Urban Homesteaders

Robert Neuwirth, author of the new book Shadow Cities, has written a fascinating story for The New York Times about squatters in New York City. Not the crunchy Tompkins Square Park crowd of the '80s, but a much larger world of the mid-nineteenth century:

Squatters controlled much of New York. The Upper East and Upper West Sides were shanty areas that were home to more than 20,000 squatters. Brooklyn was an independent city (population 200,000) whose fringe areas were settled by squatters. The self-appointed government of Slab City, in what today would be Boerum Hill or Gowanus, ruled a population of 10,000. Metalsmiths established the Brooklyn neighborhood called Tinkersville. Phoenix Park rose on that city's ash heaps. The zone dubbed Texas, in South Brooklyn, got its name because locals deemed it as far off as the Alamo....

New York's squatter communities had their own stores, bars and even roadside inns. A squatter saloon on 78th Street served German fare and homemade kummel. The Terrace, at Eighth Avenue and 67th Street, was a squatter general store that newspapers likened to Dickens's Old Curiosity Shop. The squatter residents of Ashville, centered at what today is West 81st Street, built their own schoolhouse and chapel....Squatter homes were often folk-art creations and monuments to ingenuity. Some shorefront squatters, for example, built their homes like pushcarts: when the tide came in, they simply rolled their domiciles to the safety of the high-water line.

The settlements were destroyed after the "real estate lobby pushed through a decree allowing the city to demolish buildings not hooked into the water and sewer system, and from the 1880's on, landlords teamed with city officials to dislodge the squatters."

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    The zone dubbed Texas, in South Brooklyn, got its name because locals deemed it as far off as the Alamo....

    Not unlike that early settlement near modern-day Passaic that they called "Bum Fucking Egypt".

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    Nice article. But I can't help thinking that the squatter towns described in semi-romantic terms by Neuwirth are basically the lawless slums of "Gangs of New York". Or to get contemporary, like the vast slums of Bombay.

  • Jesse Walker||

    Or to get contemporary, like the vast slums of Bombay.

    I haven't read it yet, but Neuwirth's book, from which the article is drawn, is for the most part a contemporary study of such districts.

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    running water and sewage sucks

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    Squatters were the city's recyclers. They ... scoured the streets for old cans...

    Hey - just like today!

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    sewage sucks, but running water blows...from my perspective anyways

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    Who owned the land where the squatters lived? Anyone know?

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    RC - The article referred to the squatters being on city property; I paraphrase the article as a case where politically connected developers executed a sweetheart deal whereby the developers got title to the land, irregardless of the current development by the squatters.

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    Get comments in here ASAP before joe comes on board to kick ass.

    Thinking ahead, how should we define "ownership"?

    Ownership implies the capability of kicking a little ass, eh? At least, minimally. Tit for tat?

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    I'm glad my article generated so much interest. Here are a few responses to your questions/comments. For more detailed info, of course, please buy my book. You can find more info about it at http://squattercity.blogspot.com.

    For SM: the 'lawless slums of "Gangs of New York"' were privately developed tenements centered around the five points neighborhood in what is now Chinatown. The city's squatter neighborhoods certainly had a criminal element. But if you go searching for criminals on Park Avenue, you'll find them there, too. As for Bombay: I spent three months living in a so-called slum in that city (as well as in squatter communities in Rio de Janeiro, Istanbul, and Nairobi) as part of the research for the book. Certainly, the existence of communities without water or sewers is shocking and outrageous. But here's the general lesson: given a chance, squatters build. Given a sense of permanence, squatters create communities that are every bit as good as the ones developers build.

    For R.C. Dean: Many of the fringe areas of the city were no one's property when the squatters invaded (it's strange to think of a time when New York was not the real estate city it is today) and squatters often erected their huts on tracts that were of little interest to property owners: swampy fields or steep, rocky hills. Also, the city held huge swaths of common land in Manhattan, but sold much of it out from under squatters to finance the Croton Aqueduct and other improvements. Many squatters, not being legally savvy, agreed to pay ground rent to the new owners--and this deprived them of the chance to claim 'squatters rights' in court.

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    Given a sense of permanence, squatters create communities that are every bit as good as the ones developers build.

    Without PLANNERS to guide them? Good heavens

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    Robert Neuwirth,

    Point taken. And I promise to stop pretending that reading Herbert Asbury makes one an expert on 19th century NY or anything wlse.
    However ... Dharavi and such locales in Bombay are not "so-called slums". They are slums, full-stop. I accept the argument, made in your blog, that squatters care about their communities. But the middle and upper-middle class folks they encroach upon care equally as much about theirs.

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    Yes, SM, conditions in squatter communities can be very degraded. I'm wary of the term 'slum' because it implies a moral judgment. The neighborhoods I lived in in Brazil and Turkey started out as shanty communities that could be termed slums. But they didn't stay that way for long. Today they are self-built squatter cities. It's true that Dharavi is overly dense and unhealthy. But it's also true that residents want to improve things. The key question is whether the government and developers are willing to work with them rather than evict them. As we have learned in the U.S., 'slum clearance' is hardly an answer.


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