Books | Ash Thayer – Kill City: Lower East Side Squatters 1992–2000

Photo: © Ash Thayer

The number of murders in New York City reached a record high in 1990, and that stat remains on the books, reminding us just how rough and rugged life in the city was when the decade began. With more than 2,600 people murdered, and over 210,000 violent crimes reported that year, New York City was in dire straits as the new decade began.

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© Ash Thayer

As squatters took over buildings, the neighborhood began to transform as punks and other outcasts joined the movement. Forced to live a secret life in order to keep their homes, few outsiders were welcome into this hermetic world. Ash Thayer, a young art student, had been living among the squatters ever since she was evicted from her Brooklyn home in 1992, taking photographs and recording their world. Her work is collected for the first time in Kill City: Lower East Side Squatters 1992–2000 (powerHouse Books).

A native of Memphis, coming from a middle class background. Thayer got involved in punk music as a way to rebel against the system. She moved to New York to attend the School of Visual Arts, and was on the verge of dropping out because she could no longer afford tuition and rent. Thayer writes in the prologue, “I shared my situation with a young local punk guy, Brett, who I met in Tompkins Square Park and at punk shows. He offered me a place to stay in his building, which he referred to as a squat. I had never heard the terms before, but once I found out what it meant, I was in.”

© Ash Thayer

Thayer lived in See Skwat, which had been abandoned for over 15 years. As she recalls, “I got to know squatters at other building throughout the Lower East Side. We worked on our buildings during the day and partied at night. There were group construction projects, community room potlucks, and notorious concerts in the basement…. When we couldn’t afford to buy food we would dumpster dive and emerge with barely expired produce, bags of stale bagels, anything else we could get our hands on. You just had to not give a shit when regular people gave you strange looks.”

Kill City takes us back to a time in New York that has all but disappeared, a time when poverty was part and parcel of every day life. In Thayer’s photographs we see the triumph of creativity and the will over the challenge that survival in this city demands. By reclaiming the buildings, the squatters created a culture and way of living distinctly their own. Kill City documents a period in time that was so profoundly New York that it is sometimes jarring to realize that which remains of it today are but the photographs and the memories.


Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves. 


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