(Migration and homelessness caused by climate change and economic collapse in the coming Long Descent will be a huge social challenge. We must think now how we will deal with it when it comes. To do that we should first look at the history of squatting over the last two centuries for some context of squatting in an urban environment. This is the second in a series of articles by guest blogger Justin Patrick Moore.)
If you live in a city you’ve seen the specter of homelessness.
Unless you are totally tuned out, indifferent and clueless, you probably understand that the chain of events that has led a person or a family to life on the streets has not been in their complete control. The rise and fall of the wheel of fortune, the ebb and flow of the tides of fate can be both boon and bane. It is not up to us to judge how people end up in the circumstances they inhabit. It will probably also never be up to us influence how they react and respond to the hand they have been dealt. Yet within each hand of cards life has given a person, there are certain plays and arrangements which can be made to make the most of a situation.
For the increasing homeless population of the world there is an opportunity to be found in something else industrial society has so carelessly discarded: buildings and home. Chances are, if you live in a city you have seen abandoned buildings boarded up somewhere (or everywhere), with knee high weeds surrounding the yard. Maybe you’ve even snuck into one of these empty houses, looking for ghosts, or as a dare or a cheap thrill, or perhaps just because you like exploring the ruins society has littered around us. The banks may see these empty homes as liabilities. In the eye of a green wizard, or anyone who doesn’t like to see things go to waste, these houses are resources.
Environmentalists have long taught the practice of the three R’s: reduce, reuse, recycle. Occupying an abandoned home is a way to do all three. It also seems like an obvious solution to the housing crisis in America. It’s quite unfortunate that obvious solutions aren’t always embraced by the System. They would rather seek some baroque way, involving lots of forms and red tape, to keep their fingers in the pie. Meanwhile space is wasted and homes left unoccupied suffer from the lack of care and grow sick with decay. Urban planners have a word for that and they call it ‘blight’.
Anyone who takes off the blinders provided by the infotainment industrial complex can see the sickness and decay at work, despite the new shopping centers being built next to the new shoddy suburbs planted on top of old uprooted trees. The world is awash with refugees, migrants, folks who have been displaced, folks who have been discarded from the official narrative in way or another. Where do they all go? There is a strong possibility that many of them will become squatters. It is quite fortunate that they don’t have to wait for permission to find a place where they can take shelter, make a life, make a home.
In his 2004 book Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World, Robert Neuwirth reported on his visits to cities Rio de Janeiro, Nairobi, Mumbai and Istanbul. At the time of his writing it was estimated that there were roughly 1 billion squatters around the world, and that by 2030 that number would double to 2 billion. The squatters he reported on lived in all manner of conditions including shantytowns, favelas, shacks, and other improvised structures. His study was isolated to third and second world countries. It can be surmised that as the U.S. and other industrialized first world nations descend the staircase of catabolic collapse, the number of squatters and squatter neighborhoods in large “first world” cities will begin to rise.
Squatting is a response to circumstance and need and both existed in Berlin after WWII. By the end of the war it had endured 363 bombing raids, each one chipping away buildings that had been built in the 19th century. When the city was divided into two during the Cold War, new buildings were erected on both sides of the wall. These were called neubauten. These soulless, modern, purely functional buildings sat amidst others in serious states of disrepair.
The population of Berlin had also been sharply reduced by the war. Before WWII it had housed five million. In its aftermath, there were only three million. The vacant buildings left behind went on to become the squat-homes of a generation of young Germans deeply steeped in the counterculture, a post-war generation who rejected the values of their elders who had been complicit with the holocaust. Young college students could live there almost for free and they “declared squatting the natural response to a city on the edge of nowhere”. These students gathered together in masses, mobilized by being in close proximity with each other in the squats. In 1968 rioting ensued.
After the riots European squatting culture blossomed in West Berlin in the 1970’s. The city was ripe for the kind of intellectual and artistic fermentation about to take place there. It had already seen so much destruction that something was bound to emerge from the ruins.
The first formal squatting communes in Berlin were organized in 1971 in Marianneplatz in Kreuzbeurg. In S. Alexander Reed’s book Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music, he writes, “at any moment in the late 1970’s 150 unlawfully occupied squats operated in West Berlin, mostly in or near Kreuzberg. Just south of the Spree River and separated by the wall from the East Berlin borough of Friedrichschain, Kreuzberg was an impoverished, ugly part of Berlin. Those who lived there were generally vagrants, students, or Turkish immigrants who had come to Germany for postwar work rebuilding the country. Young anarchists and socialists took over entire streets and parks in the corners of West Berlin. Any given squat would house between eight and fifty people, either living rent free or paying a low-lease, sometimes attending the Berlin State School of Fine Arts or the Technical University, but fundamentally acting on anti-establishment rage. The numbers were too great for the police to control: phone trees powered by hacked communications lines enabled these young people to assemble by the thousands within an hour. The organizational soundness of the culture afforded an artistic scene complete with cafes (the Rote Harfe was a favorite), discos and makeshift libraries. Berlin’s constantly changing cast didn’t impede the microcosm’s day-to-day life, but instead, change was built into the scene’s basic operation. Indeed, a student’s political shift or change of drug habits might mean moving from, say, Albertstrasse 86 to Weinerstrasse 25. Some squats were ideologically dogmatic; others offered non-stop partying.”
Berlin was one of the cities where industrial music originated via the band Einsturzende Neubauten (Collapsing New Buildings). They used custom-built instruments made out of whatever metal scraps they could find laying around alongside building tools combined with standard musical instruments to make a rough punk music mixed with noise. Their early music was as harsh as the sound of modern industry, with Bargeld's vocals shouted and screamed above a din of banging and scraping metal percussion. It was the sound of civilization falling.
Yet the punks weren’t satisfied to just sit back and let life pass them by, they responded, they participated, they acted. They did something, they did anything, and it was better than doing nothing. Taking action is part of the punk mindset. As Steve Ignorant of Crass put it in a 1997 interview, “There has to be an alternative to the dole, do something creative.”
What if the large number of unemployed people in the United States got creative instead of on opioids? What if instead of passively accepting what life has doled out, people reacted with the sense of primacy and immediacy embodied by the punk movement? Something new might emerge from the ashes of our failing state.
Since the Great Recession there have been increased numbers of people in the U.S. squatting in foreclosed homes. I predict that Detroit will become the first North American city to have whole neighborhoods of squatters on par with Berlin in 1970s and the cities Robert Neuwirth visited when writing Shadow Cities. A lot of people are already squatting there. According to the Detroit Land Bank Authority, a public agency that manages the city's abandoned properties, squatters occupy more than 3,000 home, in a city where 43,000 remain vacant. These vacant homes are a cause for concern among residents. Some try to adopt abandoned houses on their block in an effort to contain the spread of blight and structural decay. If a squatter moves in and actually works to improve the property, as many do, it can be a win-win for everyone.
Some folks in Detroit go a step further and homestead the vacant buildings, using them as spaces to grow food, raise chickens, and engage in other regenerative activities. Mark Covington decided to plant a community garden on one site as a way to deter the people who were using it as an illegal dump. In 2008 he had started by working three properties and by 2018 was creatively reusing twenty-three, having gotten some help along the way from neighborhood kids and other volunteers.
Taking over abandoned land and spaces is a logical response to dire situations. It may even be preferable to government sanctioned housing projects. It may also become necessity when rich people take over neighborhoods they were formerly afraid to even visit.
In Glasgow, Scotland folks living in the neighborhood of Gorbals have also had a long struggle with poverty. In the 1970’s the situation was harrowing. The city blocks in the district were semi-derelict. Young mothers lived in rat infested tenements where rainwater pooled on the floors. The non-profit group Shelter had made strides since that time in improving the living conditions of the people but there continues to be shortage of affordable living as the process of gentrification takes over places once seen as undesirable. “…at the end of last year  Scottish Labour's former housing minister warned that Scotland is facing its largest housing crisis since the end of WWII, with the potential of a shortfall of 160,000 homes by 2035.”
Detroit and Glasgow are only two examples among a plethora where blight has set in and continues to spread.
One solution to housing problems is to squat and if you’re going to squat it might as well be in style, albeit cheap, salvaged, scrounged and grungy style. Punkers already know how to live grungy on the cheap, so why not take a few tips from those who have done it intentionally, from people who have avoided the rush to collapse by living that way now?
Enter the punk house, a place where members of the punk subculture dwell together, as a way to pool resources, and cut back on their participation in the financial system. Protection and safety is another reason to band together. In places like Detroit where the entire city system is under stress, law enforcement is underfunded and understaffed. Human predators seeking human prey have been known to hunt and kill in the derelict landscape.
A punk house doesn’t have to be a squat though; it could just be a low-rent house or space. What ties one punk house to another is a shared ethos for a communal/common living space, frugal living, a DIY lifestyle, and individuals contributing to a home economy. What makes one punk house different from another are specific aesthetics and tastes of the individuals living there for genres and subgenres of music (i.e. hardcore, thrash, black metal, dub). A greater variance is the ideologies some punk houses are organized around: vegan and straight edge, for example, or carnivorous hedonistic revelers for another. Some may be anarchist, while others are apolitical with many examples along such a spectrum.
Penny Rimbaud, co-founder of the punk band Crass wrote on his motivation to found the communal style artist sanctuary Dial House, “Individual housing is one of the most obvious causes for the desperate shortage of homes. Communal living is a practical solution to the problem. If we could learn to share our homes, maybe we could learn to share our world. That is the first step towards a state of sanity.”
Living together is nothing new for most of the world. It was a simple matter of course before the Cold War and the advent of the nuclear family. Multigenerational family living arrangements were a norm. Then the bomb exploded that sanity, and the boom economics of the American empire at its peak made it possible for individuals to be able to afford to live on their own and in smaller groups. The number of multigenerational homes was in overall decline in America from 1950 to 1980 when it went from 21% to 12% of the population. Now it’s on the upswing again thanks to the hole the Great Recession ate in Americas pocketbook. In 2016 it hit a record of 64 million people, back up to 20% of the population.
Even in the age of the nuclear family blood is still thick. Those who choose the Down Home Punk option and make a go at shared living arrangements may choose to bring in their blood, but I imagine there will also be a mixture of old friends and newcomers. We live in a time when many people have abandoned their hometowns for the allure of upward mobility. From these scattered tribes new weaves of extended, blended, multigenerational families will emerge. Different folks will simmer together in the stew pot of circumstance and need.
As a family they have a better chance of taking over an empty home, retrofitting it, rehabbing it, and eventually through the rites of the squatter, taking over legal ownership of the property. In a world made harsh, and in a world made by hand, whatever legal powers of state and law remain will be happy that gardens have been planted and homes on the brink of falling apart will have been made livable again.
The time exists now for right action. The time exists now to take a step. We don’t have to wait.
Penny Rimbaud of Crass offers just a smattering of possibilities awaiting those who are willing to take action. “Quite apart from direct action, there are things that we can do within the existing social structures that will weaken those structures while at the same time helping ourselves and each other. We can open up squats and start information services for those who want to do the same. We can form housing co-ops and communes to share the responsibility of renting or even buying a property. In places where we already live, we can open the doors to others. We can form Tenant Associations with neighbours and demand and create better conditions and facilities in the area. We can form gardening groups that squat and farm disused land, or rent allotments where we can produce food for ourselves and others that is free from dangerous chemicals. We can grow medicinal herbs to cure each other’s headaches. We can create health groups where we can practice alternative medicine, like herbalism and massage that create healthy bodies and minds rather than drugged-up robots that are the results of conventional medicine. Maybe we can learn to love and respect each other’s bodies rather than fearing them. We can form free schools where knowledge can be shared rather than rules laid down. Education, rather than being State training in slavery, can become a mutual growth and true enquiry into the world around us, a place where everyone is the teacher and everyone is the pupil.”
Though we may face the limitations of the natural world, and stumble against obstacles of our own making, we will still be able to tap into the supply of imagination. Availing ourselves of this resource we can begin to make adjustments to the predicaments of our age. All we have to do is put in the required hard work to make those adjustments real.
Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, a New Urban World by Robert Neuwirth, Routledge, 2004.
Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music by S. Alexander Reed, Oxford University Press, 2013.
Steve Ignoratnt, interviewed bySid and Zillah (Rubella Ballet): https://youtu.be/IgNToZnyslE
Families Squat In Abandoned Homes As The Housing Crisis Grips Detroit by Kate Abbey-Lambertz, huffington post article: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/detroit-housing-crisis-abandoned-homes-sq..., retrieved in July and August of 2019.
For another view read: Dead bodies, wild dogs, squatters in government-owned Detroit houses by Jennifer Dixon, Detroit Free Press https://www.freep.com/story/news/local/2018/07/19/squatters-detroit-land....
Furthermore there is even a book about how to get by in Detroit due to its lack of services. It’s titled DIY Detroit: Making Do in a City Without Services by Kimberley Kinder, University Of Minnesota Press, 2016.
Comparing the Slums of 1970s Glasgow to the Buildings That Stand There Today by Hope Whitmore https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/3bjyg9/nick-hedges-scotland-slums-288
The Last of the Hippies: an Hysterical Romance by Penny Rimbaud, PM Press, 2015.