Gendering Intervention: Geographies of Addiction, Recovery, and Reform in New York City


Nadja Eisenberg-Guyot



Project Title:

Gendering Intervention: Geographies of Addiction, Recovery, and Reform in New York City

Nadja lives in New York City, a city whose histories shape the subway they ride, the streets they walk, and the problems they trace within the archive and the present. They use black, feminist, queer, and trans theory to think through the articulation of gender, race, and class in institutions that intervene on “deviant” bodies. Nadja is involved in movements for gender self-determination and prison abolition through their work with the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, CourtWatch NYC, and the Bronx Freedom Fund. Nadja likes to stroll Times Square at all hours, captivated by neon lights.


My dissertation explores how gender, race, and class are emerging as regimes of incarceration and medicalized “addiction” treatment in New York City. Beginning with a women’s drug treatment facility, my ethnographic project follows clients through the institutional network of court-mandated drug treatment—an alternative to incarceration—to investigate how womanhood is produced through contemporary efforts to control and rehabilitate drug users within legal, medical, and lay discourses and institutions of criminality, drug use, and recovery. This summer, in the NYC Municipal Archives, I explored how imaginaries of addiction and rehabilitation were constructed over the 20th Century, how the figure of “the addict” is gendered, raced, and classed, and what consequences for urban institutions and geography were produced as “addiction” became a problem to be managed publicly.

One morning at the archive, as I sat perusing a 1968 report, an elderly white male archivist approached my table. “Whatcha working on?” As I answered, he interrupted with a non-sequitur: “You know, during the Progressive Era, institutions were more experimental…” Trying to be conciliatory, I agreed, “Well, in the early 20th century, experts debated whether drug use was a moral, medical, psychiatric, or criminal problem.” He narrowed his eyes, “I wonder if they took a different view in the small towns.” His comment encapsulates a theme in contemporary understandings of drug use, that it is a quintessentially urban, New York problem[i]. But how did this perception arise?

At the end of the 19th century, social commentators were increasingly preoccupied with how industrializing cities could disrupt existing social-spatial distinctions. The street and other public places threw the working class and the bourgeoisie, unrelated women and men, races and nationalities, families proper and improper, people with proclivities refined and untoward, together, heterogeneous, where they rubbed off on each other. It was in this context that drug use and other vices represented a new urban danger: contagious, corrupting, in uncontrollable proximity to innocence.

Thus, as the legal regulation of narcotics changed over the first quarter of the 20th century, drug use was re-conceptualized from being an individual habit to a social problem: a vice produced by, and reproducing, the social breakdown precipitated by urbanization. With this change came New York City officials’ increasing surveillance of “the addict”. In 1919, Dr. Hubbard of the Department of Health wrote that while popular opinion suggested that “addicts” had “definite physical stigmata,” in fact, “addicts” were indistinguishable.[ii] Narcotics Registries emerged out of the preoccupation with the anonymity of the addict: if she did not bear her difference on her body, at least she could be tracked through inscription into the roles of the “known” addict.[iii] While admitting that “addicts” couldn’t be seen, the city embarked on a project of surveilling them, and through surveillance, producing the population they wished to apprehend.

If one of the things I traced this summer was an epistemological anxiety (Where are the addicts? How will we know them? Can they be contained?), the equation, beginning in the 1960s, of addiction with Blackness was a sigh of relief: finally, “we” can know them when we see them.[iv] And not “them” as individuals, but “them” as aggregates, occupiers of social space, victims of and metonyms for environments[v] which overran their individuality: segregated Black and Puerto Rican neighborhoods[vi] quarantined by redlining and surveilled by whiteness. The statistical, psychological/criminological, and environmental projects to identify “addicts” intersected with white people’s[vii] sense that the city had changed. As a 1970 Comptroller report proclaimed, “There is a new game in town, the ‘How Many Addicts and Users Game.’ Anyone can play.”[viii] As the drug addict was increasingly identified as a racial type and drug addiction as a problem of urban Black environments (“the ghetto”) and Black deviance (“the criminal”), it became easier to wage war upon it.

Thus, in the 21st century, when the suburban or rural white victim of over-prescription became the emblem of the “Opioid Crisis,” the early 20th century frame is redoubled: drug use is dangerous precisely because it is not contained to the already marked, the already marginal, the already contained, criminalized, segregated.[ix] If, up until very recently, drug use has become so identified with urban Blackness that white drug users are remarkable (but also: everywhere, hidden on suburban blocks, “just like you”), one of the things my research this summer reveals is how this came to be. The equation of Blackness with drugs emerged not merely as a result of Nixon’s war on Black radicalism, but out of the anxiety that the drug user was somatically unrecognizable.

[i]“There is general agreement among authorities that New York City is the major area of drug addiction in the nation. It is thought that between 50 and 60 percent of all addicts in this country are in New York City.” (Screvane, Paul R. “Report to the Mayor of the City of New York by the Temporary Commission on Narcotics Addiction.” November, 1965, p. 1)

[ii]Hubbard, S. Dana. “The New York City Narcotic Clinic and Differing Points of View on Narcotic Addiction.” Department of Health, City of New York Reprint Series No. 87, February 1920.

[iii]Since New York State began keeping these registries in the 1950s, reams of official reports attempting to calculate the incidence of addiction proliferated, both across the whole population and within sub-populations (disaggregated by race, “sex,” and location of residence). The attempt to pin down the rate of drug use also served another purpose: justifying increasing institutional intervention in what was represented as an ever-growing problem.

[iv]For example, in a 1973 report on drug users who receive welfare, a 17-point profile of the “typical addict on Public Assistance” is enumerated, with characteristics ranging from gender, race, and marital status (male, Black or Puerto Rican, single), to education and work history (10th grade, intermitted work in “no specific or usual occupation”) (Pettiford, Patricia. “Narcotics Addicts on Public Assistance.” Department of Services Study Series 1(1), 1973.)

[v]New York City Mayor’s Advisory Council on Narcotics Addiction: A Preliminary Report.” Mayor’s Advisory Council on Narcotics Addiction, 1962, p. 14.

[vi]“The Phoenix House Program: A Management Analysis.” Human Resources Administration, Office of Review. 1971.

[vii]In a 1971 analysis of City drug policy commissioned by the NYC Addiction Services Agency and the National Institute for Mental Health from the Fordham Institute for Social Research, the coded term for whites is “crime-conscious” and Black and Puerto Rican people are coded as “ghetto populations” or “ghetto groups” (David, Stephen M. “A History of the Narcotics Addiction Political Arena in New York City, 1954 to 1971: An Initial Exploration.” September 15, 1971).

[viii]Beame, Abraham D. “Control of Drug Addiction: The Need for a Centralized Multi-Governmental Organization.” Research & Liaison Unit, The City of New York Office of the Comptroller, 1970.

[ix]My archival research has revealed a much longer history of the mass criminalization of drug use than is often told. According to a 1965 New York City Regional Mental Health Planning Committee Report, approximately 8,000 “known narcotics users” were incarcerated in city or state prisons, and another 3,050 were on parole (Bluestone, Harvey. “Report of Subcommittee on Addictions.” New York City Regional Mental Health Planning Committee, 1965). In 1966, the New York City Department of Corrections reported that “almost 40%” of incarcerated people in the city “had an admitted history of drug use” (“Task Force Report: Narcotics and Drug Abuse” The President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice, 1967).

About the author: Stefano Morello

Stefano Morello is a doctoral candidate in English with a certificate in American Studies at The Graduate Center, CUNY and a Teaching Fellow at Queens College, CUNY. His academic interests include American Studies, pop culture, poetics, and digital humanities. His dissertation, “Let’s Make a Scene! East Bay Punk and Subcultural Worlding,” explores the heterotopic space of the East Bay punk scene, its modes of resistance and (dis-)association, and the clashes between its politics and aesthetics. He serves as co-chair of the Graduate Forum of the Italian Association for American Studies (AISNA) and is a founding editor of its journal, JAm It! (Journal of American Studies in Italy). As a digital humanist, Stefano focuses on archival practices with a knack for archival pedagogy and public-facing initiatives. He created the East Bay Punk Digital Archive, an open access archive of East Bay punk-zines, and worked as a curator and consultant for Lawrence Livermore’s archive at Cornell University. He was a Wellcome Trust Transdisciplinary Fellow in 2019-2020.