The first step was choosing the right place. Not just any empty building would do.
Luckily, Pittsburgh has many to choose from.
We'd met in Oakland, my guide and I, and began hiking toward the Hill. Dropping into some second-growth urban forest, we found overgrown steps, and passed forgotten blacktop streets and whole rows of abandoned foundations.
We were scouting for a place to squat -- to live rent-free. That meant looking for a building that was abandoned, but still sturdy enough to provide decent shelter from the elements, a place where we could cover the windows and safely lock at least a couple of rooms. Ideally, it'd be easy to get into, but not so obvious that it'd been already discovered and trashed by vandals or addicts.
We emerged onto a Hill District street that at one time must've been heavily populated, though only a couple of houses remain among the empty lots. In the waning afternoon light, a man in flannel worked on his pick-up truck in front of a neatly maintained house. But for his being black, and the diesel roar of the Fifth Avenue bus parade at the end of the street, we could've been in northern Minnesota.
My guide -- assigning herself the name Lakeisha Martin, partly for a noted defense contractor -- took me to a place she'd noticed once before, when she'd ducked in to get out of the rain. The door was unlocked. We slid inside. Aside from a few pale streaks of light, it was totally dark.
"Shoot, I'm sorry, I forgot my flashlight." That's me, prodigy of the streets.
"We can't really use a flashlight anyway. From the outside, a candle could be a reflected street light -- but anyone can spot a flashlight."
Well, I thought, how are we supposed to see, then? How do we know someone's not lurking? Someone who's not supposed to be there? We navigated over semi-useful debris -- sinks, bent furniture, piles of paper and boxes. We stepped carefully, wary of rotten floorboards.
Lakeisha noted that only one object seemed to have been moved since she'd last been here. We felt our way to some dark steps, climbing tentatively in my case, like Scooby Doo entering the secret passageway. Finally, we pushed open a door.
Suddenly, we were in one of the most aesthetically stunning spaces I've ever seen. From the wide-open windows -- the glass long gone, or broken -- we gazed out at Mellon One, backlit by an orange and purple sunset.
"Don't hang your head out the window!" Lakeisha snapped.
"That's the easiest way to get seen. It's how most squats are discovered. Look out from behind glass. If they see anything, they'll think it's a reflection."
The floors were dusty, unfinished hardwood, and all the walls had been knocked out, like some the classy open floor plan -- except for supporting two-by-fours, bared in an abandoned renovation project.
Gorgeous. But useless for our purposes, explained Lakeisha. Elsewhere were rooms with walls intact, and much smaller windows. Lakeisha said these were better, though they looked bleak compared to the building's airy expanses. These, she said, we can lock, we can heat. These will keep us alive in November.
"So what are your concerns about doing this?" she asked.
"Well, not freezing to death. That's one. Not being stabbed by a junkie. Not being beat up by the cops. Being homesick for electricity."
I thought about shivering in the dark. "Just, you know, not dying."
I wasn't supposed to be here at all. For me, trespassing had been a form of recreation, but never a way to meet a basic human need. Originally, I thought I would interview squatters about their choices and philosophy, as well as the details that make this rustic -- and for some, romantic -- lifestyle possible.
Surprisingly, though, people who don't have telephones and regular jobs, but do have a desire to not get arrested, are hard to get on the record. Most didn't even want to be interviewed pseudonymously, or have any part of their homes photographed.
The number of people who begin or "open" squats in Pittsburgh is small, and in many cases they have permission to be there from someone, even if that person isn't a landlord. The number of people who live in squats is larger. As Lakeisha says, "If you have a place that's rent-free and nice and warm, dry and safe, people will want to live there."
For some, squatting is simply an alternative to being rent-poor. For others -- including Lakeisha and many kids peripherally attached to the university community -- squatting has been an alternative to sleeping in the streets, or submitting to the micromanagement of shelter life. Compared to homelessness, squatting has the potential to offer dignity.
However, Lakeisha and other semi-permanent squatters are adamant that squatting is a means to an end, not an end itself. The means are all the money you don't need to give to a landlord, the hours you don't need to work to get that money. The end is having time to do art or activism, or simply being a do-it-yourself sort of urban Amish.
For reasons of her own, Lakeisha had volunteered to be Virgil to my Dante. She wanted to familiarize me with a political philosophy: Obviously, neither the government nor private property-holders are doing a good job of maintaining buildings in many inner-city neighborhoods. In fact, she fears, the government could even be conspiring to abet private neglect: Let city neighborhoods rot, and soon you'll have land to redevelop for a "better" class of people, without the hassle of directly displacing residents.
Squatting resists this: If done responsibly, she argues, squatting is a cheap, effective, community-oriented and bottom-up alternative to what the powers-that-be call "urban renewal."
When we got to the squat, the first thing she did was pound a nail to hang a hand-colored, photocopied poster from the wall -- a squatter's manifesto. "We are not in the least afraid of ruins," it began.
One of the most important things in "opening" a squat is closing it back up again.
Because there wasn't time to scavenge locks, I bought an assortment of deadbolts and padlock hasps, as well as a chain lock to get us started.
Deadbolts provide the best security, but without proper tools, we found them impossible to install on the warped doors. There're drawbacks to the easy-to-install types too: A chain lock only works from the inside, and padlocks can be cut.
I was disappointed, though, when Lakeisha told me we couldn't just lock up and leave for the day. Part of your security is learning the life of the building: Does an owner check up on it? Are other people staying there? If so, can you coexist? Do the police have their eye on the place? Will the neighbors rat you out? Is the building being used for drug activity or prostitution?
During the day, you need to keep watch -- to guard your stuff, if nothing else. But of course, the bigger question is your building's safety at night -- and the only way to determine that is to sleep there.
This, I was not looking forward to. Earlier that day, we'd "secured" the big front door by pushing a heavy old furnace in front of it. But the wind banged the door around quite a bit, making it sound as if people were coming in and out. And each time we'd go to bring stuff back to the squat, we noticed the furnace had been pushed back a foot or so.
"Sometimes the wind does things you'd think it couldn't," Lakeisha said.
That sounded good to me. "Maybe they're using the mailboxes inside the door to drop stuff off."
"Maybe. Maybe tonight we'll find out what's going on."
By the time we went to bed our first night, we'd been working all day and had managed to clear only one small room: an old bathroom. It had the smallest window (easily sealed up for warmth), and the room's small size meant our body heat could actually warm it somewhat. Both of its doors were lockable without further installations, and at this point, all we had locking it was an old slider lock and a hasp held shut with a screwdriver pushed through the loop. We barricaded an outer door with anything remotely heavy -- a ladder, a broken chunk of mantelpiece. We were in a little squatting island: Because so much has been ripped down in this part of the Hill, there were literally no neighbors within earshot if we had serious trouble.
Sleeping on an old mattress (salvaged from a rehab center, no less) on the bathroom floor of a barely secured abandoned building is not the most restful thing in the world. I hadn't brought enough blankets and was too cold to relax. I thought I had to pee, but it might have just been the cold; in any case, I didn't want to leave the room. I wore my filthy jeans and two sweaters to bed; we'd been so busy I didn't think of sweats or pj's. Besides, I wanted to be fully dressed and ready to ... what? Fight? We were armed with Lakeisha's big hunting knife and a sorority-chick can of pepper spray. I was listening for someone -- best-case scenario, a harmless addict -- to accost us. But I was more afraid of a visit from the police.
I think I dozed off by 1 o'clock, despite having to spit old plaster filth out of my mouth. In the morning, I scraped it out of cold, dry eyes.
In squatting, it's as important to be like June Cleaver as it is to be like Bob Vila. Aside from installing locks, our first task was plain old heavy cleaning.
Initially, our rooms were in a state of picturesque decay, curliques and spider-webs of paint drifting off the ceiling. Lakeisha told me to start scraping. In a stroke of great fortune, we'd found a stepladder elsewhere in the building, but we didn't have much to scrape with: I used a box of staples and she a one-by-four lying around. Soon, we were kicking through the paint chips like piles of fall leaves.
We had to be very careful not to knock down too much old plaster. Until you can get something better up (like scavenged drywall, much farther down the line), you can't afford to make your walls too thin and cold.
I actually liked the scraped-paint look. The mottled patches were interesting, and the white-paint remnants gave the underlying pastels a rustic milk-paint tone.
In the former bathroom, the tub and sink were long gone, but we had to take out the damaged toilet, which was no longer attached to the sewer-pipe anyway. Lakeisha unbolted as best she could, but we had to carry some of it out in jagged pieces, along with other debris. Lakeisha nailed leftover ductwork tin over the sewer-hole. There'd apparently been some leaky plumbing, rotting out a one-foot hole in the wall and creating an uncomfortable draft, but that would have to wait.
The floor was covered with rotten, stinky carpeting. I pulled that up laboriously, tugging at the old glue and two-penny nails that held it in place. We worked for hours. In the dusk, we swept up the paint chips, and I crawled around, feeling for left-behind nails to hammer down.
After clearing the old bathroom and another room, we moved on to the most basic amenities.
We were filthy, but Lakeisha, who is big on sanitation, set up a hand-washing station. This was: a plastic jug with a spout, purchased from a camping store; soap; a wire rack found in the building to use as a washstand; and a five-gallon bucket to catch the water. We later re-used the soapy water -- combined with Murphy's oil soap -- to scrub the floors.
Speaking of sanitation, we set up a five-gallon bucket to pee in outside our main rooms. Don't throw toilet paper in with the urine (a hard habit to break): Put the tissue in a separate container to throw out with the trash. Later, dump the pee into the storm sewer. This isn't a health hazard: Most people's urine is quite safe and sanitary.
As for shitting, I was burning so many calories shivering that I hardly had any waste. But I made use of the facilities at my office. Unlike urine, fecal matter isn't sanitary. You can treat it as trash or as, um, future soil. If the former, wrap it in newspaper and maybe a plastic bag, and drop it in the trash -- just like dog doo or a disposable diaper. The more "advanced" option is composting if you have some sort of yard: Layer it with ash or sawdust. As bacteria go at it, they raise the temperature enough to kill off harmful bacteria like e. coli. Re-compost it with regular garden compost so it can go through this cycle twice. To be on the safe side, don't use shit compost to fertilize root foods, like potatoes or carrots.
In the next few days, we insulated our rooms a little bit at a time, using plastic sheeting and duct tape -- truly one of the world's wonders and a fifth state of matter. Tape's not a long-term solution, but it makes your place livable so you can think longer-term. At night, hang something over the windows to keep in the light and warmth.
But an old building like this will never be "warm": Warmth, like everything else in squatting, is do-it-yourself, too. Dress in layers. Wool socks are inexpensive at the army-navy surplus store. Silk is also warm and a great underlayer; I'd try thrift stores for leftovers from the 1990s silk fad. Cotton is downright dangerous if you're cold and wet.
Finally, you'll need some light. Get an inexpensive Coleman kerosene lantern: At full power, they're as bright as a 60-watt bulb. Fat candles are nice as well. Just don't put them in the window. If you think you can make a long-term home, scout a building with good wiring (in particular, not chewed by squirrels) and a good fuse or circuit box. Even if you don't own the place, you can sometimes get the electric company to turn the power on, and you can pay your bills like a respectable citizen.
After our second night in the squat -- and with additional blankets and additional amenities, it was quite comfortable -- the furnace blocking the front door had been moved again.
This time, I was brave enough to scout the building out. In a back room, I found evidence of a fellow squatter, but not one as attuned to the finer points of the lifestyle as Lakeisha. He had chosen a room with walls, but hadn't cleared the crumbled plaster and debris off the floor, passing up rooms that were messier but had doors and intact windows.
He'd put down cardboard as a mattress and a dingy bedspread as a blanket. Two small mirrors lay near the bedroll along with a lighter and a half-pack of cigarettes. And, curiously -- why wasn't he wearing them? -- a very new and seemingly authentic pair of Timberlands.
I skittered off, full of news. Lakeisha returned, less timid. Our neighbor had left out a pair of pants and some papers ... an out-of-state ID, a Greyhound bus ticket, some papers from a church and from a social-service program.
If anything, we were probably more frightening to him than vice versa. We were lugging furnaces and making it hard to get in the door. We were hauling stuff around, pounding nails and chattering like a pair of housewives.
Our neighbor didn't spend much time around the building, and we only got one glimpse of him -- and a female companion. For being apparently homeless, his clothes were newish, surprisingly clean and respectable. Once a few days had passed, it even seemed safe to lock the squat and spend some time away.
One night, my guide came home trundling a seven-foot wide rolled-up rug on her shoulder. She'd found the thing on the curb up on Herron Hill and had hauled it over on foot. "This'll make the dining room warmer," she declared. Along the way she'd met a guy named Anton who was high, but who walked her through most of the Hill District. ("You attract a lot of attention when you're carrying a rug!")
Anton told her his story: He'd been sober but recently relapsed; he was estranged from his ex-wife and the kids were living with his mom, who was supporting them out of her Social Security.
However, he told Lakeisha, he was more worried about her problems. "You're living there? Don't like the shelters, huh?"
"I like to have my own place."
"Well, be careful! One time, we were staying up in one of those abandominiums, and they just knocked it over while we were in it!"
"Oh, I think I'd notice the bulldozers outside first," Lakeisha said.
"But we were high!"
He wanted to walk her home. "Do you think I'd have survived on the streets this long if I told everyone where I was staying?" she replied. Anton, apparently a gentleman, turned off a few blocks later.
As for the rug, Lakeisha was pretty attached to it, having carried it halfway across town, but I was less impressed: It stunk like dog. Using an old electric cord that someone had hung as a clothesline in the hallway, Lakeisha beat the rug with a board, covering us both in dirt and dog hair. We spread it canvas-side up -- it was cleaner than the grimy plush side -- on the floor. A muted maroon with a faux oriental pattern, it looked good.
And it only really stunk if you got down on the floor on a wet day.
Lakeisha's philosophy was that for every practical thing, you should do one beautiful thing. "I want you to bring something homey," she nagged.
As we got the basics taken care of, we poked around for things to make it nicer. We found a pair of decent end-tables and a dining table and chairs. For our wash station, I found in another room a cheap red plastic salad bowl that we could use as a basin. It glowed like a ruby in front of the window. "That's your color, red," she said, approvingly.
In the lamplight, the squat took on a simple Shaker look -- but was even simpler for being found, not newly made. According to squatter thinking, American society is wasteful and excessive, so your needs are more ethically met with recycling -- of belongings and buildings.
By now, the basics in our small apartment had been taken care of. It still wasn't long-term livable -- there was no heat, since putting in a woodstove is an advanced project -- but it was pleasant to be there as we worked by day and read, talked and wrote by night. I was sleeping well. Though I was physically exhausted, I was less stressed than usual.
Since we were expecting a couple of friends to stop by the next morning for breakfast, it was time for the ultimate housewife project: cooking.
Turning to Survival Without Rent, a widely photocopied zine written by New York squatters in the 1980s, I found instructions for an alcohol stove.
I started by cleaning out an aluminum food can. Next, I soaked a wad of gauze bandage with rubbing alcohol (don't use higher than 70 percent, SWR warns, or "disaster could result") from the drugstore. Additionally, you can safely pour a couple of inches of alcohol into the can, and the gauze will wick it up.
Next, I prepared the "hearth." We found a pair of milk crates in the building, which I put down in front of an original fireplace. (The mantle had been stolen long ago.) On top of the upturned crates, I stacked four bricks, two on the left and two on the right.
I put an upside-down toilet-tank lid between the bricks, where the burning can would sit. I bent a recycled square of tinfoil around the can to hold the heat in. Finally, atop the bricks I put a rusty piece of grill -- another lucky find in the building.
I moved the rest of the rubbing alcohol far away, and I moved our fire extinguisher near. Then, with a flourish, I lit the can.
Beauty! It burned blue like a little hobo Sterno. We used it to heat soup and boil water for hot chocolate and oatmeal. Total cost: $1.29 for the rubbing alcohol.
In my week of squatting, I was more fastidious in the kitchen than I'd ever been in any "normal" place. Miraculously, there wasn't a mouse, rat, ant, cockroach or even raccoon that we had to fight for our squatting territory, and we intended to keep it that way. "They've had no food source," Lakeisha explained officiously.
To safeguard our food, we had a well-made, decades-old steel First Aid box -- our "fridge" -- that Lakeisha had salvaged from a local industrial ruins. And I chased down every stray crumb, every drop of delicious squat-cooked hot chocolate. I regretted that I had only my cold-numbed fingers, not tweezers, to do the job.
Our little building had its flaws, but I'd come to love it. Maybe we were there illegally, but we took good care of the place and even improved it. I just hope the owner isn't some land speculator looking to cash out someday.
Perhaps, judging from the abandoned renovation, the owners bit off more than they could chew. We all fall short of our expectations.
But we limited our ambitions to what we could accomplish before sundown. We covered wide-open windows, keeping out rain, wind and creeping vines. We took up stinky carpeting and cleaned the place, making it less attractive to pests. We treated the wood floors with Murphy's oil soap. We chinked up leaks and drafts, further protecting the place from the elements.
In a few days, I'd lost any sense that I was breaking the law. It was pleasant to step out each morning and return with a cup of coffee.
We never saw evidence of an owner or caretaker.
Not far away, a building was being advertised as new loft apartments, and by day, the streets were parked full of cars. But they all belonged to Downtown cheap-parking fiends or workers with offices nearby. Sitting in our quiet, drafty apartment, we could literally hear the roar of bulldozers as they ripped down old rowhouses. By night, the area was lonely, even desolate. Our part of the Hill was emptying out. Though the Hill was once a teeming immigrant melting pot and home to an African-American cultural renaissance, now whole blocks of vacant land and wild "urban meadows" gape between the remaining houses.
If this land -- so convenient to Downtown -- is redeveloped, will it be affordable for the current and historic residents of the Hill? Rather than waiting around for the next imperious redevelopment scheme, Lakeisha thinks that repopulating the area through squatting isn't such a bad idea.
Mulling it over by lamplight, she figured that to make it work, you'd want to change the state's adverse-possession law: Reduce the amount of time you need to earn property rights in a place from 20 years to something between two and five years. That would be long enough to demonstrate stability but short enough to be achievable. Make it so owners don't have liability for people in buildings without their knowledge. And give squatters the same eviction due process as "regular" tenants.
The owner here had done one thing right: He fixed, or at least re-tarred, the roof. At the end of a long, tense Election Day, we were able to sit atop it and enjoy the view without fear of falling through. From there, we could see how much of the Hill and Soho have become parking lots. But between us and the glowing skyscrapers, we could also see a few intact rows of darkened houses, shabby but still standing.
I had no intention of making this "Squats Like Mine," nor did I care to go to extremes to recreate "how the other half lives" -- that's impossible, anyway. We just wanted to learn-by-doing as much as we could in a week.
A five-gallon water jug filled with "legal" tap water from my bathtub.
Basic hand tools: Screwdrivers, hammer, nails, staple gun, tape measure, pliers. Lakeisha had a nice Leatherman multi-tool.
A camping set of pans and a few dishes.
Cleaning supplies: Murphy's oil soap, hand soap, lots of rags, a broom, garbage bags.
About 15 feet of rope.
A few five-gallon plastic buckets.
Thick, translucent plastic sheeting (6 mm is ideal).
A big roll of duct tape.
A wood chisel to fit warped doors back into their frames.
The widely reproduced zine Survival Without Rent. Though written in New York City in the 1980s, it still has great practical advice.
The Reader's Digest Complete Do-It-Yourself Guide from the 1970s -- a squatter's Bible recommended in Survival Without Rent.