Retracing the Rise of the Urban Homesteading Movement

A Case Study in Collecting Oral Histories Remotely During a Socially Distanced Time

By Conor Snow
Archivist

UHAB staff at its first headquarters at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine during the 1970s Source: Urban Homesteading Assistance Board — https://uhab.org/about-us/history/
UHAB staff at its first headquarters at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine during the 1970s. Source: Urban Homesteading Assistance Board

The Rise of the Urban Homesteading Movement in New York City

The 1970s were a time of massive social upheaval and disinvestment in New York City. For residents of the city who lived through this era, it is difficult for them to forget the tumultuous events they endured, including the 1977 blackout and the devastating housing crisis. The city saw sharp rises in tax foreclosures, unemployment, and the costs of managing and operating buildings. Deindustrialization, in tandem with changing demographics and increasingly neglected housing stock, ushered in the departure of landlords and residents in droves (1). Many properties in East Harlem, the South Bronx, and Manhattan’s Lower East Side fell under the ownership of a municipal government that wanted nothing to do with them. Squatters began to occupy the buildings with increased frequency, a practice deemed illegal by the city (2).

It was during this time that the Homesteading Movement emerged in American cities. Named in reference to the Homestead Act of 1862, which granted ownership of 160 acres of land in the Western territory to select Americans after five years of working the land, the modern movement functioned in a very similar fashion in regards to New York City’s abandoned buildings (3). Known as “homesteaders,” residents of neighborhoods with many vacant and neglected buildings informally organized to fix the properties themselves, apply for city loans and grants, and eventually own the renovated properties (4). One of several homesteading groups at the time was the Harlem Renegades, a Puerto Rican street gang who, experiencing the tumultuous housing crisis first-hand, took revitalization upon themselves.

These homesteading groups did not remain informal for long. In 1973, outside help came from an unexpected source: the Cathedral of St. John the Divine located in nearby Morningside Heights. Clergy from the Cathedral, notably the Very Reverend James Morton, partnered with others interested in self-help housing and revitalization, including UHAB co-founder Charles “Chuck” Laven and fellow homesteading advocates Philip Saint George and Don Terner of MIT, to found the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB). The driving motivation for creating UHAB was to actively combat apathy and the failed efforts of the city to address the crisis, especially in the immediate Harlem neighborhood, which often questioned the church’s commitment to social justice and community concerns. The original UHAB proposal states, “This proposal for involvement by U-HAB focuses on individuals and existing community organizations who share the belief that twenty years of public and private efforts have failed to adequately improve housing in the poorest neighborhoods of New York” (5). The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, along with other individuals and groups such as the Renegades, believed they had a viable solution.

Although an emerging phenomenon in New York City, community-controlled housing had already been an important development in various regions of the global south. Fernando Alarcon, an early member of UHAB, explained that while witnessing the apathy and inactivity of the government in his home country of Chile, he knew that it was up to him and others in his community to fight issues of homelessness. Thus, they banded together to establish safe, sanitary, and community-led housing and infrastructure known as “campamentos.” Soon after he arrived in the United States and moved to the Upper West Side in 1981, he became involved with UHAB, which drew from this history of community-controlled housing already in place in Latin America. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Puerto Rican Harlem Renegades were one of several groups to lead the charge in advocating for building rehabilitation and affordable housing in New York City.

In partnership with those seeking to reclaim neglected properties, UHAB provided technical assistance, training, and tools to the homesteaders working on buildings. UHAB also helped to secure loans from the city government, assisted tenants with financial and legal troubles, and fought to keep housing affordable for low-income residents of New York City. From its conception in 1973 up to the present day, UHAB assisted residents in obtaining ownership of more than 30,000 apartments in approximately 1,000 buildings city-wide (6).

The UHAB Oral History Project

This oral history project began while I was enrolled as a first year graduate student in the NYU Archives and Public History Program. During the spring semester of 2019, UHAB partnered with my Community Archives class to bring order to their mass of institutional records dating back to the early 1970s. The class surveyed the collection and particularly sought materials that highlighted the early years of the organization. Towards the end of the semester, UHAB suggested that I record first-hand accounts from the beginning of UHAB’s history and the Homesteading Movement in the 1970s and 1980s. With UHAB’s 47th anniversary approaching and the forthcoming collaborative exhibit “Building for Us: Stories of Homesteading and Cooperative Housing’’ at Interference Archive in Brooklyn, UHAB’s central goal was to capture the stories of homesteaders and volunteers who experienced those tumultuous decades in New York City, many of whom were approaching their senior years.

For my project, I had the opportunity to interview four key staff members and volunteers from UHAB’s history, some of whom continue to be actively involved. The first interview was with Ayo Harrington in May 2019, before the pandemic. This was the only interview that took place in person and not in a virtual setting. Harrington is a resident of Manhattan’s Alphabet City and has a long history of collaborating with UHAB. She first became involved with the homesteading movement in the early 1970s and is the founder of the Lower East Side Housing Development Fund Corporation (LESHDFC) Alliance. Harrington currently lives in a cooperative housing unit that she helped reclaim in 1989 and is a staunch advocate of women’s rights and justice surrounding issues of race and segregation.

The second interviewee was the aforementioned Fernado Alarcon. Born and raised in Santiago, Chile, Alarcon was active in community organizing and political action early in his life and during the time of the 1973 Chilean coup d’état (7). After one year of living in New York City and helping to rehabilitate the Upper West Side apartment that he was living in, Alarcon was offered a job by UHAB in 1982. He served as the bi-lingual coordinator for all of Brooklyn, primarily working in the Latin American community in Williamsburg.

The third interviewee was Ann Henderson, who currently lives in Massachusetts, but still works with UHAB, albeit on a more limited basis. Fluent in Spanish and working particularly with Spanish-speaking communities in New York City, she served in various roles including Field Coordinator, Training Coordinator, Fiscal Officer, and Director of the Tenant Interim Lease Program (TIL).

The final interviewee was Charles “Chuck” Laven. As co-founder and previous Director of UHAB, Laven has over 40 years of experience providing financial advisory and consulting services to housing finance agencies, mortgage and investment banking firms, developers, and not-for-profit organizations.

New York University Archives and Public History students meet with UHAB staff at the Wall Street Office in the spring of 2019. Source: Maggie Schreiner
New York University Archives and Public History students meet with UHAB staff at the Wall Street Office in the spring of 2019. Source: Maggie Schreiner

With the onset of COVID-19, the interviewees and I had to reconfigure what would have otherwise been an entirely in-person project and adapt it to the virtual sphere. What follows is a brief case study of an oral history project conducted remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, complete with the logistical challenges and unforeseen advantages that arose. This case study also illustrates the importance of clear communication and an empathetic approach throughout the interview process — an attribute only accentuated by working in a virtual environment. My hope is that this report will serve as an inspiration for archivists and oral historians embarking on oral history projects during our newfound era characterized by remote work.

Technical Considerations

Originally, the oral history project was designed to begin with preliminary meetings with the interviewees at the UHAB office in February and March of 2020 to become acquainted with each other and to discuss interview logistics, as well as other concerns such as rights and privacy. Once the severity of the virus in New York City became evident, in-person interviews and logistics meetings with UHAB staff were out of the question. As a result, email, telephone calls, and Zoom video conferencing became the primary means of communication and prep-work with interviewees and UHAB staff.

Fortunately, I already had background knowledge of the organization and the homesteading movement in New York City from previously surveying the organization’s archives and visiting the UHAB offices in person. Following best practices established by the Oral History Association (8), I contacted the interviewees and made introductions, and caught a glimpse into their stories. I explained the purpose and logistics of the project, clarified narrator rights, confirmed their interest in the interview, and sent out release forms provided by UHAB via email. Due to the time constraints of this project and the limited availability of the participants, the narrators emailed their CVs and complementary written testimonies, and from there I was able to formulate appropriate questions and topics. All of the email conversations and phone calls we exchanged were saved for documentation purposes.

For the interviews, I chose Zoom because I was familiar with its functionality and user-friendliness with recording video calls. Likewise, all three interviewees were fairly comfortable and fluent with Zoom. I believe that this, and the fact that the interviewees were in the comfort of their own homes, helped them relax and share openly. This was certainly a huge advantage of transitioning to a virtual environment. For the interview with Ayo Harrington, although in person at her Alphabet City apartment, the setting added richness to our conversation as she was able to tangibly point to the ways she reclaimed that particular space. At the same time, there are several limitations to Zoom. For example, it is difficult to pick up on subtle nuances of speech and body language through a screen; sometimes I thought an interviewee was done speaking, but they were actually just taking a reflective pause. Another limitation of Zoom is that recordings are not automatically saved in an uncompressed WAV format, which is preferable for master copies. To account for this, I converted the mp4 files that output from Zoom to WAV afterwards.

One final consideration was my internet connection. While I did not face any interruptions in my internet connection, conducting oral history projects virtually presents a number of potential problems. If the internet connection is weak, this can lead to freezing screens, choppy audio, or the recording cutting out completely. When possible, connecting to the internet via ethernet is preferable to a wireless connection. If the interviewer must rely on WiFi, as was the case for me, then the interview should take place as close to the internet router as possible. I do not recommend utilizing mobile hotspots, as they can be unstable. Interruptions in internet service can cause drops in audio or video and may lead to misunderstandings or impede the general flow of a conversation. As a result, interviews could take much longer than anticipated and seem less natural or more superficial if the participants have to continually ask for things to be repeated. Once the internet connection is stable, make sure that you test microphones and recording software multiple times before every interview, while bearing in mind that technical issues may still arise. I recommend having a second microphone handy, or agreeing ahead of time to switch to a phone call if computer technology fails. It is also good practice to establish an alternate date for the interview, should any unforeseen emergencies occur such as computers crashing or loss of internet access. Luckily for me, none of these problems arose.

Once I tested all of my equipment and felt confident with my internet, I opened Zoom and waited for the interviewees to join. Each interview lasted approximately one hour and aside from some minor audio lag, did not encounter any technical issues. After the interviews concluded, we scheduled follow-up meetings to debrief, discuss transcription logistics, and content dissemination. Due to my packed schedule as a graduate student, I used an online transcription service called Scribie and then sent the transcripts to the narrators for editing and approval. I chose Scribie because of its affordability, quick turnaround, and decent reviews. Although I did have to make a number of grammatical and spelling corrections to the transcriptions, I was satisfied with the results.

The Oral History Metadata Synchronizer (OHMS)

To facilitate enriched access to the recordings and transcripts, I turned to the University of Kentucky’s Oral History Metadata Synchronizer (OHMS). OHMS is a free, open-source program that indexes imported audio or video files, synchronizes those files to user-uploaded transcripts via embedded time codes, and includes basic metadata templates for the user to complete. It is important to note that OHMS is not a hosting site for media files. Therefore, users first have to store their data on another platform and then import the files to OHMS as embedded links.

There are two main components to OHMS: the Application and the Viewer. The Application is the behind-the-scenes component where the administrator imports and indexes the recordings as “records,” synchronizes the media files to the transcripts, and enters the desired amount of metadata. Once this step is complete, the “record” is exported to a web server as an XML file. The Viewer is the user interface component of OHMS. Once the Viewer is installed on a web server, the interface allows users to navigate the recordings and transcripts via time codes.

Preview of what the interview with Ayo Harrington would look like on the OHMS Viewer including the transcript and times codes. Source: Conor Snow
Preview of what the interview with Ayo Harrington would look like on the OHMS Viewer including the transcript and times codes. Source: Conor Snow

The ease and speed of processing audio with OHMS along with its text search feature, and the fact that it is free and open-source makes it an appealing option for repositories lacking resources. As a person with limited technical training, this program was delightfully easy to use. For my project, I first uploaded the audio files to my personal SoundCloud account and then imported the embedded SoundCloud link to the OHMS Application. After the recordings were imported, I manually entered the metadata using the schema that OHMS provided, and synced the transcripts to the audio. The next and final step will be for UHAB staff to download and install the Viewer plug-in onto their web server and export the indexed records as XML files. Researchers will then have rich access to the interviews and metadata on the upcoming oral history portal on UHAB’s website.

Ethical Considerations

My experience conducting oral history interviews during the pandemic has shown that, while most best practices for conducting oral history interviews under normal circumstances still apply, there are added concerns and a need for extra caution when going virtual. First and foremost, I needed to determine whether conducting an interview was itself appropriate or ethical within the climate of the current health crisis. Considerations for the physical health and emotional well-being of the interviewee and their community is tantamount. Anna F. Kaplan, experienced oral historian and Oral History Association contributor, aptly suggests, “While potentially empowering, an official, recorded interview can also be daunting for individuals who are already emotionally and mentally exhausted from the prolonged experiences of grief, fear, uncertainty, or trauma” (9). So as not to make any assumptions about the interviewee or what state they were in, I invited them to tell me about themselves, and began with questions like, “how are you feeling today?” in order to gauge their comfort level and establish the boundaries of our discussion. If necessary, an interview may need to be rescheduled and the sensitivity of certain topics should be respected.

Although the topics we were covering in the interviews occurred over forty years ago, I still asked the participants how they felt discussing them, or if there was anything that they preferred not to speak about. The interviewees did not object to sharing openly about their history with UHAB, and the virtual setting especially did not discourage them from revisiting the more difficult memories and challenges of homesteading and life during those early years. Fernando Alarcon, for instance, discussed separation from his family in Chile and his mother being sent to a concentration camp by the military regime. When the regime took power in 1973, all of his work to organize affordable housing for the homeless was done away with, and eventually Alarcon himself was held prisoner and suffered torture at the hands of the government. Another example of openly discussing hardship was Ayo Harrington. She remembered how precarious reclaiming a building was in the early years. In a time before cell phones and when the city was much more dangerous, she recalled having to sleep overnight in a building she was working on. She had to lock all the doors, send her son to live with her sister, and pray that nobody would steal their tools, food, or cut any telephone wires.

Interview with Fernando Alarcon (on left). Conor Snow on right. Source: Conor Snow
Interview with Fernando Alarcon (on left). Conor Snow on right. Source: Conor Snow

Communication and transparency between interviewer and interviewee is of even greater importance when conducting remote oral histories. COVID-19 brought daily schedule changes for all parties involved for a variety of reasons, and therefore, a heightened level of clarity was required when scheduling interviews and discussing expectations. I was very specific regarding times, dates, and expectations, but I also remained as flexible as possible. My interview with Charles Laven, for instance, had to be rescheduled a total of three times due to unforeseen events. To be certain, flexibility and understanding with interviewees is always important, but in a virtual setting during a global health crisis, it is essential. It not only shows that you value them and their time, but it also builds trust.

A different way to help build trust is to invite the interviewee to participate in the pre- and post-production of the interviews as much as possible. In my conversations with narrators before and after the interviews, I asked them their thoughts on everything from publishing the interviews, to clarifying spelling and grammar. Especially in the age of COVID-19, an open-ended relationship, rather than a one-time conversation, is highly beneficial for all parties involved (10). The relationships I developed during this project resulted in extended contact lasting many months after the interviews. Great oral history is relational and characterized by exchange, not solely on the amount of information extracted. The interviewee should be included, or at least offered a part, in the entire process.

One way that I set about doing this was giving the interviewees the opportunity to have a hand in the description process. The participants of the UHAB project all responded with enthusiasm to the proposal. During the process of drafting the finding aid, I invited each interviewee to write their own biographical notes, but this was not feasible given the limited timeframe that was left to complete the project. To accommodate for this shifting timeline, I drafted the biographical notes and sent them with the transcripts to the narrators for their approval along with the option to make any necessary edits. By fostering a collaborative workflow I communicated to the narrator the value of their contributions and agency in how their story was presented. With Fernando, for example, I wanted to make sure that his experience of surviving a dictatorship in Chile, leaving his family to come to the United States, and becoming involved with UHAB was not misrepresented in the description. I sent him draft after draft and made any requested changes to information or wording until it met his approval.

Conclusion

My experience of conducting three remote oral history interviews for the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board during the nationwide shutdown caused by COVID-19 in early 2020 illustrates one way that recording remotely can be a success. Some challenges and hurdles such as building trust with narrators, communicating clearly, and deciding which technology and software to use are a given. Nevertheless, there are many wonderful tools at the disposal of oral historians, such as Zoom, OHMS, and transcription services that enable participants to easily record and transcribe interviews, and to process audio files and create metadata. This project has shown that the key ingredients for successful remote interviews are transparency with narrators and partner institutions, interviewee participation with the finding aid, and most importantly, flexibility. There will doubtless be unforeseen problems that arise when conducting remote interviews, but with proper planning and thoughtful consideration of resources, it can still be a huge success and rewarding experience. In addition, remote interviewing opens a whole new opportunity for oral historians to reevaluate current best practices in the profession and to develop new strategies to engage with interviewees.

Most importantly, this project brought the voices of the people who began the Urban Homesteading Movement to the forefront. My hope is that these interviews reveal and celebrate the very personal nature of self-help housing in New York City, and that organizations similar to UHAB will discover these rich testimonies and be encouraged in the good work that they do. I still remain struck by one short line that Ayo Harrington uttered in her interview: “Bucket by bucket, brick by brick.” Building rehabilitation and ensuring affordable housing was not spearheaded by the city government. This movement began and flourished because of people like Ayo Harrington, Ann Henderson, Fernando Alarcon, Chuck Laven, and the Harlem Renegades. They saw a need that was both their own, and at the same time, much greater than themselves. If the city was not going to step in, they knew they had to.

Works Cited

  1. Brian Goldstein, “The Urban Homestead in the Age of Fiscal Crisis,” in The Roots of Urban Renaissance, Gentrification, and the Struggle over Harlem (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017), 157.
  2. Ibid., 160.
  3. Ibid., 161.
  4. Interference Archive and Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, Building for Us: Stories of Homesteading and Cooperative Housing (New York: Linco Printing, 2019), 8.
  5. Cathedral of St. John the Divine, “A Proposal for the URBAN HOMESTEADING ASSISTANCE BOARD U-HAB,” Urban Homesteading Assistance Board Archives, New York, NY. Accessed February 28, 2019.
  6. “Description and History,” NYC Service. Revised in 2021. Accessed April 2021, https://www.nycservice.org/organizations/index.php?org_id=3500.
  7. “The Allende Years and the Pinochet Coup, 1969–1973,” Office of the Historian: U.S. Department of State, accessed January 2022, https://history.state.gov/milestones/1969-1976/allende.
  8. “Best Practices,” Oral History Association, updated in 2020. Accessed May 2020, https://www.oralhistory.org/best-practices/.
  9. Anna F. Kaplan, “Cultivating Supports while Venturing into Interviewing during COVID-19,” The Oral History Review, 2020, pg. 216, DOI:10.1080/00940798.2020.1791724.
  10. Ibid., 218.

Bibliography

Goldstein, Brian. “The Urban Homestead in the Age of Fiscal Crisis,” in The Roots of

Urban Renaissance, Gentrification, and the Struggle over Harlem, 153–196. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017.

Kaplan, Anna F. “Cultivating Supports while Venturing into Interviewing

during COVID-19.” The Oral History Review, 214–226. September 2, 2020. DOI:10.1080/00940798.2020.1791724

Neugebauer, Rhonda L. “Oral History Archives: Collection Management and Service Priorities.” Lacult.unesco.org. Pgs. 50–57. http://www.lacult.unesco.org/docc/oralidad_04_50-57-oral-history-archives.pdf

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