Squatter Rights (Daf Yomi Eruvin 25)

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“What can I do for you, as you did not take possession of the property in the manner that people take possession.”

Today’s Daf Yomi discussion of property and inheritance rights and claiming of land when someone dies without heirs brought me back to the East Village of the 1980s. It was a time when people took over abandoned buildings and put down roots and renovated their space through sweat equity and petitioned the landlords of these forsaken buildings to turn them over legally. It was a time of encroaching gentrification and a community that was on the verge, for better or worse, of being lost forever.

A little more than thirty-two years ago, on August 6, 1988, Tomkins Square Park in the East Village erupted in violence. I lived in the neighborhood at the time and the air was heavy with the dread of inevitable property development. I moved to the East Village as a struggling NYU graduate student and stayed for a while as I was trying to make my way in the world. I am sure I was seen in my cheap business dresses as the beginning of the gentrification that was to come.

Allen Ginsberg was my neighbor, which was a big deal for a poetry major. I saw him every day walking the streets, living his life, chatting with cronies in coffee shops. I would often repeat to myself the opening line from Howl which was written for a different time and place but captured the spirit of the East Village in the 1980s: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked.”

Tompkins Square Park symbolized everything that was wonderful, liberating, frightening and dangerous about the East Village in the 1980s. I lived with a musician who played at CBGBs and would come home with his shoes smashed from the mosh pit. There were art galleries popping up in the tenement storefronts, Ukrainian restaurants that served cheap bowls of borscht with thick slices of bread, second-hand stores where the clothes were stacked up in piles and full day poetry readings at St Mark’s Church.

The park was a gathering place of artists, punks, activists and drug dealers and addicts. The tenement buildings around the park were starting to be restored and sold to people who were more like me than the punks and anarchists who lived there. The writing was on the wall. New York University was pushing eastward and there was an effort among the community and newcomers to clean up the park. The first step was instituting a nighttime curfew and rid the park of people who had made it their bedroom.

A horrible clash occurred on that day in August 1988 when the police marched in to clear out the protestors who were objecting to the curfew. Over a hundred complaints were lodged against the New York City Police accusing them of brutality. The reaction against the heavy handedness of the police resulted in a temporary rescinding of the curfew. There were other police actions against squatters in the park and adjacent buildings, but at some point, in the 1990s the East Village lost its edge. Along with the danger, what was lost was the raw energy and creativity that made the neighborhood so intriguing for someone like me who arrived in New York at the start of the 1980s with the dream of becoming a writer in the footstep of the great poets, like Ginsberg. And there he was down the street from me. Ginsberg!

About the Author
Penny Cagan was born in New Jersey and has lived in New York City since 1980. She has published two books of poems called “City Poems “ and “And Today I am Happy." She is employed as a risk manager and continues to write poetry. More information on Penny can be found at
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