An Open-Air Film Festival Puts the Lens on Housing Insecurity

As New Yorkers buckle under the pressure of the city’s unraveling housing market, the Lower East Side’s Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space (MoRUS) calls on us to consider moments in recent history when people took matters into their own hands. Starting on Thursday evening, September 14, MoRUS’s 11th annual film festival will screen nine films documenting community-led actions to reclaim and maintain urban spaces across New York City and beyond.

Having opened in 2012 at 155 Avenue C (better known as “C-Squat“) in Alphabet City, the volunteer-run museum works to archive and publicize the Lower East Side’s (LES) history of radical community activism born from the city’s fiscal crisis during the 1970s. As parts of the city became overrun with derelict buildings and vacant lots after years of economic depression and absent landlords, frustrated residents began reclaiming and re-fashioning the abandoned spaces through an unofficial urban homesteading effort to combat homelessness and substandard living conditions.

Film still from “Nubia Way” (2022), a documentary centered on the first self-built Black housing co-operative in Lewisham, London, that was constructed in the 1990s (image courtesy Timi Akindele-Ajani)

The museum’s film screenings will take place in the surrounding community gardens that were developed and maintained by local residents, who volunteered their time and resources to convert abandoned lots into beautiful green spaces with a variety of uses. MoRUS Co-founder and Director Bill Di Paola emphasized to Hyperallergic that the gardens “had to fight to save themselves, and the city was trying to destroy them by using a housing issue,” citing the community’s response to the Giuliani Administration’s intent on auctioning the city-owned but resident-stewarded garden lots to developers to build more housing during the late ’90s as the city’s economy recovered.

Embodying the radical activism that led to the creation and protection of the gardens and squats, the nine films in the festival lineup document the community advocacy for saving these collectively cared-for spaces. Venezuelan filmmaker Sebastian Gutierrez’s “Master of None” (2009) centers Colombian immigrant Mario Bustamante, who worked various jobs in the city and resided in squat houses that he and fellow residents made livable with their combined skillsets during the ’90s. Similarly, Elana Meyers and Katie Heiserman will share their work in progress on their archival footage documentary “Survival Without Rent” (2023), also following LES squatters who formed a collective of artists and activists.

The collective fight to protect community gardens was also captured through “Battle to Save La Plaza” (1988), a documentary chronicling an anti-gentrification campaign to protect the La Plaza Cultural de Armando Perez community garden in LES from development. Other films include the 1993 documentary “Battle of Tuntenhaus,” following a queer anti-fascist squat in East Berlin; “Nubia Way” (2o22), which examines London’s first self-built Black housing co-op in the ’90s; and The Spark (2021), about activists’ plan to thwart the construction of a new airport in Nantes, France.

MoRUS is also premiering its own documentary “Sleep on the Water” (2023), following boat squatting across NYC.

Alongside the film festival screenings, MoRUS has partnered with the Anarchist Book Fair and Emma Goldman Film Festival, which will host programming at La Plaza Cultural during the day and an evening screening at Tompkins Square Park on Saturday, September 16. Di Paola also mentioned that the MoRUS’s own Saturday program will be peppered with workshops and informational sessions on how to take over a building.

“As a history museum, we’re trying to use history to show that this is how it was done,” he continued. “You can take over the gardens as well — you can grow your own foods. The museum exists in a squat that people fixed up.”

MoRUS’s film festival will have nightly screenings from Thursday, September 14 to Sunday, September 17 in the surrounding community gardens. Di Paola underscored that no one will be turned away, and that donations are welcome.

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