Seth Tobocman’s War in the Neighborhood

My first New York apartment was on 5th Street between 1st and 2nd. It was a ground floor railroad flat with a bathroom and kitchen, and the rent, inclusive, was less than I was paying at the time in a shared two storey place on Queen West in Toronto. When I first moved from Toronto I stayed on Avenue A with a family friend, the artist Anton Van Dalen and his family. I was eighteen, I wasn’t in school; my visits had painted a picture of a dodgy but compelling neighbourhood. Toronto was to some extent still ‘Toronto the good’; in spite of the incipient Queen West scene it was a place you wanted to leave for somewhere more alive and interesting. Untreated, I was on the run from my mother’s suicide and in Loisaida I found parts of myself that have stood me in good stead ever since. I was writing, but thinking more about voice and language and perception than actually writing, and some of those thoughts have returned just when I needed them in the intervening decades.

So few of the people who have lived through interesting times ever actually write about them. In his stunning LES graphic novel, War in the Neighborhood, Seth Tobocman careens between poetry and history and of course a poet/artist is the best kind of historian to be. While reading, I made notes of particularly edifying or inspiring lines I might quote but Tobocman is a fine writer and very soon there were too many to choose just one or two. The book was first released in 1998 and will be republished this fall. There are a couple of days left to the Indiegogo campaign.

So far as I know, there weren’t any white anarchist punks in the Lower East Side in 1977; the people I met who lived in neighbourhood squats were black or Roma and in some cases worked on the buildings they inhabited in hopes of eventually being given title by the city. I remember sitting in Binibon (the neighbourhood breakfast hangout, scene of a famous murder a few years later by a protégé of Norman Mailer’s) listening to plans for rooftop windmills, ‘getting off the Con Ed’ as going off-grid was called.

I was still in my teens and found the combination of hope and practicality in these conversations awe inspiring. There was a spiritual aspect to the reno projects, a common language about change that framed it as part of a higher good which I find myself sometimes missing nowadays. It wasn’t just a utopian vision, but a plan for arriving. Binibon was the kind of place people from the neighbourhood sat at a collective table to drink coffee and eat eggs and trade news, and it was at this table that I often met folks outside of my immediate circle: artists, musicians, activists, drug dealers and sometimes all four at once. What struck me at the time and also in hindsight is the integration, for it was a neighbourhood with large black and Puerto Rican communities and while there were animosities folks hung out and worked on stuff more than most places I’ve been before or since.

You go back to the East Village now and it doesn’t feel like that. Like Kyoto and so many other places that have been talked about too much, lower Manhattan has become a kind of theme park of itself. When I visited in 2015 (I was staying in the meat packing district) and cutting through Washington Square to get to my old neighbourhood, a film shoot was in progress but the thing is, no matter how you dress the extras, vibrancy is something you can’t fake but only feel and when it’s leaked away you notice.

A list by another writer of folks who hung out at Binibon includes Keith Haring, Johnny Thunders, Basquiat and Burroughs but that was after my time. I knew Burroughs lived around the corner on The Bowery but he was just emerging from his reclusive Kansas years. With the help of his amanuensis James Grauerholz he was starting to gig again and his first post retirement appearance was at the Nuyorican Poets Café. I was reading Naked Lunch and Nova Express in a bid to better understand not just New York but myself through the luminous sfnal prose poetry that is Burroughs. I fell asleep after my waitressing shift in a Japanese restaurant on Fifth Street, exhausted, telling myself I would get up in time to go around the corner for the reading which wasn’t slated to begin till after midnight.

In one of those mistakes or moments of fate that sting afterwards I slept through the reading that would go on to become legendary. I did know Lucky Cienfuego though, one of the founders of the café along with Miguel Piñero, author of the Broadway hit Short Eyes, which he wrote while incarcerated. To Allen Ginsberg the Nuyorican was the most integrated place on earth but in many ways that extended to the entire neighbourhood. CBGB was just around the corner and while I wasn’t a regular my friends who played there were in a black punk band; we don’t often think of punk as a black subculture but in the LES the unexpected, both musically and artistically, became pleasantly commonplace. I didn’t go to hear Tom Verlaine’s band Television because I offered to cover for my buddy at the SoHo bar where we both worked so she could go.

These are the sorts of stories people shake their heads at now; how could I have missed events so historically important? But of course at the time we don’t know that they will be; we’re just thinking we’re too tired from work to go out again, or that we’d like to do our co-worker a good turn. I heard Anselm Hollo read at The St Mark’s Poetry Project, but the Nuyorican was cooler and in hindsight I wish I’d spent more time there.

Before meeting family at Anton’s for lunch I stopped in Tompkins Square Park to sip coffee and watch the February snow melt. I had taken Anton’s daughter swimming at the Y when she was a little girl but now she had a family of her own. They were visiting from Texas for her dad’s exhibition at The Armoury and by coincidence or maybe synchronicity also soaking up the early spring sunshine on a bench. We compared notes for a few minutes before heading up Avenue A. It was bittersweet.

I returned to Toronto before the squatters’ movement took hold in a big way and before the tent city appeared in Tompkins Square Park followed by the infamous riots. I did have a friend who slept there sometimes because his place was too far away to get back to some nights and he didn’t want to beg floor space. He told me he used to make clothes for Jimi back in the day and while most people who tell you such a thing you are pretty sure they are embroidering, I believed Chuckie. While the neighbourhood was high crime there was a magic and a sense of unlikely optimism. Maybe it was the artistic vibrancy that flamed out of a few blocks where black, white and Latinx communities partied and lived together, not always on good terms but on better terms than so many other places.

For very little more than Tobocman paid in his squat I had a one bedroom railroad flat with all the amenities, for less than I had shelled out on an as yet un-gentrified Queen West in Toronto. Of course Tobocman had an apartment too and only lived in the Eighth Street squats part-time to observe and to participate in a movement in which he believed. Still, you don’t need to live in a squat to have violent addict room-mates and I’m not entirely sure why anyone would have them voluntarily when they could if they wished live alone and read and write in peace. Most of my meeting time has been spent in arts collectives and on non-profit boards and I do not think they are any more fun or less time consuming when they happen in a squat. What the squats did provide was an alternative to the tent city in the park which in winter would especially be welcome and the potential for creating low cost living space, a thing not just big cities but rural Ontario where I now live are chronically short on.

Tobocman’s drawings are wonderfully engaging, exhibiting a range of styles, but for me it’s his writing that soars. His idealism and his honesty are refreshing because he details the sexism and racism in the squatters’ community ruthlessly (and relentlessly) and is still able to construct the entire experience as a positive one, a chapter that taught him important life lessons not just about housing activism and community building but about himself.

It’s only researching this piece that I found out the origin of the name Loisaida, Spanglish for Lower East Side. Nuyorican Bimbo Rivas was the creator of the name and to many also the state of mind …

I dig the way you talk
I dig the way you look
me vacila tu cantar
y yo me las juego
fria pa’ que vivas
para siempre.
En mi mente, mi amada,
yo to llamo Loisaida.

In ABC No Rio Dinero, a book which chronicles the eponymous LES gallery, editors Alan Moore and Marc H. Miller lament that movements without histories are doomed to irrelevancy. We need more books like War In The Neighborhood, books which are part history, part tutorial, part poem, and part love story.


Here’s a bit from a short story of mine that first appeared in Strange Horizons entitled “Airport Shoes”. It’s just been reprinted for the second time in Joanne Merriam’s wonderful anthology, The Museum of All Things Awesome And That Go Boom, published by Upper Rubber Boot.

The checker cabs were my favourites, room enough to stretch out on the vinyl for a snooze during that long haul downtown. I’d get out at Second and Seventh as the streets turned from darkness to a monochrome of greys. I wasn’t twenty yet. I still enjoyed staying up all night. Sometimes I’d skip breakfast, walk alone through Alphabet City to watch the sun rise on the East River. It was a bit frightening so I didn’t often go alone.

In the East Side Deli I would spread out my newspapers, scanning the headlines, the horoscope, the funnies. Dick Tracy was up to more of the same, but Gaylord’s grandfather had seen the light. I would watch the sky change colour, a transient blue, last night’s edition of the Times fluttering in drainpipe eddies outside the window…

…One morning a strange young man came in, wearing an aviator’s helmet. He was slight and olive-skinned, the tatty leather jacket engulfing him like a cocoon, or a straitjacket. I watched, my eyes following him over the rim of my coffee cup. He sat down at a table diagonal to my own, muttering to himself, a long refrain, a litany of up all night. Opening his battered suitcase, he ran off a monotone inventory of the contents. I think whoever was working thought he might go off any second, but I found him interesting. His act struck me as performance rather than craziness.

His sharp black eyes moved to meet mine. “It’s been a long night.”

“It’s morning now.”

“Not quite.” He paid for my coffee, introducing himself as Donny. We began walking. Bits of broken glass and bottle caps gleamed on the asphalt carpet like jewels. We decided that, together, we were brave enough to go into one of the abandoned buildings on East Sixth. From his suitcase he procured a telescoping walking stick. He poked about in the dim lobby, where a single lightbulb still burned, high in the green-painted gloom…

I occasionally stopped in at TPS on my way home during that “Summer of Sam”. Muy peligroso! Once was on my way back from a party of Charles Gatewood’s. I hadn’t liked Charles; he felt exploitative—the magic we wore casually wasn’t for sale. Gatewood wanted to be an uptown photographer with a name and a following but I preferred the spontaneous magic of playing on the teeter-totters in the park with my friend just before sunrise.

I remember Adam Purple’s garden and I remember an early iteration of the Eighth Street squats but it was still the 70’s and everything that occurs in Tobocman’s book was yet to come. In War In The Neighbourhood we learn directly from someone who was there what happened, what worked, what didn’t, and why. Tobocman is open about his politics and honest about the failings of his community. I think like his friend Joan I would have been outa there; that in spite of the struggle to be otherwise the squats were not all that friendly to women and this is evidenced by the low number of female inhabitants.

Tobocman has offered us a rich, detailed and honest history of a neigbourhood and of a movement. When I last visited there was an expensive shoe store on the corner of A and Tenth opposite the park, just as if I were on Queen West. Gentrification had displaced the vibrant multiracial neighbourhood we had loved recklessly, for the streets were after all “calles peligrosas” as Rivas wrote, but also wisely, for there was magic, and magic is too rare.

O what a town…..
even with your drug-infested
pocket parks, playgrounds
where our young bloods
hang around
waiting, hoping that
one day when they too
get well and smile again
your love is all
they need to come around.

Loisaida, my love, te amo. Still.

Here, Anton Van Dalen (whom Tobocman cites as an influence) talks about his life and work, and the changes to the neighbourhood he’s never left.


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