After a visit last year to ABC No Rio, a former squat building turned community space still very much awaiting its day for the ambitious makeover plans to get underway, I didn’t know what to expect from Umbrella House. The latter is a former East Village squat that, after years of push and pull with the city over legalization, became a fully legal, limited-equity affordable housing co-op. But then I caught up with Steven Englander, who now works at his former residence ABC No Rio and has lived at Umbrella House for about 16 years.
Inside the latter, I found a clean, six-story walkup with modest but pleasant units and, as to be expected, a strong communal vibe. The building, and the community within it, have gone through some enormous changes since the night in November of 1988 when five people took crowbars and busted into an abandoned tenement on Avenue C. There’s still work to be done, but a new rooftop garden is the latest development and one that epitomizes the residents’ ethos. “We want to show it off as a model for what we want to see happen elsewhere,” Englander explained.
The rooftop garden is a smallish urban farm. But it’s still an ambitious project for a 120-year-old building, and one that’s already in full bloom. Atop the elevated bed, which can be accessed by a stairwell, around which Umbrella House retained ample room for socializing and events, you’ll find ripe tomatoes, lettuces and hearty greens of all kinds, as well as okra, eggplant, and squash. There are even small trees where birds hang out that you might not even have imagined could live in the East Village. “It’s a lot like a Victory Garden from World War II, a small-scale garden but one that could nevertheless grow enough produce that people would be able to grown their own food,” Englander said. “It’s obviously easier to do this in new construction, but it’s possible to retrofit like we did.”
The Umbrella House has a catch phrase that can be found on its website, and in email communications too: “From Ruin to Renewal,” and it’s anything but hyperbolic. When the five original members took over the dilapidated building, there was no heat or running water, let alone electricity.
To find out more about what it was like to squat in a neglected city-owned building during the late ’80s when New York City was in the midst of the crack epidemic, we tapped into the archives at NYU’s Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, which contains the Squatters’ Collective Oral History Project.
Despite the downtrodden state of the East Village and Lower East Side, longtime Umbrella House resident Tauno Biltsted felt that it had a special quality. “There was a real community to the neighborhood,” he told Amy Starecheski, the cultural anthropologist conducting the oral history project back in 2012. Tauno described the East Village as a place that was, all at once, “chaotic, dark, creative.”
Tauno, whose family had moved to the neighborhood in 1985 from Denmark, had already been introduced to squatter culture. “I was exposed to European squatter stuff, which was very political and in some ways different than in New York, where it was a lot more driven by homelessness and the housing crisis and that sort of thing,” he told us during a recent interview. “I was like, ‘Okay, there’s this other way of living,’ and to some extent that was the origin of my interest in community, and in the possibility of living with people, but also independently.”
But moving into a squat on Avenue C, at first, must have been fairly daunting. As he said in the squatters’ oral history, Tompkins Square Park was “a claimed protest camp. It was also a living space, probably 400, 500 people were living in the park, barrel fires everywhere in the winter.” When he first moved to the neighborhood, “It was like, ‘Don’t go past Avenue A’ […] that was just the vibe, [there were] huge lines of people buying heroin and crack.”
Tauno started out living at C Squat, one of the few squats remaining in the area today– where “the grandaddy crusty traveler punks” lived. “It wasn’t so organized, but there was an energy,” he recalled. But around 1991, after living there for two years, he decided it was time to think about leaving the building. “It was getting to be a pretty druggy scene over there.”
Like many of the other old squat houses in the area, C Squat has since changed right along with the neighborhood. It’s run and occupied by people with a strong DIY-ethos, hosts occasional punks shows, and now houses the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space, a volunteer-built and volunteer-run museum dedicated to preserving the history of “grassroots activism” and “efforts to create community spaces on the Lower East Side.”
After Tauno left the building to travel for a while, he found out that his friend and roommate had died of a heroin overdose. Tauno returned to New York City in 1992 and the following year moved to Umbrella House. “I ended up getting into a relationship with the person who lived [in Umbrella House], this same apartment. And a few years later we had a daughter together,” he told the researcher.
Not long after, the mother left the squat and Tauno was voted in. “To be considered for membership, you had to be involved with the building for four months,” he recalled. From the beginning, Tauno was aware that Umbrella House was a more organized kind of place. “The building was pretty rule-oriented,” he said.
Tauno told me that the move was precipitated by wanting to live in a place that was less chaotic than the old C Squat. “I wanted to be somewhere more stable and where there was a more forward-looking view of the building and working people.”
Though the building had already been occupied for about four years when Tauno took up residence, it was still far from livable by most standards. “When I moved into the building there was no electrical service, no water or drains on the upper floors,” he explained. “So there was a communal shower and toilet on the ground floor, but other than that there were no drains or anything upstairs.”
There was also no heat. “We just had little space heaters, which are pretty inadequate, really. I remember mornings waking up and a glass of water that I’d taken to bed with me would be frozen in the morning,” he remembered. “It was like urban camping basically, except inside.”
Tauno now has two “parallel careers,” as both a social worker engaging with homeless youth and a construction worker. “I learned my skills as a construction worker and doing interior work from doing work on this building,” he said.
In the early ’90s, the residents of the building came together to fix up communal spaces and Tauno and a few others spearheaded the installation of a drainage system so residents could install their own bathrooms. Many squatters took to dumpster diving and scavenging to find free materials. One resident, Osiris, recalled to the academic researcher that it was all about “improvising”: he’d collected oak wood from a dumpster used for flooring in his apartment, which the researcher described in the oral history as a “beautiful, bright, lovely apartment.”
Tauno recalled that after basic improvements were made, the place began to feel more like a permanent home for most residents. “When the building got legal electrical service and then we had drains distributed into people’s apartments, that really allowed it to become more occupied. Up until then there were still apartments that were pretty vacant,” he explained. “We got to a point where it was like, well, people can live here and have some hope of building a space for themselves that’s livable, that was the turning point.”
Osiris’ recollection in the oral history confirmed this sentiment. And the announcement that the city was going to legalize the squats further solidified the feeling of stability. “I was very happy. I was thinking, here is my only chance that I’ll be able to own something […] realistically I probably would not be able to own anything in New York.”
The new rooftop garden, though lightyears ahead of basic improvements made over the years to bring the building up to code, is not without precedent. In the archives we found out that, years back, the building had made its own street-level community gardens in the vacant lots next door, though these were more green-spaces than farms.
The gap between the Umbrella House of now and the building in its squatter days are numerous, but new opportunities came when the city transferred ownership of the building to the Umbrella House residents in 2012 at a cost of $1 and it officialy became an HDFC co-op.
The rooftop garden was overseen by the house’s eight-member Garden Committee, which hired an architect and contractors to complete the construction at a cost of about $150,000. Because the building is older and weight was a concern, the roof had to be fitted with steel beams to support the additional mass.
“The bed is eight inches thick and the area is approximately 900 square feet,” explained Tauno, a member of the Garden Committee that oversaw much of the dealings with contractors. “We used specially engineered soil from Long Island Composting, which is a soil maker, and they mix it with shale in order to allow for good drainage, so that it doesn’t hold too much water to reduce the overall weight on the roof.”
There are flowers and small trees, but the major focus is planting productive food crops. “It’s the first season, so we’re really just figuring things out. There are a lot of things we have to learn — we’re not in any way experts,” Tauno explained. “But it’s actually been pretty successful so far — we’re pretty happy with it.”
A smaller group of residents are taking responsibility for tending to the plants and ensuring that things run smoothly in the garden, but everyone is welcome to the fruits of their labor. And instead of outfitting the small farm with individual plots like most community gardens, the whole bed is communally run. “It’s really available to everybody in the building,” Tauno explained. “We’ve just asked people to touch base with someone in the coordinating group, when they’re starting to harvest, just to get a sense of the best way to harvest, but that’s just a request.”
The garden may be tiny compared to, say, the Farm on Kent and will remain a private space for Umbrella House residents, but Englander said he hopes the it will be something of an example to other residential buildings. “We want to show people it, because we’re proud of it, and even before we completed it we knew we wanted to do something that other co-op owners and property owners could emulate,” he explained. “That’s ultimately what it’s about, this idea of showing it as an exemplary action. We’d like to see this done in hundreds if not thousands of other buildings in New York City.”
Both Englander and Biltsted pointed to a recent law passed in France. It requires all new buildings constructed in commercially zoned areas to be outfitted with either small farms, gardens, or solar panels. “That’s going to be tough to do in New York,” Englander acknowledged. “But hopefully other residences and co-ops will freely choose to do it, and obviously you need a critical mass of people within a co-op to actually make it happen.”
For now, what’s happening at Umbrella House is undeniably impressive. And while the environmental and sustainability benefits are obvious ones, there are many more pay-offs, too.
“The fact that it requires the active participation of people who want to make it happen, you do have this sense of it being a community-building exercise,” Englander said. “That sounds kind of cheesy, but it actually is a tangible goal that people take and work together on achieving. It ends up strengthening friendships and whatever neighborliness there is to make the project happen. That’s the sort of intangible things that’s almost, in some respects, the most important one, that social aspect of creating the garden.”
The idea is that, if a former squat house can have such an advanced and productive urban farm, then other buildings can, too. I wondered, though, if the building’s earliest residents, squatters from the old days, ever envisioned the decaying Umbrella House of the early ’90s realizing all that it has today.
“Yes, we really did,” Tauno said, without wavering. “Early on in the building there was always a dispute between how work gets done– and in a lot of other buildings as well– and then we were like hey, we wanna do this right, we’re gonna do this legally, we’re going to make sure the work that we do is up to code standards. The reason for doing that is the belief that we would eventually, in some way, become permanent in those spaces. “