It’s a fine free country, this is, where honest folks can’t build a little house to cover their heads on an old rock like this without having the very ground blowed away from under them.
My roof has sprung a leak.
Don’t you ’member I told you about it
Way last week?
These steps is broken down.
When you come up yourself
It’s a wonder you don’t fall down.
Ten Bucks you say I owe you?
Ten Bucks you say is due?
Well, that’s Ten Bucks more’n I’ll pay you
Till you fix this house up new.
What? You gonna get eviction orders?
You gonna cut off my heat?
You gonna take my furniture and
Throw it in the street?
Um-huh! You talking high and mighty.
Talk on-till you get through.
You ain’t gonna be able to say a word
If I land my fist on you.
Langston Hughes, ‘Ballad of the Landlord’2
In 1970, a forty-two-minute black and white documentary depicting the struggles of a squatters’ rights movement in New York’s Upper West Side Renewal Area was released by Newsreel, an activist documentary film organisation that had emerged as part of the American New Left in the late 1960s. The film Rompiendo puertas (Break and Entry) portrays the efforts of over 150 predominantly Puerto Rican families to secure safe and affordable housing against a backdrop of intense inequality, pervasive discrimination and persistent dislocation.
Formed in New York in December 1967 by a group of underground filmmakers, Newsreel was a ‘radical news service’ that had been initially established to chronicle the various identities, alliances and strategies that characterised the New Left in the United States. It drew particular inspiration, in this respect, from activists rooted in a range of anti-racist and anti-colonial movements. Rompiendo puertas
was one of a series of films it produced between 1969 and 1972 that focused on New York’s communities of colour.3
Taking its name from the police shorthand for house burglary, Rompiendo puertas
details the actions adopted by a group of Latino families who occupied and repaired a series of abandoned buildings on the Upper West Side in the spring and summer of 1970. The families were all part of Operation Move-In, a local anti-poverty and squatters’ rights group. The group had been installing low-income families into sound vacant buildings that had been slated for demolition by the city as part of its urban renewal programme. They used crowbars to pry off the tin seals covering doors and windows while helping families to carry their belongings and furniture.4
The film combines documentary footage of clashes between the squatters and the police with voice-over analysis exploring the causes of New York’s housing shortage. Many of the original organisers of Operation Move-In were old leftists and mavericks of Lyndon Johnson’s signature War on Poverty campaign, as well as a group of radical young activists from the Young Lords, a militant Puerto Rican organisation.5
They were led by William Price, a former UN correspondent, journalist and Communist who was fired in 1955 from the New York Daily News
in the wake of his appearance before the US Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security. Price became a housing activist on New York’s West Side with loose connections to the Metropolitan Council on Housing (hereafter Met Council), one of the city’s most important tenants’ rights organisations. As Rompiendo puertas
, however, shows, this was ultimately a squatters’ rights movement that was largely organised and executed by working-class Puerto Rican women. It was their voices and actions that are the main subject of the film.
The film documents the challenges that its predominantly Latino protagonists faced in securing a home in a city where many residents lived in inadequate or unsafe housing while others faced ‘removal’ to the outer boroughs as part of the city’s urban redevelopment plans. As one activist in the film noted, ‘wherever the city sets up urban renewal programs, it removes working people and poor people and removes them from their homes and replaces them with rich people and big business’. In one scene, we watch a group of families moving their possessions out of an apartment in sacks and papers bags while a voice-over proclaims that ‘hundreds of working people like us are being evicted and forced into the streets’. ‘Housing,’ another activist concludes, ‘is a necessity. Why should we pay for a necessity?’6
As Rompiendo puertas
shows, it was the death of a neighbourhood teen that served as the catalyst for the emergence of Operation Move-In and the seizure of empty vacant buildings across the Upper West Side. The teen had died from carbon monoxide poisoning in a first-floor apartment on West 106th Street. The film follows the funeral march held for the teen as well as the occupation that took place in its immediate aftermath. A day later, another nine buildings around Columbus Avenue and the West 80s were squatted by dozens of families who moved in during the night.7
The film places particular emphasis on the actions undertaken by the squatters while foregrounding the role played by middle-aged and elderly Puerto Rican women as leaders of the ‘movement’. It depicts the collective formed to organise and undertake building repairs. The squatters created a system to pool their money and labour as part of the effort to renovate apartments. The film also draws attention to the wider infrastructure and network of co-operative services they created within the local neighbourhood (day cares, communal kitchens, apartment registries). In the words of one recent commentator, ‘by defining the city as a space built by and thus in a fundamental sense for poor people, by asserting that the seizure of abandoned apartments is a morally justifiable and politically legitimate form of activism … Rompiendo puertas
depicts a radical politics of place that challenges the economic and political forces shaping the postwar urban city’.8
The squatters were able to secure some modest concessions from the city while salvaging some of the city’s low-rent housing stock. These victories were, however, partial and short-lived, and the activism they ultimately depended on was unable to halt the gradual and wholesale gentrification of New York’s West Side in the decades that followed. At the same time, the film remains an important document within a rich and expansive history of squatting and tenant-based activism in New York. This is, moreover, a history that challenged traditional social fault lines around class, race and gender. The actions instigated by the squatters of Operation Move-In drew, after all, on a long and varied tradition of resistance rooted in a struggle for a more just and equal urbanism and in opposition to an equally protracted history of destruction, displacement and destitution.
In the end, as David Madden and Peter Marcuse remind us, movements for housing have always assumed a number of different forms. They exhibit ‘enormous variety in terms of tactics, strategies, goals, alliances, political calculations, compromises, and ideologies’.9
New York is no different in this respect, and it is hardly surprising that the city encompassed a vast living archive
of alternative knowledges, materials and resources that, in the eyes of squatters, tenants and other housing activists, served as a basis for developing a different vision of the city.
This is admittedly a history with a much longer narrative arc, whose origins can be traced back to the seventeenth-century Dutch resettlement of what is now the state of New York. It is also a history that highlights the exemplary
significance of New York’s housing politics and their relationship to national patterns and trends. For historians and radical urbanists alike, New York’s lessons derive less from their typicality than their ability to illuminate and speak to developments in other American cities. ‘In its tenant history, New York is,’ according to the historian Roberta Gold, ‘both representative and atypical at different times.’ On the one hand, it was largely of a piece with developments in a number of other industrial centres in the United States during the first half of the twentieth century. After the Second World War, on the other hand, it departed from the suburban homeownership model that prevailed nationally. While this led to the destruction of mass movements for affordable housing in most major American cities, activists in New York were able to forge and sustain a tenant infrastructure that supported – sometimes successfully, sometimes less so – many of the city’s poorest residents.10
If squatting came to occupy an important position within the post-war struggle for decent housing in New York, its relatively recent revival as a radical social movement ultimately belies its place within a more expansive history of occupation, settlement and resistance. Illegal occupations of land and struggles over property were central to what has been described as the ‘unjust usurpation of the continent by white settlers’.11
In the United States, squatting was closely intertwined with the predations of settler colonialism and, on a shifting frontier, it often represented a form of violent displacement through which indigenous communities were dispossessed of their lands and livelihoods.
At the same time, frontier settlers in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were, in most cases, compelled to become squatters as the distribution of land was largely controlled by speculators and land-grabbers (also known as ‘land-jobbers’), and many settlers were simply too poor to enter into credit-debt arrangements. Illegal settlements were vigorously proscribed by Congress, however, though squatters were quick to organise and form ‘settler’ or ‘squatter’ associations that lobbied politicians while adopting a range of direct-action tactics. The squatters were, in this way, successful in pushing legislative change through state-level adverse possession statutes as well as a series of pre-emption acts from 1815 to 1841. In 1862, the federal Homestead Act
was passed which allowed settlers to acquire federal land after living on it for five years and demonstrating that they had ‘improved’ it.12
In the state of New York, the history of land tenure was closely connected to its resettlement by the Dutch in the seventeenth century and the formation of a patroon
system that bestowed feudal manorial rights rooted in Dutch property law to large landowners. It was English common law, however, which formed the basis for property law in the United States, and while the Quia Emptores
statute had long-since abolished subinfeudation in England, it was never fully incorporated in the United States, though the 1787 Act Concerning Tenures banned feudal properties and established all real estate as allodial
– that is, owned absolutely and independently of a lord. Such legal quiddities helped shape the development of New York in the wake of independence and were responsible for the emergence of an Anti-Rent movement in the Hudson Valley in the 1840s that challenged the legalities of manorial tenure. Most landlords chose to sell their interests to the rent-striking tenants, though it was left to returning soldiers from the American Civil War to quash the remnants of the movement and, in so doing, uphold forms of servitude that they had only recently fought against.13
In and around New York City, large property-owners had, unlike their upstate counterparts, adopted a system of lease holding in which land was subdivided into small lots that were rented out to workers and artisans. By 1811, a new land-use plan had transformed Manhattan into a rectilinear grid of twelve avenues which ran the length of the island and dozens of streets spanning its width. Property lines were narrowly drawn within city blocks to carve out small parcels of land, twenty-five feet wide by one hundred feet deep. Alleyways, courtyards and rear access streets were left out of the plan. As the city expanded during the first half of the nineteenth century, lease holding allowed landowners to promote urban expansion and realise large profits without selling their land. A complex web of owners, landlords, sub-landlords, tenant managers, lessees, building operators and speculators soon emerged, however, especially in the Lower East Side were tenement structures were designed and constructed to maximise returns on the twenty-five by one hundred foot lots.14
Rapid industrialisation in the latter half of the nineteenth century was accompanied by a new influx of immigrants who crowded into poorly built tenements that had been hastily erected and were packed to capacity. By 1861, 50 per cent or 401,376 inhabitants of the city lived in 12,374 tenements. Tens of thousands more lived in ‘rookeries’, shacks and informal squatter settlements on pockets of ground that were either too rocky or too swampy for commercial development.15
An 1867 report by the Citizen’s Association Council of Hygiene pointed out that, in 1865, the East Side of Manhattan north of 40th Street contained approximately 1,016 squatter shacks, and that ‘the tenant-houses of the city as a whole’ were becoming ‘rapidly and perilously aggregated’.16
Another 1867 article in the New York Times
reported that ‘from the Hudson to the East River one can behold at least twenty-five different settlements, some located blocks apart from others, but each bearing a striking resemblance to the sister colony in point of dirt’. The largest was ‘Dutch Hill’, ‘a conglomeration of hovels’ that clustered around 41st Street near the East River. There were similar settlements dotted between Fourth and Tenth Avenues as well on the west side of town between 55th and 62nd Streets. As early as 1825, an African American settlement known as ‘Seneca Village’ had been established on purchased land that stretched from 81st to 89th Street. The only community of African American property owners in nineteenth-century Manhattan, the settlement was finally cleared in the 1850s to make way for Central Park.17
Beyond Manhattan, there were also a series of ‘shantytowns’ in Brooklyn. Many were located on the wasteland and mudflats adjacent to the docks, including a ‘desolate’ settlement at Red Hook near the Gowanus Canal on ‘an open space of land sunken so far below the city level that all attempts at sewerage have failed’.18
Others were located nearby including ‘Tinkersville’, ‘Phoenix Park’, ‘Slab City’, ‘Smokey Hollow’ and ‘Darby’s Patch’.19
While New York’s ‘shanty dwellers’ were widely impugned as ‘squatters’, they often paid some form of ground rent for their land. The majority were poor migrants employed as manual labourers and factory workers. In Brooklyn, a group of German labourers were living in a ‘row of shanties’ along Van Brunt Street as early as 1846. Another group of African American workers set up an informal settlement in Brooklyn known as ‘Crow Hill’. Many commuted to Manhattan where they worked as domestic servants and in the Fulton and Washington Markets.20
Other shantytown residents worked within a wider informal economy. Some residents maintained gardens and raised livestock for sale. Offal boiling and piggeries were also popular businesses. As a retrospective history of squatting in the New York Times