Manhattan’s Lower East Side has drastically transformed in the past few decades: punk club CBGB is now a John Varvatos; mom-and-pop bodegas have been replaced by Subways and Chase Banks. And the squats of Alphabet City–once overrun with vermin and graffiti, lacking electricity and plumbing, occupied freely and illegally–have largely turned into overpriced co-ops and condos, bearing little trace of their old anarchic state.
Kill City: Lower East Side Squatters 1992–2000, a new book by photographer and former squatter Ash Thayer, offers a glimpse into a pre-Bloomberg underworld usually hidden from mainstream sight. Because of their poor legal standing in the buildings, squatters were forced to be secretive. Outsiders, including journalists and photographers, were unwelcome in their communities. Thayer used her camera to tell the story of what she calls her “tribe” from an intimate perspective, without voyeurism: she opted to shoot quieter, more contemplative moments instead of the sex and drug use that pervaded the scene.
The photographs, in both hazy color and black and white, are shot with celestial lighting in a direct, candid style, which Thayer says is influenced by photographers like Diane Arbus, Dorothea Lange, Helen Levitt, Nan Goldin, and Cindy Sherman. They document the scene’s DIY, anti-corporate aesthetic: “I had no interest in the typical art school subjects and I sure didn’t want to shoot fashion, advertising, or anything I thought would support corporate America,” Thayer writes. Female squatter style was decidedly androgynous–no makeup, concert T-shirts, septum rings, work boots. It reveals what Thayer calls an “unspoken agreement” among women in the scene to reject mainstream prescriptions for feminine beauty.
Despite all their squalor, the squats aren’t without a strange kind of beauty, covered in weird decorations (a Mr. Potato-Head; a glittery mannequin torso) and colorful graffiti (squat symbols, the word “OVEN” scrawled on an oven). The book offers a striking visual history of bohemia’s wilder side, becoming harder and harder to find in a mall-ified Manhattan.
Kill City: Lower East Side Squatters 1992–2000 is available for pre-order here from PowerHouse Books for $38.