Meg Storey: How did you come to write this novel?
Cari Luna: On the evening of July 4, 1995, I came across a boisterous crowd at the intersection of Thirteenth Street and Avenue A in Manhattan. Squatters who had been evicted from two buildings on that block back in May had retaken one of the buildings. The intersection was choked with people cheering the squatters on, and there were more cops than I’d ever seen in one place before. I saw something then that had never before occurred to me might be possible: I saw police officers—who before that point had only been symbols of safety and protection for me—looking for a fight, hoping someone would throw a bottle or a fist so they could react.
At twenty-one years old, I didn’t fully understand what I was seeing or what the squatters were fighting for. I’m sorry to say that at the time I wasn’t curious enough to find out. But the images of that night stayed with me. The squatters stayed with me. Ten years later, I found myself writing a novel set in the building I’d seen the squatters retake.
As I wrestled with the idea of home through my characters, it became important to me to understand my home—New York City—and how it had changed. The big question in my mind as I undertook the writing of this novel was “What the hell happened to New York?” The eviction of the Thirteenth Street squats seemed, to me, to mark the beginning of the end of the Lower East Side as it had been when I lived there; the point when money won. And so I set about trying to learn more about what I’d seen that night in 1995, what had been happening and why.
MS: Talk a little about the research you did for the book.
CL: I was lucky that the historical events that I used as inspiration for The Revolution of Every Day occurred just as the Internet was becoming more widely used. I was able to dig up primary-source materials like list-serv postings warning the Thirteenth Street squatters of their impending eviction. That helped immensely in terms of getting a feel for the mood on the ground, a sense of the way events were being talked about leading up to and immediately following the eviction. In addition to list-serv posts and newspaper articles from the time, I read several excellent books about Lower East Side squats and Lower East Side activism in general: War in the Neighborhood by Seth Tobocman, Glass House by Margaret Morton, and Resistance: A Radical Social and Political History of the Lower East Side, Clayton Patterson, editor.
Something I very deliberately did not do was interview people who had been involved with the squats. I was concerned that if I did I would feel beholden to those people’s specific experiences and would get bogged down in “how it really happened,” perhaps losing more universal truths in the process. This is a work of fiction, and I gave myself permission to treat it as such.
MS: The Revolution of Every Day has been described as an elegy for New York City. As a native New Yorker, how has your relationship with the city changed and how is this change reflected in novel?
CL: I was born in Manhattan in 1973 and spent the first five years of my life in Stuyvesant Town in the Lower East Side. When it was time for me to start kindergarten, my family moved to New Jersey. As a parent I now understand the choice—the public schools in our neighborhood were a nightmare, but my parents couldn’t afford nonreligious private schools, and they didn’t want to send their Jewish kids to Catholic school—but at the time, and for my entire subsequent suburban childhood, I let them know they’d made a terrible mistake when they took me and my brother out of the city.
In 1991, I made my way back to Manhattan: first to a boyfriend’s apartment on Eleventh between B and C, and later to my own tiny rent-controlled studio on St. Marks and First. I would argue that I returned to my ancestral home at the beginning of the end of the New York that I loved: the beginning of the end of the Lower East Side as a place that was accessible and open artistically, culturally, and politically. I moved into a neighborhood that challenged my middle-class, suburban notions of how a life was to be lived, a neighborhood that pushed me to rethink assumptions and habits. A neighborhood that made me uncomfortable in some very necessary ways, that forced me to think—for the first time—about race and class and privilege. In the time that I lived there, the neighborhood grew more and more gentrified, more and more comfortable and unchallenging for the returning suburban-raised kids of the parents who’d fled for the suburbs in the seventies. Out went that vital spark, the friction that created art and social change and political activism.
In 1999, I moved to Prospect Heights in Brooklyn because I couldn’t afford Manhattan rents anymore. By the time I sat down to write what would become The Revolution of Every Day in 2005 at the age of 32, the New York I’d loved was gone.
And so I began this novel as a love letter to my lost New York. Every generation of New Yorkers mourns the loss of their version of the city. The city is a living, changing thing. But the way it changed—the way it went over to money so completely—that felt new and drastic. And it felt personal. By the time I left for Portland in 2007, the novel had become a Dear John letter. And then, through writing and revising the book, I found my way back to the love letter it had initially been. But it’s a different kind of love now. I love New York the way I love an old boyfriend who betrayed me horribly, then died years after our last contact. Which is to say: with nostalgia, a warm fondness for the good times, lingering resentment, and a profound sense of loss.
MS: Do you think the Occupy Wall Street movement has increased New Yorkers’ awareness of the existence of squatters and their rights?
CL: I think OWS has heightened Americans’ awareness of and interest in radical politics in general. The camps ended up casting light on the issues of homelessness and housing rights, and many Occupy groups turned to activism related to the foreclosure crisis following the evictions of the camps. One of the favored protest tactics involves squatting foreclosed homes.
MS: Were there any positive outcomes you witnessed in the gentrification of the Lower East Side?
CL: Safety, maybe? It’s hard to say. In The Gentrification of the Mind, Sarah Schulman writes, “What is this thing that homogenizes complexity, difference, dynamic dialogic action for change and replaces it with sameness? With a kind of institutionalization of culture? With a lack of demand on the powers that be? With containment? My answer to that question always came back to the same concept: gentrification.”
The Lower East Side is now safer in terms of muggings, etc. in the post-gentrification era, but it’s also “safer” in that it’s culturally and politically less challenging. Without the friction there is no vibrancy, no life. The Lower East Side, once a hotbed of grassroots activism, has become suburbanized, homogenized. I don’t think that greater safety from crime—or greater perceived safety—is a worthwhile tradeoff for everything that was lost.
MS: Is there a lesson to be learned from The Revolution of Every Day? Can squatting be a successful enterprise or does its roots in anarchy doom it from the start?
CL: Not all squatting has its roots in anarchy. It’s hard to define success in terms of squats, because there isn’t one unified, agreed-upon goal. What I found in my research, and what I continue to learn through my volunteer work with the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space (located in C-Squat), is that each squatter had their own reasons for being there, some purely political, some purely personal. I’d venture to guess that for most it is a mix of the two. It doesn’t make for easy generalizations, though. This is by no means a homogeneous group or cohesive political movement.
In the documentary Captured, Jerry the Peddler, an activist squatter, says, “New York City squatters held more land longer than any other leftist group anywhere in the United States, and holding the land is what revolution is all about.” So in that sense, even the evicted squats were a success.
And there are eleven remaining squats, including C-Squat, which were sold to the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board for the symbolic price of one dollar in 2002. These buildings are in the process of being converted into low-income co-ops, owned by the squatters. So they are now or soon will be legal buildings. That is, no longer squats. This can be called success, or it can be said that now that the squatters are, themselves, landowners, they have become part of the system they fought against. It depends on perspective.