Check out these videos from MoRUS squat tours:
At the height of the movement in 1988-1989, there were about two-dozen squatted buildings on the Lower East Side, and probably two dozen more in East Harlem, Washington Heights, and the South Bronx.
“In the Lower East Side the squatting community has developed somewhat along the same lines as a homesteading movement — with the idea of long term occupation and permanent housing at the forefront. Because of this, the LES style of squatting is a little different than the more transient squatting methods of travelers or the more communal aspects of the European squats.”
Fly, “Squatting on the Lower East Side.”
“A disparate collection of approximately 500 people living in some 20 vacant buildings throughout Loisaida, the squatters provide an alternative voice (or, more accurately, ‘voices’) to local debates that extend far beyond controversies around their own occupation of abandoned tenements: the fight against gentrification, the closing of Tompkins Square Park, the recurring police brutality in the neighborhood, the eviction of poor street peddlers from local sidewalks, the city’s demolition of buildings (usually squatters‘ homes) in order to assemble land for sale on the open market. Every one of these local struggles would have played out differently had it not been for the presence of the neighborhood’s squatter community.”
Andrew Van Kleunen, “The Squatter Voices: Is Anyone Listening?”
“There have been so many misconceptions of who the squatters were, and in fact their collective identity has always been hard to define. Some were locals who sought official sanction and title to buildings, but found that the city had cancelled its homesteading program — or were refused entry, such as the residents
occupying three tenements on East Seventh Street between Avenues C and D, which were taken over by a mixture of original tenants and
squatters in the early 1970s. Others were radicals who wanted no part of ‘the system.’ Many squatted from necessity, or to sustain their own downwardly mobile art careers. Others because they wanted freedom to create their own homes and live outside the ‘rent slave’ housing market. Or to demonstrate with their own hands the criminality of a housing bureaucracy that could leave so many without homes. There was never any single reason if you pressed.”
Sarah Ferguson, “The Struggle for Space — Ten Years of Turf Battling on the Lower East Side.”
BACKGROUND FROM FLY:
“In the late ’70s there was a wave of building abandonment. Many of the buildings in the LES were taken into REM (Real Estate Management) by the city at which time any tenants were ‘relocated.’ Most of these buildings were then systematically stripped of any building materials of any value and then were left to deteriorate — periodically occupied by drug dealers or used as shooting galleries — until they collapsed or were destroyed by fire. A friend of mine who was around back then said that in the early ’80s ‘junkies falling off rooftops became such a common occurrence that you would always have to look up when you walked under a city owned consolidated building.
The city did not have the money or the interest to rehabilitate so many buildings in what was then considered an undesirable area. Instead, what happened was a federal plan referred to as ‘spatial deconcentration’ in which the area was allowed to deteriorate to a point that living there became unbearable and people would be forced to leave. In this way the authorities hoped to get ride of the poor inner-city minorities that they had come to fear after the riots of the ’60s. Then real-estate speculators could move in and acquire properties for very little money hopefully to renovate them for future exploitation. But the future was a long way off and at that time the Lower East Side was turning into a war zone ruled by drugs and gangs. As a result people decided to take the matter into their own hands. The city had instituted a homesteading program by which local groups could organize to fix up a building and then they could buy it for $1. There was a widespread movement to take back the housing. A highlight of that campaign was the ‘this land is ours’ action when all buildings in the area and proclaimed ‘This Land is Ours: Property of the People of the Lower East Side Not For Sale!’ Unfortunately the homesteading program was discontinued soon after its inception, probably due to the overwhelming response by those seeking affordable housing. The administration was perhaps afraid of losing control of so much property.
The building where I have lived since 1992 is a serious home-in-stead style squat — meaning that we are interested in renovating the building as a long term commitment. The building itself, just up the street from Tompkins Square Park, was originally built in 1899, and, after a typical LES tenement history, was abandoned, vacated and eventually squatted in 1985. The biggest crisis was a major fire in 1990 that gutted the east wing of the building and destroyed the roof. It was amazing the people got back into the building! By the time I got involved in 1992 the roof had been replaced…”
Squatters in the Gardens:
“Behind Jerry’s Ninth Street Squat — where he stayed for 11 years before it burned down — Jerry took care of a garden, the first of four. Now a gravel parking lot, it was, in the mid 1980s, a communal meeting place, open 10 hours a day, seven days a week. ‘As long as there were no hard drugs or violence, people could come and go as they pleased,’ Jerry said. ‘It was a real autonomous zone.’
Gardens took on real significance for the squatters, and the second one Jerry tended, North Star, a couple of doors down from the first, introduced community cooking to the experience. The squatters set up a kitchen, thanks largely to a squatter named Kalif, who had run dozens of Rainbow kitchens. Each morning, Kalif would stand on the corner of Ninth Street and Avenue C, bumming spare change. When he got enough money, the squatters bought a bag of rice and beans. They’d cook and serve the food to anyone who needed a meal.
One night in 1986, after the second and final Purple Parade, Jerry and others pitched three teepees in the back of the North Star lot. It was an indication of things to come.
When the local community board announced its intention to build in the plaza on the other side of Avenue C — something unpopular with neighborhood residents — Jerry decided to make a stand.
Since, as word of it spread, the communal kitchen was outgrowing its lot, the time seemed right to move the operation to the plaza across the street, called La Plaza… The squatters pitched five teepees there and started putting in the homeless, which was easy to do with hundreds of people sleeping in the park around the clock. The kitchen operation flourished in its new location…”
John Beresford, “Jerry the Peddler Interview”