SACRPH 2015: The Politics (and Non-Politics) of the Unplanned City in the US, UK, and Germany


Panels at conferences often feel like a hastily assembled mishmash of different things, like a fruit salad made by Mr. Magoo. Scholars who do not know each other and know less about each other’s research work together over email to try to slap together panel proposals that seem just plausible enough to pass muster with weary conference organizers, who have papers to grade, toddlers with runny noses, and annoying emails from students to answer. (In my best John Oliver voice: If the reading is listed next to the class date on the syllabus, you read it BEFORE CLASS on that day Jeremy!)

But occasionally you get to see a panel where all the papers interlock in meaningful and intellectually intelligible ways. In just this fashion, the session “The Unplanned City: Occupation and Creative Reuse” at last week’s SACRPH conference in Los Angeles offered an invigorating and rich perspective on different approaches to occupying space in various unauthorized ways during the 1960s and 1970s. Crucially, the presenters were able to present case studies that transcend national borders (the US, UK, and East and West Germany) while also knitting together radical political movements, liberal reforms, and distinctly apolitical improvisations by ordinary people coping with ordinary problems. The panelists should all be commended for introducing their audience to a disparate but interconnected series of fascinating historical and political episodes in the late twentieth century.

The panel was also sponsored by the Vernacular Architecture Forum, the great scholarly organization that your intrepid reporter is working with to organize a tour of Research Triangle Park and its suburbs at the group’s 2016 meeting in Durham this June. You should come. We’ll have snacks.

Kera Lovell, “Radical Manifest Destiny: The Image and Impact of Berkeley’s People’s Park on a Transnational Environmental Justice Movement”

Purdue University’s Kera Lovell provided a fresh look at a seemingly familiar history—that of Berkeley’s 1960s People’s Park—by linking the story to UC’s spatial expansion and the broader history of popular garden-building across the United States and, indeed, the world. Most histories, Lovell suggested, treat the Berkeley People’s Park as an incidental site of antiwar activism. But she sees it as part of a new “urban spatial politics of the left,” fighting “environmental racism, police brutality, and gentrification” with public performance art and radical theater.

As the UC system grew with the dramatic democratization of higher education in the 1950s and 1960s, Berkeley’s campus felt serious pressure to expand. Support from the federal, state, and local government helped UC buy adjacent property and buildings to accommodate the explosive growth of the student population. In one unfortunate case, the university bought a lot of dormitories and recreational facilities, destroying homes and evicting tenants in 1968. However, as money ran short, the school the left the unpaved, unmaintained lot idle. Soon, a diverse of group of citizens and activists began gardening on the site. As one historian put it, the crowd included “black people, hippies, longshoremen, [and] working wives.” The development proved somewhat chaotic, as the historian William Rorabaugh recalled; one guy tried to build a bbq pit while another filled it in. The BBQ pit got built, in any case, along with a homemade jungle gym and a vegetable garden, and the garden also featured a characteristically idealistic 7-foot statue of the word “KNOW.”

The garden, of course, faced concerted resistance. One California Senator thought it was a health threat, and naturally detested its overabundance of hippies and drugs. Eventually the national guard came in, using tear gas and other weapons to disperse the peaceful gardeners. Meanwhile, the tenders of the People’s Park drew up a 13-point liberation program, which argued that the park was part of a global revolution to replace capitalism, militarism and war with community; they aimed to reclaim control of Telegraph Ave, as “a zone of struggle and liberation where the world of plastic was replaced by respect for nature.” The land had originally been stolen by the Catholic Church and Mexican government, they argued, analogizing themselves to dispossessed Native Americans, adopting an aesthetic that Lovell argues was hypermasculine and aspired to be “ethnically legitimate.”

In closing, Lovell pointed out that fellow “people’s parks” spread elsewhere, even at campuses that were more conservative and pro-ROTC, such as Michigan Tech. From Tucson to Vancover, activists embraced people’s parks and “pocket parks” as spaces of spontaneous, grassroots, democratic activity. The concept even took off as a symbol of popular protest in South Africa, eventually circling back to influence anti-apartheid activism on US college campuses. In this way, Lovell helps up to see both the local and transnational dimensions of a form of protest that has become iconic in the history of counterculture and New Left.

Jennifer Hock, “Occupy Columbus Avenue: Social Change and Spatial Politics in 1970s New York”

Jennifer Hock of the Maryland Institute of College of Art also returned us to 1968, the quintessential a year of 1960s protest. During that year, Hock reminds listeners, the American Federation of Teachers were on strike in New York; Columbia University students were raising a ruckus; and Jane Jacobs was arrested for protesting the proposed Lower Manhattan expressway. At the same time, she says, “Vibrant anti-planning movements emerged” in New York in opposition to urban renewal, so people could “stay put” where they lived.

Hock’s paper focuses on two distinct but parallel developments around Columbus Avenue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side (UWS). Columbus became a space of “insurgent citizenship,” to borrow a term from anthropologist James Holston. Community gardens were underway, schools and pedagogy were being reformed, and New Yorkers were occupying vacant buildings. “Is this a story of grassroouts community resistance?” Hock asks. The local people in UWS communities certainly framed their actions in this way, but Hock argues that the reforms and movements of the period had a more complex relationship with the state.

Hock looks at the so-called “open corridor” program in NYC schools, a liberal reform to help marginalized students, as well as urban squatting, a poor and working class radical movement. The open corridor movement was inspired in part by Piaget, who emphasized importance of complex learning environment. Teachers would encourage storytelling and spontaneous interaction, moving students from classroom to classroom and conducting lessons and activities in the hallways. This model faced immediate challenges, as NYC fire code forbade using classes in corridors; rounds of negotiation resulted in a compromise where desks and chairs would only be on one side of the hall and would be removed at the end of each class session. At PS 84, students from new middle-class apartment towers and co-ops on Columbus Ave mixed with poorer, working-class students, with the latter getting tracked into less challenging classes and special education. Some parents and teachers felt like it gave students too much free rein, worried that kids wouldn’t learn basic skills like reading, while some teachers found that “spontaneous play and learning did not come naturally for everyone.”

Meanwhile, conflicts over inadequate housing and unused buildings began to mount on the Upper West Side. In April 1970, a child was killed by carbon monoxide poisoning in a tenement, and community members took to the streets. “We must show them that poor people also have rights,” protesters insisted. People began moving in to buildings on UWS; they favored “partially occupied public buildings slated for demolition” because the city kept heating and water on in these structures. Squatters established a headquarters on Columbus Ave with daycare and a number of other services, including space for women’s liberation group discussions. “We are the city,” one squatter declared. “Why should we move?” Some members of the squatting movement grounded their actions in anti-colonialist arguments, analogizing their own fight to Third World liberation struggles. Others expressed concerns about education. Some schools on the UWS had eliminated tracking and started hiring black and Latino teachers, while allowing parents could work as a paraprofessionals. Parents even helped launch one of the nation’s first bilingual programs.

From 1971-1972, squatter families fixed up dilapidated buildings, even as city maintenance workers caused a good deal of deliberate damage in order to dissuade squatters. Even though squatters were blamed for expediting neighborhood decline, Hock argues, they actually contributed to the rehabilitation of the area, paralleling the middle-class “brownstoners” who were beginning to revitalized the same areas. (For an early iteration, see Peggy’s ill-fated effort at homeownership in Mad Men.) Some squatters even began to pay rent to the city, and gained support from middle class allies who helped them challenge urban renewal. In the end, the city eventually conceded by adding new public housing in the area and offered a “right of return” to displaced residents so they could get first pick of new housing.

In both cases, marginalized people used vacant or underutilized spaces to challenge the status quo—school corridors and vacant housing—repurposing them and articulating new uses and values. Hock’s paper then proposes an intriguing new framework for thinking about urban space during the tumult of the late 1960s and early 1970s, as innovative and enterprising New Yorks thought of new ways to use spaces that were generally considered to be liminal or even useless by the established authorities.

Suleiman Osman, “Anarchist Origins of Neoliberal City: Squatting in London in the 1970s”

George Washington University historian Suleiman Osman’s striking and original paper proposes that radical housing actions in 1970s UK might have had a good deal more in common with the rise of neoliberalism than many observers would expect—a proposal that he admits might seem counterintuitive. The history of urban squatting in Britain is complex, Osman argues—it involved a sustained critique of the private real estate market, but also a critique of the state that anticipated the neoliberalism of the 1980s and 1990s.

While some squatting protests in the UK took place in empty office buildings, most took place on public property—many, in fact, were owned by the Greater London Council, awaiting rehabilitation. Squatting became a crisis for the social democratic state, a critique of bureaucracy. According to Osman, the neoliberal city birthed the squatting movement—a variety of anti-statist critiques emerged from right and left after 1968, and together they eventually flowed into the privatization of the city we know so well today. We need to historicize privatization, Osman argues; public-private partnerships, right-to-buy public housing, enterprise zones, and other programs did not simply drift, fully-formed, out conservative think tanks.

In fact, the right made common cause with anarchists who also disliked bureaucratic socialism. This strangest of bedfellows relationship emerged out of a “strange liminal space” that anarchist occupied in the world of 1970s housing activism. Osman follows Jason Hackworth’s theory of neoliberalism, thinking of it as a “a process not an entity.” As in NYC, British squatting began in the late 1960s as a protest for better assistance for the homeless. Widespread dissatisfaction prevailed in the UK with the way that the state used hostels to house the homeless. The first sustained squatting happened in 1968 in council housing that was slated for redevelopment. Activists demanded that the city turn over abandoned, empty buildings to the homeless, as London faced a distinct housing crisis—amid deindustrialization, rising poverty, and a shrinking population, the city’s population dropped 800k (a situation not unlike many American cities in the late 1960s and early 1970s). Some squatters got public support, though they tended to target public property, since actions that occupied private property often generated a hostile response from popular opinion. In a way, targeting bureaucracy made political sense; the argument for using under-utilized, vacant public buildings to house the unhoused actually dovetailed with a Tory critique of the state having any responsibility for public housing. In 1974, Conservatives called for more devolution of housing responsibility and floated the idea of occupants potentially purchasing their units. As Osman points out, Tory-controlled councils were actually were more supportive of squatters than Labour-dominated ones

As squatting spread in the UK, authorities began to ask for property back, but some squatters refused to cooperate. Squatting presented a conceptual dilemma; the new occupants were good at exploiting loopholes in the law, since trespassing was a civil rather than criminal violation. Public authorities and property owners had to go to court to get someone out. Meanwhile, squatters distributed pamphlets explaining how to squat and avoid breaking and entering by, for instance, going through an open window rather than tampering with a door. Activists cautioned squatters not to damage property, and in fact many improved the structures they were living in. They generally refused to use or share their real names, and many squatters did not know each other’s names in order to shield them legal liability or retribution. Squatters even eschewed appealing cases brought against them, in order to avoid building a body of anti-squatting case law.

In the end, authorities tried to distinguish between “genuinely” homeless families and “bad” squatters in order to crack down on the latter. They embraced the slogan of “smash and grab” squatters to demonize them in the public mind. By 1975 there’s a campaign against squatters. An apocryphal story circulated about a woman who went on vacation and came back to find squatters, though taking over private, owner-occupied homes was rather uncommon. Even as legislators considered revising criminal trespassing laws, many police opposed the criminalization of squatting, since adjudicating who was a legitimate occupant and who was not would only make their jobs more difficult. Meanwhile, the Labour government of the mid-to-late 1970s was leery of the bad PR of throwing homeless families into jail for occupying vacant housing—a seemingly heartless move amid a struggling national economy. In fact, unscrupulous landlords could take advantage of anti-squatting measures to throw out disliked renters by claiming that they were “squatters.” All of this was happening, Osman pointed out, at a time when workers occupying factories, militantly possessing space in a way that paralleled the actions of squatters. After several years of debate, the UK finally passed a new measure in 1977 that criminalized squatting—in a final irony, though, the right wing of Margaret Thatcher embraced the seemingly radical rhetoric of squatters, by advocating the disposition of public properties to private homeowners. In this way, Osman suggests, the radicalism of the 1970s left challenged to bureaucracy of the postwar welfare state in a way that both predated and, perhaps, reinforced the anti-statist advance of conservatism or “neoliberalism” in ways that scholars have not yet fully appreciated.

west berlin 1970s

Emily Pugh, “No Fixed Address: ‘Black Dwelling’ and the Politics of Housing in East Germany”

In a final and much welcome addition to the panel, the Getty Research Institute’s Emily Pugh offered a unique but parallel case—a “foil,” if you will, to tales of squatting in the capitalist West. So-called “black dwelling” in the German Democratic Republic (i.e. East Germany) in some ways resembled squatting and occurred throughout much of the same period of the 1970s and 1980s, yet the practice of unauthorized occupation of buildings in the GDR differed in crucial ways from similar practices in West Germany, the UK, or the United States. Technically, under the 1949 constitution, every GDR citizen had a fundamental right to housing—quite distinct from the experience of many capitalist countries, particularly the US, which generally resisted enshrining “economic” rights in international agreements or its own domestic social policy.

Yet, as was so often the case in the Communist world, on-paper entitlements to fundamental economic resources did not always play out in practice. The GDR had to make housing and figure out a way to distribute it. Citizens had to apply for housing through a system that was inefficient and often discriminatory, leaving frustrated Germans to move into vacant spaces instead of going through the official process. Many occupied a unit and then tried to fudge the details of how they came to live there through various creative and cunning means of manipulating bureaucracies; they baked cakes for government workers, and even made a point of coming to housing offices at the end of the day when workers would be tired and less likely to pay attention to the details of a particular document or application.

As the GDR commenced a flurry of construction of new housing estates, often on the fringe of traditional urban centers, older neighborhoods were often left abandoned. Meanwhile, by the late 1970s, similar policies in capitalist West Berlin left many empty buildings and people with low incomes, especially students, started a squatter movement. Illegal or semi-legal occupation flourished on both sides of “the wall,” but as Pugh points out, there were key differences: groups of squatters often took whole buildings and announced that they were doing so in West Berlin, creating a visual culture of defiance that politicized housing actions and became a big part of their appeal. In the East, “black dwelling” was covert: squatters took pains to be discreet, and “To take over a whole building was unthinkable.” East Germans looked for buildings with no curtains to occupy and put up their own to make the dwelling seem normal; they even paid rent to the authorities, unlike many squatters in West Berlin. They just wanted housing, Pugh argues; they wanted “a rich and fulfilling private life” and to become independent, difficult tasks in the bureaucratic and personally invasive society of the GDR. “West Berliners sought to collective private space,” she argued, “while East Berliners sought to privatize collective space.” Squatting in the West was politicized and radical, while black dwelling was relatively common and discreet in the East. Even Chancellor Angela Merkel lived in a squatted home for a while in her youth. The ruling party was relatively easy on the practice because, in all frankness, the state had a hard time providing enough housing anyway. Bureaucrats did not see the practice as political, and nor did most dwellers. In fact, most did not understand why westerners made “such a big deal” about squatting as protest, suggesting a very different approach to politics and property in a supposed socialist utopia versus the capitalist (but social-democratic) West.

Readers can find Tropics of Meta’s coverage of other conferences, such as Urban History and Policy History, at the page for our Academics in the Wild series.