Cooperative Punks

Photo: Courtesy of Google Maps

Two Sundays ago, while Occupy Wall Street marked its first birthday, the city’s crustiest occupiers were busy installing a new metal frame around a storefront on the notorious Alphabet City punk house known as C-Squat. As they did, they completed one of the final steps in an unlikely conversion a decade in the making: The warren of anarchists is going co-op. An initiative started under the Giuliani administration laid out the path to ownership, and having an up-to-code ground-level commercial space was one of the last criteria the squatters had to meet. The way the residents achieved the antique look of the frame—a group of them got together and peed on it—suggests they have not been entirely changed by their evolving legal status. Still, an existential shift is underway.

“We pretty much have the worst reputation as a squat,” says nineteen-year resident Scott Sturgeon, who plays in a band called Leftöver Crack. “Rooms were taken by force. Pretty Lord of the Flies-y. I’d even go so far as to say Battle Royale.” But now: “We have meetings,” he says. “People are like, ‘Come vote on this!’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t want to. Why can’t we just do what we’re doing?’ ” Not only that, at the more domesticated C-Squat, “people don’t really fight anymore.” He parrots the politesse that has become part of building politics: “Oh, do I want to waste my time fighting over that?” He means actual violence, not differences of opinion, which do still happen but are trending toward bougie bickering about whether it’s okay to smoke in the hallways, or how loud is too loud to play one’s music. Meanwhile, certain other long-standing rules are being ignored. “One that I like that I don’t feel like everybody is on the same page with anymore is ‘Don’t call the cops.’ ”

C-Squat is leasing its commercial space to the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space, whose exhibits on the gritty history of squatting are offset by its flat-screen TV, foursquare check-ins, and stacks of nicely folded merchandise. And if a vacancy opens up in one of the residential units? “If we’re gonna get a new tenant,” Sturgeon says, “it’s gonna be someone with a steady job already, which is very co-op-y. It’s like, ‘We need someone with a steady job who’s going to pay the house dues’ ”—someone who appreciates the old Alphabet City lifestyle but also might feel just fine with the artisanal fromagerie that is one of C-Squat’s newer neighbors. If anything has prepared Sturgeon for the his newly civilized environs, it’s that he’s seen a similar transformation happen to squatters he knows from other buildings. “It’s the worst with my friends who are starting to have kids,” he says. “C-Squat isn’t really a building that you wanna have kids in. Not yet.”

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Cooperative Punks