Better Homes and Squatters

New York's Outlaw Homesteaders Earn the Right to Stay

"We've been called Dumb Luck Central," laughs Popeye, a/k/a Roland Llewellyn, a 51-year-old musician and 25-year veteran of the Lower East Side who serves as a dysfunctional father figure to the younger inhabitants, many of them artists and musicians who do construction and seasonal farm jobs. But even these legendary party animals have done serious work. At one point they installed steel lifts to jack up the center of their rotted-out building, then rehung the entire stairwell from the roof down. They also replaced all the joists, using beams they got from a construction site by offering the workers six-packs of beer.

"Kids with no family created family here," says Popeye. "We rehabbed the building, and the building rehabbed us."

C-Squat may fit the stereotype of young white kids with an attitude, but the population of the 250 people who live in the other 10 buildings are far more diverse. Half are people of color—Puerto Ricans, blacks, Colombians, Uruguayans, refugees from Rwanda, a few Asians, Haitians, Native Americans, an Iranian Jew. They're poets and carpenters, youth counselors and social workers, photographers and piercing artists, even a court clerk and a woman who works in the accounting department at MTV. There are also seniors, people with AIDS, former shelter residents, and just plain misfits who could never afford anywhere else to live.

Over the years, squatters helped create many of the neighborhood's community gardens, which began in essence as squats themselves. They helped start one of the city's first recycling programs, set up food co-ops, and were among the local groups that established the Lower East Side People's Federal Credit Union.

Their victory comes by virtue of their tenacity. These self-help homesteaders beat the odds, and now—ironically for a movement that was always accused of being outsiders and usurpers—have become part of the old guard, a last bastion of low-income community bohemia in a neighborhood of increasingly transient, upscale renters.

Some of the former squatters admit they're having trouble adjusting. "It's weird," concedes Fly, a comic-book artist and illustrator who's been squatting for 12 years. "You always thought you were going to go out in a blaze of glory with 900 cops on the street, being dragged out in chains. Now we're staying, but it's like we're the freaks in the zoo or something. They kicked out a lot of other freaks, but it's like the well-behaved freaks can stay on."

And many aren't sure how they're going to come up with their monthly rents after living on the cheap for so long. "I'll call this a victory when I see how the [mortgage] figures come in," says Marshall.

Still, by rescuing these buildings from ruin, the squatters have become, in an odd way, preservationists—both of their buildings and some margin of the neighborhood's eclectic roots. At Bullet Space, an artists' squat at 292 East 3rd Street, the first-floor gallery recently featured an old plate-glass window screened with a 1884 census tract documenting the immigrant seamstresses, tailors, gas-lamp cleaners, and printers who lived there. Another window panel featured the history of Bullet—which was named for the brand of heroin sold on the street—as an "Act of Resistance."

The rest of the show was devoted to texts, poems, and photos of the 9-11 disaster, many of them shot from the roof. In a diary excerpt, Bullet resident Maggie Wrigley paid tribute to the police and firemen who lost their lives. "For years," she wrote, "we fought to keep them out of our squats. . . . Now they were our heroes."

Her words speak to the evolution of this movement—from irreverent opponents of City Hall to its most unlikely allies.

Bullet co-founder Andrew Castrucci says he's even considering changing the gallery's name. "I feel like a wounded soldier. I can't even celebrate because of all the shit that we went through," says the 40-year-old painter, now married and a teacher at the School of Visual Arts. "If you're here 10 years or more, it just becomes natural. You become part of the land, your apartment. It's kind of a ridiculous argument, whether you're legal or not, squatters or homesteaders. It's what are you making, what are you doing, where's your poem, what's your artifact?"

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