“When I showed up in New York with my dog-eared copy of Hopping Freight Trains and my new tattoo, I thought getting a room at a squat would be cinch. These were my people, right?” So begins Stacy Wakefield’s The Sunshine Crust Baking Factory. While it is hard to not giggle at such outright naiveté in a “punk” novel, I didn’t expect it to happen in the first paragraph.
In the following two hundred plus pages, Wakefield weaves a tale largely centered on protagonist Sid, a female punk who eschews college in favor of getting a Black Flag tattoo and living an idealized, utopian fantasy in a squat in New York City’s Lower East Side. Sid has her sights set on Lorenzo, a boy she meets while camping on the roof of ABC No Rio. Finding no room at the local “hip” squats, they get a tip that there may be a new spot happening across the river in Brooklyn and they promptly scout it out.
To Sid’s relief, the building—the former Sunshine Crust Baking Factory—is largely unoccupied with the exception of a small, motley collection of non-punk squatters who begrudgingly allow Sid and her new friend Lorenzo to move into a space. Sooner than later, Sid’s romantic vision of the squatting life puts her at odds with her squat mates as well as Lorenzo. A blur of events follow, including a fire at one of the major squats in the city where Sid and some of her Baking Factory squat mates lend a hand, and Sid abortively attempting to claim another building for yet another squat.
Shortly thereafter, Sid discovers that the Baking Factory itself is scheduled to be demolished and cannot find the courage to tell the other squatters. Curiously, rather than mentioning it to anyone she reconnects with the person who initially squatted the Baking Factory and they realize that they are in love. Just like that, the novel ends.
While Wakefield is able to convey the atmosphere of the mid-nineties New York squatting scene, her characters are fairly static. It is frustrating that she is able to craft some potentially memorable characters but in the end is unable to develop them. I really wanted Sid to be the punk heroine I was promised in the book’s back cover praise blurbs, but all I got was a protagonist that lacked self-confidence and spent most of her time fawning over Lorenzo.
Taken for what it is, The Sunshine Crust Baking Factory serves as a fair novelization of a scene that the author is keenly informed of and I imagine for those who have had any experience in squatting will smile in remembrance at some of the book’s passages. Even those with no first-hand knowledge of squatting will appreciate the author’s ability to really nail the atmosphere of that part of New York City in the mid-nineties. –Garrett Barnwell (Akashic Books, 232 Third St., Ste. A115, Brooklyn, NY11215, akashicbooks.com)