Millennial survivalists share downtown squat, anarchist ideals
via Times Union
David Gunn had just been released from the hospital after trying to kill himself when he met the fallen beauty who changed his life.
It was a downtown Albany townhome painted ivory, abandoned years ago but with its elegant bones and tall glass windows intact. Gunn, 30, climbed the wooden stoop and turned the doorknob. The door was unlocked.
"Like most abandoned buildings are in Albany," Gunn noted.
The two-story walkup had no electricity or running water. But inside was a wonderland of grace notes: arched doorways, bookcase built-ins, hardwood floors. A huge black A surrounded by an O adorned one wall, the symbol created by 1890s anarchists then made famous by 1970s punk rockers. Since 2016, three to eight self-described anarchists have lived here. They have about two dozen Capital Region supporters who are welcome to drop by and plan protests and vigils.
No county or city official has noticed the squatters. The building gave Gunn a home, true love and a community of friends.
"Anarchist" sounds as quaint and antique as "duel of honor" or "gargoyle sculptor." Here's what it means to Gunn and his friends who are also vehemently vegan: shun all governments, champion the working class, barter and forage rather than use money.
"It's not putting it too strongly to say anarchy saved my life," said Gunn, who has no family. "It gave me purpose. Anarchy showed me that feeling you have nothing to lose can be liberating and positive."
The anarchists don't know who owns the house in a historic neighborhood where Gilded Age barons built second and third city homes. The street's residents are hardworking poor. Gunn's friends acquired enough DIY skills (plumbing, welding, carpentry, baking) to help out their hardworking, low income neighbors and avoid the dreaded soul crushing capitalist bosses. Their dazzling achievement is the bi-monthly Really Free Free Market featuring thousands of donated items from fresh bread and furniture to clothing and toys. The last market drew 20 volunteers and hundreds of attendees.
Given their distrust of government and off-the-grid life, the anarchists resemble wilderness survivalists prepped for America's apocalypse. But instead of hunting, fishing and hiding in an isolated cabin, the anarchists live downtown and dumpster dive after dark and reap unopened boxes of oatmeal, sealed bottles of juice, pallets of sweet potatoes and purple plums.
"Survivalists don't want to be around people. Anarchists are social; we love our neighbors," Gunn said. "We're not nihilists. If the government collapses, we can survive living the way we do. But we'll also help other people, too."
A hunt for shelter, food, love
Garrett McCluskey, 30, is a dreamer. The former electrician brings a battery-powered sound system to local parks so he can play vintage jazz music as a public service. A gifted musician, McCluskey agonizes over charging even modest fees for voice and guitar lessons he teaches. He believes making music should be a free pleasure for everyone.
He bedazzled half the squat's parlor wall with color prints of bosomy nude ladies, 1940s-era pinups. One seems to be carved from gold. The beauties are McCluskey's vision board inspiring his search for true love. His acoustic and electric guitars are propped nearby.
"I would love to have a girlfriend I could sing to," he nodded toward his nearby acoustic and electric guitars, "A companion on adventures — but this lifestyle is definitely not for everyone. We believe all species, animals and humans, are equal. Animals are our friends. It would be almost impossible to fall in love with a non-vegan who's eating my friends."
A lot of friends, female and male, hang out at the squat but can't endure living there.
When McCluskey's housemates had enough money, they called National Grid claiming to be the new building owners. The power came on. There has been no electricity for months. McCluskey and Gunn say they would never endanger the building by starting a fire indoors. They used microwaves in a nearby gas station mini-mart to heat hot water battles for their sleeping bags then wore all their clothes to avoid frostbite. Kind friends with apartments invited them to couch surf when the cold was severe.
Firefighters have never marked the house with the big red X sign that designates a building as structurally unsafe to enter.
"But just because an abandoned house doesn't have the red X doesn't mean it's structurally sound," said city of Albany neighborhood stabilization coordinator Samuel Wells. "Very few abandoned buildings are ready to be inhabited without a lot of work. If a home goes years without basic maintenance, it deteriorates in hazardous ways that might not be visible."
Wells said abandoned house should never be unlocked because thieves can get in and steal the copper wiring and fixtures.
The anarchists insist they would not harm their home although they can be overly confident in their maintenance skills. One former housemate tried to give the flat free running water by removing the pipes' meter with a blowtorch.
They now have what is dubbed the "zero gravity toilet." McCluskey fills a five-gallon bucket, lugs it upstairs then pours it into the bowl to push excrement down into the sewer line.
"The zero gravity toilet is a dealbreaker for a lot of women when it comes to moving in," McCluskey sighed.
On a recent summery afternoon, he shared juicy watermelon and mangoes with anarchist buddies Gunn and University at Albany pre-med major Tobi Warwick — and their girlfriends.
Gunn met sweetheart Alyssa Gallagher at a tofu cooking class. She had an apartment and a job at Capital Roots, a nonprofit that gets fresh produce to low income families. Yet she loved Gunn enough to move into the squat.
"Dave has unique, interesting ideas; he makes an impact on the community," Gallagher said. "I don't mind dumpster diving. The food is normally in clean, tied bags, not just thrown loose into a dumpster."
The group searches dumpsters by groceries, bakeries and restaurants. Only one fish market dumpster was too smelly for anyone to dive. Usually, they find so much clean, edible, healthy food, McCluskey arranges excess food on the stoop in neat mini-mart rows, with a sign inviting passersby to help themselves.
But I won't go anywhere near that zero gravity toilet," Gallagher said, laughing. "I got a gym membership so Dave and I can use the showers and bathrooms there."
That free market
It may seem odd for guys without conventional day jobs to champion the working class. McCluskey's most recent foray into the work world was his vegan stand-up comedy act.
He was banned from the Albany comedy club the same night he debuted. McCluskey played a video onstage of a pig slaughterhouse.
"Mmmmm bacon. Laughter is one letter from slaughter. Are we laughing yet?" he said as mutilated pigs shrieked onscreen and horrified audience members groaned and shouted for him to stop.
Asked now if he thought the act was funny, McCluskey ponders over the question with earnest sweetness.
"I think I can be funny and that I'm fun. But maybe that was more confrontational than comic," McCluskey replied.
The free market is the anarchists' true workplace. It inspired Warwick, 22, to join Gunn's group. He has an apartment and an Albany Medical Center job.
"He's such a loyal guy that when we planned a protest of the center's treatment of animals, Tobi came and stood with us in his blue scrubs," McCluskey said.
Warwick also allows his address to be displayed on social media promoting the Really Free Free Market so Albany residents can drop off donations at his apartment.
"The market was a transforming experience for me; I wanted to make a commitment to the group's ideals after that," Warwick said. "All ages, including children, all races were at the last market. A man who needed size 10 shoes for a job interview wept when he found a pair."
The anarchists had no idea what a pair of grab bars for handicapped bathtubs were. But a man who uses a wheelchair was thrilled to get them. It reminded Warwick of how a prosaic item can be life altering for someone who can't earn enough money to buy it no matter how hard they work.
Creating their own world
University at Albany sociology professor Richard Lachmann sees an appreciation of anarchy as a sensible reaction to being stuck in a gig economy. His upcoming book about American workers is "First Class Passengers on a Sinking Ship: Elite Politics and the Decline of Great Powers." It's a title the anarchists would relish.
"Millennials are in an economy with a lot of available jobs but mostly they're lousy jobs with no security, no advancement," Lachmann said. "Off-the-grid communities, rural and urban, pop up more often in uncertain economic times."
Historically, anarchists' prickly personalities and unwillingness to compromise made it difficult for them to submit to adjustments most workers make almost without thinking in order to get along with bosses and fit into corporate cultures.
"But if you're young and all the corporate world offers you is endless hopping between unfulfilling jobs, the rewards for those compromises seem less worthwhile," Lachmann said. "It's a risky move to try to create your own world. But if the world you're in now is unattractive and unstable, the risk seems worth taking."
Gunn candidly discusses how his mental health struggles make relationships with traditional workplaces problematic. After his suicide attempt, he said state health officials diagnosed him with depression and post traumatic stress disorder. Gunn says he sees a therapist and gets a disability check too small to live on.
"Honestly, I probably wouldn't fit into a lot of workplaces," Gunn said. "But I've found a way to be a meaningful part of the world."
Editor's note: This story has been updated. The building's stoop is wooden; an earlier version incorrectly identified the material from which it is made.