On vacation with his parents in New Mexico, a six-year-old boy runs away for the day and builds an “Indian fire pit” in Bandelier National Monument, an area renowned for its ancient ruins of Pueblo cliff dwellings. Two decades later, after attending art school, he finds himself sharing a large loft in New York City with two friends and embarks on transforming the space into “stations” using a variety of materials, including clay, scavenged timber, biological specimens, as well as his own hair and bodily fluids. One day he lays down a piece of clay and sprinkles it with sand. In his imagination it suddenly turns into an actual place in a parallel world inhabited by a race of diminutive humans. Soon he begins to elaborate this realm of “The Little People,” as he calls them, and starts to build tiny clay dwellings on the streets and sidewalks of downtown Manhattan. Fashioning thousands of handmade bricks each no bigger than a thumbnail, he erects dwellings in the nooks and crannies of the urban environment. Because New York is in the midst of an economic downturn and full of abandoned and neglected buildings, he finds plenty of available sites for his invented civilization.
At first, he imagines that the Little People are divided into two groups, the “hunters” who live in cliff dwellings constructed on the walls and ledges of buildings, and the “herdsmen” who inhabit lower zones such as sidewalks and street gutters. Eventually in his developing scenario the two groups merge through conquest and intermarriage. Later, he feels compelled to write a work of fictive ethnology about the invisible inhabitants of his miniature adobe settlements, detailing their myths, marriage practices, social prohibitions, manner of dividing labor, etc.
Initially he concentrates on SoHo, then an area shared by artists and blue-collar workers. He finds the reactions of the latter, many of whom are Black or Puerto Rican, to be more spontaneous and closer to his own ideas than what he hears from an artworld audience. He decides to venture beyond SoHo and explore the Lower East Side, at the time an impoverished neighborhood deluged with drugs and crime. He does so with some trepidation, since as a white artist he is clearly an outsider, but from the very first day he begins working in the area he is met with an enthusiastic response, from local children, shop owners, police officers, plumbers, drug addicts. He feels ecstatic.
Ultimately he creates some 200 dwellings, at least one on nearly every block of the Lower East Side. Because his clay dwellings are so fragile most are soon destroyed, either by children playing with them or someone trying to take them home. He notices that whenever anyone tries to remove one of his structures from its location, it falls apart. “The dwelling belongs to everyone on the block as long as it is possessed by no one in particular,” he later remarks. “As soon as someone wants to possess it or take it away, they destroy it.”
Over time his public identity in the neighborhood changes, progressing from crazy man to visionary vagabond to a kind of folk hero. Along the way he becomes closely involved with various community groups. One day while he is working on East Second Street, he is approached by a young man who says that the first time he saw the artist at work he was on his way to kill someone with a knife, but that he stopped to watch this strange activity unfold and as he did so, he calmed down and abandoned his murderous mission.