- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 8.55(w) x 10.94(h) x 0.71(d)
Read an Excerpt
It's hard to believe, now, what happened to the city of New York between roughly 1950 and 1980: white flight, plummeting real estate, landlord apathy, landlord neglect, landlord arsonentire neighborhoods emptied. New York City, capital of the twentieth century, was flung on the trash heap. By the 1970s, as even formerly prosperous areas were being drastically marked down, the Lower East Side was a virtual ghost town of boarded-up storefronts and gutted tenements, at least in those areas spared the lunar vacancy of the aftermath of fire. Scavengersthat might be any of usmoved into the more serviceable of these shells and made them habitable. Some people equipped with both a long view and a knowledge of bureaucratic intricacies took the trouble to legalize their claims. Most others lacked the necessary skills, or believed that current conditions would persist, that entropy would triumph.
No one was quite prepared for the economic effects of the Reagan regime: the real estate boom and its consequent manifestation on our home turf. By 1981 or so that rag calling itself New York was running stories with such titles as "10009: Zip Code of the Brave." Alleged artists were snapping up bargains by the square foot, it alleged, and in a trice art collectors began collecting rows of slum walk-ups. They camouflaged defects with quarter-inch wallboard, tore the bathtubs out of kitchens, lightly sanded the curling plank floors, and advertised the resulting hamster cages at astonishing rents in the Voice. And nobody laughed!Instead, youngish go-getters were ready with deposit cash the instant the bundled papers were offloaded on Astor Place, on Tuesday night. As this sort of thing went on all over Manhattan, not only empty apartments were being hawked. People with marginal incomes, formerly secure in their Hell's Kitchen dumps or upper Broadway SROs, now found themselves bereft of shelter. Naturally, vacant tenements were sought out for squatting by those who could not or would not pay going rents. Concurrently and unsurprisingly, the squatsold and established as well as new and provisionalwere now vulnerable to developers' ambitions, and were targeted for emptying by the municipal administration. This was a worldwide occurrence: In Amsterdam, London, San Francisco, anywhere unwanted property had been occupied by squatters, the attitude of authorities suddenly turned from apathetic to brutal in the go-go years of the 1980s.
In New York City this sort of thing had an actual tradition behind it. Manhattan island, for a couple of centuries after the Dutch settlement, consisted of a village at the lower end and rolling farmland above. The rural tracts, deeded out in vast lots to a small number of rich families, were often neglected by their often absentee landlords. Squatter villages arose, many of them encampments of crude hunts, each with its garden and its pig. Squatting, of course, is a highly relative term. The black and Irish inhabitants of Seneca Village, a community of at least 264 people, with three churches, a school, and two graveyards, presumably never thought of themselves as squatters until they were evicted so that the land could be cleared for the future Central Park. Squatters found work where they could, and by the 1840s the readiest jobs were offered by companies leveling ground for future development; squatters were thus engaged in uprooting themselves. They kept having to resettle farther north or past the outward edges of their constantly rolling employment. Eventually they found themselves pushed to a limit of rocky cliff overlooking one or another of the rivers. Pitched battles were fought between squatters and developers; one of these became the subject of an early musical comedy, Harrigan and Hart's Squatter Sovereignty, in the 1870s.
In our time, likewise, squatters have in effect been engaged in uprooting themselves. The homesteaders of the Lower East Side in the 1970s and `80s contributed to the local color that drew people who thought themselves artists, who in turn catered to the capricious tastes of those who sought to squeeze maximum cash from the ambience. Consider the gallery scene of the early `80s, which functioned as a Darwinian sieve. There were fifty or sixty such establishments at the scene's peak, around 1983; within a couple of years there were two or three left. The lucky survivors graduated to SoHo (where few of them stood the heat) and the rest left town or found work in advertising, while the premises themselves mostly mutated into bars and restaurants. Meanwhile, tyros from the hinterlands, draw by the promises of bohemia, found themselves shit out of luck, having to take on two jobs to afford those railroad flats in decaying tenements, not to mention the fleeting entertainment of those bars and restaurants. A hardy few made for the squats, and thus got themselves an education in realpolitik.
The word "community" gets thrown around with such abandon these days it's difficult to remember that it has ever meant anything other than a cluster of lobbyists. Since a community is in actuality a bunch of people whose intimate lives rub against one another's on a daily basis, who possess a common purpose not unmarred by conflict of all sizes, who are thus forced to negotiate their way across nearly every substantial decision, it's not surprising that most people who live in apartments or houses have never experienced community, except at the microscopic level, with parents or partners. The notion of people flung together by necessity making up a living community, and one that is under continual siege at that, sounds like ancestral memory or something, an impossibility in the cities of the Western world as it stands. What Seth Tobocman unfolds in these pages, though, is just that, the story of community forged and tested in the heat of emergency.
His tale recognizes both the crucial importance of the squats and the extreme difficulties of making them work. The forces acting against the squats, he demonstrates, were more than an easily identifiable them. Rather, police and politicians and land barons were particles of a virus that had also penetrated within the walls of the buildings, in the form of violence, hypocrisy, pernicious selfishness, and the hijacking of humans by alcohol, heroin, crack. The outer struggle and the inner struggle are all of a piece. When people come through in the midst of such complex pressure, show themselves able to rise above it and keep their ideals intact, they have earned themselves a little piece of heroism. The high-contrast images here are descended from the graphic vocabulary of Masereel and Lynd Ward, an efficient and effective means of representing the war of body and soul. The story, meanwhile, is worthy Dostoyevsky. Tobocman's large cast is made up of people you and I have known-maybe not literally, but in spiritand he treats them honestly. Some are fools and some are creeps and some are cowards, and a few are brave and strong. Under such circumstances, which would you be? I'm not too sure about myself. Squatting, after all, is a fulltime ,occupation; you don't get days off very easily. It's a bit like the life of a forest creature, complete with predators and blights, translated to an urban setting difficult even for those favored by luck. As New York City gets colder by the hour under the rule of money the resolve of the squatters looks ever more exemplary and ever more astonishing. Much of this tale is already history; I only wish it were for the right reasons.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >