By Steven Wishnia
   At 4:30 PM on Monday, February 10, a
city-hired wrecking crane punched a hole
in the fifth floor of the squat at 537-539
East Fifth Street. The scooper swung back
and slammed into the sixth floor,
battering open another hole more than ten
feet wide.
    The building wasn't empty.
    Squatter Brad Will was still inside,
where he'd been hiding ever since the city
demolition crew arrived on the block at
9:00 that morning. They had already tried
to knock the building down earlier that
afternoon with him in-side, chomping off
half of the parapet before Will emerged
onto the roof. When police couldn't find
him, they started again.
    "It was fuckin' scary, man," said
Will, a 26-year-old bicycle messenger who
had been living at 537 for two years. "I
could feel the walls shake. I clung to the
walls and started crying because it was a
strong building and it was a shame to tear
it down. I loved that building." 
    Will told the SHADOW that police saw
him on the roof both times while the
wrecking ball was swinging, but the
demolition didn't stop until he showed
himself to the workers in the street. He
was arrested and charged with reckless
endangerment and three other misdemeanors.
    The 26 displaced squatters are now
suing the city for contempt of court and
$2.6 million in damages. As the wrecking
ball was crashing into the building,
lawyer Jackie Bukowski was in court,
trying to get an emergency order to stop
the demolition. The city's lawyer, Arthur
Shaw, was notified at 2:00 about a 3:00
hearing and he showed up at 4:30. 
    By 6:13 PM, when State Supreme Court
Justice Barbara R. Kapnick issued the
order, most of the build-ing's right front
quadrant was already down, and work didn't
stop until 6:40. At 6:55, the wrecking
crew started tearing down 535, a vacant
building next door, just as Bukowski
arrived at the scene. When she showed the
court order to police, she was hustled
away from the barricades and almost
    "You are in violation of the law. Do
you understand?" she told Ninth Pre-

cinct Captain Flores.
    "I hear you," he responded.
Demoli-tion continued.
    The next day, Judge Kapnick issued an
order barring both the city and the
squatters from touching what remained at
the site, neither what was left standing
of 537-539 and 535 nor the rubble that
many of the squatters' possessions were
buried in. 
    Demolition continued that night. "That
crane was in full effect," one wit-ness
said. "The whole block was sealed off. It
was nothing but police. The whole place
was lit up like day-light." The demolition
of 535 broke win-dows and knocked holes in
the wall of the occupied building at 533
next door. Two weeks later, the site had
been scraped clean, with nothing left but
a few piles of bricks.
    City officials maintained a stone wall
about the demolition. Is it standard
procedure to knock down buildings when
there's still someone inside? "An
inspection was conducted before the
demolition and no one was found,"
re-sponded Sheila Green, a spokesper-son
for the city Department of Housing
Preservation and Development. Mayor
Giuliani's office refused to comment,
referring calls to police. "I don't know
what happened," said police spokes-person
Olga Mercado. Why did the demolition
continue after two court or-ders to stop
it? "We have been acting consistently with
the court order," said Assistant
Corporation Counsel Gail Rubin. "The
matter's in litigation and we don't think
it's appropriate to com-ment further."
    The demolition was set off by a fire
in the squat on Sunday, February 9, which
started, ironically enough, in Brad Will's
second-floor apartment, ap-parently from
an electric space heater. (Will now says
the fire was suspicious.) Squatters say
the Fire Department let it burn before
putting it out. "I did not witness them
pouring any water for approximately 20
minutes to a half hour," building resident
Garth Wood testified at a February 11
court hear-ing. The fire burned out rooms
on the second through sixth floors of the
building's left front quadrant. 
    Nevertheless, the rest of the
build-ing was undamaged. Residents say 

both firefighters and police at the scene
told them they could get back in to
retrieve their possessions the next
    They waited outside all night, wrapped
in Red Cross-issued blankets against the
20-degree cold. But the Giuliani
administration moved into action
immediately. By 9:00 the next morning, the
city Buildings Department had declared
that 537-539 East Fifth Street was in
imminent danger of col-lapse, and an
HPD-hired wrecking crane was rounding the
corner of Ave-nue B, protected by riot
    City officials at the scene refused to
let squatters go into the building to get
their belongings. Instead, police herd-ed
them into pens on the south side of Fifth
Street, and they handed over hastily
scribbled lists of possessions to city
workers. The workers carted out random
chunks of people's lives: two milk crates
full of P-Funk records; a half-dozen
bicycles and three battered TVs; a woman's
stretchy silver top; a cheap old electric
guitar and a Fender; a white-pearl drum
kit and an ancient IBM-clone computer;
black plastic gar-bage bags full of
clothing; and a few boxes of books, from a
lesbian philo-sophy tome to a James Bond
    Most people's stuff was left inside.
Jason Fitzsimmons says he lost sever-al
hundred albums, two basses, and his
turntables and DJ gear. Heidi Fuhr says
she got nothing. One woman said her ID and
clothes were still in-side, but she was
more upset about losing her collection of
Star Wars toys. "I've been collecting it
since I was a little kid," she said. 
    Others were not allowed in to res-cue
their cats. Squatters Nate Mc-Donald, 19,
and Roger Varela, 25, were arrested when
they tried to enter the building to
retrieve the bodies of Varela's two dogs,
who died in the fire. The Red Cross left
the scene in dis-gust, refusing to
collaborate with the eviction.
    At 1:20, the crane began ripping
537-539's fire escape off. Brad Will was
still inside. Squatters on the street
screamed his name. "C'mon Brad! Brad, show
your face! BRAD! BRAAAD!" Police ignored
them. The crane whirred and rotated. At
1:25, it chomped off the first piece of
the para-pet, dropping bricks six stories
down into the garden next door. Police
shoved the protesters down the block, away
from the building. Five minutes later,
Will emerged onto the roof, 

straddling the remaining parapet
trium-phantly to shouts of "You fuckin'
rule, Brad." 
    Demolition stopped, and Will
disap-peared inside about 15 minutes
later. The crane lifted a search team of
Emergency Services Unit cops up to the
roof, while the riot cops downstairs
pushed protesters and press people off the
block, continuing the no-witnes-ses policy
of past evictions. At 4:00, the demolition
resumed in earnest, to shouts of "You
trying to fuckin' kill him?" Will
re-emerged five minutes later, waving to
the protestors. He was arrested almost
immediately--but had time, he said, to get
off a quick "Fuck Giuliani!"
    As police handcuffed him, pulled his
hands over his head, and slashed open his
pockets, Will says, he told them he wasn't
resisting arrest. "I wish you were
resisting," one officer replied. He was
charged with resisting arrest, reckless
endangerment, criminal tres-passing, and
obstructing governmental administration.
    Squatters say that the Buildings
De-partment inspector who arrived at 537-
539 after the fire never went inside.
"They didn't go in the freakin' building,"
said squatter activist Shawnee Alexan-dri.
"They got out of the car, said `Tear it
down,' and left." 
    Buildings Department spokesper-son
Steve Hess said he didn't know if the
inspector went inside, but was "sure he
did." The order to demolish the building
was signed by Ron Livian, Manhattan
borough commissioner, on Monday morning.
Hess wouldn't re-lease the actual report,
calling it "in-house information," but
said the building's floors had collapsed
and that it had makeshift ladders instead
of staircases. He said he wouldn't
com-ment on why the demolition continued
after the court order, but speculated that
it might have been dangerous to stop in
the middle of the demolition.
    Several witnesses dispute those
claims. Even after the front wall of the
fire-damaged section had been torn off on
Monday night, the floors were still in
place. Squatter Heidi Fuhr, who was
watching the demolition from the build-ing
next door, testified on February 11 that
squatters had rebuilt the stairs with
concrete and metal pans, and that she had
seen a police officer try to smash them
with a sledgehammer. She told the court
that "the sledge-hammer bounced off the
iron casing" without causing any damage. 

    Police denied outside experts access
to the building on the after-noon of
February 10 before the demo-lition was
underway. "We had our en-gineer at the
scene and they wouldn't permit him to look
at the building," said Joe Center of the
People's Mutual Housing Association, a
neighborhood nonprofit group that had
planned to redevelop both buildings. 
    They also barred John Shuttle-worth,
an architect called by the squat-ters. He
testified on February 11 that the exterior
walls didn't give any indi-cation that the
building was likely to collapse, and that
when the facade was ripped off, he
couldn't see any damage to the floor
joists. Though 537-539 was not technically
fireproof under the 1968 building code, he
said, its design--a cross-shaped brick
"de-mising wall" that divided it into four
quadrants--effectively confined the fire
damage to one section.
    The building was one of the Lower East
Side's oldest squats, founded in 1982.
Jimmy Stewart, one of the origin-al
squatters, still lived there. It became
heavily populated in 1985 or 1986, and was
evicted by HPD. But Stewart and others
re-entered it on New Year's Day in 1986 or
1987. "We weren't hitting champagne, we
were hitting the bricks," recalls longtime
squatter activ-ist Jerry "Jerry the
Peddler" Wade. Ac-cording to building
residents, Stewart and a few others had
occupied it con-tinuously since then, long
enough to qualify for adverse possession.
How-ever, they kept it small and low-key
until early 1994, when they took in
squatters displaced by the eviction of
Glass House on Ave. D. 
    The newer residents were
predom-inantly younger artists and
activists. Most worked part-time jobs,
says Will, because "the house was a
full-time job." Corinne, a 25-year-old
painter, had moved in six months ago after
be-ing evicted from a sublet in
Williams-burg. Lien, 21, had arrived from
the Netherlands three months ago. "If it
wasn't for the squat, I'd still be
sleep-ing outside," said Jen, a
23-year-old bartender who was homeless
when she moved in two and a half years
ago. Jason Fitzsimmons, 25, a musi-cian
and DJ, had lived there for a year and a
half. He moved in after losing a Brooklyn
apartment when his room-mate didn't pay
the rent, but said the squat provided a
community as well as affordable housing.
    Whether or not Mayor Giuliani knew 
it, his troops were destroying one of the
Lower East Side's most politically active
squats. Two of the five people arrested in
a January 16 chain-in to protest the
planned eviction of the ABC No Rio
community space lived in the building;
another resident was one of the 30 people
jailed in August 1996 when police broke up
a Tompkins Square Park demonstration
against the 13th Street Squat evictions.
They had also recently started a women's
health group and a coffee-house called the
Fifth Street Cafˇ.
    The demolition also appeared to dash
the People's Mutual Housing Association's
plans for the two build-ings. The PMHA had
lined up almost $3 million in federal and
state funds to redevelop the buildings
into 29 units of low-to moderate-income
housing. Most would have been rented to
families making between about $17,000 and
$23,000 a year, said Joe Center; some
would have rented to slightly more
af-fluent tenants at $600-$700 a month in
order to subsidize six apartments
re-served for homeless families at the
$286 a month welfare maximum. 
    Center claims that the building was
empty when PMHA began negotiating with HPD
for it in 1994. He says his group wouldn't
have tried to evict an established squat.
However, he also offers the standard
anti-squatter party line, calling the
Fifth Street residents "a self-proclaimed
elite" denying housing to the truly needy.
    HPD, he said, "could have done things
to protect the buildings," but rushed to
demolish them "because of fear that the
squatters would go back."
    Jerry McCarty of the Mayor's Office of
Emergency Management told legal activists
at the scene that the city was willing to
absorb any lawsuit resulting from the
demolition. He denies that the Giuliani
administration had any political motives.
"We are demolishing a build-ing that's
unsafe," he said. "The City of New York
doesn't want to see any-body get hurt."
    Yet the city has used safety as a
pretext to evict squatters several times
before, most notoriously on East 13th
Street in 1995. In 1989, the Buildings
Department used a rainstorm to de-clare
319 East Eighth Street in immin-ent danger
of collapse. The squatters won a court
order blocking the demoli-tion, but the
city got a late-night ruling overturning
it and began tearing the building down at
1:00 AM.
    The Giuliani administration's pro-

fessed concern for tenants' safety is
especially hypocritical, says Kenny
Schaeffer of the Metropolitan Council on
Housing, as HPD has essentially abandoned
enforcing its regulations against private
landlords since Giuliani took office.
"It's ironic that the city has the
resources to do this on such short notice
when it doesn't have the re-sources to do
code enforcement on regular buildings." he
    HPD cut almost two-thirds of its
housing inspectors between 1989 and 1994,
attempting to replace them with a program
where landlords and ten-ants would tell
the department whether or not violations
had been corrected. The West 144th Street
building which collapsed in 1995 had
thousands of violations listed on HPD's
computer; some had been counted as
corrected because Spanish-speaking tenants
hadn't returned English-only response
forms in 1994. 
    Squatters have filed a motion to have
the city government held in con-tempt of
court for ignoring the orders to stop the
demolition. "We're working to show max
damage," Jackie Bukow-ski told a group of
squatters and sup-porters outside court on
February 11. "The building's gone. Let's
document this. We have to find ways to
hold them in contempt." They are also
suing the city for $2.6 million--$100,000
per person--in damages for violating their
constitutional rights. 
    The main issue now, said Harvey
Epstein of the National Lawyers Guild, who
is assisting Bukowski with the case, is to
draw political attention to the Giuliani
administration's "flagrant disregard for
the rule of law" in their rush to oust the
squatters and obliterate the building. 


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