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Squatter Victory in Lower East Side
by Joe Smith
20 August 2002 14:57 UTC
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After years of tremendous hostility the city govt is giving legal
recognition to almost a dozen squats in the Lower East Side.  This story
originated in the excellent magazine of NYC community affairs, City
Limts (www.citylimits.org).  It has now been picked up by the NY Times
("Once Villified, Squatters Will Inherit 11 Buildings,").  For the Times
version :


Squatter's Rites

Loisaida's last outlaws are about to make their most revolutionary move
yet: legal occupation.

By Robert Neuwirth
City Limits, Sept-Oct. 2002

This is the story of a housing war, and an unexpected victory for some
of the city's most maligned activists.

On one side were the Lower East Side's squatters, ordinary people who
illegally occupied some of the city's most decrepit abandoned
buildings.  Against them stood the city of New York, which through three
mayors was ready to use its full firepower to get them out. The story of
their conflicts is one of pitched battles, paramilitary assaults, and
incredible bravery and risk. And for more than 200 squatters who toughed
it out and are still in their homes, it's now a story with a happy

In the spring of 1989, the squatters of Umbrella House barricaded
themselves in their building when the city's demolition crew arrived at
the foot of Avenue C to tear it down. As the wrecking ball started to
swing, biting into the vacant tenement next door and coming ever closer
to their homes, they stationed themselves in their windows and defied
the police to take them out.

"I put a big sign on my window that said, 'I'm willing to die for my
home, how about you?,'" recalls Umbrella House squatter Siobhan Meow.
"And I meant it, I really meant it. I wasn't fucking around. Because I
had nothing other than that building."

During a three-day standoff, the police blocked off Avenue C between
East 2nd and 3rd streets while the squatters bricked up their front door
and ducked in and out through back alleys. They brought in water from a
fire hydrant around the corner. They used buckets for toilets, scurrying
out of their building under cover of darkness to empty the waste into
city sewers. They took showers outdoors, in the runoff from rainstorms.
Because the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development
(HPD) had ripped out most of the interior staircase, they used the rear
fire escape as stairs.

Compared with what went down at other squats, this was a minor skirmish.
On May 30, 1995, hundreds of heavily armed NYPD riot cops invaded the
East Village in an armored personnel carrier, evicting squatters from
541 and 545 East 13th Street and arresting 31. The battles were not
confined to Manhattan: Between 1990 and 1995, the city used every weapon
at its disposal--police officers, firemen, EMTs, housing cops--to evict
hundreds of squatters, mostly low-income Latino factory workers and
their families, from about 200 South Bronx apartments.

Three successive mayors--Koch, Dinkins and Giuliani--treated squatters
as if they were more dangerous than violent criminals. The hardball
tactics, along with changes in the housing market, seemed to spell the
end of squatting in the city. By the late 1990s, there were only about a
couple of hundred squatters left in Manhattan, most of them in a dozen
buildings on the Lower East Side.

But now, 11 of the Lower East Side's 12 remaining squats are about to
sign a deal with their old archenemy. The Loisaida squats, last bastion
of illegal occupancy, are becoming official, and soon the squatters will
own their homes. For the past three years, the squatters have been
quietly working to buy their apartment houses from the city and turn
them into low-income cooperatives. And after decades of arguing that
legalizing squats would encourage squatters to invade buildings
everywhere, the city has agreed to do just that.

In late August 1999, the Lower East Side's remaining squatters began
secret negotiations with the Giuliani administration. Much like shuttle
diplomacy in the Middle East, they never talked directly; instead, they
communicated through an intermediary, the Urban Homesteading Assistance
Board (UHAB), a local nonprofit that helps tenants take over and manage
their buildings. After much discussion, they cut their own version of
the Camp David accords. The squatters have agreed to tame their
anarchist tendencies and become legal, hiring architects to bring their
homegrown rehabs up to code. The city has agreed to sell the buildings
to UHAB, which will take responsibility for them during the renovations
and then sell them back to the tenants as low-income cooperatives.

The deal, hammered out during the last days of the Giuliani
administration, was delayed after September 11. But Mayor Michael
Bloomberg's staffers have honored the basic framework, and on June 26,
the deal to save the squats passed the City Council. Several weeks
later, Bloomberg signed off on it.

No one, not even those close to the deal, knows for sure why the city
finally agreed to end this two-decade standoff. HPD Commissioner Jerilyn
Perine declined repeated requests for an interview, issuing a written
statement that said, "HPD is continuing its longstanding policy of
conveying our in rem  properties to quality, non-profit developers. We
are confident that UHAB will make sure the buildings are rehabilitated
and become safe, decent and affordable housing for local residents."

But the lengthy, bitter squatter battles of the past suggest what the
city's reasons might be. Informed observers speculate that since most of
the remaining squatter buildings are stable and well-run, they would
resist attempts at eviction and get sympathetic press coverage in the
process. Since at least one of the squats agreed to drop ongoing
litigation, the deal has also saved the city considerable court
costs--another one of Mayor Bloomberg's goals.

For the squatters, going legal means abandoning their outsider status,
which has been both an ethical stand and a source of pride. "I'm kind of
torn on that, because, well, I'm kinda proud of beating the system,"
admits John Wagner, who has lived at Serenity House on East 9th Street
since the early 1990s. One friend of Wagner's, who used to live in the
squat and thinks that the squatters are selling out, sends him letters
addressed to "house thief John Wagner."

But going legit after decades of extralegal occupation is less of a
contradiction than it might seem. While outsiders, city bureaucrats and
even some housing activists regard them as middle-class anarchist
scofflaws, the squatters themselves invoke the more practical notion of
old-fashioned sweat equity ownership. Their longtime defiance may have
been political, but it was also practical. They wanted to keep their
homes. For Wagner and the others, legalizing the squats is just another
way to do that.

"The whole issue of taking over vacant space and using it is
revolutionary, according to the establishment," said Hafid Lalaoui--who
lived in many East Village squats over the years, most recently at
Bullet Space on East 3rd Street--as he basks in the afternoon shade on
Avenue C. "But it's not stealing.  It's recycling and transforming and
building community. We were not anarchists, not anti-establishment. We
were struggling to survive--period."

For full article:

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