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.

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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.

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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:

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

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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.”

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And it was the largest of its kind in New York.

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For you, dear readers, some other NYC Hoovervilles:

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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:

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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.

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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.

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