pretty well in "The Death and Life of Great American Cities,"...Constant departures leave, of course, more than housing vacancies to be filled. They leave a community in a perpetually embryonic stage... The age of buildings is no index to the age of a community, which is formed by a continuity of a people."
You were born and raised in the neighborhood. What is the one constant that you have experienced here through the years?
Whew that's hard... OK, here's something, which really needs to be preserved. Corporate culture has yet to invade the East Village. The neighborhood is still predominantly mom-and-pop shops. You can count on the fingers of one hand the major national chains — there's MacDonald's, Dunkin' Donuts, Urban Outfitters, 7-Eleven and Subway.
So what has always been in the same is that you still know people in the shops, you can still leave your keys at the bodega. We haven't been bludgeoned into homogenous consumerism here. We still have a choice. I'm afraid that a lot of the newer people don't know or value this, which is why the 7-Eleven coming to Avenue A is so worrisome. The playing field isn't level and letting these giant behemoths onto it it is pretty risky.
What do you hope that people take away from "DISPOSSESSED" (aside from a book!)
I suppose part of what I want to express in the play is what I value about East Village: the beautiful, catalytic and extremely rare convergence of artists, activists and immigrants in the neighborhood, which is rapidly being eviscerated. I hope this crystallizes a deeper understanding of what is really at stake in the gentrification of the East Village. Maybe if enough people understand this, it'll help keep what's left of the heart and soul of the neighborhood intact.
Fri & Sat at 7pm, Sun at 2pm and 7pm
HERE Arts Center
145 6th Ave, New York City
(enter on Dominick St., one block south of Spring St).
General Admission $15
Find ticket info here.