Book Review: War in the Neighborhood
by Steven Wishnia

It’s an old cliché that the Lower East Side is an “urban warzone.” But in the late ’80s and early ’90s, it was almost true. Sometimes it seemed like a building-by-building battle to drive the residents out, as in 1987, when my landlord turned off the heat and put in a crackhouse, or 1995, when hundreds of riot cops armed with assault rifles, helicopters and a tank invaded East 13th Street to evict three squats. The forces of real-estate imperialism have transformed the legendary immigrant “portal to America” and home of generations of countercultures into yuppieland.

Tracing this history in 11 episodes, Seth Tobocman’s graphic novel War in the Neighborhood (Autonomedia) reads like a squatter version of Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Politicians, police, and judges appear as death’s heads. Tobocman’s angular drawing style is crude but powerful; almost every panel packs dramatic impact.

Most of the book is set in 1989, when, as Tobocman—a longtime Lower East Side artist and activist, and co-founder of the radical comic World War 3—recalls, “there was a squat being evicted almost every month.” “The Tragedy of 319 East 8th St.” depicts one such eviction, in which the building was demolished two days before its inhabitants were supposed to get their day in court. Hundreds of police sealed off two entire blocks, and the story climaxes with a panel of a giant fist crushing the building to rubble. “ALL THIS TO SHUT DOWN ONE LITTLE HOUSE!” it screams.

Yet Tobocman is at his most mercilessly detailed in dissecting the internecine struggles among the squatters, homeless, and activists. This often illustrates an extremely depressing bit of political ecology. Those most likely to revolt against the system are those with the least stake in it—but they are also the ones most likely to be the most damaged, crippled by drug/alcohol/psychiatric problems and undirected rage.

Issues of race, gender, and class mix explosively with scene politics as seen through Tobocman’s lens. House meetings and political actions become battlegrounds, with women outraged by men’s unrepentant sexism and black men calling whites criticizing their behavior racist. Homeless men argued that the squats should be committed to housing anyone who needed a home, yet many brought severe problems into the buildings. With squatting involving both communal living and a major collective construction project, all done under the guns of a hostile government, belligerent drunks and heroin addicts weren’t much help.

Sometimes Tobocman’s compassion—and hopes for redeeming damaged souls who show political commitment—makes one wonder if he’s a saint or a schmuck. I don’t think many people would want to share living space with Terry T., a homeless alcoholic whose idea of the properly manly way to talk to a waitress was, “More coffee, bitch.” I found myself identifying more with Carlos, a Puerto Rico-born demolition worker with a no-nonsense attitude about doing workdays. Yet Tobocman depicts a double standard for evicting blacks and whites who violated the squats’ standard “no violence, no hard drugs” rule.

Many squatters may dispute the accuracy of this version of history. Tobocman says it’s fictionalized, but it’s very thinly veiled. My own experiences in the squat scene were usually much more peaceful, a working-class bohemian-leftist atmosphere, poor but close-knit and familial, like Bob Marley’s vision of nights by the fireside “in a government yard in Trench Town.” (And “Jane Doe” and “Johnny Liverpool,” protagonists of the first episode, are much better-looking in real life.) What it also generally leaves out is a sense of the neighborhood outside the us-and-them of the squatters and landlords/politicians/police. If, as the saying goes, “one movement crazy is worth ten provocateurs,” the squat scene was certainly well stocked with crazies, who may have had the guts to take on the police but not the patience to build alliances with other people in the neighborhood.

But if War in the Neighborhood is ultimately depressing, it’s because it tells the story of a defeat. The squatters weren’t strong enough to fend off the armies of Il Duce Giuliani; while about 10 squats survive, they are no longer a major political force in a neighborhood where apartments now rent for $2,000 and $3,000 a month.

“We scheme against each other,” Tobocman muses bleakly in the final chapter. “We go to war with the folks upstairs. We go to war with the person who shares our bed!” Yet he insists that the book’s ultimate message is positive, that people can change. Even Terry T., he tells Tenant, sobered up at the end of his life.

“It is a good thing to take up the struggle against oppression,” War in the Neighborhood concludes. “It is also a good thing to make mistakes in that struggle and grow wise.”

A release party for War in the Neighborhood will take place on Feb. 19 from 7 p.m.-1 a.m. at CHARAS, El Bohio, 605 E. 9th St. Admission is free.