Ash Thayer lived within New York’s Lower East Side’s squatting community during the 1990s and she has just released a book documenting her time there. The photos are of a particular originality due to the fact that this community rarely allowed photographers or journalists within the squats. Since these photos were taken we’ve seen Manhattan turn into some kind of unachievable capitalist impossibility so these photos show the last stab at creating a community within the abandoned buildings of the last remaining run down buildings on the island. Filled with drug addicts, punks, anarchists and squatters, collectivity they took upon themselves to make these inhibitable but wasted buildings into functioning places to lives.
Thayer captured a vast variety of the various ongoings during this iconic time and are perfectly projected into this new book published by Powerhouse named KILL CITY. We’ve interviewed her to find out more about her experiences of community and rebellion and how she projected this into her intimate images.
How did you first become involved within the squatting community?
When I moved from my hometown, Memphis, TN, to NYC, I was already steeped in punk and DIY culture. So, I naturally gravitated towards that community in NYC, going to local punk shows and hanging around Tompkins Square Park. . I met some kids who were squatting, and when I needed a place to live, having no viable alternatives, I was invited to be a guest in someone’s apartment at See Skwat.
Could you explain to us what the See Skwat was?
It is one of the squats on the Lower East Side that is well-known/notorious for the punk shows it has hosted in their basement. There were many squats that had a big range in age, ethnicities, and family types, but it, along with 5th Street Squat, were generally young, punk/activist types, and hosted a lot of traveling punks from all over the world.
It, along with about 10 other buildings, were turned into limited equity co-ops and the residents were able to continue living in the apartments they had built for themselves.
A large portion of the images in my book are of 5th Street Squat, which was the first squat to successfully sue the City of New York. In February of 1997, after a small fire broke out on the second floor, the city seized the opportunity to seal it. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani ignored a court order allowing the residents to re-enter the building and get their possessions. He started demolition, just took the whole building down with everyones life inside of it. This was an illegal act by Giuliani and the squatters won $200,000 to cover the cost of their possessions, which, by the way, was nothing close to compensating what they invested in restoring the building.
What was the political atmosphere within the squats?
We were very politically active, we had to be to survive. You had to keep a constant watch for signs of potential evictions, attend community board meetings to discover any plans for development, and plead our case and fight against it when necessary. We had regular Eviction Watch meetings to stay up to date and informed, with strategies that were voted on to address any issues. We fought for and protested for housing rights in general and against the wholesale slaughter of long-term, existing neighborhoods and communities by greedy real estate developers. They had no interest in the preservation of existing culture, which is largely what made the Lower East Side and other parts of Manhattan unique and desirable to tourists, but a bloodlust for profit at any and all cost to the existing communities. For us, it was simply fight against it or cease to exist.
How long did you live in the squats and how did you begin to photograph within them?
I was in several different buildings on and off for about 6 years. I was always taking pictures of my daily life, since I was 17, so this just extended into my life here. Squatters needed proof or evidence of the work we were doing, so I became a point person for that. Remember, no cell phones at the time.
Was there a particular division of labour that existed within the squats? Or a particular infrastructure that kept the squatting community together besides from existing together in the same walls?
It was more like an organized chaos, no strict or assigned tasks unless you had special skills that were needed for a particular project. We would have house meetings and figure out who wanted to work on what, how many we needed, then sometimes it was all of us making sheetrock runs. Individuals were responsible for their own apartment building, but we very often worked in teams. It was all volunteer, freestyle, for the most part. We enjoyed helping each other.
How varied were the backgrounds of the people squatting?
It depended on the building. There were squatted buildings that were started in the late 70s and 80s that had already gained the title to their buildings and had careers and families. There were local Puerto Ricans, Latinos, African Americans, Europeans, Polish, you name it, that had been working on some of these buildings long before I arrived. I gravitated towards people like myself, young, punk, political activists who also liked to party a lot in our spare time. That’s why I state in my book that it does not, at all represent all of the diversity in the community, but rather my particular tribe of misfits and activists. This book is not “The History of Squatting on the LES”, but a biased, personalized view of my life there.
How do you think squatting has changed since you were doing it?
Well, the buildings I lived in are now either co-ops or they were evicted. Real “squatting” in the U.S. has to be, by its nature, secretive in order to survive, because it is illegal. I know of people doing it and they have some of the same challenges, and even more, at least in NY, because the local governments are aware of many of the strategies we had and how to combat those. Although their default seems to be to evict them illegally and deal with the blow out later.
I actually think there should be a new type of homesteading program that allows folks that were evicted from their homes during the mortgage-based financial crisis in 2008 to reoccupy their previous homes, or other homes sitting empty. I think the banks should be forced to offer 0% loans to the families they displaced and the lives they devastated. Both Lincoln and Jimmy Carter were intelligent and compassionate enough to initiate different versions of homesteading programs, and there is no reason we shouldn’t come up with a version of that now. Every person should be able to afford a home and we should have zero homeless sleeping on the streets in this incredibly affluent country we have. It is shameful and due to apathy, greed, and laziness.We need to take ownership of this human rights crisis. I hope teens and young adults look at this book and get inspired to think outside of the existing system and create affordable housing for everyone. Nothing is stopping them, and they can challenge and fight against what is stopping them.
Why was this the right time to publish these photos? Do you feel that there is a particular resonance to them in terms of how rapidly New York is now changing?
Let’s be clear about one thing-I’ve been trying to get this work shown for years. It got a little heat, a couple of group shows in the late 90s, and 2000, but nothing since then I have been an art it working in obscurity and Craig Cohen from powerHouse straight up “Vivian Maier-ed” me and this work, also with the help of Colin Moyniham and Niko Kopel from the NY Times. Meaning, he discovered my work and took a chance on publishing it without my having a stellar CV or existing following. I had all but given up before then regarding this work in particular. I was just going to make a zine and share it with the people who were in it and call it a day. Anyway, for that, I am extremely grateful to Craig and all of the guys at powerHouse for helping me, and Stacy Wakefield, who taught me how to make a proper book proposal and designed and helped edit the book. Sometimes in life, amazing things can happen. For me, this is one of those times.
Why do you think that these photos have taken so long to be published? Is there anything existing within the photography world where these images may have made people feel uncomfortable?
People in positions of power have to endorse and support an artist’s work in order to get it published or in great galleries or museums. This work was strong 15-20 years ago, and it is now. It just needed support by the right people, which ended up being Craig Cohen at powerHouse.
I don’t think there is anything to make the art/photo world uncomfortable, they just haven’t had the opportunity to see it.
How do you now feel when you revisit the Lower East Side?
I love New York, and the LES, despite the sterilization of culture that is happening. It’s sad and strange to see small businesses that have been there for decades replaced by banks, restaurant chains, and boutiques that only very wealthy people can afford. It has certainly lost a lot of its charm. However, there are still a lot of folks who have stuck it out and that community keeps it a special place for me.