On Eileen Myles’s 'Hot Night': queer / urban / image

East Village in the 1970s. Photo Credit Ann Sanfedele

In the introduction to Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, José Esteban Muñoz addresses the caretaking relationship between Eileen Myles and James Schuyler as one of anti-antirelational queer kinship. Muñoz situates their relationship as an alternative to the practice of public gay sex that he cites as the quintessential example of anti-antirelationality.[1] An anti-antirelational model refuses both the death drive (which forecloses a queer futurity of any kind) and a normative futurity that takes biological reproduction and the figure of the child as its only available modes. It posits a utopian futurity by means of imagining otherwise. (A different line of reading could consider how anti-antirelational kinship, which neither follows a normative model nor refuses connectivity altogether, is common among relationships between poets, where Schuyler and Myles are an example of a recognizable model of the queerness of poet-kinship, rather than a singular case.) The reading I take up here instead addresses Myles’s relationship with 1980s Manhattan as itself an anti-antirelational form of contact. Myles’s relationship to Manhattan, I argue, produces a queer reading of the city’s planning that echoes both classic texts in planning theory and seminal works in urbanist queer theory such as Samuel Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. Conversely, their relationship to queerness becomes fully available by reading for the refusal and subversion of the city’s planning in their poems. What Myles pays attention to in the city, what they come into contact with, and what they value, actively resists the public-private development that has dominated the shifts in Manhattan’s built environment over the arc of their writing life. In producing an affective map of the city’s decline and redevelopment, Myles’s observations offer an “anti-antirelational urbanism,” a queer companion to the rejoinders to traditional city planning offered by seminal texts like Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City, and Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  Myles’s anti-antirelational urbanism is particularly evident in the poem “Hot Night,” (originally published in Not Me (1991)) which opens:

Hot night, wet night

you’ve seen me before

When the streets are

drenched and shimmering

with themself, the

mangy souls that wan-

der & fascinate its

puddles, piles of

trash. Impersonal

street is a lover

to me — [2

 

The poem forms a record of Myles’s walking, a portrait of the city on a summer night after a rainstorm. They walk in streets that have a weather or feeling that produces wetness they witness and move through. The street is full of the evidence of its use, which Myles plays on as they describe the street in language that collapses the aftermath of the rainstorm and a sexual encounter, “drenched and shimmering.” What the streets reflect is “themself,” their wet refuse acting as the essentialized product of their whole form. The street as an impersonal lover echoes the practice of gay (male) public sex, a practice without a particular parallel at scale for non–male-bodied people. In Myles’s New York, contact with urban infrastructure affords intimacy. Myles provides a queer image of the city, composed of their sexual desire for an object outside of a heterosexual frame — the street — and occupying a place of social rejection. Its trash and puddles are a record of the human and nonhuman actors that have left their remains. They offer Myles social experience without human interaction, the sense of using a shared public resource. Theirs is a city of refuse. It is disorderly — wet and full of trash. Its inhabitants are “mangy souls.” Everyone and everything they include in these lines is leftover, coming after the day, the rain, the discarding of objects that become waste. Myles’s image of the city blurs queer desire and a formal queerness that describes spatial deviation as well as non-normative desire, a use of queer that Sara Ahmed articulates as “as a way of describing what is 'oblique' or 'off line.”[3] Myles frames the conditions on which they come out to the street as presaging otherness. To say they offer a queer image of the street is to say that space and sexuality are inseparable in the poem. It is also to say that space and sexuality are both available in queerness. As Ahmed reminds us, “Queer is, after all, a spatial term, which then gets translated into a sexual term.”[4] To offer a queer account of the city is to produce a geography of desire, to understand that what you remember or notice about the city is bound up in your orientation. In other words, navigating the city is an exercise in object choice. The street is a line that affords queer use.

 

Myles’s image of the city complicates what planning theory has approached as the idea of a “public image” of the city, made up of many individuals’ analogous images. While the concept of the “image of the city,” an idea important to early academic planning theory, is based in individual perception, it is also assumed to have recognizable norms that make it useful for producing recommendations for planners. As planning theorist Kevin Lynch explains in The Image of the City (1960), “Every citizen has had long associations with some part of his city, and his image is soaked in memories and meanings.”[5] Personal memories make up the city’s image for each urban resident (who is for Lynch both a “citizen” and a person who uses male pronouns). Even so, as Lynch explains later, what is personal about each image of the city is relevant to other experiences, and is still possible to aggregate into a collective whole.

While Lynch acknowledges that the image of the city is informed by individual experience, he understands it to be more a way of thinking about urban form than a means of organizing the social. From discrete experiences that inform individual images of the city, “[t]here seems to be a public image of any given city which is the overlap of many individual images. Or perhaps there is a series of public images, each held by some significant number of citizens.”[6] He develops a system of thinking about five features of urban systems that contribute to a city’s “imageability,” the facility with which urban residents are able to produce a mental map of its key geographic features: nodes, districts, landmarks, paths and edges. Via the image of the city, Lynch makes an effort to reverse engineer the planning of cities, scaling from the individual’s experience to the design of the city rather than using the design of the city to imagine an individual’s experience. So, a queer image of the city would be one that uses desire, for the street, or for other people, to produce a geography that privileges queer knowledge relevant to urban design.

Samuel R. Delany’s 1999 Times Square Red, Times Square Blue,a book that is half ethnography of the queer life world of casual gay (male) sex in the pornographic theaters of Times Square and half sociospatial critique of the homogenizing revitalization of Times Square in the 1990s, strongly advocates for a queer knowledge of urban space as being necessary to the procedures of city planning. In the final pages of the book, he describes his argument as having two main “thrusts”: “that such catastrophic civic interventions as the ‘Forty-second Street Development Project’ are based on the incorrect assumption that interclass contact is necessarily unsafe … and that its benefits can be replaced by networking,” and “that social contact is of paramount importance in the specific pursuit of gay sexuality.”[7] By suggesting that what hurts gay sexual practice hurts urban residents at large, Delany argues that the planning that makes queer life worlds possible also produces the health of the city. He advocates for “pro-sex infrastructural change,” which requires a degree of asystematic contact foreclosed by neoliberal development and its single “public image” of the city.[8] Of this asystematic contact he notes, “A discourse that promotes, values and facilitates such contact is vital to the material politics as well as the vision of a democratic city.”[9] Delany’s intervention is particularly focused on planning for the health of cities via planning that meets the needs of queer communities.

Since Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, a number of other texts within queer studies, and specifically within queer geography have described cities as spaces that are important loci for queer communities, but have resisted a focus only on the gay district and the commercialization of queer life that is concentrated there. Other recent resistances to a narrow view of queers and the city have moved to push back against an attention to queers in urban space to the exclusion of queer people in small towns and rural communities.[10] All of these texts centralize queer life in cities to a degree that has not been taken up by texts in city planning. If queer studies and city planning disagree about the contours of the city as an object of study, their approaches to a common set of questions — what are cities, who are they for, what social and structural systems make for equitable urban life — struggle to be useful to one another. At the same time, it is these disagreements about the fundamental character and purpose of the urban spaces in which the bulk of American queer life has taken place that should be central to questions about queerness and cities. As Delany argues, an objection to spatialized compulsory heterosexuality must be produced in the terms of city planning. It must, in other words, meet the rigor of its critique of the social with as systematic of a critique of the spatial in its situated and planned urban form.

In Myles’s street, it is queer excess that produces a viable urban space. A principle of planning articulated from what makes the street appealing to the poem might be to look for the features of an urban space that behave queerly. “Look for what’s queer” about the city is another way to frame Jane Jacobs’s attention to what she argues should be the three main principles of urban design, among them a focus on what she terms “unaverage clues.” It is a queer commitment that Jacobs demands as she asks for an approach to city planning in Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) that refuses the reproduction of strong urban fragments and instead attends to “process” and “unaverage clues.”[11] While she identifies features of cities that make them safer and more livable, she diverts from academic planning in her refusal to provide a set of reproducible design principles. As Jacobs explains,“My idea, however, is not that we should therefore try to reproduce, routinely and in a surface way, the streets and districts that do display strength and success as fragments of city life. This would be impossible, and sometimes would be an exercise in architectural antiquarianism.”[12] Following Myles, unaverage clues in the city are bound up in one kind of desire or another. What Jacobs terms “unaverage” itself holds up one end of the queer banner.

Jacobs’s ideal of city planning echoes the spatial form of Ahmed’s “queer commitment,” which strives “not to presume that lives have to follow certain lines in order to count as lives, rather than being a commitment to a line of deviation.”[13] If compulsory heterosexuality produces a “straight line” that lives must follow, the alternative is not to follow a queer line, but to attend carefully to the deviations of many lives. A queer commitment is a process, not an exportable plan. A queer commitment to planning would, as Jacobs does, value what is successful about individual urban spaces and turn on principles developed from what helps lives in those places move toward equity. But urban spaces, as Myles demonstrates, are composed of moments, both spatial and temporal, that exceed or fall short of their planning. An attention to the queer life world of the street draws the city back to the scale of the momentary (just as it draws discussions of “space” back to the material structures of the city). Contact on the street often occurs in a slippage that Ahmed refers to as a “queer moment,” which “happens when things fail to cohere. In such moments of failure, when things do not stay in place or cohere as place, disorientation happens.”[14] “Queer moments” are what make urban spaces interesting and effective. A queer commitment to reading the city attends to moments when urban spaces spill out of the expectations put upon them by planning that expects normative behavior. Myles’s queer image of the city articulates a New York composed of “queer moments” that privilege contact of all sorts, and within which could incubate a queer commitment to the planning of urban space.  



1. José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 13–15. 

2. Eileen Myles, I Must Be Living Twice. (New York: Ecco Books, 2015), 89.

3. Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham:Duke University Press, 2006) 161.

4. Ahmed, 67.

5. Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City (Cambridge, MA: Technology Press, 1960), 1.

6. Lynch, 46.

7. Samuel R. Delany, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999), 193.

8. Delany, 196.

9. Delany, 199.

10. See Scott Herring’s Another Country: Queer Anti-Urbanism (2010), Karen Tongson’s Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries, and the second chapter of Jack Halberstam’s In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (2005).

11. Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, (New York: Vintage Books, 1961), 440.

12. Jacobs, 140.

13. Ahmed, 178.

14. Ahmed, 170.