No, not a contradiction in terms. Squatting is a universal phenomenon. I was in Geneva back in April and found that, though the city's squatters don’t live in shantytowns or mud huts, they have a long history. What’s more, like so many others around the world, their homes are being threatened.
It’s fair to say that, compared with the developing world and even with their brethren in New York, Geneva’s squatters live in pretty high style. Their buildings seem indistinguishable from the legally occupied houses around them.
Perhaps this is because its Switzerland—well organized, clean and orderly.
But it may also be because Geneva’s squatters took control of buildings that were in reasonably good shape when they moved in. Geneva scrupulously honors property rights, but has many laws regulating development. From what I’m told, many of the squatters took advantage of development disputes to grab buildings that were not vacant due to abandonment but primarily because of political wrangling, zoning conflicts, and speculative warehousing. In New York, by contrast, many squatters on the Lower East Side took over buildings that had been abandoned and rotting for years. Most had fallen into city ownership through foreclosure. In some cases, the squatters had to rebuild their buildings from the inside out—replacing beams, installing new staircases, and even rebuilding bulging brick walls that were about to collapse.
In Geneva, I visited a squat called Rhino (the name comes from a giant red rhinoceros horn hung on the facade.) It was late at night and we (Olivier Talpain, who used to live there, brought me there, with a few other friends) and cafe/club on the ground floor was booming. A rock band had set up in the corner and was pounding out tunes to an appreciative audience. I expected hard core, the kind of rowdy, beer sodden, punk extravaganza I’ve seen in squats in other cities, but Rhino was mellow and inviting.
Sadly, however, though the squatters started as radicals, they seem resigned to the fact that their days may be numbered. A decade ago, there were 2,800 squatters occupying 120 buildings across Geneva, according to Romed Wyder’s 1995 documentary called, simply, Squatters. But, for the past few years, Daniel Zappelli, the local District Attorney, has been on a drive to evict squatters. Apparently, once a building plan has been approved, the government can petition the court for the right to evict squatters. Though there were protests early on (see this story from 1993), it now appears that most will not resist. The owner of a skate shop in a squatter zone told me he would relocate when ordered to do so. He said he was prepared to test the property market and find a new, legal space. The squatters of Rhino, too, have been told they will have to vacate – and they, too, seem resigned to leaving without a fight. The number of squatters that remain -- perhaps 1,200 -- seems destined to fall.
It’s sad that the city's squatters no longer seem inclined to organize. They have created homes and businesses which have become integral and exciting parts of the city. Geneva will be less interesting and less dynamic without them.