DW Gibson, author of The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the Twenty-First Century, has a new project.
"Jerry the Peddler" is a documentary about a locally legendary Lower East Side squatter--and about an outlaw urban lifestyle that is rapidly vanishing. Visit Seed & Spark to find out more, and consider sending in funds to help complete the film.
I talked with DW about squatting in New York.
Q: How do you see squatting as "a critical challenge to our prevailing interpretation of 'The American Dream'"?
A: By and large, the American Dream is defined by property ownership. It carries all kinds of connotations with it but at its core it’s about having a place of your own for you and your family to be comfortable, and in America that means owning a home. But there are two other major elements of the American psyche that can be found in the world of squatting: hard work and personal liberty.
I don’t think most people understand that squatting, by and large, is about taking care of a building because no one else would do so. It’s about stewardship and making something out of nothing. And it’s about sharing space instead of obsessing over owning it. At first glance this last point is very un-American but when you think about it we actually have a substantial capacity to share space, as evidenced in our world renowned National Parks system. Those parks are our cathedrals and they are shared among us all. So we do know how to get away from our obsession with private property — or at least balance it with other aspirations. And squatting has a lot to say about this part of our collective character.
Q: What elements does a city need to make space for squatting and for people like Jerry?
A: There are still so many distressed and abandoned properties in NYC. Why not create a system — even if it has to be a lottery — where New Yorkers who do not have the money to buy property still have the opportunity to earn a place to live through stewardship of buildings? Let people with skills in carpentry and electric work and plumbing — or those who desire to acquire those skills — earn their homes. There are so many non-profits that could help organize and manage such a program (e.g. UHAB) with public — and perhaps private — resources.
Q: When the city government, in collusion with developers and business, wants to gentrify a neighborhood, one of the first things they do is to raid the squats. The East Village of the 1990s is a famous example, but we saw this also in Gowanus in more recent years, at the Bat Cave. How does squatting pose a roadblock to gentrification?
A: Squatting poses a roadblock to gentrification because a lot of developers (read as hardcore capitalists) are terrified by the idea of squatting. It completely undercuts their approach to commodifying shelter. It would be interesting to see what would happen if the city embraced squats (and here I specifically mean buildings maintained and repaired that would have otherwise fallen into disrepair) instead of running squatters out. Let’s remember that squatters are plumbers and electricians and woodworkers — they are stewards, the people who have put in sweat equity to keep a building standing and to cultivate community.
By embracing existing squats in any given neighborhood the city could *preserve existing affordable housing* instead of bending over backwards to try to get developers to add scant affordable housing to new projects. Let the developers' new projects become integrated into neighborhoods that already have strong squatting traditions. That would absolutely create dynamic neighborhoods and I guarantee you that the upper class home buyers in New York, ready to drop a million bones, would, in their own way, cherish the romance of co-existing with squats. That’s the kind of proximity to “cool” that all millionaires are pursuing when they buy up homes in places like Bushwick and East New York.
Photo: John Penley
Q: Back in the 1990s, when Giuliani attacked the squats by sending his NYPD through the East Village in an armored vehicle from the Korean War, New York magazine said, “The East Village squatters are New York’s last true bohemians. And they’re in serious danger of extinction.” What's your take on that quote? Were they the city's last bohemians? And how extinct have they become?
A: When we talk about squatters we’re talking about a wide range of communities and politics: anarchists, communists, libertarians, etc. I think that’s important to recognize. That said, the practice of squatting does indicate a revolutionary view in an American context because it rejects the idea of commodifying land. Which, again, is the foundation of the American Dream. We built — stole — this country on the idea of commodifying land.
Squatters don’t see it that way. Squatters see land as something to care for and a place to build and maintain shelter. So in that sense, squatters do represent the city’s last bohemians. Squatters are working outside the context of the singular force driving the city: commodification — and not just land but intellect and art and trade skills. Squatters are willing to live in a world not governed by legal tender, but by how much work you are able and willing to put in to any given task and the pride therein. That’s impressive--and in 2016 that’s definitely bohemian.
Q: What does it say about the city that squatting was once possible and today it's not so much?
A: Squatting is still possible in New York, though increasingly rare. People do still open buildings, but the chances to do so are, indeed, quickly vanishing. This speaks to New York's place in the international real estate market and our priorities as a city. We have made our commitments. And those commitments have been made to the international real estate market, not to New Yorkers.
The city values the people who bring money to the city over the people who bring life and energy to the city. Those priorities have to change if New York is to remain interesting and invigorating and a hotbed for intellectual and artistic output. As it is now, we’re becoming a city much less likely to make art and much more of a place to buy art.