Thursday 16 March 2017
In February this year squatters moved into a £14m mansion near Buckingham Palace. It was the third such luxury property occupied in a matter of weeks by members of the Autonomous Nation of Anarchist Libertarians, or Anal for short, part of a campaign to highlight the scandal of empty properties at a time when homelessness and inequality are soaring. The number of people sleeping rough in England has risen steadily for the last six years.
Alexander Vasudevan’s study is the first comprehensive attempt to reconstruct the history of squatting as “the expression of an autonomous understanding of shared city life”. Each of his eight chapters takes a specific city and charts the evolution of squatting since the radical social movements of the 1960s, showing how the occupation of buildings became a way of reimagining the city “as a space of necessity and refuge, experimentation and resistance”. As well as providing an instant solution to the need for housing, squatting was also a way to reclaim the city in the face of gentrification and urban renewal schemes that were stripping it of public spaces and displacing working-class populations.
But Vasudevan goes further, claiming that squatters were also urban pioneers who explored a new kind of lifestyle, reclaimed spaces and asserted, to use Henri Lefebvre’s phrase, a universal “right to the city”. Squats became laboratories in which people experimented with new identities and collective living. In cities across Europe and the US, squats were places “where one could build an alternative world”.
Vasudevan sees his book not merely as a dry contribution to urban history, but as celebration of the vital ideas and achievements of those squatters who dared to imagine an alternative vision of life, an alternative to the neoliberal city and the urbanisation that is still engulfing the world. His highly original argument is that the history of squatting reveals “the potential reorganisation of our cities along more collective, socially just and ecologically sustainable lines”. Using archives created by squatters themselves, documenting their evanescent experiments, Vasudevan demonstrates that “the squat was a place of collective world-making: a place to express anger and solidarity, to explore new identities and different intimacies, to experience and share new feelings, and to defy authority and live autonomously”.
His opening chapter on New York City explores how a squatting movement emerged out of tenant activism. By 1960, 30% of New York’s non-white population were living in dilapidated housing and a series of rent strikes helped to draw the community together, giving tenants the confidence to fight for improved standards. In spring 1970 a squatter movement appeared called Operation Move-In. By the summer it had placed 150 working-class families, mostly of African American or Latino background, in abandoned apartments scheduled for demolition as part of a plan to build housing for middle- and upper-income families. One parent told a reporter: “We’ve been living in horrible places with horrible people for a year. This is … a nice community.”
Initially the city responded by destroying the plumbing and fixtures in all its empty properties. But eventually Operation Move-In forced the authorities to back down and allow the squatters – who had repaired and renovated their homes – to stay. Nearly a thousand housing units were also added to the urban redevelopment plan on the Upper West Side. Operation Move-In was a success, not only winning more housing but raising the issue’s profile through publicity stunts such as a “Housing Crimes Trial” attended by 1,500 people. The movement encouraged “new ways of thinking about and inhabiting the city as a space of political action and self-organisation”.
In London, the roots of squatting go back to the immediate postwar period when war veterans and Communist party activists occupied empty properties in 1946. For a time squatters even moved into luxury flats in Duchess of Bedford House, Kensington. But it was not until the 1960s and 70s that squatting became a more widespread phenomenon. At one point, a group living in a row of derelict GLC properties on Freston Road, west London, declared independence from the UK. The Free Independent Republic of Frestonia even wrote to the UN requesting a detachment of peacekeepers to prevent their imminent eviction. The UN didn’t respond, but the publicity generated by the squatters led to negotiations with the GLC and eventually the site was given to the Notting Hill housing trust.
Vasudevan’s argument is compelling and supported by impressive research. His account takes in the “alternative self-organised community” of Christiania, established in an abandoned barracks in Copenhagen in 1971, and the Berlin pensioners who occupied their community centre which was threatened with redevelopment, as well as the vibrant scene in Amsterdam where as many as 70,000 people were squatting between 1964 and 1999. Vasudevan shows how the occupation of vacant properties became “a radical urban social movement”, shaping the recent development of many cities. By occupying and renovating derelict houses, and – as happened in Berlin’s tenement buildings – creating a whole alternative social infrastructure with cafes, day care centres, workshops, concert venues, clinics, cycle repair shops and even a children’s petting zoo, squatters provided their cities with examples of collective living and social transformation.
It is, of course, deeply ironic that this “makeshift urbanism” – the radical repurposing of defunct urban spaces to create alternative communities – has now made cities such as Berlin highly attractive to businesses and gentrifiers: revolutionary ideas reduced to urban “branding assets”. As the moneyed classes and developers move into an area, the authorities begin clearing squatters. Indeed most of the spaces Vasudevan discusses have long since been redeveloped and the occupants evicted. In part, therefore, his project is an attempt “to reconstruct and reanimate these spaces”, preserving their “alternative vision of collective city life”.
The role of squatting has changed – it’s less about the wider housing movement, more to do with diverse protest cultures
In recent years the role of squatting has changed, becoming less about the wider housing movement and more to do with diverse protest cultures, such as the anti-globalisation campaign. Vasudevan points out that in the wake of the financial crisis “a sustained and systematic attack on alternative forms of living and working has taken place in cities across Europe and North America”. As rents and house prices soar, homes have become commodities and cities have been turned into “sites of intense displacement and inequality, exploitation and poverty”. Many people have been left without adequate housing, and radical housing movements have re-emerged in Berlin, New York and Paris, as well as in Greece, Italy and Spain, where 20% of the country’s housing stock now lies empty. In London, too, the age of austerity has prompted a revival of squatting, embodied in groups such as Focus E15 in Newham and Sisters Uncut in Hackney. However, on 1 September 2012 it became for the first time a criminal offence to squat a residential building in the UK.
The implications of the legislation are poignantly illustrated by the fate of Daniel Gauntlett, who was charged under the new anti-squatting laws. He froze to death outside an empty bungalow in Aylesford in 2013. As Vasudevan’s scholarly and illuminating study shows, for today’s squatters as for their predecessors, the urgent issue of housing is part of a broader concern. For squatting – in its radical incarnation – is about the future of our cities and about how all of us, as citizens, have a right to remake them into fairer, more humane places in which to live.
• PD Smith’s most recent book, City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age, is published by Bloomsbury. The Autonomous City: A History of Urban Squatting by Alexander Vasudevan is published by Verso. To order a copy for £16.99 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.