Examining a Building’s Past, Punk Rock Style
Any connoisseur of the East Village worth her salt has heard of C-Squat, a tenement at 155 Avenue C that is one of many buildings that were abandoned by their owners in bleak economic times, only to be homesteaded by squatters in the late twentieth century and eventually rehabilitated into aboveboard housing again, but with a decidedly radical cast.
When the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space (MORUS) opened on the ground floor of C-Squat in late 2012, more people learned of the building and its part in recent history.
But what happened on that lot in the “olden days”? C-Squat resident Bill Cashman decided to find out. The five-story brick Pre-Law tenement was built in 1872 by architect J.G. Davenport. The first floor held shops, with 16 families living above. Cashman, 31, who works in music and event production and has no formal training in history, took it upon himself to find out. He pored through archives, interviewed locals, commissioned artwork, and did a whole lot of writing.
The result is a small black-and-white ’zine that covers the building’s life from the beginning until the recent chapter that has some renown. Cashman found a long succession of owners, countless tenants, and businesses ranging from pickle shop to tailor to cigar shop to bookmaker’s den. He created just 155 copies, which are available at MORUS and online at JustSeeds and SQ Distro.
The result is a sprawling, entertaining, and most of all funny romp through a century of New York City life – business, families, immigrants, politics and crime. Never taking himself seriously, the author asks, “What would our crumbling walls say if they could talk to you or should we just fix them so they were not crumbling anymore?”
The crazy-collage zine aesthetic can take some adjustment, but once you acclimate, it’s a fun and illuminating ride. The liberal mixing of past and present brings the story to life, leaving the reader eager for the next chapter. Cashman answered a few questions about his life as an amateur historian.
Are you more interested in history in general now than before the project?
Before this, I was into Lower East Side history, but I was never as concerned with the 19th century history as much as I was interested in with what was going on in the late 20th century. …There was just so much that I found that I didn’t previously know, that I got hooked. I started off the research by flipping through microfilm down at the Municipal Archives. Then I went to check out the City Register Archive, the National Archives, 60 Center Street, and main Public Library. I even used your archives at the GVSHP a couple times as well! I should also mention a website called “Old Fulton NY Postcards” — you can go on there and plug your street address in and see what comes up from the old newspapers.
I found so much information that I changed the whole theme of the zine I was working on. Also, a small radical museum was moving into our storefront so maybe that had some influence on changing the direction of it as well. If a museum is moving downstairs, you better study up and get your facts straight!
And finally … it was fascinating to learn how much you can tell about a tenement’s history just by looking at the architecture! You can tell around what year a building was built and what the conditions were like at the time. The tenements themselves tell the story about the need for housing, and the greed behind slumlords housing massive numbers of incoming poor residents, in spite of any quality-of-life concerns. Then you learn about the tenement laws & how the landlords tried getting around them, then you read about the landlords in the 1930’s that dealt with policies about slum clearance or about the slumlords in the 1970’s that had to deal with In-Rem Foreclosure….and then why there were so many abandoned buildings around.
You make a lot of distinctions between punks/skinheads/anarchists/hardcore people etc. Which of these tribes do you identify with? Are all 16 people in #155 today on the same page in that respect?
I’d say that most people are not on the same page with each other in #155. That can be bad and good. If everyone were on the same page, it wouldn’t be such a long and complicated story, would it? … Maybe some people are on missing pages while others are on weirder pop-up book pages. Or maybe it’s all choose-your-own-adventure pages where you keep flipping to other pages in different sections of the book. Actually, if you look at our hallway walls, I guess these pages are best described as belonging to a bad coloring book.
How did the project affect your feelings about your home, your neighbors, your ‘hood?
Well, it made me think more about the identity of my home, I guess. Or maybe what we have been working towards. When we collectively make a decision it’s easy to say “the building” has decided…but what is the building? Collectively, it’s the sum of what its residents/neighbors want, but physically it’s really just the actual building: #155.
When everyone is not on the same page (see above), how do you make sure the collective building continues to run effectively? When the collective isn’t 100% cooperative you think about what’s best for the future of “the building” in one sense….so I did this history about everything that came before the building in another sense.
It felt cathartic to do it! It shows we’re all just a blip on the longer lifespan of the building and the neighborhood changing around it. …I hope that the place can try to contribute at least a little good to the community that is still around it — or at the very least stick out like a sore thumb amidst all the gentrification going on around and in it!
What’s your favorite episode from the story of #155?
I’d say the current one, but I’m biased and didn’t cover that in the zine. As far as the years I did cover (mid-1800s to mid-1980s), my favorite part was the 1970s when some of the apartments here were sort of a hangout for some people looking to keep partying after the disco clubs closed for the night. I had found 60 names listed as living here around then and I chose four names that were in the phone book today. I wrote four letters and I walked to the post office on 14th Street, mailed the letters, walked home…and one of those four guys was coincidentally standing right in front of our building! Crazy, right? He had moved out in 1976 and had not lived in this neighborhood for years!
Tell us about your alter ego.
I had a friend check out some unfinished working pages. This friend really knows his stuff when it comes to LES history and he happens to lead a really great walking tour. However, I got the impression that he did not think that I was taking the history seriously enough, as he wasn’t thrilled that my friends had drawn cartoony illustrations or that I was making inside jokes in the text, or references that people wouldn’t get outside of this small community.
After I left his house with the heavy verdict of being “irresponsible” weighing on my shoulders, I went home and I did a Google search for “fake histories of New York” and a book came up by Washington Irving called “A History of New York From the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker.” It was a fictional book that was written in the early 1800s by Irving but under the pseudonym Knickerbocker. Originally, it was advertised as the publishing of Knickerbocker’s personal journal – advertised as a real account, a real history – but really, it was more of a satire on local politics, history, and culture.
I enjoyed reading up about its back-story so much that I wanted to change the title of my zine to a sort of inside jokey nod to this Knickerbocker story. I wanted a title that came out and openly (& secretly) admits that it’s not a history that takes itself too seriously and was written by a questionable “historian.” So I bought these white jacket slip sleeves for the zine to go in. I individually spray painted the C-Squat symbol on each one, and hand-wrote “A History of #155 From the Beginning of the New World to the End of the Derelict Dynasty, by W.D. Bickerknocker.”
What’s your favorite anecdote from the zine?
I had a zine release party where I told the entire history to a large audience. I’ve never done that before so a few weeks prior I did a smaller private reading in MORUS where I just invited like 30 people. They were either currently from the house or people that helped me along the way. Everyone was served free pickles because the room used to be a pickle shop in the 1870’s and my friend Rat served homemade beer because that room was a saloon hall between 1896–1918 and an illegal Latino social club serving beer between 1982-1985.
However, I don’t think he properly warned us that his delicious, delicious beer was 11% alcohol. It helped me find the courage to start talking in front of an audience and helped as I went amateurishly went through the history: all the way from the New York Dry Dock Company in 1825 through various tenement codes, through the Great Depression, etc….However, thanks to the beer, by the late 1970’s I was totally blacked out!
…Like seven other people in the audience had also blacked out. I got calls the next day from people not remembering how they got home or got back to their rooms upstairs. Now this wasn’t a rager party but a seated event about LES history. Instead of thinking that this was a disaster, the second I woke up the next morning I started laughing because I thought that maybe that this was beyond appropriate. Perfectly fitting. Maybe the debut telling of the entire history of this building should not have been told in any other way. Hi-larious.
The next day, another historian that I met through doing all this summed it all up by saying that the zine and the first reading was, yes, irresponsible but yet also reverent! He also added in the words “inebriated anarcho revisionistory” too. The first review was the best!
In the East Village it seems there is an intersection between punk and history. What are your thoughts on that?
I think history is very important in a lot of sub or counter-cultures. It’s that way in any scene in any city, any small town, or any country! Just looking at the different styles that go along with the different genres – you can see a lot of history in just how people choose to identify themselves. There is plenty of history behind those identities! It’s not just all fashion, but it says something about what kind of scene you are into presently … and each sub-scene has its own roots, history, and beliefs that, as kids, you trace back to ‘this’ scene, ‘these’ records, politics, or ‘those’ bands.
Maybe it’s not viewed like as a scholarly historical subject like you’d study for when getting a degree in history, but people are sort of living it. I know I’m quoting a famous singer here but it seems appropriate (I first heard these lyrics in a cover song done by a punk band called ONE REASON) “We busted out of class had to get away from those fools/ We learned more from a three minute record than we ever learned in school”.
So many influential things happened here in this neighborhood that made an impact all over the world. There’s a great web page out now called New York Hardcore Chronicles. It’s an awesome site to follow if you’re into hardcore from the 1980’s. Just because it’s not about tenement architecture or about the LES throughout the ages doesn’t disqualify anyone involved from being a serious New York history buff!
The zine can be challenging to read. Why did you make those design choices?
As far as an aesthetic goes, I clearly wanted to make a ’zine and not a book. The trouble is that it was going to be like over 70+ pages crammed with loads of dry historical information. I could have presented it more straight forwardly but I wanted to have fun and make it look more cut-and-paste.
Also, I was finding stuff out as I went along so I would have to cram this new information into already existing pages where I was already running out of space. It was a bit hectic! In the end, I didn’t mind any sloppiness because it fits more with the crazy aesthetic that reminds me of home. I figured even if something was hard to read, people that really cared would take the time to make it out….I only made 155 copies so there wouldn’t be too many complaints.
Did you give a copy to Tompkins Square Library or any other public institution?
ABC No Rio asked for a copy for their zine library…so I gave them one. They’re a fine upstanding public institution. But I should go give them to people that helped me in the various archives I mentioned. God knows I’ve asked those poor employees so many questions. Dennis from the City Register’s office was incredibly patient. He deserves a shout out.
There was one archive where one guy got to the point where he was so annoyed that I had so many requests for information to look up. One time he brought down a book of records that was so dusty that it looked like it had not been opened since the 1980s when it was written. It was really like in the movies where they open a book and you had to blow all the dust off of it. I was like “whoa your job is so cool,” but by his reaction he didn’t seem to agree.
The next time I came in he was like, “Look, I’ll let you in to our non-public archive for an hour…just no more questions” So I went back there, and then promised never to come back. I’d like to give him a copy too but I did make a promise to never return.