To Squat. Or not. A Lower East Side History

Posted on: February 22nd, 2012 at 11:21 am by

Our urban historian Allison B. Siegel is back with another post. This one dives deep into the squatter history of the Lower East Side.

ABC No Rio, Burn Out, C-Squat, See Skwat, The Umbrella House, The Cave, The Bullet Space, Dos Blockos (not the beer)…gallery space and cultural centers? Tenements of by-gone eras? Music venues? Cooperative housing? Community collective centers? Yup, all that, but here in New York, we just call ‘em squats.

I happen to be a squat expert. It is my favorite lower body exercise and the other half of our double entendre.

Definition from Old Reliable:

  • to settle on or occupy property, especially otherwise unoccupied property, without any title, right, or payment of rent.
  • to settle on public land under government regulation, in order to acquire title.

So to squat becomes a squat and here we have another kind of place that helps define the Lower East Side (and New York City) and anything that helps NYC is a friend o’mine.

Don’t fret, I’m not dragging you back to Manahatta this time – just a short Boogie back in time. To be fair to this fair isle, I’m going to briefly explore all of Manhattan, but our journey will end back where it all began.  Care to join me on a jaunt to a pretty place that wasn’t always so picturesque? You may know it. There’s a great lawn, a great reservoir and lots more man-made greatness.

Welcome to Central Park before the park.

Sure you’ve heard of Seneca Village and an A+ for knowing your NYC history, peeps, however, contrary to a widely accepted belief, Seneca Village predates the construction of Central Park. Therefore, it was not in Central Park nor was it a squatter village. The African-Americans and Irish who lived there paid for the land. In the 1820s and 1830s, John Whitehead and his wife sold off pieces of their farm to anyone who wanted a portion, thus creating a village. By 1857, this village would be razed to build the park.

So, if they weren’t squatting, why bring up the inhabitants of the Central Park grounds? Mostly because I think it’s fun to share and it’s background for my next tidbit.

In addition to those living in Seneca Village, the land that would become Central Park was home to rag pickers, bone boilers, soap makers and other noxious odor producing occupations that were forced away from the general population downtown.  Their villages had delightful names like Pigtown. The “class of persons” described below are squatters. Imagine stimulating your olfactories in this fine place:

Starting in 1855, the City inspector began ordering the removal of residents…and the pigs.

Just where do hundreds of homeless people and pigs go after this eviction? Why, they move on up, of course! No deluxe mansions in the sky here. Well, not yet anyway.

Hey, Upper East Siders, your neighborhood once contained 1,016 squatter shacks and 1,061 tenements.  Not such a swanky past, eh? XOXO, Gossip Girl.

Meanwhile, on the Upper West Side: Dutchtown, Shantyhill and Wallhigh were all squatter villages comprised of shacks.

And as much as I adore all things 19th century, ’tis time to bid it farewell. The 20th century approaches…

For a brief period, in early the 20th century,  it seemed that squatters were few, or at the very least, little documented. Then the Great Depression hit and Central Park was right back where it started. This time, its squatter village was a Hooverville named “Forgotten Men’s Gulch.”Big Town Big Time By Jay Maeder, The New York Daily News And it was the largest of its kind in New York.

For you, dear readers, some other NYC Hoovervilles:

Packing Box City on Houston

Unemployed City on West and Charlton (puppy!)

You can also check out Hardlucksville on East 10th and Camp Thomas Paine on the UWS.

Good? All squatted out? Too bad ’cause we are about to get into the grimiest era of all.

(Most of what I say next is personal experience or family lore. For the sake of those who absolutely require citations – I’ve thrown a few in.)

In the late 1970’s, ’80s and much of the ’90s, if you walked the Lower East Side, you might have thought it a ghost town. Hulking corpses of abandoned tenements that once teemed with life; their darkened windows gazing longingly at passersby. Forgotten and disregarded by their city; festering, garbage strewn, vermin infested, blighted buildings.

The forsaken structures attracted drug users and dealers, criminals-in-training with dreams of arson, school kids who actually put their lives in jeopardy using these shells of homes as playgrounds. For residents of buildings nearby, there was the constant fear that they too would lose their homes to neglect and urban decay? Then the squatters arrived.

Just a few at first, seeking out abandoned buildings, they came looking for shelter.  Then more and more until a movement erupted and that movement:

Do pardon my language, but I believe you get the gist.

In the 1980s and ’90s, squatters commandeered more than 30 abandoned buildings, some because they could no longer afford the rents in the neighborhood, others as a political stand against gentrification.

Was it illegal? By definition, yes, but what do you call letting historic structures disintegrate to dust while thousands of homeless roamed the streets?

The City fought back as vividly told here in an interview of Rick Van Savage, an anarchist squatter and here by NotBored.org.

From a 2003 article in the New York Times:

During the 1980’s and 1990’s, developers and city officials criticized squatters, saying that they fostered a raffish, disorderly atmosphere and obstructed the gentrification of the Lower East Side…Some longtime residents of the Lower East Side still resent the squatters. Ralph Feldman, a landlord who has lived in the neighborhood for 30 years, said he thought many squatters were simply after a cheap adventure. ”They were looking for free housing,” he said. ”It was like being at camp away from home.”

The squatters disagree, saying that they used sweat equity to change abandoned properties into affordable housing, and that they spent plenty of money on repairs. Some squatters wonder aloud how their detractors would fare living without heat or hot water, as many did in the squatter buildings. Others see vindication in their continued existence.

About a year prior to the publication of that article, something monumental happened…for $1 each, 11 tenement squats were sold to the Urban Homesteaders Assistance Board, a nonprofit housing organization who in turn handed over the buildings to their residents.  Safe and sound for future generations.

So, squatters as saviors or criminals?

I say to every squatter whose building is still standing offering shelter to those who’d otherwise go without and to every squatter whose building is in better condition than when in the care of the municipality who, at the time, couldn’t care less- “thank you.”  To the newer generation, “the anarchists, activists, travelers, hobos, migrant punks, and other alternative adventurers of the world,” don’t forget the legacy, the history and above all – those who came before you.

As for little ol’ New York?  C Squat is still rocking hard, ABC No Rio is getting rid of its old digs for a brand new building and nowadays in the LES, the yuppification has reached a nauseating high, but not to worry. As long as people like you read articles written by people like me, there is hope for the culture of our beloved neighborhood. Squatters and all.

As always, ah, New York. My stunning and gritty, sparkling and filthy, tremendous, transcendent metropolis. You were forged by the keepers of secrets and those secrets I plan to find and reveal, one brick at a time. Bless up.

Recent Stories

43essex
Residents of 43 Essex Street Still Without Cooking Gas; DOB Issues Separate Stop-work Orders

More drama over at 43 Essex Street, where the stripped store remains baron. Activity revived last week with more shuffling about the premises; it appeared that build-out was back on track. Not so fast, though. The city quickly stepped in and shut it all down. The Department of Buildings sent an inspector last week, which […]

The Essex Market in 1969, Photo: Susan Fensten, Robert M. Cunningham Collection
Shopping the Essex Street Market in 1969 [PHOTOS]

This month marks the 76th anniversary of the Essex Street Market. With three years left until the collection of warehouse buildings is cleared for the opulence of Essex Crossing, it’s important to remember the history being left behind. These one-story brick structures were built by order of Mayor LaGuardia in 1940, with the purpose of […]

102allen-facade
USA Shaolin Temple Moving to 102 Allen Street

Photographer Alex Cao departed the second-floor loft at 102 Allen Street not too long ago. The studio had been a mainstay for over a decade, with images of pop-art framed in each of the windows. It’s all gone now, replaced with brown paper. The replacement is from left field. Here comes the twenty-two-year-old USA Shaolin […]

chrystie-street-demolition-3
2 Chrystie Street Buildings Amdist Demolition for Separate 10-Story Luxury Condos

Two Chrystie Street warehouse buildings are on the way out. Demolition is underway at both in order to usher in a new era of ODA-designed luxury. First up is 165 Chrystie Street, a stout brick box that hasn’t functioned in years. A restaurant supply company previously operated in the base, but not since moving across […]

rivington-house
Pols Line up Behind Legislation Aimed at Preventing Another Rivington House

As the Rivington House scandal continues to snowball and affect Mayor de Blasio’s footing, local politicians are now lining up to prevent the next such boondoggle from happening. Councilwoman Margaret Chin, alongside Borough President Gale Brewer, introduced new legislation yesterday that would reform the city’s practices concerning deed restrictions. The process – namely, a deed […]

  • Michael Siegel

    Another wonderful piece. Please tell her for me. Also tell her you lived in a pigsty

    • ALLISONBSIEGEL

      Aw. So funny, we have the same last name!

  • Awesome article. I just picked up this book on the subject so it’s really timely! Thanks Allison!

    http://books.google.com/books/about/Homesteading_in_New_York_City_1978_1993.html?id=URZPAAAAMAAJ
     

    • ALLISON

      anytime! thank you for reading!

  • Mickeygerbursky

    You’ve revealed facinating information on a city that it’s been said “has no heart”. The way the poor and homeless were treated it’s true. Nice that we were given Central Park it’s a jewel and squatters may have improved some dwellings but the majority were havens for drugs and illicit activities.
    Well done article I look forward to more from you.

    Mickey Gerbursky

  • Dissaleh

    Allison,

    Well written and truly interesting presentation. Bravo! You are very talented and
    have the ability to make the subject matter come alive.

     Comment below, has it right; well done article and look forward to many more form you.

    Thank you! 
    Nelle Bergstein

  • Madison E. Kingston

    Another great article. Ive learned so much and can’t wait for her next contribution.