Sixth Street Community Center >> LES Garden and Homestead Making
Written by Howard Brandstein
The homesteading movement grew out of two concurrent phenomena in the 1970s and early 1980s: increasing homelessness and overcrowding in New York’s low income neighborhoods juxtaposed with the deterioration and outright abandonment of thousands of privately-owned multifamily buildings. (Ironically, one would not recognize these same neighborhoods today where market forces and gentrification have pushed rents well out of reach of even the middle class). By the early 1970s these buildings, located in the Lower East Side, Harlem, South Bronx, East New York and other neighborhoods, no longer provided owners and slumlords the profits they historically derived renting to working class and poor people. The 1970s energy crisis and quadrupling of oil prices, following wars and upheavals in the Middle East and oil industry consolidation, was probably the most significant factor in this declining profitability. Owners stopped maintaining their buildings or burned them down in an epidemic of “arson for profit” schemes to collect insurance monies. Over the ensuing decade, most of these properties were foreclosed by the City government for unpaid taxes leaving the City with an enormous inventory of vacant structures and lots where buildings once stood. It was this inventory of buildings and land that became the geopolitical foundation of the homesteading movement. With increasing pressures of displacement on the remaining residents in blighted neighborhoods, community based organizations and churches, inspired by the activism of the 1960s, began to seize vacant buildings and land and create new communities based on an ethic of cooperative not-for-profit development.