by Stacy Wakefield
2014, Akashic Books
In The Sunshine Crust Baking Factory, author Stacy Wakefield sets out to capture the spirit and energy of the squatters community in New York City in the mid-1990s by way of a novel. Over the course of the novel, readers get a good snapshot of what squatting was like, with tales of punk shows, squats, battles with the cops, evictions, and the joy of living rent free. It does an excellent job of portraying the experience of squatting and the surrounding scene.
Wakefield’s book is of course fictional, but it is based to at least some degree on real events and people, making it a work of historical fiction. In interviews accompanying the book’s release, Wakefield has said that the characters are composites of actual squatters that she met while she was squatting in New York City for a year in the mid-1990s. Some readers may be familiar with her previous nonfiction book, Not For Rent: Conversations with Creative Activists in the U.K., which contained interviews with squatters in the U.K. Clearly, The Sunshine Crust Baking Factory benefits from these experiences.
Her background gives the novel an authentic feel. The characters, stories, and squats all seem authentic. Indeed, at times she weaves in actual places—Serenity House, C-Squat, and ABC No Rio—adding to the realism of her story. The novel is centered around a strong female character Sid, who moves to New York City in the 1995 and plans to enter the squatting scene. Like many naïve punk travelers before her, Sid quickly learns that things aren’t always as they seem from afar and she finds that her integration into the squatting community in the Lower East Side is complicated by scene politics and the changing dynamics of a gentrifying city.
The story in The Sunshine Crust Baking Factory isn’t particularly strong nor is the character development, it definitely functions more as a “slice-of-life” type novel. The plot loosely revolves around Sid’s efforts at finding a squat and struggling to to fit into the scene, but it’s primarily just a series of events happening over a course of a year. It captures her struggles with finding a place to squat, interpersonal dynamics in the squatting scene, evictions, and the everyday challenges of squatting. I was quite pleased that the main character in the book was a woman and enjoyed the portions of the book that explored the dynamics of being a woman in a male-dominated squat. The portrayals of the sexism in the scene made the main character Sid’s evolution from an impressionable youth into a successful squatter much more interesting than it would have been otherwise. Unfortunately, I didn’t develop a particularly strong attachment to either the characters or the story itself, but because I was interested in the subject matter, the book was able to hold my attention.
In terms of anarchist politics, there isn’t a lot of direct commentary. The squatters in the book are involved in the broad squatting scene which include a mix of folks, from apolitical punks to squatters with more specifically anarchist politics. Most of the people in the book have the sort of vague anarchist politics that tend to exist within many punk scenes, but there are few direct references to anarchists. Squatters doing Food Not Bombs are mentioned and the characters go to places like ABC No Rio, but the anarchist values portrayed in the book are of the intuitive variety rather than the overtly political. The book probably wouldn’t convince anyone to be an anarchist, but it’s likely an accurate portrayal of the squatting scene at the time.
Overall, The Sunshine Crust Baking Factory was a reasonably enjoyable book. It wasn’t anything groundbreaking, but the strong female lead character and its accurate portrayal of both the joys and difficulties of squatting made the book worth reading. It had the feel of any of the countless travel zines that have been self-published over the years, and like the best zines in that genre, at the best moments it had me yearning to be a part of the squatting community.