Squatting the Lower East Side

an Interview with Rick Van Savage

by Anders Corr
from Kick It Over #35
P.O. Box 5811
Station A
Toronto, Ontario
Canada M5W 1P2

Anders: Why do you have a right to squat?

Rick: A couple of different things play into it. One is a question of self-determination, being able to determine my own life and environment. The other is looking at how squatting breaks down traditional exploitation of people by landlords. The artificial creation of housing shortages creates homelessness and the need for people in a capitalistic society to work in order to pay rent which keeps the landlords going.

Anders: What is your squat on the Lower East Side like? How did it start?

Rick: It has been squatted for about four years. I don't know how it became Unoccupied but I know that the City went in and tore a hole in the roof. Oftentimes the City will do that to keep people from going in and squatting. In our place they took out the stairwell. If you combine that with junkies ripping off all the plumbing to sell as scrap it was basically just a shell of a building, with whole floors missing. Once there is a hole in the roof the rain comes in and starts to rot out the joists and the whole building can deteriorate. If a developer doesn't buy the building, it will get torn down or just left there.

Anders: They put the hole in the roofs specifically to destroy the building?

Rick: Yes. Either it gets completely renovated or it gets torn down and it is an empty lot. In the South Bronx you see empty lots for blocks and blocks and it is just because they decided to tear down the buildings, or there are buildings that have been there for ten or twenty years abandoned, which often become crack houses or shooting galleries. When the people first moved into this one, there may have been a few people doing drugs in the building, and there were some local teenagers who had pigeon-coops on the roof, which is a popular pastime in New York...

There were only three or four people who first moved in. Each city will be different in terms of squatting and laws. In New York if you can establish residency within thirty days your whole legal standing changes from one of trespassing/breaking and entering to that of an illegal tenant. They then have to go through the courts to evict you. The struggle is to get into a building for thirty days, keep a low profile, and try to receive some mail to the building. That can be difficult because if the Post Office knows it is empty they won't deliver mail. You must try in some way to prove that you have been at that address and after thirty days the City technically has to go through the courts to legally evict you. On a practical level, the City rarely does. They will use the Fire or Health Department to come in and say either this is a condemned building or it is unsanitary, and then they can evict you immediately. A lot of times they don't go through the legal channels to evict you, they use another process. The first people into a building must not only keep a low profile, but must build barricades on the doors and windows, because if the police do find out they will come in and try to throw you out. That is one of the first steps...

You get caught in a position where you are working against the drug-dealers and addicts in the neighbourhood, Drugs are a really serious problem in my neighbourhood. In some sense they have their own community. Being an anarchist, you never go to the police and oftentimes the drug dealers know this so you have to be able to stand up to them without getting yourself shot or what have you. I have seen a whole number of squats that have allowed drugs to be used and eventually get over-run by them. Serious people, intent on improving the building, end up leaving if you don't take a stand right up front against heroin and crack. There are all sorts of horror stories about anarchists being on the top couple of floors and dealers being on the ground level. The anarchists are making too much noise on the top and some guy knocks on the door. You open it and there's a sub-machine gun in your face saying quiet down.

It is really important to establish yourself quickly and get community support, both within the anarchist squatting community as well as in the general community of the neighbourhood. It has reached a point where a lot of people, even the police to some extent, will recognize that if you are trying to do serious work, it is better than having a crackhouse. If you are really trying to work with the homeless people, sometimes they back off and say "We know you're there, but we won't hassle you. Just don't get too out of line." Our building has been there four years. The police have only tried to break in once and that was three years ago. They were knocking down a building near-by and often-times in New York if they are doing construction work nearby, they use the tactic to run a tractor or something into a building that is being squatted and then say it is no longer structurally safe and evict that building.

Anders: Have you ever been involved in the defense of a squat?

Rick: I have been on lots of alerts. There are many false alarms in which you think something is going to happen, that the City is doing something. You go on twenty-four hour alerts and I have been on those in both Germany and New York. Nothing panned out. More often than not it is dealing with drug dealers and addicts, like someone who got kicked out of a squat for using heroin might come back, and out of revenge try to burn down the building. You have arson watches that might go on for a week or two until you think this person has chilled out...

Some of this is specific to New York and how the politics work in New York. It is such a huge city that you can get lost in the cracks of the system, it doesn't even know you are there. It is so large that you will have people within City Departments that sympathize and will feed us information. People also continually do their own research to find out what status buildings are at. There is a whole process that a developer has to go through to do any construction in New York. It is very bureaucratic. If you are keeping track of all the buildings that are squatted, as well as gardens, you can oftentimes catch them as they initiate the bureaucratic process. If you catch them at that point, you are months ahead of them being able to actually come in and do something. You can then do things politically. There are Community Board meetings and sometimes you can have success in that, but oftentimes they are anti-squatter so you lose on any political or reformist tactics...

During the Community Board governance process in which it approves the building being used, you are trying to build up allies, doing door to door canvassing in the neighbourhood, explaining what squatting is, who you are, why you are in that building, and the racial and class mix of people in the building, so people understand that you aren't just there as a crash-pad, this is your home and you are trying to survive and have legitimate reasons for being there. You really have no place else to go. People can be very sympathetic if you sit down and talk to them about what you are doing. You also work with different groups in the neighbourhood who might be sympathetic, doing AIDS work or needle-exchange Groups that officially take distance from us like Habitat for Humanity might have individuals who help us out on another level. If they have extra materials they give them to us. That is a little off the subject in terms of the defense of the squat.

Anders: This is all important. The defense of the squat is just the flashy part.

Rick: The biggest single factor in the ultimate defense of the squat is how much work you are doing on the building. There are people who don't put any work into it. People in the neighbourhood recognize that and they will not come to your defense if you are being thrown-out. If you have been there for a number of years, and you are really trying to incorporate people from the neighbourhood into your squat, and you are not just a bunch of white suburban kids coming in for the summer, they will be much more sympathetic. Some of the squats open their store-fronts and try to develop community spaces to do theatre and education. Neighbours recognize little things like getting windows into all the window-panes of a building, and that can change attitudes. If there is a confrontation, they are much more likely to he sympathetic...

If the City really wants you out, however there is nothing you can do. It is a battle of determination. They have the tools and materials. They can send in SWAT teams. The Fire Department has all the tools it needs to get into any building. In terms of barricades and stuff like that it just raises the stakes. For them to then have to go to extraordinary measures becomes a political headache for them. The City often targets the weakest squats and prevents new squats from forming. It has become much harder in recent years to open new squats because the City is much more on top of things.

Anders: What percentage of people in New York City squats are anarchists?

Rick: I would guess about three quarters of the people identify in some way with anarchism. There is also a whole segment of people that are communist. It is hard to differentiate between who is anarchist and who's communist because of the fuzzy line between the two ideologies. The rest of the people are apolitical. They are either artists and looking for a cheap place to live so they can practice what they believe in, or they are coming from a homeless or addict background and are trying to get their life clean and in order to look for an easy stepping process towards a traditional bourgeois standard of living. There are thousands of heroin and crack addicts who technically squat, but I am not categorizing them as squatters because they don't do anything for the buildings or movement in any way.

Anders: Say you were to include those people as well, what would the percentages be?

Rick: In New York City alone there are 250,000 IV drug users. I don't know what percentage of them live in empty buildings, thousands I would guess. There are approximately five hundred squatters on the Lower East Side. There is a squatting community in the South Bronx, about six buildings, maybe one hundred people. The Lower East Side is more racially mixed, although the majority of people are still white. In the South Bronx it is almost exclusively Latino. There have been squatting attempts in areas that are exclusively Black, and so far it has been difficult to link the different squatting communities into something more cohesive.

Anders: What were your experiences squatting in Europe?

Rick: Politically in Europe the anarchist movement is somewhat distinct from what is known as the autonomous movement. The autonomous movement is sort of anarchist and sort of Marxist. It gets a mixture of everyone from anarchists to Marxist-Leninists who are anti-authoritarian, believe in decentralized cellular structures like affinity groups and building from a grassroots level. Most of the squats I stayed in were autonomous as opposed to anarchist. It is such a fuzzy distinction that from country to country those terms have different meanings.

Anders: What exactly is the autonomous movement?

Rick: The roots of the autonomous movement are in the Italian left from the late sixties and early severities. It was a student labour movement and has taken on different characteristics in different European countries. In Germany it was involved in anti-nuclear stuff in the early eighties, protesting against an airport being built in Frankfurt and a lot of other struggles, like the creation of a black bloc where people wear masks and are in tight formation and willing to stand up to the police.

Anders: Would you say the European squatter movement is growing?

Rick: I would say it is stagnant on one level. In certain ways it is much stronger than in the US. Almost every squat in Europe has its own bar, cafe and infoshop. The squat I lived in had a concert cellar. The way houses are built in Berlin, you would have four or six buildings surrounding a courtyard, and the whole thing would be squatted. You would have a hundred people living in a squatted complex with a courtyard and all this available space. Different cities in Germany are different, Berlin is a unique example compared to Hamburg.

Anders: In Kick It Over #32, Tom Knoche reported on a squatting project in North Camden that was able to obtain legal ownership of the buildings. What has your experience been in this regard?

Rick: In the States if you go legal you become legal owner of the building. Groups like Acorn have squatted in the past and those tenants become owners and then ten years down the road they become landlords and start renting them out. It perpetuates the system that I as an anarchist am fighting against. I know anarchists in Philadelphia have gotten ownership of two of their squats and they are going to put them in a land trust which will hopefully break that cycle of land lord-tenant relations. There is tension within the anarchist community. Some people say don't ever work with the system in any way, shape or form but there is a tremendous amount of security that you get, and then you can act as a base for other squatters.

In the States you are immediately faced with taxes and questions of building inspections and stuff like that. You can gain legal ownership and then they acquire the legal means to find out what the situation inside the building is arid you may lose the building. Once you are legal, you have to legally open it up to people. If you are illegal you are in a somewhat privileged position. You've dispensed with the need to be nice to them at all.

Anders: They can't take away your ownership because you don't own it.

Rick: There is a difference in arguing from a position of being homeless living in a building and being the owner of that building in terms of sympathy in a community. I think it is a mistake to go legal in New York, but there are a lot of people who would disagree with me on that.

Anders: Tell me about the garden actions that have been happening in New York.

Rick: There is a history of squatting gardens as well as houses in New York that goes back twenty-plus years. Out of the first garden that was created a group was formed called the Green Guerrillas which put together seedlings and soil for other people who were squatting gardens. The program became so successful, there are now over seven hundred gardens in New York City that have been squatted.

The City has developed its own program called Green Thumb. If it is City-owned property and is not going to be used for the next year, for no cost they will give you a one year lease of the land and supply you with free tools, wheelbarrows, and fencing. You have to apply and go through a bureaucracy to get that lease. In certain neighbourhoods it is still very easy to get leases and then the City, on some level, helps you out and provides the materials to garden. You need a minimum of eight people that are willing to commit to gardening on that spot. The City gave in and recognized that squatted gardens were catching on. On a more cynical level they tried to gain control over that process. On the Lower East Side for example, where most of the squatted gardens started, there are so many of them that the City refuses to give out any more leases, saying there are too many already, and that they want to develop the other empty lots into buildings even though they won't do any such thing. Those lots will stay empty for another ten or fifteen years because they have already been there for ten or fifteen years. The City is afraid that squatted gardens are too popular. In other areas like the Bronx or Brooklyn it is still fairly easy to get a lease through the city.

Anders: What was the political process that the City went through to try and make squatted gardens legal?

Rick: The City recognized that squatted gardens were catching on and that there were gardens starting to pop up.

Anders: When did the squatted gardens start and what was the City's resistance to them?

Rick: It was the early seventies when the first gardens were created and the City at that time, if it wanted to use the space would just send in bulldozers and create hostility and animosity in the neighbourhood because they had just bulldozed someone's garden. They then began going to all those gardens and saying "We have this legal prograin in which we will help you out, but, it is conditional." It is one year at a time. In the winter-time when things aren't growing they can pull that lease on you and bulldoze and start building something, which they have done. They have made you agree to work with them so that when they decide to move against you, you don't have as strong a leg to stand on because in helping the gardening community they also have the power to divide it. If the whole gardening community rises against them they can pull all the supplies that they have been feeding them.

However, legalization was also a recognition that this is beyond their control. Gardening is still beyond their control because people will resist them. Gardeners are more committed to their gardens than they are to tools or soil they get from the City. When it comes right down to it people know they can get those things from some other place. The City still has a foot in to divide people.

People that have been squatting houses are trying to get more and more active in garden squatting. It has been building important bridges between a primarily Hispanic community which squats gardens and a lot of Whites and Blacks who squat housing. Drawing the connection that houses and gardens are related issues and it is all part of the same squatting process has built a lot of bridges between the Hispanic, White and Black communities.

Anders: You say there are seven hundred gardens. What are the percentage of anarchists doing this?

Rick: That is really difficult because so many people are just looking to grow some vegetables. You get people who are devout Roman-Catholics. I would say the anarchist contingent is small. Gardeners have sympathy for squatting houses on some level, but they are the same people in front of an abortion clinic trying to shut it down. Maybe ten percent are anarchists.

Anders: Tell me about sexism and racism in the anarchist squatting community.

Rick: It is unfortunate that so many squatters dare call themselves anarchist and are completely sexist or racist. It is unbelievable to hear what comes out of someone's mouth that calls themselves an anarchist. It is a real problem because you don't want to deal with the police, but what do you do with a male squatter who rapes a woman squatter? You have two alternatives. One is dealing with the police in a traditional form and the other is a type of vigilantism, which I have seen also. Four or five women go in with baseball bats and jump the guy when he is asleep and beat the shit out of him. Perhaps more of that needs to be done. There are not enough men in the anarchist movement who will stand up to other men and challenge them.

There is sexism on all kinds of levels. You see it in the meetings today with men who dominate the conversations and then the women drift out. Why participate even? The men don't even see it. Recently dealing with security at demonstrations, men weren't taking women seriously in questions of security or dealing with police provocateurs in a demonstration situation just because physical stature is somehow so much more important than other aspects of security. They wrote-off women's input. It is something that needs a lot of work in the anarchist community...

There was a situation in my building in which there was a person who had been a crack-head living there. He had recovered but he was still an alcoholic, so he still had a dependency which he hadn't worked out. He was homeless and we took him into the building. On one level lie was very friendly and did a lot of work on the building, but when he was drunk he was very belligerent. He was seeing a woman in the building and they had broken up and it was very messy. He got jealous when she was with someone else and went in and attacked the other guy and grabbed her by the throat and threatened to kill her. What do we do with this guy? At first she was in a state of shock and didn't say that she wanted him thrown out. If the house could get him to control himself, she was willing to allow him to stay in the building. The house then tried to do that, putting him on a sort of probation, making him commit to see two types of counseling, one for alcohol and another for violence. He reneged on both forms of counseling. She went away and when she got back she realized what had taken place. She began to deal with the trauma and realize how fucked-up the situation was.

A lot of men in the squat didn't realize that whole process, that it takes time to analyze what happened. The very real situation of throwing someone out on the street where they might become homeless and this guy saying, "Go ahead and try to throw me out, I'll take any of you down." He wasn't committed to anarchism in any way. His politics sucked on many levels, but he represents the desperate people in the community you are trying to work with and help. Counseling is the best way to go, but you can't force it. He was becoming more and more belligerent and finally the woman said the house wasn't capable of dealing with this. She knew that he had outstanding warrants, went to the police, described the situation and who he was. They triggered the warrants and agreed not to come into the building but wait until one day he was walking down the street and they grabbed him. Now he is in prison.

What is unfortunate is that she had to resort to that, that we in the squatting community were not able to deal with that situation and make her feel safe. For her to feel unsafe in her own squat is a problem for the squatting community. That she had to resort to the police is a failure for the squatters and anarchists to provide security for their own people. Perhaps even worse is that in prison his misogynist and racist tendencies will only be reinforced. The power trip in prison won't do him any good. He comes out of a background of having spent ten years in prison. He was coming out of that and trying to work through those things and we as a house weren't strong enough to give him a supportive atmosphere. There were too many people in recovery and too many fragile emotional states already. Someone like him was too much for a house to handle. These are things that need to be worked on and they are rarely discussed, for example at these anarchist conferences.

Anders: Can you expand on what you said about the sexism and racism of anarchist squatters themselves?

Rick: There is both sexism and racism among anarchist squatters. Sexism is rampant. There are two types, the blatant macho type of personalities, people that want to "Fuck Shit Up," but are not committed to developing their politics and working towards the liberation of all people. Then there is the subtle type that you find in more educated leftist men. They don't recognize some of the privileges they have and will use academic backgrounds to intimidate women and silence them. That needs to be challenged.

Racism is a whole other ball-game. In New York their are many squats that are multi-racial. In other cities I visited it is primarily a white movement. That is problematic. If people of color don't feel comfortable there is something wrong. We are not doing enough to challenge racism. If we want people to assimilate to our own culture that is a problem Somehow anarchists don't always recognize that anarchism comes out of a European tradition. When we expect people of other cultures to identify with our history it is the same kind of cultural imperialism we hate. They might have their own history, and you can label it as anarchist because there are so many similarities, but for whatever reasons, people of color might not wish to use that word. It is unfortunate in the U.S. that the anarchist scene is segregated and there isn't enough work done between different communities. I am not sure how to bridge that gap. One way is to do concrete anti-racist work such as trying to develop an alternative culture in high schools. Even if you are not a multiracial group you can still build respect by challenging white supremacy. Squats can provide space for Black or Latino groups to do their own things. Even if they aren't squatters but want meeting space, the squats have store-front space they can provide.

Anders: Are their concrete examples of providing space to ethnic groups which you know of?

Rick: We have been trying to do that sort of work. There are some Puerto Rican groups that wanted to teach Puerto Rican history to young children. Unfortunately when they wanted to do this the building wasn't structurally safe enough. To have whole groups of strangers come into a building is also hard. We are still not at that point, it will take us several months before we can do any kind of forums in our particular building, but other buildings do more of that. When you come right down to it there are only two or three buildings that are doing that sort of work. All the other buildings aren't.

In Philadelphia almost every squatter is white. I don't think it's a conscious thing. I don't think they mean to exclude people, but somehow it is a segregated movement. There will be a group like MOVE that will squat a whole building or create a group house and it will be whites and blacks. They will work together on some level, but they aren't living together. It is still too segregated.

Those are tough problems that aren't going to go away overnight. Anarchists have a better conception of fighting racism than they do of fighting sexism. Women anarchists I know have pointed out that, just looking at my own library of books, I have many more books on dealing with racism than I do on dealing with sexism. I have to question myself, why is that so?

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