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'Odd as it seemed, the freegan kids helped stabilize the neighborhood.'
June 7, 2010 7:54 AM   Subscribe

The Freegan Establishment. Squatters in Buffalo get a mansion for free.
posted by xowie (86 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
Squatters in Buffalo get a mansion for free.

Well, the house was free, but it came with significant and ongoing costs:

“They make it sound like they are big bohemians living off the house for free, but that’s just not true,” Garrett says. “They worked their butts off and paid the back taxes and the utilities. They are more conformist than they want you to think they are.”
posted by Forktine at 8:08 AM on June 7, 2010 [4 favorites]


That kitchen looks like it's from the set of Fight Club.
posted by fyrebelley at 8:10 AM on June 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


this is very common, world wide
posted by HuronBob at 8:12 AM on June 7, 2010



“It just hurts his heart to see an animal lying on the road not being consumed if it’s already dead.”

...

"Why are you walking around barefoot? Are you crazy? With all the crack vials and needles here?”


I might have a stroke if I don't go there immediately and scrub everything and everyone in that house down with undiluted bleach.
posted by oinopaponton at 8:13 AM on June 7, 2010 [5 favorites]


Here in Wisconsin we've got a somewhat related situation: advocates for the homeless are occupying foreclosed homes and moving people (mostly, say, a single mom with two kids) in. They're doing the same sort of "pick up the glass and plant flowers" thing, and being very brazen about it, but the city's reaction has been somewhat less than thrilled. Perhaps this is partially because the linked house was still on the market; the realtor was quite taken aback.
posted by Madamina at 8:13 AM on June 7, 2010


Jake Halpern is the author of “Fame Junkies: The Hidden Truths Behind America’s Favorite Addiction,” among other books.

I don't have a favorite addiction. You don't have to favorite this comment at all! (And I won't check to see if you did for at least an hour.)

Seriously though, I am not sure that is what I would call a mansion.

I'm always conflicted about these squatter laws. "Hey, if I do an illegal B&E and hang out long enough it's mine! And if someone tries to kick me out they actually have to go through an eviction process instead of just having my ass arrested!" But then the idea of empty falling down houses isn't appealing either. In the end, not one of my highest concerns, since it's not happening near me.

NPR did a story on banks willingly leaving people in foreclosed houses because they kept the thieves at bay.

Dumpster Diving Meetup anyone?

I had a few freegan sites bookmarked, but can't find them now. Mostly I have the same slight revulsion to this idea as I do when I see a mullet. Same world, different planets. These people eat things I wouldn't even smell.
posted by cjorgensen at 8:13 AM on June 7, 2010


A friend of mine who works with cooperative housing told me a while back that the price of housing in Buffalo had fallen through the bottom; you could get your own dream-house to start an anarchist commune for just a couple grand. Glad to see someone took up the call.
posted by kaibutsu at 8:16 AM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


"I haven’t worn underwear in eight years," declared Tim, as he clutched several pairs of boxers with a grin. "I am feeling fancy as hell!"

Next, on House of TMI
posted by adipocere at 8:19 AM on June 7, 2010 [12 favorites]


Also, the article doesn't mention how they're going to pay for medical care when one of them inevitably gets horribly sick from eating spoiled or parasitic roadkill or gets a bad infection after stepping on a hypodermic needle.

Get off my lawn!
posted by oinopaponton at 8:24 AM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Sad, they didn't show the room where they make soap.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 8:30 AM on June 7, 2010 [12 favorites]


“It just hurts his heart to see an animal lying on the road not being consumed if it’s already dead.”

This is why we have crows, maggots and bacteria.
posted by DU at 8:30 AM on June 7, 2010 [7 favorites]


Also, the article doesn't mention how they're going to pay for medical care when one of them inevitably gets horribly sick from eating spoiled or parasitic roadkill or gets a bad infection after stepping on a hypodermic needle.

Don't worry! Our tax dollars will pay for their ER visits!

See also: When they start a fire this winter out of scrap wood (totally free yo) and the fire department comes by; when the police break up the inevitable domestic disturbance
posted by 2bucksplus at 8:32 AM on June 7, 2010


Get off my lawn you dir....wait....what? What do you mean it's your lawn now?!
posted by Salvor Hardin at 8:35 AM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


clarification: I don't really have a problem with this.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 8:37 AM on June 7, 2010


Conflicting thoughts. For one thing, I find the focus on this sort of marginal existence irritating - this lifestyle reallly represents the choices of a very few dropouts, and by conflating the hardcore "freegans" with a larger movement toward simplicity and frugality, those ideals are done a disservice.

It's not as though you have to live in squalor to oppose excessive waste, be resourceful, do DIY, and live your values. These people have a vile way of life. That house is disgusting. Of course, the invitation by the NYT to gape and judge the nastiness makes a much better story than do the countless individuals who work against consumerism every day and live very low-consumption lifestyles but who manage to be clean in their person and in their homes.

If that is what that house looks like even with this "bottom-line" policy about improvements, then I'd say the collective is failing. This is just a glorified under-the-bridge village making a bid for dignity by calling itself part of a movement.

You don't have to value and live in squalor to oppose consumerism. I have a hard time reconciling the deploring of waste with the willingness to treat one's own immediate environment with total disrespect. If anything, they're modeling the "give me everything I want for as little effort as possible, and who cares how I treat it once I have it" attitude that causes things like uncontrollable oil leaks.
posted by Miko at 8:37 AM on June 7, 2010 [25 favorites]


They're doing the same sort of "pick up the glass and plant flowers" thing,

It's amazing what you can get away with if you're a half-decent neighbor.

I recall a squat situation in a nice East Van neighborhood back in the early 90s. Who knows how long the house had been sitting empty with a few folks making it home, being quiet about it, not frightening the neighborhood kids or getting the dogs barking? But then a bunch of self-styled anarchists took over and it got the wrong kind of ugly. Agit-prop slogans and sloppy graffiti across the side of the house, loud music, parties, self-important missives to the local media. The neighbors protested. The cops got involved. Nobody was remotely sad to see them get turfed ... except a few tiresome old politicos who honestly still believed the revolution was coming, and soon.
posted by philip-random at 8:49 AM on June 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


“What happened to all the silverware?” someone asked.
“They got turned into a wind chime,” someone replied nonchalantly. Sure enough, moments later, we could all hear the sound of forks clanging in the breeze.


On the one hand, bully for them for living spontaneously & having principles that they strive for. On the other hand, it sounds like as much as they're trying to live communally, they don't always operate with the best interests of others in mind. In other words, they're selfish.
posted by knile at 8:49 AM on June 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


Big Chief Lambreaux just tried the same thing with those closed up housing projects. Don’t make no sense that nobody in New Orleans is fighting the Feds on this one.
posted by stevil at 8:51 AM on June 7, 2010 [3 favorites]


Miko, so cranky! :) The house didn't look *that* disgusting to me, considering the ages and number of the people. Sort of like a college frat or "special interest" house. It's functional and didn't seem dangerous. Given all of the factors in life and the world, I'd rather have the kids there than the other places they might be. I mean, I wouldn't live there, but I wouldn't live a lot of places.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 8:56 AM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


So, can we get these people to move to Detroit? I hear there are plenty of empty houses, schools, stores, everything there. They could have an entire community.

A two birds one stone, sort of thing.
posted by oddman at 9:01 AM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


They are more conformist than they want you to think they are.

Oh man, I wish I were the type of person who posted Metafilter taglines!
posted by Ian A.T. at 9:02 AM on June 7, 2010 [15 favorites]


Sort of like a college frat or "special interest" house.

That's what I thought when I started reading, but when I got to the part about the crack vials and the roadkill and the multiple animals relieving themselves inside, the things the dirtiest people I lived with in college did (leave dirty dishes around for a couple of days, forget to take the trash out) sound kind of comforting and hygienic.
posted by oinopaponton at 9:04 AM on June 7, 2010


From the one article, it sounds like there are divergent forces at work in those living spaces: those who seek to improve their surroundings with what they can find, and those who are content getting by with as little work as possible (including cleaning up after yourself). One is the mentality of the thrifty DIYer, the other is rebelling from the reality that things need maintenance to survive.

I like the freegan mentality, and I support squatters who maintain abandoned buildings. If they're already living on the fringes of society and making minimal money in odd jobs, what's the difference from working enough to get beer and snacks and working enough to pay rent, the least amount of insurance they can, along with food and drink? Either case, they'll end up in the emergency room that "we" the more lucrative working class pay for, but one group might be enjoying their lives more than another. Yes, this is drastically simplified, and is a huge range of people between low income and no income, but I'm not trying to justify everyone's lifestyle.

The house looks similar to some places my (less clean) friends have stayed, though with fewer people and less general clutter. People will put up with a lot for cheap rent (see: cellophane from the ceiling to a pot on the counter, to funnel water from a leaky roof - and this was something my friends were paying to rent).
posted by filthy light thief at 9:07 AM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Apparently, being freegan means being dirty, not cleaning up after yourself, not washing yourself or your clothes.

I must confess, I think this is stupid. I'm not against it or anything, if they want to live that way then more power to them. I just think it's idealistic and UNrealistic - particularly if they think they're making any sort of real impact on the environment and society. The only impact they'll make is a drain on tax dollars when they get sick or require a public service.
posted by Malice at 9:08 AM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


“Why are you walking around barefoot? Are you crazy?"

Signs would indeed point to some kind of dissociation going on in these people's heads. As Miko said, there's nothing wrong with having a clean and orderly existence while also aiming for very low impact. It's not clear to me if these people are living for anything beyond their delusions of alternative living.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:09 AM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


This reminds me of the great photoset of the post-punk anarchist train riding kids from Polaroid Kidd collection. However, I'd be more impressed by the house if it didn't look like a cholera epidemic waiting to happen.

Nice read between the lines comment on the "California farming" adventure that yielded two pounds of pot. Let's see, two pounds of high quality Humboldt weed ... ~$12k retail?

I guess when a bunch of white middle class kids do it they get a NYT profile and the label of freegans. I sort of want to go to the crackhouse down the street and see if I can spin the Coke can turned pipe into an example of "DIY work ethic."

But hey, much better they're spending their early twenties figuring things out in this fashion than spending it at a state school, getting deeper in debt and spending the next 10 years working a degrading job as an insurance adjuster and not understanding why they hate their life so much.
posted by geoff. at 9:09 AM on June 7, 2010


I briefly lived in a squat in Charlottesville, VA. It was very near to the UVA campus, in an area predominantly inhabited by students. It was a nice little two story house that had been squatted for 11 years.

Then within the last 6 months the gutter punks and train hoppers got word of the place and they started fighting in the front yard and being a general nuisance. I only lived in the squat for about two weeks before we learned we were being evicted.

I think the presence of the gutter punks put the building on the city's radar and they subsequently assisted a developer in acquiring the property.

It was unfortunate, I'd say 3/4s of the residents had the community's interests in mind and were intent on having a livable, functioning space. Unfortunately the will of the minority outweighs the will of the majority when the minority's will is getting fucked up and fucking things up.

Fortunately I found a wonderful, functioning anarcho-commune with composting toilets, solar water heating and the most luscious, edible yard [watermelons, passion fruit, raspberries, okra, pumpkins, corn, figs, autumn olives] I'd seen in Virginia just after that. It was great living there.

Charlottesville is pretty rad.
posted by cloeburner at 9:12 AM on June 7, 2010 [6 favorites]


If there are crack vials and needles lying around then this is a crack house and shooting gallery. Calling yourself a freegan instead of an addict makes sense if you are in the middle of rationalizing a physical addiction by wrapping it in a lifestyle label.

I have some sympathy as I know from rationalizing addiction all too well. Doesn't make it noble or noteworthy though.
posted by Babblesort at 9:14 AM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


You know who else had a free mansion that was infested with vermin and had significant ongoing costs?

That's right. Batman.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:19 AM on June 7, 2010 [16 favorites]


If there are crack vials and needles lying around then this is a crack house and shooting gallery.

Please to read TFA. I know it's long, but see if you can manage it. The crack vials and needles being talked about were not, in fact, in the house in question. They were in another (long-abandoned) house that another kid was thinking of trying to squat.

(Additionally, some long-buried ones were being dug up in the back yard and disposed of.)
posted by Nothing... and like it at 9:22 AM on June 7, 2010 [6 favorites]


Majewski’s strategy was to be as brazen as possible. “The facade of legitimacy was our main goal,” he told me. “We pried the boards off and did it all in broad daylight. That’s what ownership comes down to — everyone believing that you actually own it.”

The "facade of legitimacy" is usually a necessary part of adverse possession, so it's not really a facade at all.
posted by kenko at 9:22 AM on June 7, 2010


Getting the inevitable bedbug infestation cleared up is going to be mighty expensive.
posted by R. Mutt at 9:23 AM on June 7, 2010




Please to read TFA. I know it's long, but see if you can manage it.

Wow. Seems like you could have made a perfectly fine comment without this part. Looks like I made a mistake based on the pull quote. That's fine I don't mind the correction. But leave the holier than thou for your inside voice please.
posted by Babblesort at 9:28 AM on June 7, 2010


Disgusting? I don't know, perhaps you looked at different pictures than I did. The only disgusting photograph is the "bedroom of a long-term resident" where a table is piled with containers and stuff that look like they might be food-related. The kitchen looks reasonably orderly for a kitchen shared by that many people, though it's certainly not fancy, and it's time for someone to scrub the fridge (though the fridge looks way less cluttered than I would have expected.) Everywhere else, there's just a little clutter - clothes in the free-clothes area, bike supplies in the bike room, etc. - but nothing beyond what I've seen in a lot of spaces occupied by a lot of people. The walls are all covered in murals, and you can see a lot of half-finished projects everywhere, but again, those aren't disgusting, either. Basically, it looks like a lot of co-ops and warehouses and other collective living spaces - whether occupied by squatters or freegans or artists or musicians or whoever - and it looks like it suffers from some of the usual organization issues you get when you've got that many people sharing collective space. Plus, of course, there're the extra problems you get with being an open squatting house - guests and temporary squatters who don't care about the space and screw stuff up are huge, perennial problems for squats and collectives.

I really wish the Times had photos of the property before these kids occupied it, for comparison, but I'd be shocked if there wasn't a fairly obvious difference - particularly since they were able to convince a judge and housing inspectors to let them do this. The article does say:

When Majewski and his fellow squatters arrived, the house was still filled with the bedpans, walkers and knitting needles that had belonged to the nursing home’s residents. There were also rotting furniture, burned couches, dead birds and so much other garbage that some rooms had debris from the floor to the ceiling. Cleaning up took the better part of a year.

It sounds pretty clear that they're still dealing with the debris left over from those years of abandonment (e.g. the used condoms and needles found while digging garden space.) I don't know: these guys clearly care more about painting murals than mopping the floor, and more about fixing their bikes than shelving and boxing stuff in collective spaces, but it also sounds like they have put a great deal of work into the place, and as long as the house has basic necessities like utilities and a working kitchen and bathrooms, is structurally sound, is clean enough that they're not dealing with bug infestations and so on, your complaints are honestly based on aesthetics and your personal tolerance for messy housemates and obnoxious guests. (Also, I suspect that since these kids now own the house officially, they'll be quicker to kick out visitors who do screw stuff up. Note, for example, that the animals pooping in the house were visitors' pets, not animals that lived there, and that the incident was brought up as an example of the residents having to police the actions of their guests, not as something that was normal and acceptable.)

Sure, it's annoying to see values I like - DIY, self-reliance, anti-waste, etc. - being reduced to an "ooh look at these scruffy freegans" NYTimes trend piece, but I find it almost as annoying to see people saying the kids in the article have a "vile way of life" based on a few (not particularly vile) photos and a few undated anecdotes, several of which were explicitly related to the actions of visitors, not residents.
posted by ubersturm at 9:29 AM on June 7, 2010 [11 favorites]


Miko, so cranky! :)

I know, my response is unusually curmudgeonly. Sorry. What I should emphasize is that I am definitinely in agreement with their stated principles. It's just that the evidence shown and described in the article doesn't match up to the principles, and I think that this kind of article, and this kind of group, may be inadvertently contributing in a negative way to ideals of voluntary simplicity and anti-consumerism.

Their personal decisions are no skin off my nose, but it just saddens me that the majority of more conventional people in this country can't possibly be expected to take downsizing seriously when the media presents folks like these kids as the banner-carriers of anti-consumerism. As I said, it's not a sexy story to write about my friend Jenny who lives in a renovated old deer camp, reuses everything, shops completely second-hand, teaches community gardening, and works for a green business, even though people making choices like hers and demonstrating viable ways of reducing consumption while still being a part of society at every level will arguably do a lot more to change minds than people who seem to present squalor andd neglect as the only alternative to consumption and possession.

I realize I sound like my grandma. That's okay. She was a hell of a thrifty housekeeper.
posted by Miko at 9:32 AM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


R. Mutt Getting the inevitable bedbug infestation cleared up is going to be mighty expensive.

We're currently fighting the good fight against some bed bugs in the grimy warehouse I live in here in Baltimore. My roommate found a dresser on the street and brought it home only to find later that it suffered from a slight bed bug infestation. Yesterday I got a bed frame and put the legs in oil, apparently that stops the critters from getting on to the bed. So far I've not had any problems, but an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

That being said, I would not trade my grimy, bed-bug ridden existence for the comfort of a normal apartment. What I save in rent allows me to devote my life to art, music, swimming in lakes, acting, movie-making and everything else not work related. Additionally, we get to alter our living space however we please without concern of repercussion from the landlord. We're financially broke but emotionally enriched.

In essence, I support alternative lifestyles and the more people who seek them out in a positive way, the better.
posted by cloeburner at 9:33 AM on June 7, 2010 [11 favorites]


I can't believe the word "hipsters" hasn't come up yet.
posted by desjardins at 9:38 AM on June 7, 2010 [3 favorites]


Thank god.
posted by cloeburner at 9:40 AM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Disgusting? I don't know, perhaps you looked at different pictures than I did.

Well...it may be in the eye of the beholder. But I see

-bags of (something..trash? food?) on the kitchen floor
-cooking pots sitting directly on the floor, where bare feet and pets are
-living room with cigarette butts on carpet, food packaging everywhere, table stacked high with litter
-items on floor of stairway hall (not so safe in an egress)
-open, unsealed cans in fridge
-pools of rotted vegetable leachate in bottom of fridge
-mildew spots around fridge sealant

You're right, maybe I'm applying too stringent a measure, but I hate clutter. I've lived in a lot of communal environments, and things always stopped short and got some real attention before it got so bad. It's not my style, that's all, but even if it is your style, it is not what you could strictly call clean and orderly.
posted by Miko at 9:41 AM on June 7, 2010


So, can we get these people to move to Detroit? I hear there are plenty of empty houses, schools, stores, everything there. They could have an entire community.

A two birds one stone, sort of thing.


Buffalo has a housing vacancy rate around 14% an additional rental vacancy rate of 11%, and whole commercial districts that are abandoned. And while Detroit has a plan to demolish vacant homes covering an area roughly the size of the city of Buffalo, Buffalo does not have a similar plan.

sigh.
posted by munchingzombie at 9:42 AM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Good luck with avoiding the bugs, cloeburner.
BTW,I support alt lifestyles too - plus, these kids seems nice enough. Good for them, good for you.
posted by R. Mutt at 9:45 AM on June 7, 2010


Miko, it's very rare that I disagree with you, but I am not sure what your point is. The house is not aesthetically pleasing and is not in a condition in which you would prefer to live? That's a valid opinion, and I'm sure one many of us share. Are you concerned about an epidemic of people rushing to live in conditions you find disgusting? I can't see that happening.
posted by desjardins at 9:50 AM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


What's with all the "OMG MY TAX DOLLARS WHEN THEY GET SICK" shit here? You all are aware that real people that aren't dirty like this can't get insurance too, right? Or did we all just forget about HCR and all that?

Ya'll seemed on the other side during that stuff.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 9:51 AM on June 7, 2010 [4 favorites]


What's with all the "OMG MY TAX DOLLARS WHEN THEY GET SICK" shit here? You all are aware that real people that aren't dirty like this can't get insurance too, right? Or did we all just forget about HCR and all that?

Ya'll seemed on the other side during that stuff.


I am indeed 100% for a universal, public option. What I'm not for is people willingly putting themselves in unsanitary and unsafe conditions in order to be alternative or whatever. This is just common sense. "Real people who aren't dirty like this" aren't eating meat they find on the street just because it's already dead.
posted by oinopaponton at 9:58 AM on June 7, 2010


So, can we get these people to move to Detroit? I hear there are plenty of empty houses, schools, stores, everything there. They could have an entire community.

It's a recurring fantasy of mine that I, along with a number of like-minded people, will buy up some dirt cheap abandoned properties, fix them up, and create a wonderful little community.
posted by orange swan at 10:01 AM on June 7, 2010


(Or in other words, if you, an adult, eat enough paste to make yourself sick, I'm certainly not going to argue that you shouldn't get medical care. But I am going to point out how stupid it was of you to waste taxpayers' money on something so preventable.)
posted by oinopaponton at 10:06 AM on June 7, 2010


cooking pots sitting directly on the floor, where bare feet and pets are

I figured that was an ad-hoc greywater reuse system or leaky plumbing.
posted by peeedro at 10:07 AM on June 7, 2010


Crazy shit like this could only come from middle-class white people.

*sigh*
posted by grubi at 10:08 AM on June 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


"Your revolution is over, Mr. Lebowski! Condolences, The bums lost! My advice is to do what your parents did; get a job, sir!"
posted by entropicamericana at 10:13 AM on June 7, 2010 [3 favorites]


...or did they?
posted by entropicamericana at 10:13 AM on June 7, 2010


Instead of taking any rug in the house, they took the house.
posted by twirlip at 10:21 AM on June 7, 2010


Wow. Seems like you could have made a perfectly fine comment without this part. Looks like I made a mistake based on the pull quote. That's fine I don't mind the correction. But leave the holier than thou for your inside voice please.

When I read the comments on Metafilter, I usually do so with an expectation that those commenting have read the entire article in question first. Am I doing it wrong?
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 10:23 AM on June 7, 2010


When I read the comments on Metafilter, I usually do so with an expectation that those commenting have read the entire article in question first. Am I doing it wrong?

Like you wouldn't believe.
posted by grubi at 10:26 AM on June 7, 2010 [5 favorites]


Yeah, those pictures don't look too terrible to me. I've definitely lived in situations like that. While not ideal, really not a ZOMG.
posted by josher71 at 10:31 AM on June 7, 2010


Communal and cooperative living have been around for a long time, but I find this situation interesting because these people (I refuse to call them "kids") are responding to a unique situation: the collapse of the housing market. They haven't just moved into any old fringe of society.

All the vitriol towards dirtiness aside, isn't it interesting how the squatters have to navigate the legal territory of quitclaims, the judge, bank liens etc while also trying to deal with leadership issues within their community and the neighborhood? They have to move aside the rubble of a failing system of home-ownership, while also trying to lay down the foundation of their own, rival system (like their home-improvement-based entry requirement). It's a balance even they're not sure how to strike. Even though the article attaches their values to "freeganism," they seem more or less unconcerned with ideology and labels. They're more resounding to the failed ideology of the American dream, and they're doing it by cautiously forming a more humane basis for living together in a country which seems to be falling apart around the edges. For an "NYT trend piece," this was pretty interesting.
posted by a sourceless light at 10:32 AM on June 7, 2010 [5 favorites]


resounding=responding
posted by a sourceless light at 10:33 AM on June 7, 2010


My husband actually knows a guy who's working on a commune/freegan setup in Detroit. Don't know if they've started yet.

One obstacle to just going crazy with the taking over abandoned properties is that a "free" property usually has years of backlogged taxes and violations that the city wants paid off first. Which is why they don't get sold. The owners just make themselves hard to find/fine, city doesn't have resources to track them down, and anybody who wants to take over and renovate suddenly finds that the city expects them to sink thousands and thousands into a derelict house.
posted by emjaybee at 10:33 AM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


So, can we get these people to move to Detroit?

I'm living a few blocks away from these people, and I'd have to say that they are needed here as much as they are in Detroit. They seem to be interested in making a go of it here and they're a net positive to the community. But I'm with Miko in wishing they'd just do their damn dishes, and not call the two most responsible people in the house 'Mom and Dad'. That whole mess just smacks of dumb, privileged kids who never learned some of life's important lessons like taking care of your own shit. Really, someone needed to be reminded that dogs need to shit outside?

There are several abandoned and boarded up houses within a 5 minute walk of the local state college campus, and it is frustrating as hell to see them. It seems like it wouldn't take too much to turn them around into student rentals but there isn't the will to do so and I believe there is a councilman who opposes the idea. So the houses just sit and rot.

It's funny. Whenever the NYT or the bigger media does a story on Buffalo it gets a lot of play in the local news. This story about the poor housing values and owners willing to let properties rot? not so much.

on preview, I'm sighing along with munchingzombie.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 10:34 AM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


if you, an adult, eat enough paste to make yourself sick, I'm certainly not going to argue that you shouldn't get medical care. But I am going to point out how stupid it was of you to waste taxpayers' money on something so preventable.

This isn't eating paste, it's eating found food. If they're smart and deal with their foodstuffs in a proper way (hack off the rotten stuff, wash and cook things well, etc), they're not in too different a situation from someone who doesn't make enough to get preventative check-ups and such. They may look dirtier for lack of bathing (which could make their chances of getting sick higher), but those pictures didn't show a horde of Pigpens walking around with clouds of dust and debris. And at least the group who were heavily featured in this article paid the back-taxes on their building, showing that they're not all leeches on society.

But I agree with Miko: these freegans aren't doing a great job being anti-consumption banner-carriers, though I don't think that was their intention. As a vivid shot of a different lifestyle, they make for interesting human interest reporting, and the article did mention some folks "grew up" and moved on from the squatter freegan lifestyle, but it didn't do much to cover how those who moved on are now living their lives. The traveling acrobat is mentioned in passing, with the note that she "got a place of her own," as if that makes her part of The System and no longer of interest as a counter-consumerist.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:39 AM on June 7, 2010


All we need is a system in which someone can claim a house as vacant. They file a vacancy claim with the local authorities, who then make several attempts to contact the owner of record for 30 days. If the owner does not respond, the claimant can live there until/unless the owner of record shows up. In the meantime, pictures are taken of the house's condition, and when the owner returns they can claim any resulting damage against their insurance -- and the claimant has 30 days to vacate.

As a result, insurance companies won't cover vacant houses, or will drop the insurance as soon as someone places a claim. Small companies that specialize in finding and claiming such houses, and then leasing them to low-income families, will spring up. The leases will by necessity need to be month-to-month, and no security deposits will be required, so it will create a de-facto low-income rental market underneath the standard one. Owners will be much less likely to leave a facility vacant/unguarded, and will keep their contact information up-to-date to protect themselves from claims. And, finally, the homeless people will be cut out of the process by the legality of it all, which (because they won't follow the claimant laws and such) will also make it easier to get 'em out of the vacant buildings. For the privilege of legalizing all this, the local authorities will be able to collect taxes and fees.

So everyone will benefit (including lower-income families), except for, uh, homeless people, who will be worse off. So maybe they should be keeping this stuff on the down-low instead of getting articles written about themselves.
posted by davejay at 10:56 AM on June 7, 2010 [3 favorites]


I just think it's idealistic and UNrealistic - particularly if they think they're making any sort of real impact on the environment and society.

So what will make any real impact? Voting? Continuing the status quo?

Our current lifestyles must change. The "freegan" lifestyle (defined as living off the waste of others) may not be sustainable either, but at least it functions as a counterbalance to the wasters. It's like how the vegetarian who doesn't eat any meat ever helps balance out the guy who eats a Big Mac every day. It may not be sustainable, but at least it's better than not trying anything.

See also: When they start a fire this winter out of scrap wood (totally free yo) and the fire department comes by; when the police break up the inevitable domestic disturbance

Don't be prejudiced. Please.
posted by mrgrimm at 11:14 AM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Davejay, your solution assumes that the market for cheap housing in cities like Buffalo is not already saturated. This is not a supply problem, it's a demand problem. There are too many houses here for the existing population, and not enough jobs left to bring new people in.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 11:19 AM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Regarding the supply/demand issue Kuujjuarapik mentions, Buffalo is a city built for 580,000 people (1950's population) that now has around 270,000 people (estimate). And while very limited demos, decay, and arson have taken care of a number of those excess homes, there are still vast stretches of abandoned homes.

To get a sense of the problem, take a look on Google Maps on the east side of the city. City blocks that once had 15 houses on them now have maybe 5, and those are likely abandoned. It is surreal.


But, I think there are much more helpful ways of dealing with this problem. Buffalo Reuse takes apart crumbling homes and resells the components to the local community. You can buy things from claw-foot bathtubs, stained glass, wood paneling to the more mundane screws, fixtures, and windows.

Buffalo will never get back 310,000 people. And there are sins far worse than consumerism that plague this town.
posted by munchingzombie at 12:14 PM on June 7, 2010 [3 favorites]


Miko, it's very rare that I disagree with you, but I am not sure what your point is..

That's just because I'm actually not advancing a point of argument to be agreed or disagreed with, just making observations. My central observation is that as a nation, we need to take the problem of waste more seriously, but that by focusing on groups like these as exemplars, the media makes reducing consumption seem like a fringe activity that only people who reject social norms and have a high tolerance for chaotic lifestyles would choose. Emphasizing that portrayalsubtly reinforces consumerism as the standard, recommended way of life.

Great observation also by a sourceless light: in boom times in boomtowns, places like these aren't available to those who want to squat or seek ownership. It's definitely a symptom of market collapse. But for what it could do for communities, it probably would be a good idea to facilitate the process of gaining ownership to a reneged-on house. Still, I'd be in favor of making sure the inhabitants are responsible for meeting code and obeying ordinances.
posted by Miko at 12:21 PM on June 7, 2010


I'm having trouble finding any good writeups online, but the housing court judge mentioned in this article, Henry Nowak, and the Buffalo Housing Court generally, were pretty well known for their innovative & community sensitive responses to vacancy and code enforcement even before the housing crash. I don't think this group's relationship with the legal system would have played out the same way in most cities.

It was interesting to compare and contrast the freegan article with this one about kids living in a share house at the Jersey Shore, which also appeared in yesterday's NY Times. The rhetorical stance of the author is fairly similar in the two pieces, I think - a kind of bemused tolerance.
posted by yarrow at 12:24 PM on June 7, 2010


All we need is a system in which someone can claim a house as vacant. They file a vacancy claim with the local authorities, who then make several attempts to contact the owner of record for 30 days. If the owner does not respond, the claimant can live there until/unless the owner of record shows up.

Nice wish. Committees in every municipality across the country are working on this. The process to declare a property vacant is affected by city, county, state and federal ordinances and legislation. In high crime areas a home will be stripped of anything valuable in a matter of days, including siding, pipes, wires, appliances and fixtures. Deteriorating properties quickly affect the entire neighborhood. Association between squatters, drugs and crime is the rule, not the exception. This is not a matter of prejudice, it is simply statistics, which is how banks and municipalities need to deal with the huge burden.

Most of these properties have liens and back taxes so they exist in limbo. A city can't pay to raze the property, nor can they enforce the bank to pay for it without pushing case after case through court. The bank would rather have the property on the books anyway (net positive) than demolition (net negative). Code enforcement in many cities is toothless. Land banking is one solution currently being used, e.g. Cleveland, Detroit, Flint, but the sheer volume of vacant properties quickly overwhelms the budgets that are allocated for this purpose.

A simple legal solution does not exist. The article gives one perspective on the issue but there are many grassroots efforts. For example, Operation Welcome Home in Wisconsin, or Picture the Homeless in NY, or Take Back The Land which is nationwide. The National Vacant Properties Campaign takes a more centrist approach.
posted by greensweater at 12:31 PM on June 7, 2010 [3 favorites]


Here's one article in Business Week on Nowak & his court.
posted by yarrow at 12:35 PM on June 7, 2010


It was interesting to compare and contrast the freegan article with this one about kids living in a share house at the Jersey Shore, which also appeared in yesterday's NY Times.

Excellent side-by-side comparison! That would be a great assignment in...some class.
posted by Miko at 12:36 PM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


“It just hurts his heart to see an animal lying on the road not being consumed if it’s already dead.”

I swear to God when I saw this quoted in the comments before reading the article, I thought we were talking metaphor here.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 12:43 PM on June 7, 2010


On a related note:

World's Biggest Hamburger Takes 12 Hours to Cook

posted by MCMikeNamara at 12:55 PM on June 7, 2010


Some Thoughts on the Dumpster,
or The Gleaners and I.

Based on my experience, the use of 'freegan' in this article is almost certainly wrong. All of the freegans I've known were vegans (ie, vegetarians who eat no animal-derived products such as eggs or honey) who allowed themselves to eat non-vegan food so long as it had been cast off as waste in one way or another.

I've eaten my fair share of dumpstered food. There's a good deal of variation, and everyone sets their own limits. FWIW, I don't eat meat, dumpstered or otherwise, and most of the friends I have who eat dumpstered food also won't touch dumpstered meat. This means that the main things gleaned from the dumpsters are slightly-too-old-for-the-shelf produce, generally harvested on the same day it's thrown out, and slightly-too-old-for-the-shelf processed food. The processed food is shit whether it's from a dumpster or from a shelf; I can't really eat it either way. The produce, on the other hand, is pure fucking tragedy. There's no way in hell it should be going to a landfill. Certain markets are progressive enough to divert their 'waste' produce to the local Food Not Bombs group, which turns it into cooked meals for anyone who wants it. Food Not Bombs feeds many homeless people, without the indignity of having a sermon forced on them with their meal.

We regularly find massive quantities of perfectly good chocolate in one nearby dumpster. It's always still wrapped and perfectly fine to eat. The main problem is that there's far too much chocolate to eat!

At one co-op I stayed at in Denver, there was a tortilla factory about ten blocks away which threw out boxes of tortillas every day simply for being not quite perfectly round enough. They would still be hot when we picked them up, and perfectly delicious. At that same co-op, we managed to score a metric ton of berry-flavored beer that had been over-berried. It was terrible, but, hey, free beer!

Actually, eating from a dumpster is probably a great way to improve one's diet. You get to understand the economics of food in a way that never occurs to people who only deal with the front of the market. Processed food is full of all kinds of shit that allows it to sit on a shelf almost indefinitely. And then when no one buys it because it's full of shit, it goes in the dumpster. It's shit regardless of which end of the store it comes out of; the only difference there is whether you pay for it. Simultaneously, the market has to buy piles of vegetables to give the impression of having piles of vegetables, far more than they can actually sell. More for the gleaners, then...

Seriously, if you want to get involved on the waste issue, start asking your local markets and grocers to give extra food to Food Not Bombs or church groups or anyone for that matter. They'll probably complain about liability. If so, try to get a wink-and-nudge understanding about when stuff is thrown out, and then hook up with the local Food Not Bombs to get it picked up regularly.

For bonus points, you can ask how many hours a day their workers spend slashing bags and boxes to make the food in the dumpster harder to harvest...
posted by kaibutsu at 12:55 PM on June 7, 2010 [13 favorites]


The National Vacant Properties Campaign takes a more centrist approach.


Yeah, the National Vacant Properties Campaign did a whole strategy plan for Buffalo back in 2006, before the meltdown. In cities like Buffalo and Detroit and Cleveland vacant property has been an issue for a long time.

On the other hand, at about the same time New York City had worked its way to the end of a huge city-owned inventory of vacant or tax-delinquent land & buildings by partnering with nonprofits & other private organizations to do affordable housing, to the point that the problem was sourcing land for affordable housing development rather than dealing with vacant properties. But those are very different housing markets, and that really is the driver.
posted by yarrow at 1:02 PM on June 7, 2010


I am an occasional dumpster diver as well. We live in a place where it's well below freezing for much of the year, and so eating the meat during those times can work if we choose, though we generally do not choose. But we do feed it to our raw meat eating dog, and we've managed to feed the dog for months spending no money whatsoever. He doesn't like T-bone steaks. Go figure. He loved it, however, when I found six packages of head cheese after Christmas. (As did my partner's 80 yr old parents, who had no problem accepting our gift with full knowledge. Seems growing up in the Depression gives them a different outlook when they see what some of our gleanings are.)

What I've found interesting is the number of new grocery stores that completely enclose their waste systems, making older stores the only ones one can dive at.

The produce we find at our choice dumpster is amazing, and I concur that it really shows you just how fucked up the system is. The trend toward plastic-wrapping everything, and even plastic wrapping produce on a plastic tray in groups has led to mass discards of things like four-packs of red and yellow peppers where only one in each bunch was beginning to wrinkle. Think of how expensive those are! One time I scored 25 of those things--perfect--in one go. What we don't/can't use, I will sometimes take to the local Catholic Worker homes, who are willing to take things they know are from the dumpster. (I don't feel comfortable giving someone food unless we can be honest where it came from.)

The processed food is shit whether it's from a dumpster or from a shelf; I can't really eat it either way.

This is so true. Sometimes I can't pass it up, but whole giant boxes of packages of Ritz crackers or Keebler cookies or Rice Krispie Treats is just sometimes overwhelming and more disgusting than it's worth.

My favorite discovery was a big box of packaged lefse after Christmas one year.

At any rate, I've known plenty of people who have lived the lifestyle described in the article. Good on them. Though I have never sought to live in the chaos involved in dealing with large numbers of transients and people with issues that make them difficult to live with, the world needs people who can.

The thing to remember is that there are ways to learn from their process. I learned to dumpster dive from Food Not Bombs and a few other anarchists I've crossed paths with. Being willing to talk to middle class people who find that sort of thing "disgusting" and then come out as doing it myself has really made it possible to educate people on the incredible waste our food system produces.
posted by RedEmma at 1:58 PM on June 7, 2010 [10 favorites]


I had mixed feelings while reading this. It's good as a human interest story...

On the one hand, these freecyclers are helping the commmunity - they are maintaining buildings, paying taxes and not hurting anyone. They can live their lives, and I don't have to share their beliefs. None of the seems to affect me, and on that level they seem like good citizens.

On another level, there seems to be a huge element of theatrics (or "pride in being poor") at play in the community they created - one can do a passable job washing clothes in a sink/hanging them on a line for example and look/smell quite presentable with a minimal use of resources. Going years without underwear seems like an unnecessary hardship and I see an element of counter-cultural fashion and hipsterism in all of this... Extreme simple living maybe?
posted by Intrepid at 2:11 PM on June 7, 2010


The trend toward plastic-wrapping everything, and even plastic wrapping produce on a plastic tray in groups has led to mass discards of things like four-packs of red and yellow peppers where only one in each bunch was beginning to wrinkle.

The ironic thing about this is that the plastic wrapping is probably better at protecting the food from the other contents of a dumpster, thereby benefiting the 'freegan,' than it is a protecting the food from whatever imagined contaminants exist elsewhere in the food distribution chain.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 2:19 PM on June 7, 2010


I can't tell you how many flashbacks I'm having regarding both my hippie teenagehood and my punk early-mid twenties; having seen many situations like this, and having seen them cycle from the first bits of fantastic energy and "we're going to fix this up and it will be an awesome art/squat/rehearsal space" to "fuck this shit", I can't get too exercised about the living conditions. (Except for the animals. I remember this one hippie couple who didn't believe in vaccinations for their dog, who of course eventually contracted distemper. When I met them, the dog was having seizures every few minutes and I yelled at them to take it to a vet. When they returned an hour or two later, in tears and carrying only the dog's empty collar-- decorated with shells and beads and bandanas and other stuff-- I felt little sympathy for them, I'm afraid.) Anyway, this place will go the way of others: it will become a wonderful experience for many, and a source of fond memories for the middle class kids with resources to draw on and parents to return to; the genuinely homeless and fucked up who attach themselves to it will eventually move on and either win or lose the fight with their addictions and mental illnesses; there will be ongoing romantic dramas and household conflicts; there will be bursts of creativity and the energy of the young. Once the fine balance between the responsible ones and the ones who are coasting on the work of others or only there for party breaks down, it's over, and the guy who now technically owns the place will finally get fed up and perhaps sell it, giving way to recriminations and fights. My prediction, based on experience: in ten years, the residents who have the social advantages of education and class will be establishing small businesses or going to law school or getting other professional credentials and starting families. They'll still be community minded, and they'll be good neighbours. And they'll have had more than enough of living in squalor and without heat, but they'll still remember, with some wistfulness, those days of their youth and all the drama and the intensity centered in that house, and how sure they were of everything.

Not that I'm projecting or anything.
posted by jokeefe at 2:26 PM on June 7, 2010 [21 favorites]


Davejay, your solution assumes that the market for cheap housing in cities like Buffalo is not already saturated. This is not a supply problem, it's a demand problem. There are too many houses here for the existing population, and not enough jobs left to bring new people in.

Understood -- I was kind of being tongue-in-cheek, to be honest -- but your comment does make me wonder if there could be a way to start tearing down buildings, to rezone and give everybody larger yards, increase the green space, and generally make neighbors more pleasant. After all, if you can only get $x for your house currently, and there's nobody to pay even that, what if $x included three lots' worth of green space around your house?

Or is this more of a clustered thing, with blocks of nothing but abandoned houses in specific neighborhoods -- in which case I guess I need to buy up some of 'em near an airport, build a big fence, house and pool, and vacation there...
posted by davejay at 3:31 PM on June 7, 2010


jokeefe: I hear you man, I hear you.

I did the squat thing for a couple of years, back in the day (as the youth now get to say.) and it all fell apart just as you stated. But, as you also point out, it was fun. There was real challenge in negotiating all the personal/political/philosophical/logistical problems. And real feelings of accomplishment when we did.
posted by elwoodwiles at 5:46 PM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Bemused tolerance is not a bad thing.
posted by warbaby at 6:32 PM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


“And if we owned the place, suddenly we’d be the ones kicking people out or the ones calling the cops.” But, in the end, Tim said, ownership was “a necessary step to keep the project alive.”

Haha, and so, a young man discovers why society is organised the way it is.
posted by atrazine at 12:17 AM on June 8, 2010 [6 favorites]


Haha, and so, a young man discovers why society is organised the way it is.

It became necessary to destroy freeganism in order to save it.
posted by Miko at 9:22 AM on June 8, 2010


Can I be glad that the freegans exist and yet mock them at the same time?

I love responsible squatters. I love people who engineer solutions to the problem of inequitable distribution of resources that don't presume that the capitalist solution is the only solution. I've never squatted in my life, but when the house next door to mine was vacant for five solid months I really wished that some nice group of people would come by and live in it, because I felt like it was kind of a crime magnet. I've worked with the Cascade Gleaning Association, who calls grocery stores and gets them to hand over their nearly-expired produce, baked and processed goods, etc. rather than wait another day and throw it out. The variety and quality of stuff they get is amazing; a thousand loaves of free bread every day from the Franz bakery, enormous sacks of carrots and cabbages, the odd lots and leftovers from the Tully's coffee roasting plant. They distribute it to low income families, group homes, and other organizations that are full of people who will eat it IMMEDIATELY. (One day they got to pick up 75 full-sized frosted and decorated sheet cakes from the Costco bakery. Yay! It's everybody's birthday today!)

My cousin who lives in and works for the renaissance of Detroit was telling me about some buddies of his who found, literally, an entire abandoned block -- every house on the block was condemned, stripped, bank-owned, unsafe for habitation, and falling down -- and turned it into a small farm. They rented backhoes and bulldozers and just tore down the buildings, pulled up the concrete, plowed up the driveways and filled in the basements, and amended the soil, and started planting food. City officials were aware of the project -- you couldn't not be, it took them two solid months -- and reportedly their response is "What? Is someone ripping down a bunch of dog-fighting establishments and meth labs and improving the property for a useful purpose at no expense to us? Well that is a crying fucking shame, for sure, and if the banks who own the property would like to pay us to kick the hippies off and restore the land to its previous condition, they may certainly petition us to do so." I thought that was awesome.

BUT: Freeganism can't exist without a gluttonous, wasteful population to live off of. Of necessity, freegans find themselves gravitating towards exactly the establishments they hold most in contempt, because those are the ones with the highest quality leavings. There aren't a lot of freegans skulking around my CSA, because all the human-consumable food that doesn't go to share members goes to food banks and the non-human-consumable food goes to the animals or the compost heap. No, they hang out by the posh grocery stores where mushrooms are shrink-wrapped on polyethylene trays in 12-packs and hucked when one of the mushrooms starts to show a flat spot. I've not really seen a coherent philosophical narrative out of these folks that addresses this dichotomy, and so I find it kind of snarkworthy. Like, don't bite the hand that is LITERALLY feeding you, dudes.
posted by KathrynT at 10:59 AM on June 8, 2010 [5 favorites]


Freeganism can't exist without a gluttonous, wasteful population to live off of.

A friend of mine has a sister who scavenged for food because she was poor and idealistic. One complaint I heard through my friend: it's hard to find good organic food in the waste bins.


From the article: ... Food Not Bombs, a nonprofit whose mission was to salvage discarded but edible food and feed the poor.

This made me think of The Government secretly taking bruised apples and bananas with squishy spots and making explosives; except there is a group of young people who know that this shit is going down, so they're preventing it and feeding hungry people! Two birds with one stone, man: food, not bombs! Salads, not side-arms!
posted by filthy light thief at 3:10 PM on June 8, 2010


KathrynT, I thought the general idea was that they are living off the waste of others but that's not the ideal. The ideal is that there not be waste. However, since there is that waste, why not maximize its potential to them? I don't think that the Freegans (not a good use of the word but, whatever) would prefer there to be all the waste if the alternative was no waste.
posted by josher71 at 7:23 AM on June 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Josher71, that is the idea, in theory. But in practice, the urban scavengers I've known get really excited when they discover a new source of high-quality waste, and really sullen and bummed out when a source of high-quality waste goes away. It's a natural consequence of the situation, I think, and it doesn't necessarily make them bad people (or any worse than any other kind of people, anyway), it's just hard to have a lot of sympathy for the movement when they grumble when their favorite hippie grocery store starts giving their nearly-expired produce to a food bank instead of throwing it out.

It is entirely possible that the people I've known are more representative of privileged counterculture twenty-somethings with entitlement issues than they are of the urban scavenger movement, mind you.
posted by KathrynT at 10:11 AM on June 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


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