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review

ONCE UPON A RADICAL TIME ON THE Lower East Side

By SEWELL CHAN

in: City Room Blogs, New York Times, June 27th, 2007

Clayton Patterson — ex-teacher, artist, photojournalist, documentarian, as he describes himself — is a man obsessed.

His first anthology, Captured: A Lower East Side Film/Video History, published in 2005, took up 586 pages. His latest anthology, “Resistance: A Radical Social and Political History of the Lower East Side,” weighs in at 624 pages. No matter the volume, an overflowing crowd of 80 filled the tiny visitor center/bookshop at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and listened intently to Mr. Patterson and three writers who contributed to the new book.

Radicalism on the Lower East Side has a long history — settlement house reformers, garment worker organizers, Italian socialists, native-born Trotskyites and Yiddish-speaking intellectuals among others — but the radicalism that Mr. Patterson focuses on is more recent: the tenant, artistic, leftist, antiwar, civil-rights, gay-rights activism that dominated the area’s politics in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. Mr. Patterson became involved in local politics in 1988 when he videotaped clashes between the police, the homeless, squatters and activists in Tompkins Square Park.

Those political tendencies sometimes seem like a distant Infory, as luxury developments with multimillion-dollar penthouses seem to proliferate like pushcarts once did.

Jay Blotcher, a longtime AIDS activist who in 1989 moved into “a lonely, dark one-bedroom” on Essex Street that he rented for $485 a month, recalled the neighborhood of the late Koch-Dinkins-early Giuliani years.

“It was a magical, absurd time,” he said. “Black and Latino poor were mixing it up with upper-middle-class gay people with AIDS — not as opponents, but as allies.”

Mr. Blotcher became involved with Act Up (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), Housing Works and other advocacy groups, but it wasn’t all serious work. “We would drink and carouse and proselytize and tell war stories,” he recalled. “We’d dive into debates about gentrification, assimilation and anarchy, and usually snag a sweetie from a barstool to spend the night with us, because even activists out to save the world get damned lonely. Especially activists.”

Al Orensanz, a sociologist and director of the Angel Orensanz Foundation for the Arts, contrasted the postwar political agitation of the neighborhood with the expansive social vision of two earlier activists, Emma Goldman and Dorothy Day. One was born in Germany, the other in Poland, but “what differentiates these two women is that they have a complete understanding and vision, they have a theory, they have another view of the whole society — Things that the revolutionaries of later years didn’t have.”

The final member of the panel, Michael Rosen, a former sociologist and activist who became a real estate developer for a time, explained the genesis of his famous project: the 130-unit rental apartment building at 250 East Houston Street that opened in 1989. It has long been nicknamed Red Square and has an 18-foot sculpture of Lenin on the roof.

The building opened during a slowdown in the real estate market, and “I really needed something that was going to stick in people’s minds,” Mr. Rosen explained.

The Lower East Side’s reputation as a refuge for struggling newcomers, down-and-out artists and nonconformist agitators appears to be fading, perhaps for good. “What we knew here before will never be here again,” Mr. Patterson said wistfully. Others were not so pessimistic. Mr. Rosen described local efforts to promote zoning restrictions that would prevent high-rise development in the area.

“Changing the zoning is not just a matter of how high a building goes, but it’s also a matter of remembering our history, being able to see our history, and beyond that, being able to protect our communities,” he said.

Copyright by New York Times, 2007

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