When Squatters Became Homeowners in NYC
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.
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.
Rolando Politi: The first building to be taken was 539 East Thirteenth Street. It was the smallest of several buildings there. And me and two other people, including David Boyle, were working next door, two buildings next to 539, just for some slum landlord, doing construction, Sheetrock and, you know, the usual stuff. But we kept always looking at 539. I know there were people going in and out. At that time in 539 it was like many other places — drug location. And in April of ’84 there was a murder. No big deal. One more drug murder in 539. Somebody was shot on the top floor while a cab was waiting outside. But when the drug murders happened in the neighborhood, that was a no-no for the police department, of course. They cleaned out 539. So me and David and the other people said, “OK, now is the time. They’re out of there, police got them.” So we went in there a couple of days thereafter.
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.
LAND was promoting that the members of LAND, those who were capable, do new projects. Totally new and not all clumped together. It was supposed to be something that caused people to fan out and do new things. She had a guy in that building named Clee Carter, who was a jazz musician, and he and his friends had a building on Thirteenth Street that they lived in and had a bad landlord. But it was a building that had a tradition of jazz musicians. There were only three floors—four floors, counting the storefront. The way he said it was that the landlord just threw his hands up and gave them the building but didn’t really do it formally. He just said, “I’m not going to collect rent, I’m not going to do anything more on this building, I’m out of here. You guys take care of it.” I think he dreamed that they were going to somehow come up with a plan and talk to him. They had a fire in the building, the building got messed up. The boiler blew up. They moved out under pressure from drug influences on the block. It was a very bad drug block.
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.
Marisa DeDominicis: On my day off, which was President’s Day, I came down to Sixth and B Garden, and I climbed over the fence. I was quickly befriended by a woman, Joan, who got a ladder out of the Dumpster to help me get out of the garden instead of climbing the fence. So I don’t know what I was doing; I just thought if I went down there, somebody would come along and tell me about the garden. Also at that time I met David Boyle and Joanee Freedom, who somehow decided that because I was there in the middle of January gardening, guerrilla gardening, that I could possibly be one of the people that could be a part of the initial meetings that they were starting to have about what to do for their housing situation “plan B.” Because they had issues with their landlord and they were feeling like they might get evicted.
So I was invited by David to come up to his apartment and warm up because it was quite a cold day. He then invited me to a meeting at a community center on Sixth Street to talk about potentially getting some housing. I was eager because I didn’t really have a high income at the time, and I was intrigued that what was being said could possibly be something I was ready for because I was looking for some thing or work to get involved in.
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?
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.
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.