By Liza Cowan.
Recently I had the pleasure of watching a new documentary, Left On Pearl, about a women's takeover of a Harvard University building in March of 1971. Seeing the film reminded me that I had written a paper about a similar action that had taken place in New York City just a few months earlier than the action in Boston.
In 1992 I wrote the paper about the Fifth Street Women's Building Takeover for a Sociology course on Urban Social Movements, taught by professor Diane Davis at The Graduate Faculty at The New School For Social Research in NYC.
I had participated somewhat in the 5th Street Women's Building takeover. I was at the original meeting at Washington Square Church, and had popped in and out a few times during the next week. I was a reporter/producer at the WBAI-FM at the time, and it's possible I filed a story. I can't remember. But I did keep in touch with some of the women who were the organizers and was able to interview them for my paper. Thanks again to Reeni Goldin, Fran Goldin and Jane Lurie.
Here, twenty years after I wrote the paper, and forty years after the action, is my report.
muheres, women. Flier for Open House at the Fifth Street Women's Building. Click to enlarge. From the Reeni Goldin Collections.
The Fifth Street Women’s Building:
A Feminist Urban Action Jan 1-13th 1971
by Liza Cowan, written in 1992
Are tools for change”
Chant by the women at the Fifth Street Women’s Building [i]
Part One – The Takeover
A Feminist/Urban Movement
On January 1st, 1971, two hundred women took over an abandoned building at 330 East Fifth Street in Manhattan. In what had formerly been a school annex and then a welfare office, the women worked to create a women’s center, offering child care, a food co-op, book and clothes exchange and a feminist school. On January 14th, twelve days after the takeover, the building was closed by the police, and twenty four women were arrested. Soon thereafter, the building was torn down to make a parking lot for the 9th Precinct police building across the street.
Urban social movement theorist Manuel Castells writes that “When …mobilizations result in the transformation of the urban structure, we call them urban social movements…[a] theory of urban change must account both for the spatial and social effects resulting from the actions of the dominant interest as well as from the grassroots alternatives to this domination.[ii] He states that urban movements
“seem to share some basic characteristics in spite of the diversity:
1) They consider themselves urban
2) They are locally –based and territorially-defined
3) They tend to mobilize around three major goals…: collective consumption, cultural identity, and political self-management.”[iii]
The takeover of the building at 330 East Fifth Street Women’s Building (hereafter referred to as The Fifth Street Women’s Building, or Fifth Street) seems to fit the criteria for an urban social movement as defined by Castells. 1) It was urban. 2) It was organized by women who lived either in the neighborhood or close by, and intended for their own use and the use of their peers, i.e. other women. 3) Their goals included collective consumption issues such as child care. They were building cultural networks as women, and coming out as Lesbians. A major goal was political self-management in the form of “control of our own lives.” [iv]
Other urban movements had been controlled, organized and operated by women, such as the Glasgow, Scotland Rent Strike of 1915[v], the 1902 meat boycotts lead by New York City housewives, [vi] or the 1904 New York City rent strikes, led by young working class women.[vii] The difference in the Fifth Street Mobilization is that it was led and run only by women, as feminists, specifically for the needs of women, as defined by the participants of the takeover.
One consequence of this, as will be shown throughout this paper, is that the longer lasting effects of the action on the women who participated, had more specifically to do with their activism about and for women and Lesbians than it had to do with their continued work as neighborhood or community organizers. The focus, at least in the reminiscences of the action, became less on the takeover of the building and the creation of a Women’s Center in and of themselves, and more on their symbolic meaning of empowerment for women. Castells' “rule” number two for urban social movements (that they be territorially defined) became less important, as “territory” became “networks.”
Although the mobilization itself lasted only twelve days, and although the women’s center they envisioned did not happen for long in that spot or in that form, the goals and ideals that brought the women there, and the ideas and inspiration that came from the activities and discussions during those days, transformed into other feminist and Lesbian projects lasting over the next decade.
Background, New York City
John Lindsay was the mayor of New York in 1971. The federal Model Cities program, begun in 1966 was still in effect. According to Susan and Norman Fainstein, Model Cities
“required coordinated planning of social services, intensive redevelopment of selected model neighborhoods, and participation of target area residents in policymaking. As was the case in the Poverty Program, most of the Model Cities agencies did not pursue militant strategies and made little attempt to mobilize their communities.” [viii]
There were a number of tenants rights groups and oppositionist groups organized around the city, some opposing Urban Renewal plans for razing low income housing, some opposing the proposed construction of highways that would cut through low income neighborhoods. There were squatting actions happening in different neighborhoods.[ix]
One particularly effective and long lasting group was The Cooper Square Development Committee (Cooper Square), in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. In 1959 the New York City Slum Clearance Committee had proposed to clear a twelve block area and build 2,900 units of middle income housing. This would have dispossessed “2,400 apartments, 450 furnished room occupants, 4,000 beds used by homeless men and over 500 businesses.”[x] Cooper Square Development Committee formed to fight this proposal.
In 1960 Cooper Square recruited a professional planner to come up with an alternative plan. Eleven years later, in 1971, they had proved successful in stopping the city from redevelopment, but only a small portion of the Cooper Square plan had actually gone through. They were successful, however, in community organizing.
“(Cooper Square) followed a coalition strategy and obtained the support of the diverse groups inhabiting the area. It avoided any identification with any single element in the community. It served as a local source of information concerning tenants rights and eligibility requirements for welfare and medical benefits and it became involved in rent strikes and demonstrations for park and recreational facilities.” [xi]
Cooper Square was also involved in squatting actions. As we shall see, several members of Cooper Square were among the organizers of the Fifth Street Women’s Building takeover.
The Action and The Days That Followed.
Late in 1970, several women were at The Women’s Center in Manhattan talking about their interest in housing issues and squatting. They “started talking about doing an action in a city-owned building for a women’s center, because the Lower East Side needed a Women’s Center.”[xii] They talked to friends, and a group of five women formed to plan the action. Reeni Goldin, one of the original organizers of the Fifth Street action, had been working at Cooper Square, and had participated in a number of squatting actions. Her mother, Fran Goldin, had been one of the founders of Cooper Square and was still active there and at The Metropolitan Council on Housing. She was also involved in the Fifth Street takeover, but not as one of the organizers.
Another organizer, Susan Sherman, was also somewhat involved in Cooper Square, as was Kady Van Duers, who was peripherally involved in the Fifth Street Action. The other organizers were June Arnold, a writer, Sarah Davidson, and Buffy Yasmin. Jane Lurie, a filmmaker, joined them a day or so before the action, after reading in the underground newspaper, Rat, about an organizing meeting.[xiii]
The organizers were mainly young, in their early twenties, except June Arnold who was in her mid forties. Some of the women were Jewish. All were all white, except for Buffy Yasin, who was Native American but not claiming it at the time as she had not been raised as such. The women were from a mixture of class backgrounds. Some were college educated, some were not.[xiv]
For Reeni Goldin, the action was important because, “it brought together so many different issues – vacant buildings going for no use, the waste of city buildings when people needed housing.” These concerns were joined with issues specifically about women and women’s needs, and the city’s responsibilities in providing for those needs.
“The city was totally ignoring women’s needs. Health care sucked. The majority of people on Welfare were women. The city wasn’t doing its job educating women, providing jobs, providing health care and providing daycare so that women could work. The housing situation was awful. There wasn’t affordable housing for women in trouble. Well, here we could bring all that together. We could get a building to use that the city was using for nothing and fulfill those needs of the women. We’d also be pointing out that the city doesn’t! It was a great organizing tool and a great way to bring women together and do something for all of us and for other women…The housing thing was just a tool at that point to talk about women’s stuff.”[xv]
The group got a list of vacant buildings owned by the city, and rode around on bicycles looking at them. They decided on the building on Fifth Street, which was right down the street from the Cooper Square office. “It was a half a block deep, five tenements wide and four storeys high.”[xvi] A week or so before the proposed night of the takeover the organizers began to prepare the building.
“We’d gotten into the building, and winos and junkies were living in there. We told them that they really ought to leave because we were locking the buildings up. Then we locked and chained all the doors and gates. We had brought padlocks. The building was trashed. It had no plumbing, no electricity and no fixtures. The junkies and winos had taken all the fixtures because they were copper. It was freezing. We brought in rolls of plastic and staple guns and covered all the windows so there was some kind of warmth. And we had that huge heater. A kerosene heater in the shape of a bullet, it sat on the floor and was a yellow cylinder. It was called ‘Mister Heater.’ We painted over the ‘M’ with and ‘S’ and it became ‘Sister Heater.’ Different women of the group brought in stuff that we knew we’d need, like plastic and staple guns, extension cords and light bulbs.”
Early flier from the 5th St. Women's Building. The Plan. Flier from Reeni Goldin collections.
To gather women for the take over, “we put out leaflets and just sort of advertised around that there was going to be a women’s action at the church and to bring your sleeping bags and canteens, but they didn’t know why.” On New Year’s Eve a group of women gathered at the Washington Square Church, a church that was regularly used for many types of political events. Reeni Goldin remembers that there were close to two hundred women there. A report from The Village Voice states that there were “more than 75.”[xvii] The New York Times reported 20. [xviii]
When they arrived the women were given leaflets telling the goals of the action and ways to behave during it.
“Women have been working on a plan to take over a building on the lower east side for women. Women not only need housing we need space to work together. We can use space for a health project feminist art and media project child care feminist school etc.”[xix]
The women were cautioned not to bring non-prescription drugs, to know the names of other women in their small affinity groups and not to resist arrest. The police were referred to as “pigs,” which was common among many activists in those days. “Don’t talk to the pigs in the street, for personal and political security specific women have been designated to deal with the pigs.” In the same flier the participants were cautioned not to call the police “pigs.” And to clean up the church before they left. [xx]
They counted off into groups of ten and went through the snowy streets till they reached the site. Jane Lurie had brought her Bolex camera and was prepared to film the event but was discouraged by a woman from her consciousness raising group who cautioned her that it would be a bad idea to film an illegal event. She later regretted missing the beautiful scene of “perfect snow falling on women carrying lit candles.”[xxi] The women marched until they reached the site. They went around the back way to avoid having to walk directly in front of the precinct house.
“We climbed in, stepping gingerly over a layer of broken glass while our eyes adjusted to the dimness…In the huge second floor room, painted in institutional drab and surrounded on three sides by banks of windows with gaping holes once filled with glass, bare overhead bulbs dangled on long wires….Collecting their equipment into neat mounds, the women set to work. Some grabbed brooms, sweeping up the glass and debris. Others stapled large sheets of plastic over the windows to keep out the drafts and to hold back the snow.”[xxii]
Fran Goldin, whose job that night was to “look like a lady and look out for the cops,”[xxiii] had a conversation at the precinct house with Police Captain Howe, who warned the women against hurting themselves. “You have a gas heater there. Do the women know how to use it? ‘Yeah’ (Fran Goldin) answered…and we have a nurse on the premises.”[xxiv]
The New York Times reported that “Ira Duchan head of the city’s Real Estate Department said…that he had not yet decided what to do about the women, who refused to give their names. He said their ‘cold bold trespass’ was secondary to the danger of fire involved.”[xxv] No arrests were made that night
Over the next twelve days women worked to create the Women’s Center. “During the first couple of nights there were maybe 200 women there. Then after a week there were maybe twenty during the day, but at night there tended to be more. Women would come home from work and join us.” Minda Bickman reported in The Village Voice:
“When I returned the next afternoon, several dozen women were on the second floor, and as the afternoon wore on the would be joined by dozens more. They were sitting cross legged in a circle, discussing their plans.”[xxvi]
The plans included using the building for a health clinic, a food co-op, a child care center, an inter-arts center, a clothing and book exchange and a temporary halfway house for homeless women.
The building was in operation as soon as it was taken over. “We saw the building as a school. A feminist school. Everything that had to be done there was a learning experience. How does a boiler work? What is a fuse? How many amps do we have? What about holes in the floor?”[xxvii]
Reeni Goldin remembered, “I got my friend David to teach us all plumbing on the furnace, which was a functional furnace, it just didn’t have any pipes coming from it. By looking at it he could show us what was going on and how it worked and everything and estimate how much it would take to get the thing functional.
Mujeres/Women. We have taken over this building. 1971. Flier from Reeni Goldin collections.
“There were karate classes. We had a book exchange and a food co-op. Women used to go to Hunts Point and to a health food wholesaler to buy food in bulk.”[xxviii] There was a children’s theater workshop. Space for childcare was being made ready.[xxix]
The women entered into negotiations with the city to keep the building. At first the city sent Ronnie Eldridge, a woman who was special assistant to the Mayor. The Fifth Street women did not like working with Eldridge. “I don’t know why Ronnie Eldridge stopped talking to us, but we really couldn’t stand her,” said Reeni Goldin. “Then they send Jeffrey Stokes from the Mayor’s East Side Urban Task Force. He was much hipper.”[xxx]
The city proposed that the building be partially used as a temporary shelter for welfare women with no place to live. “In the course of negotiations we realized that we would be turned into the welfare cops. They wanted us to monitor the welfare women. Like, how many pairs of socks they had. We said we wouldn’t do it. A day or two later they busted us.
“There weren’t very many women there when the cops came. I wasn’t there. I was at Cooper Square, which was right down the block. Someone came and got me and I made some telephone calls to get other women there. They locked the place so women couldn’t get in or out and then they ushered women out except for three who refused to leave.
“Within fifteen minutes there were around seventy five women there. It got to be a melee and women started fighting with the cops. The cops were blown away. They couldn’t believe that the women were fighting with them. There were women there who had grown up on the Lower East Side and were kind of tough. One woman who was experienced in self defense had five cops holding her down.
“ One woman who was middle aged, middle class, white and married saw a cop fighting with a woman, and she smashed the cop on the back of his head with her fist. He stumbled forward and his hat fell off. He looked back and saw this demure lady with frosted hair. He arrested her. In court he claimed that she hit him with a soda bottle. She said, ‘Your Honor, would I really have picked up a soda bottle off the street to strike this officer?’ Like, she had gloves on and her husband was there. And the cop said, “It must have been her pocketbook.’ She said, ‘What could I possibly have in my pocketbook that would have made this officer fall down and lose his hat?’ They let her go because they couldn’t believe she would have done that. She had been arrested not only for resisting arrest and disorderly conduct but for assaulting a policeman.”[xxxi]
In all, twenty four women were arrested. They were taken to the precinct, across the street, to have their photographs taken so they could later be identified in court. They had learned that they had to be photographed, but did not have to face front, so they all turned their backs to the camera. Subsequently, during the trial, ten women were dismissed because they couldn’t be identified. [xxxii]
The sentences ranged from small fines to suspended sentences. A few days later there was a large demonstration to protest the eviction. Soon thereafter the Fifth Street Building was torn down to make a parking lot for the 9th Precinct House.
Part Two: Examining The Evidence
Solidarity with the People
When the women took over the building, they produced a series of fliers and press releases. These told of their intentions and their progress. With the exception of the first flier, the one that was handed out the night of the takeover, all the fliers were written both in Spanish and in English. The fact that Spanish was used in the fliers indicates an awareness that English was not the only language spoken by women in the building and the community they were trying to reach. Although all five of the original organizers were white and English speaking, several Latina women became prominent during the occupation of the building. Reeni Goldin specifically remembers Anna Sanches, Marizel Rios and one woman she remembers by first name only, Raquel. [xxxiii]
Two earlier fliers use almost identical text. One, announcing an open house on Sunday at 4 PM for women, has the text enclosed in a drawing of a house. The open house announcement is written in the path leading to the house. The house, with its sloping roof, and path to the door, looks more like a barn than any urban building. The opening paragraphs of the fliers make it clear that the building is for women only.
This building has been taken over by women for the use of women. We are now in the process of setting up a health clinic, food co-op, child care center and arts workshops. This building will stay open 24 hours a day to serve the needs of women.
THE BUILDING IS OURS
IT BELONGS TO ALL OF US
The fliers produced during the actions and just after the arrest emphasize the solidarity of the women’s movement with women in other – not specifically feminist – urban movements.
“With this actions the women’s movement joins in solidarity with our sisters who are squatting throughout the city in their attempts to get decent housing. This building will serve the needs of the immediate community as well as the needs of the community of women as a whole.”[xxxiv]
After the shut-down of the building and the arrest of the women, the fliers and press releases emphasize not only that the building was being made over by and for women but also the criminal nature of the government of the City Of New York towards women. In a flier addressed to “Women,” to announce a demonstration on January 16th, Mayor John Lindsay was accused of sending “his pigs to arrest and brutalize the women working in The Center.” The gesture of solidarity towards squatters shown in the earlier flier shifts from “women squatters” to “people” engaged in an urban struggle.
“We have been arrested and harassed for making a safety hazard into useful space. We know that the City of New York is the criminal. City government is not providing for the needs of the people and when the people try to provide for themselves they are arrested and beaten. This is not an isolated instance. We express solidarity with all people who are squatting throughout the City in an attempt to provide basic human necessities for themselves and their families.”[xxxv]
Press Release. Our community Center has been stolen 1971. Reeni Goldin collections.
A somewhat modified version of this paragraph was included in a press release sent just after the shut down. “…and when people try to provide for themselves thy are sometimes brutally beaten.” (note the addition of “sometimes.”) It also accused the city of “attempted murder against women and children of the community.”
The press release emphasized the work that the women had done to improve the conditions of the building “that the city had vandalized” including having had “professional electricians, plumbers and oil burner technicians” to make repairs, cleaning up lead paint chips, and closing the empty elevator air shaft. All of this work ensured that the building no longer posed the health and safety hazard to the community that it had posed before the women took over.
The police and Department of Real Estate had used the issue of the building’s hazardous condition to remove the women and shut down the building. The New York Times stated that , “a spokesman of the city’s Department of Real Estate said the building’s lack of heat, electricity and sanitary constituted a health hazard to the occupants."[xxxvi] At the initial occupation, the police chief had even been skeptical that the women knew how to use the kerosene heater they had brought in. It is doubtful that the police and other city official would have been as “concerned” about these issues had a group of men, or a group including men, taken over the building. They would have used other reasons to evict them.
In fact, the building trades skills that women had traditionally been denied access to were considered the primary curriculum of the new feminist school. As a feminist identified group, they understood that “…the men of the Department of Real Estate”[xxxvii] were dealing with them in a gendered way. It was women’s presumed lack of building, electrical, plumbing and related skills that was used to evict them. The city stepped in, as male, to “protect” them, as female, i.e. helpless and unskilled. A male voice echoes through the sound track of the Fifth Street Women’s Building film. Taped during the demonstration, a man from the police or the Department of Real Estate says over and over, “We’re your friends, we’re here to help you,” as Marizel Rios, who had the tape recorder slung around her neck at the time, “was being tossed around.”[xxxviii]
While the documents produced during the takeover and arrest manifested an awareness of both urban and feminist movements, The Fifth Street Women’s Building Film, which came out later that year, emphasized a feminist/women's movement.
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