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Squatting for Justice, Bringing Life to the City

rota flora

Squats have to be recognized and supported for what they are: vibrant social centers at the very heart of the ‘commons’, actively including the excluded.

A few months ago one of the editors of an architecture magazine emailed me asking me to write a short piece about squatting, squatters and squats. His request was accompanied with a few guidelines: “The argument I am interested in is that squatting, far from being harmful to cities, is an essential component of social, cultural and economic development and should be welcomed and supported by governments and local authorities. I think it is important to make the case that over time, squatting contributes to the mainstream economic and culture vibrancy of a place as well as its alternative scene.”

This is definitely my own position about squatting in general, although I admit that many urban conflicts often burst once squatting emerges. Needless to say, I felt happy with the prospect that a widespread architectural publication might cover what I consider a progressive and sensible issue. With this orientation toward providing a positive view of squatting, I started writing my column.

However, while exchanging some messages with the editor, he insisted on what I would call the “gentrifying imaginary” of squatters. “[The area] in London where our office is based was once full of squatting artists and designers who gradually transformed the area from one that was quite dangerous to one that is now home to Google, Facebook and a myriad of trendy bars. Now that squatting is a criminal offense in the UK, I suspect we’ll never see such an organic and successful transformation of a neighborhood. That’s not to dismiss the value of an alternative cultural movement but as many of our readers are firmly embedded in mainstream industries it is the joining of the dots between mainstream and alternative that will persuade them to think differently.”

Well, the challenge for me became a bit uphill by then. How could I persuade architects and real-estate managers that banning squatting is just a “bad idea” without mentioning that squatting tackles the very core inequities of the housing market? Would there be space for arguing that squatting is not exclusively about producing culture and revitalizing urban life in decaying urban areas?

Simply put, I see squatting as a great practical alternative to capitalism, although it is not always very effective in changing housing and land policies. At the very least, it provides affordable spaces for living, for politics and for social and cultural life. But, if it were to be the case, gentrification as a side effect of squatting would be a key contradiction of this urban movement. To the extent of my knowledge, in general squatters are not gentrifiers. Rather, they tend to oppose global corporations and urban redevelopment where residents have no say, as well as market speculation. It is easier to find squatters who are more concerned about social justice, homelessness, displacement, housing prices and the commodification and surveillance of urban life than those who are blindly proud of their belonging to a so-called “creative class”.

So I made an effort to emphasize these features and controversies instead of portraying a misleading sketch of squatters for the sake of the mainstream industries’ satisfaction. Not surprisingly, as I had feared, the article was rejected. Perhaps, I thought, critical thinking can still appeal to other architects, planners and people interested in improving urban life beyond the stereotypes of squatters and the culturalistic approach to gentrification. So I decided to publish the original text, which follows.

Take care of the squats

Why evict squats? This question has always shocked me very deeply. Are authorities, private owners and real estate developers right in aiming at the eradication of squats? According to their immediate interests, squats are an obstacle to their projects. Squatters, they argue, take over spaces illegally and sometimes overtly confront urban redevelopment. In this simplified, market-driven reasoning, squatting is seen more as a spoke in a wheel than as a collective effort to fulfill the right to the city.

As a sociologist and urban scholar who has been also involved in some squats, I argue that the repression of squatters is indeed a big mistake. My stance is that squatters and squats enhance cities in many ways that are not usually taken into account by politicians, judges, the mass media, the public at large and urban developers. Furthermore, their opponents tend to base the repressive measures on either weak or insufficient evidence, if not on a very narrow minded view of city life.

Let me start first with a few remarks in order to clarify concepts. My experience and knowledge stems mainly from squats in European cities, which are not slums, shanty towns or self-built houses in derelict land of the outskirts. Although all forms of occupation of empty spaces must be regarded as essential parts of urban history, and all their dwellers deserve respect and resources to improve their living conditions, their challenges are somewhat different. Hence, I refer to squats only as occupations of vacant buildings or flats without the owner’s permission.

For instance, to mention a common misunderstanding, if a residence is broken-in when their owners or tenants go on vacation, this is not a squat, but a distinct serious offense. A durable vacancy or abandonment of a house, factory, school, etc. is a prerequisite to setting up a squat. Only then is it manifest that the holder of the legal title of property does not need it in the short-run. His or her underuse of the estate and the lack of maintenance may even ruin the building and cause damages to other residents. Therefore, while using it, squatters help to keep the property in a liveable state.

The squatters’ purposes may vary between housing provision and the performance of a broad range of cultural, economic and political activities. Importantly, not all squatters use this label to identify themselves. Notwithstanding, when squatting takes root in a given urban area, it is likely to give birth to a wider movement with manifold expressions of collective identity.

From Paris to Bilbao

There are many types of squatters and squats. Their needs and impacts can be, accordingly, very different. One of the primary errors, then, is to pack them all under the same social category. At the other extreme, a not less wrong procedure is to simplify that diversity by, in a manipulative manner, splitting squatters between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ones. Leaving aside the lack of tolerance towards many squatters’ criticisms of the capitalist system, the dismissive attitude facing ‘bad squatters’ lies on the assumption that most of the squatting projects engender typical problems — for instance, the noise that disturbs some neighbors or the spoiling of properties, something that can happen everywhere and not necessarily due to the presence of squatters. Quite the contrary, what I have observed more often is a great effort to take care of the occupied places, to promote communal ways of living and to share their ideas with their surrounding neighborhoods. Is all of that so insignificant as to put our focus exclusively on the not granted legal right to use a private or public space?

To name famous squats in Europe is not difficult because, occasionally, they obtain media coverage due to the massive protests that their eviction, or threats of eviction, ignite. This is the case of the recent public outcry against the City of Hamburg after evicting the Rote Flora, a social center occupied in 1989. After several days of demonstrations and clashes, a truce was declared that will prolong the activity of the squat. But one wonders why the media did not pay the same attention to the impressive 25 years of continuous exhibitions, concerts, workshops, talks and sociability fostered by the voluntary work of several generations of activists and thousands of visitors.

Less successful was the defense of another long lasting squatted social center, the Kukutza Gaztetxea in Bilbao, which was evicted in 2011 after an overwhelming wave of mobilization and support coming from all the social angles — neighborhood associations, university professors, architects, lawyers, political parties, artists… almost everybody except the mayor and the proprietor of the former factory. This was not a squat only for young radicals, as the pervasive stereotype of squatters leads us to think, but also a place open to all who wanted to practice sports, learn foreign languages, create art, launch cooperative enterprises, organize meetings and engage in political campaigning.

Let’s look at Paris as well. There, when squats are above all about artistic production and granted some favorable governance conditions, squatters may achieve legal status and even access to munificent public funds. At the core of the city’s commercial center, 59 Rivoli (nowadays called an “aftersquat”) is a well-known example. Nonetheless, when migrants, homeless people and poor youngsters squat just for living, their struggle to reach a secure tenancy is always hindered by a fierce attack from the powers that be.

Again, the hot issue for the decision-makers is why they prosecute those who find an affordable means to house themselves while there are abundant empty apartments and a scarcity of social housing. A proof that squatting is closer to legitimacy (the right to a decent housing) than to legality (the prohibition against trespassing on a private property) is that in cities such as Berlin, Amsterdam, London, New York and Rome, it was feasible to negotiate and legalize many of the former squats.

Authorities praise the artistic squats over others, and they are more prone to tolerating or subsidizing their continuity because they are conceived as city landmarks for the so-called creative class. They also appeal to tourists. However, they forget that low-paid and precarious artists need an accessible place to live, too. As a consequence, the housing question is often ignored. And it is also misguided to think of squats as a simple temporary solution, since cases like the three above were able to last for more than a decade. (For those interested in knowing the fates of many other squats, I recommend checking out the collective book Squatting in Europe)

The outstanding qualities of squats

You may disagree, as I do, with some squatters and dislike the way they manage the building. This may also occur with any social movement. Take, for example, a controversial environmental action or policy — some are so single-issue oriented that you might think they do not address the core source of ecological problems. Regarding squatters, their economic troubles for daily survival, their academic obligations if they are enrolled in the university, or just their easy-going way of living may produce a low level of activities or social and cultural vibrancy compared to the standard expectations of those who conceive the city as a permanent off-limits growth machine. Obviously, it is this framework and its associated prejudices which prevent a careful consideration of the particular circumstances of every squat. The central or peripheral location of the squat, the speculation and gentrification processes surrounding them, and the more or less conflicting relationship between squatters and authorities, may determine the reach of the outcomes. In fact, these utopian, heterotopian and liberated urban spaces are also constrained by those and similar not-always-so-tangible powers.

I prefer to highlight the outstanding qualities of most squats. First, squats are built by squatters, active citizens who devote a great part of their lives to providing autonomous and low-cost solutions to many of the city’s flaws (such as housing shortages, expensive rental rates, the bureaucratic machinery that discourages any grassroots proposal, or the political corruption in the background of urban transformations). Second, squatters move but squats remain as a sort of “anomalous institution”, neither private nor state-owned, but belonging to the “common goods” of citizenship, like many other public facilities.

Third, since most squats have a non-commercial character, this entails easy access to their activities, services and venues for all who are excluded from mainstream circuits, which is a crucial contribution to social justice, equality and local democracy. Fourth the occupation of buildings is not an isolated practice but a collective intervention in the urban fabric that avoids further deterioration in decaying areas by recycling materials, greening the brown fields and the sad plots of urban void and, not least, by building up social networks and street life, which are palpable social benefits, though they are not easy to measure with official statistics.

There is a long tradition of legal regulations that granted rights to the inhabitants of abandoned properties after a certain number of years of occupation. However, in recent years neoliberal politicians have worked hard to sweep these old rules under the rug. Squatting might also make deep social conflicts explicit, but given the above mentioned arguments, it is evident that there are very effective and positive urban contributions derived from this well-rooted practice. For these reasons, instead of suppressing the squats, I’d rather recommend giving them a hand and recognizing their valuable strengths and contributions.

Miguel A. Martínez is Assistant Professor at the City University of Hong Kong (www.miguelangelmartinez.net).

Originally posted on roarmag.org.

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