Courage, resiliency of homeless focus of new Penn State Press book

September 29, 2004

University Park, Pa. -- Calli had been a runaway since she was 13. She hid in garden sheds on Long Island, and then made her way to California, where she slept under bridges. Back in New York, at Glass House, she found a home and friends to help her gain the strength to fight drug addiction.

Homeless, unable or unwilling to return to their families, Calli and many others like her, defied the law to occupy a derelict glass factory on New York City's Lower East Side and formed a community and, with determination and ingenuity, reshaped their lives as well as the building.

It is Calli's story, and the resilience of 35 squatters -- many in their teens -- that are the basis for the photographs and oral histories in Margaret Morton's new book, Glass House, published by Penn State Press.

Morton has been compiling photographs and oral histories of New York City's homeless since 1989. "I learned about Glass House in 1993 from a former squatter," she explained, "then we met with the entire community. They invited me to attend Sunday night house meetings and Thursday workdays and meet with individual members to photograph them and audiotape their stories. I witnessed firsthand their ingenuity and extraordinary ability to collaborate with one another."

United by a need for community, a strong work ethic and ironclad rules, they turned the cavernous ruin into the home they called "Glass House." The group repaired stairs and roof joists with wood scavenged from construction sites and police barricades, tapped electricity from a street lamp and siphoned water from a nearby fire hydrant. Eventually they equipped the building with a communal kitchen, a library and a living area for each member of the house.

"It's a bond I never had with my own family," said Scott, who was homeless and living in his car before he left Ohio for New York and joined Glass House.

Added Calli, "I see the walls not being held together by brick and cement, but being held together by everybody's hands and by everybody's hearts."

Donny, a veteran squatter who taught survival skills to less-experienced members of the Glass House community, remarked, "We were always working on the building, but we were always working on the community too."

On Feb. 1, 1994, New York City police evicted the community from its home in the factory building on Avenue D. It now is a residence for low-income individuals living with HIV/AIDS.

In 1999, five years after the eviction, Morton received a haunting letter from Angela, one of the young women who had lived at Glass House. Morton resolved to complete the book on Glass House and trace everyone who had been in the group. The news was mixed. Donny and three other members of Glass House had died. "Maus" was preparing for law school; Jesse had enlisted in the Army Reserves. Except for two still squatting in Manhattan, the others were scattered from the Oregon coast to Hawaii and South America. Calli was living in the Costa Rican jungle, Toby in a eucalyptus forest on Maui, Chad in Brazil.

Radical changes in the Glass House neighborhood of New York City also were important in leading Morton to publish the photographs and oral histories of the now-dispersed group.

Morton, renowned for looking at what most people want to forget, has devoted her career to presenting a public record of the resourcefulness and resolve of the homeless in New York City. Her previous books include "The Tunnel," her documentation of a homeless community living in an abandoned railroad tunnel; "Transitory Gardens, Uprooted Lives," co-authored with landscape designer Diana Balmori; and "Fragile Dwelling," which is based on her 11 years of involvement with New York's homeless encampments.

For information on Penn State Press or ordering Glass House, visit http://www.psupress.org

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated March 20, 2009