A Brief History of Squatting: Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space

New York’s Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space charts generations of urban revolt, from Critical Mass rides to guerilla gardening to OWS.

| November/December 2013

  • Adam Purple stands above his Garden of Eden in the Lower East Side.
    Photo By Harvey Wang

Before Rudy Giuliani became mayor in 1994, New York’s Lower East Side was alluringly feral. The withdrawal of public services, crime epidemic, and abandonment of housing decades earlier had spawned a multiracial movement of neighborhood associations, building takeovers, community gardens and thriving institutions such as the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, the punkcentric ABC No Rio, and the housing-rights organization Good Old Lower East Side.

No one misses the muggers, street dealers hawking smack, or addicts openly sticking needles in their arms. Social pathologies were the last line of defense against capital, until Giuliani used his “quality of life” campaign against the homeless, pot smokers, bicyclists, and the poor to also sweep away Bohemia.

The transformation from heroin shooters to oyster shooters is now complete, but the past still pokes through the present landscape of faux speakeasies, fin-de-siècle bistros and bucolic gastronomica.

The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space (MoRUS), located in a storefront of C-Squat, is one of 11 surviving squats that have made peace with the city. The mini museum, a tribute to local activism, contains a photographic journey through decades of squatting, gardens, Critical Mass, Reclaim the Streets, and Occupy Wall Street. Co-founder Bill DiPaolo calls it “living history,” and it faithfully evokes decades of resistance to a hidden market and its visible fist.

The tone is set by one of the first photos, an image of an armored police vehicle with tank treads deployed to evict two squats in 1995. As the photos progress, a changing cast faces off against the police: homeless people living in Tompkins Square Park in the early ’80s, their expressions defiant or pleading; the street punks and squatters of the late ’80s; Reclaim the Streets’ impromptu dance-party protests and community garden defense in the ’90s.

Artifacts are grouped thematically. An egg carton of seed bombs ($12 a dozen), designed to be thrown into fenced-off vacant lots for guerrilla greening, accompanies photos of the campaign that saved scores of gardens from Giuliani’s bulldozers. The stairway chronicles the history of Critical Mass, which popularized bicycling in New York City by drawing thousands of pedal-pushers into the streets for monthly rides before being smashed by the cops in 2004. The banister is built from wooden blue police barricades that were a fixture in the neighborhood until the mid-’90s and the fuel for riotous bonfires. The Occupy Wall Street section features a sign liberated from Zuccotti Park listing activities now banned—skateboarding, camping, and lying down. Helmets and dark-blue uniforms emblazoned with “Squat Team” patches hang in the front window.

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