Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Hudes, or Change: Kathy Chang(e) and my ex-husband

As mentioned in the previous post, I've become interested in the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes due to a woman named Kathy Chang(e).

I did not spend a lot of time with Chang, but I made some graphics contributions to the underground newspaper that she created with my ex, before I knew they were living in an abandoned building.

In 1982, Chang and my ex-husband were part of a loose organization of people who were squatting in West Philadelphia. They called themselves People for Peace and Justice and they were funded by Chang, who had decided to squander her inheritance (I assume from her grandfather who died in December, 1980) on the building.

I was sharing informal, non-court-appointed custody of our three-year-old with my ex (he wasn't officially my ex at that point) and when my ex told me he had moved to a new place in West Philadelphia, of course I assumed his new place would reasonably accommodate a three year old. So when I walked into his residence I was flabbergasted. The Philadelphia Inquirer was absolutely right to call it a "dilapidated hovel" (see below.) 

So I revoked our informal arrangement until our daughter was old enough to watch out for herself. My ex refused to pay child support and I was forced to accept welfare for a couple of years to get by.

Now Kathy Chang was not directly at fault. She didn't force my ex to live in a dilapidated hovel while being responsible for a small child. My ex was certainly capable of fecklessness without her help. But still, her decision to fund the project had an impact on my life. 

The Inquirer article below mentions their newspaper, but it does not mention the office they had rented for the newspaper. It was in Center City on, if memory serves, Walnut Street. Chang undoubtedly paid for that too. But for decades I had no idea she was funding everything - I certainly would not have guessed that anybody had spent thousands of dollars on improvements to the building. Then I happened to see her obituary in the New York Times, 12 years after she died, and I put the pieces together:
For many years, she seemed content dancing for her cause at Penn or at the art museum, spending a $30,000 inheritance to renovate and illegally live in an abandoned building in West Philadelphia...
For perspective on that amount, $30K in 1982 would be worth $93K now. According to the real estate site Redfin the abandoned house is worth $47K now

She could have bought a house with cash, and had housing security the rest of her life. She was already in her thirties by the People for Peace and Justice era. She could have even rented out some rooms and had a guaranteed income. 

Hell, she could have gone back to San Francisco where she had lived for at least five years and bought a house there, which would now undoubtedly be worth millions.

Instead she threw her money away on a building she did not own, and when her money ran out, she continued to live in sketchy housing and couldn't get money for the dental care she needed:
But last year, Ms. (Anita) King and other friends remember, she seemed to start losing heart. A huge blow, they said, came last fall when she called her father for help paying a dental bill. He refused. Not long after, when Ms. Chang was living in a converted warehouse with Ms. King and others, they smelled gasoline in the house. They found a leaking jar in Ms. Chang's backpack, and had to talk her out of killing herself.
As my ex wrote on his blog:
 With her money gone and no job, she was dependent as well. She wasn’t always treated well by the men she chose to live with.
I assume Anita King met Kathy Chang through my ex, since Anita and he had been friends since they attended the same high school in Pennsauken NJ. Although I don't think King ever lived at the squat. I think her acquaintance with Chang came later.

I found a couple of articles in the Philadelphia Inquirer about the squat and its demise. There was a big article on December 19, 1982. My ex-husband and Chang are both in the image below.

The article continues...
...and banging on walls well past midnight. Spray-painted messages such as "Don't Pay Rent" and "This is a Free House" began appearing on nearby abandoned buildings.

"That's when we got more than a little question in our minds about what kind of people they are," said Costa. So when the new residents introduced themselves, Costa said, he was pretty blunt. "I said to them, 'If you're all living like pigs and disturbing the neighborhood, then you're not welcome here.'"

Costa soon discovered that the new neighbors, who came together during a protest at the Federal Building last spring, had illegally entered 432 N 33rd Street and made someone else's house - the property is owned by the city - their home. They had done it for two reasons: They needed a place to live, preferably for free, and they wanted to make a political statement on behalf of squatter's rights. After moving in, two of the squatters - Kathy Chang, 32, and Philip Spinelli, 24 - applied for city gift property on the block, but in both cases, they were too late.

The squatters, whose ranks change from time to time, call themselves People for Peace and Justice; on occasion, they stand on the porch or walk around the block, but with a bullhorn, broadcasting their political opinions against the establishment and for economic revolution, against bureaucracy and for anarchy.

The Peace and Justice philosophy on housing is that everyone has a "birthright" to it, real estate speculation puts all but the wealthy out of the market, many landlords are corrupt profit-mongers, and gentrification is a form of genocide because it destroys communities of people. The city, they say, should welcome squatters and buildings that have been vacant a long timed should provide the tools for rehabilitating the buildings.

"Buildings that are empty belong to the people," said Zvi Baranoff last week, as he and eight other squatters, most of them out-of-work musicians, huddled near a wood stove they installed in the building's kitchen. The kitchen walls had been covered with plywood, burlap and leaflets for a variety of political causes.

"Save Fuel, Burn a Bureaucrat," said a hand-scrawled sign on one wall. On another, the eyes of a painting of Pope John Paul II had been pieced with the staves of two Bicentennial flags.

"There are 50,000 abandoned houses in this city," continued Baranoff, 25, twisting his beard with two fingers, "and it's our interest to take them over and give them to the people who need housing."

For many homeowners and tenants in Mantua and nearby Powelton Village - 80 of them have signed a petition seeking eviction of the squatters - the politics and the lifestyles of the new neighbors are echoes from two blocks away and four years ago.

In 1978, a series of confrontations between city officials and the members of MOVE - a group that denounced bureaucracy and amassed weaponry - culminated in a shoot-out at the house MOVE owned at 3300 Pearl St. The incident left one police officer dead and three seriously wounded, and two neighborhoods shaken.

Although Mantua residents say they do not believe that their new neighbors are stockpiling weapons - and the squatters are emphatic in saying they are not - the memories of street-corner diatribes and back yard trash are still fresh.

"We have lived with this situation before," said Ben Blakey, who has lived on the 400 block of North 33rd Street for nearly 30 of his 65 years. 

"The MOVE situation has been here, and that was a ticklish situation until someone had got killed. This place was under siege."

Beyond the regular appearances that police make in response to complaints about the squatters, it seems almost certain that this new collision of values on North 33rd Street will force another confrontation with city officials in the coming weeks.

The building that the squatters moved into is gift property owned by the city's Office of Housing and Community Development (OHCD). Soon after they took over the building, the squatters expanded their living space by knocking out the first and third-floor brick wall between 432 and 434 N. 33rd St. The latter building is owned by the Redevelopment Authority (RDA), which dispenses federal home rehabilitation funds funneled through OHCD.

The city's Licenses and Inspections Department (L&I) has toured both buildings and cited them for numerous violations of building and fire-code regulations; the 434 building was declared "unfit for human habitation" and when a masonry section of the front wall of that building was removed, L&I declared the building "imminently dangerous." The masonry section was restored.

In October, RDA obtained an eviction order for 434 N 33rd St; on Friday, the OHCD filed its petition for 432. At the hearing, three squatters told Common Pleas Court Judge Charles Lord that they wanted time to obtain legal counsel. He scheduled a hearing on the city's petition for Tuesday.

Several weeks ago, when RDA and other city officials went to the 434 address and asked the squatters to leave, they refused, then barraged the officials with political rhetoric.

Reuben Mimkon, supervisor for the L&I's district office, recalled that one of the female members of Peace and Justice "came out on the porch with a bullhorn and started shouting, 'Come on, take my clothes off!" I don't know what she was talking about." A resident of the street said one of the squatters yelled, "This is our Vietnam, and we're willing to die for it!"

Before seeking to evict the squatters, RDA has decided to wait until OHCD obtains its eviction permit. When it does, both agencies, backed by police, will ask the squatters to leave.

What will happen then is anybody's guess. City officials are not sure how far they will push the issue; the squatters say they have not decided what they will do.

But the squatters express dismay that the city might throw them into the street in the thick of winter. They don't say with finality that they will not leave, but they don't say they will. They may invite all their friends for an Eviction Day party. They may demand that the city give them somewhere else to live.

They will not, they insisted, resort violence. "Guns is what destroyed MOVE," said Spinelli. "We're not going to make the same mistake."

To city officials, the situation is a simple legal matter: Breaking and entering, squatting, living among housing and fire code violations, and breaching wills without a permit.

To People for Peace and Justice, those laws are hardly relevant. "Laws are not made for safety," said Baranoff. "They're made to complicate things, to maintain an oppression." Building codes "should certainly be taken into consideration" but for safety reasons not because they have the weight of law behind them. Said Sandy McCroskey, 27: "It would seem to be in the city's best interest if they would make their laws accomodate us."

A few of the block's residents side with the squatters. "Shouldn't there be a certain period of time, " said Sarah Rose, who lives on the block and visits regularly with the squatters, "when nobody's moved into an abandoned building, that it's turned over to people? I think it would be wonderful to cooperate with the city on making something like that work."

At the same time, Ms. Rose said, she understands the neighborhood's apprehension. "We don't look like them, we don't act like them, and we haven't interacted with them. This neighborhood is like a tight family. There are a lot of people who have lived here for a long time, so I think it's a natural reaction."

Why haven't the squatters reached out to the neighborhood more? "It's been very hard, " said Spinelli "for us to get ourselves together. We have to do that first."

As for their neighbor's complaints, the squatters have some responses. Because he owns two buildings on the block, Spinelli said, Dennis Costa "is a speculator pig" Dumping excrement, Baranoff said, was the work of "a couple of crazies" who were asked to leave the group last summer. The squatters play music in early morning hours, Spinelli said, because they are musicians, "and our hours are off other people's." McCroskey said that the squatters thought their rooftop nudity could not be seen elsewhere and that no one ever complained to them about it.

The squatters seem to be having a good time trying to put together a communal lifestyle. Some pick up a little work now and then. One 21-year-old member, who uses the stage name Christina Wilde and whose hair is cut Mohawk-fasion and dyed orange-pink, works as a burlesque dancer in Philadelphia and New Jersey. Spinelli, a jazz percussionist, and Paul Jaffie, a rock guitarist and singer, occasionally get jobs playing music.

On a chilly afternoon last week, some of the members gathered in their living room with guitars. Their view of the world was reflected in an excerpt from their "anthem," written by McCroskey:
Look at them running of to work, Just watch them jump and jerk.
They're keeping the wheels of industry in motion. Just why they do it, they don't have the foggiest notion.
The squatters spend time working on the buildings, smoking marijuana, organizing political events and trying to publish Community newspaper, which says it "serves the interests of those struggling for Land, Liberty, Peace and Justice."

The members say they are not of a common stripe in politics and philosophies. Some are hard-core naturalists and won't use soap when they bathe, others do. Some are dressed neatly and fashionably; others look as if they just emerged from a bog. Some are glib; others stare off into space. A few say they are anarchists and atheists; some say they don't know what they are.

Most of their money has come from one member, Kathy Chang, who is trying to organize a "national moratorium on business-as-usual" during which "basic goods and services would be supplied to the people free of cost." Her inheritance is now gone, she says.

For $800, the squatters say, they hired a plumber to hook up the building; how they were able to get electricity is a mystery. Costa said he saw one member tapping power lines to bring pirated electricity into the building. When he called Philadelphia Electric Co. (PE), he said, instead of disconnecting the lines, the company installed a meter.

Ron Harper of PE's corporate communications department said that the meter was installed at someone's request but that no one at the building has ever filled out the proper forms. Because the squatters have refused to respond to hand-delivered mail and a telegram from PE, he said, the utility's computers show nothing.

The squatters refuse to discuss it. "We're skipping that subject," Baranoff says.

Although the squatters have done some work inside the buildings, they appear to remain dilapidated hovels. In the four rooms that the squatters allowed a reporter and photographer to visit, holes in the floors required circumnavigation, and windows are covered in plastic to break cold winds. The living room - where the squatters' amplified, often cacophonous music vibrates the wall that abuts Costa's home - is furnished with three cushioned sofas, a raggy carpet, cluttered stacks of books and magazines, and piles of junk.

An office is littered with the mechanical components of pamphleteering: a printing press, a duplicating machine, typewriters, all unplugged but ready for cranking up when the group wants to publish another issue of Community newspaper.

Ms. Wilde's bedroom is in the 434 building. The entrance is through the breached wall on the first floor. She calls it the "womb room." She said she used to sleep in a coffin.

The squatters say they have arrested the deterioration in the two buildings and have made them livable and safe. "This was a real hole in the wall. "Now it has a hole in the wall," Baranoff said, laughing. He used a sponge to clean crumbs from a plastic table top in the kitchen. "We've made the place habitable."

I have to admit I laughed out loud at this bit:

Some are dressed neatly and fashionably; others look as if they just emerged from a bog.

Also of the female members of Peace and Justice "came out on the porch with a bullhorn and started shouting, 'Come on, take my clothes off!"

That has got to be Chang.

That article was on December 19. On December 31 the Inquirer ran this story:
Two people were arrested yesterday as sheriff's deputies and police evicted a group of squatters from a city-owned house the city's Mantua section, official reported.

The two arrested were charged with disorderly conduct when they argued with officers, the officers said, but there were no serious incidents. The eviction ended a standoff that some neighbors had feared might turn violent.

The squatters, who have occupied the house since the spring, call themselves People for Peace and Justice and have leveled political rhetoric at neighbors and defiance at authorities.

Yesterday, about 10 a. m., officers removed five adults from the house, at 432 N. 33rd St, which is owned by the city's Office of housing and Community Development.

The two arrests came about 12:30 p. m. after two men argued with officers. Police said George "Sandy" McCroskey, 27 a ride off the house, and Robert Harris, 30, of the 3700 block of Barin Street, were charged with disorderly conduct and released pending a hearing. Harris was identified as a friend who was helping the squatters remove their belongings.

After the group moved into the vacant house last spring, officials said, they broke into the empty house next door, which is owned by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. Monday, a Common Pleas Court judge ordered the squatters out of the city property immediately. Chief Deputy Sheriff Pasquale Scarpello said five deputies had been sent to execute the order, accompanied by uniformed police officers and Police Department Civil Affairs Unit officers. A moving company hired by the city removed the squatters' belongings and put them in storage. Scarpello said the goods could be claimed by the group at any time.

Scarpello said police detained several of the people briefly for questioning, after shotgun shells swords and knives were found in the house. No firearms were found, he said.

One of the squatters, Zvi Baranoff, 25, said he "woke up with police in my bedroom." He said he and the other people evicted would be staying with friends but hinted that the group would illegally occupy other vacant houses.
Zvi should have been grateful that's all that happened. Their neighbors had a petition against them and they were being compared, in the press, to MOVE. The cops hated MOVE in 1982 because of the 1978 shoot-out that resulted in a cop being killed.

The next time the cops had an encounter with MOVE, in 1985, they firebombed them into oblivion.

The People for Peace and Justice saga is ancient history now, I'm probably the only person outside of the actual participants who has any interest in it, and Kathy Chang self-immolated in 1996. But she continues to capture the imaginations of people in the arts, as I wrote about in 2015. So I wasn't especially surprised to learn that Quiara Alegría Hudes had included a character based on Chang in her play "Daphne's Dive" which premiered in 2016.

Hudes does not completely romanticize Chang. The character, called Jenn Song in the play, becomes estranged from the hero of the play, Daphne:
RUBY: Has she been around at all? Still picking fights with Acosta I trust?

PABLO: He kicked her out of the squat.

RUBY: No one tells me anything.

PABLO: Your mom (Daphne) stopped bailing her out and Jenn took it real personal.


PABLO: You know she started protesting outside the bar? Shouting. With a megaphone. "Wake up! Wake up!" Your mom had to call the cops, a few times.
After the end of the squat, my ex bailed Chang out. He wrote on his blog:
One night I got a phone call from her, a call from the police station. She had been picked up by the Philadelphia police because she had been walking in West Philly – naked. The police were quite willing to send her on her way if she would simply get dressed before leaving. Of course, I had to argue with her to accept this social compromise. My landlady and I begged her, and finally convinced her, to put some clothes on and leave with us. She seemed to not understand what the problem was with her late night stroll. 
Clearly Kathy Chang had a serious mental illness. But not everyone with a mental illness who commits suicide gets an obituary in the NYTimes. And I think the unusually brutal and public method of suicide she chose is only part of the reason for Chang's obituary. Another part, and the reason people in the arts are so taken with her was because she talked big. 

More in the next post.