- This Week
How a cauldron of squatters and property owners, stirred by green dreams and the bursting housing bubble, set an unusual Oakland house ablaze
05.27.08 - 8:30 pm | Shane Bauer |
The housesitters gradually brought in their friends, the walls were slowly painted to suit the eccentric tastes of the occupants, and more people started calling the house theirs. Williams said he didn't invite them, but admits that he never asked them to leave. He had little contact with the occupants as years passed. "He was just a theoretical person that owned the house," DiCaprio says.
Hellarity took on a distinctly anarchist flavor in Williams' absence. "People with alternative lifestyles and alternative family arrangements could live without having to dedicate their lives to making money, giving them more time to invest in their homes and their communities," says long-term resident Robert "Eggplant" Burnett, Bay Area punk rock legend, publisher of the zine Absolutely Zippo, and editor of Slingshot newspaper. Hellarity hosted the pirate radio station Berkeley Liberation Radio, a do-it-yourself bike shop, and cooked meals for Food Not Bombs.
It seemed like an anarchist paradise, but it wouldn't last.
By 2004, mortgage payments were driving Williams deep into debt, and Hellarity became a burden. The house was being pulled away from him from two sides: by anarchists who increasingly challenged the legitimacy of his ownership, and by creditors who placed liens against his properties.
When Hellarity was eventually sold by the court in a bankruptcy sale, the tenants say the man who would buy the house, Pradeep Pal, had never set foot in it. Pal, who refused to be interviewed for this article, lived in an upper-middle class neighborhood in Hercules and owned two businesses, Charlie's Garage in Berkeley and European Motor Works in Albany. He wasn't exactly a freewheeling real estate flipper he was a South Asian immigrant who, according to Guardian research of property records, never owned real estate in the area other than his own home.
But to the tenants, Pal was a capitalist trying to buy them out of their home. In a recorded meeting with tenants, Pal admitted he hadn't been inside the house before he bought it, and Williams tells us the real estate agent who arranged the sale also never toured the house before Pal bought it. "He obviously had no interest in moving into the place or contributing to the community if he didn't even look at it," future occupant Jake Sternberg says. "This was someone who just wanted to make a profit."
The tenants made it clear to Pal that they didn't want him to buy the house and would make life difficult for him. As soon as it became apparent that Williams would lose the house, Crystal Haviland and a few other occupants started searching for someone to help them buy the house. In the summer of 2004, the house was slated to go up on foreclosure auction, but the tenants hadn't found a sympathetic donor.
The auction was set to occur on the steps of the René C. Davidson Alameda County Courthouse, and the occupants showed up banging drums and bellowing chants to warn off prospective buyers. "We wanted anyone interested in buying the house to know that the people who had been living at the house for 10 years wanted to buy it," says Haviland, who is now raising a child, studying psychology at San Francisco State University, and volunteering as a peer counselor at the Berkeley Free Clinic. "We didn't want people to buy it and turn it into an expensive gentrified thing." While people gathered, Williams showed up and announced bankruptcy, a legal move that cancelled the auction.
With more time to search for financial support, Haviland started talking with Cooperative Roots, an organization that bought a couple of Williams' other houses now known as "Fort Awesome" and "Fort Radical" in foreclosure auctions.