NYC: 5th St. Squat Eviction Still Reverberates/related song FWD

Tom Boland (
Sun, 10 May 1998 01:00:27 -0700 (PDT)

=46WD 1 of 2 - 1998/04/28 via The A-Infos News Service

The legal battle continues.
=46or more information call the Fifth Street Legal Line  (888) 924 3217
Or write:
Kurt Allerslev
P O Box 20470
NYC, NY  10009


Over a year after the demolition of the Fifth Street Squat, the dust
has yet to settle. After the initial flurry of protests, speak-outs, and
demonstrations, the neighborhood is now growing more accustomed to this
sort of ceaseless gentrification, and the matter is still being hashed
out in the courts. The demolition of the 537-537 East Fifth Street was a
new tactic on the part of the Powers That Be, and yet fits quite
naturally into the patterns of change in the Lower East Side (now very
aptly renamed the 3East Village.2)

Last Winter

On February 9, 1997, a small fire broke out on the second floor of the
building. Residents tried to attack the fire with extinguishers, but
were quickly overwhelmed by the heat, and had to retreat. After calling
911, they left the building. The Fire Department arrived quickly, but as
is typical with occupied buildings, was slow to respond to the blaze.
Before turning on the water, the flames were allowed to spread up to the
fourth floor. Once they trained their hoses on the building, however,
the fire was quickly brought under control and put out.

But the damage was done. While the fire affected only about 20% of the
building, and in no way compromised the structural integrity of the
100-year old six story tenement, the city held the trump card =D0 all the
residents had left the building and were now held some distance away by
an army of riot police that had descended on the site.

=46rom that point on, they acted with military precision, as if the whole
event had been planned from the beginning. Mayor Guiliani1s Office of
Emergency Management (OEM) appeared on the block and took control. New
York1s local version of FEMA, they assumed an all-mighty jurisdiction,
overriding all other city, state and even federal agencies. After the
fire, Fire Department and Police officials had assured residents that
the damage was not too bad, and that following their investigations the
next morning, residents would be permitted to get their belongings. This
was not the case. Under the direction of the OEM, the crane used for the
demolition was ordered by the Department of Buildings on Sunday night
and was on Fifth Street the next morning before the Fire Department had
even returned.

The Fire Department never even made a thorough investigation of the
cause of the fire. The City was hell-bent on demolishing the building at
any cost. 3The City is prepared to absorb any lawsuit you bring against
us,2 said the OEM's Gerry McCarty, caught on videotape. And the cost was
great. Almost all the belongings of the residents were needlessly
destroyed. The garden next door, the only greenspace on the block, where
kids loved to play, was totally annihilated. Neighbors in the area
suffered through the five day, =91round the clock demolition with police
harassment, high-powered lights at night, noise, shaking buildings, and
billowing clouds of toxic dust. The Environmental Protection Agency even
admitted that the site had been 3taken out of their jurisdiction by the
City.2 About ten windows were smashed out of the building next door, and
an eight-foot hole punched in a wall. Neighbors were never warned or
informed of what would happen, and lost phone services, had some of
their belongings smashed by the reckless demolition and generally fled
their homes until the carnage was over.

The Bigger Picture

The whole story begins long ago with a neighborhood that has always
been home to poverty, adversity and diversity. The history of the L.E.S.
is too large a subject to cover here, but it includes several waves of
immigration, beginning with the turn of the century. The brick tenement
buildings that characterize the neighborhood were randomly thrown up to
house the new influx of (primarily) Eastern European immigrants. Over
the last hundred years, however, the face of the L.E.S. has changed
dramatically. The Polish community is still there, but due to the
changing demographics, so are the synagogues, a mosque, Puerto Rican
gardens, artists, yuppies and dropouts from every walk of life.
During the 19701s, the L.E.S. became a nearly deserted war zone, ruled
by drugs and gangs. At this time, east of 1st Avenue was a genuinely
scary thought. All the right ingredients were in place for the 3spatial
deconcentration2 that took place, as the American family fled the cities
for the suburbs. The result was the beginning of the latest chapter in
the neighborhood1s history. Once people began to reclaim the abandoned
buildings and plant community gardens, many of the drug dealers and
gangs were pushed on to another block. But unwelcome on that block, they
were pushed on further, to yet another block. Ultimately the community
became a more welcoming, safe. Because rents and property values were
still low, real estate developers, who now saw profit possibilities,
were enticed to invest =D0 and now they have become the ones pushing out
low-and middle-income residents who stand in the way of the
Disneyfication of Manhattan.

Business as Usual

Within about four months after the demolition of Fifth Street, the City
struck again. This time the victims were what one might call 3the next
rung up the ladder.2 The building was only a few blocks away, on the
corner of 2nd Avenue and East 1st Street, and was City-owned. The
building was divided up as an SRO (single room occupancy) and full of
legal, rent paying tenants. But this building also stood in the way of
the gentrification machine. All the tenants were low-income and the
building was (mis)managed by Housing Preservation and Development (HPD).
Despite recent extensive renovations, showers were not properly drained,
so would always run over and leak through the floor. When one day a
piece of plaster from the ceiling underneath one of these areas rotted
enough to fall, the OEM was called in, the residents evacuated & the
building quickly and summarily demolished. While these people were legal
residents, they were not a tight community like the squatters, and a
cohesive plan of action was difficult to formulate. Eventually they were
all easily dispersed by the City.

The next demolition in the neighborhood came couple months after that,
in January of this year. By now the OEM was well practiced. The third
building, on the corner of Stanton and Clinton, was privately owned with
rent-controlled apartments, yet another step up the economic ladder.
Again, the much-used phrase 3imminent danger of collapse2 was tossed
around to describe some trumped-up catastrophe the City had suddenly
found in the building. Residents were quickly evacuated and the building
demolished with lightning speed. All of the victims of these demolitions
watched as their possessions were ground into rubble.

The Battle in Court

=46or the residents of Fifth Street, legal litigation is still underway.
(It1s a shame that the wheels of Justice creak along at a snail1s pace
compared to the swift, efficient brutality of City administrators.)
Attorney Jacqueline Bukowski was also on the scene that first day of
demolition. In the morning before the demolition began, papers were
filed in NY1s State Supreme Court for an injunction against the
demolition. The City1s attorneys stalled the hearing by showing up late,
and a resident of Fifth Street stalled the demolition by climbing back
into the building and then evading police detection for a couple hours.
Eventually, for fear of his life, he relented and was escorted out of
the building. By the time Justice Barbara Kapnick granted the stay,
however, demolition had begun. The City, when handed the papers, refused
to stop, and when hearings continued the next day, Justice Kapnick was
visibly disturbed. She continued the stay, and further enjoined the City
from removing and personal property from the site. Again, the city
ignored the court1s order and finished the job.

Charges of Contempt of Court filed by the residents claims that the city
willfully disobeyed the judge1s decision in order to realize their goal.
The City contends that the building was in such bad shape after the fire
that they had no choice, that once they had begun demolition, there was
no way to safely stop. But their case is weak. HPD and Police videotapes
from inside the building following the fire show that the building was
not as drastically affected by the fire as the City1s inspectors claim.
=46irst-hand reports from two residents who toured the building after the
fire also contradict this (Roger Varela was escorted by Fire officials
to retrieve a dog, and Brad Will was the resident who stalled the
demolition). During the subsequent hearings, it was made clear to the
court that the demolition was politically and economically motivated.
Still in question is the City1s contention that once the demolition had
begun, for reasons of safety they had no choice but to finish. But the
men who ultimately made the decision to continue the demolition were not
even technical experts, just housing bureaucrats. Also, the City witness
who seemed to have the most technical expertise admitted that the
building could have been shored up.

Justice Kapnick is still deliberating her decision, which she is
expected to hand down any day now. In the meantime, although about half
the residents are no longer around, another case is waiting to be filed.
Residents still have the option of filing a civil suit against the City
for the damages the City did to their possessions.

The Community at Fifth Street was the ultimate victim of this whole
travesty. Twenty-six people were suddenly made homeless in the middle of
the winter, and a burgeoning squat cafe, meeting place and performance
space was crushed into oblivion, along with the block1s only garden. The
year leading up to the demolition had been a tumultuous time for
building residents, but one that helped shape a positive future. Many
hard lessons and difficult meetings had whittled down the membership of
the building to only those very dedicated and serious. Key structural
and interior work was completed or nearing completion, including the
rebuilding of the stairs and the opening of the Caf=E9 in the first-floor
community space, complete with a Cantina scene (from Star Wars) mural.
During the second summer (1996) of evictions on 13th Street, the Caf=E9
was often used as a central meeting point, and a West Coast electronic
music magazine even lamented, 3With the demolition of the Fifth Street
Squat, the city lost it1s best underground techno scene.2 To those of us
living there, the demolition was much more than the destruction of a
building, a home, and our possessions; it was the breaking up of a
scene, a community. And it felt like a real turning point for the whole
neighborhood. The gentrification seems to be accelerating.

The third building threatened with demolition since Fifth Street, on
Avenue B near 11th Street, still sits intact and vacant, the destruction
temporarily postponed after public outcry was amplified by the
long-absent voice of local City councilwoman Margarita Lopez. Once
again, residents were pulled quickly from their homes never to return.
Most of their possessions still sit inside the building, and while the
building may stand today, these new tactics for eviction are not easily
stopped forever.  Many Fifth Street refugees took several months to
finally regain their footing, move back into permanent homes,
relationships, and jobs. The crane crushed the hopes, dreams and years
of hard work of a group of people determined to make a difference, along
with the random objects they had collected around them to call that
place home. But Fifth Street residents will not be the last to feel this

The legal battle continues.
=46or more information call the Fifth Street Legal Line  (888) 924 3217
Or write:
Kurt Allerslev
P O Box 20470
NYC, NY  10009


=46WD 2

[Song to the tune of "When That Great Ship Went Down"]

On a Monday morning, just around nine o'clock

Blue and white police cars lined up around the block

Cops all gathered 'round

Say "That building must come down!"


Wasn't it sad? Wasn't it sad?

It was sad when that 5th Street squat came down

Sad when that 5th Street squat came down

People cryin' and moanin'

'Bout to lose they home

It was sad when that 5th Street squat came down

Mayor Guiliani has a master plan

To turn New York City into urban Disneyland

Poor folks gots to go

=46or them luxury condos


Cops are stealin' money, grabbin' anything they can

A man still in the building but they don't give a damn

City's gone insane

"Yeah, bring on that wrecking crane!"


Let me tell you poeople, it cut me like a knife

Wreckin' folks' homes and callin' it "Quality of life"

Dust all in the air

Broken rubble everywhere


Let me tell you, people, straight to your face

You better stand together, or you're gonna lose your place

Squats are first to go

Then next comes rent control

(out chorus:)

Better get mad, better get mad

I'll be glad when we bring Guiliani down

Glad when we bring that fucker down

No more cryin' and moanin'

We'll all have a home

I'll be so glad when we bring Guiliani down


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