The back bedroom has always been the children’s room. When our building got its certificate of occupancy and we were cleared to move in, Camelia was a toddler. I’d just learned how to do stucco veneziano (venetian plaster) and the room was one of my first projects in the apartment. The first color for Camelia’s brand new bedroom was a beautiful peachy pink, very soft and not all at sugary. A perfect color for a little girl. The walls gave off a rosy light at night. In the morning, the room glowed golden from the sunlight coming in from the eastern facing window.
When we were homesteading our building in the 1980’s, there was a lot of drug dealing in the neighborhood (see my Pigeon Wars post for the backstory). Junkies broke into the squatter’s buildings and stole tools and pipes and anything that they could rip out to sell. It was near impossible to completely fortify the entire building against theft, there were too many spots where crumbling brick or boards could be pried loose. All you could do was to make it harder for them. During that time, the back bedroom became our tool room. We framed it out and created temporary walls of double thick plywood. The door was locked with a fat metal chain. That was the secure room, the place where we kept anything the junkies might want to walk off with.
Homesteader Jay Goodson at the tool room which became our back bedroom
The room grew up with the girls. After the babyish pink came a sophisticated light royal blue when the girls were in elementary school. Then came a rich green right before Camelia left for college. Now, at the time of Oona’s going to college, I decided to re-do the stucco in a pale greyish lavender. Oona said “Mom, you always want to re-do the room when we are leaving for college”. Maybe it is my way of trying to entice them to stay home.
Oona applying stucco veneziano
The old green being covered
This is a work-in-progress, stay tuned for updates.
Last Saturday was a beautiful day for a neighborhood party. A celebration much deserved. The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space (MoRUS) finally opened its doors on Loisaida Avenue. They suffered a setback because of Hurricane Sandy’s flooding. But even while managing their own clean-up during the blackout, they were still serving food and providing bike-powered cellphone charging to the community. This is the spirit of Loisaida, a coming together to make impossible things happen – our history. Good news.
lovely hardworking volunteers
Founder Laurie Mittelmann with Adam Purple
Artist Marlis Momber with Millie
Founder Bill DiPaola
Visit the MoRUS facebook page to see more photos and other blogs posts.
It is said that ten tenement buildings stood where El Jardin del Paraiso now grows. When I first saw it, El Jardin was called an empty lot and it was a desolate place. It was clear to the eye that anything that once existed here had been razed and pulverized in a brutal fashion. The ground was nothing but fine brick colored dust.
The first twinkling of reclamation came in the form of a wooden platform where homesteaders sat in the sun to eat lunch and drink a cold beer after a hard day’s work in the warm summer months. There was also a primitive swing set for children that was two wood boxes that held a frame for the swing. Medieval-like wooden structures in a sea of tenement dust. One of my favorite memories is the sight of Camelia at three years old in the early garden barechested and clad in a pink lace skirt working hard with a tiny rake.
Once the reclamation began there was no stopping it. Raised garden beds arose in a corner of the lot. A teepee was built. It spread. People dug, watered and planted. The roots of weeping willows drank from the underground springs you saw bubble up when you dug deep enough.
People tapped into the electricity from the streetlights and connected amps for concerts and projectors for film screenings on warm summer nights. The renaissance had begun.
The brick wall in the hallway looks different now just from the coat of the stucco veneziano in bluish teal. It is as though the brick has come alive. Oona, ever the artist, said “Of course it has come alive, that is the magic of a complementary color”. I see the brick in all its glory for the first time. Every color in every brick and every stroke of the blue plaster pops. I can see nuance in the brick colors that before were in shadow. I see russet colors, greys, creams and even lavenders. This brick was probably laid between the mid-1800’s to the late 1800’s during the boom time in the Lower East Side of New York. As homesteaders in the early 1980s, we unearthed this brick in the interior walls. It was covered in a century’s worth of plaster and wallpaper. We chipped the layers away by hand with a hammer and chisel for a long time till we got to the pure brick. We didn’t work on our individual apartments, we worked collectively, so we were on plaster chipping duties on these walls for months.
I was shitty carpenter. I was bad at measuring and I wasted wood, so I was put on mortar duty. Mortar is more forgiving. The mortar crew was headed up by Smitty, who was an experienced construction worker and he trained a small team of us. We did all of the brickwork in the building. In the warm weather, homesteaders with older kids would bring them in and corral them in a safe part of the building while they worked. I kept an eye on them while I mixed cement. Then they started helping me mix. They made a game of it. We kept the mortar crew supplied with bucket after bucket of cement.
All around us buildings were coming down, victims of the criminal neglect of the landlords who had abandoned them. When a building was torn down, the homesteaders in the vicinity would spread the word and we would all head over there to rescue the brick. We had an enormous canvas mail cart that had been confiscated from a post office. The mortar crew would wheel this cart out and head over to the fallen building. We would find other homesteaders, squatters and gardeners there also rescuing the brick and the stone. We would pick through the rubble to find intact bricks and then stack them on the first floor like cordwood. Our building was restored with the bones of other buildings that didn’t make it.
A very exciting project is underway in Loisaida – a new living history museum that will focus on how the community came together to reclaim abandoned buildings and empty lots and created homes, cultural spaces and lush gardens in what was known as the “Take Back the Land Movement” of the late 70s and 80s. Check out the fantastic video and donate if you wish to get the museum up and running.
My daughter Camelia appears in the beginning of the video when she was little. She is the girl in the pink jacket with purple wings in the Jardin del Paraiso community garden.
Our home design solutions have always been reactionary. In the homestead we started with a raw space. Babies came as soon as we moved in, The birth of a child would mean we’d buy a new bed for the new person to sleep in. A newborn’s clothes would occupy one dresser drawer. As the infant became a toddler, it was three drawers. And when they started school, it was six drawers. We’d have more stuff – we’d buy or build something to put it in. If a neighbor was getting rid of something that we could use – we’d take it. We didn’t have much of a budget to buy furniture and we knew nothing about design. The first baby had a crib purchased by my parents. As soon as she could stand, she would do anything to escape it. It became a place to dump toys in and drape clothes on – a big repository of clutter. So we gave it away, baby proofed everything and put a futon on floor. The second baby never had a crib. She slept first in our bed then moved to the floor futon with her sister.
Our living space was not shaped by design or beauty, only by where to stash things. First, in our raw space, we needed bookshelves, so the ex-husband and his friend built a very ugly bookcase that is still there. The so-called linen closet is the top part of that bookcase. You have to struggle to stuff the linen in because it is not deep. It is so high up that you have to climb on the highest chair in the house to put laundry away. Sometimes we are too lazy and we toss pillow cases into it as if we were playing basketball. It has sliding doors that never worked well and one day one fell off. We thought the second door could fall off and hit someone in the head so we took it off altogether. That meant the so-called linen closet was exposed to the view of everyone in the living room. My mother who could not see very well once thought it was a poster.
The apartment is a 800 square foot one bedroom (which we made into a two bedroom). It has a history. It is situated in New York’s East Village – really in Loisaida, which is a term that is credited to the poet, community activist, playwright and teacher Bimbo Rivas in his 1974 poem “Loisaida”. It is thought to be the pronunciation of a native Spanish speaker of “Lower East Side”. Avenue C is now Loisaida Avenue.
We started out as squatters at the height of the “Take Back the Land” movement of the 70s and 80s when landlords were burning down their buildings to collect the insurance money in the marginalized neighborhoods of a bankrupt city. Ours was a burnt out abandoned building. Majestic in size, our building is wide and expansive, not like the narrow tenement buildings so common in our historically immigrant neighborhood. Our hallways are wide and our apartments too, not like the more common railroad flats. When neighborhoods were more segregated, the community’s middle class could not move out to the suburbs but stayed put within their ghetto. There are buildings and entire blocks in our neighborhood that were obviously the homes of the doctors, lawyers and religious leaders of the community. There was a doctor’s office on our building’s first floor. We had to rip out the subway tile that lined the walls from floor to ceiling. The doctor probably lived upstairs.
In the early eighties, the neighborhood landscape was that of a bombed out city. Landlords burned and abandoned their properties. Residents went without basic services like heat and water. Entire areas were abandoned by government. There began a movement to take back the land in every respect. People took over their own buildings that landlords had stopped lording over and started managing themselves. People took over abandoned burnt buildings and rebuilt them. People took over empty lots and turned them into gardens. People took over abandoned schools and turned them into cultural centers. People took over abandoned banks and turned them into community banks that lent money to the homesteaders that took over the abandoned buildings.
When I came to my building, the group that had seized it had already been working for a few months and had just finished clearing out the debris. When I came in October of 1980 we were starting the job of replacing beams and floors. It took us 12 years of working every weekend to finish rebuilding. We are twenty families – we had to stay cohesive as a group. We had to shape and respect a democratic collective process. We were also part of a movement. We were connected and in solidarity with all of the other players that were rising up out of the ashes in the neighborhood.
festival in the mid 80s with our building under construction in the background. Photo by Marlis Momber - vivaloisaida.org