The story of the squats of the Lower East Side — heroic acts of reoccupying abandoned buildings and violent clashes with the police — are now the stuff of myth and history. Today, some squats have even become institutions — a squatting museum, and limited-equity co-ops. So what does their history mean today, in a city whose density and housing market leave little room to maneuver? This was the question posed at UnionDocs in January. Amy Starecheski, oral historian, former squatter, and author of the recent book, Ours to Lose: When Squatters Become Homeowners in New York City, gathered a group who have been documenting the squatting movement from multiple perspectives, from firsthand experience to generational remove. Below, Amy guides us through some of the documents they have gathered and created: a graphic novel, a sketchbook with instructions for DIY electrical wiring, interviews, and installations tell a number of different stories about squats, and how people struggle to make space for themselves in the city. –M.M.
New York City in the 1980s and ‘90s was home to a squatting movement unlike any other in the United States. Drawing on their diverse radical and progressive roots, squatters claimed and occupied city-owned abandoned building with a winning combination: a Yippie sense of drama and fun, punk rock aggression and subcultural grit, and urban homesteaders’ earnest appeals to American values of self-sufficiency and initiative. When faced with eviction, they learned how to build barricades and booby traps and drum up riots from their European counterparts, and each attempt to evict Lower East Side squatters from the late ‘80s on brought newly escalated police and squatter tactics. By the mid-1990s, the police were using tanks and helicopters, and the squatters were burning cars in the streets.
In 2002, after three years of secret negotiations, the city shocked everyone involved when it agreed to sell the remaining squatted buildings, for one dollar each, to a non-profit (UHAB – the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board) which would take out loans on the squatters’ behalf to renovate the buildings and bring them up to code. The former squats would then be converted to limited-equity low-income cooperatives, and the renovation loans would become mortgages. Illegal squatters would thus be transformed into indebted homeowners, problematic unsellable buildings into low-income housing. This was easier said than done: by 2013, only five of the eleven buildings in the legalization deal had been converted into co-ops.
I am a cultural anthropologist, oral historian, and former squatter, and I started doing research with former squatters on the Lower East Side whose buildings were being converted into co-ops because I was interested in how people make claims on urban space, and how property relations shape our lives. Of course I expected that I’d be doing oral history as part of the research, but I was pleasantly surprised to find, when I started the work in 2009, that I was late to the game. Former squatters had already started an archive at NYU and recorded oral histories for it. And this was just the tip of the iceberg: some were creating art shows about their history, or leading walking tours, even starting museums. Oral history was no longer just a method; it became my object of inquiry. Why, I asked, were people doing all of this history-making work? Asking the question from a broader perspective, why does this history matter?
In January, 2017, I brought together a panel of documentarians at UnionDocs to discuss this question. They were all telling the story of squatting on the Lower East Side, but in different genres, for different reasons, and from different positions. Some were deep insiders, others near-total outsiders. They had created graphic novels, archives, films, and murals. I wrote a book. With a room packed full of people, just a few days before Donald Trump was to be inaugurated as president, we talked about how history changes meaning over time, and how these stories could be of use in the present moment.
There is no longer a large stock of vacant, city-owned apartment buildings ripe for squatting in New York City. The booming real estate market and the Third Party Transfer Program took care of that. But there are still vacant buildings being warehoused by speculators and debate continues about how to make land use decisions in the city. The gentrification that was looming at the height of the squatting movement is now the biggest threat to our city’s democracy and livability. And we can still learn something from the history of squatting about how to make collective claims on urban space that translate into real collective property rights.
Seth Tobocman's graphic novel, War in the Neighborhood, had been out of print since 2004 and was re-released just last year. It is one of the only extensive written accounts of the squatting movement on the Lower East Side. Tobocman writes as an insider, and he tells a story that is rare in its nuanced portrayal of the ways that the forces of sexism, racism, and capitalism re-emerge within radical social movements.
When I started doing political work, I could get books on anarchism, I could get books on communism from all different perspectives, I could get a lot of books about the Russian Revolution, I could get books about Nicaragua, I could get some books about the environment. But nothing prepared me for the actual experience of organizing, the experience of working in a community to try to fix up a building, of having to deal with police harassment, of having to protect people against various types of abuse when you know you can’t go to the police, of what to do when people in your community are addicted to hard drugs and starting to act out. There was nothing to prepare me for that. So at the end of my experience with the squatter community, I said, “This is an experience that would be useful to someone else.” These are experiences that are part of activism, that are part of working in a community. We’re not trained in this society to work with other people. We’re trained to work for other people and to have other people work for us, and to think about ourselves; we’re not trained to have a community of people who decide things democratically. That was a problem we faced in the squats, and it’s a problem people faced in Occupy, and it’s a problem we’re going to face next week when we go to Washington. I knew I took the risk of alienating friends, making myself look like an idiot, by being honest about my experiences. But I feel that I have more of an obligation to the next generation of activists than I do to myself or my friends. – Seth Tobocman at UnionDocs, January 15, 2017
Fly-O has been part of the LES Squat community since the late '80s. In 1995, she began the UnREal Estate Project (URE); documenting the Lower East Side Squatter Movement (and European squats to a lesser extent) with photos, drawings, and writing, as well as compiling an archive of printed matter and ephemera. Fly began working with Booklyn (a Brooklyn based Book Arts Collective) in the late '90s to collect and catalogue her extensive personal archive. In approximately 2011, Fly started working with Amy Starecheski continuing this work, as well as compiling videotaped oral histories of many of the original squatters. URE is also planned as a multi-volume book project; the first volume, titled You Don’t Know Squat, is currently in progress and will be co-edited by Fly-O and Amy Starecheski.
Amy Starecheski first learned about squatting as a teenager coming of age in the 1990s East Coast anarcho-punk scene. She later became a squatter and then an anthropologist and oral historian.
The public narratives about this history have painted squatters as either villains – thieves, outsiders, line-jumpers, usurpers, even sell-outs – or heroes – brave and entrepreneurial activists who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, using direct action to save much-needed housing from decay (and the market!). By using close-up methods like oral history and ethnography, I can tell a more complicated story. For example, some residents of the legalizing squats, like Maggie Wrigley, saw the deal as a vindication of the squatters, and a victory for low-income housing and against public-private partnerships to create affordable housing via the market.
Listen to excerpts from Amy’s oral history interviews:
At the same time, Maggie concedes that something has been lost with legalization:
Others, like Geoff Dann, saw it as a trick, a roundabout way for the city to defang the squatters and purge those among them not willing to conform to middle-class norms:
I think these kinds of complicated stories are necessary if we want to learn from the experiences of earlier generations who struggled to make a space for themselves in the city. Yes, we need triumphant stories. We need to be inspired, and to hear that direct action works. But then, especially as we encounter both the astounding highs and the devastating lows of activist life, and all the boring stuff in between, we need to know that it was hard for other people, too, that they struggled with race and class and gender in their movements, they made mistakes, awful things happened, and it was still worth it.
In closing, two concrete lessons we can learn from this history:
DW Gibson is a journalist who learned about the squatting movement on the Lower East Side when he was recording interviews for his book, The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the 21st Century City. He is now producing a documentary that tells the story from the point of view of one charismatic and feisty participant: Jerry the Peddler.
I feel blessed to come at this with so much ignorance and so much freshness, because I think that’s an interesting perspective to think about why the history matters. For Fly and for Seth, it matters on so many levels, because it’s of historical importance but it’s also of personal importance. But I didn’t have that experience, so I was viewing it truly through the historic lens.
When I was working on my first book, which was about unemployment, in 2011, I drove across the country. I was interviewing people about the jobs they had lost, and I asked them to tell me about that experience. if I had a nickel for every time I heard the phrase “American Dream,” I would have had enough money to pay for my gas across the country, and probably to give money to everybody I interviewed. This idea of the American Dream kept coming up again and again, and it was so annoying, on the one hand, because it’s such an elusive idea. When I’d ask people to tap into what they were talking about when they were talking about the American Dream, it was always a very shape-shifting thing. But it definitely involved two things: it definitely involved working hard — picking yourself up by the bootstraps — and it definitely involved owning something — owning a house and a white picket fence.
As I met Jerry and became familiar with the scene that he was a part of, I really got the feeling that I was being introduced to a revised vision of the American Dream, new interpretations of what you can make of yourself in this country. Squatting tends to make us think about urban landscape, but in a way Jerry and the movement remind me a lot of the national parks. What it comes down to is a competing vision for how we can orient ourselves as a society. It’s stewardship versus ownership, and it makes me think of John Muir, it makes me think of Yosemite, and it makes me think that we can have spaces that we share. In some ways that’s very un-American. But as has been documented by a lot of historians, America, as it was founded by the white Europeans, didn’t have cathedrals or colosseums. They recognized the majesty of the land in North America — Yosemite and the Grand Canyon and Arches National Park — and preserved them. Those are the things that we share and we take care of together. When I started meeting squatters, the people Jerry lived with, I saw that this idea of working hard and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps was very present. Fly demonstrated this, mixing cement, putting flooring down, roofs — that idea of hard work is there. But it’s that divergence after the hard work, where it goes to a place of stewardship more than a place of ownership, that’s valuable as we move forward. – DW Gibson at UnionDocs, January 15, 2017
Cooperativa Cultural 19 de enero (CC 1/19), composed of mural artist Raúl Ayala and oral historian Fernanda Espinosa, is part of a new generation of activists engaged in struggles for community self-determination and against gentrification in Brooklyn. They encountered the history of squatting on the Lower East Side mainly through recorded oral histories, and made this ground mural in response.
La siembra del hogar//Sowing Homes is a multimedia ground mural at Extra Place alley in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The project, part of FABnyc’s ArtUp program, created by Cooperativa Cultural 19 de enero (CC1/19), was inspired by oral histories with squatters conducted by Amy Starecheski for her book, as well as by more recent narratives of Bushwick residents fighting off displacement.
With this public art project, the artists intended to listen to the histories of the space, and then uplift some of the important stories around housing and home struggles that inhabit the neighborhood. With New York City becoming more and more a place where only some can afford to call it home, it seems pertinent to remind folks that there are long and nuanced histories of resistance, creative responses, and collective strategies outside of the formal housing system, such as those used by the squatters in the Lower East Side.