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 co-operatives 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. Anthropologist and oral historian Amy Starecheski's new book, excerpted below, tells the story of the long, messy process through which squatters were transformed into homeowners and squats into co-ops.
On East 13th Street between Avenues A and B there were six squatted buildings, and for over a decade they were a hub for the Lower East Side squatting movement. In these edited oral histories, we hear David Boyle, Rolando Politi, and Marisa DeDominicis talk about claiming these buildings in 1984. In the book, these excerpts are used to introduce two questions: Why were these buildings empty? Why did these people claim them?
To answer the first question, Starecheski presents a political economic analysis of how capitalism produces abandoned buildings. Answering the second requires a social history of squatting and homesteading in New York City.
The full interviews are archived at the Tamiment Library at NYU.
David Boyle: Sarah Farley was a community activist. I think she was Harlem-based originally. Great singer, I think she had a singing career. She had an accident, I think she fell off a streetcar and hurt her legs. It led to her being very overweight and difficult to get around. So she became this sort of sage figure. They made a bedroom apartment in the ground floor of a building on Sixth Street for her. In the front part of it was a giant table—she always said it was really important to have a big table. She started organizing meetings in this place, and she started a group called LAND, which was an acronym for Local Action for Neighborhood Development. In that same building is also where Sandro Dernini, the Plexus guy, had the basement. It was called the Shuttle Theatre. It was a very lively cultural scene with Miguel Pinero and the Nuyorican Poets, who were in exile at the time— they didn’t have a place. So a lot of the Nuyorican scene was taking place in Sarah Farley’s building.
But one night a cab driver got killed in the building, and everybody ran away from the murder scene, from the drug gang called the Outstanding. He [Carter] wanted an apartment in it, but he said, “Now everybody is going to run away because there is going to be a murder investigation. Detectives are going to be all over the place, and now is the time to take the building.”
We went over and nailed the building shut with big spikes. So you’d really have to work at it to get in. That was what we considered our taking possession, and then we had meetings that week and put up notices saying we were going to do a homesteading project on Thirteenth Street. And then we met at Life Cafe, and David Life, who was one of the partners in Life Cafe at the time, he was one of the people. Nelson Oceundi, a fashion guy, Garick Beck, Joanee [Freedom]. It was a pretty broad group. Daniel Caldero, who was a photographer. A bunch of people. [Rafael] Bueno was my mentor at that time, and he’d been counseling how to do it better.
Sarah Farley was totally behind it; we had a meeting at Sarah’s. We organized so that the next weekend we would go and we’d already possessed it by sealing it, so with a group we would laboriously take the spikes out and put up a door and perhaps move into it. I think in the weeks before that—no, it was months before that—I ran into Marisa DeDominicis. Because I lived across the street from the Sixth and B Garden, and I saw a woman climbing over the fence because she didn’t have a key, with a broken hammer clawing at the earth so she could put seeds in the ground. It was very impressive, and she was looking for a place to stay. She was the first person to spend the night in 539.
Amy Starecheski: The story I’ve heard is that you were digging in the garden with a broken tablespoon. Is that true?
DeDominicis: Um, hammer.
Starecheski: [laughs] And so what was that meeting like on Sixth Street at the community center?
Starecheski: What was the first time you ever went to that block? Do you remember it?
DeDominicis: I went right to it after the meeting.
Starecheski: You just went to the meeting and then walked right over there?
DeDominicis: I was like, well, what am I going to get involved in? What are they talking about, that the place was hot and there were abandoned buildings and there were rat holes, human rat holes to go through and escape down to Fourteenth Street? Well, if I’m going to get involved, then I’m going to go check this out.
So the space itself, there were holes in the roof that the fire department had put in to put out fires, and there was a lot of water damage in 539. That place where I was in was on the third floor, and that was also strategic because it wasn’t as badly damaged as the fourth floor. It was central; it would be easy for me to get in and out and hear people coming up the stairs. I think almost everything was boarded with tin because that’s how HPD5 managed the buildings. We used that tin for a lot of alternative purposes, like when we made our stoves out of barrels, we used them for a way to go through the window for flues. We reused them for spray-painting too to advertise what we wanted, “HPD keep out” or whatever they said, or “This building belongs to the city”; I don’t remember what it said. They would be great if we could find them and use them in a museum.
Was there traces of drug activity? Yes, there was. There were stashes of little cellophane envelopes that had a stamp on it that said “outstanding.” And so that’s where I got the idea to make the 501(c)(3) Outstanding Renewal Enterprises. ORE. So there was cocaine; I found a lot of cocaine in these little packages. What else was there? There was nothing as far as traces of where the body was or anything. Like it wasn’t marked or anything. I was just told that the police were watching and it was hot. And that it was a good idea to move in then because otherwise the drug dealers would move in the next week and so we had to move fast.
Starecheski: Had the building been opened already when you went? Had David or anyone gone in?
DeDominicis: I just looked at the outside of the building, and so I believe, I don’t remember if I went with David or if David was the first to open the building. I think maybe he did go, I don’t remember. I just remember that I went in the building and stayed. And I remember him saying, “You shouldn’t stay here.” And I said, “I think it’s the best thing to do if we want to keep this building. To just establish residency.”
Starecheski: What did you bring with you when you went to stay there? What was it like living there all by yourself in an abandoned building?
DeDominicis: I remember it was a rainy spring. It was cool and I didn’t have very much. I get cold easily, so I probably came with a lot of sweaters. I didn’t have much; I came with a backpack and was really pretty streamlined. I don’t remember what I brought. I didn’t bring much.
Amy Starecheski is Co-Director of Columbia University's Oral History MA Program. This post is adapted from her new book, Ours to Lose: When Squatters Became Homeowners in New York City, with permission from the University of Chicago Press. Photos courtesy of Marisa DeDedominicis, Rolando Politi, and Amy Starecheski.
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