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Issue No. 16 - Chaos

C-squat. The Old Energy of the East Village remains alive

Konstantin Sergeyev has been documenting alternative culture in the East Village since 2000. His first punk show was at a place called C-squat at 15 years old. Back then C-squat was a punk house/Squat where shows took place with little to no consequences from the cops.

To understand what C-Squat is, one first has to understand the history of the East Village. Back in the 70s and 80s it was full of abandoned, run down buildings. It had a quintessential feel of urban decay. When these elements come together the natural action for those who can't find work to afford a home, those who can't work, and those who want to live outside the system, is to take over these abandoned buildings and start calling them their homes. This is squatting. It has a long history in the East Village. The first successful takeover of the house that is now C-Squat was in 1989. In the late 80s there were dozens of squats owned by either the city or landlords, and they did not want the residents living there.

In the early 90s most squats were evicted or burned down. Those destroyed were widely suspected to have been torched by the landlords in order to reclaim the land.

In 1995 a squat on East 13th Street had a major standoff with the police, who even brought in an “Armored Rescue Vehicle”, which bears a strong resemblance to a tank. The squatters stood their ground,  but eventually were overpowered. After 1995, about a dozen squats remained.

The East Village has a rich history of activism. As squat numbers increased, so did other community based programs like gardens and co-op grocery stores. The alternative communities thrived.

In the early 2000s it was clear the city had to deal with squats in a different way than simply arresting all the residents and putting them out on the street. A deal was made with the city that if the buildings could be brought up to standard code then the residents could buy them for $1.

C-Squat is currently undergoing this process, but in order to get up to code they had to take out a loan to pay for renovations on the building. This changed the dynamic because it forced those who had not paid rent for years, to start paying rent.

The house has roughly 25 permanent residents and a rotating cast of characters who live in the basement. The building has four residential floors which have 4 rooms each, and a large basement which serves as a community space.

The most interesting room in the squat is the community space. This is where anything from punk shows, fashion shows, birthday parties, dance parties, and house meetings are held. There are several bands that operate out of the house, such as Banji and Dog That Bites Everyone. This is what Konstantin documents the most.

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The roof is also used. For example, it is a memorial for a former resident of the house who passed away.

The squat is currently in a state of limbo, not really a squat, not yet a legal house. Everything is up to code but the loan still needs to be paid. It's an interesting time for the residents, who decide everything by community vote.

However, the space still plays a role in activism in the neighborhood hosting events that benefit various causes; anything from alternative fashion shows to art exhibits.

After Hurricane Sandy, when the neighborhood was without power for several days, the residents prepared free hot meals for people in the area, using food donated by local restaurants and grocery stores, and utilized bike generators to produce energy for issues like charging cell phones.

The building that houses the squat itself features a store front, which for decades was used as a communal storage space. However, to help pay back the loan, the space needed to be rented out. When faced with the choice between a corporate chain that would pay high rents and generate profits, or a community organization that would adhere more closely to the ethos of the squat, the residents voted that the space should become home to the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space, a museum that documents East Village activism.

It's a new time for the squat, one of only a few remaining in the city, but it keeps alive the energy and feel of the old East Village as gentrification slowly creeps in.

Konstantin is currently working on a book featuring writing from people who live in the squat.

Photographs courtesy Konstantin Sergeyev

More photos: konstphoto.com

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