Occupy Wall Street Goes Home

(Photo: Michael Gould-Wartofsky)

Introduction: OWS Forecloses on the Foreclosers

At long last, Occupy Wall Street has gone home.

Yet it does not appear to be the homecoming Mayor Bloomberg had in mind when he ordered his “army” (sic) to foreclose upon the occupation of Zuccotti Park in the early hours of November 15, 2011. Instead, it is a continuation of the occupation on new terrain—that of the foreclosed home, and that of the communities hardest hit by the subprime mortgage crisis.

702 Vermont Street is one such home, and East New York (ENY) is one such community. In fact, ENY is ground zero in the city’s continuing foreclosure crisis: its per capita rate of foreclosure filings is more than triple the average rate for Brooklyn, four times the average for New York City, and five times the average for New York State.

So Occupy Our Homes (a working group within Occupy Wall Street) got to work this week, moving a homeless family of four – the Glasgow-Carrasquillos – into a humble, otherwise unoccupied home (pictured above). They were joined for the housewarming by hundreds of occupiers—along with hundreds of residents from ENY and other Brooklyn communities.

702 Vermont is the first home reoccupation to go public, but it is far from the first action of its kind. Similar tactics have been employed in recent years from Miami to Minneapolis, spearheaded by groups like “Take Back the Land.” Here in New York City, organizers say there are over a dozen residences that have already been reoccupied in secret. Hundreds have volunteered to help families to move in, to renovate, to power and to defend their new homes.

Tuesday, December 6 (a.k.a. “D6”) saw the most significant wave of such actions to date, with simultaneous home reoccupations at over forty sites in 25 cities – among them Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, LA, Oakland, Minneapolis, Portland, Seattle, and Saint Louis. It was the largest OWS day of action since the November 17, two days after the raid on Zuccotti Park.

Occupy Our Homes aims to reclaim, renovate, and render habitable some small subset of the millions of homes that have fallen into foreclosure nationwide since 2007—many of which have been repossessed, not by human beings, but by banks, rats, and roaches.

In so doing, this new coalition of occupiers and organizers, homeless and homeowners, is extending the tactic of “occupation” from the epicenter of global finance capital to the epicenter of the suffering that such capital has wrought for the “99 percent” in New York City.

Photo Essay:  Postcards from East New York

 

Epilogue: On Present Pasts, Unforeclosed Futures, and the Battle for East Brooklyn

As I boarded the L train to Livonia Ave., I reached into my back pocket in search of my memory card. I found, instead, some fragments of family history: namely, pages from the journals of my East Brooklyn-born father, Marx, and his mother, Esther, a garment worker. My father had grown up in Brownsville, a stone’s throw away from the occupation at 702 Vermont.

When I was a kid, I remember hearing tell of the terrible toll taken on my dad’s old neighborhood by the real estate industry in the 1950s and 60s, when speculators laid waste to whole blocks to make way for the blockbusting and redlining of East Brooklyn. Thousands of working-class residents were driven from their homes. My grandmother was one of them.

But Brooklyn tenants had never been known to go quietly. I recently reread Esther’s recollections of the anti-eviction resistance that swept East Brooklyn during the darkest days of the Depression. As local lore has it, and as the historical record confirms, at the first sign of an eviction, the occupiers of the day would spring into action:

Tenant councils and unemployed councils, CIO union locals and women’s auxiliaries, African-American and Jewish community groups, socialist and communist youth movements, ad hoc groups of neighbors and laborers—all would mobilize to help their neighbors resist the landlords and reoccupy their homes. Thousands of residents would flood the streets, block the path of the eviction marshals, move families and their belongings back into their buildings.

There are, of course, other histories here: the ones evicted from our memory; the ones too often written out of the narrative of “The 99%”; the ones still waiting for their turn on the People’s Mic. It is these histories that occupy my mind as I make my way past the police vans, the vacant lots, the empty houses with “For Sale” signs taunting passersby from their porches. It is these histories that are on the lips of many of the East New Yorkers I will speak to today.

These same streets had seen local activists stage some of the first civil rights sit-ins in the North; seen tenants win the first public housing; seen workers organize the municipal unions; seen local youth birth the Black Power movement, seen families struggle for community control of the schools; seen residents occupy public services in the face of planned abandonment. Yet it had been decades since a multiracial movement of the poor had taken root in these streets.

East Brooklyn’s long history of home occupations was, after all, but a prologue to the occupations to come. If anything, it offers us a picture of the possible, and of the progress that can only be won through struggle. For the moment, it seems that Occupy Our Homes is winning. Bank of America, upon learning of the occupation, declined to issue an eviction notice.

For now, at least, for one New York family, the future is no longer in foreclosure.

Appendix: A Few Facts and Figures on East New York and the Foreclosure Crisis

2010 figures calculated based on data from the Office of the State Comptroller for New York, with supplementary data from a 2011 report by NYC Communities for Change.

ENY has the highest foreclosure rate in NYC: 16.8/1,000 homes, or 68/1,000 owners. This is more than triple the average for Brooklyn, and five times the average for the state.

ENY accounted for 17% of all foreclosed homes in Brooklyn (Kings County) in 2010. Together with neighboring Brownsville, ENY accounted for a full 28% of such homes.

While foreclosures fell by 24.9 percent for New York City as a whole from 2009-10, the rate remained remarkably stable in East New York: 1,195 in 2009, and 1,139 in 2010.

  • From 2006-7, over 50% of total mortgages made in ENY were subprime mortgages. Over 50% of East New Yorkers live in poverty; over 50% depend on federal assistance.
  • In 2010, 70% of all foreclosure notices in Brooklyn went to Black or Latino homeowners. The latter were 175% more likely to be foreclosed upon than homeowners as a whole.
  • In 2010, homeownership saw its sharpest percentage drop since the Depression, while the gap between Black and white homeownership widened to its highest level since 1960.

Sources:

“Foreclosures in New York City” (http://www.osc.state.ny.us/osdc/rpt13-2011.pdf)

“Foreclosure Crisis” (http://www.scribd.com/doc/47674774/Foreclosure-Report)

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