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Can you give me a general overview of the squatting situation in New York in the past thirty years? Squattting, rent-strikes, communtiy gardens …
I only have knowledge of the NYC scene for the past 15 years, predominately of the Lower East Side. Although I’m sure there were squats in the sixties and seventies I’ve never met any person who participated. Rent was cheap (relatively) back then, and the dereliction and abandonment that characterized many urban areas in America was just beginning.
(For further info on this process, which we call “Spatial Deconcentration” I refer you to article of same name by Yolanda Ward; if you do internet search on Yolanda Ward you’ll find it.)
In the early eighties some people began to “reclaim” abandoned and derelict properties. This occurred in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Harlem and the Lower East Side (LES). LES squatters were loudest in announcing the political implications of squatting. The housing shortage in NYC was becoming acute, and their gesture made apparent an obvious contradiction: how and why was there a housing shortage but there were so many abandoned buildings?
Many of these abandoned buildings, and most of the ones occupied by squatters (but not all), were owned by the City of New York and administered by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) (our wry moniker for HPD was Housing Prevention and Destruction). These properties were taken over by the city thru tax foreclosure; they had been abandoned by their owners. For a period of time HPD was the biggest slumlord in NYC. HPD still owns and manages thousands of tenement buildings in all NYC boroughs.
For a few years in the early eighties (’82 to ’85) HPD developed a legal homesteading program. I believe this was an effort to co-opt some militant housing activists, and create a ideological and practical split between legal homesteaders and “extra-legal” squatters. The program was phased out as real-estate speculators began eyeing inner-city neighborhoods, particularly the Lower East Side and East Village.
In the mid to late-eighties we witnessed the East Village art boom and the first wave of gentrification to hit the LES. Landlords were merciless in their efforts to drive out long-standing tenants and replace them with new tenants able and willing to pay higher rents. Arson and thuggery were common.
There were many abandoned buildings and if squatters were evicted they would often break into a new one days after being ousted. At this time (mid-eighties) non-profit housing development corporations began developing housing and sought the abandoned properties from the city. There were now three interests eyeing the abandoned buildings: squatters, real-estate speculators, and the non-profits. Of course the squatters were the only ones that had to worry about stealth and capricious and arbitrary evictions. The stock market crash of 1988 (’87?) knocked out the speculators and slowed gentrification.
By the early nineties the main adversary of the squatters became the non-profits. Another change occurred vis a vis squatters relationship with the police. In the past squatters had been evicted solely for having occupied a building. Due to the scorn and abuse heaped on the police during and following these evictions many believe an informal agreement was made between the police and the city: the police would not evict squatters from a building unless there were already plans to develop the building (in other words they wanted a reason to evict beyond “squatters are trespassers”).
Evictions were no less obnoxious, but it was now easier to anticipate when an eviction might occurr by paying attention to what transpired bureaucratically at the City Council and Community Board levels. However, the City does continue to use fires and “public safety” concerns as justifications for summary evictions (i.e. 5th St. squat; FYI see recent Village Voice article of this week in Towers & Tenements column).
There have been no squat evictions on the Lower East Side for the past couple of years. One reason is that there is now less competition among various interests for abandoned and derelict buildings: there aren’t very many left! And those that remain are privately owned and in such bad shape they’re not even attractive to squatters. The contentious issue now is over the city-owned parcels of land that have become community gardens through the Green Thumb program.
Throughout the 80s and early 90s many city-owned plots of land were given to community associations to cultivate as gardens. NYC developed the Green Thumb program to administer the properties and provide material and technical assistance. It was understood that the gardens only had temporary right to the land and would have to leave if the city chose to use or dispose of the property. This program was developed after a city-wide land-use review process called ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Process). Many of the gardeners and their advocates and supporters now argue that the urbam landscape has changed so much in the past 20-25 years that a systematic ULURP is once again required before the city disposes of the properties (usually through auction, but sometimes through direct sale to non-profit developers). In the Spring of ’99 over 500 garden lots were transferred from Green Thumb to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development for sale through auction to developers–privatization.
RE: rent strikes: Although there are still calls for a general rent strike in NYC by miscellaneous militant tenants rights activists, I don’t think there’s actually been one since the thirties. However there are always singular building-wide and individual rent-strikes going on. New York is known nation-wide for the adversarial relationship between its tenants and landlords. To learn more I recommend checking out the site www.tenant.net; and that will probably lead you to further sites.
Has the situation in New York been very different from other american cities? Like, higher rents because less space, or a in general more liberal policy. In comparison maybe to Chicago or San Francisco …
Yes. Although rents in NYC are high I think it’s equally expensive to find housing in San Francisco, Boston and Chicago. The main difference is the number of tenement apartment buildings in New York, and the fact that the city took over many buildings thru foreclosure and held them as they continued to rot and decay. There was much greater opportunity here for people to “infiltrate” and occupy.
Although there never was a squatter’s movement in NY on the scale of what developed in Amsterdam, Berlin, Zurich, etc., it was more organized and larger and more vocally political here in NY than in any other U.S. city.
Were there any ‘famous’ squattings or evictions? How about the support by the population and by the media?
The most famous eviction was the two efforts to clear East 13th Street of squatters in 1995. There were six squatted buildings on this block; five were evicted. This was done with military precision: snipers, helicopters and an armoured assault vehicle were used–quite a show of force by standards here in New York. For more than a year the buildings were kept under 24 hour guard by NY police to prevent a re-squat. The squatters were jerked around in court and the buildings became housing developed by one of the nonprofits.
For more info I recommend Seth Tobocman’s new graphic novel War in the Neighborhood (book release party Feb. 19 at Charas on 9th between B&C) and past issues of The Shadow (search the web–it’s there–but don’t know URL).
Media coverage has always been unfavorable–squatters generally portrayed as parasites, idiots, or folkloristic relics. Sometimes it gets ridiculous: NY Times Magazine had an interior design piece titled “Squatter Chic”.
If you’d like to look thru my files let me know. I’d be happy to oblige. I don’t have a lot but it may give you idea of media representation better than I can explain.
Public opinion varies. I think it was most favorable in late 80s and early 90s. It’s difficult to gauge public opinion at present cuz it’s been so quiet the past couple of years. I don’t think the public even thinks about squatters and I think most squatters are comfortable with that.
Another notorious eviction occurred three years ago today–the eviction and demolition of the 5th Street Squat. I’ll try to get leads on more info for you but in brief: after a small fire in the building the City used that as a pretext to demolish the building. Despite a court order to cease demolition, the City continued, denying the squatters there the opportunity to retrieve their possessions (including their pets!; their dogs and cats were literally buried alive under the rubble!)
The sqwuatters filed suit for damages (lost and destroyed possessions, etc) and the judge ruled in their favor. Today I learned that the City has decided not to appeal. Soon there will be a special hearing to determine the amount the squatters will be awarded. This will be the first time squatters will be compensated following an illegal eviction. (I’ll have to find sources for accurate info on this for you).
Soon more will follow ….