Sunday, December 9, 2012

From the Tenement Museum to Bluestockings, MoRUS and the Lower East Side's Radical History




My head is still spinning from the opening of the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space (MoRUS).  After the Museum of the City of New York celebrated our brand of activism in their show "Activist New York," positioning cycling activism in its rightful place in activist history, the MoRUS opening was a welcome addition. 
Image of garden and cycling activists featured at the Museum of the City of New York.
Photo by Danny Valdes

Show coming up on 12 12 at the Yippie Museum!


A day before the scheduled opening, students from my college had arranged a trip to the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street.  So Friday, a group of us met at the college and took the subway over.  Arriving they told us our tour was not to start until 1:30 PM.  Listening to other tours begin, I heard the instructions notify those in attendance about the rules: no phones, gum, photographs, don't touch anything, and tell us if you are going to leave.  In other words, we needed to behave.  My students commented on the paternalistic vibe. I had heard others claim this was more of a 'white person's' history of immigration and could see why.  The tour itself through an old tenement, was not overly enlightening. Over and over, the tour guides emphasized the individual lives of those who lived inside the building they showed us on Orchard, without hinting at larger policy trends related to immigration, Ellis Island, labor history, radical history, or race relations.  My students are largely from Guyana and the Caribbean.  Many live in cramped apartments themselves.  "This could work," one commented, looking at the fourth floor apartment for the tour.  Still, the Tenement Museum offered some useful insights into the lives of those on the 19th Century Streets of the Lower East Side. 


I promised everyone we would take a slightly more lively version


Walking away, we meandered up Allen Street, dropping by for a coffee at Bluestockings, a collective bookstore.  The night before I had enjoyed a lovely night of conversation at a reading there.  "Where is that meeting of a history of past practices with current movements?" Marina Sitrin wondered, referring to her work Occupying Language: The Secret Rendezvous with History and the Present, paraphrasing Walter Benjamin. Satrin and Azzellini write: "Today's movements are finding or creating places where the new meets the old, offering spaces of encuentro-encounter and meeting-where new and emerging relationships creatively mix with many hundreds if not thousands of years of collective experimenting with the various forms of experimenting with the various forms of relating, rebellion, and struggle," (p. 26).


The evening had been one of those long nights of conversation, in which friend after friend, colleague after colleague dropped by, and chimed into the conversation about direct action and local conditions, which support it.  "Occupy, resist, reuse" Sitrin noted, pointed out the slogan had been used by the landless movement in Brazil.  Yet, it found its way into a global lexicon, as well as a part of the larger conversation.  "Here are all  these lessons, why are these forms of relating resonating?"  Sitrin asked.  "What are the conditions when they say enough is enough?" pondered Lesley Wood.  Tim Doody chimed in this this kind of activism resonates with a three components:


1) a clear message - no to Wall Street

2) a collective gesture - the people gong organized and practiced by a collective of bodies

3) a dramatic conflict - bodies on Wall Street


In other words, as Steve Duncombe put it earlier in the day at the NYU arts and activism lunch, there is "art" and "activism." Yet, their merger, forms the third part of the triangle, "art connected with activism."


Finishing our talk, my friend Craig Hughes, the author of "Occupied Zuccotti, Social Struggle, and Planned Shrinkage" chimed in about many of the homeless street kids who have did the heavy lifting, the labor of holding the space. Their acts of everyday resistance helped the movement hold to Zuccotti for those two months, as well as well as the months later in Occupy Trinity Wall Street. 

Giles Clark - Occupy Trinity, six months strong

"I remember a young kid, who was one of the first to sleep in the park, who was first arrested.   He just plopped down his tent and went to sleep," recalled my friend Garrett.  Several of us in attendance reveled in how much the younger folks in the movement pushed all of us forward.

Keegan took this shot of the author and his heros, talking it all over at Lolita after the reading.

Memories of this conversation bubbled through my head as we walked past Lolita and Bluestockings.


With hot coffee and co-co in hand, we wandered past ABC NO RIO on Rivington Street and 181 Stanton -a squatted building and garden on the Lower East Side. 


Laurie from the MoRUS and I were texting.  We'd planned to drop by for weeks now.  The volunteers are up to their eyes in getting ready for the opening she explained.  But if we still want to drop by, we're welcome to, she wrote. 


So we wandered up Clinton, East to Ave C, past Umbrella House, zigging down 4th to Paraiso Community Garden, and back up to the Museum of Reclaimed Space.  JK was outside putting together final touches on the mosaic from the pieces of mirror we had manually broken the previous July.  She greeted everyone.

JK finishing storefront mosaic - Fly Orr

Bicycle balcony of C Squat by Fly Orr


FLY and Laurie were inside.  Bill greeted everyone and walked us through the space, taking us down to the basement, for a brief tour of the recovered museum pieces, pulled together after the flood.  Every time he walks us through the door, his voice becomes stronger.  Over and over the point is that activism matters.  We can rebuild our city with activism. We already have.


Saying goodbye to everyone, I rode to pick up the gals from school. 
Great graffiti and as usual there was a cop parked in a bike lane on my way.
The Girl Scouts have been talking community services all year.  So they had me drop by to talk about homeless youth.  Its amazing to see nine year olds having to grapple with the reality that some of us have homes, while others do not.  "Its not really fair," one explained.  I concur. So the kids plan to do some cooking for them.  Its not everything, sometimes gesture of care, are important contributions.

Talking with the kids. Photo by Erin Texeira

Saturday, the girls and I hung out, went to jujitsu, and lunch. 


Afterward I rode up to the New Caucus meeting of our union.  Stephanie Luce was there to talk about the lessons the Chicago Teachers' Strike.   Without Taylor laws educator and their threats to strike strike are respected in Chicago and elsewhere.  Asked what we thought of the talk, I noted, it might be time for us to consider ways to push back against the Taylor laws.  Without direct action, it is hard for a movement for change. How else can we really fight off the neoliberal assault, as workers work harder for less of the pie and income inequality expands?

Images of the Lower East Side.

The MoRUS Grand Opening had already started as I arrived at C-Squat shortly before 4 PM.  The lineup offered a whose who is a generation of activism. 

Alan W. Moore top and the completed mosaic in front of MoRUS Saturday.

Openning day, Rosie Mendez with bolt cutters.
Photo by Fly Orr
3:00 Chain-cutting ceremony and proclamation by Rosie Mendez
3:45 Slideshow by Seth Tobocman with Eric Bliss, Ben Barson and Joe Merolla
4:30 Talk and slideshow by Adam Purple
4:45 Reading by Maggie Wrigley
4:55 Reading by Felix
5:05 Slideshow by Mac McGill
5:35 Talk by Ben Shepard
5:50 Slideshow by Fly
6:30 Talk by Frank Morales
6:40 Spoken word by Pete Missing
7:00 Sermon and songs by Reverend Billy and The Church of Stop Shopping
8:00 March by Rude Mechanical Orchestra
8:30 Performance by Rude Mechanical Orchestra
Deejaying by DJ Dirtyfinger

Seth David Tobocman by fly

Seth Tobocman was beginning his 'War in the Neighborhood' talk as I arrived. I remember first seeing him with this book at CHARAS back in 1999 before we were kicked out of that space.  We always knew we had a better chance of winning if some of the squatters showed up for the fight.   Accompanied by stark images from his graffiti inspired murals and live music, Seth narrated a few of the following words... (forgive the errors Seth):
A space opens up with care, seizing control of the gardens, housing, and those things which control our lives.  
Every lunatic a philosopher, everyone for president, a democracy of cement, stolen scaffolding, flying bodies in the night.... and these are the best moments of our lives.
The moment passes... we tore the walls down, now we're putting them back up.
Is it any surprise we have become the mirror image of our oppressor... aren't we the descendents of slaves, of fugitives... have any of us known freedom... that what would any of us know of democracy... 

If any of us can look at a vacant lot and see an image of a garden, then why can't we think of a better way of treating each other.
You don't have to fuck each other over to survive.  
I was supposed to read shortly after he finished.  But hearing the band, seeing the visuals behind, Seth's words, I knew I would need to keep my talk and sweet.  His talk and many others were very, very powerful. 
Fly followed Seth's talk noting. "I wanted to mention something Seth said.  This is a living museum.  It puts activism into practice.  This is a very, very proactive organization, proactive not an institution.  We have to celebrate.  But we also have to keep on fighting for these buildings, gardens, and spaces we've created and saved.  We have to continue the struggle."
Others spoke about spaces which have disappeared.

Adam Purple channeling Lenny Bruce.

Adam Purple followed, with a very, very funny rant about gardening and deep ecology with a Lenny Bruce twist.  "Everybody shits," he explained.  "The question is where you shit."  There is a law of return.  Take food out of the ground and put it back.  Purple told a story explaining that for years, once a week, he would take a bowel movement and bury it in his garden.  "No one ever bothered me about that. They were following the squatters bill of rights: LEAVE MY SHIT ALONE!" The room filled with laughter.  It was not the only laugh from a man who suggested we read books by looking at what is left out.

Maggie Wrigley by Fly Orr

Maggie Wrigley followed, telling stories about her life as a squatter, recalling her adventures with Michael Shenker.  Over and over, those in attendance recalled the infamous squatter's famous adventures wiring vacant buildings with city power.   "Would you rather follow the rules and live in darkness or break the rules and live in light!" he explained to Fly, shortly before he died as she worried about knocking a hole in her kitchen wall.  Fly opened up the space in her wall.  Today the light pours in. 
As Maggie finished her stories about life in Bullet Space,  Fly leaned over and asked I was would not mind going on then.  
"How should I introduce  you?"  
"Ben is fine, a garden supporter."
Taking the mic, I thanked Fly, explaining how honored I was to be there and read an abbreviated version of this story.  It would need to be short and sweet.  
Congrats to Laurie, Bill and all the volunteers who have made this museum and its testimony to a set of practices and history which need to be preserved and expanded.  Gandhi said non-violent civil disobedience is a practice which needs to be forever tested, tried, and retried.  
Part of what this museum captures are the contributions of a generation of activists to create a joyous, powerful, and defiant brand of direct action designed to help rebuild a city out of the rubble of a fiscal crisis and vision of planned shrinkage.  Instead of being displaced those in this neighborhood stood their ground, fought for what they wanted and helped create a model of a sustainable city where people share food as they did in this storefront after sandy, they create their energy through their own peddle power, sources of food with gardens, and a model of non polluting transportation with bikes, which reduce emissions. 
In order to highlight some of this history, I wanted to talk about the efforts to fight off displacement of the gardens when the values of the properties increased in the late 1990s and the neighborhood started organizing to defend itself.  The following is an excerpt from Play, Creativity and Social Movements.  
BS by Fly

Gardens, Crickets, and a Different Approach

“There was another group that was involved, which was the Lower East Side Collective, which played a really crucial role in it” explained Lower East Side squatter Michael Shenker, recounting the rise of the Lower East Side community garden movement. “And they were very, very effective.”  Here, he specifically referred to Kauffman: “One of the architects of that group [LESC] kind of brought in what you are describing, which is a joyous aspect.” Shenker recalled one of the most notorious of the garden direct actions, combining ludic tactics to a clear target. “Its first manifestations were with the crickets and Charas,” Shenker elaborated.  David Crane explained the rationale for the action:

Well, Giuliani then decided he was going to sell all the gardens, and we started hearing that this was a possibility through people that we knew, insiders, that this was bubbling up and that there was quite likely going to be a wholesale sell off of the gardens at public auction. And so CHARAS, annually it came up on the auction list and then was removed at the last minute. But when it was clear that it was not going to be removed then a group called the Cricketeers, I think it was actually 12 people who actually risked arrest by releasing 10,000 crickets into the auction where they sold CHARAS a couple lots before CHARAS came up. If they didn't remove CHARAS from the lot we were going to stop that auction, and do it by releasing crickets into One Police Plaza.


Here, members of LESC and other garden and Charas supporters disrupted a city auction of public land, which included Charas and many community gardens, by releasing bags full of crickets which set off a panic (Patterson, 2009).  The action took place July 20, 1998 the same day Charas was sold.  Its aim was to prevent the sale of Charas and other community gardens.

In a monumental statement that they were not going to sit by and watch the corners and edges, bits and pieces of their neighborhood auctioned off, LESC borrowed a page from ACT UP’s book. ACT UP veteran Steve Quester, explained why he admired what the garden activists were doing during this period:

Well, first of all because they plant gardens. But also because all these carrots and snap peas got arrested blocking the streets. Tomatoes lobbied Elliot Spitzer. There were a couple of tens of thousands of crickets released in some hearings…. Of course we need carrots getting arrested blocking traffic. How else is change going to happen?


Quester’s question - how else is social change ever going to happen – echos through the thoughts and creative gestures of action and freedom which propelled action during this period. 

Tim Becker, who took part in the cricket action, recalled:

Yeah, with the crickets. I met that guy who writes plays—Jason Grote—I had never met him before. They were having some meetings at Charas and talking nonstop. And Leslie Kauffman was there and David Crane. So those meetings were going on and then Leslie pulled me into this back room and whispers. ‘We’re planning something with crickets. Do you want to be part of it? I said yeah, so she invited me. I went to a couple of planning meetings.


Grote described the theme and context for the action:


A bunch of gardens had been auctioned out before and it caught everybody off guard. Nobody was expecting it. But the next time around people were like, we have to prevent this somehow and bring attention to it. I think nobody really knew about this. And I think urban environmentalism and environmental racism were ideas people were talking about. So there was this idea of creating a media stunt at an auction. I think they were going to do it at One Police Plaza so there would be little bit of intimidation and this idea that anybody who decided to disrupt this auction would be punished extra in the heart of the beast. One of the people in this organization had this idea of doing this crazy stunt that would get media attention, would be somehow newsworthy. The idea was that we would release 10,000 crickets—which would wreak havoc during this auction.


As far as the mayor was concerned, either you were for the redevelopment program, which included the sale of the gardens and Charas, or you were a supporter of the urban decay. The point of the cricket direct action was to shift storylines. Since he was elected in 1993, Rudy Giuliani had talked about the view that New York, nicknamed the “Big Apple” had become a “rotten apple.” According to this view, New York was a city in decline before he entered office. This storyline positioned the mayor as the city’s advocate for regeneration over decay (Beauregard, 2002). For Giuliani, hyper development was the most appropriate antidote to decline. Those who opposed it were “dangerous anarchists,” “reds,” “jerks, idiots, morons,” as the mayor was prone to describe them in press conferences and on his radio show (Kifner, 1999; Lederman, 2001). ““Giuliani was such a grim man,” Dana Beal reflected after his group was targeted by the city.  Garden advocates sought to advance a different story line. Healthy neighborhoods need homes, gardens, and public spaces. Part of the effort was to demonstrate that garden supporters had neighborhood interests in mind when they did what they did. They were not violent nihilists.

“The idea was in keeping with Jiminy Cricket, who was Pinocchio’s conscience. This would be the conscience of the city,” explained Jason Grote.

And the idea was that it would be an act that was funny and bizarre and really disruptive but also not necessarily harmful, but like an act of sabotage that wouldn’t really leave any lasting damage. And we also wanted something that was sort of silly. The part of it—also the narrative that was happening even before September 11—was that people who do civil disobedience are dangerous. We were going to do something silly just to say obviously we’re not violent. And if I think back even the judge thought it was funny.


There was also a theatrical point to the silliness of the presentation style of the garden advocates (Goffman 1959).  “It was pervaded with silliness so that its ridicule would break down the idea if authority was being deadly serious, you could kind of paint a smile on it. It’s more complex than many think,” noted.  Here the gardeners made use of one part humor, one part radical-ridicule (see Bogad, 2005b).   “There is no way to really win under those circumstances, so ridicule becomes like the only take,” Grote explained. “One thing about power is, they do not know how to be funny. You look at Rush Limbaugh and Fox news, it’s totally lame. You don’t even have to be political to think that. It’s funny,” Grote continued. And lots of people agreed.

            The cricket action built on the new resources made available with the Internet, as Grote explained:

You could pretty much order anything from a pet supplier. We ordered 10,000 crickets. They were kept in storage. And a few people kind of feel bad for the crickets and I can understand that, cause they were not kept under the greatest conditions. So the person who was organizing this tried it out early, she made an envelope with air holes and swept it through the metal detector early and she tried to take one through security and it worked. So, then we all went in. And the idea was we were going to go incognito.


For Tim Becker, the sight of all his scruffy Lower East Side buddies dressed to play the part of developers before the auction was both absurd and ridiculous:

Then the morning of the auction, everyone I knew from the Lower East Side was out waiting to get into the auction. And it was the only time that I have ever seen Seth Tobocman in a suit, before, after or since. And it was obviously a borrowed suit because the pants legs were at least 40 percent too short. And he had stolen the tie. (Starts laughing.) It was some polyester number that he had gotten from somebody and it looked really bad. And I said to myself, the police are going to watch the TV in the back and they are going to know that something is going on. This guy is not a developer. It doesn’t say money to me. If you call this guy money, it doesn’t work, (Laughs.) Seth in a cheap suit. And then the women I knew, well. When you go midtown people have the corporate look. The clothes say, I can hang with the rest of them. Well, the neighborhood girls were this mismatched, half power, half mismatched. (Laughs again.) I don’t know who we were fooling but it was early enough that the police were not on their toes. It was just like a little fly, a gnat buzzing around. It looked more like the people who showed up for the free teas rather than the people who show up for the free tea.

But the police let us in to the police auction. Ten people have crickets in brief cases. The people who put together the idea of the crickets somehow knew that crickets are like a skeleton. They don’t show up under x-ray. You can get them in. You just walk in. There are people who do a lot more of the planning than me… I just show up. But they had it already planned out. I have no idea what it was (Laughs again.) As far as that demo went, I wasn’t in on the talking points.  


Like Todd Muller, Tim Becker’s self-deprecating humor made working with him a great deal of fun. Becker laid out the terms for the action, “Well, how bad do we want it? We’re like in the belly of the beast—right at Police Plaza.” The police could just take those arrested straight downstairs without them even seeing the light of day. They did not even have to leave the building.

Grote, who was “completely terrified,” had similar forebodings when he arrived.  He kept his eyes on the exits during the entire period of the action.

We got together at someone’s apartment at like six in the morning. And we were going to go down together. It was terrifying. We were all really scared. Yeah, I made it there like only an hour late. I did make it there before everyone left. We were in this auction hall and I was in the bathroom when someone else took this spot. And I ended up with like the worst spot. I wanted the one with a view of the escape route. So the plan was we were going to sneak in, in suits, and go incognito. But of course, nobody else was dressed in business clothes. There were a lot of people that wanted to buy real estate that were from like Russia or Korea that were wearing t-shirts and jeans and polo shirts. And so we were kind of out of place. And no real estate developers go to these little tiny auctions. We went in and were totally sticking out.


Dressed in the Salvation Army and Sears’s finest, the garden defenders fanned out throughout the audience.   Clayton Patterson (2009) was there filming.  Tim Becker nervously watched as the auction began:

[I]t went on for a while and then there was a symbol when we were actually going to unleash them. And all during that time, there were two ideas that were going on: release the crickets and have false bidding. You had like Michael and Seth and they had their action. They didn’t do the cricket action. They were doing false bidding. So you had developers bidding like a million two. And you had Seth going a million four. And (laughs) Michael going a million six. And developers coming in at a million eight. And Seth going ‘Two Million!’ And it went into the stratosphere. Even the real developers were looking around like, ‘What’s going on here?’ We’re talking about little patches in the Lower East Side. Maybe five hundred thousand? But not two million. And so that got out of control really fast. The guy with the gavel was just beating on it and couldn’t figure out what was going on. And so at some point they made a ruling that said that you had to show that you were good for part of the check. You couldn’t just start bidding. It was all very civil back then. But all the guys were outbidded.


False bidding was long a part of the repertoire, noted David Crane:


We had been warned at that one that anyone who did this false bidding would be arrested, yadda yadda yadda. But we didn't obstruct by participating in the bidding. Oh my god it was so funny, the auction before when Leslie Kaufman, when they came around for her, whatever, $38,000 down payment that had to be in cash, she starts emptying out her pockets, and then she says, ‘Oh, there's a $1.50 left on this Metro Card!’ And then the woman threw it on the ground, ‘Disqualified!’ And we were escorted outside.



            While it is easy to theorize the disruption of the mechanisms of power, the process can be excruciating. ““It’s horribly nerve wracking. It’s not fun. It’s fun when it’s over and you can say, ‘Wow, that was great.’” mused Cindra Feuer, an ACT UP veteran. The anxiety followed by release which is part of what Huizinga characterizes as play.

Grote was not of the “I do not care if I upset you” ilk:

I’m sitting there and I’m waiting. We had one lot that after it was auctioned, it was a garden, that was when we would unleash the crickets. And I’m looking around scouring the area and I’m looking at the escape routes. The young women who was sitting next to me was dressed really artsy.…  Somebody screamed to call attention to it. That was our cue and I started dumping them… I was one of ten people then trying to dump this bag of crickets out... But it was sort of like one of those old dishwasher commercials where you drop the dishwasher into this little bowl of dishwater and all the oil kind of evacuates to the side away from the soap. That’s sort of how it was with me. The arty woman next to me saw the bugs, screamed immediately, jumped on the chair, and then immediately there was like three feet between me and everyone else.


“Adrenaline was definitely high when you were ripping open that envelope and dumping your allotment of a thousand crickets on to the floor,” recalled David Crane.  “The poor crickets hadn't had enough water, it had been a hot day and so they weren't as lively as they could have been.”

            “The crickets just spilled out on the floor and created a lot eee aw eee aw eee aw, created a lot of noise,” recalled Ron Hayduk. 

Becker recalled:

There was just pandemonium. It was just like a Sunday-morning cartoon. People were jumping up on chairs. You know, we’re talking about crickets here as if it was a subway rat or something. But it was just crickets. But everyone was up on chairs and pandemonium was ensuing. People were yelling and the guy was beating on the gavel. Yeah, I had a thousand. Well, the woman next to me said ‘Ooooo!!!!’


            The activists eyed the exits and tried to get out.  But “Instead of just leaving immediately, I was worrying about fingerprinting or something and I was trying to stuff the envelope back into my bag,” Grote confessed. 

And then I’m pushing my way through the crowd and one guy; you are always going to find one guy who is enthusiastic about siding with authority, said, ‘him, him, him.’ And then I ran and all of a sudden I was eye level with this big barrel chest with a badge hanging off of it. And I just immediately just put out my arms like you got me…


Becker was also apprehended:


And we were all supposed to head for the exit and get the hell out of there. Well, it was just crazy and everyone was just rushing to the exit and trying to get the hell out. I got all the way to the X-ray machine. I mean I could see the promised land—the pavement. I could see it, and all of a sudden this arm came and grabbed my arm. And I was sitting there in a suit with a really old briefcase. And that’s when I met Jason Grote. But there was screaming and screaming. And I remember Margarita Lopez came up to me and said, ‘What did you do?’ I said, I released some crickets. And she looked at me like I was out of my mind.


A few other activists, including Tompkins Square Park Riot videographer Clayton Patterson (2009) were also arrested.  “I ended up spending the night in jail,” noted Grote. “They put us through the system. At that time it was like a special punishment. I made friends [and] met a lot of people... I felt I was in good hands. Ron Kuby’s office was representing us.

“I was trying to get out of there” Becker mused. 


When I got arrested I got put in a closet briefly with Jason, briefly. I don’t have any idea. We were put in a small room in the cleaning closet. And crickets were coming out of Jason’s pocket. I felt like I was getting arrested with one of the Three Stooges here. (Laughs.) He has things coming out of his pocket. How can I plead innocent now? It was like we were useless crooks; they were crawling out of his cuffs and his pants legs.


            Before being moved to the Tombs, New York’s central booking area where Becker and Grote spent the night, the two were locked in a cell at One Police Plaza. There Becker stayed up most of the night.  “The lights were on. The floor was hard. I wasn’t into it. It’s fun telling the story now. But at the time, I’d rather have been at home in my bed.”

For Jason Grote and the others going through the system was an exercise in slow futility.

It was a night full of encountering just all sorts of characters. It was not the adversarial relationship between cops and activists. I mean there was the Tompkins Square Riot, but back in the early 1980s they had the big antinuclear marches and the cops were kind of a model of cooperation. We sat in the holding cell forever. There was this weird fingerprint machine and nobody could figure out how to work it. And I suspect a lot of the arresting officers were trying to milk it for overtime. I don’t know. But we were just there forever. And finally at the end, we found out we were going to Tombs for the rest of the night. 


            The arrestees were welcomed as heros when they were finally released the next day. For Grote, the release was a distinct part of the play experience:

We were kind of greeted by people. I felt a little like we’d accomplished something. I called up a couple of LESC people, Vicki and Rachel. I couldn’t get into my apartment. All my personal possessions were locked up as evidence. I had cash on me and they cut me a check for that. I was walking around, my shoes were flopping, I had no belt, I had no keys. And I called them up and said, ‘Can I stay with you guys?’ They were very sympathetic. It was kind of a great bonding experience. It was kind of an example of the traumatic experience as play.


            Ron Hayduk reflected on the action’s message and impact:

Think about it people. If 10,000 crickets in the middle of an auction are released and people are very serious about their bidding, it would be a very destructive thing. But a very ironic and like odd, funny moment to see crickets running around the floor, and people sort of shrieking. But it’s very symbolic in terms of the gardens that are being auctioned off. And these people that helped to organize this, and I was honored to be among them, were savvy enough to not only conceive of it, find out how to get the crickets, dress up like we were playing the part and sneak past the guards to get there, but videotape it and get it to the media stations within the several hours that it occurred so that it was on the evening news. And it was that kind of fun, creative activity that was great to part of. It was energizing.  It was exciting; it was fun. It was ultimately effective at sending a message and getting lots of people involved and aware of the gardens, and ultimately some of the victories.


            As activists spent the night in jail, the city’s newspapers wrote sympathetic descriptions of the action. “As the crickets hopped about, hundreds of onlookers scrambled to avoid the swarms,” began report by the Daily News “Activists Bugged by City Land Auction” (Cauvin, 1998). Most of the LESC storyline found its way into the press reports. “We’re hoping he gets the idea and his nose stops growing,” the Daily News reported Wendy Madison, a supporter, saying of Mayor Giuliani.  “Ten people left a larger group protesting outside Police Headquarters ... carried the insects in manila envelopes with mesh air holes... The arrested activists were Timothy Becker, 39; Dennis Griggs, 52; Francine Luck, 55; Clayton Patterson, 49, and Jason Spiegel” (who later changed his last name to Grote). “Auction Disrupted, but Charas Is Sold,” Anderson (1998) of The Villager reported. “Cricket Invaders Turn an Auction into ‘Madness,” wrote Waldman (1998) wrote for The New York Times.  El Diario put the action on its cover (1998), while Newsday and others reported the cricket action and the Charas auction simultaneously (Associated Press, 1998; Vega, 1998).  The activist message came through loud and clear.  Rather than the Giuliani rotten-apple narrative of a city of decay in need of a savior, the reports clearly sided with the story that the community was losing something precious. “Community group: 0, Real estate interests: 1,” announced an El Diario editorial from July 23.
July 23, 1998, the Cybergal sent out an email reviewing the action.  “The Giuliani Administration did succeed in selling off CHARAS and some 250 other pieces of public land—but only with enormous difficulty, and at a high public relations cost.”  She noted that the neighborhood found its way into a larger citywide political debate.
The coverage of the auction and accompanying protests was sympathetic to our side. The TV coverage was especially good, with NY1 and Channel 11 as stand-outs, casting the issue as community use versus luxury development and presenting our call for a moratorium on the sale of public land pending the development of a democratic plan for open space, low-income housing, and cultural facilities. 

In these early dispatches, Cybergal identified the rumblings of something very powerful. The garden struggle was taking the shape of a burgeoning social movement:

Most encouraging of all, this movement is clearly growing in both size and
strength. Five months ago, the City land auctions weren’t even an issue; 
public awareness has increased enormously in a short time, and more and
more people are coming forward to fight not just for community gardens but
for democratic control over public land. 
Remember, too, that 18 Lower East Side gardens have now been saved as
public community space. This is as many gardens in one neighborhood as
have been saved in the rest of the entire city—a testament to the enduring
political fact that action gets results. 
We’re going to have to fight another auction in three months’ time, and
we’re going to have to keep pushing if we want any more gardens saved. But
for the moment, take heart in what this movement has accomplished so far—and go spend some time in the gardens! 
Gardens had always been a place for kids, for families, for friends and neighbors to share space and play; but they had also become a part of a new political movement, with echoes reverberating around the globes. 
Finishing my abridged reading from this material, I smiled, greeted a few more of my heroes and comrades, including Frank Morales, Rev Billy, Allan, Jess, Emily Wendy and several other buddies from years of activism.  
Peter Cramer and Petit Versailles. Top photo by the author.
Bottom by

Mac McGill gave a talk, one part slideshow, another part punk, a third part bluesology. 

Mac McGill show
Peter S. the hero behind the camera.

Having a rough day, he explained at one point.  But he still implored those in attendance to rise up, despite the storms going on all around us.

Fly mc ing

Fly followed with a show of images from her Unreal Estate show, a slideshow of stories from her years as a squatter in the city, recalling houses which disappeared, were burnt down, a 1994 squatter riot at Cooper Union when Fr Frank was denied a chance to speak and squatters fought for the mic, rebelled, stood up for themselves, and shared their stories.  "After a riot you have to hang out and tell stories about how you hit a cop over and over again."  Looking around I saw my friend Jess, whose had her share of Critical Mass run ins with the NYPD, smiling in recognition.  The slide show combined comics, images of comrades such as Brad Will past, social history, and graffiti which first drew me to the East Village seen when I was a twelve year old kid living in the suburbs.  I can't wait for her oral history of the squatter movement to come out.  
"After you finish a riot, you gotta tell the story about what happpened over and over,"explained Fly.

Images in photos by Fly.

Listened to a few other talks, and wandered out to leave.  The evening had been a grand success. Its message was out there for the world to learn from, build upon, and support.  Bill and Laurie and the volunteers brought together as powerful a group of activists as I have ever seen get together in the Lower East Side.  
But I could not seem to leave.  I was up and down the stairs three times, greeting friends, talking, forgetting one thing or another in the crowded basement.  Finally, I got outside to leave.  But my  bike seat was still inside.  I left my chain on the street, ran back down, past Rev. Billy and Frank Morales, Jk and Laurie, back to the basement and grabbed the seat. 
"Suatterlyness is next to Godliness," Frank was explaining. 

Father Frank by fly or

"Still leaving Ben," my friend Emily noted.  

Grilling out front.  There was a lot of community going on.
Photo by Fly Orr

I finally huffed off to get home to see the kids, riding through Alphabet City, down Bowery, across the Manhattan bridge,  and back home.  Walking into the basement, I looked for my keys, noticing my chair was not on my bike. Oy ve.  After some cursing, I jumped back on my bike, back through Brooklyn, over the bridge, back up Ave C past the party.  RMO was warming up. And people were BBQing outside.  
I found my chain, chained up.  A sign nearby read:  "I have yr keys." I called the number listed below and a guy told me he had the keys down the street. 
Laurie was out getting a soda.  "Hi Ben."
I told her what happened and said goodbye, recovered my keys, thanking the man who had found them profusely, and reveled in my luck.  Maybe there is something to be said for hanging out for squatters and guerilla gardeners?  Maybe Frank and Adam were right?

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