Create to Destroy! NYC’s C-Squat:
Homeo-Empathy 9th & C
Bill Cashman is an all around great guy (like, give you his last dollar and make you smile kind of guy) who also painstakingly creates very dense and elaborate zines filled with collage and intensity. This time the project was obsessively focused on the history of the squat-gone-homestead-co-op where he lives, C-Squat in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The history of the Lower East Side is rife with punk and punk rock attitude, from the squatters to the Tompkins Square Park riots to the Diggers to anarchists and just plain anarchy. There is a lot of history, but within the punk scene there are a lot of conflicting memories. So Bill decided to sidestep controversy and just stick with the slightly embellished historical facts of the building itself. This zine focuses a lot about the history of the LES, including squatting of course, but the social ecology piece entitled The Struggle for Space is an amazing resource for that specific movement, as is former MRR contributor Fly, who is currently working on her history book Unreal Estate. Additionally, the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation recently ran the piece about the zine in the article Examining a Building’s Past, Punk Rock Style. Here is Bill Cashman (or W.D. Bickerknocker) of Homeo-Empathy 9th & C zine…
What is C-Squat?
It’s a punk house. Formerly a long time squat, currently a homestead, and future: unknown. As one of the graffiti scribblings on one of our walls accurately decrees: “This house is an emotional megaphone.”
Is this question a point of contention?
Everything here is a point of contention.
Why does the zine focus on the building versus the more “punk” history of the place?
I dunno. Mainly I guess because it’s weirder? I wanted to do a history of the building I live in and starting with the “punk” or squat history would’ve been like starting in the middle. I’m sure the rest of the history is going to come from someone else but I wanted to do something that maybe other people weren’t going to try to dig up. Plus, I wasn’t up for the task of sifting through a sort of squatter Roshomon just yet. But to tell the entire story of one LES building and what was happening immediately around it over the course of 100+ years, you don’t just get a snapshot of one single recent evolving identity — it sort of becomes a zine about the story of the whole neighborhood that has been steadily changing around it.
By the end of the all that research, the project was no longer just about history but to me it personally became just as much about current-day subversion. This is a place where a lot of people have a set idea about what it is, what it could be, or what it’s supposed to/should be…or why it sucks because it’s not like this or that anymore. By writing a zine about the building and not even going into the years of that one identity — it kind of indirectly shows that (for better and for worse) things inevitably can and will change. Just like the Lower East Side being forced to change all around it, a lot of that change sucks but other things I can’t wait to see change. Also, by taking away the distraction of the most obvious things, it’s like writing about another place that you are not involved in, which makes writing about it a bit easier.
14 years ago there was a song written about this place, called “Homeo Apathy 9th & C,” which on the bad days is still a pretty accurate title to sum up life here. I wanted to flip that script so I called the first part “Homeo-Empathy 9th & C.” It may be a more ironic and less fitting title, but what I meant behind that word swap is an example of some kind of alchemic wish for better days, whether for the physical building or for the people currently in it. Whether the building moves on as a punk house, or some people move on, or everyone gets evicted and it becomes a regular “low income” apartment building… as long as it still stands — it will go forward as someone’s home. So that’s the history that I wanted to dig up — one of the building, # 155, not just its/our current collective identity. I just so happened to leave the most interesting, entertaining, defining, and important part out for now…because it deserves its own chapter.
Wow, that sure was a long answer, huh?
How’d you wind up making a zine on the place?
I was at a NEGATIVE APPROACH/ANTIDOTE show in Brooklyn and a woman named Rain Chacon came up to me at the bar. She asked if she could buy me a drink because she wanted to hear how things were at C-Squat. She used to hang out there in the ’80s and wanted to hear how it was doing. I invited her to an art show we were doing and when she got there, she was real confused because she said that this wasn’t the same C-Squat building that she knew back in 1984. And she didn’t mean that in an “I’m so old school — C-Squat just ain’t the same, maaaaan” kinda way that I hear all the time — she meant this was an entirely different building. My friends that were around who have lived here for like 20 years didn’t believe her. They said she was confused … one even said she was a “liar” right in front of her. So Rain and I wanted to make a jokey, comical zine about two buildings with the same name that were at the same intersection ; one more with skinheads and NYHC kids and the other more “crusty” anarcho punks. We never got to do it because she suddenly and tragically passed away.
After that, I knew I wanted to make a zine about lost histories…or, if not “lost” histories, then at least ones that were previously unknown to me and my neighbors. I dedicated the zine to her but the result was really different then what we originally planned. It wasn’t so much about the building that was once across the street but it turned into being about lost stories of our house, our block, our intersection, our neighborhood. Instead of 1984 it covered the mid-1800s to the mid-1980s, but meeting Rain at that show was the initial spark.
Can you give us a brief history of the building?
I’ll just sum up the years that the zine covers (mid-1800s to 1986) so absolutely no one has to buy one. Everything you never wanted to know about #155, all in one paragraph:
Built in 1872, paid for by pickle merchants, it was intended to be a tenement building that would cram 16 immigrant families into small rooms throughout its four upper floors. However, it didn’t meet code of the day so it became all light businesses in every room. There was a pickle shop in the storefront with cigar makers and all kinds of tailors on the upper floors. Then between 1896 and 1914 it was a five story union hall that had a saloon that hosted illegal gambling and held meetings for Republicans, Socialists, religious groups, and striking union workers. Some people moved in but it soon became a warehouse for bottles. In 1959 it was completely renovated by a real estate group that retroactively made it a tenement for the first time ever, just in time for all the shit to hit the fan in the Lower East Side. The landlord eventually cut essential services before eventually abandoning it, then there was a fire, and due to in-rem foreclosure, the city took over in 1978. Some of the tenants stayed on and it was squatted for a few years…mainly Latino and black. They ran an illegal “after hours” social club which had a bar, pool tables, and sometimes had bands play. This was all until about 1984/85, then the place was cleared out, locked up, and left abandoned for a number of years.
How long have you been hanging out at See?
I first went there in 1999. I met this lovable old beatnik guy named Hassan (Jerry Heiserman) on the corner of 10th & C. He was one of the great “dandies” of his generation…you should interview him, he’s 1,000 times more interesting. Anyway, I asked him where C-Squat was. He said if I bought him a beer he’d show me where to go. I remember that this was the first beer I ever bought. I was still in high school and was straight edge at the time. I was surprised that I didn’t even get carded. I handed my new guide his new cold beer and he walked us precisely 15 to 20 steps south and opened the door: here ya go kids, have fun!
Did you ever think you’d live there?
In 2000 or 2001, I went to a show there and this guy who claimed he was the King of the building married my friends Keith and Bryant. Their honeymoon was interrupted when this Hare Krishna looking guy walked in and punched this dubious marriage officiant in the face. In seconds a pack of wild, scruffy dogs ran down from the 2nd floor and all just jumped on the attacker that had just walked in. It was kind of terrifying. As I looked at this scene unfolding, I imagined these wild dogs were going to rip this guy to shreds right there on the floor and I was like, “Yup, I totally want to live here someday” (note: sarcasm).
What was it like when you moved in versus now?
Because so much has changed, I could probably talk about this for hours but I think that might be an answer for another interview, another interviewee, or another zine. Avoiding all the physical and political/social changes, the quick answer is that there are friends that were here then that are no longer here with us now…yet there are new friends here now that weren’t with us back then. I guess there are also more grudges and divisions now too…but I don’t want to air any dirty laundry. Instead, I’d much rather answer any questions that you might have about how our storefront was a laundromat where you could clean your dirty laundry between 1923 and 1946.
However, I will say that what I miss most about living here would be the time around 2006 to 2009 when there was a band that practiced and played here all the time called CASA DE CHIHUAHUA. I know that’s not the answer you are looking for but those were some real fun times and that’s what immediately comes to mind (other than people) about what is missing now. The two lead guys started solo projects, MORGAN O’KANE and MOUNTAIN ANIMATION, and their washboard player went on to sing for STAR FUCKING HIPSTERS. If you smoosh them all together, you’d get an idea about what was going on. Just add more alcohol.
As for what hasn’t changed : we’re still doing shows, benefits, and we still got new bands that crash here for months on end, like THE COMRADES. The ever-evolving BANJI is still making electro beat box punk on the 5th floor in Popeye’s room. Dog That Bites Everyone is biting abroad and delivering meat in a really awesome new truck. GALLOWS BOUND from VA just crashed here last night and played a set on the roof. Peter Missing from MISSING FOUNDATION stayed in my room for like five months and while he was here he worked on new music, re-released some MF vinyl on Dais records, collaborated with MORNING GLORY, and started with some in-house ex-PLANNED COLLAPSE members to reform MISSING FOUNDATION (with a new lineup) for two gigs. Oh, and made a crazy amount of awesome art all around town.
Have you done other zines in the past?
Yeah I did an oral history about THE WORLD/INFERNO FRIENDSHIP SOCIETY, but only from the perspective of its former members, none current. I had to go track down over 30 ex-members, most of whom I’ve never met. We released it Halloween 2010 with a pumpkin-orange colored limited edition 7″. Alex Heir from Death Traitors fame made the cover and the song went on their next CHUNKSAAH full length. It was fun. Actually, I was inspired to write that one after meeting their original violin player Masha (Girl Mark) and a former clarinet player named Chad Mo, both of whom lived at C during different times. Chad lived here in the 90’s and Masha was here in 1989 when it was opened by people from the Anarchist Switchboard/Sabotage bookstore crew.
How has your zine been received by the LES community?
Really supportively! I’ve met a lot of different people while working on this…and a lot of them showed up for the public zine release party. In that crowd, there were people who lived here from back when it was an apartment building. A couple came that was living in the back of the first floor in the 1960’s and they got to speak in front of the crowd. The dude basically ran the hell away from living at 155 after the riots that happened on Avenue C in 1968…cars blowing up and all that…and they ran to the west village where they got married a year later. That was a really adorable moment. A woman that was living here in the late 1970s/early 1980s brought her grandson who got to write on the building with colored chalk.
The content of the zine isn’t really a punk or squatter history. It’s definitely not “MAXIMUM ROCK AND ROLL” but rather more of olde time New York history. Because of that, I’ve come across and met people in the neighborhood who were more into that kind of LES history. Some of them are or were part of local organizations like the New York Historical Society, Lower East Side Historical Project, Center for Puerto Rican Studies, the Tenement Museum, and Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation (who are also reviewing the zine with a follow up Q&A over at www.gvshp.org) . These folks all seemed to enthusiastically approve of the research — I’m excited that someone from Maximum Rocknroll and someone from the GVSHP are reviewing the same subject matter in the same week. I love it when things go together that usually wouldn’t. I’m not sure how cool that is as far as punk point standards go but I also don’t really care! However, on two or three pages I do very briefly mention AGNOSTIC FRONT, THE CRO-MAGS, WARZONE, MURPHY’S LAW, SCAB, SACRILEGE NY, and NAUSEA so there’s at least some Minimum Rock ‘n’ Roll content in there …. But overall, the zine is still probably just as uncool as your high school history class.
What’s going on in the squatter movement right now in the LES or is it dead, just for the history zines?
It’s more on the DL. In the LES, most of the properties have been bought or are in development. There’s not much room for a movement but there is some stuff still going on. As for the former squats here — there’s good people in each building that are very active in the community and have been doing very creative things.
More people should be talking about this work: http://www.picturethehomeless.org/Documents/Reports/PH01_report_final_web.pdf
Or this work: www.596acres.org
Where can we read up on further LES squat history?
FLY is doing a massive oral history called Unreal Estate. Amy Starecheski’s also has a massive upcoming book about how legalization changed the community. Do a Google search for Sarah Ferguson’s “The Struggle for Space” … you can find that article online, which she wrote for Clayton Patterson’s Resistance book, which is also totally worth it to purchase! Seth Tobocman’s War in the Neighborhood. There’s also a book called Homesteading in New York City: The Divided Heart of Loisaida which focuses on the homesteading movement that started in the 1970s with mostly Puerto Rican building take overs. The movement (from the ’80s and ’90s) that a lot of younger punx or activists might be more aware of stands on the shoulders of other prior movements which are less documented in certain circles (http://centropr.hunter.cuny.edu/voices/en-los-barrios/loisaida)… I love reading about that stuff. There’s an article you can read online here about a movement in 1969 that was supported by the Young Lords, Black Panthers, and El Comite.
Also, I should mention that a small museum moved into our storefront called The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space. As a part of requirements to “get” the building, a business had to move into the storefront. “MORUS” is a completely separately run non-profit organization that was started by a group called Times Up, which is an activist group that mainly focuses on things like bicycle activism, Critical Mass, and other environmental issues (and dance parties). With MORUS, they are trying to save some of the histories of the neighborhood from getting totally wiped out or lost among all the gentrification. But I don’t think it’s just about looking back , I think their whole thing is about showing people some victories’ that some of them were involved in (the fight for or redefinitions of the use of public space : the community gardens, squats, bike lanes, recycling programs, composting, etc.) concerning local “sustainable” DIY struggles so that people might want to get involved with or support things that are happening today. At least, I think that is the idea. Some of the people who started it were/are really involved with OWS, anti-fracking protests, protests against local use of nuclear energy, etc etc. Just last month they were using the space to make giant banners and signs for an anti-GMO/Monsanto rally. There are plenty of interviews or articles online about that place that could explain their mission better than I can. I’m not a part of their group so I’ll leave it to them to talk about themselves or their mission — we’re just neighbors!!
Either way — a business in the storefront definitely brings a different vibe to the house. There’s less temporary residents and there’s more visitors around that are “just” traffic coming in and out of the storefront (just like any business) for different reasons or events. Its definitely a new adjustment but whether people dig it, don’t care, or totally hate it — I gotta say that I’m down with any new positive energy that comes outta here that doesn’t make younger kids that still come around think that drugs are the way to go or are one of the only struggles around that’s worth looking forward to.
How can we stay up to date on your doings?
Where can we get the zine?
There’s not that many of them out there. It’s the kind of thing that not many people would be really interested in, so I only made 155 copies. Thanks to Kevin from the Interference Archive, I think some of them are going up on www.justseeds.org. Even if you don’t want to see my rag, check out that site….there is a lot of beautiful political art work on there by a lot of really amazing artists. Not sure when it’s going up yet though. It’s also hopefully soon going to be up on www.sqdistro.com, which is a rad new collective out of Pittsburgh. Email firstname.lastname@example.org if neither of those pan out.
Any last words, punk?
How about a quote from other people that were once interested in history: “Be excellent to each other.”
Nah, I saved the best for last. I got one more good story about making this zine. I was about to print it but I was kind of bummed I didn’t have enough information about the 1970s…so I did some more digging. I found an old resident’s listing from 1974 and I ended up matching up some names with people who were in the phone book today. I wrote four letters. I went to 14th & 1st to mail the letters, had lunch, made a photocopy…then went back to the house. There was a man standing in front looking up….I started talking to him and it ends up he was one of the four guys I had just sent a letter to. He doesn’t even live in the LES anymore…what the hell are the odds of that, huh? It was pretty freaky! I was like you’re not going to believe this but I am literally just walking back from the post office from mailing you a letter. I showed him a paper with his name and address on it in my backpack.
He took a giant step backward and said, “What’s your game?” He of course thought I was conning him whereas I thought he was some kind of ghost that I had woken up. When we both chilled, he told me that he woke up that morning feeling like he was missing his brother…so he took a bus to their old apartment building so he could give his brother an update on how their old place was doing. He came in and told me all about life here in the 1970s. We had a Blackbird Raum show coming up and there were these kids sitting in the hallway getting their pre-game drinking on. I apologized to Allan about the mess in the hallway, like it was still his place. He laughed and said it looked just like it did when he left in 1976. He told his brother about our chance meeting and he flew up from Bermuda a few months later. We all hung out in their old room and they reminisced about the old days. I had a couple other really serendipitous moments as far as running into the people I needed to meet exactly when I needed to in order to fill in particular gaps in the storyline. I met like three or four other people who used to live here in the ’70s … whether they were sitting outside at the bus stop or hanging out down the street with an activist street puppet theater troupe from Puerto Rico, I kept meeting these folks. But this one with the letter was the most special moment.
I’m not sure what I believe as far as mere coincidence, fate, or hysteresis (the ability for a physical space to retain energy) goes…but how can you not feel like this was putting something out there and something coming back to you. What I am sure of is that these strange moments were just a few of those really cool small world coincidences that you’ll get in life, yknow? We all experience them. I don’t know if this whole project was interesting to anyone else but me or one gigantic waste of my time…..but I was/am very grateful for special moments like these. So even if this hobby/zine was a giant waste of my time — the things I got most out of it were experiencing these moments…they make for a good story just by themselves — without even having to talk about any of the content in the zine. I’m also really happy to finally be finishing this interview.
More pictures and info here.
PMA > FTW