Stacy Wakefield’s new book The Sunshine Crust Baking Factory, being published by Akashic in May, weaves together her experiences as a squatter in New York City back in the late ’90s. Though it’s a fictional account and the main character Sid, who makes her home in squats in Williamsburg and the Lower East Side, is based on a number of people, the book still offers a window into the waning years of what was once a vibrant squat scene.
We spoke with Wakefield, 43, about the book and what the squatting life was like before it all but disappeared.
Can you give us a quick run-down of the plot?
It’s about a young woman, she’s 19 and she knows about the New York squatting scene because she grew up in Connecticut and she used to come down for hardcore shows at ABC No Rio. She has this fantasy that she can come join the cool squatters and have this great life, but when she gets to the Lower East Side it’s 1994 and all the squats are full, the city’s changing. So she can’t find a spot in a squat after all. She ends up getting a lead on a spot out in Brooklyn and it’s not what she expected at all but she moves there anyway.
How is the place in Brooklyn different from what she expected?
Well the squat — and this is based on my experience and observations, at the time when there was a real squatting scene in the city with a real culture and a lot of people who looked punk and were involved in politics — this place where she moves in Williamsburg is not really part of this network or scene. The people there are just trying to survive, they’re not really part of that scene.
But Sid is ambitious socially in that way and she has the same politics as the people in the city so she kind of wants to turn the Williamsburg squat into something she can be proud of and bring her friends from the city to see.
It is a fictional account, you didn’t write a non-fiction book, but would you say it’s loosely based on your own experiences?
Yeah, the character Sid isn’t based on me at all, she’s a composite character based on a bunch of people I knew. But the buildings I write about are all totally real. So I thought of it kind of like historical fiction. I’m trying to tell the truth about these buildings that were squatted, and what I observed in them. But then the characters and their emotional lives, that’s all made up. The arc of the story, coming of age, is fictional. But the buildings and my representation of that time in New York are as true as I could make it.
You were a squatter back in the ’90s?
Yeah, I was. So the building that I named in the book, The Sunshine Crust Baking Factory, was a real squatted building in Williamsburg. I spent a summer living there and I think I even say in the book where the building was– and that part’s all true. And we did lose that building because that was the time when Giuliani started auctioning off a lot of city owned properties because in the early ’80s and ’90s the city had come to own so many properties from default taxes and the mayor auctioned all that off in the late ’90s.
Then there are two other squats I tell a little more about in depth– one has a made up name, it’s called Rot Squat, but I tried to tell the story there of the eviction of 5th Street Squat which was on 5th Street between Avenues A and B. I was living there at the time when there was a small fire and the building got evicted and I dramatized that in the book. And also I was part of a group that squatted a building I called the Bakery Squat in the book, when we knew we were going to lose that building we tried squatting a building out in Bushwick. We only lasted there two weeks and I also dramatize that in the book.
All the buildings are places I actually lived myself, but I kind of stretched it out and changed things a little bit.
Where was the Williamsburg squat?
It was on Rodney Street and South First on the corner. The building is still there. It’s been totally renovated into apartments now.
Is it really weird to see that building now?
Yeah, it really is. Being a squatter you’re actually so engaged with the outside, with the block. Like we got our water from the fire hydrant on the corner, so when I pass the fire hydrant I think oh that’s how we used to do our dishes and wash the dog. We got our electricity from the lamppost across the street and we didn’t have garbage pick-up so we used the cans across the street. In a way, because you’re not really set up to be self-sufficient you’re more involved in your immediate neighborhood.
Also, because I only lived there over the summer I can’t really imagine, I mean people lived there over the winter. One of the women who I interviewed who gave me a lot of stories I used for the character Sid, she did live there for a couple winters. Of course when I was there in the summer we’d spend a lot of time outside and stuff.
It seems like you moved around a lot in that time, so was there a sense of upheaval and did that make it into the book?
Yeah that’s when, in my time in New York, I moved to the city a little after this story takes place. I moved here in 1996 and being new in New York– I think a lot of people have this experience– I had trouble finding a stable place to live for a while, so, yeah, I was moving every three or four months. And I was squatting until I could save up the money to get a legal place. But I think a lot of people have that experience where they move around a lot when they first get here.
In New York City for only a year. But I moved to the city from Amsterdam and I lived in squats there for more like five years. So by the time I moved to New York I already knew people who were squatters, so I had some contacts. My arrival in the city was a little different from the character’s in the book. I already had experience with the squatting world which at that time was pretty international, everybody was in touch with each other through zines and things.
How was the scene in New York different from Amsterdam? Or did they share common threads?
They were really, really different. For one thing, the buildings in New York are really large. So in the squats you’d end up having 20 apartments and have 40 people living there. Amsterdam is a city on a very small scale. Most of the buildings there are much smaller so you’d have a living group of three to six people often and you can just imagine the human dynamics are pretty different.
Squatting was much more socially acceptable in the Netherlands. Well, I won’t speak about Europe in general but in Amsterdam, the buildings we would squat were privately owned buildings because in general in the Netherlands private property is less of a big deal. It’s a socialized country and the idea that a private owner would leave a building where people could live empty when there was a huge problem of not enough housing where people could live, was so abhorrent to the society at large that squatters were tolerated.
Where in New York and America we have such a high standard for private property that the only buildings that could be squatted in New York were owned by the city. That’s why there was a big squatting movement in the ’80s and ’90s, because the city owned so many buildings they didn’t know what to do with.
It’s interesting that there are still squatters around, but it’s much harder to find now.
I think so too. I’ve definitely heard rumors of squats out in Bushwick and of course there are still the squats on the Lower East Side like C Squat and Serenity House and the squats that were legalized and still exist, but of course they’re not really squatted anymore, they have deals with the city now.
But it’s definitely something I wish I heard about more. I mean housing in New York has gotten so much more expensive, people, especially young people are paying a way higher percentage of their income even than 15 years ago. And you think that if there was a will and people thought it and tried to get a squatting movement going, could it happen? I don’t know. I like the idea of maybe encouraging that.
Is that why you were inspired to write the book now?
I was thinking the fact that this history of this movement is so unknown was a big motivator. It’s this time period that I experienced and was totally involved in and now it feels like it’s just completely gone and no one even knows about it. I mean, no one is an exaggeration, but it wasn’t that unknown that it was happening and hundreds of young people were involved in this and I always thought it was kind of exciting and romantic– all these young people taking control of their lives and making these crazy things happen, taking the initiative and doing it themselves. So I like the idea of sharing that history.
So you conducted a bunch of interviews to research for the book?
I did, but I actually did those interviews in 1996. I published a book about squatting that was all interviews in 1995 and I wanted to do a follow-up book of more in-depth interviews with women who squatted. I started doing interviews for that book and go sidetracked– one reason is that my house got evicted and I was working two jobs to try and save up money for rent.
But another thing that happened was when I did those interviews and my friends who were open with me because they really knew me and they told me these really complete stories. I felt like it would be too exposing to really print all that, because they weren’t public figures who wanted their whole lives known. So I always thought it would be better to fictionalize it.
I never finished that project, but I had these resources when I started working on this book.
Don’t miss the book launch for “The Sunshine Crust Baking Factory” at Greenlight Bookstore, 686 Fulton Street, Fort Greene, on Thursday April 30th at 7:30 pm.