Ignore History at Your Own Urban Peril

July 25, 2017   •   By Austin Allyn

The Autonomous City

Alexander Vasudevan

“THESE ARE STORIES that are all too quickly forgotten, at a time when they need to be told more urgently than ever,” Alexander Vasudevan boldly claims in The Autonomous City, his new history of urban squatting. And indeed, the book poses difficult and timely questions: What is the use of local government? What fundamental rights should people enjoy in their own country? Can gentrification ever be stopped under an economic system dependent on growth?

What is initially presented as a scrupulously detailed, thought-provoking study quickly reveals itself to be an exposé of the costs of gentrification — as well as a guide for people around the world who face the struggle for affordable housing. Vasudevan chooses to open and close his history on the streets of New York. While the story he lays out is multinational, the nature of squatting in the United States is particularly telling. “In the United States,” he writes, “squatting was closely intertwined with the predations of settler colonialism and, on a shifting frontier, it often represented a form of violent displacement through which indigenous communities were dispossessed of their lands and livelihoods.” But only a couple of generations later, squatting became something entirely different. The bureaucratic paperwork and red tape of real estate formed by the original squatters would not be used to displace the indigenous but to deny the poor the right to have a roof over their heads.

Common tactics taken by New York squatters include moving in to decrepit, empty establishments and making them livable again. Their first task is to remove any immediate danger, but many squatters accomplish much more: establishing proper plumbing and heating for East Coast winters, as well as giving these properties a regular cleaning. Immigrants and refugees, artists and runaways — and, of course, some less than scrupulous characters — paved a new path for old structures that undoubtedly elevated whole neighborhoods, from the Lower East Side to Harlem.

Shifting the focus to London’s historically diverse scene of “drop-outs, anarchists, punks, gay and lesbian activists, queer and trans groups, black nationalists, migrants, refugees and environmentalists,” we see how squatting emerged on an unprecedented scale after World War II. Showcasing the ability of different minorities to work together highlights a necessary tactic for current urban dwellers, and provides hope that an impact can be made by the “mass action of ordinary people.” When Vasudevan details how “neighbourhood gentrification and property speculation served to deepen an existing housing crisis,” readers may wonder if they are reading about 1970s London or present-day Los Angeles.

While stock investment groups were buying property and evicting tenants for future office plans, the London squatters who refused to give in were busy establishing a bakery, a whole food store, a community garden, and a left-wing bookstore, bringing together people of different social status, age, wealth, and attitudes, and making revolutionary visual art as well as punk and electronic music. This appealed to “anyone who [could] no longer accept what society offers or is doing to itself.” A look at the emergence of the feminist movement in the ’70s and the rise of gay radical culture underscores the need for these alternative forms of communal living as centers for social change.

The advent of the thriving free party scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s gave rise to high-profile rural raves and an exodus of Londoners who squatted illegally on plots of land outside of the city. However, this anti-globalization movement has had its momentum destroyed by a wave of legislation within the last decade. As Vasudevan points out, “many academics, charity workers and legal experts” felt this clash with authority anticipated future struggles for social justice. Vasudevan closes his research on this city’s history with the 2013 death of Daniel Gauntlett, who, after being charged under new anti-squatting legislation, froze to death outside of an uninhabited property. Just this June, the unsafe conditions of London’s Grenfell Tower led to a fire that claimed over 80 lives. Meanwhile, a stone’s throw away, 1,399 homes lie empty as millionaires wait for returns on their real estate investments.

Squatters in Amsterdam in the 1970s and ’80s weren’t known for their passivity. “If you want to change something, you have to not only engage in confrontations but also provoke them,” one said. In 1980, the brutal tactics adopted by the police to clear a squatting area were met by neighborhood barricades and a city bus placed sideways across an intersection. Protests in Copenhagen, concurrent to those in Amsterdam, put into action the motto: “To act is not just to do something, it is to be something.” According to one manifesto, Danish squatters were determined “[t]o create a self-governing society whereby each and every individual holds themselves responsible for the well-being of the entire community.” Abandoned 19th-century factories in the city were turned into “People’s Houses.”

The fight against the “permanent violence of capitalism and the disagreeable materiality of colonialism” continued in Germany, where squatters in Berlin, Frankfurt, and Hamburg recognized the social potential of each neighborhood. These squatters claimed that their society was defined by violence expressed through the increase in consumer prices the absence of social institutions, and the destruction of the environment. Vasudevan quotes the leader of a 1968 student revolt: “You have to decide […] either you are on the side of those who commit torture [the police] or you are on the side of those who get tortured [the squatters].”

Of course, not all squatting is romantic and creative. Some squatters’ residences were called “crisis zones” of discomfort, and others ended up replicating the patriarchal structures they wished to destroy; some of these buildings outside the law saw serious sexual and physical violence.

Readers may grow tired of the number of details Vasudevan musters, but they build a powerful argument; these squatters, one feels, have long been on the front lines of a battle that now involves ever larger numbers of people. The Autonomous City shows determined people living creatively, meeting the challenges of modern urban life by creating a new and arguably necessary culture, politics, and mode of existence. The idea that it is better to squat and mend than to own and destroy continues to inspire young people. Many don’t know that their paths have already been paved. Vasudevan’s work provides historical proof of the necessity of squatters in the “ongoing neoliberal restructuring” of any big city. He shows that actions that broke the law also benefited society.

As I mentioned at the start, the book poses difficult and timely questions: What is the use of local government? What fundamental rights should people enjoy in their own country? Can gentrification ever be stopped under an economic system dependent on growth? The Autonomous City is a resource for all urban dwellers.


Austin Allyn is a community organizer, music producer, artist, and writer whose work has previously appeared in the Los Angeles Times.