This Building Is Yours
“Maybe any time a woman reimagines indoor space is a political act.”
Toward the end of 1970, a pack of young women sailed down First and Second Avenues on bicycles, the freezing wind at their cheeks, sneakers crushing pedals. They looked as formidable as the Women’s Army from Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames, or a matriarchal Mad Max. They were scouring the streets of Manhattan for a headquarters.
On the last day of the year, more women, crowds of them, set out into the snowy night, through drifts so thick it muted their laughter, led only by candles and street lamps. When they arrived at the building they’d chosen, they didn’t worry whether or not the police in the 9th Precinct across the street could see them.They climbed through the windows of 330 5th Street.
When they were all in, they cheered and smiled in the dark, ducking under beams and over glass. Some of them made out in the shadows, and some began sealing the windows from the cold. Maybe they passed around bottles of wine, and shared stories in the moonlight, huddled in their sleeping bags for warmth.
By morning, they’d secured the fort: the Fifth Street Women’s Building.
During the following days, they remade a world inside. They jerry-rigged some lighting and laid out afghans and rugs and strung floral sheets from the rafters. They opened their doors to women in need. They held workshops, and had parties and feasts, and fought amongst themselves. Some of them hooked up in the icy stairwells, fully clothed in sheepskin jackets and wool socks.
Every afternoon, the police across the street picked their teeth and caught what images they could through cracks in the black curtained windows: a child’s plastic tricycle; the corner of a table set for twenty; an arm gesturing in a consciousness-raising circle; snowflakes cut from paper strewn across the floor.
Twelve days later, the police stormed the building. One month later, the building was bulldozed. Today, a dozen Dodge Chargers sit on the lot. The site is a parking lot for the 9th Precinct.
Or, at least for a long time, this was the story I told myself.
I was twenty-two years old on the hundredth anniversary of International Women’s Day in 2011, and I was feeling pretty blue. I was in the last months of college and my baby sister had just been arrested for breaking and entering. I was sitting at my computer arranging for last-minute travel home to Oregon to help her out when I got an email from a professor with the subject line “pictures to cheer u up.”
It was a link to a Huffington Post slide show that the actress and activist Marlo Thomas had put together, chronicling her involvement in the Equal Rights Amendment campaigns. “It was like a pipe had burst, and our homes could no longer hold us,” wrote Thomas. “So we took to the street. And we marched. And we lobbied our legislators. And we made speeches. And we were being heard.” The images in the slideshow were of Thomas herself, and Bella Abzug in her big hats, and Betty Friedan in old age, and Gloria Steinem and Flo Kennedy and Shirley Chisholm, and all of these women hanging out at apartments, circling the capital, linking arms, laughing.
The images gave me pause. I was born in 1988, an American girl, white and middle class, the beneficiary, in one way or another, of civil rights secured by second-wave feminism: birth control, abortion, lesbian solidarity, Title IX, “girl power.” As a child I was given Marlo Thomas’s book, Free to Be . . . a Family, an attempt by my parents to salve the wounds of divorce. And while she’d always held a special place in my heart, Thomas was among a group of activists that my generation had seemingly dismissed for their sentimentality, for their middle-class-centrism, for their inability to create a feminist rhetoric comprehensive enough to include women of color, working-class women, women in developing nations, queer women. I knew this. But I couldn’t stop looking at the slide show.
I flew home the next day to see my sister. She was under house arrest. I sat around for a few days while my parents whispered “How did it come to this?” around our tiny kitchen table and while my sister sat stonily in the basement watching reruns of Ugly Betty. I was frustrated that no one really wanted to talk about our underlying family dysfunction. So, on the last day of my trip, I climbed the apple tree in our backyard and sat there, sullen, smoking cigarettes, waiting for something to happen. Eventually, my sister lugged herself out of the basement and climbed up into the tree with me, risking setting off the alarm from her security anklet. We sat and stared out at the foggy valley, unsure of what to do next. And all the while, I kept thinking about the women in the slideshow, and their care for each other, and how I wished to be there rather than here.
Was it that they looked like they were having fun? Or that they were out in the world together? That it was an incredibly public, or at least visual, display of solidarity? Or was it just nostalgia for a moment when feminism seemed coherent? Was I just envious of their clothing? I’d come of age in the individualistic American Third Wave, each girl a lone wolf who could be anything she wishes, wear anything she likes, and who took for granted—or was at least told—that her needs would be met, that the world had changed to meet them. But I was beginning to feel I’d missed some important part of the story.
I started reading more about the Fifth Street Women’s Building when I returned to New York from Oregon, skimming Feminists Who Changed America, 1963-75. There was an entry for the author June Arnold, which linked her to a takeover of the building on New Year’s Eve, 1970, but provided no other details. And then I found links to Arnold’s out-of-print novel, The Cook and the Carpenter, and it was from there that I cobbled together a story of what might have happened during those twelve days.
In 1970, New York was bordering on bankruptcy. Some 25 percent of all properties in Manhattan were abandoned. The system was eroding from the inside out. Families squatted in buildings that had been left to decay or burn. And City Hall was in the process of clearing slums and replacing them with middle-income housing that was unaffordable for those who had been displaced. Most people on public assistance were women with children, and the city was failing to protect their jobs or provide day care or health services.
At the same time, Gloria Steinem was testifying in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment. Flo Kennedy was forming the Feminist Party, nominating Shirley Chisholm for president. Roe v. Wade had just reached the U.S. Supreme Court. It was the eve of radical feminism, lesbian feminism. The women of the Fifth Street action were not the same feminists that were in Marlo Thomas’s slide show, but they shared a common ethic.
For a long time, I couldn’t find any details about the exact location of the building. I couldn’t find much of anything. I walked the length of 5th Street, snapping pictures with a disposable camera of every abandoned lot between Broadway and Avenue D, feeling like a veteran (as Joan Didion once wrote) of a guerilla war I had never fully understood.
It wasn’t until I found an old leaflet in the digital Lesbian Poetry Archive with a crude ink drawing of an almost castle-like building (“WOMEN THIS BUILDING IS YOURS!” scrawled in the center) that I noticed an address etched above the door. I sifted through the photos I’d taken during my pilgrimage down 5th Street and found a parking lot full of Crown Victorias. I’d found what I was looking for: a concrete site onto which I could fantasize.
I decided to tell myself the story again. I invited a few friends over to my apartment in Bed-Stuy, which we then systematically wrecked—we knocked over furniture, scattered trash, hung sheets—and, dressed in pantsuits and patchwork, with fists raised in triumph, photographed a simulation of a break-in through the ventilation shaft of my building. There’s a photo of us creeping through a giant pile of refuse from a recent renovation, and another of us strong-arming our way over a metal railing. The final photo in the series is of us sitting cross-legged in a circle on the floor of the building we’ve just “taken over,” encircling a single candle.
I called it the “1971 Sistergate Takeover” and presented it as a fictional museum entry in a gallery show the following week. In a corner next to the panels of photos and “historical” placards, I built a covered fort with blankets and pillows, into which I installed a shelf stocked with original editions of books like Sisterhood is Powerful, SCUM Manifesto, and The Dialectic of Sex. I thought that somehow, by sitting in that fort with other people, and looking at these books, and just talking, I might figure out what my longing was all about. One woman compared my project to the nerdy indie music obsession with analog equipment, a sort of vain aesthetic fetish. Another woman sat with me, for a long time, in fact. We drank beer in the fort long after the gallery had emptied out, at the end of which she said, “This was the Sistergate Takeover.”
I looked at her. She was a friend of mine, and had just finished writing a poetry manuscript about a lavish penthouse she stumbled upon in a dream. The poems narrate her experiences inside of the penthouse while she practiced lucid dreaming for over a year. Maybe any time a woman reimagines indoor space is a political act. Maybe any time women make something together is a political act. Maybe any time two or more women stay up all night somewhere they’re not supposed to be is a political act.
It wasn’t enough. I wanted to tell the story again. A while later, I found myself teaching a women’s studies course called “Bad Girls” at my old college in Brooklyn, and it was then that I decided to track down the women who were involved.
Reeni Goldin, one of the women who rode their bicycles through the Lower East Side in 1970, told me that she met June Arnold while thumbing through a card catalog at the West Side Women's Center. As Goldin puts it, June looked over her shoulder and said, “‘Hey, we’re interested in the same things!’ And we just started talking about it. We started saying, you know what we should really do—we should get a building. We should start a women’s center.” June was wealthy, in her forties, and Goldin was working class, almost twenty years her junior, but says, “We both had the same vision.”
Together with two other women, Jane Lurie and Buffy Yasin, they procured a list from City Hall of every abandoned public building on record. They scoured the Lower East Side and eventually decided on a dilapidated old welfare office and women’s shelter, four stories high, full of junkies and winos to whom they suggested that “they ought to move out” because, next week, they were going to be taking it over.
They gathered others and started making lists of materials they needed: padlocks, heavy duty plastic, staple guns. “And then we put out leaflets saying that we were going to have an action, a women’s action, and to bring water, warm clothing, sleeping bags, food—but we’re not telling you where we’re going.”
And then on New Year’s Eve, in the middle of the night, two hundred women met at Washington Square Church. Liza Cowan was there as a young journalist for WBAI Radio, and in graduate school a number of years later she wrote a paper analyzing the action, “The Fifth Street Women's Building Takeover: A Feminist Urban Action, January 1971”. When I spoke to her on the phone, she remembered being moved by a particular snapshot. "It’s the pews, the women gathered there in the pews, chatting and listening to each other.”
At midnight, they set out.
“We had a parade through the streets of Lower Manhattan,” Goldin says. “It was snowing. And everyone thought we were drunken New Year’s Eve revelers. And we were singing and chanting, and we took a very circuitous route to the building, unlocked it, and climbed in through the window.”
When they were all in, they cheered. “And then we told the women what we were doing: we’re starting a women’s center!”
In her memoir America’s Child: A Woman’s Journey Through the Radical Sixties, Susan Sherman, another Fifth Street organizer, remembers that one of the first things they did when they broke into 330 5th Street was “change the name on the portable heater June and Reeni had brought. The ‘M’ in Mister Heater was painted over with an ‘S’ and it became ‘Sister Heater,’ our official mascot.” Goldin also remembers being warmed that first night by the “propane heater—no, it was a kerosene heater. We slept there,” she says, “in sleeping bags, next to Sister Heater.”
But in the morning, there was a lot of work to be done. “We set up tables,” Goldin says. “Probably hunks of wood and bricks, where we had books, and we had food. We cooked food in there!” They filled old toilets with garbage bags and kitty litter. They brought in professional electricians and oil-burner technicians. “There was this one woman, she was like the town bag lady, and she had six coats on and her push-cart, and she was living with us,” Goldin says. “We took care of her.”
They started a food co-op, a clothing swap, a “crash pad,” martial arts classes, 24-hour child care; they started a feminist school, a lesbian rights center, a health clinic, a drug rehab center, a book exchange. “It sounds sorta big,” Goldin says. “But it was really like one person said, ‘Oh, I can teach that’ and then three women came.” Every morning, according to Liza Cowan, some of the women went all the way up to Hunts Point for fresh produce and arrived home with a larder.
“I mean, the building was decrepit,” Cowan says. “I remember thinking, how the hell are they ever going to make this into a hospitable environment? But I was impressed . . . They were doing construction, working on wiring . . . and I’d never even heard of a food co-op before that! I had no idea how people even got produce into the city.”
Every day, the women negotiated bit by bit with City Hall: they told them they would restore this unused building to safety code; they told them they’d already made it less of a public hazard than it was before. They’d establish a community center. They’d make it a resource for women all over the city, forever. And they sought expert help. Goldin laughs when she remembers activist and television host Ronnie Eldridge coming by: “And we’re like on folding chairs. And the place is a dump.”
For a while, it seemed like the city was seriously considering their requests. But the terms being proposed started to betray the women’s values. At one point, Goldin remembers the city saying “Okay, okay, we’ll let you have the building, and we’ll give you funding, but you have to take in welfare women.” Becoming part of that system was never the plan, Goldin says. “I had a friend who worked for the welfare department and she had to go into these women’s houses and count their socks and see how many shirts and underwear they had, and if they had too many they were docked. It was really intrusive, invasive. And that’s what they would have wanted us to do. And we were like, ‘We’re not counting anybody’s socks, are you kidding me? We’re not gonna be their jailer.’”
The women kept countering the city’s proposals until, as Goldin puts it, “They got mad at us. So they arrested us all . . . and called the cops right across the street.”
Susan Sherman still lives around the corner from the parking lot where the Fifth Street Women’s Building once stood. She was tasked, that fateful New Year’s Eve, with being a lookout, and remembers the deep, freezing silence of the snow while the women filed through the window. She met me at Café Mocha on the afternoon before my twenty-seventh birthday, carrying an elaborately carved Mexican cane and an embroidered burlap satchel.
Sherman recalled the differing ideologies in the group, and the challenges of a democratized decision-making process. She remembered inviting Flo Kennedy, the famous civil rights lawyer and a friend of hers, to come help with negotiations. But Kennedy’s suggestions were dismissed; the group was wary of old patriarchal hierarchies. “And oh my God,” Sherman says, “I’ll never forget [Flo] saying, ‘I have memorized the face of every woman in this room and not one of you had ever, and I mean ever, ask for my help again.’”
Sherman remembers there being several symbolic arrests at the front doors of the building on January 12th; those were the ones photographed in the papers. She says a number of others wanted to have this rally in the parking lot next door. “I warned them not to. I’d done actions like these before. It was a cul-de-sac,” she says. “They were trapped.”
She was right. Once the press left, a violent melee ensued in the lot.
“This was 1971,” Goldin reminds me. “The cops didn’t expect women to stand up for themselves.They certainly didn’t expect them to fight back.” One woman smashed her handbag into the back of a cop’s head. Another, the Lower East Side handball champion, was grabbed by four cops, one on each limb, and Goldin remembers that “she kept contracting her body, and then spreading out, contracting and spreading out.” It took twelve cops to get her into the paddy wagon.
“A couple of us got back in the building—we had the keys to the padlocks!—so we were standing up on the third floor screaming, ‘Women united! We’ll never be defeated!’ And the cops were like, ‘What the fuck are you doing up there?! We got you outta there!’”
About forty women were arrested.
Most were ultimately released on $25 tickets. And over the following weeks, a bunch of them crashed at Goldin’s apartment, an “old-law” tenement with bathrooms in the hallway and clawfoot tubs in the kitchens. “It was a cramped place, but we had like twelve women there most of the time.” And it wasn’t until those days following the end of the takeover that Goldin came out as a lesbian.
She laughs, thinking about it. “Probably out of the five hundred women [who were involved], 470 were lesbians. But I wasn’t out yet when this thing started. I was like a slow learner.”
And then, ten days after the arrests, the Fifth Street Women’s Building was razed.
When I ask Goldin why the building takeover was the right action for that moment, she says, “We were taking the structure of ‘the man,’ if you will, and using it for our needs.” Later, she adds, “It was the best time to be alive, the best time to be a lesbian. There was nothing you couldn’t do. You just came up with these ideas and you just did ‘em. And you weren’t alone. There were hundreds and thousands of women who would come along with you.”
There were other takeovers, too, that decade—many. There was the takeover of the Cambridge, Massachusetts building that resulted in a Women’s Center which still exists today. There was a takeover of the Statue of Liberty, and of the East Asian Studies Hall at the University of Kansas. There were Manhattan takeovers by rapidly growing Puerto Rican communities, like the 11th Street Homesteaders, and by the crust punks of ABC No Rio, and many of the residential buildings in Bed-Stuy, where I once staged my takeover re-enactment, were settled under the Urban Homesteading Act, which the Fifth Street action, and others like it, helped to fuel.
It was an exciting time, and complicated, too. Surely, as in many social movements, people get left behind. But I still feel the need to protect and cherish the legacy of second-wave feminism, to see what might still be useful, even life-giving, despite any of its faults—faults of which we, in the third or four-wave, are not absolved. In part, it’s the second wave’s ability to create a body politic, and its articulation of the nature of patriarchy as not individual men, or “men,” but as a series of corrosive systems in which both women and men exist, that is still incredibly potent. But there’s something else, too: that visible display of solidarity, one that took place on the streets, that was visceral in addition to ideological.
In Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit thinks a lot about direct action activism, and writes that “Walking in the streets can be a form of social engagement, even of political action when we walk in concert, as we do in uprisings, demonstrations, and revolutions, but it can also be a means of inducing reverie, subjectivity, and imagination, a sort of duet between the prompts and interrupts of the outer world, and the flow of images and desires (and fears) within.” The Fifth Street Women’s Building modeled that duet, prompted by and also interrupting a world failing to care for women—especially poor women, women of color, and queer women. And the action is as symbolic as it is physical. They cut their legs on glass as they climbed through the broken windows, and the next morning there was a building which announced that the women, at least of New York, were not going to be ignored. They evoked the subjective and the collective. Their revolution was reverie.
When I first met up with Susan Sherman for coffee on the Lower East Side, she asked, “So why are you interested in the takeover?”
“Well,” I said. “Well. I’ve just always loved the story.”
I had a dream the night before I met Sherman. I woke up in my old apartment in Bed-Stuy, only to find that she had been living next door to me all along. She invited me into her building, which was very tall, hollow, with a cool concrete interior, with platforms suspended by wire going all the way up to the ceiling, each about ten feet apart. And on each platform was a bed where a woman, each of them an artist, precariously slept, alongside a little studio space. All the women were in their seventies and eighties, naked, rising out of bed at my arrival to say hello. In the dream, I worried for them because their bodies were so fragile, so old, and they had to maneuver these flimsy ladders to get around. And when I said something about my worry, they looked at me like, well, get over it, this is just how it is. We’ve had to make it work.