You Don’t Know Squat


By Zach Schepis

Photo courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives.

Lee “Toasty” Perez only wears one shoe–though he doesn’t seem to mind. Following him along the moonlit streets of Bushwick isn’t too hard. The sole tattered canvas sneaker slaps the pavement while the other foot keeps a silent time.

Before long both feet are off the ground. Rounding the corner of Flushing Avenue, the young man breaks his ambling gait to a trot and launches himself up toward the barred windows of the warehouse. Hoisted on the sill some 10 feet up the wall, Perez pulls his slender build through the steel and spider webs and disappears into the darkness inside.

It’s approaching four in the morning on a Sunday night and the streets are empty. In the silence, a rustling can be heard coming from inside.

The door is painted with a peeling black-and-white ghost of a Native American; the feathers of his headdress burning with silent flames, one wrinkled finger extended in a hush over pursed lips.

Don’t tell, he seems to say. There are secrets inside.

Inside there is a skateboard ramp, a half-pipe of decrepit lumber that looks like a deathtrap. Yet it’s oddly majestic too, a centerpiece towering some 20 feet up the walls. The floor holds a mixture of saw dust and ash, plastic, and stacked easel frames.

A dozen cots and sleeping-bags form a series of neat rows beneath the windows of bars and barbed wire. Some of them rise and fall with the labored breath of sleepers.

“I’ve only been here for a couple months now,” Toasty whispers as he lights the butt of a cigarette. “The place is still kind of new, but there are some people who have been here longer than others.”

The abandoned warehouse is known by its residents as “The Danger House”. Its exact address kept secret by the artists and the drifters, by the tight community that has sprung up and out of the rubble.

Of the dozen or so occupants typically inhabiting the space at a given time, the mix is all ages. Teenage runaways, painters looking to share a collective, and sometimes just those simply “passing through,” all converge under one roof.

There are other squats like it nearby. Perez visited some of them, though he says Danger House is the most accommodating so far. It’s all about the people you choose to surround yourself with, especially when working towards creating something together.

Squatting–a term best defined as settling or occupying a previously unoccupied territory without any title, right, or rent–is an ongoing phenomenon that’s long existed. There were lots of squats during the Hoover administration, back when the Great Depression was still in full, ravaging swing.

One of the country’s largest “Hoovervilles” (collectives of unemployed and disinherited squatters) sprang out of Central Park. Among an assortment of nicknames, it became known as the “Forgotten Man’s Gulch.” The squatters assembled with such conviction and numbers that the Gulch soon became a tourist attraction. The out-of-work tightrope walker Ralph Redfield used to perform his acts there.

Locally, the history of squatting dates back before Central Park was even a park. Down on East 10th Street, a series of lean-twos, ramshackle huts, and collapsing shanties made up the grounds of squatter villages with names like “Pigtown” and “Hard Lucksville”. Rag pickers, bone boilers, and soap makers ejected from the general population, came together amidst the stench of their work to stave off cold and hunger.

NYC grew tired with what they deemed to be little more than blemishes, and in 1855 the City Inspector ordered their eviction.

Where were hundreds of the homeless (and the pigs for that matter) supposed to go?

The question can too quickly become a receding echo, sinking forever into the tumultuous waters of history and remembrance.

But the memories are instead preserved. They are emblazoned upon the walls in a hanging black-and-white reminder. Photographs of Hoovervilles, snippets from the Times detailing the evictions, and other primary sources serve as main exhibits in the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space (MoRUS).

These old relics of yesteryear tell just the beginning of the local squatter’s tale.

The location of MoRUS is, in and of itself, an exhibit of its own history. Located in the heart of the Lower East Side’s (LES) Alphabet City, the museum was once one of the city’s most notorious squats in the late ‘80s. Back then it was known as C-Squat–a legendary punk house that was home to members of several bands. The original basement (sleeping behind the museum’s current basement walls) hosted a half pipe for skaters and weekly punk rock shows.

C-Squat also welcomed a diverse variety of artists and activists throughout the years. The storied touch of their lives resonates through the graffiti tagging the buildings walls; some of it profound, some revolutionary, some of it lighthearted and comedic.

C-Squat (and the eventual MoRUS) came very close to having the proverbial rug snatched out from under them. In 2002, the Giuliani administration granted 11 organized squats on the LES, including C-Squat, a relationship with Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB) in order to sustain the building’s future.

“The residents here had to put up a new frame outside to signal the change,” says Laurie Mitelman, one of MoRUS’ founders. “So they all decided to pee on it together.”

Others were not so lucky.

Mitelman came to NYC almost a decade ago–a biking enthusiast turned activist by the city’s policy towards bicyclists. She soon found herself immersed in the world of community gardening, what she believes to be “another form of squatting.”

Many of her activist friends were involved in squatters’ rights, and before long she began to dive into their history. She listened closely to the stories of older residents who witnessed the transformation of the neighborhood.

“I know a lot of people who used to squat in what have, ultimately, become condos and other commercial establishments,” Mitelman tells BTR. “I think it’s safe to say they’re not too happy with the turn that the LES has taken.”

Stepping back into the ‘70s, a time-travelling wayfarer would have a tough time recognizing the LES. The streets were barren, filled with garbage and debris. Abandoned lots accumulated waste while tenements and other buildings loomed empty. Drug dealers and crime soon took to these shadows, and the neighborhood became a dangerous place to visit.

And then the squatters arrived.

By the ‘80s and ‘90s, squatters had already occupied over 30 abandoned buildings. There were over 500 vacant lots. Although many sought affordable housing, a considerable number of these squats existed to support growing artistic communities, like C-Squat.

Dos Blockos was a prime example. Here’s a building that was never officially owned by the city, but rather passed along from bank to bank after a series of corruption scandals. By the ‘90s the building was recognized for its diversity of residents; a social experiment of sorts that brought together people from every continent. The squat had a stage in the front space where residents hosted a wide array of shows.

A series of black-and-white photographs in MoRUS commemorates the space. Many of these are not so hopeful. A police helicopter circles the building, an officer leaning out of the bay door with a megaphone in hand. Riot police circling the building and closing off all side streets.

The address is now a commercial apartment building.

The story is one of many defeats chronicled in the museum. Demonstrations for affordable housing give way to picketed “Double-Crossed Plans,” photographs of riot squads assaulting protestors during the Tomkins Square Park Riots.

“Were the squatters breaking the law?” asks Mitelman. “Yes, but what do you call letting historic structures disintegrate to dust while hundreds of the homeless roam the streets?”

Try all it might to paint a picture of eternal protest, MoRUS reveals the shifting character of the LES. While the photos bleed by the people become whiter, the reclaimed spaces diminish from buildings to gardens, from street protests to sidewalk demonstrations.

But the fight continues, and scatters beauty everywhere in its wake. The hundreds of abandoned lots were converted from junkyards to community gardens. Museum artifacts, like an egg carton of seed bombs ($12 a dozen!) document the metamorphosis. They were designed to be thrown into fenced-off vacant lots for guerilla greening. They accompany photos from the campaign that saved scores of gardens from Giuliani’s bulldozers.

“It reminds me of the famous picture of Tiananmen Square,” says Mitelman. “Except instead of a human standing in front of the tank, it’s a tree.”

She remains hopeful that these community living spaces can persevere despite all that is done to eradicate them.

Across the East River, every morning in Bushwick, the residents of the Danger House wake together and take to their easels to paint before the rising sun. It’s a morning ritual they’ve been practicing together since the space first formed, and there’s always another sunrise.


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