This is a rather long but extremely readable and interesting article. Reading it felt as though I was traveling back in time, because when I hitch-hiked to San Francisco from NY when I was 17, I met up with a group of kids from all over the US who were 'squatting' in abandoned buildings, but they were not doing the hard work that these Freegans did, in their attempt to live a communal and 'escapist' lifestyle. We got our free food from missions and churches that provided meals to the homeless, and panhandled spare change for extras.  But there were many groups of youngsters in the '60 & '70s that squatted, lived off the land, and learned to rely on their shared strengths attempting to build  'Utopian' alternative communities.

The History of Freeganism:

Freeganism is often described as a recent phenomenon, but its premises date back at least to Gerrard Winstanley, a 17th-century English cloth seller. In the 1640s, Winstanley’s business failed, and he resettled in the Surrey countryside, where he herded cattle. These were tough times in England, marked by violence,  famine and low wages. Winstanley decided that the solution was to form a community without money. The poor would till the soil and fill communal warehouses with their crops, which would be distributed to all. Winstanley, who abhorred waste, eventually took over
some uncultivated public lands along with his followers and founded what was known as a Digger colony.

The colony didn’t last long, but Winstanley wrote extensively about his utopia. Centuries later, in the 1960s, a group of radicals in San Francisco were inspired by his writings and dedicated themselves to creating a society without money. They called themselves the Diggers, and they opened free stores, distributed free food, set up free housing in squats, offered free medical care and even organized free concerts featuring the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane.

The Diggers’ philosophy influenced the thinking of a young man named Keith McHenry, who would go on to become one of the most important figures in the freegan movement. McHenry, who is now 53, came from a family with a prestigious pedigree; his ancestor, James McHenry, was one of the signers of the Constitution. Keith McHenry, however, was a nonconformist almost from birth.
Throughout his 20s, McHenry traveled the country, Dumpster-diving and crashing with artists and hippies. The pivotal moment in his life came in 1980, when he was working at an organic-food store in Cambridge, Mass. “At the end of each day, I was throwing away these crates of produce — apples, lettuce, cabbage — stuff that had been bruised or was slightly imperfect in shape,” McHenry told me. So he asked his boss if he could distribute this produce at shelters, churches and soup kitchens. McHenry’s efforts were a success, and he helped found Food Not Bombs, a nonprofit whose mission was to salvage discarded but edible food and feed the poor. Today, the organization has more than a thousand chapters around the world and has probably been the most active force for spreading the ethos of freeganism.

The Freegan Establishment

Published: May 31, 2010

HOME FOR TRANSIENTS Most people pass through quickly; Uncle Rick (center right) moved in.

I cruised through the West Side of Buffalo last summer with a young man named Kit who was looking to acquire a house. Kit was a 20-year-old Las Vegas native who had just arrived in Buffalo. He had the look of a mountain man fresh off the trail: his face was tanned, his brow was covered in sweat and his hair was pulled back haphazardly in a ponytail. He wore a bandanna around his neck, and his shorts and T-shirt looked as if they were his only set of clothes. He was also barefoot. Kit looked poor — destitute, even — but he was very excited about a grand, old house that he had his eye on.

“It has a beautiful backyard with a lot of blackberry bushes!” Kit told me. It was a three-story house, he explained, and the first floor alone had 1,224 square feet. Kit had researched the house online, and he knew that the place had four bedrooms, two full bathrooms and two kitchens. “It’s totally stunning,” he gushed.

The house had one other outstanding feature: It was just across the street from a convenience store, and behind the store was a Dumpster, which Kit said he hoped would provide an endless source of meals.

Kit is a freegan. He maintains that our society wastes far too much. Freeganism is a bubbling stew of various ideologies, drawing on elements of communism, radical environmentalism, a zealous do-it-yourself work ethic and an old-fashioned frugality of the sock-darning sort. Freegans are not revolutionaries. Rather, they aim to challenge the status quo by their lifestyle choices. Above all, freegans are dedicated to salvaging what others waste and — when possible — living without the use of currency. “I really dislike spending money,” Kit told me. “It doesn’t feel natural.”

Eventually, Kit and I arrived at the house that he’d picked out for himself. It was a tall, narrow structure, with boarded-up windows and a front lawn in desperate need of mowing. There was no “for sale” sign, but that hardly mattered, because Kit simply planned to move in. Buffalo is fertile ground for squatting. Kit’s house was one of 10,000 such abandoned structures in the city. As far as Kit was concerned, this rust-belt city, hit hard by foreclosures, was a veritable Eden for freegans.

“People throw away houses,” he told me. “It’s ridiculous.”

As it turns out, a group of Kit’s friends have enjoyed great success as squatters in this same neighborhood. In 2005, they took over a palatial old home, and this was where Kit was temporarily living when we met. The property is a sprawling turn-of-the-century mansion with six fireplaces, a cavernous dining room, a library, several enormous bedrooms, servants’ quarters and an in-ground swimming pool. The place, it must be said, is in serious disrepair. Shingles are peeling off the exterior, the front lawn is littered with bicycle parts and the swimming pool contains so much soil that it might more aptly be called a landfill. But it has electricity, running water and even a phone line. Those who live here often say they are living in “decadent poverty.”

The mansion is situated near the Niagara River, whose shores are lined with old warehouses and factories. This part of Buffalo was once home to working-class Italian-Americans, who worked in small factories, on the docks and in railroad yards. The homes, with notable exceptions, tend to be modest. In recent years, there has been an influx of new immigrants from Burma, Somalia and Sudan. Like the freegans, many of these immigrants came to take advantage of the city’s overlooked housing stock, though they acquired their homes in the more traditional way.

The freegans’ mansion is populated by a small number of residents who live there year-round. They ride out the winters in a single room equipped with a wood-burning stove, and when necessary, they use an auger to drill through the ice that forms in the toilets. In the summer, though, the mansion’s population swells, as drifters, backpackers from as far away as Europe and traveling musicians arrive almost daily. A few harder cases pass through, too. One visitor I met was a former drug addict who had tried to kill himself more than once; another was an anemic-looking young woman who had been living under a bridge for four months. The majority, however, seemed to be iconoclastic young people from middle-class backgrounds living some version of the freegan dream. They Dumpster-dive for food, mend their clothing with dental floss and brew dandelion wine. Postcards from former guests adorn the walls. One is signed by a visitor from Plymouth, England, who writes: “How’s the house and how’s the whole project working out? I hope a lot of guys are taking advantage of the situation you have.”

MORE PHOTOS - Slide Show

Jake Halpern is the author of “Fame Junkies: The Hidden Truths Behind America’s Favorite Addiction,” among other books.


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Replies to This Discussion

Long article but interesting. However, this only seems like an alternative to living on the street itself. Sure, it recycles houses in the Rust Belt but I wonder what it does long term for any of the freegans involved? At times this just seemed like a script for a sci-fi post-apocalyptic movie. Where does it go from here?


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