Homesteading the Lower East Side
A Review of Amy Starecheski, Ours to Lose
Amy Starecheski, Ours to Lose: When Squatters Became Homeowners in New York City (University of Chicago Press, 2016)
The Lower East Side has long been an object of fascination for those who study New York. It has been a location for bohemia, from the early 20th century to the Beats and punks; waves of immigration from Europe and migrations from Puerto Rico; and, most recently, a focus for the dynamics of urban housing, real estate speculation, and gentrification. Amy Starecheski’s Ours to Lose looks at the intersection of these topics in the squatting movement that has flourished there since the 1980s. To the lore of squatting — romantic tales of setting up home in abandoned buildings — Starecheski adds extended oral histories with key participants in the movement, as well as a deep investigation of the legal and financial details of converting abandoned buildings into communally owned ones. Homesteading (as many squatters prefer to call their acts of staying in place) remade twelve buildings in the far east side of this neighborhood huddled in the blocks around Avenue C. It was hardly a revolution. And yet those buildings, and the people who made them a home, are a testament to fortitude and embattlement in a rapidly changing city.
Starecheski begins with the disentanglement of the city from its role as the landlord-of-last-resort in the 1980s. From a peak of overseeing 10,000 tax-delinquent buildings, the city had only 159 in 2009. Many of the buildings went to private developers, supported by new models of financialization, as neo-liberal policies gained momentum in the 1990s. Squatters contributed to these changes, initially by finding value in these buildings and in neglected areas of the city. In the process, they often helped to disrupt the drug trade and its accompanying violence. Squatters were a diverse bunch—hippies, drug addicts, yippies, European activists, punk rockers, and the homeless. Occasionally one group might dominate a building — punk rockers migrated to C-Squat at 155 Avenue C, and artists to Bullet Space at 292 3rd St. — but, more often, buildings hosted a transient bunch of people rather than an intentional collective. Development pressures mounted, prodding residents of five buildings to initiate “adverse possession” legal proceedings, which required squatters to demonstrate the continuous possession over ten years that made them deserving of ownership. Surprisingly, they won — and then lost on appeal. The legal battle spurred the city to active intervention by the city, and forcible evictions of those buildings took place in the mid-1990s. Growing media attention to this underdog story, in a part of town romanticized by the Broadway musical Rent, then pushed the city to negotiate with the remaining squatters. Thus began a decades-long process of converting eleven buildings to collective ownership; some of these conversions are ongoing.
Starecheski conveys these details through discussions of value: what buildings meant to residents; how they calculated physical, political, and bureaucratic labor; and how notions of time and age changed, as the past became both necessary to legalization and to ideas of security, ownership, and inheritance. As an anthropologist and expert in oral history (she is the co-director of the masters in Oral History at Columbia University), Starecheski utilizes extensive interviews to narrate multiple interpretations and meanings for the events, movements, and spaces she is scrutinizing. This requires juggling multiple methodologies as well. In the introduction, she explicates the intersection of ethnography, oral history, and archival research that she employs to tease out these stories. She distinguishes oral history from other kinds of evidence partly by its endpoint in the archives: these interviews are public documents that narrate a broader biography. The interviewees also had the opportunity to review the transcripts and alter them. But oral history also shapes how she tells the story. Personal anecdotes sit next to theoretical digressions. Starecheski includes long passages from interviews that incorporate her own questions and reactions, making the shared nature of description and interpretation visible. The result is compelling and also clunky — part of the point in a book where real lives and messy stories sit alongside policy, law, and theory. The intention is to bridge structure and agency and on balance, the method makes sense of the stories and forces of this eclectic and many-threaded movement.
Ours to Lose adds a welcome perspective to the much-studied Lower East Side by moving beyond totalizing revanchist views about gentrification to highlight the experiential, the marginal, and the process of change. There’s loss — so few people remain from the 1980s to now — but there’s also bits of persistence, and, even more, a depth of reflection that makes the neighborhood real.
Julia Foulkes is Professor of History at the New School and the author of A Place For Us: “West Side Story” and New York (University of Chicago Press, 2016).