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Shannon Finnegan

Disabled artist Shannon Finnegan spoke with people with disabilities and those who live with mental illnesses about creating community on the West Side of Manhattan. She connected with the Center for Independent Living in New York, Fountain House, and Heidi Latsky Dance.

Disabled artist Shannon Finnegan spoke with people with disabilities and those who live with mental illnesses about creating community on the West Side of Manhattan. She connected with the Center for Independent Living in New York, Fountain House, and Heidi Latsky Dance.

Map-Making Workshop

Draw your current neighborhood. Now draw your ideal neighborhood.

These were Shannon Finnegan’s prompts for her map-making workshop at Fountain House in New York City. Fountain House’s origins date back to the late 1940’s when a group of former patients at the Rockland State Hospital, an inpatient mental health facility, began meeting on the steps of the New York Public Library. They came together for support, friendship, and encouragement. Today Fountain House owns multiple buildings on the west side of Manhattan, and has over 1,400 members. Their model—of a place for people living with mental illness to be, work, and form relationships—became known as the “clubhouse model.” It inspired the creation of similar centers all over the world.

“In my ideal neighborhood,” one participant wrote, “I live with my boyfriend and two cats. We stay out of the mental hospital and take walks along the High Line.”

Another participant labeled the public bathrooms: “Public Bathrooms . . . . . Dog walking route. very important!”

See maps in the gallery above. 

Interviews with New Yorkers with disabilities

Shannon Finnegan reads excerpts from her interviews with New Yorkers with disabilities. We hear the sounds of Chelsea in the background.

In her interviews with people connected to Center for the Independence of Disabled New Yorkers (CIDNY) and Fountain House, Finnegan heard similar ideas pop up again and again. One recurrent theme was the importance of self-determination. Indeed, this is at the core of CIDNY’s mission.

CIDNY opened in 1978 and was the first independent living center in New York City. It was part of a larger international movement to provide support and services for disabled people to live on their own outside of institutions. Prior to this, many people with physical disabilities lived in state-run institutions, which were notorious for poor conditions. This movement for independent living, which was inaugurated and led by people with disabilities themselves, maintained that it wasn’t people with disabilities that needed to change; it was society, support services, and public spaces that needed to change. Disabled people fought for community-based care, accessible housing, accessible public transportation, and accessible city infrastructure. Things like curb cuts, elevators, and modern buses make it possible for more people to enjoy all the things this city has to offer. As one New Yorker with a disability said, “I like the access to theater. I can drop in to see something on a Tuesday night.”

Another theme: strangers offering to help. As one CIDNY member said: “sometimes I’m waiting for the bus and someone walks up to me and says, ‘Oh do you need help?’ I’m like, ‘I’m waiting for the bus like everyone else.’ I don’t need help all the time.” Another CIDNY member: “When people see someone with a disability, they automatically assume they’re helpless, and don’t have knowledge.”

What Finnegan heard in her interviews, however, was that New Yorkers with disabilities (and frankly, all New Yorkers) develop their own highly personal schedules, routines, routes, and support systems to help them live in this rowdy, expensive city.


What follows are reflections from a handful of Fountain House members on their favorite spots in the neighborhood. As one member said, “Lots of things have to change, but some things shouldn’t be touched.”

A flat, red, metal bench with no back against a faded pink, brick wall.

A bench outside of the Salvation Army, West 46th StreetRowa Lee

A metal bench with three seats at the edge of the sidewalk in front of parked cars. The bench has short armrests between the seats.

A bench on 10th AvenueRowa Lee

Public benches, how wonderful, you know. You can actually walk and sit and catch your breath and have a sandwich, soda, or cup of coffee.
– Fountain House member

The facade of a Dunkin’ Donuts/Baskin Robbins. The windows display advertising posters including one that says, “‘Tis the cinnamon season” with photos of a coffee and a croissant breakfast sandwich.

Dunkin’ Donuts, 10th AvenueRowa Lee

“There used to be a Dunkin Donuts that I loved. They would throw an extra donut in my bag. Lots of members and staff hung out there.”
– Fountain House member

A photo taken from street level of a brick facade. Three stories are visible, all with matching windows. The windows on the lowest story have a mental bannister in front of them.

Fountain House, West 47th Street. Finnegan heard from Fountain House members that in the past Fountain House was able to place members in apartments near their West 47th Street location. This made it easier for members to be involved in the community at Fountain House. Due to increases in rent in the area, this is no longer the case.Rowa Lee

Someone on SSI used to be able to afford an apartment in this neighborhood.
– Fountain House member

The facade of Amy’s bread. Most of the facade is teal with a few gold accents. Signage reads, “Amy’s Bread” and “Fresh bread.” There is a ramp to the entrance.

Amy’s Bread, 9th AvenueRowa Lee

I also go to Amy’s Bread. I get a pumpernickel, small roll for 95 cents. And some butter. A cup of coffee with milk. And I sit there and rest my back a bit in the early morning.
– Fountain House member

The facade of Sullivan Street Bakery. The design looks fresh and modern with white subway tile and a metal overhang. The sidewalk slopes up to meet the doorway

Sullivan Street BakeryRowa Lee

A close-up of the facade of Sullivan Street Bakery showing a wooden bench against the white subway tile.

Sullivan Street BakeryRowa Lee

A close-up of the door of Sullivan Street Bakery showing a sign that reads, “Service animals are welcome!”

Sullivan Street BakeryRowa Lee

(speaking about Sullivan St. Bakery)
The funny thing about this place, at one point I couldn’t get in here. Because they had a much steeper ramp, and a really small space. So I couldn’t get in, especially if there was rain or snow my wheels would get stuck. I complained to the manager and I think some other people did too. And when they remodeled, they leveled it out.
– Resident of Hell’s Kitchen

The facade of The Salvation Army. It’s brick with lots of brick ornamentation. There are three cargo bays at street level with bright red roll-down doors.

Salvation Army, West 46th St.Rowa Lee

Six shelves of books stretch across the image. The books are multi-colored and some sections have tilted over.

Salvation Army, West 46th St.Rowa Lee

And I also go to the Salvation Army thrift shop on 46th Street, which is rather a large thrift shop. And I go there almost every day. They’re open till 8pm. Which is really cool. From 10am to 8pm.
– Fountain House member

We invite you to listen to an audio tour of the signs below. You can also read a transcript.

Other In/With Chelsea Projects

Betty Yu

Betty Yu looked to capture the labor stories of everyday people—past and present; union and non-union; informal and formal; nonprofit workers; immigrant, undocumented, and US born. Yu hosted a story circle with union organizers and members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.

Learn more

Lizania Cruz

Throughout the spring and summer of 2018, Lizania Cruz ran a series of workshops at the New York City Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Trans Center (The Center). She asked: “How can we tell the lesser known stories of LGBTQ+ Chelsea?”

Learn more

Alicia Grullon

Alicia Grullon worked with the senior programs at Hudson Guild and Penn South to untangle political issues around development, displacement, culture, housing, and long-standing communities. Grullon talked to long-time residents of Chelsea who have experienced all of the neighborhood changes.

Learn more