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A history of squatting

The staying power of temporarily taking over urban space

A squatter, George Marco, standing firm in his East 9th Street home on May 9, 1989. 
New York Daily News Archive /Getty Images

When Oxford University professor Alexander Vasudevan sat down to write The Autonomous City: A History of Urban Squatting (Verso Books), he saw immediate connections between the affordability crisis that’s hitting housing markets across the globe and the squatting movements that coalesced in many cities during different stretches of the 20th century. Due to increasing criminalization of such practices—and the skyrocketing value of urban real estate—squatting as a widespread movement is unlikely to spring up again in this country any time soon.

But, with a rising number of U.S. residents facing housing insecurity, it’s a fitting time to look back on the history of this particular strain of housing activism, to see how efforts to reclaim the city may be reflected in today’s debates.

“People have this desire and need to take housing back, and take some control,” says Vasudevan. “I expect some movement will re-emerge,” he argues, “with the sheer scale of housing insecurity we face today.”

Delving into the history of squatting and radical housing activism, Vasudevan’s book traces the ways housing insecurity and affordability crises intertwine with movements to claim and reclaim homes and apartments. Curbed spoke to him about the varied ways that squatting has left an imprint on modern city living.

A former squat in West Berlin

Neighborhood “trailblazers”

Squatters, especially in cities such as New York City, have often been labeled as “pioneers” for inhabiting abandoned and disused spaces before it was socially acceptable to do so.

“Gentrification, in some ways, followed squatters,” says Vasudevan. “They were taking over run-down, dangerous buildings, conferring an edge and social capital, which eventually brought in more capital and investment.”

Squatters often fit into the classic creative class narrative about urban regeneration, Vasudevan says, and find themselves displaced by the same market forces and processes of eviction that they were trying to protest. The Lower East Side in New York, which attracted a sizable squatting community in the ’80s and early ’90s, was a perfect example of this process.

Not all the squatters were artists, he says. Many were experimenting with ways to live collectively and find cheap housing. But they all shared a creative engagement with the urban landscape and city buildings.

Squatters in West Berlin working at a community workshop learning basic carpentry
Via Alex Vasudevan

The squatter’s aesthetic

While squatters are long gone from these neighborhoods, they left a certain “squatter’s aesthetic”—industrial lighting, DIY shelving and seating, and eclectic, bric-a-brac decorations, which borrows heavily from punk rock—that has had a long design afterlife.

Along with the community garden movement, Vasudevan makes a case for squatters being “custodians of the urban fabric,” who not only brought new energy to wherever they lived and worked, but also cared about the urban built environment and older buildings. A surprising number of squatters were architects or planners, he says, and it shows in the places they occupied and repaired.

An excerpt from a magazine put out by German squatters in 1981
Courtesy Alex Vasudevan

Evidence can be found in the newspapers and magazines some squatting communities created in the ’60s and ’70s, which were often filled with DIY construction and repair tips. Everything from fixing up old flooring to figuring out how to safely turn on shut-off gas lines could be found in hand-printed publications that would circulate around squats.

“One of these squats in West Berlin had a workshop and hosted clinics to teach others the skills needed to repair and rehabilitate their apartments,” he says. “Many of these magazines had step-by-step guides, and they were surprisingly in tune with the idea of respecting different architectural styles.”

Part of the history of housing struggle

In cities such as Berlin and New York City, where significant squatting communities existed, former squatters have played an important role in the history of tenant’s rights struggles. In New York, campaigns such as Operation Move-In, where Latino and African-American activists occupied apartments in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, helped publicize notions of tenant’s rights, and form part of a long line of protests and legislative initiative that inform local housing laws and practices.

“This collective memory, sort of a living, breathing set of practices, has formed an important part of these cities’ institutional memory,” says Vasudevan.

Squatting’s current resonance in Spain

Many of the examples of squatting that Vasudevan points to in the U.S., such as New York City and Detroit, are very unlikely to reappear, due to changing laws and the cost of city living.

That makes the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca movement in Spain (PAH, or Platform for People Affected by Mortgages), a coalition of housing activists across the country reclaiming foreclosed homes, that much more compelling. Formed in the face of the recession in 2009, the grassroots organization has battled back against the housing crises, using squatting as one of the primary tactics. The movement has brought together different groups suffering from housing issues, including renters and homeowners, one of the reasons it has been so successful. Barcelona’s current mayor, Ada Colau, was a founding member.

“Geography matters,” says Vasudevan. “Spanish housing is very different than the suburban homeowner model in the U.S. Without the proximity of homes in Spain, perhaps this response to the recession wouldn’t have taken shape.”