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DW Gibson: Don’t Call This the East Village

A squatter’s history of gentrification.

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Manhattan's Lower East Side.
Image from Flickr user swilkes.

By DW Gibson

The earliest use of the word gentrification comes from the British sociologist Ruth Glass, who wrote about several London neighborhoods in 1964:

One by one, many of the working class neighborhoods of London have been invaded by the middle classes—upper and lower. Shabby, modest mews cottages—two rooms up and two down—have been taken over, when their leases have expired, and have become elegant, expensive residences… Once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts in a district it goes on rapidly, until all or most of the original working-class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed.

There is something to the fact that in the five decades since Ruth Glass used that word to describe what she saw in London, all the other zeitgeist terms—urban Thoreaus, brownstoneurbia, et al.—have faded, and only gentrification remains. The idea of the gentry—and more specifically, the landed gentry—controls the space where we think and talk about land.

Those who see land as a product, valued at whatever maximum can be extracted and wired to Dubai or London or Los Angeles, strong-arm the conversation.

But they exist on a massive spectrum, one that also includes, but is not limited to: those who believe the vitality of land depends on the diversity of classes and cultures that share it; those agnostic to land, who are happy to flutter through the various neighborhoods they inhabit in a state of transience; the homeless, who depend on the land for any food and shelter it can provide; fifth-generation residents who do not want the land to brook any changes from the day they were born; and those who refuse the idea of land ownership altogether.

On the last page of a pamphlet entitled “Squatting in New York City,” given to me by Jerry the Peddler, I found the lyrics for “A Digger Song.” This is part of the third verse:

The sin of property we do disdain
No one has any right to buy and sell
The earth for private gain.

I like Jerry because he reminds me of Willie Nelson. Jerry lets his beard grow much longer than the outlaw country musician, but both men have a way with a bandana—they wrap them around their heads with similar precision. Jerry has the tired eyes of a sixty-seven-year-old lion and the mischievous laugh of a man who has never answered to a boss.

Over the last four decades, Jerry has squatted in three different buildings and helped to open several more on behalf of others. The walls of his performance space are covered in graffiti, large pieces of work in a few spots. We start our walk outside of 155 Avenue C, home of C-Squat since 1989.

I planted that, ’02, I guess. It’s a plum tree, it produces plums every year. I’ve yet to have one. Just as they’re ripening, somebody always comes along and takes them. Personally I don’t know if I would really want to eat a plum that was from the side of a New York City bus stop.

I planted it more for the aesthetic value than anything else. There were lots of little-bitty gardens, the Lower East Side is famous for its gardens; they had chickens and the occasional rabbits, goats, pigs.

Most of this neighborhood was a burnt-out derelict back in the late ’70s, through the ’80s. This was a burnt-out building. We used to do a lot of parties, like once a week. Sometimes they put two cops on each corner just to keep an eye on us when we sit back and shut down the block and party.

We’ve had everybody from—you name ’em—False Prophets has played here, Black Rain has played here, Leftöver Crack has played here—but half of Leftöver Crack lives in this building, so—

There was no roof, there was no stairs; they had a series of cargo nets that they used to climb up to get from floor to floor.

Most of the people in this building have been here from the beginning. When I first came in the late ’80s they were punks, they were all in their late teens to mid-twenties. There was no roof, there was no stairs; they had a series of cargo nets that they used to climb up to get from floor to floor, mind you. They taught themselves carpentry, and plumbing, and electric. Nowadays when they need money, they go out and find themselves a construction job.

Nowadays we’re a lot more civilized than we were just a few years ago.

*                      *                     *

This was a weed store. This guy and his sons, they sold weed outta here. And they made sure that nobody went into the garden and did drugs. If you wanted to smoke a joint you can do that. But if you were caught down here selling dope, selling coke, his two sons would run you off the block with a baseball bat. Eventually they got rich, went back to Puerto Rico.

This was a coke store here, but it was one of your better quality coke stores in that it was actually a deli that also sold coke—as opposed to a lot of places that just sold coke and everything else in the store was fifty cents.

The projects we’re cutting through, they were built during the late ’70s, during the time when there was still money available for public housing. After the riots in the ’60s in Detroit, Newark, Watts, places like that, the government couldn’t figure out what was going on. So they put together a commission—they’re so good at that—Governor Kerner was in charge, so they called it the Kerner Commission, and they sat down and studied the problem and they decided that the black flight during the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s from the South, up to the northern cities and the West Coast, had concentrated all these poor people, mostly black people, into these inner cities. And they were blaming the people—not the conditions—for their lifestyle. And they decided the best way to deal with this is to deconcentrate these spaces.

Now how do you do that? How do you get thousands of people to move out of their homes and neighborhoods? Well, you cut off services. You cut back on the police, cut back on fire departments, you close schools, stop funding housing, and you let the drugs and the alcohol, you let all of that go on all during the ’70s and deep into the ’80s. Most of the kids that grew up in the projects, they had no choice: it was either deal drugs or nothing—or starve. So that meant that a couple of generations of mostly black and Latino youth either died in the gutter or went to prison and their lives were destroyed. These projects now, they’re half empty still. There’s no life. You see a few kids but not a lot.

This was a coke store here, but it was one of your better quality coke stores in that it was actually a deli that also sold coke—as opposed to a lot of places that just sold coke and everything else in the store was fifty cents.

It’s sad compared to what it was thirty years ago. I got to New York in ’75 from Texas, grew up in San Angelo, and I first moved to the Lower East Side in ’77. I lived on the corner of Twelfth and A, directly overlooking the intersection from the third floor. I was sitting here one night—he points up at the building in front of us—I’d only been in the apartment a couple of months, and all of a sudden I hear this big boom right outside of my window.

Now I’m enough of a country boy to know what a shotgun sounds like, enough of an ex-GI to know to drop and roll. So that’s exactly what I did: rolled out of my chair and across the floor. I gave it a minute then I’m up against the wall and I’m looking out the window, and right in the middle of the intersection there’s this cat standing with a shotgun, just like this, pointing straight up Twelfth Street.

Then it’s like something out of High Noon, he takes his shotgun and just walks right up the middle of the street. No cops, no nothing. I sat there for a good half an hour just watching. No cops ever showed up, cops only came down here either to dispose of bodies or to rob drug dealers.

*                      *                     *

On the Fourth of July, there’s a fireworks show in the East River and the whole neighborhood is going this way, and all the cops are going down there. By this time I’ve got a garden over on Ninth Street and I’ve been sitting there drinking beer all day. Now I can hold my beer, at least I could back then—I don’t drink a lot now. Unfortunately, when the beer ran out they were drinking wine, and you know beer and wine don’t mix. Then we came stumbling over here and they should never have let me on that roof, drunk as I was—I acknowledge my part of it, I was drunk out of my mind. We went up on the roof and, being from Texas, I started screaming: “Victory or death.” That was how Travis signed his famous letter at the Alamo. “Victory or death! William Barret Travis, Lieutenant Colonel.”

These silly Yankees had no idea what I was saying, they thought I was paraphrasing Patrick Henry or something.

We had taken over the whole building, took ’em completely by surprise, there were people all up in that fire escape, we had a big banner across the front that said “Home Sweet Home.” At one point they were dropping bricks off the roof to keep the cops from the front of the building. I was standing up there, I was really drunk, and this squad car came down the street. He got about right here and I’m like: “Damn, I can hit that.” Well, guess who woke up the next morning in the tombs with attempted murder on a police officer?

Only felony I picked up, all these years.

*                      *                     *

Tompkins Square Park was not a park you wanted to go barefoot in, okay. Drugs like you wouldn’t believe. I once walked around in one area of the park with a bucket and some thick welders gloves and picked up two hundred sets of works just laying around on the ground and what have you. I didn’t think of it until all the drug epidemics were over, but I’ve often wanted to mount all the drug paraphernalia that I found on the street in the shape of the New York City skyline.

Another little art project I’ve always wanted to do—they would never give me the permits for this: I’ve always wanted to go up to the top of the Empire State Building with time-lapse cameras pointing down at Thirty-Fourth and Fifth and then just an hour or so before rush hour, I want to take like twenty gallons of different colored paint and splash ’em in the intersection and then let the cameras film the cars painting pretty pictures.

They would never give me a permit for that, I know better than to even try. But I still think that would be a great Andy Warhol, single shot—every different color of paint you can think of and then just let the cars come along.

Jerry stops at the corner of Thirteenth Street and pulls a half-smoked cigarette from his pocket. He holds it in his hand as he speaks.

This is the original squat—the one that everyone says was the first. This is where Rosario Dawson grew up—544 East 13th Street. She was hanging out on the front stoop one day and a Hollywood movie director came by and saw her and said, “She’s gorgeous. I’m gonna make her a star.” And that’s kind of what happened. Squatter child makes good—makes very good.

This is Thirteenth Street, this is the famous block right here, this is the one where they brought the tank in on us. See the tall building here? It was taken over by junkies and the cops couldn’t get ’em out, people couldn’t get ’em out, they just kept trying and nothing seemed to work. The cops would come once every couple of months and raid the place and take everybody out and two hours later they would start drifting back in.

One day they took everybody out and people from one of the buildings here took a piece of orange fluorescent paper—like the notices cops post, you’ve seen ’em a million times—and they put a little NYPD police symbol on there at the top and they were like: “This building is closed due to drug trafficking. For further information contact the 9th Precinct.” They put a chain and a padlock on the door; the junkies came by, saw it, turned around and left. After a couple days, people went in there and turned that from a shooting gallery into a squat.

They were going to evict everyone and we came in and built a barricade of cars, and that’s when they brought the tank out.

In the spring of ’95 there was a group that wanted this building. They’re people that I call property pimps, they get tons and tons of money from the government and they’ll fix up a building and put half that money in their pocket and they’re just sitting there exploiting people and making themselves rich. They wanted this building. We took ’em to court and we were in court over a year, claiming adverse possession, claiming people had been in there for over ten years, that they had a right to it—they had run out all the druggies, they had done all the repairs, and they had saved these buildings when nobody wanted them. The judge was sympathetic, we won in his court; unfortunately we lost in the appeals.

That was in May of ’95, and there was a lot of standing off and what have you in June. They were going to evict everyone and we came in and built a barricade of cars, and that’s when they brought the tank out.

It wasn’t a real tank, it was an APC, an armored personnel carrier. When I was in the army in Germany I actually drove a few of those things. It doesn’t have a turret and a cannon; it’s just a big track vehicle, used to carry troops into a heavy combat zone. And they were gonna just drive it straight through the wall.

This was back during the Giuliani administration, and Bratton was police commissioner. They were both showboats but then at the last minute they realized what a media circus they had created, so they backed off with the tank. They eventually evicted this building and put up scaffolding, put a little command center right here, put a cop there twenty-four seven.

I generally put post-squat at ’95, but technically it’s ’01. That’s when we made the deal with the city. Just as Giuliani was leaving and Bloomberg was coming in, we made a deal where we walked out with eleven buildings. One group was responsible for getting the bank loans and then we brought them up to code. Originally we had a total of about thirty buildings, over the course of twenty years. Thirty buildings, two different bookstores, our own newspaper, and at one point we even had a radio station that broadcast from a different building every night. Could be heard from river to river, from Twenty-Third Street to Canal Street.

I like to think the Lower East Side squatters were the ones who put the word gentrification on America’s lips. Nobody knew about that word before we started talking about it.

If nothing else, we helped a lot of homeless people, we fed a lot of people, we helped a lot of people stay in their homes. I like to think the Lower East Side squatters were the ones who put the word gentrification on America’s lips. Nobody knew about that word before we started talking about it. Those riots and those confrontations with the cops are what brought that to the foreground. We took a problem that they had turned a blind eye to and we shoved a light in their face.

*                      *                     *

The building on the corner, that’s a former squat and one of the oldest buildings in the neighborhood, built in 1827. This was one of the more famous of the punk squats down here. These buildings don’t always have electricity, so sometimes you have to tap into these guys—Jerry bends down to knock on the base of a streetlamp—and that’s what they did here.

They went back inside and the lights were on. Then all of a sudden the lights started blinking. Then they went off. Then they came back on, and just started the process all over again. What they had done, they tapped into the “Don’t Walk” lights. Being the type of people they were, they left the lights like that for a few days until finally it drove even them nuts.

So if you’re going to squat, and you’re going to tap into a pole, get somebody who knows what they’re doing.

There was a woman named Linda Twigg, petite little woman just as sweet as she could be—if you messed with her, though, you would find out there really is a hippie Mafia. You did not want to mess with this woman. The building she lived in got evicted, and she ended up in Glass House for a while, and Herbert used to hang out with her in here. Ever hear of Herbert Huncke? He came from the Midwest to New York City, specifically to sell heroin. He’s the guy that introduced Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, that whole crew. Linda was good friends with Herbie and he was sitting here one day, and he’s like, “We called ’em flops and the beats called ’em pads and the hippies called ’em communes and you guys call ’em squats, but you know what? They’re still flops.”

Two weeks after this building was evicted, Linda Twigg sent guys in to rescue several five-gallon buckets full of nothing but prime marijuana seed that had ended up in this building. Cops all up and down on the sidewalk.

Allen Ginsberg lived on the next block in the ’60s but those cats lived all over this neighborhood; I can show you twenty different places where Allen Ginsberg, Kerouac lived. They hung out and worked in the West Village but they lived over here because the rents were lower.

I don’t call this the East Village, by the way. The term started with the Beats as a joke. They worked in the West Village: “Ha, ha, you live in the East Village,” that type of thing, joking. Then the real estate speculators picked up on it. I, personally, consider it the Lower East Side.

Adapted from The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the Twenty-First Century by DW Gibson. Copyright © 2015 by DW Gibson. Published in 2015 by The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers Inc. All rights reserved.

DW Gibson is the author of Not Working: People Talk About Losing a Job and Finding Their Way in Today’s Changing Economy, and director of Writers Omi at Ledig House in Ghent, New York. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The New York Observer, The Daily Beast, BOMB, and The Caravan.

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