Words: Josh Lefers
 
 
 

I'm not sure when we all become obsessed with squatting. It was well before T-squat sprung into existence. Without getting into a rigorous historical or geographical discussion, there is an academic discussion that could take place about squatting and how it is romanticized.

If this discussion did take place it might look like this.

(Scenario: Two women sit at a table. Both women are dressed as you imagine them now. The women are in the middle of a passionate discussion.)

Woman Two

Yet, according to Kesia Reeve, "Squatting is largely absent from policy and is rarely conceptualized as a problem, as a symptom, or as a social or housing movement."

Women One

In countries and provinces where there is a critical lack of housing, squatting is a standard way of life. It is of little surprise that Johannesburg, for instance, doesn't have a celebrated squatting subculture in the same way that New York does.'

Woman Two

A simple explanation of this, in the case of Johannesburg, is that squatting has developed out of the needs of many, whereas in New York squatting has developed out of the needs of the individual.

(Woman Three unexpectedly walks into the room in red trousers and a baggy t-shirt. Her name is Maria and she is 48 years old and she has just been woken by the fierce passion of the discussion between Woman One and Woman Two.)

Woman Three

Interestingly enough current research illustrates that, in some U.S. regions, the middle-class and the once affluent in the U.S. (think less New York and more Detroit or New Orleans) are now resorting to squatting en masse out of financial circumstance.'

Woman One

The idea of romanticized squatters (who squat as a political and moral subversion of capitalism and social conformity) may be an endangered species.

Woman Two

If the world's bill of good health is measured by squatting as anti-establishment, then it may be that in the next decade we will witness a rapid deterioration in the world's endocrine system.

(Woman One and Woman Three have a friend's birthday to go to and they leave Woman Two to sit at the table and consider the fullness of their wild discussion.)

 
 
 
 
Words: Annie Davis / Images: James Watkins
 
January 26: An historic day. The day T-Squat threw a party so fully sick, geneticists are growing ears on the backs of mice to figure out the exact cause of the shit-hotness that went down. Thanks to Doss Blockos for a genuine truck-load of FREE BEER (yiiiieeaaahhhh!), My Friend the Peacock for the cafe space, Matt Cohen for the tunes, Conrad Bizkak for live artwork (& incidental spray can highs out the back of the squat), Beanz for the BBQ & everyone who came, saw, drank, skateboarded, spray-painted, danced, rolled up, played table tennis, sang, beat-boxed, laughed, cried and ate a fucking sausage.
 
 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
 
words: Bill Cashman / Image: Konstantin Sergeyev
 
 
Still on the line from last issue of T-Squat is C-Squat’s Bill Cashman. He interviews long-time resident, Hassan, who lives in the squat basement. Who’sHassan? Here’s Bill’s introduction:

Hassan's 70, he's a badass, and he rules. He's like the token beatnik barnacle that will never come off, nor do we ever want it to. He was friends with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, John Zorn, John Cale, Angus Maclise and a whole bunch of other people I could name drop. If you ever are ever in the area, come to our stoop and buy Hassan a beer. He will happily tell you crazy stories about driving through the desert with Marilyn Monroe or living in India for three years.

Funny - the first time that me and my friend Jefop came to C-Squat, it was Hassan who brought us in. We couldn't find it and we asked this old Papa Smurf-looking beat where C-Squat was. He said he would take us there if I bought him a beer. I will never forget this moment, because I was sixteen at the time and this was the first beer I ever bought. Didn't get carded. He then walked us about 20 steps to the left and said "here you go!” C-Squat’s Bill Cashman interviews veteran squatter Hassan, who lives in the C-Squat basement, on how C-Squat all began


So what brought you to the C-Squat?

 It was a matter of convenience and of collective need. We needed a place to live, we were all poor and we all pitched in together. C-squat was an abandoned building. No roof, no stairs. I lived around the corner in another abandoned building called Fetus. I had a car then and would take people everywhere.  Some of the hardcore punk anarchists, the wilder, fuck-the-police type kids from Fetus decided to take over C-Squat. Then there were some homeless junkies living here and we had to kick them out. It was quite a process. It went from this sort of this unfortunate shooting gallery to what it is now. This was the beginning of the crack era so heroin wasn't the only problem. These were problems that were in and out of the environment. So we took over the building. It took a few years to overcome the perils of drug use and criminal activity but it was all in good fun.  It’s been a gradual transformation over the course of fifteen or twenty years.

 C-squat is a real phenomenon. You just stay for a few days and keep track of the people that come and go here. You'll see an incredible variety of people that visit. The backdrop for most of it is laughter. There's a lot of laughing going on in this building. That's the truth. I think we've outlived a lot of negatives. Where ever you encounter human beings, you're bound to find some negatives of some sort.

How long have you been squatting for?

I first started squatting when I was about 17 in Portland, Oregon [Hassan is now 70]. My friend, Steve Mork, was one of my great gangster buddies. We used to do a bunch of capers together. There was this old Jewish guy Mr. Mosler, the best baker around, and he bought this building [to establish a bakery]. It was a four storey building with two apartments per floor. So we squatted this building. We used to go in through the skylight at night and steal a couple loaves of bread. Mr. Mosler knew it was us because he would see our footprints in the flour [laughs] It was the best pumpernickel that you ever tasted ! A fair number of the kids that squatted this building were from the East Coast and went to Reed College. Really bright kids...and most of them were Jewish and they loved Mr. Mosler. They were a little fearful of Steve and I because we were known gangsters. Anyway - we developed a circle; a camaraderie.

 This was the beginning of the 'Beat' era, which started in San Francisco in a part of town called North Beach. On Grant Avenue, right off Broadway and Colombus was this five or six-block street called North Beach. Bars, book-shops like City Lights bookstore and Discovery Books. These stores gave jobs to poets like David Meltzer, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. It was this group of totally bohemian gifted people. Jazz was happening everywhere you went. It was in the bars, the coffee galleries. They all had pianos and all the jazz musicians would go there and jam so there was this constant influx. It was a poet's revolution.

Charlie Parker had just died. Dylan Thomas had just died. Walt Whitman just died. James Dean just died. It was the end of this era where the heroes to these poets died, so they wanted to live out the unfulfilled dream of all these wonderful people. Herb Cane coined the term ‘beatnik’ because that was the era of sputnik. He thought all these people were spaced out people so he called us beatniks. Ginsberg emerged.

I was a poet. I set up shop in an alley and I started painting and doing wild paintings in this wall with poems next to them. This is 1957 or 1958. This was before all the hippies, the long hair, the beards. I bought all my clothes at a thrift shop on McAllister Street so I would wear these old fashioned suits, a hat, collarless shirt, and had really long hair. So people were constantly taking pictures of us. Playboy Magazine did a big article where they put a picture of Kirby Doyle and I. There's a book Allen Ginsberg put together called Scenes from the Road where he put a bunch of these pictures together. Kirby Doyle called me one of the dandies of the era. We were all hipsters. Then I made a cape and started wearing a cape all the time, I would sneak around the streets of New York pretending I was THE SHADOW ; Lamont Cranston.

 We began hearing about this really far out music coming out of LA by a guy named Ornette Coleman. He revolutionized the nature of Jazz music in the 50's and 60'. So he's considered an international giant. He wrote a wonderful symphony called "Skies of America" and I still he see him. He lives uptown, I think . He was this black dude from Ft. Worth Texas that played a white plastic saxophone that looked like a toy. No one took him seriously. Often racists from Texas would take him out behind the club and beat him with the sax. Some people paid the price to be "new" and "revolutionary with arts,music, and their lifestyle.

Do most people stay in the squat for long periods of time or do they stay for a little while and then move on?


 I would say the tendency for people to leave is diminishing. The kind of people that live at C now are regular. They're going to stay for awhile. The basement was the kind of place where people could crash. Travellers from Europe who didn't have a place to stay would hear about C Squat and they would come over and crash. It became a sort of tradition to help people with housing. Over time, the coming going of traveller kids has diminished.

 I don't think there's a negative side to letting travellers in but when you are trying to maintain a building you can't have a bunch of people hanging out all the time smoking pot and having a good time when everyone else is working. In the last ten years I have watched C-Squat grow more and more responsible. I think a lot of it has to do with growing up. People work now, they have to pay rent. It’s in limbo right now and it’s almost out of limbo. It’s not a squat, but it’s still called C-Squat because of its history. I don't know much about things going legal, I think some guy bought the building but it’s still a hotbed of absolute genius creativity with so many talented people (in so many weird ways).

Are most squatters there squatting as a kind of social statement or is it more out of necessity?


 I started squatting in New York in the 80's. I started squatting at FETUS. That was a wild scene. There is a park now, where it used to be, across from C-Squat and the coffee shop on 9th & C. People didn't really do heavy drugs there but there were epidemics in New York where C-Squat was rife with it. Squatting became a political thing. The Lower East Side was drug infested and all these people started coming from Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic so you had all these drug gangs. From Avenue A to the East River and 14th St to East Broadway was this really unsafe place. You'd get robbed or mugged so there no yuppies then. In the 40s and 50s this was a really sedate Jewish neighborhood. A lot of people escaping Europe would settle here. Then all these gangsters started moving in and the landlords would become intimidated by the drug gangs and as a result a lot of abandoned buildings popped up. 10th St, 3rd St, C Squat, 7th St, Fetus, Umbrella House. Squatting became a movement. Only adventurously poetic people would wander in. All these anarchists and punk kids started moving in and fixing up the buildings. C had no roof. It had no stairs. It was really rustic. Everyone was poor, but we had spirit.

Do squatters at C-Squat ever get hassled by police or anyone else for squatting?

 It used to be a lot more. The word is out with the police that we are harmless people. They know there's no more hard drugs. So what? People smoke pot. On 9th St, this cop car pulled up to my friend and there were these two lady cops just smoking joints. Ha ha ha! Everyone and everything in this neighborhood has calmed down.

Let's review something about the history. We're looking at an era that spans the Korean War, the beginning and the end of Vietnam, and the end of World War 2. Now we're in Afghanistan and Iraq. We're all living in this age of war. I was nurtured during WW2 and I remember blackouts and sirens at night. The political movement was especially strong in Vietnam. There was no reason to be there. The resistance seemed to be developing politically through activism with the kind of people that would be living in the squats. People like Michael Shenker or Jerry the Peddler.

The nature of activism has changed though. We used to do acts of destruction against property, steal cars, blow up cars. The political climate in the neighborhood of 2010 is a lot tamer. The political climate is different. The same goes for C-Squat.  In the 60s , the revolution era, the movement was very prominent. There was the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, the White Panther party, Iggy Pop, etc. We were involved with hardcore direct action. Yeah, we used to blow shit up, man. I'm not a violent person, I don't get into physical fights but it was all in the name of 'Revolution' not destruction in a hurtful way.

There's still a healthy disregard for our political system and how government has squandered zillions of dollars on war. Now they make war on the citizens of our country. I still feel like I'm living in a sense of war. Since the Reagan era, and the Bush eras, you have these leaders who are into control, who want to control the world. I believe that the general sentiment is not in favor of war. We're trying to make a better world.
 [Getting back to the original question was about police and C-Squat] Oh yeah. That was the question, wasn't it?  As the criminal activity diminished in the LES and at C-Squat, the cops began to see us as a more sedate community. The threat that was presented by the people that lived here got more tame just like everything else. They now basically ignore us. If they see people drinking on the sidewalk, they would pull over and tell them to pour the beer out and tell them to be more discreet. But that’s only if a neighbor calls in and complains. They smile, laugh, and wave when they drive by now.

What about tourists? Anyone ever come by, taking annoying photos?

 There are kids from Europe that come out of curiosity. C-Squat is kind of well known for its punk shows and is popular with the younger kids. I don't want them necessarily take some pictures of me, but they will take photos in their own way. The kids are very sneaky these days.

But it depends. There's the positive tourists and then there's the yuppie tourists that don't really know about C-Squat but they hear about it and find it interesting so they'll take pictures. The bigger picture here is not C-Squat, but the neighborhood. It’s interesting, it’s got this history of weird oddball behavior that housed this bastion of creativity.
How do you feel about the squats going legal here?

 It’s kind of a contradiction. I'm an avowed anarchist and I don't believe in 'property'. Property always ends up over people when property should only serve people. We need homes and we are material beings so we need houses and cars and businesses and governments. But the incorporeal spirit of life pervades everything. Life is a spiritual process, one of transformation, much like the alchemists turning lead into gold.
 I'm not fond of the legalization process [with the squats] because it doesn't work in the interest of human equality. Attachment to property becomes more important than to people.  Acquire property. That's what war is about: the struggle to retain or to acquire property.

Is anyone from the original group of people who started C-Squat still involved with the squat?


I can't say that I've been a constant resident but I'm sort of an honorary constant resident. I travelled, lived in the jungles of Java Indonesia, lived in Turkey, Hong Kong, Singapore, Istanbul, Afghanistan, New Delhi. New Delhi was a very important part of my life because I met my Sufi master there. In Turkey I became involved with the Mevlevi and Baktashi brotherhoods and travelling to India, I met Qadri-Chisti masters who had extraordinary powers, which I witnessed in many instances. I became spellbound by this phenomenon so subsequently I travelled the planet a number of times.

It may seem incongruous to the spiritual aspect of my natural vocation but there is a Sufi axiom which goes sort of like this: "be in the world but not of it".  This is a very succinct kind of a view of the Sufi attitude. It goes with Zen and Buddhism – the fundamental idea of non-attachment to the impermanence of life so that life is basically a spiritual journey. We don't know where we were coming from or where we are going. These are the deep mysteries of existence that are fascinating to me. I have been shown some of the answers.

But I’ve come back to New York, which is sort of my magnetic centre. I'm very fortunate to be here.  I really love the people here. We've gone through a lot. A weird combination of struggle and joy together. Life is a river of experience and a lot of water has gone under this bridge. The sum and total of all this life is very much connected to beauty. We're struggling and working to make our lives more and more beautiful. And it’s working.
 
 
 
 
 
Words: Hannah Dobbz
 
 

Director of the documentary film Shelter: A Squatumentary (featured in T-Squat Issue 5), Hannah Dobbz brings T-Squat her analysis of the resurgence of squatter culture as symptomatic of the U.S. housing crisis

Matt Bruce is a magician. By this I mean that he literally works kids’ parties for money and entertains friends with sorcery in his spare time. His room is bursting with occult paraphernalia and he has countless tricks up his sleeve. But Matt Bruce is no one-trick pony; he knows more than how to manipulate a deck of cards and how to have a quarter crop up behind your ear: Matt Bruce knows how to make rent bills disappear.

Bruce and his friends haven’t paid to live in their bungalow home in Salt Lake City, Utah, in over three years. How do they do it? While most magicians don’t reveal their secrets, Bruce is notably open about his illegal living situation. Squatting is not a new form of rent evasion, but it is an increasingly practiced one —a nd in light of the so-called ‘housing crisis’ of the late 2000s, squatters are increasingly comfortable discussing their lifestyles.

He summed up their ability to maintain the property with the words of a city worker who learned of the squatters a few months after they moved in: “If you don’t say anything, I won’t say anything. You took the eyesore out of the neighborhood.”

Indeed, the rundown property that had once attracted drug addicts and other unseemly types by its ramshackle appearance now glows with life. The mere presence of the new caretakers drove away the seedy elements, and the small gesture of taking the boards off the windows spoke volumes for the mood of the property.

It is for this reason that squatting has become a popular discussion topic in a post–housing-bubble era. With 14 percent of living units in the United States vacant at the end of 2010, many people are questioning the logic of the real estate market, and some are bucking the system by occupying vacant but usable properties. Families and individuals who can no longer afford the high cost of living, then, are able to find homes in houses that are sometimes in better condition than rental properties. And neighbors often turn a blind eye to the illegality of the squatters’ methods since the move-in can actually increase the value of formerly unoccupied properties.

In this way, squatting in the United States is taking on more European overtones. Europe is famous for its squatting history, with its grandiose stories of squatted night clubs in England and squatted castles in Spain. Some countries enjoy what are often called ‘open’ squatting laws, which encourage squatters to openly occupy abandoned buildings. Amsterdam, for example, is known for its comically straight-forward requirement of a chair, a table, and a bed in a squatted building for 48 hours to constitute a legal property transfer. In these situations, neighbors are often supportive. After all, abandoned properties are a symptom of a broken property system. Why not address it?

More recently, some European countries have begun tightening their formerly lax squatting rules, which some read as a slipping away of what was once part of a powerful cultural history. But while a legislative shift is happening now overseas, a cultural shift is beginning here in the States.

Rich countries such as the United States are accustomed to surplus. Just as consumers enjoy a surplus of food, clothes, and plastic trinkets in the U.S., they similarly enjoy a surplus of real estate. Even beyond the housing-bubble burst, developers continue to build new living units despite a surfeit of old ones. This is where the term “housing crisis” is farcical at best and downright inaccurate at worst. The term “crisis” implies a shortage—an idea that Americans are rarely familiar with; instead, the American poor are victimized by a maldistribution of resources.

While there has never been a shortage of space in the United States, Americans have historically deluded themselves into a state of spatial urgency, moving further West and always developing more for fear of a shortage.

The same can be said of the ‘housing crisis’ that began in late 2007: The most famous example of a wide housing gap is that of Miami, Florida, which was supposedly hit hardest by the economic implosion. But Miami had a 10-percent vacancy rate in affordable and public housing even before the alleged crisis. Further, the city had demolished 482 units of public housing, and, despite $8.5 million of city money allocated to the rebuilding of affordable units, the lot remained vacant until it was later offered to developers at no charge.

Such shenanigans inspired the Miami Herald’s ‘House of Lies’ series, which highlights the corruption and incompetency of city politicians with regard to housing, as well as the well-known organized-squatting movement Take Back the Land.

But squatting was not born of the housing bust. Squatting has a long history in the United States, beginning with colonization, extending through Western Expansion land grants and land boom legislation, homesteading, and into modern housing justice movements like that of ACORN and Homes Not Jails. If nothing else, squatters have historically catalyzed property legislation reform by attacking with two prongs: (1) garnering public support by calling attention to the basic right to personal space and shelter, and (2) becoming such a nuisance to property managers, speculators, and law enforcement that legislators are compelled to create other options.  

Unfortunately, little information is broadly available about squatters and squatting. Here and there is mention of them in historical texts, and during the height of the foreclosure crisis articles about down-and-out families cascaded into the news and then quickly evaporated. Perhaps this information firewall is in the nature of American squatting, which remains clandestine. Like the tunnel dwellers of New York City and Las Vegas, squatting movements live underground. And while this invisibility is not unintentional, as squatting is indeed an illicit lifestyle, it is squatters’ invisibility that siphons their power and cripples their political sway.

When squatters and other property outlaws can again unite, organize, and step into the limelight to publicly demand housing justice (as they historically have), we may see surprising changes in the legal framework of our predatory property system. Many revolutions begin underground. But none of them can stay there for long.

Hannah Dobbz is currently researching and writing a book [AK Press] on the history of squatting, land struggles, and property law in the United States. To view her Kickstarter page or to support her work, please visit: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1578702306/the-history-and-future-of-squatting-in-the-us-the