Reviewed by April L. Ford
Stacy Wakefield’s debut novel is a quirky intersection of the individual, society, and compromise. The author’s own experience squatting in New York City during the 90s serves up rich, confident details about the movement. You get the big picture, how devastating Giuliani’s evictions were to a relatively defenseless population, and you get insider details—personalities like Raven, a soulful girl who sews “Eat the Rich” patches onto her jeans, and Skip, a squatter who doesn’t listen to punk (so you don’t have to worry if you haven’t heard of Minor Threat or Black Flag), and who sneaks off to read poetry at open mikes. Wakefield’s characters maximize the verve and tenacity of youth. If you’re curious about what the Lower East Side and Williamsburg squatters did in their spare time (were they like you and me?), The Sunshine Crust Baking Factory is an excellent informant.
Sid, the narrator, goes to NYC to become a squatter. There’s nothing dramatic about her appearance or her attitude, as one unfamiliar with counterculture might expect; she’s a bright teen, naïve and a touch arrogant, who has turned down college in favor of creating a life that reflects who she is against the backdrop her time. After several months of transient living in the very community where she came to establish herself, Sid meets Lorenzo, a beguiling punk musician from Mexico City. Lorenzo convinces her to go with him to Brooklyn, outside the pulse of the scene, and they take up residence in a crumbling-down baking factory. Mitch, the self-appointed authority of the building, in many ways bucks Sid’s notion of squatters and communal living. He owns the nicest room on the top floor, holds down a respectable day job, cooks hearty soup from scratch, and keeps to himself unless he has to do something for the good of the squat, like steal electricity. The evolution of Sid and Mitch’s relationship is teasing and surprising, and might reconfigure your own notions of squatters. Early in the novel, Sid lists music groups she and her high school friends listened to (The Velvet Underground, The Doors, The Grateful Dead), and concludes, “Pot started looking like a gateway drug to shitty music.” Even out of context, this quote suggests how charming and accessible Sid is in spite her niche story.
NYC as seen through the eyes of the 19-year-old narrator reminds me of how I used to see Montreal: as a teen from the suburbs, I thought it was some magical domain of the cool and dangerous. The first time I went to Montreal, my boyfriend took me to the east end, where rue Sainte-Catherine meets boulevard Saint-Laurent. He showed me “the blocks,” and introduced me to “the punks,” grungy boys and girls with imposing fluorescent Mohawks, chains hooked to their wallets and noses, and a collective expression of, “I don’t care.” The blocks were cement chunks on a corner lot nearby a shop that sold latex gear and platform shoes with fake goldfish swimming inside the translucent soles. The punks hung out at the blocks all day, heckling “the suits,” and at night they disappeared into condemned tenements. This Montreal of the mid-90s seems to me a smaller version of Sid’s NYC. Or maybe Sid’s NYC is a glamorous magnification of my Montreal. At various points during my reading, I did a Google image search because I wanted to see the landmarks on Sid’s map—a number of them actually existed or still exist. I was thrilled to find past and present images of ABC No Rio. I thought of the punks on the Saint-Laurent blocks and wished I hadn’t been afraid to talk to them.
A third of the way into the narrative, Sid leaves the scene to stay with her father. After her first fight with a housemate, she needs to get away and regroup. I didn’t want Sid to leave the factory, or any aspect of her new, hard-earned life; I was invested in her daily challenges as the only girl living in the squat, the unrealized possibility between her and Mitch, and I couldn’t see how a downshift in momentum at such a critical point could succeed. But it does. Sid needs to go home. She came from somewhere, right? Readers need to see her interact with her family, since these relationships and histories have informed her current life. Not to mention it’s perfectly natural for Sid to seek out comfort and footing after the situation in her new home has become fraught and unstable. It’s easy to forget that even though she possesses the grit to thrive with little more than the clothes on her back, Sid is still a nineteen-year-old girl trying to stake her place in an environment constantly in jeopardy of being demolished.
The Sunshine Crust Baking Factory is a snapshot of New York City during a period when the disconnect between preservation and gentrification meant devastating outcomes for some. Wakefield’s characters are fascinating in their ordinariness; the author opens the doors to their lives, and we’re allowed to take a tour without being judged for our ignorance. Sid’s story and those of her friends are surely as compelling in fact as they are in fiction. You’ll find yourself scouring the web for more after you finish this novel.
Editor’s Note: The reviewer, April Ford, is the author of The Poor Children, a book that Best New Fiction reviewed on March 31st of this year.