The Squatters of East 13th Street

The struggles of the individuals referred to as 'squatters' are a fascinating and often forgotten chapter in the story of the gentrification of New York's East Village. Although less notorious than the Tompkins Park riots of the mid 1980s, the conflicts that occurred a decade later within a cluster of abandoned buildings on East 13th Street are no less significant with regards to questions of social protest, governmental powers and tenant rights.

Squatters have been a significant presence in and around the East Village since the 1970s when many landlords chose to forfeit their properties to the city after failing to pay property taxes. Many of these vacant buildings were immediately claimed by gangs, drug dealers and users, and even exploited for insurance fraud.1 In this period of social and economic decline, “the East Village was burning and crumbling, the victim of poverty, political neglect, and rogue landlords trying to collect insurance dollars through arson.”2 Squatters moved into these abandoned buildings and established households and communities that they managed for many years. The squatters represented a wide range of backgrounds and philosophies, and they were strongly motivated and well-organized, often working to improve the state of their immediate physical and social environments. Many squatters spent considerable amounts of time and money making repairs and improvements and even arranged for plumbing and electric services. Authorities tended to turn a blind eye to the squatters activities because they improved upon the abandoned buildings and were preferable to the criminals who attempted to occupy the space.

Beginning in the 1980s, however, as real estate prices began to rise, authorities began to view squatters as an obstacle to development. In the 1990s, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (DHPD), under the direction of the Giuliani administration, began the systematic clearing of squatters from city owned buildings. In July 1994, the DHPD, working with the Lower East Side Housing Coalition, turned their focus to five city-owned buildings on East 13th Street between Avenue A and Avenue B. Building numbers 535, 537, 539, 541 and 545 were all put on a list for conversion into low-income housing using $1.5 million in Federal money.3 Ironically, the DHPD considered the squatters ineligible to apply for the new low-income housing and they were ordered to evacuate. The squatters immediately protested the city's actions and enjoyed some degree of support from other citizens. Supporters viewed the squatters as a desirable a presence and viewed the events as unfair treatment of homeless people in the name of gentrification. One prominent supporter was State Supreme Court Judge Elliot Wilk who issued a restraining order against the city, preventing it from taking any further action. Said Judge Wilk with considerable sarcasm, the city wanted to, “take these people out of their homes and make them homeless so you can put other homeless people in after you rehab the buildings.”4

On May 30, 1995, "hundreds of police officers in riot gear” accompanied with “submachine guns, helicopters and a tank-like armored vehicle" removed squatters from buildings 545 and 541. A total of 31 people were arrested under charges of disorderly conduct, obstructing law enforcement and resisting arrest.5 While the squatters had erected barricades of old furniture, appliances and trash cans, they ultimately yielded peacefully. Defending the eviction, Mayor Giuliani stated "The fact is you can't occupy city buildings and not pay rent, [and] have them in the conditions they were in, which were dangerous."6 On July 4, a group of squatters attempted to reclaim the building at 541 E. 13th Street. The police arrested 15 people, and many squatters reported being beaten by police. In addition, some bystanders also reported being assaulted by officers who ignored attempts to explain their presence.7 One such bystander, an NYU college student named Douglas Snyder claimed to have been watching the Fourth of July fireworks with his friends on the roof of a nearby building when he was attacked by the police. According to Snyder, the police beat him and pointed a gun in his face before arresting him.8

Assisted by attorney Stanley Cohen, the squatters acted to claim a legal right to their buildings based on the doctrine 'adverse possession' and were able to win an injunction against further evictions. According to adverse possession, a person is entitled to keep another person's property if they maintain “continuous and open control” over it for at least 10 years.9 The squatters' success was short lived however, and on August 8, 1996, the injunction against the city was reversed by the Appellate court on the rationale that, “the petitioners are not likely to prove ten years of actual, continuous, open and notorious possession of the subject building between 1984 and 1994.” In the early morning hours of August 13th, police moved in, once again accompanied by helicopters, and cleared out approximately 80 squatters from buildings 535, 537 and 539. In anticipation of a violent confrontation, the city confined media trucks to a “protective pen” on neighboring 12th Street.10 According to the New York Times, squatters and other locals seemed genuinely surprised. One squatter stated, “There must be some misunderstanding. I don't believe the city would come into these buildings with families and children with previous notice and say, 'You have to get out of the building now because we are going to renovate it.'”11 The following day, approximately 40 people marched to Tompkins Square Park to protest the city's actions against squatters, while two individuals attempted unsuccessfully to reoccupy a former squat on 10th Street that had been cleared two years before. In total, 25 people were arrested in during the course of these incidents.12

Despite the tendency for many journalists and academics to refer to squatting as a 'movement,' squatting meant different things to different people. To some squatters, the political dimension of their activities was very clear. One young man named Dave Lawrence –clearly influenced by Marx– explained that the meaning of property was at the heart of the city's actions, “Even 600 years ago in England, the serfs had some right to their land. Now people are so brainwashed, they've become wage slaves who aren't taking responsibility for their own lives.”13 To other squatters, however, the meaning of their actions remained less sharply defined. Even some of those seen as leaders acted unsure at times. When interviewed, squatter Peter Spagnuolo replied, “Is it really a movement? Or is it just a lot of motion? I'm not sure.”14 Between 1989 and April 1999, New York City spent millions of dollars trying to evict squatters from the East Village and Lower East Side. In an ironic twist of history, in 2002 the city turned over 11 buildings in the East Village to long-term squatters.15

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