It’s an old New York story: twenty-something artists and students begin populating a largely industrial, working-class neighborhood — in this case Puerto Rican and African-American — and in a few years rents go up, chains move in, and gentrification moves on. Here in Bushwick, one of the city’s many “next new neighborhoods,” live two friends who, at first glance, blend in with the more recent locals.
If you were to keep an eye on Dan and Nate, though, you might notice that the same dirt-caked clothes they wear each day are more than an outsider fashion statement. You might find them looking a bit more weathered, a little skinnier, than the loft dwellers and unfiltered cigarette smokers patronizing the nascent coffee shops and art house video stores. You might even find they smell.
This is because Dan and Nate are squatters living in an abandoned or unoccupied building, rent-free and without permission.
While others keep a watchful eye on Craigslist to snatch up apartments in the hip neighborhood, willing to pay up to $2,000 per month for an unfurnished loft, Dan and Nate keep a watchful eye out the windows of their abandoned house to make sure police don’t become suspicious of their presence.
Nate, 20, is a screen printer and grindcore punk musician originally from Mobile, Alabama who has been traveling around America for the last two years, hitchhiking, trainhopping, squatting, living in community houses and camping. Attached to his belt is a small knife, used for work in the house, a fork, and a Nalgene bottle. He showers when he can, about once a month, at friends’ places, (he recently calculated that he hadn’t taken his shirt off in 30 days), wears a zip up hoodie with a patch on the back that reads “Children Starve While the Rich Grow Fat” and has an easy, intermittently wry and goofy, sense of humor.
Dan, 22, from Philadelphia, has lived in New York for three years — sometimes on the streets, sometimes squatting and sometimes staying at friends’ places. He spends his summers hitching around the country and the rest of his year working with New York City’s homeless. He does what he can to help people off the streets if they want to be off, or if they don’t, he still tries to be there as a friend. Recently graduated from college with a degree in Social Work and Theology, Dan considers himself a Christian Anarchist, as does Nate. They feel that squatting is perfectly in line with Jesus’ teachings, pointing to the verse in the Bible that says, “Foxes have holes and birds have nests but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:20)
The house they’re currently squatting, the place they call home, has no running water or electricity. Dan and Nate light the space with candles and flashlights, sleep in sleeping bags and have covered massive holes in the roof with plastic tarps. Many owners who abandon their buildings will take a circular saw to the roof to speed up the building’s deterioration and to discourage squatters. The building that Dan and Nate are squatting was slated to be part of a citywide “urban renewal” program that never came to fruition.
For a bathroom, Dan and Nate have two buckets, emptied daily — one in the common area and a somewhat more offensive one on the roof, forcing them to make haste with their business on increasingly cold winter days. The “pee bucket” froze solid the other day. “It’s like camping,” says Dan.
The two enter and exit the three-storey, post-war apartment building through the cellar door, which they unsealed and found leads to the rest of the house. “If I come home alone,” says Nate, “I just run through the basement as quickly as possible. I hate that part. It’s so dark down there that someone could be waiting to slash my ankles or something.”
Once up the basement stairs and safely inside, they are greeted by the smell of turpentine permeating two floors full of debris, mostly wood that fell during a fire. Walking on these floors and up the stairs feels treacherous, though by now, Dan and Nate seem adept at negotiating the random jetsam of boards, rusty nails, metal scraps, broken bottles, and the occasional stuffed animal.
Their living space is up the third steep staircase, on the top floor. The main common area appears to have once been an apartment’s kitchen, complete with the remains of a 1950s-era stove, a table in the middle of the room, four sturdy chairs and a painting of sailboats at sea that Nate recovered from the debris. With candles lit at night, the ambiance is almost romantic — dim and warmly bohemian. “It’s definitely nice, until you wake up in the morning,” says Dan. “In the light, you think: ‘wow, I live in this shithole.’”
When Dan and Nate first unsealed and entered the building, the third floor was just as full of debris as the other two, but they worked for days to clear it out and clean it up. “We found all kinds of stuff — photo albums, an entire record collection,” says Nate, “I can kind of tell what kind of people lived here… mostly families.”
The two sleep in what was probably the bedroom of an apartment, their sleeping bags on top of plywood slabs. They chose the third floor because the windows are completely gone, offering the most ventilation, and because it is the safest area to be, in that there is only one way up and down. “If someone comes in we’re going to hear it,” says Dan.
The most obvious inconvenience of living on the top floor, though, is the weather. As adequately as Dan and Nate have patched the roof, it is still winter, and the cold and precipitation can get pretty bad.
“We snuggle,” says Dan when asked about managing the cold, “But it’s pretty much impossible to start moving in the morning.” To get the blood flowing, they do push-ups or sit-ups as they wake up.
Dan and Nate keep their packs, large camping backpacks that hold all of their possessions, hidden during the day up in the “attic,” or the exposed rafters that once held up part of the attic. To reach their things, the guys — both around six feet tall — must stand on a large cabinet and fumble somewhat blindly above them, often breaking loose pieces of drywall, a dangerous game of “dodge-shard” for anyone standing below.
“I’m guessing the building was abandoned about a decade ago,” says Nate, “but it looks like there were squatters here about two years ago — I found some stickers for a hardcore band.”
Dan and Nate don’t adhere much to societal conventions. Take consumption, for example: they don’t really buy anything. They bike, and if they have to take the subway, they get a swipe off someone’s unlimited MetroCard. They are what you would call “freegan” — eating by dumpster diving or waiting at restaurants around closing time to pick up food that would be otherwise disposed of. This can prove tricky, considering they are both vegan. They avoid “sphanging” (asking for spare change on the street), finding it tedious.
There are times, though, that call for, well, alternative measures. Recently “sphanging” with a friend in Soho, Nate decided to switch it up a bit and sell hugs.
“Best hug you’ll ever have!” he yelled, smiling widely and wearing a cardboard sign that read “Hug machine. Completely disease free!” Tourists lined up and Nate made eight dollars in an hour.
Their days, however, are not all about the basics of subsistence. Both Dan and Nate read a lot, mostly nonfiction — autobiographies, history, nature writing, laments against and defenses of capitalism — but neither is opposed to the occasional dip into fiction. Now, along with reading a critique of the modern church, Dan is reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. They have also started volunteering at a Bronx-based organization called Picture the Homeless that is staffed by the homeless or once homeless and works for the rights of those living on the street: fair treatment by police, a revamping of the shelter system and available, affordable and sustainable housing.
Squatting is now mostly associated with the anarchist and punk scene, according to Robert Neuwirth — journalist, community organizer and Columbia journalism professor who has reported on squats in New York City for over a decade, and authored Shadow Cities, a book on squats in the Third World.
“Most squatters in the developed world are middle-class, often educated people squatting for ideological reasons,” Neuwirth says. “It’s done as a statement against gentrification or out of beliefs that housing should be public domain and that unused space is unjustified during a housing crisis.”
During New York City’s early years, however, squatting was a much more mainstream practice. The island of Manhattan was developed from south to north. In the 1800s, squatters made serious use of the extension of English Common Law, which basically states that anyone who improves upon land is entitled to it. It’s called homesteading and the United States passed a “Homesteading Act” in 1862 that allowed anyone to claim up to 160 acres of land. If you cleared the land and worked it for five years, you would receive a legal title from the government. The law is rooted in the assumption that owners have more incentive to improve an environment than transient tenants. It opposes the idea of real estate as a “market,” suggesting instead that property maintenance will build safe communities full of invested individuals. Up until the early 1900s, the areas north of “downtown” Manhattan were full of immigrant and African-American squatter camps that were razed as developers moved northward. The razing was often accompanied by violent struggle.
The 1970s found New York in dire financial straits. Crime was at an all-time high and police corruption rampant; dire financial straits, however, tended to create good conditions for squatting. Building owners in the South Bronx, Harlem, Brooklyn and the Lower East Side abandoned their no-longer-profitable properties, many of them resorting to arson for the insurance money.
The surge of wealth pumped into the city in the 1980s, though, meant skyrocketing rents. Many people who found they could no longer afford the city quickly occupied the buildings that were abandoned in the 70s, thus beginning the “golden age” of New York City squatting. Manhattan’s Lower East Side became the most notorious squatter haven, featuring a preponderance of “rock and roll” squats with a distinct punk aesthetic and penchant for partying. But mostly, the LES homesteaders/squatters were working-class folks working for a safe space to live. Over 70 percent were Puerto Rican, and there were slightly more women than men. The LES homesteaders/squatters had a major hand in reviving and protecting a neighborhood that the rest of New York had essentially left for dead.
“I lived around the corner from the squatters on East 13th,” wrote journalist Luc Sante in a 1995 New York Times editorial, “and in the late 1970s that stretch, between Avenues A and B, was one of the most forbidding streets in the area — an alley of dope storefronts, muggers, rapists and ad hoc garbage dumps. The squatters changed all that, throwing out the drug dealers and chasing away the creeps without any official help. By 1983 or so, the street was reasonably safe.”
Now, New York City is, we’re told, safer than ever and back as the real estate capital of the world. Space is gold, especially in Manhattan. Starting with Mayor Koch, and gaining force with Giuliani, this has meant a serious crackdown on squats and squatters. Since the 1990s, almost all of the major NYC squats have been repossessed and rehabbed for commercial sale, and countless squatters have been evicted, many arrested and jailed.
Mayor Koch started anti-squatter initiatives in the mid- and late-80s, but in 1991, after a firefighter died in a fire allegedly set by a squatter, Mayor Dinkins began the real push to get squatters out — the beginning of the end of the “golden age.” And then there was Giuliani.
“Giuliani carried out paramilitary-style assaults on squats to get squatters out,” says Neuwirth, referring mainly to the summer of 1995 when police in full riot gear arrived in a “tank-like armored vehicle” at two squats on 13th Street and forcibly evicted unarmed squatters, arresting 31. Famously, journalist and activist Brad Will (who was tragically murdered in Oaxaca just this past October) climbed to the squat’s roof, sat in a lotus pose as the wrecking ball swung towards him, and screamed “Fuck Giuliani!” as police arrested him.
Some squats, though, have managed to survive the bloody real estate wars, mostly with the help of the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB), a local tenants’ rights non-profit. The city sold squats, like the famous Loisaida C-Squat and Serenity, to UHAB, who repaired the buildings to meet code, and sold them back to residents (at the symbolic price of $1) as low-income co-operatives. This means that building residents are protected and can be selective about whom they choose to let in, but are not allowed to sell the property to outsiders at market value.
Today, it’s nearly impossible for a squatter to legally obtain a deed to their occupied space in New York City while maintaining outsider status. To acquire a title without legal compensation, what is known as adverse possession, one must prove they have “openly, notoriously and exclusively” held the property (in conflict with the true owner’s interests) for a certain period of time, usually ten years. And while adverse possession is a part of U.S. statutory law, it is in no way acknowledged in New York State or City law. Essentially, for a squatter to get squatter’s rights, the property’s owner — even if it’s the state — must be aware of her presence, acknowledge that she’s not welcome and somehow allow her to stay for ten years, and she has to receive mail there. New York courts have long been wary of the acquisition of title through adverse possession, requiring bibles of evidence of occupancy.
Real estate being as valuable as it is, it’s hard for Dan or Nate, realistically, to picture having the space as their own someday — to not have to sneak in and out — and many still associate squatters with people looking for a free ride or aiding in gentrification.
But Dan and Nate envision the space as more than just a free, albeit chilly, place of residence: they would like to turn it into a community house for the poor. “It would be sort of a critique on the shelter system,” Dan says, “which has so many rules and where homeless people are basically treated like they’re 17 and can’t make their own decisions”.
They would like to it to be a self-help, owner-occupied usufruct. “Through loving each other and encouraging each other as a community, we could ‘rehabilitate’ people. I did it last year in a space that a church gave me. Out of the 25 people who lived there, only two didn’t get off the streets or drop their addiction,” Dan says. “But even those two, I think, gained some kind of tools to learn how to love and respect themselves more. It’s much more free and community oriented. If I had a space…”
Even in the face of their community-building hopes, and desire to help others, Dan and Nate are technically criminals. Considering their situation and its almost certain outcome, it’s hard not to recall Sante, who said: “In destroying the squats, New York is destroying homes, punishing initiative, undoing community improvement, criminalizing hard work, squelching ambition and killing hope and serenity. In other words, it is attacking itself.”