Jenny Polak

“Bid the tree/ Unfix his earthbound root” - Macbeth

A spectacle: an artificial structure looking like a huge tree trunk arrives on an unused patch of land. It’s between the church and the bank, opposite the 99cnet store. Antenna-like structures extend from the top. People are seen going in and out of it. Where do they go?…

People without immigration papers who work in cities are very vulnerable to exploitative landlords. Recently in Farmingville, Long Island, 64 men were found to be inhabiting a single family house, fire-code-breaking and unsanitary, beds shared on a shift basis with others. There’s an intense need for a new dwelling model for urban migrant workers coupled with a political assertion of the right of such workers to decent housing. Instead, laws being passed across the US (tracked (see map) by FIRM (Fair Immigration Reform Movement)), limit the number of individuals (who are not related) that may live together; fine landlords who rent to undocumented individuals; or require renters to register a ‘renters permit’ to certify resident status. No alternatives are offered: the laws are efforts to drive away, or simply deny the need for and the very existence of migrant workers.

The architecture firm DesignCorps led by Bryan Bell has for some time produced housing units for migrant farmworkers, and marketed them successfully to farmers. They offer the first real acknowledgement in design fields of the existence and needs of this kind of non-nuclear, seasonal family unit. How to promote housing for the urban migrant? Maybe a public amenity, street beautification: something that can be installed on vacant lots or traffic islands?

Is it possible that businesses that rely on migrant workers could take responsibility for housing them? Or that cities could? What kind of housing unit would be best suited to these workers’ needs? Could these questions be part of the acknowledged focus of designers and city planners?

The Mobile House, a ‘migrant structure’ camouflaged as a tree, draws attention to the existence of the migrant workers of the city and their need for housing, preferably close to their places of work (in delis, office buildings and construction sites for example). It consists of a strong, lightweight wood structure about 12’ tall and 8’ in diameter clad in a tree-bark image (output on Vinyl). Inside are 2 levels: bed/living platforms and a sitting/washing area. A solar panel provides power.

To ‘naturalize’ the migrant worker in centres were workers are needed, the Mobile House makes a reference to a recurring model of children’s literature. At the same time, a more vengeful B-movie image lurks around the moblie trees: the wood may come to the castle...

(The Mobile House for Urban Migrant Workers is supported by the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning, and the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Visual Arts.)