War in the Neighborhood

Seth Tobocman, Author
Seth Tobocman, Author Autonomedia $20 (320p) ISBN 978-1-57027-054-3
Reviewed on: 11/30/1998
Release date: 12/01/1998
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A squatter, former anarchist punk, social activist and underground cartoonist, Tobocman lived on Manhattan's Lower East Side and participated in and recorded grassroots efforts to take over abandoned tenements in the late '80s and early '90s. Along with a ragtag neighborhood collection of working-class blacks, Puerto Ricans and whites, as well as artists and homeless people from all backgrounds, Tobocman broke into abandoned, crumbing tenements in hopes of securing affordable housing. As the neighborhood gentrified in the late 1980s, the squats became the center of a housing movement that eventually collapsed under the weight of its diverse membership and from the unrelenting opposition of real estate developers, the police and the city government. This book offers a creative and highly subjective documentation of those years. Although names have been changed and fantasized elements have been added, Tobocman revisits the violent battles with the police, the local characters who organized and rehabbed the squats and the slow disintegration of the movement. He also presents the complex infighting among the squatters, who not only were fighting a prevaricating city hall but confronting poverty, paranoia, drug addiction and class conflicts within their own membership. Tobocman's storytelling is not always consistent; the book would be better told if a third of the it had been cut. In addition, his radical, anarcho-left-wing politics often turn this fascinating social history into a stilted tale of heroic but doomed socialist class conflict. However, the combination of the stark black-and-white woodcut-style of his drawings and the passion and the brutal honesty of his narration ultimately produces an amazingly compelling story of urban housing policy that will appeal to readers no matter their politics. (Mar.)
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