Ash Thayer’s Kill City is almost a sequel to Ken Schles’ Invisible City. While Schles’ 1988 photo essay portrayed an empty neighborhood, Thayer’s photos portray the flowers that bloomed where a tree had died. She lived in and photographed the See Squat on Avenue C and 9th Street, an area known as Alphabet City, one of several buildings in the area inhabited by squatters. The residents fought to stay in the buildings, going all the way to court to have their squatters’ rights made permanent. Some succeeded, others were evicted.
A little background on the author; Thayer came from Memphis Tennessee, didn’t get along with her southern peers, went to SVA, had no money for rent, and found the “See Squat” via word-of-mouth. The book has an intro by Reverend Frank Morales, where he tells us how the locals, themselves poor and marginalized, didn’t want the squatters there. Most of the squatters were young and white, while the “locals” were mostly Hispanic. Both groups, however, were really in the same dire circumstances, and if it weren’t a squat full of young whites, it would’ve been a squat full of junkies. Take your pick.
One of my favorite things about this book is that it documents the clothing styles of the time. There’s no city glamour here, green, brown, and navy blue predominate, lots of workmen’s clothes, no high heels or designer duds. The author points out that androgynous looks were popular among young people at the time, with Doc Martens being the norm for both genders. Perhaps it’s because the boots last a long time? Or maybe these kids came from rural towns where everyone worked in farms or industry? I also surmise that the 1990’s Alphabet City, not yet the “hipster” enclave it is now, wouldn’t have been a place to see socially competitive people in colorful clothing. You wouldn’t have seen NYU students walking down Avenue C in Tommy Hilfiger in 1993.
The characters are very original, and colorful, in the figurative sense. There’s a photo of a girl with dyed blonde hair and bushy armpits, and another who was pregnant at the time and raised the child in the squat. One of the kids I recognized, a 13 year old boy named Jean Paul Toulon from Madison Wisconsin, whose photo was in the book Neo-Punk and Tribal Body Art. Thayer says that he’s dead now.
As the years progress, the squatters get “cleaner” as they settle in, fixed up the buildings, found ingenious ways to get water and electricity, put in new stairs, and got evicted. Fashion styles go from green arm pants and black tee shirts to rock tee shirts. Perhaps the US Army was dumping surplus uniforms after the 1990’s cutbacks, which might account for the prevalence of green pants everywhere. I didn’t see any silkscreened tee shirts in the book, perhaps it wasn’t as prevalent at the time? There aren’t a lot of murals, and I’m going to guess that these squatters weren’t all artist, though the author was. Tattoos were few and sparing, with only one color ink. Tattoos weren’t yet all the rage like they would be by 1998, and they would probably have been too expensive for these people anyway. Some are clearly on drugs, like the ones with tattoos on their faces.
Kill City isn’t about art or hippies, but the primitive origins of bare-bones capitalism. The squatters aren’t using the building as a drug den; their time is spent fixing the buildings and looking for food. The cops called them spoiled rich kids, Giuliani thought they were frivolous, local minorities called them interlopers, but they were wrong. By fixing the buildings, they contributed to the city, and they didn’t steal from people or stores. New York City lost an opportunity when it ended the Homesteader program in the 1980’s, which is why the abandoned building was empty when the squatters moved in. I suspect that the city was holding onto the buildings, predicting (correctly) that the value would rise, allowing old debts to be paid off.
I’m surprised that this book is not widely circulated in New York City nowadays, it’s a great piece of history for the city, especially when you want to see how the city has changed. The buildings were abandoned, along with other inner-city neighborhoods, thanks to Levittown and white flight. In the 1970’s, fuel costs skyrocketed, and the landlords couldn’t raise rents to cover the heating costs. The landlords abandoned the buildings as a tax write-off, and they fell apart. Heating these uninsulated structures would’ve cost a fortune.
I am grateful that Thayer took the time to document the neighborhood, and her photos are top quality. In contrast to the technology obsession of today, there was more handwork going on in the 1990’s. Everything in the photo essay is done by hand. While some might say that the squatters were hippies, I see it as business. Doesn’t capitalism begin when someone tries to make something out of what they have?