Conversations With Lady-Squatters

by Arianna Reiche

Carol, Lauren, and Karley have all squatted. Some of them still do. The volatility of urban housing laws in their cities (mainly London and New York) means that they’ve come to represent different things in the whole landscape of “metropolitan youth” — but mostly they just think the cost of living is kind of silly. Here are their stories.

Carol Sharks puts on parties and plays the band Hussle Club. She currently lives in Brooklyn.

Where did you squat?
I squatted for real on Mott Street. It was a huge loft that used to be a factory, it was about 5,000 square feet, and the first floor was an Asian Christian daycare center.

How’d you end up there?
Yes, so I was dating this dude playing in Interpol on tour and I was very much in love and keeping my schedule completely open for him, so I didn’t have a day job and I couldn’t pay rent. So I subletted my room in a 2nd Street loft to a friend and started squatting with some Hasidic lost boys on Mott Street. A guy (also an ex of mine) had weaseled the key from the owner of the building, who was also Jewish, with the intent to “store some stuff.” We made copies and staked out our territory. It was very safe at first — I left my laptop in a suitcase by a bed. I kept extra sheets in the suitcase and a plastic unicorn and this doll I really like. I also had a part time job as an art assistant out in East Hampton. I would stay out there for like three days a week, then come back and sleep at the squat, shower back in my actual loft, then usually had a plane ticket waiting for me to follow the band on tour. It was a really hot summer.

One day I came home to the squat and some high-school kids walked in. I was like “Who the hell are you?” and they were all like “Oh we heard we could come here.” They offered me some cocaine (this was the middle of the day), and I said no thanks and they did their drugs and left. That was when things started getting weird.

So how did it come to an end?
After a romantic getaway in Catalina, I was in a cab from the airport and when I came back to the loft it just depressed me. My bed was soiled and dirty like someone had used it for a sex spot, so I staked out another bed in a back area, put fresh sheets on it, and decided to go out for a drink before bed. I came back and there were two Hasidic guys in my bed and one standing next to it in the dark. I yelled at them and again got the “we heard it was okay to come here” excuse.

I went into another bed in the loft that was in the only actual room with a door. I could hear mice in the room, I cried myself to sleep, and that was my last night squatting in The Mott Street Squat.

Lauren is a 24-year-old from Houston who stays at C-Squat, a former abandoned tenement building in the East Village and icon of the squatter influx during the 1970s and 80s.

How did you come across C-Squat?
I had been traveling last summer, and a few friends of mine were staying in the basement and invited me back for a few drinks.

What did you initially find appealing about the idea of squatting?
I believe that living should be free. I’ve dealt with so many “scumlords,” it’s disturbing. When you’re traveling, you and your friends just hang out all day and all night, which kind of leads to this idea that squatting is inevitable. Live free or die. Squatting is just a way of life, but it’s a beautiful thing finding an old building that people have forgotten about and turning it into a beautiful home with you and your friends.

What’s been your fondest memory of squatting thus far?
My birthday this year, actually. It was my third night staying at C-Squat, and at midnight a few of the poeple and my friends here sang me happy birthday, and that night I met my amazing boyfriend.

Is there anything about squatting, based on your experience or otherwise, that flat-out scares you?
Yeah, a lot of people on the road coming through are crazy. You get the crazy homebums and shit. A lot of mean dogs, too! I heard a young girl got her throat slashed open at her squat the other day. It can be a dangerous situation you’re putting yourself in if you don’t really know who you’re squatting with. I’ve heard a lot of horror stories like that — luckily nothing too bad has happened to me yet, knock on wood. And the cops, you know, that’s a whole other story.

You may not have heard of Karley Sciortino, but it’s possible you’ve come across her blog, Slutever. Part sex chronicles, part freelance portfolio, part diary of a young American squatter in London, Slutever’s practically become a household name in select parts of London — and, increasingly, across the pond. She writes for Vice, Platform, and Dazed and Confused.

How did you start squatting?
In total I squatted from when I was 19 until when I moved back here [to New York] about six months ago. When I was younger I loved the movie Fight Club — the reference is so weird. I remember them walking into that house and I had no idea that what they were doing was a thing. I remember I had to look it up, and I found that they were “squatting.” When I moved to London one of the first people I met was squatting. They were living in this really giant co-op in Peckham, and it was all the kids that later became known as the !WOWOW! Art Collective. They turned this place into a studio. It was full of artists and writers and fashion kids. And I met them at the tail end of when they were living in this one place. I’d dropped out of college after one semester and I still really wanted to live in London. So my best friend just said, “Why don’t you come live with us?” It was this three-story lift factory. My first bedroom was on the landing of this giant warehouse stairway, because literally every space was occupied and I was the new person.

Is there something unique about the UK that makes the idea of squatting particularly appealing?
It’s ingrained into the culture. People have been doing it for years and years. The Clash lived in squats, Boy George lived in squats. All these famous creative characters are known to have lived in squats around London, and there’s a lot of positive squatting press. People use squats as galleries, or studios. In New Cross there were squat bookstores, and these places get written about and the people get pegged as, you know, “squatters doing something positive for the community.”

Did you ever feel threatened or vulnerable in a way you wouldn’t had you just been paying rent somewhere?
It’s weird, I know a lot of people who’ve been in really scary situations, but I was lucky. When I first started squatting I moved in with these two guys who’d been squatting for a while, and they were just really handy and really knew what they were doing. There’s also this service in the UK you can use where you just pay £2 and you can find out who owns any building. Say you’re breaking into Soho — you’re breaking into an old pub. The chances that that’s owned by a major corporation are very slim. It’s probably privately owned by some scary Russian dude. So if you move in somewhere like that, it’s much more likely that you could get dragged out by your hair in the night. In fact I know people that’s happened to — people who just get told to get the fuck out, and the owners won’t even go through the police. So when we’d be breaking in somewhere, we’d always look for what sounded like the name of a company — in one case it was something like “Highurst Properties” and that was perfect, because they’re much more likely to go by the book for everything. They’re not going to send some scary man for you in the middle of the night.

Because they couldn’t get away with that.
Yeah, you know it’s funny, there’s actually never been a time that I felt scared. Everyone says, “Oh aren’t you afraid you’ll get your stuff stolen?” And I say, “Well there’s a lock on the door like there’s a lock on your door.” I know people who lived in normal flats that got broken into. The only time we got any stuff stolen was at a party, but that was our own fault for inviting too many random people. There’s also a safeness in living with so many people. I’ve always lived in squats with like ten or twelve people, and with that, you never feel alone.

Do you feel like you dealt with the same issues everyone else in flats or apartments deals with — like, “I really don’t like that girl,” or “so-and-so ate my sandwich”?
Yeah completely. Living with that many people in a place you don’t pay for, it can get really messy. So everyone had these chores every day, and we’d all get in fights over whose turn it was to clean the bathroom, that kind of thing. But in an even funnier way, it was like, “Whose turn is it to clean out the pond that we’ve turned into our bath?” It would get so gross. But we were all really good friends. That’s another misconception about squatting: that any random person can move in, and I always used to get messages from people, and I still do, saying like, Oh I’m moving to London — do you have a squat I can move into? That’s not how it works, I’m not your landlord, and you can’t just let strangers move in. Not if you’re smart.

Tell me about the process of actually, physically breaking in to these abandoned spaces.
What we used to do is go around in groups and sort of scout out an area. Different areas obviously have different amounts of people — if you were looking for a place in New York for example, you’d probably look here [Bushwick]. So we’d always look around in groups, and it’s pretty obvious when a building’s not in use, especially a house. We’d put a piece of tape over the door where someone would go in, so if in a couple days if it was still there we’d know that no one was regularly going in and out. Actually breaking in was so much easier than you’d think — like, comical almost. Like, “Oh the window is open!” And the laws in London allow you to live in a building you don’t own, but it’s illegal to actually break in, because it’s breaking and entering. So I guess in that way it’s pretty scary.

Being an American living there on a visa, that must have been particularly scary for you.
Yeah, and they were kind of sensitive to that. I’d be the one on lookout with the phone, the boys would do the actual smashing.

In retrospect, would you recommend it to other people?
I would, I think. It depends. It’s really fun. And it is great that you don’t have to pay rent. But not everyone wants to live somewhere kind of gross. You have to make a shower over a plank of wood over the toilet, you know? It’s makeshift and disgusting, but everyone has to ask themselves if its worth it to live like that and not have to pay £500 a month. And if you live in a squat, you really don’t have to have a job, or you have to work so little — like just to support your lifestyle habits. So there’s nothing inherently bad about living in a squat, you just have to be so self-motivated for it to work. It means you have time to do things that you couldn’t do with a job, like intern, or be in a band — just really focus your creative energy on something.

Arianna Reiche is a (travel) writer based in New York and London who likes sci-fi and Northern Exposure. She’s written for Vice, Gawker.TV, and Nothing Bad Magazine.