Atlantic Cities
Postcard

The Life of a 1990s Manhattan Squatter

The Life of a 1990s Manhattan Squatter
Ash Thayer

Ash Thayer moved from Memphis to Manhattan in the early 1990s with dreams of becoming a photographer. Living off part-time work and student loans while attending The School of Visual Arts, Thayer mostly squatted on the Lower East Side. Over time, she developed a deep connection with the community that took her in. That relationship comes through in "This Land," a photography project Thayer shot between 1992 and 1999.

Thayer describes herself as someone who "was really into punk, metal, and thrasher music and anything experimental," and her shots represent the community she came of age with, a group of outsider 20-somethings who sought financial and cultural refuge on the LES at the "tail end of an era."

We caught up with the Los Angeles-based photographer via email to talk about "This Land," what life was like for her at the time, and how her community of squatters changed her: 

Was there a story you were trying to tell at the time of these photos?

I did not have a specific agenda or narrative I was attempting to illustrate. I was simply responding to the life unfolding around me.

When I began attending The School of Visual Arts, I really had no plan or vision for my future. I wasn't interested in making "commercial" work. I had a professor that encouraged me to photograph the things I cared about the most, so I naturally made work about my everyday life and surroundings.

I found the friends that surrounded me in the squatting community just as beautiful (if not more so) than fashion models or the subjects in Renaissance paintings. The way we were living in community and rehabilitating these old buildings to make homes for ourselves and others was just as attention-worthy, in my opinion, than anything else in the news, art world, or popular culture. 

Do you know what became of the squats you were living in?

After numerous high-profile clashes, City Hall agreed on a new approach in 2002. Eleven of the 12 remaining LES squats were sold for $1 apiece to the nonprofit Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, that would in turn sell them to the squatters for $250 per apartment after they brought their buildings up to code. The end goal was to create affordable, limited-equity co-ops. Number twelve opted to battle in court for their rights under adverse possession. The first and last building I stayed in were eventually bought from the city under this arrangement.   

Looking back on this project years later, what kind of story do see in them now? 

This was a time in Manhattan where not every last stone was unturned, or every last corner gobbled up by profit seekers. Wealthy conservatives would still steer clear of the LES for fear of being mugged or just wanting to avoid poor people or certain subcultures. There were empty lots and buildings with potential. There was still a sense of mystery and intrigue to the area, with room to move around in it.

The 90s were the tail end of an era where artists and bohemian types could seek out each other and live inexpensively in Manhattan. The squatting culture itself was unusual in that it had become so organized, populated, and long-standing. Consumerism then came in like a crushing wave, clearing out much that was unique and idiosyncratic to the area, leaving in its wake tiny millionaire apartments and endless blocks of places to unload your paycheck. The ethnic diversity had already been (and still was) in decline. 

What made New York, or perhaps specifically the Lower East Side, special to you and the people you documented?

To say that these were my formative years would be an understatement. Although sometimes it could be a wild scene, it taught me many very valuable skills—construction, community organization, bravery, and above all independence.

My ability to trust my instincts and stay true to my beliefs was strengthened and deepened by the experience. Back then, if I needed walls with insulation, I built them, same for electricity or water. If I believed in something, I stood up for it—fought for it. Together, my fellow squatters and I crafted a life out of New York City's bountiful garbage. There is much to be learned from it, and I am very grateful for that long and full chapter of my life.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

All images courtesy Ash Thayer.

H/T Feature Shoot

Mark Byrnes is an associate editor at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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