Steve Cannon at Judson Memorial Church, reminiscing about his buddy Junior, whom he'd known since the 1960's. Projected behind Cannon is one of the colorful artworks that Junior would create on the back of his rent reciepts before giving them to his friend and roommate Daffi Nathanson.
Photo by Clayton Patterson
Nathaniel Hunter III, a.k.a Junior, In Tompkins Square Park in front of his tarped-over bench with one of his ground assemblages of detritus and found art circa 1989.
I first met Nathaniel Hunter III in the midst of the Tompkins Square riot of 1988. I was writing for the now-defunct Downtown magazine (a spinoff of the East Village Eye), determined to uncover all the radical factions of the East Village and their blistering discontents, which had boiled over into this epic battle with the police.
After spending several hours chasing after protesters and watching friends and bystanders get clobbered by cops, I sought refuge inside the park itself. The entire perimeter was lined by riot police standing shoulder to shoulder, but for some reason as I approached, two officers parted and let me in.
Inside the park, I found about 40 homeless men and women dozing, or doing their best to ignore the conflagration erupting all around us. Among them was Hunter. He was sitting apart, with a big sack of blankets and books, thumbing through a copy of Hegel’s “Phenomenology of Mind.”
I couldn’t believe it. Who was this vagabond genius with the presence of mind to peruse one of the most dense philosophical tracts in the middle of a riot? Surely he could elucidate the nature of the “class war” that all the protesters were shouting about. Or explain why people were protesting the eviction of the homeless from the park, when many of the homeless were still there.
“We’re being manipulated in a sense that’s beyond our control,” Hunter told me. “In the midst of all this hoopla, this middle-class expression of self, the homeless are sleeping. Now isn’t that ironic?”
When I pressed further, he replied, “Look, you are looking to define an issue when there really isn’t just one issue but a simultaneity of events, the total reality of which cannot be encompassed by any news report.”
Impressed, I quoted Hunter extensively in my account of the riot for Downtown. It didn’t go over very well with the radical set, who didn’t much appreciate having the riot cast as “middle-class self-expressionism” — by one of the park’s occupants, no less. I remember one squatter coming up to me on Avenue A and spitting in my face.
And as I later learned, Hunter, or Junior, as everyone called him, wasn’t really the learned street scholar I’d imagined. He’d probably picked up that Hegel book and skimmed through a few pages, enough to riff on the “phenomenology” of the riot and its “dialectical contradictions".
But then, that was Hunter’s shtick. During the eight years he lived in Tompkins Square from 1984 to 1991, he held court from his park bench, drawing friends and passersby with boisterous stories ripped from the headlines of the Daily News and New York Post. He’d take a simple headline and work it up into the most ridiculous conspiracy and half convince you it was true, then sit back and cackle at the thought of it.
But even in jest, he had a certain genius for cutting to the essential truth of things. He was a touchstone for the neighborhood, which is why people took to calling him the “Mayor” of Tompkins Square Park.
Yes, he was homeless, the victim of an illegal co-op conversion that booted him from his apartment on E. Fourth St. Yet he didn’t act homeless. His existence in the park seemed less a matter of desperation and more a kind of self-imposed exile from the materialistic trappings of the real-estate world (and perhaps some effort to recapture the neighborhood’s bohemian spirit that was being driven out by gentrification.)
“I’m not homeless,” he’d say. “I’m houseless. I’m done with indoors.”
The park became his living room. He kept his bench tidy, his belongings neatly stowed underneath, and created fanciful assemblages of found art and detritus on the ground before it. He tended the nearby trees, with a rake and shovel that Parks Department workers bequeathed him.
All sorts of folks stopped by his bench to chat with Junior — artists, musicians, activists, city officials. He was the person you checked in with to find out what was going on in the neighborhood — and he became a source for me and many other journalists covering the heated struggle over Tompkins Square and the homeless encampment that mushroomed there during the late 1980s.
“When the Parks commissioners came down to Tompkins Square, they always checked in with Junior first,” recalled the park’s manager, Harry Greenberg. “They went to him to find out what was going on. They used him as their liaison to try and communicate with the rest of the homeless population what Parks was doing.”
Of course, not everyone agreed with Hunter’s perspective. As the struggle around the park intensified, many of the homeless became radicalized by all the squatter battles and street protests and began resisting police sweeps of the park. At one point, some of the hardcore homeless set their tents ablaze rather than allow police to seize them. Later, a group known as Tent City staged a takeover of then-Deputy Mayor Bill Lynch’s office in City Hall to try and force the Dinkins administration to grant them housing or a building to squat.
Hunter stayed aloof from all that rabble-rousing. His decision to try and work with city officials rather than fight them, and his refusal to tow the party line in the media, led some of the park radicals to accuse him of being an “Uncle Tom.” I later wondered if Hunter cut some kind of deal with Lynch when he came down to the park to try and placate all the homeless “brothers.” Because when the Dinkins administration finally closed the park in 1991, casting out all the homeless and protesters, and stringing up a 10-foot chain-link fence to enforce a yearlong renovation, Junior was the only one to walk away with a job with the city Parks Department.
(Greenberg suspects it was former Manhattan Borough Commissioner Pat Pomposello who got Hunter the gig. “Pomposello really liked Junior,” he said.)
Mind you, it wasn’t much of a job. Hunter started out as a seasonal maintenance worker at the Dry Dock pool on E. 10th St., then moved on to Columbus Park in Chinatown, and later Washington Square, where he worked about a decade until shortly before his death this May due to complications from diabetes.
Although I’d run into Hunter occasionally on the streets, he kept mum about his whereabouts, always going on about the current events of the day.
So it was a revelation to attend a recent memorial for Hunter at Judson Memorial Church in the West Village and learn just what a quintessential New York character he’d been.
Who knew that Junior had shown art at the Whitney Museum, that he’d lived in Istanbul, or that he’d once sold a woodcarving of a cat to Jimi Hendrix?
The memorial was organized by internationally renowned artist David Hammons — a close friend of Hunter since the ’80s — as well as Steve Cannon, who runs A Gathering of the Tribes gallery on E. Third St. The event drew about 100 people, ranging from poets, painters and jazz musicians to members of Hunter’s extended foster family Upstate, his daughter from Connecticut and even a godson from Turkey.
One by one, people stepped to the mic to reminisce — each offering a different piece of the confounding puzzle that was Nathaniel Hunter III.
He was born in 1939, and his mother died when he was about 2. His father sent him to live with relatives, then put him in foster care. He spent most of his childhood in the home of Pearl and Arthur Dilworth in Ossining, N.Y., where he was one of 46 children who cycled through their household.
By all accounts he thrived there.
“Back then, we called him Hippo,” recalled his foster brother Tom Dilworth. “Someone said he got that name because he talked a lot and had a big mouth.
“He was full of passion — a caring, sensitive and beautiful soul,” Dilworth added.
When Hunter turned 18, his father brought him to live with him in Hartford, Conn. Alienated from his dad, whom he felt had abandoned him, he fell in with the beatnik crowd. He began sleeping (with lots of others) at a crash pad rented by a young white woman named Susan, who happened to be the daughter of one of the country’s most famous molecular biologists, Oliver Lowry.
“She was like many of the kids then, rebelling against her upbringing,” said Hunter’s daughter, Siobhan Trotman. When Susan got pregnant with Siobhan, her disapproving family convinced her to put the little girl up for adoption.
“I think even my father realized they were in no position to raise a baby,” said Trotman, who did not meet Hunter until she was 29. “It was the early ’60s, and I think her family felt it would be really hard for this young mixed-race couple to deal with having a child.”
Torn up by the affair, Hunter moved to New York City around 1964, and quickly became enmeshed in the Downtown art world.
“He used to nude model at art schools, so he met a lot of young women and we had a great time,” laughed his brother Tom. “He had a great physique and he became friends with all the artists, so he’d travel round to schools like RISD [Rhode Island School of Design] or different schools in New York and Connecticut and model for their classes.”
Hunter befriended Venezuelan sculptor Marisol and her dealer, Leo Castelli, and hung out with Color Field artists like Peter Bradley and Kenneth Noland at local haunts such as the Broadway Central Hotel and Max’s Kansas City. He met Jimi Hendrix, and according to Cannon, for a short time served as his roadie.
He also began making art of his own.
“He did these satirical paintings, and woodcarvings that were very metaphysical,” recalled painter Ellsworth Ausby. “He was part of that milieu of artists and musicians and painters that infested the area. He was like the liaison between the artists and performers. He knew everything about everybody. He sort of had this spiritual insight into the issues of the day.”
In the early 1970s, Hunter’s work was featured in a group exhibit at the Whitney called “Contemporary Black Artists in America,” and in another group show at the Pan Am Building, and he sold some pieces to the Guggenheim.
He had a studio on W. Eighth St., next to Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studios, and later, a ground-floor space on Spring St., where he displayed sculptures constructed from steel and remnants salvaged from old factories in Soho.
“His work was about provocation and social comment,” said Dilworth. At one point, the New York Telephone Company was considering running a photo of one of Hunter’s more outlandish collage pieces called “Superstar Rock Constellation” (inspired by Hendrix) on the cover of the Yellow Pages.
Buoyed by the attention and favorable reviews, Hunter rented a big space on Park Ave. South and mounted his own solo show. Not a single piece sold.
“I think that’s what turned him around,” commented jazz bassist Richard Pierce, who came up with Hunter in Ossining and shared a loft with him on E. 13th St. with jazz guitarist Sonny Sharrock during the late 1960s. “Some of us around him, we tried to kick it back into gear. We told him it was the location, but we couldn’t convince him. After that, he took a hiatus from the art world — he never did get over that,” added Pierce.
Instead, Hunter threw himself into his “day job” working as a contractor, specializing in demolition.
“He gutted almost every building in Soho,” said painter Randy Bloom. “He was always working. When you think about it, he was really one of the main guys to get Soho going.”
He helped design Jackie Lewis’s Le Grand Hotel on West Broadway, the first fancy dress shop to open in Soho in the early 1970s, and then became its doorman.
Somewhere in that period he met a Turkish woman named Verkin and went to live with her in Istanbul. When Verkin returned to New York, they lived together on E. Fourth St. — in the apartment that Junior was cast out of.
(Verkin’s son Cengiz Anasoy came to the memorial and sang a haunting version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in tribute to Hunter, his godfather.)
It was a brutal eviction. The building had been purchased by speculators seeking to cash in on the co-op craze, and they were doing everything they could to drive the existing tenants out.
“I couldn’t believe he was getting evicted when he had been making good money in Soho,” recalled Angela Valeria, a painter who lives in Brooklyn. “They threw his stuff in the street.”
A lawyer who spoke at the memorial said she offered to defend him in court. But at some point, Hunter simply got fed up. In a 1989 story about Tompkins Square that ran on the front page of The New York Times, Hunter related how he felt at the time:
“I was doing everything right, paying my rent on time, paying my cable TV on time. But they wear you out after a year and a half or two. I was physically, financially, psychologically pooped out. I just wanted to be left alone, to find a spot in space to cool my head out. So I came here. I found a sanctuary, really, trees, open space, solitude.”
Hunter never dwelled on his plight. Even when he moved into the park, he kept up his routines with friends in the area, some of whom didn’t even realize he was homeless.
“He was up in my house every Monday night watching ‘Monday Night Football,’” said Pierce, who lives on 14th St. “I had no idea he had moved into the park. It took me five years to realize he was homeless. When I asked, why didn’t you tell me, he said, ‘I didn’t want to bring you down.’ ”
In a way, Hunter’s existence in the park became his art.
“You’d have the most ridiculous and the most interesting conversations,” recalled Steve Cannon. “People would sit on that bench with him and get in these crazy arguments about absolutely nothing,” he laughed. “I wrote several plays about it.”
“He would capture you in his dialogue, and even if you wanted to escape, there was no escape clause,” explained Bobby Watlington, a local painter. “Finally you’d walk away and it would take 5 or 10 minutes before it would register that he had said something really profound.”
“What I remember most is his performances,” said Valeria. “Every night on the corner of Eighth St. and Second Ave. in front of Gem Spa,” where the homeless used to lay out their wares for sale. “He’d talk to everybody who walked by, as if he knew them. He’d say, ‘Hey, that’s a nice dress,’ and start up a conversation, and pretty soon he’d have a whole circle of people around him. He did this every night.”
Still, it’s hard to fathom how a guy with so many connections could have stayed outdoors for eight years. Friends say he had his backup places.
“When it became 20 degrees below zero, guess who knocked on my door at 12 in the morning?” laughed Cannon. “He would sneak out early in the morning and say, ‘Don’t tell nobody about it.’ He always wanted people to see him as rugged.”
Following his eviction from the park, Hunter remained precariously housed. He slept in a storage room at the Dry Dock pool, and then at the dank park stationhouse in Columbus Park, where he fell into a diabetic coma that landed him in the hospital for several months.
After that, his friend Bloom intervened and got him a place to stay at her friend Daffi Nathanson’s loft in Soho, where he lived comfortably for the past 17 years, playing host to other down-on-their-luck artists who often stayed there. He kept up his hangout routines with folks like Hammons, with whom he shared a deep affinity for street culture. Hammons first encountered Hunter in Tompkins Square Park in 1986.
Over the years, Hammons said he grew to rely on Hunter to bounce around ideas. He’d seek him out whenever he hit town. They’d meet up at Starbucks on Astor Place and amble though the Village, visiting familiar haunts and analyzing Downtown’s metastasizing landscape.
“You know that building on Bond St. — the one that looks like Barcelona or something? Junior just couldn’t get over that building,” Hammons recalled. “We’d go and sit there every night and smoke reefer. One week he liked it, the next week he hated it.
“And every month we’d go over to check out the N.Y.U. [art school’s] display windows on Broadway and 12th St. He’d always have something to say about those windows.
“Now I don’t know who I’m going to talk to after Junior,” Hammons confided. “New York has gotten so watered down. It’s all kids now. There’s nobody around.”
For me, Hunter represents the lost soul of the East Village, that place of nonstop street energy, political fervor and impossible social contradictions that so enthralled me when I first moved to New York in the 1980s.
In a 1991 cover story for the Village Voice about the city’s final uprooting of the sprawling homeless encampment in Tompkins Square — and the social idealism that had supported that scene — I gave Hunter the last word.
Wandering the blocks east of the park, where mini-shantytowns had begun sprouting up, I found Hunter and a crew of Parks workers painting the cracks of the then-empty Dry Dock pool on E. 10th St.
“We had a good thing going for a while in the park,” he told me. “The people — I think that’s what the city didn’t like, people being in a kind of community. But that’s over. It’s time to change. It’s time to forget about all that radical stuff. The right doesn’t want it anymore. Now I’m indoors. I got a job. But it’s different here. There’s no trees, no shade. It’s like that old saying, you don’t know the wealth of the water till the well runs dry.”