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Sienna Shields

Oral history interview conducted by Svetlana Kitto

November 08, 2017

Call number: 2008.031.8.004

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SVETLANA KITTO: I'm Svetlana Kitto. Today is November 8, 2017. I'm here on Skype with Sienna Shields. This interview is for the Brooklyn Historical Society Waterfront Exhibit and Archive, and we're going to begin. So, if you could just say for the record where and when you were born, and then if you could just tell me a little bit about your early life. Like, I read about you growing up in Alaska and the landscape, and anything you want to tell me there just to start.

SIENNA SHIELDS: My name is Sienna Shields, and I was born in 1976 in Red Bank, New Jersey. And my mom came up to Alaska when I was about two months old. With me and my mom, so that's how I got there.

SVETLANA KITTO: There's something weird about the sound, sorry. Like it was 1:00fine, and then did something change over there? Can you just talk for a second for me, tell me what you had for breakfast this morning?

SIENNA SHIELDS: Yeah, okay. Granola and nuts.

SVETLANA KITTO: Oh, there we are. You're back. Okay. It was just like squeaking or being weird. Okay. So, yeah, so ... So, you said you went to Alaska -- you got to Alaska when you were two months old?

SIENNA SHIELDS: Yes, something like that when I was, like a few -- when I was an infant. And, yeah, so that's where -- let's see, that's where I grew up and then I came to New York in 2001, like in Halloween 2001 is when --

SVETLANA KITTO: Oh, wow. And, what, you were coming from San Francisco, right?


SVETLANA KITTO: Like that's where you were before?

SIENNA SHIELDS: Yeah. I was coming from San Francisco, and I came out when I was 2:00twenty-two. I think I was twenty-two. Twenty-two? Yeah, twenty-two years old after college and -- so I was in the Bay Area for a while.

SVETLANA KITTO: Yeah, yeah. That's a good place to come out, right? I mean it's great.

SIENNA SHIELDS: Yeah, and it was also this thing where -- it's another where, you know, I was kind of like ostracized from my family, and so, yeah. So, I kind of found a community in the Bay. And that was a whole wave of gentrification that happened then because it was the late '90s. And so, it was kind of, like, our -- a kind of a migration. It was a -- it was a huge gentrification, you know, just waves after wave after wave happened and then there was a crash of '99, I think it was. So, about 2000, '99, yeah. So, then the economy just 3:00crashed. So, basically, all these queer spaces, all these queer arts organizations, dance organizations, everything that had been there forever had been kicked out, you know, and so many of the ... You know, and also, too, during that time, like, the Fillmore was, like, no longer black. Like it was so -- you know? So, yeah, it was just crazy to see all that happen and then for nothing. You know, after the crash, you know, there were just all these, like For Rent signs out, but everything had changed. You know you couldn't go back. So, yeah, after that, I was just like, "Yes, I'm going to work" and then --

SVETLANA KITTO: What were some of the organizations and spaces that you're talking about, just like specifically in San Francisco?

SIENNA SHIELDS: Oh, my word, I have to remember those names but there --

SVETLANA KITTO: Oh, just anything, yeah. Like -- yeah.

SIENNA SHIELDS: There were -- you know, this is where I can just, like, maybe come back to you because --

SVETLANA KITTO: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, that's fine.

SIENNA SHIELDS: Yeah, because I know you remember where especially this place, 4:00it was like, POC, queer, like mostly lesbian space on -- in the Mission. But like -- that a lot of art, so a lot of music, art, dance performance that was coming out of there. And, yeah, that was the whole thing. It's like that was something that I went to a lot in that closed down. So, you just see, like when you were just walking around the neighborhood, just like what happened everywhere else, you know, where I lived. And so that's a part of it, too, is like I'm aware as an artist and then also as, like, kind of -- kind of what happens to, kind of, the queer of refugee especially during that time, you know? Because it was just a different world with there wasn't social media, you know, there wasn't really cellphones. I didn't have a cellphone, you know, and I know the cellphone. But, yeah, so, you know, you had to go to these places where 5:00other people were like you, you know?


SIENNA SHIELDS: It was different.


SIENNA SHIELDS: It was really kind of a whole new devastation to lose that, you know? And that's where I think, too, the --

SVETLANA KITTO: Was that your first experience of that, like San Francisco or did you -- had you encountered, like, I don't know --

SIENNA SHIELDS: Yeah, I had and just because I grew up -- you know?


SIENNA SHIELDS: I grew up and got the -- yeah. That's -- yeah.

SVETLANA KITTO: Yeah, but you went to Portland for college, right?

SIENNA SHIELDS: Mm-hmm. That happened in Portland, too. I just wasn't really -- it was happening while I was there, but it wasn't really ... I was, kind of, cloistered in college -- in college and it happens more after I left, you know?


SIENNA SHIELDS: During the same time. Like when I was in San Francisco, that's what's happening in Portland, too, so yeah. And I think Portland, too, lost a lot of its black population, you know? So, all of these, kind of, western cities 6:00lost a lot of -- like Seattle, Portland, and the Bay, you know? So, it was also -- it was on a lot of different levels, I feel like, what happened with gentrification, so ...

SVETLANA KITTO: So then, had you wanted to move to New York? Like, was that something that was in your imagination?

SIENNA SHIELDS: Mm-hmm. I grew up in Alaska wanting to move to New York, too, but ... [laughter] I was homeschooled as a child, and it was called Centralized Correspondence Study, and so the state, you have to send your packets of schoolwork every month to the state. And so, your parents would teach you, but you had to see teachers that would, like, review your work and give you progress and stuff. So, I mean, everyone got these books that were nothing to do with Alaska, you know, was spastic. Everything was centered around like growing up in 7:00Portland, so ... It was kind of funny that like, you know, growing up so much I learned about was -- you know? So, that I think that probably, like, triggered something, you know?


SIENNA SHIELDS: And I might have -- you know, that's where -- that area is where my -- all right. Hold on for a sec. There are kids. But, yeah, anyway, I got to New York and I ... DUMBA was pretty much like a ... I don't know. It was like a real foundational part of my life, you know, because it was such an insane, crazy experience with so many people that went through that space. And it -- it was also a lot of Bay Area people, queer, people of color had also -- you know, was back and forth between New York and the Bay Area. And so, there was like a connection of community from that. And then also just kind of the ethics of, I 8:00don't know, being communal, you know? It was a different kind of thing back then. So, yeah, I -- it really -- it was something special, you know? And so, I was there until we were evicted in 2007. Yeah.

SVETLANA KITTO: Right, yeah. Yeah. So, how did you first encounter it?

SIENNA SHIELDS: Well, when I first went to New York, I didn't live in Dumbo -- in DUMBA. But, you know, and my girlfriend and I broke up, and I was looking for a place on Craigslist, and I saw -- I saw this ad for -- I wish I had that ad, you know? It's hilarious. But it was for like, you know, my dream. You know, some crazy black POC, you know, queer space for artists and activists, you know, writers, and all, and I was like, "I'm going." And I want to be in this place where ... Anyway so, yeah. When they interviewed me, only one person was awake 9:00to actually do the interview out of like, I don't know, eight people living there. And I was like, "Okay, this is totally fine because I liked speed," but -- yeah.

SVETLANA KITTO: So you just wrote them an email, and they were like, "Yeah, come by"?

SIENNA SHIELDS: Do the interview and like the interview was -- it was like this whole procedure and all this whole interview, you know? But it was just kind of funny because, you know, there was this one woman, it was Fran who, who's a poet and she now lives in either Detroit or Chicago but -- but, yeah, so that was history right there. Yeah.

SVETLANA KITTO: What did they ask you in the interview? Do you remember?

SIENNA SHIELDS: I know it -- there was something probably about dishes, but it 10:00was just kind of like talking. A lot of it was just talking and then kind of stuff about, you know, thoughts about certain, you know, topics. But also just about like, you know, was I down with like -- what's the word for this? You know, all the ways of like how things were organized there, you know, and consensus. Was I down for the consensus? So, I guess, they mentioned that even, the kind of rules. And also just the -- you know, she was straight up about the fact that they threw sex parties and, you know, and ... And all the rules about that went along with the sex parties, and safe spaces, and, you know, all the kind of responsibility if you live there. You know, to volunteer, to ... [interview interrupted.] I hear that too.

SVETLANA KITTO: What is that? I am so confused --


SVETLANA KITTO: Is it ...? Do you hear -- do you hear it?


SVETLANA KITTO: Like, do you hear it? It's, like, something like the speaker is 11:00-- I'm, like, really confused about it and I don't know how to fix it.

SIENNA SHIELDS: I almost wonder if I put mine -- I don't know where ... No, but, you know, the problem that -- my headset maybe?

SVETLANA KITTO: Yeah. Yeah. But see, it comes and goes though is the thing. Like it's been -- it's sort of coming and going. It's very strange. I'm wondering if, like, maybe I should just --



SIENNA SHIELDS: My phone is sitting -- sitting next to me. I'll move my phone far. Sometimes, --

SVETLANA KITTO: I've done this before like with the Skype and putting the recorder to my speakers, and I didn't have that problem. But if it continues then, I think, I'll take it off the speakers because it might be something to do with my speakers.

SIENNA SHIELDS: Do you hear it anymore?

SVETLANA KITTO: I don't hear it right now but I --

SIENNA SHIELDS: You know, I --

SVETLANA KITTO: -- I've been consistently --

SIENNA SHIELDS: -- heard it then. I just feel -- I bet, you know, I don't know. Sometimes with -- sometimes with cellphones and if I got a text message ... You 12:00know, the cellphone interferes and I don't know.

SVETLANA KITTO: Yeah, okay, okay. So --


SVETLANA KITTO: Yeah. I felt like I was about to hear it again, but it didn't come. Okay. Let's just keep going first. It's like ... Okay. So, you were saying that they were explaining to you like what the -- the ethics of the place was, and about consensus, and about the sex parties.

SIENNA SHIELDS: Yeah, just so I wouldn't be surprised by anything. Also, just the -- you know, sitting in the back and, you know, the room was an absolute disaster, and I was like, "Oh, yeah, this is great." And it literally was a room that it had no -- it had no windows, no windows. And it was just, like, maybe that you could fit like a queen-sized bed into it straight, you know? And -- and then -- and then there were two little rooms. So, I eventually just got two 13:00rooms back there. But it was dirty, and I could afford it, and it was incredible people that ended up being my roommates, and -- yeah, so ... Anyway, that was that and --

SVETLANA KITTO: What was the neighborhood like at that time?

SIENNA SHIELDS: It was -- SVETLANA KITTO: Like when you came to it?

SIENNA SHIELDS: -- the -- we would go up ... There wasn't a Laundromat and there wasn't a Laundromat. I mean there wasn't a washing machine in our building, and so we would have to go up to other neighborhoods. Like literally, you know, walk blocks and blocks to go up the Laundromat. There was like a bodega. Peas & Pickles had just starting coming in or had come in at that point. That was kind of a marker of like, you know, like, "Whoa, Peas & Pickles." But, yeah, there was very little. There -- there weren't really cars on the street. That's something that's always funny for me. You know, it was kind of empty streets, 14:00you know, just the empty cobblestones with very little cars. Mostly just big garbage trucks, you know, and the recycling -- no, that was like the green garbage trucks because that whole big building, I think it was on Plymouth, like 135 Plymouth that -- that was like a recycling garbage facility. So, you could actually just ... People would go out and just sit on the garbage truck and talk, you know? Because there would just be empty, dark garbage trucks and no one is checking in on these garbage trucks, but, you know, you could just literally go sit in garbage trucks and talk because there was nothing. Nothing was there. Nothing was there, you know. It was just really just -- I mean there are people but, like it wasn't this industry. Everyone was kind of doing their own thing inside their buildings and their collectives and stuff, but it wasn't -- it was a whole different ... There wasn't commerce in the place all the time, you know?

SVETLANA KITTO: But was it industrial?

SIENNA SHIELDS: It was. That's the thing is that when I was younger -- and I 15:00don't remember if it was in Alaska or if it was, you know, in -- when I was in college. But I watched the PBS special, and I always wanted to find this. But it was like on public TVs when I saw it on, but it was about artists who had fled, Soho, you know, from rising rents and gentrification, and they'd gone to Dumbo. And it was the -- the Dumbo that they were showing looked pretty close to the Dumbo I was used to at that point. But it was just something I had just randomly seen earlier in my life, so it was kind of funny I ended up here. But it was -- when I was there, there wasn't -- it was ... The artists had already been there, and so it was industrial, and it was artists. It was the classic setup for gentrification. And that's the whole thing with how it was developed, you know, with that in mind. And so, all of us knew this, too, because we all knew 16:00neighbors there who had -- who were arts organizations who had really good deals courtesy of like the Two Trees guy or the Walentas guy, the developer. And so, they knew that the -- you know, that the guillotine was coming later, you know, but it was just buying time as a place to be. So, there was a lot of energy, and you can make it into many things, but ... And in one way, too, I don't really know about -- this is something I love to know from just like more of the history of things. It didn't feel like the gentrification in Dumbo was the gentrification that pushed out ... I don't know. It just it seems, like, it was like when I was there, it was just artists, you know, pushing out richer -- you know, richer artists pushing out, you know, poor artists constantly. And so, it turned over to it fully, you know, gentrified other kind of economy neighborhood. So, I would be really curious to know like difference. Like let's 17:00say what happens in gentrification in Bed-Stuy or, you know, and what happened in Williamsburg at the same time. It was, you know, all these gentrifications, you know, that happened that I've been a part of as an artist, like, you know, some of them are a little more, like, bloodier than others. And I'm curious about like what exactly went ... I don't know about what went really on in Dumbo, you know, before us artists got there. I do feel it was mostly just industrial, but that'll be something I would like to know. My feel like -- it's my ignorance about like what I was really participating in. You know? Yeah.

SVETLANA KITTO: So, what was -- had you -- like before the Craigslist ... Can you just tell that story one more time? So, you -- can you just tell me about how you heard about it first -- since before it was squeaking and now it's not 18:00squeaking and it sounds so good. Can you just tell me again about how you heard about it at first and then -- yeah?

SIENNA SHIELDS: Yeah, yeah. It was just the girlfriend that I had moved to New York with, we had broken up and so, of course, that's what happened to me to find a place to live, and so breaking up. So, I was just looking and putting in keywords into Craigslist and, you know, some of those keywords DOD, DOC, queer, when I, like, came up with this magical place, you know? And I remember just envisioning it actually when I saw the ad. Like, I just knew like what -- you know, I knew, you know, and it was like this magical thing, it really was. And I got there and then it was Fran. There was one roommate who actually interviewed me, and everyone else was asleep, and I just kind of ... I don't know. It was just everything clicked, I loved it. It was a total disaster, you know, and 19:00that's the thing about DUMBA, it was just constantly a beautiful disaster, right? Because when you're a place that's constantly, you know, opening arms to just kind of anything that's walking off the street, like there was always just, like, bills to pay and, you know, people who hadn't been able to pay rent, and, you know, all this stuff was always happening. And then -- and the upkeep and then just all the cleanup from gatherings, I would say, so in planning. So, yeah, it was something else, so ...

SVETLANA KITTO: What did the space look like --


SVETLANA KITTO: -- then? Like what -- can -- like the -- can you tell again, like, all the -- just all the different caverns of it and stuff?

SIENNA SHIELDS: Mm-hmm. So basically, it was on the corner of -- of Water and Jay Street. And you had to walk up kind of through this -- if you entered on that side, you had to walk up a little bit upstairs. But anyway, you -- you 20:00entered and there was this long kind of corridor, hallway that was about -- It's about 20 feet wide and then it went the length of the building back. And so, our -- the space was about 5,000 square feet, a little over 5,000 square feet. So when you walked in, on your left, you saw these massive steel doors that could be opened up and -- and then there was back there a little further, there was a door in. And there were three bedrooms and then a living room in that area. So, during events often that was like coat check, that was babysitting. That was, kind of, where everyone who didn't want to participate in the madness, kind of, could go hide and we had that. And then there was a kitchen on the right, kind of in the middle. And then you could go back down this long kind of -- through 21:00that corridor area and then there were two bedrooms and there were two bathrooms in the whole space, two showers I mean. There was also a bathroom in the front there. And then in the middle of that long corridor after that -- the big steel doors, there were another set of really huge steel doors and that was performance space. It was about 400-ish square feet, you know, a little over, 500 square feet. And so, those doors could be opened. They were sliding doors, so you could, kind of, utilize all that space. There was a really narrow hallway to the back section of the house. And then in that little narrow hallway was a bathroom, a loft above the bathroom that also was a place people slept and stayed. That had a shower in it, too, and then there was the kitchen in the hallway. Then you went back and there was this giant crane that was just 22:00attached to a pivoting crane that was attached to one of the pillars that held the place up. And then there was a living room in the back performance space, you know, or whatever you want to call it. And that one's really large as well and then one, two, three, four, five bedrooms in the back. That could actually be like six bedrooms, so, yeah. And then there was a back door out that came out on like 190 Water. So, I was -- I was in the back at -- for a lot of this in that room towards the -- basically half of my time there. I mean, I, kind of, lived in almost all of the rooms during my time there as well as there were also just people ... I also lived in the living room when I didn't have money, so -- yeah. It was something else. So then, you could just -- it really could depend. 23:00Like sometimes -- there was a time when there was like 7 people there and then there was a time when there was like about 24, so ...

SVETLANA KITTO: So, who was living there when you first lived there, like when you first moved in?

SIENNA SHIELDS: When I first moved in, it had kind of during this transition, I guess, in the past, like maybe in the two years before I got there. And I don't know totally, but the people who started DUMBA, and I'll -- I'll take pictures and send you what I have there. The people who started at DUMBA, they -- the originators have all left and so it had just, kind of, continued. And so, it kind of had these waves and so, it was a real, kind of, like ... It's the really radical activists, mostly white queer group that started DUMBA. And then what 24:00happened -- and so, that's the thing. And so, sometimes with politics, right, radical white anarchists are amazing, you know, in their cause I have nothing against this, right? But it's a different value set, let's say, than people who are from New York who come from families who, you know, let's say -- you know, from the Caribbean, you know, or wherever, or just, you know, families who are super homophobic sometimes, you know, and, so ... And so, the -- the need in a place like Brooklyn and New York for places that were queer spaces, but cultures were really different, you know? And so, I feel like I was in this stage of DUMBA that was less, kind of, like -- kind of having these broad, idealistic platforms that were actually really amazing and foundational. And that we 25:00actually -- like we're really proud of and really thought a lot of, you know? Like, they did Gay Shame. So, they did Pride. You know, all the stuff was really amazing, but then in application of what happens when, you know, at this very same time, stuff was really changing in the West Village and in the East Village, you know? So, you come in -- that's totally gentrified at this stage. So, like, where our queer brown people, black people are going. And then the whole problem with how many -- like the amount of 20-somethings that are homeless in New York who were queer and, -- you know, and black. So that was kind of where ... And then also just people like me were moving there because it's, like, you know, we can't -- I'm at home now, but I couldn't be back then, you know? So, anyway, I just feel like that's the stage of DUMBA that I was in. There were a lot of people who we were all kind of refugees from our families, you know? They were situations. So it's a different -- it was a different kind 26:00of set of core, we're your basic power. We're going to -- like actually going to do, but ... But, yeah, we kept -- we ... I moved. The actual day I moved into DUMBA, like the actual day I stepped in was on the day of a sex party. Because I had been in Paris doing some modeling, and so I missed the very first move-in of the month, right? So, I came in, and it was literally, we stepped in, there was a sex party. I was like, "Oh my god." I came up on totally like, you know, "Okay, well, okay, sorry," you know, but ... So, I was really there for the cleanup of the first sex party. You know, I wasn't there. I was ... [laughter] Not I mean my first sex party, there you go. I was like, "All right," so ... I was there to help man and -- and clean up. But it was really something else. You know, that was how I actually walked into the space, but it was ... We had a lot of balls there. We hosted lots of balls. We -- there were constantly fundraisers 27:00for different artists or activists. People had a lot of shows there, would write us about do parties, so ...

SVETLANA KITTO: So, was it the people that were living there, like at any given time, where they the ones, sort of, organizing the events that were happening there? And that would just be a kind of like ever-changing group of, like, different --



SIENNA SHIELDS: Yeah. So that's the thing. It was kind of like these -- like there were this different kind of eras of things where -- you know, just depend on. That's why you know, it would be really beautiful. Like, I actually dug through stuff when we were getting kicked out. There was like ... People had just -- people would just leave their stuff there too, you know, like ... So, I have like the ... So, I have, like, the house management files. You know, I saved -- I saved everything I could just about like how we did things. And then 28:00also, we kept the files of the previous people, you know? And we --

SVETLANA KITTO: Was that the group who had started it, or was it like --

SIENNA SHIELDS: There was an intermediate group, you know, in between. There was -- yeah. But yeah. So, this is, like, in 1998.


SIENNA SHIELDS: So ... Yeah. So, the thing is that the official sex party thing didn't really -- we kind of -- just neighborhood changing and just like the realities of things, we did -- we did it differently. But what would end up always happening is that our -- our kind of normal parties would end up being -- would get locked in kind of like that anyway, so ... But we had -- what was really cool about all this was what we got handed down, and I learned a lot, you know?


SVETLANA KITTO: I'd love to hear about that, yeah.

SIENNA SHIELDS: Yeah. Because like -- there we go. Where is that? Sorry.

SVETLANA KITTO: It's okay. There's no rush.

SIENNA SHIELDS: Yeah, like some of these are so funny. It's so retro, and it's, like, when I look at these people, so we still did, but we, you know, everybody wants to live this shit but ...

SVETLANA KITTO: Lusty Loft Five is what I'm looking at, a party for boy-boy, girl-girl, --


SVETLANA KITTO: -- girl-boy --

SIENNA SHIELDS: -- girl-boy.

SVETLANA KITTO: -- gay, bi, trans, queer, brown, white, voyeur, kink, teach, dance, play, so.

SIENNA SHIELDS: This is so funny, right? So, I don't know, like, which -- this is in here. Like I don't know which -- from which era. I have to count back. This is before me, you know, this Lusty Loft Five. I feel like we were Lusty Loft Six, but ... But with the Lusty Lofts. Yeah, I feel like this stuff -- 30:00like, hold on. What was really cool is we had all these. We had a lot of rules and guidelines for how to put on events, and -- and have it be a safe space. And so, we'd have -- everyone would -- we'd have people that were special like kind of fairies. We had different outfits on, and we would be the people that would just be monitoring things, and just checking that everyone was safe and that, you know, in their right mind, and, you know, not being taken advantage of. Then also just having the -- the, you know, protection in basket. You know, we pass that out and other kinds of things. So, it was -- it was cool to, like, come into a structure, you know, with people saying, "This is what --" This is part of the interview, you know? Like, "Okay, this is what happens when this happens, 31:00and we need people to be aware of this, you know, doing that," so, yeah. Yeah.

SVETLANA KITTO: What were -- do you remember more, like, what were some of the guidelines or also like stories about the people -- both the intermediary group and the people who started it?

SIENNA SHIELDS: Well, I mean this is the whole thing. I don't know how much -- like with the Brooklyn Historical Society -- like ...

SVETLANA KITTO: Yeah. That's fine.

SIENNA SHIELDS: You know, because -- yeah. Because it -- because it would be like it -- it's the stories, and it's a bit ... And everyone -- everyone has their own, especially, you know, in the queer community, everyone has their own cross to bear, and so I know there was a different kind of devastation that went through with certain drugs that went through DUMBA earlier before I got there with this particular kind. You know what I mean?


SIENNA SHIELDS: So, yeah. So, that's the thing too. That's just the nature of 32:00what happens. But that wasn't -- I won't necessarily the founders. I just know that -- you know?


SIENNA SHIELDS: Okay. I'm trying to find -- I just -- I just had the ... Just, I just saw the guidelines, sorry.

SVETLANA KITTO: Oh, it's okay. [interview interrupted.] So, the first event you experienced was the sex party that you moved into?


SVETLANA KITTO: Did you go hide? Where you like -- it just sounds like a lot.

SIENNA SHIELDS: No, no, I wasn't -- I wasn't high. I wasn't -- I mean I wasn't --

SVETLANA KITTO: Oh, did you go hide I said. Hide.

SIENNA SHIELDS: I didn't hide. It was, like ... It was a really -- let's see. 33:00Okay, yeah. So, like there would be different -- there'd be this, "Explore this place, claim it too, just respect the Do Not Enter signs. There are dance, lube, condoms, and wipes throughout the space. We encourage you to use them. A smoking lounge is available, turn left past the back kitchen or follow the arrows. You may also smoke outside. However, do not take alcohol outside. It's for everyone's safety. Problem solvers are wearing tiaras. Find them if you have questions or need help. The French kitchen is a cool-down space and home base for problem solvers." It totally was. [laughter]

SVETLANA KITTO: Wait, what were problem solvers?

SIENNA SHIELDS: That was -- that was the whole, you know, that was if you had ... Like if there was a party, like, everyone, like, -- sometimes you'll be -- you have to be like, you know, the door person, you know, you'd have to make ... There would be duty in bathrooms, you know. It was like everyone has their -- and so then if something would happen just like ... Then there were the problem solvers are the people, like, wearing like a special outfit, whatever. That's to 34:00make -- that's we'd make sure that everything was okay. Because it was a space that was a war and have rooms, you know. And, you know, curtains, like stuff get fire -- catch fire, you know? Or we didn't ever want anyone to be sexually assaulted there. You know what I mean? So, we had to kind of move around the space and just keep an eye on things. And then there were also just tons of problem solvers in the French kitchen, so ... It was like -- but, okay, let me see where else. "We are all free and different people. It takes a conscious effort by all to create a safe environment. Please respect others' boundaries. It's the kink-positive space. Take responsibility for your actions regarding substance use. Consider using in moderation. Be aware that not everyone wants to be hit on by someone who's fucked up. Clean up after yourselves. Use latex, etc., go into the waste -- used latex, etc., go into the wastebaskets. Two 35:00showers and lots of towels are also available. Feel free. Water sports in the showers only please. No photography or video recording except in the porno room. Tipping is encouraged. If there's anything we can do to help make this a safe and positive experience for you, please let us know." And it wasn't the car service, so yeah.

SVETLANA KITTO: So, it's really -- this is --

SIENNA SHIELDS: So, these are things -- we would hand this out to everyone. They'd have to see this, you know, when they come in and stuff, yeah.

SVETLANA KITTO: It's like you -- you went looking for a place to live and then you become a sort of like -- I don't know. Like a kind of -- like you have to, kind of, institute a whole, like, -- like you've become sort of in charge of and with other people, but, like, you are -- you have -- you are now, like, empowered in this way to, like, create this, like, refuge space for people. It's just like a -- it's really interesting that that's what happened.


SIENNA SHIELDS: Well, yeah. Well that's what definitely -- that's what part of the interview was, you know? And it was kind of like -- you know, it was like, this is a commitment, you know this is a community thing. But the thing is in San Francisco, I wasn't in -- I wasn't in a thing like this, but I had relationships with people like this. And then also it was the -- it was pre-gentrification, you know, a lot of where I lived, and so basically, all of my friends were, like, in my building and then we'd walk down the street, and ... You know what I mean? It was like -- it wasn't like you had to actually like through that ... [interview interrupted.] to just your friends, you know what I mean? Everything was right there, and so there was a sense of community and then also responsibility to people. I was familiar with all this, you know?

SVETLANA KITTO: Yeah. But so -- did the people that you were friends with -- 37:00like, did other people had ... So, did other people around you, not the people at DUMBA but, like, other people, had they heard of -- was it something that people knew about, and, like, was it a secret? Was it, you know?

SIENNA SHIELDS: I mean I hadn't heard of it actually before I saw it on Craigslist. But after I was there, you know, I was -- then when people would come to the -- you know, when people would come to the space, like I would ... A lot of people that were coming to the space, I was like, oh, they were familiar to me from the New York queer world. And that's the thing, too, is I had -- I was like ... I was working odd jobs in queer bars, you know, so when I first got to New York. So I was working in -- I was like a door girl at Bordeaux, which was the lesbian party in that -- whereas it -- East? West Village. No. Yeah, 38:00West Village right, where I worked. And then I was on the East Village at Starlight, the Starlight, Wonder Bar people, you know?


SIENNA SHIELDS: So, so then I would just -- I would be aware from -- and then just being out, you know, where I'm doing things in queer nightlife. You know, I would be aware of like, "Oh, well, it's -- these people are coming here, too," you know. But I had no idea about Yeah.

SVETLANA KITTO: But so then it definitely, like, became kind of just like your world?

SIENNA SHIELDS: Yeah. I mean because there were just -- it was ... People would joke about it being like a casino or something because there were no windows really. Yes, there were windows but not really, you know? There were just -- there was like a wall. There were some kind of bricked in but kind of in but there are ... There were windows, but they were in some of the bedrooms, and so in the actual space, there wasn't really windows, you know. And so, once you got 39:00in there, and, look, the ceilings -- it was so huge. And then so much was going on that people would come and not leave. Like, you know, people would just be there for a few days, you know, just there and people are like, "You know who this is?" "What?" You know? It was just like that, you know?

SVETLANA KITTO: Yeah. Yeah. It seems -- yeah, I was thinking about how -- like, just the relationship to time like as a space, it seems, sort of, like this existing-outside-of-time space.

SIENNA SHIELDS: Yeah. And then like there was one -- there was a landline, and we all shared it. I mean, I think a couple of people had cellphones, but, yeah, we all shared a landline. You know, I don't know how that worked, but it did. And then also, yeah, there was a house computer, and a desktop. And I think -- I 40:00mean that's the story about that was, too, but, you know, it was a roommate's actual computer that we all were always asking to use because no one had a computer. And we're talking about dead broke here, right? Every one of us. But anyway, so finally the -- this roommate basically, kind of, just donated the computer. It was the inevitable, but it is -- it's the house computer, and he gave us like a renegotiation, you know, and it just became the house computer. But, yeah, if you can imagine like -- you know. Usually there was like 10 people, 12 people, you know? So, yeah, every one is sharing the computer. Just like the technology thing did the opposite, but just --

SVETLANA KITTO: Yeah. That's interesting too because it's before -- it's like this moment that's, like, right in between, like, you know, there being no -- none of what we know of, like, cellphones and like that kind of technology that we're just so, kind of, inured to at this point. And, like, what would happen in 41:00the next few years is like a complete explosion of that. So, it's, like, this weird moment of like in between, right in that era, right, 2000s, early 2000s.

SIENNA SHIELDS: Yeah. It was totally that, the era. And it was kind of like this magical moment too, because it was the complete peak of, you know, we're being in proximity, being in the same space with people was so important. You know?


SIENNA SHIELDS: In terms of -- in terms of meeting people and interacting, you know, versus now, it's so digital. So, that's why it was so important these physical spaces to have them because, you know, it's before instant messaging and all this, so ... Yeah, so -- and that' how we met, you know, the --

SVETLANA KITTO: That's how you lived, right? I mean that was life. It's like --


SVETLANA KITTO: -- just hard to remember but -- right.

SIENNA SHIELDS: Yeah, yeah. And it's so much -- there was so much talking. Like, 42:00you just sat and talked with each other. Like, people would just, you know, be -- and it would be ... It'd end up be like, "Oh, god," you know, we -- we played, like, games. Like 20-year-olds, we were playing, like, games. And we were playing, like, card games and stuff like ... You know, it was just like -- no one was like ... It's just such a difference with now, you know. You know, I'd be like, kind of, checking my phone slightly at some, kind of, event, you know? Like, that one also means we were ... Yeah, then it was just like you were completely invested in the moment and so that kind of hedonism of number was just -- I mean, oh god, you know? It was -- it was kind of a great thing that kind of energy, you know?


SIENNA SHIELDS: It was kind of the last breath of it. And then it also coincided with, like, my 20s was kind of loose and turned too, so it's like --

SVETLANA KITTO: really turned up, yeah.

SIENNA SHIELDS: Yeah, so ... But it was just -- it was -- it was just really ... 43:00It was a really fun time because, you know, you never knew at home -- when you would come home or, you know? Or whatever was happening if there would end up being like, you know, music being played, poetry's happening. You know, someone's dance rehearsal. You know, there would always -- there would be -- like people would ask, write us and ask us, you know, "Oh, you know, we're rehearsing for this show, can we use your space?" So, you know, you come out of your bedroom and there would be someone rehearsing something. So, yeah, it was really -- I loved it. I love it and --

SVETLANA KITTO: What were some of -- like any, sort of, special events that you remember?

SIENNA SHIELDS: I mean, there's like a -- there's just so many like X-rated special events. That's something. I mean the thing is, is like, okay, so I moved 44:00in on the sex party and then I, like, I wanted to have like a get-together for, like -- to tell people, like, "Oh, you know, you know, I moved into DUMBA and, like, let's have brunch." And what started happening, too, was that my mom felt guilty about everything that went down with my stepdad and my family, you know, really was having this -- me being gay and stuff. And so, every once in a while, and she knew how I struggling I -- you know, how broke I was, and so she would send ... She would fish every summer, and she would send, like, these FedEx containers of fish, salmon, just like the best salmon ever, like, that she caught herself from the river, right, frozen and seal packed. And so, I would get like 20 salmon from her, and ... So, I moved into -- to DUMBA and my mom sent salmon for me, you know, so I'd have some food. And it was amazing because 45:00it literally ... I had no money and, like, I lived on salmon, but I would have these big gatherings. I would be like, you know, I didn't have anything to cook anyone but salmon. I would say, "Well, I got salmon," you know but ... Anyway, so the first -- like the first brunch thing that I had, like, ended up being a -- well, an orgy happening, you know? So, that's the kind of thing that it was just an energy there, I guess, you could say, you know? And the demographics would change a lot, too. There was a moment when I was the only, like, cis-- whatever, however you say it -- female? In all -- I want to say this is all -- all gay men, you know? There were times when there were a little bit more, you know, dykes in the mix. You know, it would -- it would change, you know, the -- like the composition.

SVETLANA KITTO: What was your favorite time?

SIENNA SHIELDS: Well, there were, like, several favorite times. You know, I had 46:00a really wild time when I wasn't sober, and I was going through a lot of things that happened to me and I was just kind of wild and out. And that was actually a really fun time in the wilding out, you know, like complete debauchery. And then there was a time where I kind of got my shit together and stopped using, and it was -- and then at that point, too, a family had moved in there. And that little -- the boy who was there, kind of, became my godson, and I start taking care of him, and then I was a different ... So that was a whole magical time. So, there was, like, -- there were several sides to DUMBA, you know, in terms of, like, there were moments where you know, the ebbs and the flows of what was going on there, kind of, it changed a lot. Yeah. So that was cool.

SVETLANA KITTO: Mm-hmm. So, and also, did it feel like -- you talked about what 47:00is it Pickles and Peas? Pickles and --

SIENNA SHIELDS: Oh, Peas & Pickles?

SVETLANA KITTO: Peas & Pickles. Was --

SIENNA SHIELDS: Because we'd always say that, too. We just be -- we just keep saying Pickles, Peas. It was like -- it was actually the running joke --


SIENNA SHIELDS: -- and what you just said was actually kind of our running joke.

SVETLANA KITTO: I just, like, instantly forgot what it was.

SIENNA SHIELDS: Yes, Peas & Pickles, because, you know, everyone -- and we just, like, PP, you know, whatever, anyway.

SVETLANA KITTO: It's bizarre. It's bizarre but ... So, was there a sense of, like, impending end, you know, like the -- in terms of the gentrification that was happening and ...? Like, did you feel that in this space and how did it, sort of, affect what was happening.

SIENNA SHIELDS: Well, the -- the thing is that more and more people were moving into the neighborhood who could afford the rents, and they were rich artists, you know? Or they were ... What's the class of people that are, like, I don't know, like either artists, but also like -- how would you say it like, I don't 48:00know, in the tech or ...? You know, like different kind of -- they were more business, you know, less -- less ad hoc, you know? Less crazy. So, the neighborhood really changed and that started happening, kind of, -- it was noticed. By 2004, it was, like, definitely a different neighborhood, and so we were always getting noise complaints and then people didn't like what we looked like. Also, there was just a lot of more racism in the neighborhood because the new white people were terrified of like ... I mean it was, like, basically on the corner, we were just -- we were like a building of black people, you know, to them, you know? And so, we had cops always on us. You know, it was just -- everything changed because of this -- of kind of just the racist, kind of, hipster yuppies that moved in. So, it's a constant battle them where they would 49:00just be calling the cops on us for noise complaints all the time. So, we couldn't do the same kind of level of parties that -- and events that had once happened like when DUMBA was first formed. And so, we stopped doing official, like crazy, big parties. And it was more stuff where it was like, smaller level, like art events or just different community people or arts people that wanted to use the space for a fundraiser or, you know, like just rehearsal space for people, yeah. So that it kind of changed first. And that was a little marketing, too, was the -- 2005 was when Shortbus was filmed in DUMBA. And so, what's so crazy is that, like, in the eviction that we had, like, we were getting blamed for ... Like they -- our neighbors saw just extras and some of the actors from 50:00Shortbus, you know, out on the sidewalk, and they were in costume, which, you know what that costume looks like. So that was in our actual, like, you know, getting-evicted paper was that, you know, the prostitutes and stuff hanging out on the street. So, it was just like, "Dude, it was a movie," you know? And then also like -- yeah, so like ... But yes. And then we had a protracted, kind of like, back and forth with the landlord for about a year and so that's -- I mean we're out by February 2007.

SVETLANA KITTO: Were you there? So you moved there in 2001, right, you said?

SIENNA SHIELDS: Two thousand -- 2002.

SVETLANA KITTO: Two thousand two. So it was right after 9/11?

SIENNA SHIELDS: Mm-hmm. I mean I moved to New York in 2001.

SVETLANA KITTO: Oh, you moved to New York.

SIENNA SHIELDS: But I moved into Dumbo in 2002.

SVETLANA KITTO: Yeah. So, you were here for 9/11?

SIENNA SHIELDS: No, no, no. Sorry, I moved right after 9/11, yeah.


SVETLANA KITTO: Oh, okay, right after 9/11. Okay.

SIENNA SHIELDS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

SVETLANA KITTO: Yeah. I wonder what it was like there for that?

SIENNA SHIELDS: It was -- when I moved, it was really -- it was still smoldering. I remember that, and I remember all the ... I'll never forget the propaganda. You know like, I saved it and then I lost it because I'm also -- such a thing for that kind of thing. But they had this, kind of, powder-blue-and-white pamphlets all over the subways about getting through this time, New Yorkers and stuff. It was, like, kind of in this pastel blue and white. It was just -- there were so much of this kind of thing that you used to see. And then I just felt like it was pretty depressed economically as well, which is another, you know, double whammy, I felt like, for people doing with what happened. So, it was kind of a -- it wasn't necessarily the most opportune time to move to New York, you know, with people dealing with so much pain. It's 52:00still smoldering but, yeah, that's when I ended up in New York.

SVETLANA KITTO: Yeah. When you were there, was there still Gay Shame events or did -- had that ended already?

SIENNA SHIELDS: That had already ended. I feel like that ended maybe a couple of years before I had even got there. And the thing that's so interesting about all this though too, right, is that that was ... Like we didn't -- we weren't caught up and all -- I mean, yeah, it was fun to go out and it's, like, Christmas Gay Pride, right? Like you don't -- or even Thanksgiving, I draw the line at Thanksgiving, like, I guess, it's a genocidal holiday, but, you know, yeah ... Some -- there were certain holidays you're just kind of like, "Oh, okay, let's just ... Let's all get a drink," you know or whatever, right? "Let's just meet up." But the thing is, it's like for me, as a black woman, Pride and especially 53:00where it was going in the early 2000, I didn't need to go Gay Shame because it wasn't my thing. Like Pride wasn't my -- that wasn't my call, that wasn't my -- that wasn't my answer. And I always felt like, dude, like, if the white, gay people who were running things actually asked what it was like -- used what happened to us as black people in terms of assimilation after the civil rights movement, how it's all fake, you know? And it's really just about, you know, assimilation into, you know, their corporate game, you know? It's like another kind of consumer plot. And so, that's what was happening during this time. And so I really think it's -- we all are really, like, proud and love the facts that our forbearers at DUMBA did Gay Shame. But we were like, "Well, we're not -- that's not really our -- our -- "


SIENNA SHIELDS: Yeah. We got literally kicked out by our families, you know, like ... And our idea of being gay isn't witlessly waving a rainbow flag, you 54:00know? It's about economic, it's about safety, it's about community, but, you know, being a part of this kind of -- certain kind of dominant gay culture that was, kind of, happening at that point, that wasn't us anyway. So, yeah, you can see why it didn't have any like --

SVETLANA KITTO: Yeah, that's really interesting. Can you describe, just so that we have it, like what Gay Shame was?

SIENNA SHIELDS: Yeah. Or, you know, that's the thing though there. I feel like ... I feel I should just -- I feel like I should send you a lot of this stuff because I just feel like this is the ... Oh, god, sorry. Just the things I find in here.

SVETLANA KITTO: Wow. What is that? There's a dyke in her pit?

SIENNA SHIELDS: Yes. "There's a dyke in her pit, come on out to DUMBA house for an all-you-can eat woman love and woman potluck, and performance."

SVETLANA KITTO: When is that from? Did you --

SIENNA SHIELDS: And this -- this is a picture of -- yeah --

SVETLANA KITTO: A pit vagina kind of? Is that what? Oh, no it's not. Okay.


SIENNA SHIELDS: Okay. It's a pit, yeah.

SVETLANA KITTO: It's just pit examination is what I'm seeing.

SIENNA SHIELDS: [laughter] So, this was just from 1998.

SVETLANA KITTO: Oh, okay, wow. That's so great --


SVETLANA KITTO: -- that you saved all that stuff. It would have just been like thrown out or something?

SIENNA SHIELDS: Yes. Well, I mean it's -- stuff just got left, and when we left, we just left. Like, we didn't clear out the space. Are you kidding me? Like -- [laughter] I'm sorry. Because we were evicted, you know? And then also was the fact that, like, we were -- we cleared out our stuff but, like, dude, that space --

SVETLANA KITTO: There was so much stuff.

SIENNA SHIELDS: -- there was --

SVETLANA KITTO: I mean, yeah, it's like hard to picture. So there were just like -- there was, like, stuff in there that was from way before you guys had even --

SIENNA SHIELDS: Well, well, well --

SVETLANA KITTO: -- got in there an --

SIENNA SHIELDS: -- and we felt like there was --

SVETLANA KITTO: What was it? Like what? Like furniture or boxes?

SIENNA SHIELDS: There was furniture, there was just a land of things. You know, 56:00there was this kind of stuff, people's journals, people's art. There was so much that got left there including some of my stuff. Like, I have -- you know, you couldn't take everything but ... Yeah, it was like this ... In the back, there was this area that probably took up about 200-some square feet. There was a little crawl space above some main bedrooms, and so it was like this gigantic store. It was like this -- who knows? You know, stuff was in there. You know? I mean, we were -- I mean this was -- there was also in the back bedroom. See, the place had been a printing facility, a photo printing and -- and -- and the reason why it was all these little rooms -- and photo developing, right? So, that's why all these little rooms were also there beside the stuff that had 57:00gotten built out, right?

SVETLANA KITTO: Which is also like anachronistic in its way that it's like this.

SIENNA SHIELDS: Well, my room was a camera. Like, I lived in a printing camera. Like, there was this huge ... There was a room for the printer, the develop type thing, the smaller room, and then there was this really long room that it was just metal contrapt steel, like just crazy with these arms and like the ... I don't -- I don't understand what actually ... It was so exactly from another era. Like I looked at that, I don't know. It was a machine for printing photographs back there and an enlarger, and stuff like ... And so, it was just that literally took up the whole room, you know? And so, we'd have -- it was kind of the dungeon room, you know, my room, so for parties. Like, you know, I was, you know, upside down and being wedged before there too. Because there were like these -- that people would do that. It would be kind of like the S&M room because -- oh, these steel tracks, you know, that ... Like, it was like monkey 58:00bars almost, you know, and these -- and these metal arms. And then right outside was where that -- is where there were more equipment, you know? So, yeah, it was something else. It was a really -- there was a lot of stuff that was just actually, you know, left in that. We had also found out that a neighbor was getting rid of -- a business is getting rid of their old, huge refrigerator, you know, like the kind for a bodega, the big kinds? So, it was about -- you could -- I could lie down in there. So, it was over six feet you know, inside the refrigerator. So, like literally, there was about 12 of us that pushed it through, like, the neighborhood, and figured out a way to get up the stairs, and got it in the house, but that stayed there too. It was gigantic, yeah. The thing that's funny is in my camera, I mean in my phone, my old phone, I could look 59:00through it because I went by a couple of years ago and it was all open. I mean, I actually I walked in and took a picture, and they had demolished, like, so much. They were in the middle of just totally renovating it when I took a picture. And what's crazy is there were still some graffiti, you know, from our time just like hanging out there, so ...

SVETLANA KITTO: And I wonder about that, too, like if you -- did you, like, paint on the walls and like --

SIENNA SHIELDS: Yeah. So, the walls were constantly being painted and adorned. When we'd have, like, art shows, a lot of times they get painted white but then, you know, they'd be painted all kinds of crazy colors. Then when Shortbus shot, they completely, you know, paint it up and did crazy things. There was, like, an old sex shop sign from, like, 42nd Street that an older roommate ... Before we ever got there, one of the founding roommates had, like, carried, you know, back 60:00there, you know? So, there was a lot of different, like weird stuff on the walls and random colors. Yeah.

SVETLANA KITTO: And there was your studio. Like you made work there, right? Like with your work?

SIENNA SHIELDS: Yeah, most of us did, yeah. Most of us were always -- we're just there working all the time. You know, and then we'd have these odd jobs that we'd be out, you know? You know, everything was kind of --

SVETLANA KITTO: Working yeah.

SIENNA SHIELDS: -- you know, whether it's, like, just under the table or, you know, catering, or just anything you scrounged up for work to get some money, but yeah. But, yeah, so there's just a lot of people there all the time.

SVETLANA KITTO: Yeah. So, what was happening with your work there too? Like, as you lived there over the years, and ...? Because I think that -- yeah, it must be like -- it just seems, sort of, like an interesting tension between just being this space that is, like, attempting to live outside of time and commerce. 61:00And then also, like the need to like be able to support one's self and, like, making money off of art and just those -- like that conflict and how difficult it is and inevitable it is to navigate, right?

SIENNA SHIELDS: Yeah. I mean the thing that was so great about it is that, you know, we could each -- you know, we ... But there was a grocery store up in --

SVETLANA KITTO: Oh my god, Aurora.


SVETLANA KITTO: She's amazing.

SIENNA SHIELDS: Perelandra or something? I don't know. It's like up in --

SVETLANA KITTO: Oh, yeah, Perelandra?

SIENNA SHIELDS: Yeah, Perelandra. So, we would on -- I believe it was like on Sunday nights back in the day. They would put out -- it was like one night a week, they would put out food, you know, that was past due or a little bit spoiled but was fine. And so, all of us knew about this and so we would just go, you know? Not all of us but we would like send -- I would always go, but then 62:00there would be someone else would come, too, and we'd get tons of food. And that would really help for like, you know, eating, so ... Yeah. So, that was kind of -- but it was good. And we were always in ... It was also this time of real like, you know, it's horrible when, you know, everyone's getting kicked out. You know, it was such a change over, but it's also like this insane goldmine, you know? Like I was just -- I had piano keys I brought up here from DUMBA. I got all these kind of art materials because, like, there was a piano factory in the neighborhood, you know? And so all that was in the trash. We were just always hanging off in the trashcans, too, getting stuff. There was a lot of so ... Like when I first there, another thing was sewing, I think, and, like, just that kind of thing. So, there would be lots of scraps, like fabric scraps we could find that was -- that were clean, you know, in the trash. And then, like, multiples of rejected, like odd stock that somehow -- you know? So, I was really able to 63:00be an artist and live really well for really fucking cheap. Like, I literally made under $6,000 a year for most of my time in New York, you know? It was just like I lived on a barter system. I lived off of food off the street, and my mom's salmon, and coffee, so ... It was just -- you know? And, you know, and other people that way. So that -- that's just why this feeling. So, that was a different time in my life, you know? And then I did come back to Dumbo, at totally different time of my life, and I had a studio there, you know? And so, that's -- that -- that studio was also on Jay Street, but it was at 20 Jay. And so, I came back to Dumbo for part of the gentrify time, you know?


SIENNA SHIELDS: And then I couldn't afford that anymore. But during that time, it was also ... In that space, that was also a communal space. That was where, 64:00kind of, the YAMS headquarters were. Like how do you say YAM in African?


SIENNA SHIELDS: And then I guess, I'm -- I'm not there anymore, so it doesn't matter. I can say that we were breaking the law, but lots of people lived in my space. [laughter]And lots of other artists utilized it, and so it was like -- it wasn't DUMBA. It could never be, but it was kind of like --

SVETLANA KITTO: Like you're -- you were trying to recreate that a little bit?

SIENNA SHIELDS: Recreate a certain aspect of it and just also the need for the fact that we needed space, you know? We needed space for the art, and for rehearsals, and just doing stuff, so, yeah.

SVETLANA KITTO: It's interesting to think about, too, what you were saying about the gentrification. Like it had -- it also creates like this, like, all these, like, treasures on the street and how that then, like, comes back into DUMBA.


SVETLANA KITTO: Yeah, that's cool.

SIENNA SHIELDS: Yeah. Yeah, yes, it's --

SVETLANA KITTO: Because that's also something about, like, artists living in New York, right? Like, I've interviewed a lot of artists and ... But people from -- 65:00who are -- you know, people who were in their 60s, 70s who were, like, you know, in Soho living in some crazy loft. And there was, like, buckets of buttons on the street, and, like, just so much crap, you know? And that New York really used to be a place of like that, of like junk.

SIENNA SHIELDS: Yeah. Of junk. It was -- we would just be ... That's why I got into this word ambulomancy. It means divination by taking the walk. And I would be known for it because I'd be like, "I need to find some orange paint, I'm out of orange paint," and, like, I'd come back with orange paint. Like, I -- I could just start smelling it. Like, you know, "Oh, I should walk over here," you know? Like that used to be in New York, you know?


SIENNA SHIELDS: And, yeah, it was so much trash that the city goes through. You could just go through the list. But it didn't have to be all official. That's what -- sometimes, I really like life that's not official. I don't do well in these official, like, you know, sanctioned type of environments, and -- you know? Materials for the arts is amazing. You have to, like, paint, you will 66:00understand -- I mean -- you know? And you have to go only on Thursday, and it has to be at a certain time. And you need to pay all this money to, like, you know, to haul your stuff back if it's too much, you know, in a taxi, you know? That was just ... Materials in art was amazing, and I loved materials, right? I'm not trying to say that about it, but I'm just saying, I love the New York life because I just walk down Main Street and find some trash. It was also before bedbugs, you know?


SIENNA SHIELDS: Bedbugs changed a lot because like -- I mean for us, like, we wouldn't have been able to, like, operate how we did it if we were operating in, like, when bedbugs hit New York, you know?


SIENNA SHIELDS: Which was like -- I feel like bedbugs came on the horizon. Like everyone was talking about it. Like, you know, by 2008, it was, like, in it, right? It was like, oh, everyone was like

SVETLANA KITTO: Yeah, because I worked at a magazine at that time. I worked at Elle.


SVETLANA KITTO: And I worked -- and the building got bedbugs, and it was just, like, such amazing, like, schadenfreude. Like everyone in Elle had to evacuate because there were bedbugs, and they're all in, like, heels and stuff. Well, yeah.

SIENNA SHIELDS: That's the thing, right?



SIENNA SHIELDS: Is that, like, how open we were, you know, where, like, people would just come in and crash and like ... Also, that was another thing we did in DUMBA -- in DUMBA was ... So when any of us was really behind on rent and needed to make it up, right, we'd go on Craigs-- We talked to the roommates about it, and we'd go on Craigslist, and maybe there would be one or two of us that would help out with that or whatever. But people would find queer tourists, you know, who were looking to come to New York, you know, and then like ... So, it was like before Airbnb, you know, so ... And so, we all -- well the big rule was like only, you know, queer, you know? And so, you know, I would ... Like I would rent out my room sometimes, you know, and just be like, "Okay, I'm sleeping on the couch," or "I'm sleeping and someone else," you know, whatever, right? And, so that's how a lot of different people would come in, too, and -- and meet us, 68:00you know? And then they'd come back actually, too, sometimes, and then other times, we could go ... You know, we maybe had a place to stay when we would go wherever they were too. So, it was kind of cool, freaking ... I forgot why I was on that topic but -- you know? I lost my train of thought.


SIENNA SHIELDS: Oh, bed-- oh, yeah, yeah, that's it, right, totally. You couldn't -- like, that kind of, like, opened us for all walks of life and all kinds of -- anyone can just kind of come in. It's just like ... Yeah, that would have been a lot harder to be that way, you know, and later on.

SVETLANA KITTO: Yeah. And it's also just, like, I think, a different -- because I feel, like, I have a, sort of, similar relationship to, like, books and bookstores and like my ... Even when I first moved to New York, it was still a place where like going to bookstores, and book life was, like, a big fixture of, like, my life. And going to video stores and, you know, just sort of having 69:00random ... Like coming upon some -- sort of what, like, you were saying about the orange paint. Like coming upon some amazing things that I hadn't expected to find that actually is the exact thing that I needed to find, or I needed to read, or see. And how just like that -- the kind of randomness of experience and, like, the not-curated experience, it's just ... It's hard not to be nostalgic for that because --

SIENNA SHIELDS: Really hard because right now, what would be --

SVETLANA KITTO: -- it's really different. It's really -- it just is.

SIENNA SHIELDS: It is, but it's also like what we're seeing in terms of just everything is mirrored back to us. So, it takes a lot more to find -- to be out of your comfort zone or to find something new. Because everything is an algorithm, you know. You know, when I type something on WhatsApp, they're -- that's going into the whole algorithm for what ads show up, you know, later. So, that -- that's the thing, right? Just this -- I know I'm dealing with the 70:00nostalgia, but I'm also really wanting to grab it and see like, okay, but there is a part of this about having that kind of -- the way the possible. You just didn't know what you could be walking into, you know, and what you could -- what you could be finding in yourself and then just also in your environment, right? Where it's different now because it does seem like there's an algorithm that's, kind of, like this donut around you, you know?


SIENNA SHIELDS: So, in terms of what you might ... Like even what you want to go to, it's coming up on your feet in a certain kind of way. It's not being filtered -- it's being filtered to us in a different kind of way and, so ... Yeah, I do miss that just happening to walk by like a Bluestockings event. And so, there's, like, having stuff only be coming through a preselected feed on my Instagram, you know, so ...

SVETLANA KITTO: Yeah. I do. It's rough. It is.


SVETLANA KITTO: So, okay. Just a couple more questions: You told me about how it 71:00ended. I do want to know just -- I'm -- I'm really interested in the way that the, like, demographics of it changed and, like, about how that kind of happens. Like what you were saying about how it was like a white-activist space and then it became more queer-POC space, and like ... Just any, sort of, insights you have on, like, what that transition -- how that came to be. It's just -- yeah, it seems like you know a lot about that, so ...

SIENNA SHIELDS: I feel like just -- I feel like maybe just whatever happened in the life experience of the first group where they -- or the first wave of the group, moving on to other places and then maybe whatever issues were up. It's -- 72:00yeah, I think it just slowly turns to be basically all black. And then by the time I moved in there, there was a real deep commitment to fulfilling the need of black, queer homelessness in New York. And so, you know, there wasn't any kind of thing of discriminating against someone because they weren't black, but it was seeing that they're ... This was something that was completely -- people weren't fulfilling this even in the greater community, you know? And so, yeah, that was like one-sided, you know, for sure. But I mean when I moved in though, there was a -- there was a German dyke that was living there too. I mean there was always like one or two white people there, you know, let's say, at -- at a time or two. You know what I mean? It wasn't like ... But, yeah, it was definitely committed -- committed to being like basically that. And then a lot 73:00of the people who lived there, too, who were a part of it were part of GMAD. What is ...? The different -- I got all -- there's all this stuff I have to, like, footnote, you know, because I mean my -- yeah. But, yeah, there were just different groups for gay black men in health and in -- and resources, and stuff in New York. So that a lot of my roommates who were at DUMBA were actually the ones that were -- that were there when I had first moved in were a part of that community and were really activists too, you know what I mean, in the kind of civic health as well. So, it was kind of a focus.

SVETLANA KITTO: Okay. So, okay, a couple more things: One is sort of related to 74:00what you're saying. Like what -- what was the negotiation around Shortbus being filmed there, and what effect did the film have, do you think, on what happened to DUMBA if any at all?

SIENNA SHIELDS: Well, it helped us get evicted, but we were already on that path, so it didn't ... It didn't get us evicted, but it was part of the argument. It was -- it was -- what was really good about Shortbus is that it brought for a moment some of the people who were in older DUMBA to the newer DUMBA, you know? We weren't supposed to be living there. We were supposed to ... They gave us money. They rented it, and we were supposed to be gone. But we -- we needed that money ... Like the thing is when I moved in, there was -- we were 75:00always working off this deficit, right? Because everyone who had moved had moved in with the house always already had debt, right? So when -- when the black people moved in, there was already debt, right? So, we were always dealing with the past debt and then also any other debt that was accumulating while under our watch, right? So, the point with Shortbus, too, it was a great windfall for us because we needed to pay off some back -- you know, back rent. And so that was great for us, but we need -- but we couldn't ... So, the money we got, they were thinking that we probably going to be able to rent a place, but we were all sneaking back in there and staying. In like there was -- in one of the smallest rooms, there was about, like, seven of us all, like, -- you know, so ... But, yeah, while they're filming. But what was really interesting is that if you look at Shortbus, you know, there's a few of us that have little cameos in it just as 76:00a kick. But Shortbus is a diverse group of -- of a slice that was pretty true to life of like arty, white queer, New York world, you know? And people who -- you know, I do really respect for their politics and things that they've done, right? But it also really shows that the DUMBA that existed was way more diverse in what -- it wasn't even the word diverse. You know we were -- we were POC, you know? And so, it's just interesting how the ... Oh, it was a part of life that we thought from -- was definitely through ... Looking at it, it's something that a lot of that stuff is familiar, but it's on the white side of what was familiar about it. Yeah. And, yeah, like the balls that were happening there, you know, the -- I mean that's not reflected in Shortbus, you know?



SIENNA SHIELDS: The real juice and the life of what was going on in DUMBA, and culturally in the black sense. Shortbus is a real white movie. And it's kind of like that's the whole thing, too, was I haven't gone down to Tennessee to Short Mountain? Yeah. But it's like that's -- there's -- there's often been, you know, things have kind of flared in that community, too. And I've had black friends who have gone down there, who just ... It's just something that gets negotiated, and talked out, and, you know, in these inter-communities, you know? But like kind of the Radical Fairy communities, radically white a lot, you know, so, yeah. So, yeah, it was just -- it was a real -- it was an interesting time, you know? There was -- it was fun just to be able to ... That's why, I think, it'll be fun if you hear Andy and I talking because it's a different than me just kind 78:00of talking, like, from my memory. But when Andy and I are talking about it, "Oh my god, do you remember this?" You know, it's like a bounce off --

SVETLANA KITTO: Are you going to come back here?

SIENNA SHIELDS: I really -- I'm really ... See, my mother has -- yeah, my mother has some health issues, and so I'm back here. And I -- I love Alaska, but I am so -- I am so ... It's I -- I want to -- I want to come back, you know?

SVETLANA KITTO: Yeah. You have to come back.

SIENNA SHIELDS: I want to come back, but also --

SVETLANA KITTO: Because it would be great to interview you in person, you know? Like, I think with your friends --

SIENNA SHIELDS: You have a --

SVETLANA KITTO: -- like that would be really great.

SIENNA SHIELDS: Yup. I might come back in February, you know, for a little bit, so ... If that's not too late just for that because just for the bit. Because I was a history major, so that's why I'm always saving things, right? But --

SVETLANA KITTO: Yeah, I can tell. You're like the historian, the archivist.

SIENNA SHIELDS: But, yeah, I think it would be really -- that would be really amazing too --

SVETLANA KITTO: Yeah, I'd love to do that with you. I really would.

SIENNA SHIELDS: And Sean like is the -- is the woman who's an artist and she's 79:00amazing. She's the one that grew up in -- in -- in Dumbo, the neighborhood, and like the stories she can tell. Because she grew up there when [inaudible] --

SVETLANA KITTO: And she was in -- but did she live at DUMBA too?

SIENNA SHIELDS: No, she was just a part of it. So, she was like -- we call them friends of the house.


SIENNA SHIELDS: So, that's the thing is that like that didn't matter if you didn't live there. Like people would just come and be there, you know? Like, it was, like, it was --

SVETLANA KITTO: It's like being. It's like a place of being.

SIENNA SHIELDS: It was like -- and there's a lot of people who, yeah, didn't even live there were just definitely a part of it, so, yeah.

SVETLANA KITTO: Yeah. It's really cool to think about ... Like it's really, like, it's -- it makes me feel like things can be good or something even though it's about the past because people just always find a way to do this I feel like.

SIENNA SHIELDS: Yeah. And though you're on, in terms of the romanticized lens of the past, like it -- there were some like -- there were some craziness going down in terms of like the stress level of things that went down sometimes. That 80:00it is out of this world that would happen. Like, oh my god, like you want to hear a story? This is a story. So, I was in the back, all the way to the back. I told you how -- how the space was, right, with my girlfriend. We were just doing our thing, right. It was nighttime or whatever. And so apparently, what happened is that the doorbell rings and one of the roommates in the front answers the door. And a familiar face from the different ... Because a lot of different -- like when you think, there were events at our place that were like, you know, 800 people would be clicks through, a thousand people. There's a lot of, you know, faces and people coming through. So, we'd remember people. We didn't necessarily -- wouldn't always be like that everyone knew them, you know, or where they were in their life at that -- at that point in time, like how they were doing mentally, you know? But we go, "Oh, yeah," we'd remember someone from like two years before who had come through, right? Anyway, we had a real open 81:00door policy. So, a person that we knew well in the lesbian world of New York came to the door, and she just kind of disheveled and needing, you know, something. And so, one of my roommates who was at that point in her mid-40s, you know, mature, really amazing woman, you know, was just talking to her, making sure she's okay. And it's like, "Why don't you just take a shower if you need a shower? And you just crash out, whatever. I'm going to bed," you know? So anyway, that happens I guess. I had no idea, right? The next thing that I remember is that like -- it's like in the middle of the night and there is a naked woman. Like, my girlfriend and I looked out of the bed, and there was a naked woman. The door opens and a naked woman is in our door, and then she just jumps into bed. And I only get like real fast. I was just like, and she was just like ... We were looking at each other, like, in bed and there's, like, this naked woman. Like she's beautiful too. It's not like -- you know? That doesn't 82:00mean that she has been beautiful, but, you know, it's just like, "Is this real?" Like we both looked at her and like -- I was like, "This is real." "Is this really real," and I say, "This is real." You know, she started talking. Then when she started talking, we're like, "Holy shit, this -- this is real. This is -- this is crazy." She starts babbling about dead bodies, about, you know, this - all this crazy ... She's literally babbling about crazy-ass shit and then she just jumps out of our bed -- and we're literally just like this. This all takes place in like one minute, right? Then because there's a door in my bedroom, she just pops out -- and she has been there before. She just pops out and runs out the door into the early -- like early-morning-late-night, like, light, right, naked. And so, I just kind of lay back down and then my girlfriend, we were looking at each other. We're like, "That was really real. That's real," you know? Because we were just like, "Or are we just stoned," you know? It was just, like, "Who would ...?" What life is that, right, that a naked woman jumps in your 83:00bed and then ... So, I was like, "Okay, wait, that's really weird. I've got to get up and see what's going on." So I get up. Everyone in the house gets -- everyone gets woken up like, "What happened? Was there a person in our house? Why was she naked? Is she okay? She went out the back door." You know, the -- the -- the -- the roommate that opened the door was too late to tell us -- told us what happened. We're like, "We need to make a ..." And she said, "Yeah, she seemed like she was a little bit -- like, mentally, like, there was some issue. Like something was ... She's a little bit -- something was going on." And so, we literally, all of us got up and went through the neighborhood, like, just combing the neighborhood looking for a naked woman. And finally, there was a-- a neighbor pops up and she's in -- and this woman that was naked was with her, had a coffee and was in these really big sweats. And so, our neighbor is like, "Yeah, you know, she came by my place and was trying to get in, and I gave her my sweats, and you know. And so by this point, she's really freaking out talking 84:00about how she murdered all these people up the street and all this stuff." And we're like, "Okay, I think it's time for us to, like, kind of, call Bellevue," you know? And so, we called. So, yeah, we had -- we had all these kinds of talks, again consensus, right? So, we had her just in the performance space. And so mind you, all of us are black except for one of us, right? And then this woman is a white woman and then all the EMS and the cops that come, there is about -- there's about nine different, like, law enforcement individuals that come for this call. And -- and other people have called about her, too, right? So, the cops know that there's, kind of, like maybe a possibly crazy murderess on the -- on the run. Right.


SIENNA SHIELDS: And so anyway, everyone who comes for the EMS and the cops just also black. So literally, there is this room full of black people and then we 85:00have one white roommate who's there. And then this white woman who's literally going crazy. She's like, "I murdered them all! There's blood everywhere. There's this blood, blood. I mean I just murdered them! They're -- oh, I feel so horrible!" She was like in demonic voices. Like, she was doing -- like acting out, but, like, she was -- she was just acting out and everything like this, like how she did it. And we were just all like, "Oh my god, yeah, this is just like -- see." And people were already going like, "See, we're too open with stuff. We're too open with stuff." You know? And it was just so funny because then all of us ... So when they gathered her up gently and everything like that, and all of us looked at each other. There was this moment, right? Because we were never -- we're never like pro-law, you know, like, oh, loving the cops. It's like the cops -- you know, we're already -- already had all these run-ins with cops. But these were all cops we had never seen before, and they were all black. And they all looked at us like, "Who is this crazy woman?" We were like -- and everyone just said it there. We were like, "Wow, if we were all white and 86:00she was black, she would be dead. Like, she would be raped, you know?" It was just like -- it was just -- it was like we saw our shared humanity, right, between all -- between us as the collective members and then the law enforcement. I was just like, "Wow." She ended up being fine. She didn't murder anyone. So, she had me some guy who had got her on some crazy psychedelic -- like what was it? Like not -- peyote. She was on some peyote and some other drugs, and -- and yeah, yeah, it was -- yeah, anyway, so ... But the cops totally checked it out. There was no murdered people and all this. And she got released, and things were fine, but -- yeah. But that's the whole --

SVETLANA KITTO: That's amazing.

SIENNA SHIELDS: -- thing, we had ... We'd have these, like, things where we'd really see like, "Wow, people are treated so differently," you know? Like you can't be a black person screaming and talking about all these people you murdered, you know? Anyway ... So, that's the kind of thing we ... Because we 87:00were all dealing with our own mental health issues from our past family traumas and our, you know, coming out, and all this stuff, we all had a lot on our plate ourselves, but we also -- we had a lot of -- we were magnets for a lot of interesting things like this.

SVETLANA KITTO: Right. So, there's a lot of, like, emotional -- yeah, stress and -- yeah. I mean, yeah, I think, yeah it's like when ... In a way, it's like when you're in your 20s, like your bandwidth for what you can, kind of, tolerate is different, too, right? Like very different.



SIENNA SHIELDS: Tolerate basically, you know, anything with delight.


SIENNA SHIELDS: You had a lot of fucks left still, so ... Compared to now where there's just none. "No way, uh-uh, I'm not dealing with that." Yeah. So, there was just a -- that was always the whole fine line of -- myself included and friends of walking the fine line of having ... I feel like that was the whole 88:00thing that was important for us is that all this trauma whether it be sexual assaults, and family abuse, and stuff that happened to a lot of us. And then just like the economic hardships and then just dealing with being queer, whatever it would be, like it was amazing how we were really there for each other. But then also it was this kind of cauldron of, like, everything was, you know, amplified and really up, you know, over the top?


SIENNA SHIELDS: But -- it's kind of just the day -- the day to day what you have to deal with, it was a lot, so ... And diffusing situations, but yeah.

SVETLANA KITTO: Yeah. Well, is there anything that you want -- anything else you want to say about DUMBA, about what you want people to know about it or what you want to be known about it?

SIENNA SHIELDS: I don't know. I wish -- I feel like -- I feel like later today, 89:00I'll totally have something, you know?

SVETLANA KITTO: Oh, no, this was great. This was really great.


SVETLANA KITTO: It's just one interview. You know, it's like I -- I sometimes interview people, like, seven or eight times, like, you know what I mean?


SVETLANA KITTO: It's just a scratch on the surface. You know?

SIENNA SHIELDS: Yeah. I mean I don't know. It was just like ... I don't know. It was just a real sliver and slice of time and the way -- of all the ways it intersected, you know. It kind -- it was kind of a really mutual thing that we were all there together, and we all met each other was that -- during those times. And then also, I can look at it and be really happy about thinking about where the -- for the most part, you know, the where people are now. That's kind 90:00of what's important to me, too, you know? So, just knowing like ... Because one thing that I was always -- this is just me being young, and, you know, naïve, and stuff, and not really knowing a whole lot or anything. Not that I know a whole lot now. But it's just like one thing I learned from just personally reading some of the stuff about art history with -- when you say compare like an Andy Warhol, you know, to like more someone like -- what is it -- the bearded ladies or the sisters, you know? You don't even -- think about different ways people have had this kind of, what, kind crazy communities in moments. And especially when it's around a certain kind of nightlife and party scene too combined with art and activism. Like the track record really for me is, like, of the space is if by the end of it, like, does it eat up the people that come through it to give it life or does it give life to people? And so, that's why I 91:00feel that during the time I was in DUMBA I feel -- I feel like there was something really special about the people that were there because I really felt, like, they gave a lot of -- they gave out a lot to people that came through, you know, and really -- I really ... There's just so many of my past roommates that I just really look up to, you know, like -- yeah. And also just knowing the different sides of people and what they normally do, especially with activism, you know, and art. And so that's something, to think there's not a pile of -- of times fight for justice, you know?


SIENNA SHIELDS: You know, this kind of things that people aren't dealing with those kind of issues anymore, you know, and they're doing their thing. That makes me feel good about what DUMBA was, you know? As opposed to when you see other kind of places at that level of debauchery, not such a great chunklike a -- so.

SVETLANA KITTO: Yeah. I mean I think the comparison to like Andy Warhol and The 92:00Factory is really interesting. It's something I think about a lot, too, just because, like, there are so many incredible people who, you know, were in The Factory and came out of The Factory. And, yeah, the only one who really survived was Andy Warhol. And just like, yeah, the hierarchical -- I don't know. It was just so fucked up. So, yeah, it's interesting to think about, like, of the track record of a space. Like are the people thriving, are they okay, are they safe? Yeah, that's amazing.

SIENNA SHIELDS: I love that people go on and do their thing, you know?


SIENNA SHIELDS: That they weren't used to glorify --

SVETLANA KITTO: Used, right.

SIENNA SHIELDS: -- a space or perceive different leaders of the space in different times. And I think that's really for -- and that's something that was always, you know, like -- I feel like, we cared about as it is. You know? And --

SVETLANA KITTO: And maybe, you also could learn from, like, the past too, right, in a way?

SIENNA SHIELDS: Yeah. Totally, so ...


SVETLANA KITTO: Well thanks, Sienna. This is great. I mean the --

SIENNA SHIELDS: Well, great seeing you face to face. It's like ... But --

[interview interrupted.]

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Interview Description

Oral History Interview with Sienna Shields

Sienna Shields (1976-) grew up near Anchorage, Alaska. She is African American and studied history at Lewis and Clark College in Portland. She was a member of DUMBA and lived there from 2002 till DUMBA were evicted in 2007. Shields is a former model, a painter, exhibiting artist, and member of the HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN Collective.

In the interview, Sienna Shields (1976-) describes her journey from Alaska to Brooklyn as well as her experiences living in the DUMBA collective, working as an artist in New York City, and forming relationships as a queer woman in the early 2000s until DUMBA's eviction from Brooklyn. Shields also discusses the effects of gentrification in Dumbo and the filming of Shortbus at DUMBA. Interview conducted by Svetlana Kitto.

The Voices of Brooklyn: Waterfront series is composed of six oral history interviews that were conducted during 2017 as a part of the research process for Brooklyn Historical Society's Waterfront exhibition.


Shields, Sienna, 1976-, Oral history interview conducted by Svetlana Kitto, November 08, 2017, Voices of Brooklyn oral histories: Waterfront series, 2008.031.8.004; Brooklyn Historical Society.


  • Shields, Sienna, 1976-


  • African American women artists
  • Anarchists
  • Art centers
  • Collective settlements
  • Gentrification
  • Lesbian community
  • Motion picture film
  • Performance art
  • Police
  • Sexual minority community


  • DUMBO (New York, N.Y.)
  • Portland (Or.)
  • San Francisco (Calif.)


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Voices of Brooklyn oral histories: Waterfront series