With Blood, Sweat, and Tears: The Making of Peoplehood and Home

In this post, current OHMA students Robin Miniter (2016) and Shira Hudson (2016) reflect on the history of urban squatters on the Lower East Side after Amy Starecheski’s recent OHMA Workshop Series lecture. Through interviews with members of the current OHMA cohort, they explore what it takes to make a space feel like home.      

It’s a question of ownership: is it bestowed by a legal document, or something else? With her presentation of “Property, Peoplehood, and Collective Claims on the City,” Amy Starecheski—former Mott Haven squatter, cultural anthropologist, oral historian, and our very own Co-Director of the Oral History Master of Arts program—took us on a fascinating journey through the making of Ours to Lose: When Squatters Became Homeowners in New York City.

From the abandoned buildings of the Lower East Side came hundreds of homes, forged in roof tar and sheetrock by individuals fighting City Hall for a place of their own. Faced with economic crisis and the ensuing mass abandonment of aging residential buildings in the late 1970’s, the neighborhood soon became the stomping grounds of individuals laying claim to forsaken buildings.

Squatters (people who occupy without a legal contract) collectively worked to reconstruct these places through rebuilding walls, planting gardens, and writing manifestos: the making of intentional community. They were working to create a space of their own all the while advocating for their rights to stay. As real-estate prices rose and gentrification spread, squatters—having cultivated community through political action and art—were pressured to vacate.

Through her fieldwork, Amy gathered the life narratives of dozens of former squatters. These stories speak to how place shapes our personhood, and how intangible things like security, comfort, and relationships can make a place valuable.

In her recordings, we heard from Fly, a former squatter and iconic artist who has been instrumental in preserving and telling the history of the squatters’ movement. Fly explained, “My blood is in this building, it is such an intense thing to work so hard and fight so hard for your space; it is not just about the physical space, it is about being in control of your living space.”   

Maggie Wrigley, a writer originally from Australia, who lived in the Bullet Space squat at 292 East 3rd Street told us, “I put my blood sweat and tears; my shoulders, my lungs, my knees are in this building.”

Maggie and Fly represent how squatters poured themselves physically and emotionally and into constructing these valuable places that ultimately became their homes.

Home is a place that is meaningful to you for any number of reasons.  A place that you have invested in, not necessarily monetarily, but that you have built up over time.
— Amy Starecheski

Amy’s talk left us with the question: what does it take to make a place a home?
We wanted to hear more.

Here, you meet three current OHMA students. (acknowledging here their disimilarities with squatters, as all featured have leases) They speak to being new to New York City, and how they’ve come to define Home—if they’ve found a definition at all.

See Sara Jacobs, Emma Courtland, and Monica Liuting in their current apartments. Each describes her spaces, places of their past—all-the-while trying to answer questions surrounding the meaning of coming and going and sometimes staying: the things they leave, and what they keep, and how they create.

Home has a lot to do with the people in your life. What is home if you don’t have the people you love around you?
— Sara Jacobs

It’s late Sunday evening in Inwood, far north in Manhattan where Sara lives—for the first time—in her own place. She points out the various artifacts in her living room, some of the only things she has taken along through her many moves. This is the first time she had control over her space and that means a lot to her. We learn that this current home, though temporary, is turning out to be exactly what she needs it to be.

Home has a lot to do with where you feel comfortable doing nothing.
— Emma Courtland

Emma has turned her apartment into her own version of a concrete jungle. With plants lurking in every corner high and low, she finds solace in their need for care. She has her own room in a sprawling shared apartment in Hamilton Heights.

While Emma feels very much a part of New York, she also misses her husband, her dog Juicebox, and spending her evenings with them back in Los Angeles. She ponders homesickness and a bi-coastal lifestyle. Here, she speaks to the rhythm of living in two places.

Home means memory. In New York, I am creating a memory.
— Monica Liuting

It dawns on Monica that, at the time that her current building on W 113th Street was built, China still had an emperor. She describes life with her great grandmother, grandfather, and many relatives. She reminisces about a date tree in the back yards, and how every autumn they would enjoy its fruits.

Monica speaks fondly of her apartment in New York and tells us about the time she has invested into making it her home through spending time cooking, reading, and working within the walls.

Robin Miniter comes to OHMA with a B.A. from Marist College and a critical eye turned to the experience of female bodies in motion.

During undergrad, her senior capstone project was a photo documentation of experiences of women in “hyper-masculine” sporting realms. As a Fulbright-Nehru Student Research Scholar to India, she took to the pitches with her cleats and camera, as she chased the rise of women’s rugby across the subcontinent.

Robin is currently pursuing her Certificate in Documentary Arts from Duke University. Through her thesis project, she hopes to refine her vision as a multidisciplinary documentary artist by exploring the intersection of oral history and geography along the Appalachian Trail in Hot Springs, N.C.

Shira Hudson is a student at OHMA and is also the associate director of planned giving at UJA-Federation. She comes to the program to explore the importance of capturing philanthropists’ life histories in order to better understand their philanthropic motivations and values.

Shira holds a B.A. in Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures from Columbia University and a B.A. in Jewish History from the Jewish Theological Seminary.