[Re]Integrating Community Space: The Legal and Social Meanings of Reclaiming Abandoned Space in New York's Lower East Side
Andrea McArdle, Re]Integrating Community Space: The Legal and Social Meanings of Reclaiming Abandoned Space in New York's Lower East Side, 2 Savannah Law Review 247 (2015)
18 Pages Posted: 15 Aug 2015 Last revised: 26 Aug 2015
Date Written: August 10, 2015
What understandings about property, the community concerns informing it, and the legal relationships that flow from it can we draw from a city’s buildings and spaces? What contending values and expectations underpin laws that both protect property interests and seek to advance public safety, health, and economic well-being in urban neighborhoods? What explanatory narratives can advocates, analysts, and policymakers discern from such laws? This Article argues that the meaning we can draw from these buildings and streetscapes as they have been constructed, abandoned, or refashioned over time is complex and multifaceted. Using New York City’s Lower East Side landscape as exemplary text, the Article identifies various narratives of regulatory burden, scarcity, abandonment, transgression, and renewal that recur in the discourse of property law, and it considers ways in which local government institutions contribute to the shape of those narratives as regulators, service providers, and owners of property.
The Article begins with a brief account of conditions in the late 1960s and early 1970s that contributed to public and private disinvestment in the storied Lower East Side, a site of intense immigrant settlement at the turn of the twentieth century, and, in the 1950s and 1960s, a space that attracted writers, artists, and political activists. The Article then addresses how these conditions also afforded an opportunity for reclaiming devalued land and distressed neighborhoods. Beginning in the mid-1970s, neighborhood-initiated cultivation of gardens in vacant, burnt- out lots and homesteading occupants’ refurbishing of buildings that had fallen into disrepair created a new source of investment in city-owned property, holding out the promise of community stabilization.
This Article examines the legal implications of these autonomous, self-help responses to disinvestment. Initially, the City supported and legitimized community gardeners’ and homesteaders’ efforts at reclamation. However, when land values rose in the 1980s and 1990s, the City reversed course and invoked laws limiting access to property as it sought to auction off community gardens and to evict homesteaders as trespassers. In response, local gardeners sought redress under legal theories alleging violations of environmental law and civil rights. Squatters and homesteaders asserted rights as adverse possessors. Although these legal claims proved unavailing, by 2002, agreements negotiated on behalf of these claimants permanently protected some community gardens from development and afforded occupants of eleven squatted buildings a new legal status as shareholders of limited-equity cooperative housing.
Drawing on these developments, this Article addresses how such community efforts to reengage with threatened urban landscapes generate legal meaning. It discusses how the recently opened Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space (MORUS), which is literally built into a formerly squatted building in New York’s Lower East Side, both portrays and adds to that meaning-making. By illuminating the particular ways in which the owners and users of these contested spaces invoked both property law and community norms, MORUS documents how the squatter and community garden movements helped reintegrate distressed city buildings and lots as community spaces. The Article concludes with reflection on how the impulse to reclaim space also inevitably transforms it.
Keywords: urban studies, community development, local government, regulatory burden, disinvestment, abandoned property, distressed property, self help, adverse possession, New York City, Lower East Side, community gardens, squatters, homesteading,land use, property law, community norms
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