Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Our squat of bother

We're going to chance it and abandon the squat just for December.

Most of the drama of recent weeks seems to have subsided, we can even safely say vanished. No more Sitex men about in the day, but then no more residents to relocate (there are five flat owners who'll need to be compensated before they can move (and they'll need new houses to move to)).

It's been fairly quiet and we've even given up on staying in, confident that the quiet will remain and our home secure. USgal will nipping off to Copenhagen, myself to Amsterdam and Rhoderocker to somewhere within London. As long as we park our most valuable belongings elsewhere for the festive duration, and let our two squatter neighbours know of our temporary departure, we think we may be back here in January.

No sign of council diggers converting the parking lot into a building site and our homes into dust, as the recent rumours of demolition have intimated.

Merry holidays!

Friday, 12 December 2008

Bricks and stones

We've seen the insides of our council block, now time for the externals.

The following photos were taken during more sunny times at the estate, both weatherwise (it's grim grey now) and neighbourwise. Where you may see open windows in these pictures, we now see Sitex coverings.

Boarded-up flats. Flat no.8, in the second photo, was the Ukrainian squat that was recently seized by the Sitex men during our "front door" spate.

Ground floor row of flats, all totalled.

Flats in the opposite block, few of which have been sealed up. A lot of residents still live here.

Back to our block, this time facing the main road. The Sitex people had previously boarded up front windows as well, a tactic they don't seem to use now.

No sunbathing on these balconies then.

This is us -- the top floor in this picture.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Squatdoyouthink, 2 : Atom Tom

Last Sunday, a non-squatter friend interviewed Atom Tom for his take on squatting et al. The following has been edited to focus on squatting.

So, Atom Tom, why are you squatting now?

Basic need, really. I can't afford to pay the rent, and anyway rents in London are mad, it's like throwing your money away.

What was your view of squatting before you started?

That only junkies, layabouts, benefit fraudsters or rich kids trying to look cool do it. That you're on the trash heap of society if you squat.

How were you introduced to squatting?

Via Shelter, a couple of years ago. The building of my rented flat was basically being sold. During the sale period I was housesitting at a friend's and wondering where to live, and whilst there spoke with Shelter about the kind of interim housing options that were available.

They couldn't help me, but they did put me on to a few squatting advisory places and sure enough I found a squat two weeks later -- which I didn't accept straight away, by the way. I couldn't believe I was going to squat!

What has been the one of the best experiences so far?

Coming into this flat that had nothing working.. and using nothing but our hands and ingenuity to bring it back to life, even though it was frustrating at the same time!

One of the most empowering?

Rebuilding the toilet, restoring the electrics. This blog has also been great fun, an outlet for my anxieties and education.

And the worst?

The council. The police showing up.

Have you squatted before this?

Yep, two years ago. There were either 5-8 flatmates, there were so many people about it was hard to tell. It was a non-stop party house of electric guitars, endless flowing vodka and trance parties. And big rats. Not very relaxing, if you're trying to work 9-5 and study. All the time I was thinking, "I can't wait to get out of here!"

What is your view of squatting now that you are squatting again?

This time round has been an interesting mix of, a) the world of squatting (including activisim, anarchism, DIY culture, skipping) which has been extremely sociable and, b) the responsibility of rebuilding and maintaining your squat from scratch. Plus dealings with the police and local council, being a firsthand witness to flat smashing and abuse towards squatters. It is a collision of philosophy and politics being played out live.

If you could choose, would you squat or pay rented accommodation?

Paying rent. A really, really affordable rent, mind.

Why is that?

Well, a sense of security for one. I love squatting, but it isn't easy. You need to adjust your way of living to accommodate the new realities that squatting represents, not the other way round. Like staying in, for example, which is important to the survival of a squat. Someone needs to be indoors 9-5 Monday-Friday to keep watch over the premises. It's difficult to implement in practice, and yet we'd be dead without it.

Do you think squatting needs a better image to encourage people to participate eg. do we call it something else?

I do think squatting needs a word that actually describes what it is -- it almost sounds like a dirty word, something disgusting, from the toilet. I think of what we do as being part renovation, part caretaking. We're making homes out of empty places -- we're not taking a shit in them! We don't generally lean towards ugly words, do we, unless we mean to hurt someone, dehumanise them.

I definitely think the view of squatting needs to be portrayed better; right now the mainstream opinion is of squatters as junkies, outcasts, illegal people, although people also think squatting is cool (but only if artists do it). I do think a more empowering and inclusive word is needed, for sure, if only to disempower the establishment.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Chopped Potato : Estate of mind

With the police chap the other day acting more excited at the prospect of the estate being demolished than with kicking out a few squatters, I thought it worthwhile to take a look into the story of the estate. Just what is going on here?

It turns out that where we live is quite famous. An eighties soul singer took his stage name from the name of the estate. It also turns out that where we live is part of a much larger sprawling housing estate, consisting of council blocks and terraced houses, and conceived in the 1950s as "the showpiece of modern social housing". Here is a map of the estate (with the street names blurred out):

And it is that estate that is getting all the media coverage.

And not just any old media coverage. The BBC have been at, telling everyone it's a great place to buy heroin in 2001, and updating us all in 2004. The Independent also wants you to know about da drugs. Never mind the thriving community that still lives here, but ho hum. Leave it to a group of artists to report on the sunny side of change in the community.

One of the prominent construction industry journals has also been at it, but this time to report more recent news concerning the future of redevelopment (thanks to much-needed consortium investment pulling out). The local press sadly confirm this.

When former PM Tony Blair visited the estate in 2001, redevelopment was heralded as the saving grace for the estate. Cramped conditions, buildings in disrepair and a hotspot for crime have plagued this community for decades.

The refurbishment of existing homes, the construction of new flats to replace crumbling council blocks and the development of new shopping parades would give the area a much needed morale boost and create an uplifting neighbourhood. But the community has yet to see any of this in the years since.

Whilst a delay in development is of course good news for the squatters here, it is important that we think of the residents we live among. It is these people we need to hope for, not ourselves.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

(Down) Underground

As you may have read in the "By the way, it's legal" entry, squatting is not illegal in England. But how is squatting viewed in other parts of the world?

The following passage is taken from an article by Adam Ferguson entitled "Personal Property", that was published in Big Issue Australia in 2005 and offers the view of squatting from the Australian perspective :

"There are no exact statistics on squatting in Australia, and even vague estimates are rare. This lack of data is largely due to the "outsider status" of squatters, according to Dr Catherine Robinson, author of a 2003 report, Squatting: What's the Reality?. "You're talking about an invisible population," she says. "It's not a population that's going to attract a lot of research interest. These are people who simply don't want to be found."

Technically, squatting is illegal (although generally the only offence being committed is trespass, and this is rarely prosecuted). But some believe squatting is a right; a legitimate response to rising rents and a lack of cheap housing options. Organisations like the Sydney Housing Action Collective (SHAC) provide support, information and legal advice to squatters. Their online guide, Squatters' Handbook, provides advice on everything from finding a place to dealing with police, landlords and neighbours.

"The essential ethic is that it is a crime to have all these empty properties around Australia while there are people who are homeless, sleeping in doorways or in train stations," says Louise Boon-Kuo, a spokesperson for SHAC. She argues that with the abundance of "empties" in Australian cities, people shouldn't have to rely on the private rental market or the government to solve their housing needs.

With its shady legal status and seedy reputation, squatting can often spark conflict with the authorities, property owners and mainstream society. Perhaps the most publicised clash in Australia involved a cluster of council-owned buildings in Sydney, known as the Broadway Squats, which were blockaded by squatters with the help of sympathetic unionists when the council tried to evict them in the lead-up to the 2000 Olympic Games.

Of course, squatters who maintain and even improve their homes don't make for sensationalist news stories. Which is why the mainstream media focus instead on squats where drug use and property damages are.

One squatter Robinson contacted said, of her home :"My squat gives me a sense of place, of belonging and ownership. It is free of rules, free from compulsion to be involved in case management and self improvement."

As long as the concept of owning land exists, Wright-Howie notes, so too will squatters, "I don't think we necessarily want to condone it, but we want to understand why people are doing it, and we need to treat those people with dignity and respect."

Thursday, 4 December 2008

A hop and a skip

Just when you start to forget you are living in a squat...


Here in this bag are some of the results of a "sushi snatch" carried out by Kitchen Sink Neighbour the other night, in her twice-monthly city dumpster sushi hunts. The last time we feasted on free and very freshly-made sushi was from the equivalent of £500's worth of perfectly fine food that Kitchen Sink Neighbour had lugged back with her a few weeks ago.

Fear not, if the concept of eating out of the dumpster turns you green. As you can see, all of the freshly-made sushi has been packaged up. With a freezer (or indeed, just leaving it outside in the night air, the winter temperatures of late doing a very good freezer impression all on their own), they can be preserved a little while longer.

In fact, dumpster diving (or skipping, dumpster-raiding, tatting, skally-wagging, alley surfing) is nothing new. The Wikipedia definition is "the practice of sifting through commercial and residential trash to find items that have been discarded by their owners, but which may be useful to the Dumpster diver".

Although traditionally, most people resort to dumpster diving out of economic necessity, like the rag and bone man or the karung guni in Singapore, others may practice dumpster diving for various economic and personal reasons. Those who participate in "freeganism", for example, dumpster dive to avoid the materialistic consumer lifestyle.

Regardless of what you wish to call it, the main thing I have learned in my relatively recent exposure to skipping is just how much good food and decent furniture gets thrown away, for no real reason (food may have a better reason, of course, but furniture can be fixed).

An eye-opener, if nothing else, and certainly encourages you to question the point of consumerism and your own personal materialism.

For more insight into skally-wagging, check out this amazing and informative blog My Dumpster Diving Adventures for opinions and photographs by one expert dumpster diver in the USA. Prepare to be astounded!

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Jacket Potato

Some useful reading about established squats around the world...

Christiania is a long-term squat, founded in 1971 on the site of an abandoned military zone. An independent community of almost 900 people, the "Green Lung Of The City" covers 85 acres and has four unbreakable rules for visitors and those who live there: no hard drugs, no rocker badges, no weapons and no violence. Worth a visit.

Poortgebouw is one of Rotterdam's national landmarks. Built in 1879, it was squatted in 1980, to highlight the lack of affordable housing in the city. In 1982, the city council agreed that the squatters could stay on as a housing association, thus legalising the squat! Offering film nights, a cafe and an infoshop, Poortgebouw faces eviction in 2009, thanks to the building's sale in 2001 against the wishes of the housing association.

Although long since closed, the ELF Experiment in Amsterdam was an initiative by a group of people to engage in positive squatting. That initiative included a "magic restaurant", a budget dormitory, art studios and a "Skylab" that could house 24-hour parties on a regular basis. Sounds amazing? Check out the story, as told by its founder, Ton.

With the 2012 Olympics looming ever closer, Games Monitor continues to report on its impact on London. The site describes itself as seeking to deconstruct the 'fantastic' hype of Olympic boosterism and the eager complicity of the 'urban elites' in politics, business, the media, sport, academia and local institutional 'community stakeholders'. Informative stuff.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

That's what friends are fourth

Squatting is the last place you'd expect hierarchy. After all, the philosophies of squatting, activism et al advocate one of living in a non-hierarchy. Living in a derelict building is only one small part of the squatting ethos.

In just a few months and we already have hierarchy in this squat. To be told from the off "I have invited you to live here" bodes well for no squatter. The 'fourth housemate' is basically this: I live in a squat opened by someone else. "Like living with a landlord then?" I replied, to silence.

Not that USgal opened the squat entirely on her own -- as a newcomer, she was accompanied by far more advanced squat-openers -- but the mere fact that she arrived here before anyone else and has stated there is a hierarchy problem is a problem. Since non-hierarchy is a key component in this way of life, not realising that from the off may spell trouble for all. And it already has.

Case in point: last Friday's movie night.

Originally conceived as a cosy bonding night for the current new household over DVDs and pizza, somewhere between conception and execution it was changed into a movie party with the neighbours -- at USgal's whim. No one else got to decide, hell, no one in the flat was even informed about it. To learn about it from the 'invited' neighbours about "tonight's party, what shall I bring" is really NOT the way to go about things.

Her response to my objection: deal with it. Yes, in spite of you living here. Yes, I went unheard, left with plenty of "it's my decision" as opposed to the entire squat's decision. Yes, I did find alternative plans that night, but not before almost painting a giant black X in my mind on living in this particular squat.

It's worth noting at this point too that:

With all the focus coming off of the DIY of the squat in recent days, no one has actually given any thought as to whether we can live together. And whether we can live in accordance with the philosophies of squatting, or even if those philosophies work.

It will be interesting to see how that plays out from now on, now that "Project Squat" is stabilising. We'll have no nails, angle grinders or low supply of tea lights to hide behind from now on.

No excuses to work on the plumbing instead of squatwide fairness.