The squat at 537-539 East 5th Street is long gone, demolished by the city after a fire broke out there on February 9, 1997. But next week marks not only the third anniversary of the razing of the tenements, where more than two dozen homesteaders had settled. It is the beginning of an unusual legal process that could force the city to pay squatters as much as $1.5 million for items lost in the demolition ranging from family heirlooms to clothes and appliances to thousands of dollars worth of mint-in-box Star Wars figurines.
The possibility of payment stems from state supreme court judge Barbara Kapnick’s December decision that found the city in civil contempt for violating her 1997 order, which prohibited the city or its agents from removing squatters’ possessions without their consent. In her 23-page decision, Kapnick blames the department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) for ignoring her order; she has sent the matter to a referee to determine the value of the squatters’ losses. Arthur Shaw of the corporation counsel says the city will appeal the decision, an option it has until February 9. In the meanwhile, Shaw and squatter attorney Jackie Bukowski are due to meet with the referee on February 7.
If Kapnick’s decision stands, it will be the first time in recent memory, and perhaps ever, that squatters have been paid for loss of property, both Shaw and Bukowski say. Bukowski estimates that the claims will total between $1 million and $1.5 million; individual claims range from $1500 to $60,000, according to papers submitted by 26 former squatters.
Kapnick’s decision is the result of litigation that began February 10, 1997, the day after the fire broke out in the squat and the day that city crews began to demolish the building, declaring it unsafe. On the afternoon of the 10th, two squatters sought a court order permitting occupants access to retrieve their possessions and preventing the city or its contractors from removing tenants’ goods. Kapnick issued the order immediately, and prohibited further demolition except for safety reasons.
Demolition stopped for at least one hour, but resumed later that evening when an inspector from the Department of Buildings (DOB) concluded that the partly demolished buildings were dangerous. The next day, Kapnick again ordered the demolition halted except for reasons of safety and explicitly instructed the city to “wholeheartedly try” to salvage squatters’ belongings. “To the extent that you’re able to differentiate your debris from their possessions, I suggest you do that,” Kapnick said, even “if you have to comb through it.”
Demolition did continue and, despite Kapnick’s order, squatters and other witnesses testified that they saw personal belongings hauled off, falling from a crane, and even being spirited away to a pile alongside the building where workers seemed to be stockpiling what one witness called “booty,” including small appliances, brass and copper building materials, and a purse or briefcase. An HPD official testified that he observed no personal property at the site on February 11, but Kapnick found that his testimony “is belied by the credible testimony of former occupants and eyewitnesses. . . . ”
Claims list irreplaceable items like an accordion belonging to the grandfather of squatter Garth Wood, years’ worth of writing and artwork of many tenants, photos, and personal documents. Roger Varela lost two pit bulls, Emma and Anakin. Like other squatters, Varela had an impressive collection of Star Wars figures and ephemera—44 objects in all, which he values at more than $2000. Four other squatters had similar collections, with nearly 100 Star Wars objects, valued at nearly $9000. “There was this clique of kids who were really into Star Wars,” says one of the squatters, who, like others, has moved to Brooklyn. “I always thought it was silly and kind of sad because they were spending all this money on it hoping that it would go up in value. And then it turns out that anything they had of value was in that building, and now it’s gone.” Other common possessions included bicycles and components, records, compact discs, cassette tapes, and musical instruments.
“They can’t possibly replace what I lost, even if it comes to money,” says Kurt Reynertson, who lived in the squat for two years and worked as a DJ; among his losses are 500 records and tapes, including rare recordings, and several instruments. “It derailed my life for a year.” Reynertson now lives in a rental apartment in Harlem, a lifestyle he describes as “very different” from squatting.
“It’s weird to be bothering the landlord instead of doing repairs yourself, and in some ways renting is a much easier life,” he says. One way is political, since many New Yorkers, even east of Avenue B, consider squatters slackers or worse. “The whole idea of living for free is not quite true, because you do everything yourself,” says Reynertson. “And you feel like every day is a battle because you’re an enemy of the state because government and police and people hate you, so you’re always battling. When you rent an apartment, you become much more anonymous.”
Reynertson says he’s pleased with Kapnick’s decision although she denied the squatters’ motion to hold DOB and Mayor Rudy Giuliani in contempt, deciding that only HPD had violated her order. But he adds that “because the judge’s decision was very specific and narrow, it makes it harder to overturn.”
Shaw says the city’s appeal will rely in part on the fact that only two squatters brought the initial court action that produced the orders to salvage possessions. Bukowski says the day they went to court, the scene was bedlam, and the other 24 plaintiffs were not all available; an amended petition names them all.
While the squatters’ case drags on, the lots where their home once stood are not idle. HPD has sold them to the Lower East Side Mutual Housing Association, which is constructing a six-story apartment building with 30 units. The apartments are for low-income residents.