Squat Is Going On?

dropped into the Gimcrack Inn to catch up with York’s renegade squatters as they continue to occupy the city’s disused living-space…

In the last edition, I wrote about the issues surrounding the occupation of the White Swan Hotel on Parliament St. by a squatting collective, and their aims and intentions in doing so. Just over two weeks ago, the doors to the White Swan were finally closed as the squatters were evicted by court order after just over five weeks inside.

A handful of the former occupants have taken up residence in the newly abandoned Gimcrack pub on Fulford road. I caught up with them there to find out what had happened since the eviction. The squatters did not expect to remain in the Hotel for long, as there was no legal basis for their occupation. Instead, it served as a focal point for many pressing local issues including drug addiction, homelessness and a lack of a community arts centre. However, the building has been officially condemned, and is set to be gutted in the next two years, its innards being ripped out and replaced with luxury apartments as part of the Coppergate II project.

A major grievance expressed by the Hotels former occupants, is that the owners of the White Swan, Graham Families Settled Estates Ltd. deliberately kept the building derelict to avoid paying the business tax on the property. The Hotel is valued in excess of £700,000, and provides the owners with a considerable piece of real estate to borrow against for other purchases. The squatters argue that because this arrangement suits the owners, the Hotel has been allowed to remain a dilapidated eyesore in York’s otherwise attractive town center for almost 20 years.

The impression I got from the former residents, now occupying the Gimcrack, was perhaps surprisingly not one of disappointment, but of relief. Damien Colman, an unofficial spokesman for the commune said that keeping the 50 room ‘Peace Hotel’ running smoothly was becoming "more and more of a headache… Everyday there was some kind of crisis, which needed sorting out." These ranged from controlling the anti-social behavior of certain occupants suffering from drug addictions and mental illness, to break-ins by right wing protesters. The Gimcrack seems an altogether more relaxed affair and as Colman put it: "much more of a home".

On looking round the building, which looks deceptively small from the outside, I was inclined to agree. The Gimcrack has running water and electricity, allowing the collective to set up computers and a proper office space from which to coordinate events. These are set to include a variety of direct action protests over the coming weeks, with a ‘critical mass’ protest on Saturday 7th to highlight York’s growing congestion problem and attempt to get people to use greener forms of transport.

The Peace Hotel was a particularly visual symbol of the causes championed by the squatters. I put it to Colman that now this was gone, would their ability to get peoples attention be substantially diminished? He answered that the Peace Hotel was becoming a victim of its own popularity, in that it was attracting too many destructive elements and that "the day to day effort of keeping a lid on things was overshadowing the main issues." The Gimcrack is much more secure, "once we’ve pulled up the ladder at the back terrace, it’s almost impossible to get in." It seems that their new home is set to provide Damien and friends with a new base from which to continue working towards their aims. The Peace Hotel might have reverted back to the dreary, derelict White Swan, but I don’t think York has quite heard the last of it yet.

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