When you visit Eric Cruit's home, come around back. That's how he first approached his North Side row house in January 2004, by which time it had been abandoned and lacked a back door. Cruit, 32, installed one and moved in. He set to making the place livable ... in part with cheap solar panels and a low-tech rooftop solar water-heating system ... and creating his artwork.
An experienced squatter who's written a pamphlet called "Life Without Rent," Cruit is still working on the Brighton Street house; he even has conventional electrical service. But life without gas service, and especially without water service, threatens to get him removed from his home of two-and-a-half years.
Tall and burly, with curly, rust-colored hair shaved into a mohawk, Cruit is hard to miss. You might also know his paintings and hand-crafted knives, sold at shops including Slacker, Angry Moon and Ethnic Arts ... "as well as hanging on many abandoned buildings around the city," he notes. Cruit goes by the nom d'art Sketch Master Flexx, and his do-it-yourself skills are notable: He fabricates experimental bikes and helps local kids with bike repairs.. "He's incredibly resourceful. I mean incredibly resourceful," says Erok Boerer, of the local bike collective Free Ride. "He's probably the most DIY guy I ever met."
But to the Allegheny County Health Department, Cruit's homemade home is substandard. Responding to a September 2004 complaint about a sewage smell and a backyard full of discarded building material, ACHD cited Cruit for several violations ... including lack of gas and water service, which the county requires for all dwellings. Follow-ups revealed no progress; the house is still "unfit for human habitation," according to the ACHD, and Cruit has received at least two written orders to vacate. The most recent gave him until June 27 to clear out.
ACHD spokesperson Guillermo Cole says Cruit could stay for now even if he only restored water service. But there's a hitch: a back bill of some $3,500, owed to the Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority. The PWSA won't restore service until the bill is paid, and no one has been able to locate the building's owners of record, Melvin Lee and Gloria Johnson Lee. PWSA's last contact with Melvin Lee was in 1999, the year it terminated service, says PWSA spokesperson Holly Parada.
Cruit is contemplating fund-raisers under the aegis of his home recording studio, Brothel Records. But even if he comes up with the money for the bill, the only way to get the tap flowing is if the property owner either requests restoration or puts the service in the name of a paying tenant. "We can't restore service to a property that's not rightfully yours," says Parada.
Cruit says he can get along without piped-in water ... just like his Amish relatives back in Ohio. There's his rooftop rain-collection system, a nearby outdoor spigot, and even a local homeless shelter for showers.
With its still-cracked plaster and bare-wood floors, Cruit's place isn't everyone's idea of a cozy domicile. But, he asks, who benefits if he's thrown out? "Basically this would be one of those houses they would board up and let it decay until it collapsed. I would hate to see the work this area needs chased away because of different rule things."
Cruit's neighbors include his bike-repair colleague Terrence Murphy, who says he's been squatting in his house for a year. "Paying rent [at another apartment], I was living with junkies," says Murphy. "This is way more rewarding, just building bikes for kids all day."
Because getting Cruit tossed would require a city magistrate's hearing, he's unlikely to be forced out before August. Apprised of the PWSA's rules for resumption of service, Cruit quotes Ghandi: "First they will ignore you, then they will laugh at you, then they will fight you, then you will win."