By Amy Starecheski
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.
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.
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.
DeDominicis: Um, hammer.
Starecheski: [laughs] And so what was that meeting like on Sixth Street at the community center?
DeDominicis: It was a rainy day, and it was like an odd eclectic storefront where this woman Sarah had people there from the neighborhood—all walks of life. I was pretty gung ho; I kind of look back and think I was a little crazy because they were basically saying that the building they were thinking of going into was hot because there had recently been a murder there, and I was like “Yeah, sure, I’ll go into that apartment!” And I did. So I just felt that was probably the best thing to do. I wasn’t afraid, which was also kind of crazy, and I really didn’t want any help. Because I was concerned that there were just a lot of guys and I wasn’t ready to just park myself next to some guy, I would prefer just doing it. I liked the space, I liked the little building. It was cute.
Starecheski: 539 East Thirteenth Street?
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.
There was a lot of debris in front of almost all the buildings. I think the stoops were boarded up somehow so people couldn’t get in. But there were holes in the cinder blocks. The space that became the garden that I worked in was totally full of rubble and building debris because people would dump things in it. I don’t think there was a gate or anything, so people could walk through there. That was part of the escape route and part of the way people accessed it; it was just empty. The only cars parked on this street were abandoned. Abandoned meaning burnt out with no wheels on.
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.