Squatters of the Lower East Side

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
Three years after moving to New York City, Maggie Wrigley found herself on the edge of homelessness. It was 1987. She and her boyfriend at the time had been living in a warehouse in Brooklyn, but their landlord was shady and they didn’t trust him.

Maggie Wrigley:
We weren’t going to stay and pay him all this money and he got kind of crazy and violent. We didn’t really know where we were going to go.

Roman Mars:
Around that time, they heard about an abandoned tenement building on the Lower East Side. It was owned by the city, but it had been left empty and unmaintained. A friend told them a group of squatters had taken it over and started to fix it up. It was a place they could live without paying rent to a landlord.

Maggie Wrigley:
He said, “There’s an open space if you want to come. It’s rough. You’ve got to go through these meetings to get in. They got to approve you. It’s a pain in the ass.” We were like, “We need a place to go.”

Roman Mars:
So Wrigley and her boyfriend packed up their belongings and drove their old car from Brooklyn into Manhattan.

Maggie Wrigley:
In fact, the day that we drove here to move in, our axle broke and the car just fell apart literally. It’s like right outside the front door. It was like, okay yeah, so we moved in.

Delaney Hall:
The building was a four-story structure with mostly boarded-up windows.

Roman Mars:
That’s producer Delaney Hall.

Delaney Hall:
Maggie and her boyfriend discovered that when their friend said the building was rough, he wasn’t kidding.

Roman Mars:
The building was full of rubble. Some of the walls were rotten and falling down. There wasn’t any running water.

Maggie Wrigley:
You’ve got to open a hydrant with a wrench and then fill up these water buckets and carry them back into the house. It wasn’t fun.

Delaney Hall:
And it was also winter time when Wrigley moved in.

Maggie Wrigley:
My dog’s bowl would freeze, my shampoo would freeze, everything would freeze in the house. The toilet would freeze. It was like living in a refrigerator.

Roman Mars:
It wasn’t just the building that was falling down. The whole Lower East Side, which today is filled with expensive boutiques and high-end condos was struggling in the 1980s.

Maggie Wrigley:
It was pretty dire. I mean, it was a broken, brutal neighborhood. You sort of forget how astonishingly derelict it was.

Delaney Hall:
There were empty lots filled with trash and falling down buildings everywhere. In fact, Wrigley’s building wasn’t the only property in the neighborhood that had been taken over by squatters. By the late 1980s, squatters would come to occupy more than a dozen old tenements on the Lower East Side.

Maggie Wrigley:
All the misfits and the outcasts and the people that didn’t have any other place to go could come here and make a community.

Roman Mars:
And these misfits and outcasts would eventually manage to do something kind of incredible. They’d resist eviction by the city for almost two decades, holding onto many of the buildings as the neighborhood around them rapidly gentrified and as the properties grew more and more valuable and as the city tried harder and harder to kick them out. To understand why there were so many abandoned buildings in New York City in the 1980s, you need to understand how a usable building can become economically worthless.

Delaney Hall:
In the 1960s and 70s, New York City began hollowing out. The city lost many of its manufacturing jobs and people with means started moving to the suburbs. In many neighborhoods, like the Lower East Side, property values started to slide.

Dr. Amy Starecheski:
When landlords couldn’t make a profit anymore by renting out their buildings in low-income neighborhoods to low-income tenants, they would start what’s called milking them.

Roman Mars:
This is Dr. Amy Starecheski. She’s an anthropologist and an oral historian and she’s conducted dozens of interviews with the Lower East Side squatters, some of which you’ll hear in this story.

Delaney Hall:
Starecheski says that when landlords “milked their buildings”, they’d do all they could to extract maximum profit from them.

Dr. Amy Starecheski:
They were trying to continue to collect rents but increase their profits by not spending any money on the building. First they would stop providing services, heat, hot water, stop making repairs. They would also stop paying taxes.

Delaney Hall:
The landlords would basically make a financial calculation. When the money coming in from rents wasn’t enough to cover the cost of a mortgage or property taxes, some landlords would just walk away. They’d stop maintaining the building and stopped paying the taxes they owed. When that happened, the city could take possession of the building. As property values in New York city tanked, and as more and more landlords walked away from their buildings, the city ended up owning tens of thousands of properties-

Dr. Amy Starecheski:
That were in poor condition, full of poor people and which hadn’t been taken care of properly for a long time.

Roman Mars:
The city government wasn’t in a good position to take care of these buildings either. It was in the middle of an economic crisis and the government had started cutting off services to some parts of the city. It was an intentional strategy. They called it ‘planned shrinkage’.

Dr. Amy Starecheski:
What that meant in practice was closing fire stations in poor neighborhoods, withdrawing services, not making repairs on public infrastructure, so neighborhoods like the Lower East Side, like the South Bronx, ended up largely depopulated and just full of abandoned and burnt out buildings and vacant lots.

Delaney Hall:
All of which meant terrible housing conditions for the people that remained and lots of opportunities for squatters.

Peter Spagnuolo:
The freedom of squatting also meant that you got people who are sort of already rolling and tumbling through American life. They were people who had kind of come loose in some way or another.

Roman Mars:
Peter Spagnuolo is a poet who moved into one of the Lower East Side squats in 1988. The building he lived in was filled with artists, punks, transients, activists, and displaced locals.

Delaney Hall:
There were also a fair number of squatters with mental health issues and addiction problems. People who weren’t able to hold down regular jobs or make monthly rent payments for one reason or another.

Peter Spagnuolo:
It was often hard to tell the difference between people like is this person actually a psychotic on their own or are they just a little eccentric because they’ve been pissing in a bucket for five years and have no windows on their rooms and it’s January in New York.

Roman Mars:
The squatters set about fixing up their decrepit buildings, clearing rubble, building stairs, reinforcing walls, and replacing windows. They illegally tapped into the city’s electric grid and water system.

Maggie Wrigley:
Everybody worked together.

Delaney Hall:
Maggie Wrigley, again.

Maggie Wrigley:
I mean, I built this house. I raised my floors, I wired electrical.

Roman Mars:
People built out their spaces in highly personalized ways. One guy’s apartment was furnished with cabinets salvaged from an old Pan Am airplane. One apartment was done all in shades of purple with purple stained oak floors. They built big open spaces for art galleries and punk shows. For a lot of people, it was thrilling to live in a place that allowed for so much freedom.

Delaney Hall:
Many of the squatters saw themselves as activists for cheap or free housing in a neighborhood that was plagued by homelessness.

Peter Spagnuolo:
You saw it everywhere you went in New York City, every neighborhood. It was especially true on the Lower East Side in the neighborhood, you know, East of Tompkins Square, North of Tompkins Square.

Roman Mars:
Spagnuolo and some of his friends would make brochures and go hand them out to homeless people in Tompkins Square Park.

Peter Spagnuolo:
The brochure was basically like ‘you don’t have to live like this’. Within two or three blocks of this park are dozens and dozens of abandoned buildings. Get together with your other folks who are living like you are and go take a building.

Delaney Hall:
From the early to mid 80s, the squatters didn’t face much active resistance from the city. From time to time, city officials would come by and brick up their windows and doors, but the squatters would just smash through the bricks.

Peter Spagnuolo:
I frankly thought that as long as the economy of New York remained kind of iffy or dodgy, we would be left alone. If the economic cycle started to go back into a cycle of investment, re-investment in the city, I figured we were probably screwed.

Delaney Hall:
When the squatters took over the buildings on the Lower East Side, they were tapping into a long American tradition of laying claim to land by occupying and developing it.

Roman Mars:
In 1862, the federal government was trying to encourage westward expansion and settlement, so Congress passed the Homestead Act. It opened up millions of acres of land in the American West to settlers.

Delaney Hall:
If the settlers farmed the land and improved it, then after five years they could file for a deed from the government and take legal ownership, at least legal in the eyes of the US Government, not necessarily the native peoples who lived on the land for thousands of years.

Roman Mars:
By the 1960s and 70s, the idea of urban homesteading had taken hold in cities. Local governments would offer cheap or free houses to low income residents provided they worked on the buildings and brought them up to code. This was known as ‘sweat equity’.

Delaney Hall:
Some of the squatters in New York basically saw themselves as providing a kind of sweat equity, even if it wasn’t under any officially sanctioned program. Many squatters may have lived outside the mainstream, but in some ways they were tapping into mainstream American values that go way back in history.

Dr. Amy Starecheski:
Values of self-sufficiency, entrepreneurialism pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, individual responsibility, so squatting fits in with that story, too.

Roman Mars:
But the city government didn’t necessarily see it that way and as time went on, the squatter’s renegade methods would draw more critical attention in a city that was rapidly gentrifying.

Delaney Hall:
By the late 1980s, New York City had turned a corner and was gradually starting to come out of a long economic slump. People were moving back into the city, real estate prices were a once again starting to climb, and the city was beginning to reinvest in neighborhoods it had long neglected. The issues of homelessness and housing on the Lower East Side were becoming more and more tense. Both squatters and homeless people felt like they had to fight to hang on to whatever spaces they had claimed.

Squatter:
“Do no try to kick the homeless out of the park because if you do, you got a war on your hands, sir.”

Roman Mars:
A lot of the tension focused on Tompkins Square Park on the Lower East Side. The park was close to many of the squats and was the place where Spagnuolo had passed out his pro squatting pamphlets to homeless people.

Delaney Hall:
In the summer of 1988, the New York Parks Department implemented a 1:00am curfew at the park. They were hoping to reduce the number of people living and sleeping there. The curfew sparked protests, which turned into riots. Many squatters were part of the altercations.

Eyewitness:
“A rubber ball was thrown and hit one of the cops in the head. Photographers being pushed by police. Now there’s some wrestling going on…”

Dr. Amy Starecheski:
The Tompkins Square Park riots were a turning point in the relationship between squatters and the city that brought a lot of the tensions around gentrification and displacement and class in the neighborhood to a head.

Roman Mars:
More than ever, the city wanted the squatters out of the neighborhood. Local politicians and even some other affordable housing activists accused the squatters of not playing by the rules and of occupying buildings that were badly needed by other low income residents who had deeper roots in the neighborhood.

Antonio Pagán:
“Hundreds and hundreds of our families are living doubled up, tripled up and sometimes quadrupled up in substandard housing, while these yuppie squatters are stealing from the poor, living rent and tax free.”

Roman Mars:
This is an old interview from WNYC of a controversial city counselor named Antonio Pagán, who represented the Lower East Side. He was a housing developer turned politician, and he emerged as a particularly fierce critic of this squatters.

Antonio Pagán:
“They’re standing in the way of the development of our community by the community.”

Delaney Hall:
As criticism mounted, the city began working harder to evict the squatters and in response, the squatters began devising creative ways to resist eviction. Here’s Wrigley again.

Maggie Wrigley:
We had barricades in the house. I mean, that was the mentality that we were living with. We always had signs – you can’t let anyone in the house, no HPD, no fire, no Con Ed, no nothing. That was one of the things that came out of that period was this real sort of siege mentality.

Delaney Hall:
When the police did show up, the squatters had developed a plan for how to quickly mobilize: the eviction watch.

Peter Spagnuolo:
The eviction watch was an organization of squatters throughout the neighborhood.

Delaney Hall:
Here’s Peter Spagnuolo.

Peter Spagnuolo:
Having your name on this telephone tree meant that in the event you were called, you would come to a squat to do what you could to oppose an eviction.

Roman Mars:
Squatters would physically block police from entering the building. They’d link arms and stand in front of the door.

Delaney Hall:
Sometimes they’d defend the buildings from the inside throwing paint and garbage down on the police or buckets of urine. Sometimes they’d hide inside so that cops couldn’t clear the building.

Dr. Amy Starecheski:
They would have little secret compartments and hiding places to go and physically occupying the building was always the best strategy. The city was always very quick and eager to demolish a squat.

Roman Mars:
But they couldn’t demolish a squat with people inside.

Dr. Amy Starecheski:
It would at least slow things down.

Delaney Hall:
The squatters weren’t just fighting the city in the streets. They also began devising a legal strategy.

Peter Spagnuolo:
We had developed among ourselves the idea of adverse possession. It’s a legal theory. It’s something you can use.

Roman Mars:
Squatters love ‘adverse possession law’.

Delaney Hall:
The details of the law vary state by state. In New York, it says that if you occupy a piece of property for 10 years, and the legal owner doesn’t force you out, you can claim the legal title.

Dr. Amy Starecheski:
Adverse possession is an interesting law because it seems to destabilize some of the things that we say that we value about private property and ownership.

Delaney Hall:
Namely, that if you own a property, you have a right to it and it’s yours forever. Adverse possession means owners have certain responsibilities, too. If you abandon your property and leave it unused for long periods, you risk losing it.

Roman Mars:
To successfully claim adverse possession, the squatters would need to meet a number of conditions like proving they had lived in the buildings continuously, for example. Some of the squatters were wary about getting tangled up with the legal system, but others saw it as their chance to gain ownership. They hired a lawyer and started putting together a case.

Delaney Hall:
The judge who heard their claim found they were likely to make a successful case against the city and he granted them an injunction against eviction until the case was decided.

Roman Mars:
But before the case could be settled in court and in spite of the injunction, the city evicted the residents of two of the buildings. City inspectors said that they were in danger of collapse. Here’s Mara Neville, a spokeswoman for the housing department from an archival interview.

Mara Neville:
“The occupants of the five city-owned buildings on East 13th Street are squatters and whether they’ve been there for five minutes, five years or 15 years, the fact of the matter is they broke into vacant city-owned buildings that were sealed.”

Roman Mars:
These evictions provoked the biggest showdown yet between the city and the squatters in May of 1995.

Maggie Wrigley:
Everybody was on edge and everybody was on the lookout. I remember somebody called me one night and they said, “Okay, there’s like a hundred riot cops have arrived and they’re like four blocks away.” Then the number grew. They were sending in basically a small army.

Delaney Hall:
The police had brought a tank repurposed from the Korean war. Officers took up positions on the roofs of neighboring buildings.

Roman Mars:
Meanwhile, squatters patrolled the neighborhood with walkie-talkies, reporting on the growing numbers of police. They welded bicycle frames to their fire escapes, so it would be impossible for police or firefighters to climb them. They packed their staircases with rubble to make them impassible. They poured tar on the street, so police would have to march through it on their way to the buildings.

Maggie Wrigley:
Again, creative responses. You chain yourself to the building. You use your piss bucket and nobody’s going to try and come near. It’s like, it’s vile, but it’s like, “Hey, you got guns, we’ve got piss buckets.”

Delaney Hall:
The police presence went on for months, sealed off the ends of the block, and required people to show ID before they’d let them through. Still, the squatters wouldn’t leave.

Dr. Amy Starecheski:
I think that that expense and inconvenience and embarrassment is part of what led the city to eventually decide that this wasn’t the way to go and they were going to have to find some other way to deal with the squatters that were left in the buildings.

Roman Mars:
Rudy Giuliani was the mayor of the city at the time and he was a vocal critic of the squatters, but astonishingly, in 1999, a secret negotiation between the city and the squatters started to unfold. They began to discuss what had once seemed impossible, legalization.

Maggie Wrigley:
I remember being surprised by the fact that we were going to have this discussion and it was Giuliani Administration, which just made it weirder and weirder, and it was just hard to fathom.

Delaney Hall:
A new plan started to develop, separate from the adverse possession case. The city would sell the squatters buildings to a third party, a nonprofit organization called UHAB, the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board. Since the 1970s, UHAB had been helping low-income New Yorkers gain ownership of distressed properties.

Roman Mars:
UHAB would then turn the buildings over to the squatters and help them get loans so they could bring the buildings up to code.

Delaney Hall:
After years of negotiation, the deal went through. In 2002 the city sold 11 buildings to UHAB for $1 each and UHAB began working with the squatters to turn their buildings from squats into legal, cooperatively-owned apartments.

Roman Mars:
The process wasn’t easy and it raised some hard questions in the squats. For one thing, there was the issue of resale. Many squatters were committed to keeping the buildings affordable. They wanted to cap the resale price on each apartment so that people couldn’t flip their units for massive sums of money.

Delaney Hall:
There were others who felt like they’d invested so much time and energy into the buildings that they wanted to be able to cash out.

Maggie Wrigley:
There was a bunch of people who… and basically the line was, “well, if we’re not going to be anarchists anymore, we might as well be capitalists.” It was like, er, what?

Delaney Hall:
As the squatters rehabbed the buildings and brought them up to code, some of the more unique and hand-built elements of people’s apartments had to go. Some of the buildings became less wild, more uniform, fewer handmade mosaics, more boring drywall.

Roman Mars:
A few of the buildings haven’t managed to get through the legalization process, even 15 years later.

Delaney Hall:
There have been hard trade-offs. Some squatters didn’t want to take on debt for the building renovations and they’ve moved out, but for many, like Maggie Wrigley, the legalization has been a victory for affordable housing in one of the most expensive cities in the country and has offered a kind of stability at the end of nearly two decades of drama.

Maggie Wrigley:
We were accused of everything. Speculation, trying to steal these buildings, of profiteering, and that’s the beautiful thing about where we are today. These buildings will always be affordable housing.

Roman Mars:
Maggie’s building was the first to finish the legalization process in 2009. It’s still full of artists and activists. Many of the people who live there have been there for years and years. People are starting to have kids and start families.

Delaney Hall:
There’s not that sense of constant threat. The fear that police might come by and brick up all their windows. Maggie’s not a squatter anymore. She’s something else.

Maggie Wrigley:
I am a homeowner and it’s incredible and as long as we keep our act together, then nobody can put us out. That’s it. We got it, it’s our building. It’s ours to lose.

Roman Mars:
This week’s episode is part of a special Radiotopia-wide project welcoming a new Radiotopia podcast to the family. ‘Ear Hustle’, which is coming soon, shares true stories of life in San Quentin State Prison told directly by and from the men living there. The show won Radiotopia’s Podquest contest last year, beating out 1,536 other entries from around the world. In support of ‘Ear Hustle’, all Radiotopia shows are releasing an episode in response to the theme, ‘Doing Time’. In our case, we took it as doing time in a place to make a claim of ownership. Be sure to subscribe to all the Radiotopia shows as they interpret ‘Doing Time’.

  1. Beth

    We’re not gonna pay, we’re not gonna pay, we’re not gonna pay LAST YEAR’S REEEEENT!!!!

  2. Jason

    You can see some footage of the 1995 era in Allen Ginsberg’s documentary, he goes and visits one of the buildings with the camera crew.

  3. Layla Clapton

    Very interesting episode, also useful to understand shows like “The Get Down”, even if it’s set in the late seventies.
    I slightly regret that the opposition between the other poor people in the neighbourhood, who presumably continue to pay their taxes in a completely derelict place, and what they call “Yuppies Squatters”, has been quite overlooked. One feels that this episode almost only describes the “good” squatters against the “bad” city & gouvernment, when it seemed to be actually more nuanced.

  4. Danno

    As a longtime Buffalo real estate attorney, I often advise clients who buy an “abandoned” building to give any squatters permission to remain on the premises until they are ready to actually use it or sell it. Squatters often take better care of their places than actual tenants, making sure the building is secure and that the infrastructure remains usable. Also, granting permission can inoculate the new owner against an adverse possession claim by taking away the element of hostility. When it comes time for the squatters to go, I also recommend paying the squatters back for any improvements they have made.

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