City Defies Court Order, Ousts Squatters

Rudy Giuliani’s ruthless real-estate regime has struck the Lower East Side once again.

Claiming that the building was in imminent danger of collapse, the city demolished a squat at 537-539 East Fifth St. on Feb. 10, with riot police blocking its residents from retrieving their possessions and pets. The city started demolition when one squatter was still inside, and continued even after two court orders for it to stop.

The 26 displaced squatters are suing the city for contempt of court and $2.6 million in damages, says lawyer Jackie Bukowski. Jerry McCarty of the Mayor’s Office of Emergency Management told legal activists at the demolition that the city was willing to absorb any lawsuit resulting from it.

The Giuliani demolition machine moved into action after a fire on Feb. 9,apparently started by a space heater in a second-floor apartment,that burned out part of the six-story building’s left front quadrant. Squatters say police and firefighters told them they could go back inside the next morning, but by 9 AM there was an HPD-hired demolition crew on the block, protected by several dozen riot police.

City workers hauled out a handful of garbage bags full of the squatters’ belongings, but most of their possessions,clothing, ID, musical instruments,were left inside. One squatter was arrested when he tried to enter the building to retrieve the bodies of his two dogs, who died in the fire. Others were not allowed in to rescue their cats.

The HPD wrecking crew began demolition at 1:20 PM, while Brad Will, a 26-year-old bicycle messenger who’d been living at 537 for two years, was still hiding inside. Demolition stopped ten minutes later when he emerged onto the front of the roof to the triumphant shouts of protesters across the street. When police couldn’t find him by 4 PM, the wrecking ball started smashing holes in the top two floor of the building. Will re-emerged onto the roof and was arrested.

“I could feel the walls shake,” said Will. “I clung to the walls and started crying because it was a strong building and it was a shame to tear it down. I loved that building.”

Meanwhile, lawyers for the squatters were trying to get an emergency court order to stop the demolition. The city’s lawyer, Arthur Shaw, was notified at 2 PM about a 3 o’clock hearing and showed up at 4:30. By 6:13 PM, when State Supreme Court Justice Barbara R. Kapnick issued the order, most of the building’s right front quadrant was already down, and work didn’t stop until 6:40. At 6:55, the wrecking crew started tearing down 535, the abandoned building next door, just as Bukowski arrived at the scene. When she showed the court order to police, she was hustled away from the barricades and almost arrested.

The next day, Judge Kapnick issued an order barring both the city and the squatters from touching anything at the site. Demolition continued until nothing was left but a few piles of bricks. It broke windows and knocked holes in the wall of the building next door.

Spokespersons for HPD, the police and the Mayor’s office maintain a stone wall about the demolition, denying that the city did anything wrong without responding on details. “We have been acting consistently with the court order,” said Assistant Corporation Counsel Gail Rubin. “The matter’s in litigation and we don’t think it’s appropriate to comment further.”

Squatters say that the Buildings Department inspector who arrived at 537-539 after the fire never went inside. Buildings Department spokesperson Steve Hess said he didn’t know if the inspector went inside, but was “sure he did.” He wouldn’t release the inspector’s report, calling it “in-house information.”

Police also denied access to outside experts who dispute that the building was about to collapse. One, John Shuttleworth, an architect called by the squatters, testified at a Feb. 11 court hearing that he hadn’t seen any obvious structural damage, and that the building’s design,a cross-shaped brick wall that divided it into four quadrants,effectively confined the fire damage to one section.

“We had our engineer at the scene and they wouldn’t permit him to look at the building,” said Joe Center of the People’s Mutual Housing Association, a neighborhood nonprofit that had planned to redevelop the two buildings for 29 units of low- to moderate-income housing renting for $286 to $700 a month, for which it had lined up almost $3 million in federal and state funds.

HPD, he said, “could have done things to protect the buildings,” but rushed to demolish them “because of fear that the squatters would go back.”

Jerry McCarty denies that the Giuliani administration had any political motives. Yet the city has used safety as a pretext to evict squatters several times before, most notoriously on East 13th Street in 1995 and at 319 East Eighth St. in 1989.

The Giuliani administration’s professed concern for tenants’ safety is especially hypocritical, says Met Council’s Kenny Schaeffer, as HPD has essentially abandoned enforcing its regulations against private landlords since Giuliani took office. “It’s ironic that the city has the resources to do this on such short notice when it doesn’t have the resources to do code enforcement on regular buildings.” he said.

The main issue now, said Harvey Epstein of the National Lawyers Guild, who is assisting Bukowski with the case, is to draw political attention to the Giuliani administration’s “flagrant disregard for the rule of law” in their rush to oust the squatters and obliterate the building.

A hearing is scheduled for March 31.