intimate punk portraits of 90s lower east side squatters
Ash Thayer spent eight years squatting in abandoned buildings, capturing her community and its battle against gentrification.
Photography Ash Thayer
It wasn't too long ago that the Lower East Side buildings now occupied by frozen yogurt shops and closet-sized "luxury" apartments were actually abandoned and dilapidated. Back in 92, photography student Ash Thayer was left homeless and broke when a landlord kicked her out and kept her security deposit. But Ash got a helping hand from fellow members of the punk scene when they invited her to stay at See Skwat and join the community of squatters who'd spent decades rehabbing the region. For the next eight years, Ash documented her squatter family's homes, lives, and battles against gentrification, eventually compiling her images in a moving photo book Kill City: Lower East Side Squatters 1992-2000, released earlier this year. On the heels of her recent book talk at the New York Public Library, we caught up with Ash to find out how youth can change the world with political activism, punk mindsets, and positivity.
How did you get into photography?
I had a high school teacher in Memphis, TN who really helped a lot of his students launch their art careers. He taught us what was going on in the world, how to apply to colleges, and helped us get scholarships to really prestigious art schools. A lot of us were at risk youth, including myself. I was an outcast turned metalhead, and then I found punk rock, which gave me a positive outlet. I moved out of my parents' house before I graduated, and this teacher encouraged me to pick up a camera. I started photographing my friends in the punk scene, and the first few rolls of film I shot ended up winning a Scholastic Award. I then got a scholarship to the School of Visual Arts.
Why did you start squatting?
I moved to New York for school and continued to photograph the punk scene around me-- all the great shows at The Continental and CBGB's. But I was really broke. I was living off the leftovers of my student loan and was struggling between part time jobs to maintain a school-work balance. I got kicked out of a place and they kept my large security deposit, so then I really had no money left. It was either drop out of school and go back to Memphis, or figure something out. I met some other punk kids who were squatting and they welcomed me as a guest at See Skwat. In the punk scene, kids looked out for each other--our friendships were all we had.
The building was in shambles then. They'd started fixing it up, but it looked like a set out of Dexter-- a flickering bulb in the hallway with staircases totally falling apart. We had to cover windows at night so no one on the street would see that we had electricity. You had to really earn the respect and trust of people there. It was a bunch of crusty young punks, a lot of them with drug and alcohol issues but who were serious about squatting and the politics.
What happened when the city started cracking down? Giuliani spent millions trying to get squatters out.
We would get really involved in community board meetings where these decisions about housing developments were being made and voted on. We'd do marches and protests to raise neighborhood awareness, but we'd also have block parties and invite the neighbors. A lot of what we did was to be a part of the community, bring people together, and integrate. Because the LES had so many abandoned buildings, a lot of squatters were in a really condensed, localized area that allowed us to support each other. If there were any problems, we came to each other's rescue. It was this very tight community that became ready to fight for buildings, and that's what happened.
When you started shooting, was it with the intention of documenting your daily life or the larger culture?
I didn't really have an agenda, I was primarily photographing people in my life. There were a lot more families and a lot more ethnic diversity in the community, but I was hanging out with punk kids in the music scene because that's who I related to and that's what I was into. But not everyone had cameras back then, and squatters did need documentation about the progress they'd made on their buildings and individual apartments. We knew that one day would come, potentially in court, where we'd need that official evidence of all the work we'd done.
Women seem to be really empowered in your images. What were gender dynamics like in the community?
It was sort of a male dominated culture because of the roughness, but gender dynamics really depended on what building you were in. Some had much more equal gender ratios because of the people who'd started the buildings and how much progress they'd made. Some were more suitable for kids, so they had more families. We were all wearing work clothes so it was a practical environment, but it was also nice just not to be sexualized by anyone.
Looking back on that time period, what did you learn not just as a photographer, but as a person?
As a photographer, I became really aware of how to shoot subcultures and communities--just learning to respect people's wishes and to always get permission. The experience also taught me about the value of community and how people can make things happen with direct action. There's often apathy toward government -- it's easy to feel powerless-- but I learned through this how important it is to be involved with and care about local issues. Through perseverance, critical mass as a united group, standing up for what we believed in, and making our voices heard, the squatters won 11 buildings.
I think that's the takeaway for the next generation: you don't have to be a punk rocker or squatter or even do illegal activities --I mean sometimes you do-- but you can change things. This book shows that young people can make a difference, even ones who feel rejected and don't have that much money.
Text Emily Manning
Photography Ash Thayer