Anthropology / Everything Human

Transcript – Closer to Home

Transcript – Closer to Home

Chip Colwell: [00:00:00] Hi, listeners. This is Chip, one of the co-hosts of SAPIENS. This week, Esteban is your main host for the episode. But before we get started, I want to let parents who might be listening with young ones know that there is occasional profane language in the audio. Thanks for tuning in. Esteban, over to you. [00:00:18][17.7]

 

Esteban Gómez: [00:00:25] Someone once told me that you spend half of your life trying to leave home and the other half trying to run right back there. That’s been true for me. I grew up in California, and I loved living in the L.A. area. Growing up speaking Spanish and English, being close to my family. But I wanted to follow my career, and my burning questions about the world eventually took me far away to Central America and beyond. Now I live in Colorado. I want to rebuild what I had in the L.A. area for my son, Benjamin. And increasingly, I’m writing about home and trying to figure out what exactly makes a place a home or not. [00:01:06][41.6]

 

Esteban Gómez: [00:01:11] That’s why we sent SAPIENS producer Ariella Milkman to the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space in the heart of New York City. It’s a really unique museum that actually exists in the same building as a squat. [00:01:20][9.3]

 

Museum speaker: [00:01:21] So, who knows what a squat is? Anybody? No, you didn’t cover that one? OK, anybody wanna try to explain it, besides me? Alright, people moved into this building, it was abandoned, they took it over. They were all musicians, so they kind of made a space for themselves, but this is the real deal … [00:01:39][17.8]

 

Arielle Milkman: [00:01:39] Hey, Esteban, thanks for having me on the show. [00:01:41][1.6]

 

Esteban Gómez: [00:01:42] Great to have you! OK, so tell me about the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space. [00:01:45][3.7]

 

Arielle Milkman: [00:01:46] Well, it’s sort of like a living museum to the Lower East Side’s history of buildings, squatting, punk culture, activism, community gardens, all rolled into one. Initially, it looks like any other storefront on the Lower East Side, but it’s actually in the same building as a famous squat where people currently live and have lived for a long time. [00:02:10][24.2]

 

Museum speaker: [00:02:19] A lot of people sleep in there, not some people. [00:02:20][0.8]

 

Arielle Milkman: [00:02:27] On the day I visited, Amy Starecheski was giving a lecture to a college class visiting from Virginia. She wrote this book about housing in the Lower East Side. It’s called Ours to Lose: When Squatters Became Homeowners in New York City . And I was excited to talk to her about how people make homes in places like this. [00:02:45][17.8]

 

Amy Starecheski: [00:02:45] I’m glad you guys got to see that space and see some of the contrast between like the museum version and the less-museum version of the, this building. [00:02:45][0.1]

 

Arielle Milkman: [00:02:57] Amy talked to us a lot about the differences between the various parts of the building. The museum in the front is a clean space with white walls that looks like a gallery. And then in the space downstairs, there are shows, and upstairs, people are living there. Amy also told the students about how the building was still straddling two eras of housing and property on the Lower East Side. And I remember thinking about how it really straddles two eras of her life, also. She lived in a squat for a little while, and now she’s literally written the book on them. [00:03:30][32.5]

 

Esteban Gómez: [00:03:31] Wow, that’s really interesting. All these new people just walking around that space soaking up different elements of her life, her research, her friends. I get that she didn’t live in this particular squat, but it’s almost like they’re in her home. So let’s figure this out. What makes a building, a house, or even a museum, home? [00:03:50][18.6]

 

All hosts: [00:03:50] INTRO [00:03:50][0.0]

 

Amy Starecheski: [00:04:16] I grew up in the suburbs outside of Philadelphia. It’s funny, everyone, I think most people, think that that place where they grow up is a regular. But I do think that the place where I grew up is, you know, pretty consistent with the mainstream media version of American life in the 1980s. You know, big public high school, lots of suburban tract housing, sidewalks. Not a lot of public life or public space. And, interestingly, a lot of empty buildings that you could explore, because I grew up next to a state park where they had planned to build a reservoir, and so as kids we actually spent time with our parents exploring these abandoned homes and always, you know, making up these fabulous stories about why they were empty, and why the people had left, and who do we think they were? [00:05:06][50.4]

 

Esteban Gómez: [00:05:07] Amy was a smart kid, like smart in a way that was super critical and super good at school. But not exactly cool. But by high school, she had found a subculture that helped her navigate the world. [00:05:17][10.5]

 

Amy Starecheski: [00:05:23] In punk rock, I found a place where being critical and being smart and being different was something that was valued and really, through that world and through that music, I was able to access a whole set of really powerful critical theories: feminism, anarchism, a critique of capitalism that honestly, like have really shaped the way that I continue to think about the world. [00:05:46][23.1]

 

Esteban Gómez: [00:05:46] Amy got really into punk, and a big part of that was going to a lot of shows. But these shows weren’t in clubs or concert halls or anything like that. There were in these abandoned, unregulated spaces. Basically, they were squats. And through them, she met a whole community of punks who were pouring all their time and energy into making these places livable. Amy grew up on her mom’s stories of being a kid in the Bronx. When it came to apply to college, she had her heart set on experiencing the wonder and spontaneity of New York City for herself. [00:06:17][31.0]

 

Amy Starecheski: [00:06:18] I never thought there is any other place I wanted to be, and as soon as I got here, I just felt instantly at home. You know, people here, they walk fast, they talk fast. Some of the things that made me feel just kind of like uncomfortable in my skin in other places, here I just felt completely normal and at home. [00:06:34][15.6]

 

Esteban Gómez: [00:06:35] So Arielle, when you visited with Amy in New York, did you get to learn about her as a young person and what kinds of spaces she lived in? [00:06:40][4.9]

 

Arielle Milkman: [00:06:40] Yah, we did spend some time in Amy’s neighborhood in Mott Haven in the Bronx, where she’s been living since she was in her early 20s. Here’s how she ended up there. As a student at Columbia University, Amy met an activist from the Lower East Side at a community theater where they both hung out. He introduced her to a squat in the South Bronx called Casa Del Sol. At this point, Amy had been in a number of squats, but this one was different. It was a mostly empty, six-story tenement, and it didn’t smell of beer or cigarettes. Instead, there were spaces for building bikes and cutting glass, a theater, a garden, and a collectivist spirit that totally captivated Amy. There she met a pretty diverse crowd including a man named Rafael Bueno. He was just known to everybody as Bueno, and he sort of controlled the workings of the building despite the collective energy around the place. Amy and her boyfriend were invited to move into Casa Del Sol in the fall of 2000; they chose one of the many empty spaces and cleaned it up, weatherproofing their room for the rapidly approaching New York winter. They peed in a five-gallon bucket. Amy brushed her teeth in the library where the tap was always running a little bit so the pipes wouldn’t freeze and burst. The pipes weren’t the only thing that required attention. Amy quickly learned that freedom in Casa Del Sol required a lot of work balancing relationships both inside and outside the community. The squatters there didn’t say they lived in the building. In fact, they avoided using words like home, living, or my apartment. Instead, they tried to frame themselves as caretakers in order to avoid eviction. With time, the interpersonal stuff proved even more challenging. A few months into living in Casa del Sol, Amy’s sister was moving back to New York from the West Coast. Amy wanted her sister to move in. But Bueno said no. So Amy moved out. [00:08:50][129.3]

 

Esteban Gómez: [00:08:51] So what was the deal with Casa del Sol? Why were the squatters so worried about being evicted? [00:08:55][3.9]

 

Arielle Milkman: [00:08:52] New York City in the 1970s and 1980s was in a lot of debt, and some landlords pretty much walked away from a lot of their buildings. They must have realized it was more profitable for them to leave them as is than repair them and charge rent. And that’s where these squatters came in. The city ended up owning a ton of buildings and also didn’t have money to fix them and also didn’t just want people living in them. So you have this dynamic of people squatting or literally taking matters into their own hands to make these unregulated spaces into homes. And they were constantly worried about being evicted or kicked out. [00:09:34]

 

Esteban Gómez: [00:09:34] Like what happened in the play Rent? [00:09:36]

 

Arielle Milkman: [00:09:37] Yeah, exactly. And just like in Rent, there was a lot of drama. In the 1990s, some squatters in the Lower East Side tried to legally frame themselves as residents, not trespassers. And they argued that they should be allowed to stay because they had put so much work into their buildings. Through their work investments and relationships, they’d created homes. It looked like the squatters might have a case. They were granted an injunction preventing eviction, but then residents of five buildings were evicted anyway by the city. [00:10:06][70.2]

 

Esteban Gómez: [00:10:07] Wow, there must have been a lot of distrust on both sides. Where was Amy in all this? [00:10:10][3.1]

 

Arielle Milkman: [00:10:11] Eight years after she left Casa del Sol, Amy was in grad school studying anthropology, and all those complicated feelings she had about squats and housing and property and how the city was changing came back to the surface. This time she set her sights on the Lower East Side. [00:10:28][17.2]

 

Amy Starecheski: [00:10:34] The Lower East Side is a very interesting neighborhood now. It has a reputation as being, you know, as gentrified as a neighborhood can be, peak gentrification. It’s incredibly expensive to live there in a market-rate apartment. There’s a lot of luxury development. But it’s not a neighborhood that has no low-income people in it and that has no longtime residents. It’s actually a neighborhood that’s very mixed because there is a lot of public housing there, and there is a lot of low-income housing that people fought incredibly hard through the 1970s, 80s, and 90s and continue to fight hard to preserve. So it’s still a very vibrant Puerto Rican community. There’s still a lot of longtime residents there. So there are moments when I’m on the Lower East Side now where I recognize the neighborhood where I loved to spend time in the 90s. And there are times when it seems really different, but both of those things are there at the same time. [00:11:33][59.7]

 

Esteban Gómez: [00:11:34] Speaking as a person who does research, this sounds like a tough field site. How did Amy handle all of that? [00:11:40][5.5]

 

Arielle Milkman: [00:11:41] The thing is, Amy was kind of an insider. [00:11:42][1.8]

 

Amy Starecheski: [00:11:43] But I was enough of an insider that I was associated with a particular person or a particular faction or a particular building. I think it allowed people to have a basic level of trust that I was not there to smear them or to air their dirty laundry for no reason, that I was there as on some basic level an ally which, of course, brings its own complications to doing the research. [00:12:07][24.2]

 

Arielle Milkman: [00:12:08] Amy built relationships with folks on the Lower East Side, and that helped her see the perspective of the people who lived there, like Tauno Bilstead. [00:12:15][7.2]

 

Tauno Bilstead: [00:12:16] It’s hard to imagine now walking around. I remember the first time. I’ll take a step back. [00:12:20][4.5]

 

Arielle Milkman: [00:12:21] Tauno lives in a co-op that started as a squat. It’s called Umbrella House. [00:12:25][4.2]

 

Tauno Bilstead: [00:12:25] So when I first came through in 1983, it was when the American occupation in Beirut was in the news, and I was struck by how particularly the East Village looked like a war zone. It looked like the images that were in the newspaper from Beirut. It was, it was incredible: There was, you know, blocks where there was three or four buildings standing, and the rest of the buildings were, you know, rubble, basically. There were so many burned out buildings. And this is part of the dynamic of divestment that happened throughout the 60s and 70s. White flight, the collapse in property prices, landlords burning their buildings; it was an odd little pocket. You know this, this neighborhood is really close to the, you know, financial district, you know, it’s a mile, mile and a half from the financial district and not so far from the West Village and all this other kind of stuff that’s around here. But it was like really scarred and messed up. [00:13:24][58.4]

 

Arielle Milkman: [00:13:24] And Frank Morales, who we visited on our way to the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space. [00:13:28][4.3]

 

Amy Starecheski: [00:13:29] Can you tell the story about leading the parishioners on Easter with the crowbar, sledgehammer to break open the cinder block wall? [00:13:36][7.6]

 

Frank Morales: [00:13:38] Well, it was ’79 or ’80. It’s somewhere during that time, there were two buildings. St Ann’s Church is on 139th Street on St. Ann’s Avenue. and the big cross street is 138. There was very little opposition on the street; there was no fear of police because one of the upsides of abandonment is that you could drop dead in the middle of the street and nobody would ever know because nobody cared. [00:14:05][27.1]

 

Arielle Milkman: [00:14:06] Frank told us that he and his parishioners approached with a sledgehammer and some other tools and just started breaking down the wall and some of the windows. [00:14:14][7.6]

 

Frank Morales: [00:14:15] This blast of cold air comes rushing out and you get a feeling like you, you freed whatever was, was in there and then you’re going in and it’s kind of this, this kind of archeology that’s, you know, of ruins, and then you start envisioning what could be. Oh, you could put the community kitchen here, we could do that. It unleashes all this creative energy. And, you know, it is a spirituality about it because it’s a fearlessness that comes in and allows people to take risks, sometimes, you know, crazy risks, the building could be ready to collapse on your head because we didn’t have those kind of architectural skills that, you know, or whatever, you know, structural issues. [00:14:55][40.9]

 

Arielle Milkman: [00:14:58] People like Tauno and Frank put tons of work into making their spaces home, their way. When I visited Tauno, for instance, he told me the story of how his building got its name. [00:15:10][11.2]

 

Tauno Bilstead: [00:15:10] One of the people who was one of the founding members who is not here any longer was a Dutch woman who had this vision and she’d been exposed to squatting and in Amsterdam or was involved in squatting in Amsterdam, I believe. So the one story is that she called it Umbrella House or wanted it to be called Umbrella House because it was, you know, would create this umbrella for international radical artists. And then, also, yes, they were like, OK, yes, Umbrella House because you need an umbrella inside when it rains. It was like that leaky, you know, the roof was in poor shape and like I said, had holes in the roof and everything. [00:15:45][35.1]

 

Arielle Milkman: [00:15:46] Tauno and the other residents saw the structural problems in their building, learned what they needed to learn, and fixed them by themselves. [00:15:53][6.4]

 

Tauno Bilstead: [00:15:54] At the time, we had work days every weekend. There was a lot of, like, just hauling out trash and then, and then doing the more sort of involved trades work. So, yes, there’s this sense of like, this is, this is my building, not mine personally but mine sort of shared with other people, and this is, this is something that I built. [00:16:13][19.4]

 

Esteban Gómez: [00:16:13] Amy’s research is about how the Lower East Side changed, though. So what happened? [00:16:17][3.4]

 

Arielle Milkman: [00:16:17] Well, Amy came to the Lower East Side at a time of transition for people like Tauno and Frank. You see, after all the drama in the 1990s, the city was looking to get out of this complicated situation. City officials started negotiating with the squatters on a secret deal to allow them to do something pretty incredible: become homeowners. By 2002, 11 buildings including Tauno’s were turned over to a nonprofit so that the squats could legally convert to co-ops. And Amy was studying these folks, right, when they were in the middle of that very messy and unprecedented process. The beginnings of homeownership. [00:16:59][42.4]

 

Esteban Gómez: [00:17:00] How did they feel about all this? [00:17:01][0.8]

 

Arielle Milkman: [00:17:01] There is a bittersweet way in which some of the former squatters talked about home in the wake of the legalization deal. For the most part, residents who were stable gained more stability. On the other hand … [00:17:14][12.5]

 

Tauno Bilstead: [00:17:15] I think I miss having, you know, like a really vibrant community space, you know, like we were able to have shows and stuff like that, that was fun and cool to, like, be, you know, have that kind of space and make it open to other groups and stuff like that. [00:17:30][15.0]

 

Amy Starecheski: [00:17:30] You know, when I was down there visiting with people and doing interviews, I saw spaces that were so lovingly and often like really thoroughly reconstructed. People who were so excited and passionate about building their homes, and I’ve been to your apartment there, which had such a wonderful cozy feel to it. Full of books. And tell me what it’s been like to experience a gut renovation and also how you all … It sounds like it wasn’t exactly a decision-making process but it was kind of pushed on you, but how you got to that point of, of doing that and just what it’s been like to have all that work torn apart. [00:18:10][40.1]

 

Frank Morales: [00:18:11] Really, what it’s like in general terms, it’s kind of like moving from, from my perspective, a kind of situation of, you know, utopia in a way, where people are working together to make homes together and creating and, you know, through their own sweat, where they live. So coming from that to where we are now, it’s now where we’ve kind of re-joined or maybe not so much by choice, but we sort of reintegrated into the, I don’t want to say, dystopia, but a kind of normalcy of, of reality under capitalism. It’s a, it’s a, it’s a shift, it’s a big shift. [00:19:07][56.1]

 

Amy Starecheski: [00:19:08] When the building formalized, residents’ relationships changed in a lot of different ways, and they also stayed the same in important ways. It’s not like it was a complete shift. One thing that changed was that as co-op members or as aspiring co-op members, each person in the building had to pay a certain amount of what they call rent to keep the building up, to pay their mortgage. And it used to be that they could kind of find ways to either allow people who didn’t contribute much to stay by just carrying them along, or they could find all different ways for people to contribute to the buildings. [00:19:44][36.6]

 

Esteban Gómez: [00:19:45] So one person might do a lot of construction and another person might act like the super? [00:19:50][4.4]

 

Arielle Milkman: [00:19:50] Right. But now … [00:19:51][0.9]

 

Amy Starecheski: [00:19:52] Now, each person has to pay a certain amount of money. It’s harder to accommodate different people’s different capacities to contribute to the overall project of running the building. [00:20:01][9.5]

 

Arielle Milkman: [00:20:02] Some people are now in the messy position of choosing whether to cover for their neighbors who can’t pay rent. Sometimes, folks do work collectively to keep more vulnerable residents in the building, and other times … they evict them. [00:20:18][15.9]

 

Esteban Gómez: [00:20:23] Do we spend the first half of our lives trying to get away from home? And the second half trying to get back there? Amy spent the first part of her adulthood thinking about squats. Now she’s thinking about what home means in her own neighborhood, Mott Haven, in the Bronx. She lives there with her partner and her daughter. The neighborhood around her is changing fast and there are more and more white people like her around every day. In order to make sense of gentrification, she’s talking to older adults that have lived through it all. [00:20:52][29.7]

 

Amy Starecheski: [00:20:57] I’m doing a research project about neighborhood change. [00:20:58][1.0]

 

Interviewee: [00:21:00] The neighborhood is changing. Ask Steve! [laughs] [00:21:07]

 

Steve: [00:21:08] That’s why I sort of have a love-hate relationship with this place. I love things about the ghetto and I hate things about the ghetto. Things you see that you don’t see anywhere else. You know what I mean, like the lifestyle, the people, the attitude. I mean, I grew up in Brooklyn for quite some time. I moved from the Bronx to Brooklyn, then back, but my family’s been in this neighborhood forever. So, you know, I would come and spend summers, and I guess that’s when the ladies, that life started happening, you know, as a teenager. So I don’t know there was a lot to love about it, and I grew up in Bensonhurst in Brooklyn, so it was kind of really shitty and racist. So I guess this made me feel like home, being around my own people, as messed up as that sounds, but it was like going through it out there with, you know, Italians, the way they were treating me and shit like that. I’d come out here just to feel at home, I guess, you know what I mean. [00:22:09][61.5]

 

Amy Starecheski: [00:22:10] You feel at home in a place where people are like you, right? [00:22:12][1.7]

 

Interviewee: [00:22:14] Yeah, it is in a way like. [00:22:15][1.2]

 

Amy Starecheski: [00:22:16] That’s like, natural. I’m partially, like making you do my dirty work for me because one of the, like, tropes that’s come up in all my conversations with people about good white people versus bad white people is that bad people walk around with cameras taking pictures of things. You see a white person with a camera taking pictures of things, you know that they’re, like, up to no good. And I can’t imagine that, like, poking a shotgun mike is any different. People are giving us the meanest looks. [00:22:44][27.6]

 

Arielle Milkman: [00:22:46] Yeah, definitely. [00:22:47][0.8]

 

Amy Starecheski: [00:22:48] Like, nobody is happy, nobody thinks it’s cute or interesting that we’re, like, two white ladies walking around with a recorder. [00:22:54][6.8]

 

Arielle Milkman: [00:22:57] Do you ever get to turn off the part of your brain that thinks about this stuff all the time? [00:23:02][5.0]

 

Amy Starecheski: [00:23:03] No. No. I feel like that’s even true, like that was true when I took Anthropology 101 in college, and it’s part of what I love about this field is that it can bring about like a really deep shift in perception, like a paradigm shift in how you see the whole world, which to me is really exciting, and it’s, you know, it’s something that’s kind of tricky about doing research in your own, like where your regular life is also happening. But for me, like, that part of my brain was already always turned on around here. And so that part has not been that different for me. [00:23:45][42.3]

 

Esteban Gómez: [00:23:47] The act of recording stories in places like Mott Haven where people’s homes are threatened can become contentious. At the end of the day, there’s no singular answer to the question, “What is home?” It’s intensely personal. For Tauno, it’s about stable relationships. And for Frank, it’s about a safe space to recharge and face the world. And for Amy’s daughter, Sydney … [00:24:09][22.7]

 

Amy Starecheski: [00:24:10] Do you feel at home, here? [00:24:11][1.1]

 

Sydney: [00:24:13] Yes. [00:24:15]

 

Amy Starecheski: [00:24:16 ] Why do you? What makes you feel at home here? [00:24:18][3.6]

 

Sydney: [00:24:19] Oh, I like the city, and I like a lot of stores. But I like, but I also like looking at trees. So the city is perfect for me. [00:24:33][10.8]

 

Amy Starecheski: [00:24:33] I would say my predominant sense is of not belonging here. But I also feel very much at home here. The people that I have known around here for a long time, even like the clerk at the Korean green grocer. Like, I’ve known him since he was a teenager, and I’ve been buying groceries there since I was 22 years old or something. You know. Those kinds of little points of connection make me feel at home. And this building is very much home to me with my, I have extended family here and, and important friends. I’ve planted trees here and watched them grow to like mature trees. So, I mean, I’ve spent almost half my life here, and I would love to stay here for a long time. [00:25:21][48.2]

 

Tauno Bilstead: [00:25:21] I think that, that having like stable and secure interpersonal networks is part of what is home. [00:25:31][9.5]

 

Frank Morales: [00:25:31] Home is a place of intimacy where you know people, are able to be at peace. It’s a place where we replenish ourselves in order to go out and do the work we need to do to change the conditions of this situation that we’re in on this planet. [00:25:49][17.8]

 

Amy Starecheski: [00:25:50] I think a lot about the way that John Locke talks about property rights and the idea that we make things our own when we mix our labor with them and that actually, you know, much as I might critique John Locke’s overall worldview, that idea that we make things our own when we mix our labor with them, that really resonates for me, and I think that the work that we do in our homes, the emotional work, the housecleaning, the cooking, the work of raising children, makes those places ours and part of ourselves kind of rubs off on them so that then, if we lose that home, we lose part of ourselves. [00:26:29][39.7]

 

Esteban Gómez: [00:26:30] A couple weeks ago my family and I moved to a neighborhood in northwest Denver. It’s more diverse than where we were before. And it’s amazing to think about how much of a difference that has made for me. There’s Mexican markets, there’s taquerias, and people of different ethnicities and backgrounds walking around the place. It’s a bit more urban. But, surprisingly, I feel more comfortable there. I think that’s home for me. Being surrounded by family, being comfortable in my own skin. Of course, a place to watch a Dodgers game doesn’t hurt either. I think Amy’s stories from Mott Haven to the Lower East Side show how city policies can really shape our experiences of home, safety, and intimacy. At the same time, for lots of folks, home is a set of really important relationships that are constantly in motion. I’m making home every day in Denver, a rapidly changing city. So I’m going to keep thinking about this question for a long time to come. [00:27:24][53.1]

 

Chip Colwell: [00:27:30] This episode of SAPIENS was produced by Arielle Milkman, edited and sound-designed by Matthew Simonson, and hosted by Esteban Gómez. SAPIENS producer Paul Karolyi, executive producer Cat Jaffee, and House of Pod intern Lucy Soucek also provided additional support. Christine Weeber is our fact-checker. Our cover art was created by David Williams, and music for this episode is by Matthew Simonson. Thanks this time to our guest Amy Starecheski. Thanks also to Tauno Bilstead, Frank Morales, Bill DePaulo, and Sidney Junstarturner, who make appearances in this episode. Special thanks to 2.5 Children Inc. for use of their song, rolling fields, which played during the episode. Thanks also to Danilyn Rutherford; Maugha Kenny; and the entire staff, board, and advisory council of the Wenner-Gren Foundation; Amanda Mascarelli, Daniel Salas, Christine Weeber, Aaron Brooks, Cay Leytham-Powell, and everyone at SAPIENS.org. SAPIENS is part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library. This is an editorially independent podcast funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and produced by House of Pod. See you around, fellow sapiens, wherever your home may be.