Members of the Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association "liberate" three buildings on banana-shaped Kelly Street in the South Bronx. These squatters are celebrated, not arrested: The Citizen's Committee of New York gives Banana Kelly its biggest-yet Self-Help Neighborhood Award, the squatters are feted in the Bronx Borough President's office and local banks even take out subway ads saluting "sweat equity" takeovers.
East New York, 1985: The Long Squat Summer
Over the summer of 1985, ACORN and the Harlem Reclamation Project win widespread support for squatting with dozens of high-profile building takeovers. Before squatting any buildings, the ACORN squatters first asked the city to renovate 2,000 abandoned, rotting East New York buildings. (It didn't.) On August 22, State Senator Thomas Bartosiewicz (D--Brooklyn) and three ACORN activists get arrested for breaking into an abandoned city-owned building in East New York. (In the end, ACORN got to keep the buildings it seized: The group formed the Mutual Housing Association of New York, and the city turned over 58 buildings, plus $2.7 million in city funding to rehab and run them.) ACORN lobbies for a law, based on one in Chicago, which would bar the city from evicting any squatter who improves his or her property. "I don't think you could ever make squatting legal," sniffs East New York City Councilmember Priscilla Wooten. "Can you imagine what that would do to a city like this?"
Bronx, 1987: Community on the Move
Onetime Loisaida homesteader Matthew Lee founds Inner City Press, a community newspaper for the South Bronx featuring free verse poetry and how-to tips on homesteading. In 1988, Lee starts meeting every week with local families in the South Bronx who want to clean up and renovate buildings. By 1993, 150 families--almost all low-wage Latino factory workers--occupy about a dozen buildings.
Bronx, 1991--1993: Community on the Ropes
December 1990--January 1991: Even though squatters say they'd be willing to join a city-run program, the city sends 200 cops in riot gear to force families out of Inner City Press' original Crotona Park East buildings after two space-heater fires. Another group of Bronx buildings is evicted when the land is slated for a "moderate-income" housing development.
September 1991: After a 31-year-old firefighter dies while fighting a fire supposedly set by a squatter, Mayor David Dinkins vows to remove squatters from all city-owned buildings.
March 1992: Inner City Press meets with then-HPD Commissioner Felice Michetti to discuss the future of their homesteading efforts. "Our buildings may be owned by the city," sexagenarian squatter Enrique Deleo says to Michetti. "But the city is the property of the people and we are the people." Later that summer, HPD demands a list of buildings Inner City Press is squatting. When Inner City Press refuses, HPD breaks off negotiations.
July 8, 1993: Cops, firemen, EMS and HPD officials swarm two Inner City Press buildings, 670 and 675 East 170th Street in Morrisania. For the Bronx squatters, it's the fourth eviction in three years. Sixty-year-old Deleo goes up to the roof and almost jumps; cops take him down, arrest him and charge him with "attempted suicide." Cops escort 32 families from the building, taking them straight to homeless shelters in the Bronx and Manhattan. Eight months later, most families from the 170th Street buildings are still living in welfare hotels, costing the city $80 a day per household. To this day, about 200 people live in Inner City buildings. Though they have repeatedly tried to legalize them, even enlisting Congressman José Serrano (D--Bronx) to help, their status remains unresolved.
East 13th Street, 1993-1997: Adverse Possession is Nine-Tenths of the Law
1994: Squatters sue to get title to five buildings, 535--45 East 13th between A and B. The squatters, some of whom have lived there for more than 10 years, use the legal doctrine of "adverse possession": If you've had continuous use of property, with no formal objection from the owner, it's yours. In other words, squatter's rights. Their lawyer is Stanley Cohen, now best known for defending Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman and other Islamic militants.
1995: State Supreme Court Justice Elliot Wilk issues a preliminary injunction against the city's eviction plans, rejecting its claim it urgently needs the buildings for a $3.9 million, mostly low-income housing development it's been planning since 1990. "For more than a decade," wrote the judge, the city "demonstrated no interest in preserving this housing stock. They knowingly allowed it to deteriorate and to become a magnet for drug traffic, to the detriment of the surrounding neighborhood."
1996: When a state appellate court lifts the injunction, the Giuliani administration wastes no time in evicting the squatters, sending bulldozers, barricades and Dumpsters and razing their gardens. Police arrest five people. Two days later, police arrest 23 protesters for marching to Tompkins Square Park in support of the squatters.
January 1997: The city owns 1,325 vacant buildings.
713 East 9th Street, 1999: Dos Blockos
April 27, 1999: Squatters chain themselves to the fire escape, cement the doors shut, block halls and stairwells with refrigerators, air conditioners and washing machines, and hurl bottle rockets at riot-clad cops to keep them out of Dos Blockos. It doesn't work: Emergency Services workers drill a hole in the brick wall, and power-saw through the chains. Hundreds gather on the street outside, singing as cops take down the banner proclaiming "We the people won't go." One squatter leans out the window, shouting "Help, police, they're breaking into my home!"
The city let the building stand vacant for 12 years before the squatters seized it. The squatters, who put in a new roof, electricity and running water, also tried to get rent-stabilized leases. Instead, the city sells the building to a private developer for $285,000, and charges 13 of the 22 squatters with obstructing governmental administration. "The only crime they committed," rages City Councilmember Margarita Lopez, "was to save that building.
Sources: City Limits archives, New York Times, New York Newsday, Washington Post, New York Daily News, Associated Press, Village Voice, Los Angeles Times.
Read the feature article, "Squatters' Rites: Loisaida's Last Outlaws Make Their Most Revolutionary Move Yet--Legal Occupation."