A Radical Social and Political History of the Lower East Side
Edited by Clayton Patterson, Alan Moore, Joe Flood
Contributors: Richard Kostelanetz, Fly, Seth Tobocman, Bill Weinberg, Emma Goldman et al
Paperback | 672 pages | Seven Stories Press | New York | April 2007 | ISBN 9781583227459
TAGGED ► Description +++ Reading +++ Book of the Week +++ Panel Discussion +++ Reviews
+++ Discussions with the Contributors +++ About Resistance +++ About the Editors
+++ Jim Feast: The End of the Jazz Age +++ Alan Moore: Welcome to Uur Resistance
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This collection of writings and images documents the political history of NYC’s Lower East Side, describing the lives and struggles of the radicals, artists, and immigrants that populated and politicized one of America’s strangest and most beloved neighborhoods. Current and former residents of the neighborhood explore the social, political, and human landscape of one of America’s most storied bohemias. In over fifty chapters, Emma Goldman, Dorothy Day, Christopher Mele, John Macmillan, Jim Feast, Al Orensanz, Allan Antliff, Lynn Stewart, Thomas McEvilly, Frank Morales,and many others cover topics ranging from the early settlement houses and sweatshops to squatters, rioters, artists, activists and organizers. - Rarely does a book come along with politics as vivid as its people. Clayton Patterson and the many contributors to Resistance pull it off.—Jeff Ferrell
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DISCUSSIONS WITH THE CONTRIBUTORS
INVITATION | Apr 9, 2007 at 7:30pm | 16 Beaver Street, 4th Floor | New York
Resistance: A Radical Social and Political History of the Lower East Side. | This Monday we are pleased to host a discussion with several of the contributors to the recently published book Resistance: A Radical Social and Political History of the Lower East Side, including (but probably not limited to) Clayton Patterson, Alan Moore, and Jim Feast. — They will present the project of this just-published book, three years in the making. Hopefully some images, although mostly talk. Is this an "autopsy" of bohemia? Maybe. New York's Lower East Side has been pivotal in the development of politically radical practices, lifestyles and thought. This legacy, stretching back to the days of Emma Goldman's residence at the turn of the century, seemed to come to a sudden end with the 1988 Tompkins Square Park police riot and the subsequent repression in the neigbborhood of homeless people and squatters. What can we learn from examining this neighborhood's history of resistance? — http://info.interactivist.net
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"Resistance" is an archive of writings and images that documents the living history of New York City’s Lower East Side. Like the neighborhood itself, it is a monument to diversity, to change, upheaval and a life lived on the margins, either by circumstance or by choice. Resistance celebrates those margins; it is a vast work of preservation, a rescue mission for the experiences and thoughts of generations of immigrants, artists, exiles, anarchists, activists and other people on the edge. These people lived a life where politics was a daily expression of survival, not something to be discussed on Sunday over coffee but something to be expressed in even the smallest act of daily existence.
The first section of the book deals with the broad radical history of the neighborhood, from thoughts on Dorothy Day and Emma Goldman by Al Orensanz to dense anecdotal vignettes of local characters by Eric Miller. Peter Lamborn Wilson (Hakim Bey) presents his reasons for his recent move out of New York city, using them as a starting point for a discussion of the complex intellectual and cultural history of the Lower East Side. Graphic artist Seth Tobocman relates his time as an anarchist squatter, relating the larger travails of the Regan years as context for the turmoil of the Tompkins Square riots.
The second section examines housing, the driving force of much of the political activity in the neighborhood. Sarah Ferguson traces the circular path of housing policy from the use of Tompkins Square Park as an open-air “living room” for the poor to the homesteading programs of the Carter administration, which were dismantled under Regan and lead to the illegal squats of the 80’s. Seth Farber discusses the plight of the homeless, especially the mentally ill, released from city care into the streets with no support. Frank Morales discusses the theories of “spatial deconcentration,” the removal of the poor from urban areas and the method by which the squatters resisted it. Fly, an artist and writer, talks about life in the squats and her involvement with “ABC No Rio”, a collectively managed building and community space that was one of the geographical and psychological centers of resistance in the neighborhood.
The third section of the book is a look at the central event of the housing conflict, the 1988 riot in Tompkins Square Park. A. Kronstadt writes a detailed account of the continuous low intensity conflict between the city and the squatters that lead up to the riot. Joshua Rothenberger offers a detailed analysis of Clayton Patterson’s famous video shot during the night of the riots. Chief Michael Julian reflects on his years commanding the 9th precint, offering a rare and balanced history of the period from a policeman’s point of view.
The fourth section is devoted to the political media of the Lower East Side. Alan Moore and Allan Antliff take on Patterson’s own politics and art in relation to his life in the neighborhood. Chris Flash, editor of the anarchist paper The Shadow, is interviewed by Aaron Jaffe and Peter Missing puts fourth his thoughts in poetry.
The fifth section, biography, contains the stories of people like Jerry the Peddler, Alfredo Irizzary and Yippie activist Dana Beal. There is also a rare look at the Motherfuckers, described as a “street gang with an analysis.” Michael Rosen recounts the building of the Red Square luxury housing complex, a lonely example of a developer with roots in the community.
The final section is a history of AIDS in the Lower East Side. Jay Blotcher talks about the powerful activism that was engendered by the suffering of poor AIDS victims and Jim Feast further explores the “radical street combat” of the organization ACT-UP and the literal fight for survival they represented.
There are, of course, many more stories, battles, and dramas than the ones mentioned above in Resistance. In fact, the very density of the book itself speaks to the diversity of the Lower East Side. As Alan W. Moore says in the introduction:
“This book talks from all sides, in discourse that is activist, artistic, writerly, academic, sharply focused, wobbly and meandering. Finally an extraordinary picture of a signal period in American activism emerges, a fight for place as urban space for ethnic and working class communities and with them artistic bohemias disappears. This Lower East Side which has been so productive of poetry, music and art, so thriving with hard-luck social schemes of utopian intent, with this book has begun the task of true telling about itself.”
Full List of Contributors: A. Kronstadt, Aaron Jaffe, Aaron Jaffe, Al Orensanz, Alan Moore with Alan Antliff, Aldo Tambelli, Alfredo Irizzary, Bill Weinberg, Carolyn Ratcliffe, Cheryl Guttman, Chief Michael Julian, Chris Brandt, Chris Flash, Christopher Mele, Clayton Patterson, Colin Moynihan, Daniel Edelman, David Pultz, Ellen Moynihan, Elsa Rensaa, Eric Miller, Eve Hinderer, Fly, Fred Good, Hanon Reznikov, James Cornwell (aka Jim C.), Janet Abu-Lughod, Jay Blotcher, Jim Feast, JoAnn Wypijewski, Joanne Edelman, Joe Flood, John McMillian, Joshua Rothenberger, Kenny Tolia, Laura Zelasnic, Lynne Stewart, Mac McGill, Mary McCarthy, Michael Rosen, Osha Neumann, P.O. John Mellon, Peter L. Wilson, Peter Missing, Richard Kostelanetz, Richard Kusack, Richard Porton, Roland Legiardi-Laura, Ron Casanova & Steven Blackburn, Sarah Ferguson, Seth Farber, Seth Tobocman, Steve Dalachinsky, Steve Zehentner, Thomas McEvilley, Tom Savage, Virginie Rocky, Will Sales, Yuri Kapralov
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ABOUT THE EDITORS
CLAYTON PATTERSON, ALAN MOORE, AND JIM FEAST
The lead editor of Resistance, Clayton Patterson is an ex-teacher, an artist, a photojournalist and a documentarian. He is president of the New York Tattoo Society, and one of the organizers of the first nine NYC International Tattoo Conventions. He runs the Outlaw Art Museum, and maintains his Clayton Archives, a large collection of photos, videos, and paper material representing aspects of the Lower East Side during the 1980s, '90s and 2000s. He has done much work in collaboration with Elsa Rensaa. He is the organizer of Captured: A Film/Video History of the Lower East Side (Seven Stories Press, 2005) and Resistance: a Radical Social and Political History of the Lower East Side.
Alan Moore worked with Colab and ABC No Rio in NYC in the 1980s. He edited ABC No Rio with Marc Miller in 1985. He wrote his PhD thesis on NYC artists’ organizations for the City University of New York. Recent articles: ``Local History: Battle for Bohemia in New York’’ (in Ault, editor, Alternative Art New York, 2003); chapter for Greg Sholette and Blake Stimson, eds., Collectivism After Modernism; introduction to Clayton Patterson, ed., Resistance: A Social and Political History of the Lower East Side, 2007).
Jim Feast is the coauthor of Neo Phobe (Autonomedia) and (with Gary Null) AIDS: A Second Opinion and Germs, Biological Warfare, Vaccinations, What You Need to Know (both from Seven Stories). He is a member of the Autonomedia publishing collective, and writes regularly for Fifth Estate.
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3JIM FEAST: "THE END OF THE JAZZ AGE"
Jim Feast will speak about the End of the Jazz Age - The neoliberal city has certain requirements of the art practiced in its borders. First and most important, traditional aims of art, which I see as basically, 1) nurturing traditional values and presenting them in pleasing forms and 2) offering a critique of all (rarely) or some parts of traditional ideology, have to be abandoned. In New York City, as much as an art has been able to accomplish this abolition, as happened in fine arts and theater, the art form continues. Those arts that, for various intrinsic or extrinsic reasons, cannot make this change, have to be eliminated. Free jazz fits this last criterion and in my brief talk, after showing what factors make this restructuring of principles impossible for the form, will indicate how this elimination was carried out.
The stages of this process were:
1) the destruction of the resurgent loft jazz scene in the 1970s, as epitomized in such clubs as Ali’s Alley and the Brook.
2) the reformulation of clubs in squats and more embattled spaces, as explained by Parker in Resistance, which was then erased.
3) the elimination of hybrid clubs, which offered free jazz and other alternative music, using for example the Issues Project Space, Knitting Factory and Tonic.
Feast, Feast and Steve Dalachinsky, “Land Without Lords, an Interview with William Parker,” in Resistance: A Radical Political and Social History of the Lower East Side (New York: Seven Stories, 2007)
Kofsky, Frank, Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970)
Spellman, A.B. Four Lives in the Bebop Business, (New York: Schocken, 1970)
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ALAN MOORE: "WELCOME TO OUR RESISTANCE"
(Introduction to Resistance): In Tompkins Square Park today, the tousle-haired children play in their yards, the dogs romp in theirs, and young people lounge on the grass during warm weather. Most people seem prosperous, well groomed, and carefree. It’s another world from fifteen years ago when the park was a graffiti-smeared battleground for squatters and cops, and the streets around it were still game zones for the street hustles poet that Miguel Piñero wrote about: poverty-driven and drug-related.
By the late 1980s, the housing crisis for low income people had become intolerable. Epidemic AIDS and homelessness beached thousands on the city’s streets. Dozens of vacant city-owned properties were squatted. As property values rose, the city moved to take these buildings back. The squatters, many of them anarchists, organized a spectacular resistance. That moment was the last great effulgence of resistant culture on the Lower East Side. Its spirit is at the heart of this book. That is its reason to be, to recall, explain and to Memorialize that resistance.
This book is the result of the dogged persistence of Clayton Patterson. He is an artist, a documentary photographer, and a gallery entrepreneur. While he is not a bookman, his years in the neighborhood have given him a knowledge and a feeling for the people who make it up, and he has beaten the bushes to for years get their stories.
These essays have been written by sociologists, art historians, anarchists and theorists, housing activists, psychologists, political prisoners, journalists and police. They tell the stories of sweeping economic and demographic change, of buildings abandoned and reclaimed, and of the people who lived to lead resistance in New York. In this book you’ll find careful analysis next to polemic and coup-counting, episodes of desperate poverty, the glamour of fierce struggle and numbing legalism. Here art and politics are blended in a cannibal stew. While the variety of writing may seem bewildering, it is a true reflection of a part of the world that has contributed so much to American urban culture.
The first part of Resistance: A Radical History of the Lower East Side is historical. Cultural historian Al Orensanz recounts the story of the anarchist Emma Goldman and Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day. These two extraordinary women embody the paradigms of the radical alternative in the culture of the United States. Goldman arrived in New York in the 1880s during the charged days following the Haymarket Affair in Chicago, a high water mark of militant working class anarchism in the United States. Dorothy Day worked for peace and “Catholic communism” until her death in 1980. In Orensanz’s view, both these women’s radical experiments failed, recalled today only as “vignettes in the mainstream development of American life.”
He roots Goldman’s anarchism firmly in Jewish internationalism, and examines Day’s work in the political climate of the New Deal and post-war anticommunism. Goldman’s influence faded with the anarchist movement itself during the years of strong state socialism and capitalism. Day, Orensanz maintains, failed to realize the possibilities of alliance with the Puerto Rican labor movement and the 1960s counterculture. Overall, Orensanz seeks to discern the drive towards a synthetic revolutionary potential in the mixture of ethnicities and agendas on the Lower East Side.
Fred Good’s essay is a dense, concisely written Infoir by a close participant in the many utopian and cultural projects begun on the Lower East Side of the 1960s and ‘70s. Born to Belgian parents, Fred Good became a compadre of young Puerto Rican activists on the Lower East Side in the mid-1960s. He describes the genesis of their group Real Great Society, and tells of its leader former gang member Chino Garcia. Good wrote grants and coordinated publicity for the RGS. Their first big undertaking was University of the Streets, a storefront open education project eventually lodged in a building donated by a wealthy Dutchman. Good sketches in the political background of President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” as it played out on the Lower East Side, and details the ethnic nationalist currents that broke and reformed the group.
Central to Good’s tale is the story of the Nuyorican poets. The most famous of them was Miguel Piñero, but it was Miguel Algarin who started the Nuyorican Poets Café in 1975. Good describes the utopian undertakings of the “11th Street Movement,” in which buildings reclaimed through “sweat equity” became centers of solar and wind power and basement fish farms. CHARAS, the successor organization of RGS, took over a large abandoned school on 10th Street and ran it as the El Bohio cultural center until 2001 when the city under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani took control. (The struggle to regain community control of this building continues as this book goes to press.) Good in passing discusses a score of other community-based arts groups.
Philosopher and art historian Thomas McEvilley’s Infoir of his two decades living on the Lower East Side describes the transformation of the neighborhood he witnessed. The open air drug trade and prostitution marked the neighborhood when he moved into it, and he tells one sad story of child slavery. At the same time, the East Village art movement and cocaine-fueled nightclub scene was developing in the same environment. Like many in this book, McEvilley comments drily on the ways in which the neighborhood’s art scene promoted gentrification, how the 1980s fever for art “spread the idea that the neighborhood was entering or about to enter a new era.” At present, McEvilley sees a neighborhood “poised between two worlds” - the “soul-destroying gentrification” which continues to transform streets, competing with the neighborhood’s tradition as a center of culture and creativity.
Sociologist Christopher Mele’s essay, “Making Art and Policing Streets: The Early Years of Gentrification on the Lower East Side,” is a fact-laden socio-political account of a complex story. It moves from its genesis in building abandonment and urban decay during the 1970s through the consummation of the area during the administration of Mayor Giuliani as a "branded" settlement area for young urban professionals. Mele minutely charts the economic conditions and political maneuvers that fed these trends. He details how the subversive, anti-establishment and working class past of the area was co-opted by gentrification forces and fashioned, with the aid of artists and other cultural actors, into an edgy but depoliticized identity.
Before her career as a preeminent radical lawyer began, Lynne Stewart worked during the 1960s as a New York City school librarian. In her essay she tells of the 1967 city-wide teachers’ strike from the point of view of the activists on the Lower East Side who sought community control of schools. This is a committed account of days when a multi-ethnic mobilized community struggled with the striking teachers’ union to keep their schools open, and Black Panthers guarded the steps.
Joe Flood tackles the complex problem of “Homelessness and the Lower East Side.” He discusses the waves of building abandonment by landlords, the closure of state mental hospitals, and job loss due to de-industrialization. The Bowery on the western edge of the Lower East Side acted as a funnel for the region’s homeless into the district. Flood spices his account with harrowing stories from the area’s notorious shelters, such as the stabbed man who was required by staff to clean up his own blood. The influx of cheap smokable cocaine called “crack” in the 1980s combined with police corruption to create neighborhoods seemingly out of control.
In a recollection of the extensive early Italian presence on the Lower East Side, the video artist Aldo Tambellini writes of documenting the meetings of the Italian-American Civil Rights League, and videotaping the aftermath of the assassination attempt on leader Joe Colombo.
Steve Zehentner writes of the 1998 demolition by city authorities of a largely rent-controlled tenement building in defiance of a judge’s order. The tactic of demolition was used repeatedly by the city against buildings occupied by squatters and low-income tenants. In meticulous detail, Zehentner describes the lightning demolition and the case as it wound through the courts, laying direct blame for this radical dispossession at the feet of Mayor Giuliani.
The distinguished urban sociologist Janet L. Abu-Lughod writes “Money, Politics and Protest: The Struggle for the Lower East Side.” In this Infoir, Abu-Lughod recounts how as the result of a teaching appointment in 1987, she became involved in local politics and residents' efforts to fight the ongoing gentrification of the area. Through her experiences with the research center she helped create, she describes the different agendas united under the umbrella of the Joint Planning Council, its successful mobilization of local energies and its eventual fragmentation and failure. Alternating between a "sidewalk's-eye view" of the residents' struggle and a description of the neighborhood's wider sociological context, she deftly mixes the personal and the historical in an engaging and hopeful narrative.
Yuri Kapralov, novelist and artist, writes “Christodora, The Flight of a Sea Animal,” on the great high rise built as a settlement house for the poor. The place saw four years of occupation by radical activists before police stormed it and sealed it for 14 years. (It was later renovated as a high-income condominium.) In his inimitable style, Kapralov evokes the daily life of poor residents on the streets of the 1960s and ‘70s.
An essayist and radical historian, Peter Lamborn Wilson (aka Hakim Bey) recently moved out of a changing New York City to live in the country. His Infoir is partly about the series of changes that led to that decision, with detailed asides on the Lower East Side’s radical past and the role that movements as diverse as French Situationism and Beat culture played in the cultural life of NYC bohemia in the recent past. Wilson uses his experience as a jumping off point to trace the complex intellectual and cultural history of the Lower East Side.
Journalist Colin Moynihan defines a squat, writing a concise and straightforward explanation of the backgrounds, situations and ideals of these resistant urban homesteaders. He describes the rough politics - electoral and otherwise - that led to the squatters’ millennial deal with the city government, and speculates on why it came to pass.
Renowned graphic artist Seth Tobocman writes from inside the movement of anarchist squatters. In this Infoir, Tobocman describes his experience of the Tompkins Square riots and the general climate of the neighborhood during the 1980s. He insists that only by understanding the larger political backdrop of the years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency can one understand what occurred on August 6th, 1988. He describes his life in the neighborhood and his evolution into an “irresponsible community organizer.” His group put together the effective “eviction watch” phone tree and the 1986 New Years’ Eve rock concert in the park, while supporting squats and interacting with other local housing groups.
The conversation between Father George Kuhn and editor Clayton Patterson reveals the continuity between the work of Dorothy Day and today’s activist clergy. Kuhn understands himself as a Christ-centered contemplative, a peacemaker and justice seeker through his religious commitment, confronting today’s neo-feudal order through the time-tested principles of the Catholic church. This discussion ranges through an extensive discussion of the police, their leadership and the corruption investigations, and their conduct during the 1988 riot in the park. Kuhn worked against the rampant drug trade, trying to direct it away from sensitive areas, like the entrance to schools. He and other religious leaders were arrested after they delivered food to besieged squatters who had taken over a building as a community center. The prosecution in the subsequent trial was founded on systematic misrepresentation by testifying police officers.
The widely-published author and artist Richard Kostelanetz points directly at the anarchist roots and leanings of leading Lower East Side cultural figures, including novelist Henry Miller, Lee Baxandall (an avowed marxist), the Living Theatre (led by Judith Malina and Julian Beck) and the vastly influential composer John Cage.
Eric Miller, a folklorist and media artist, shares his thoughts about the public lives of people in the East Village neighborhood he knew. Commencing with a personal self-positioning, including his current anthropological work with nomadic people in India, Miller describes the characters who hung out at Ray’s newsstand on Ave. A across from Tompkins Square Park. These vignettes are valuable looks at the people whose presence was essential to the maintenance of resistance, although they invariably vanish from most historical reckonings. Miller carefully describes the social ecology of the park before its “cleansing” by city police. He extends his consideration of the interstitial lives of marginal people through a psychogeographical description of his favorite walk along the East River down the island’s edge to far south Manhattan.
The second section of Resistance, on housing, is the guts of this book. The texts here directly concern the incidents and mechanics of what anarchist propaganda called the “total war for living space” being waged in the Lower East Side.
Sarah Ferguson, a journalist who covered much of the squatter resistance story for the Village Voice, pens a close consideration of the period in the light of present realities. She begins with a sketch of the historical role that Tompkins Square Park played as the open-air “living room” for a community of poor people living in densely crowded tenements. She discerns that what happened in the last decades was the forcible erasure of that history and what Pierre Bourdieu calls habitus. The set of local public practices carried from generation to generation was forcibly uprooted, disrupted and replaced with a new set of practices - those of the returning suburban bourgeoisie. — As an engaged reporter, Ferguson understands her story now as that of “the last generation of activists to conceive of the Lower East Side as oppositional space.” A key figure in this understanding was Frank Morales, an Episcopal priest who explicated what activists charged was the government policy of “spatial deconcentration” - the systematic withholding of services from poor communities to clear them for the middle class. For the squatter activists of the district, taking over buildings was a counterattack in the war of government upon the urban poor. — (In recent years, the work of the urban sociologist team of Deborah and Roderick Wallace have fleshed out what was then widely regarded as paranoid exaggeration. Their book Title of It documents the think-tank studies that encouraged cities nationwide to allow their urban centers to turn into wastelands.) — Ferguson recounts the political history of Tompkins Square Park as a center of resistance. She calls it a “mythos,” a key locale in the conception of “political and economic exceptionalism” that guided many on the Lower East Side. She describes in detail the homesteading programs developed under President Jimmy Carter’s administration that were leading to reclamation of abandoned buildings as low income housing - programs scrapped by President Ronald Reagan. Squatting she sees as a logical reaction to the city and federal refusal to build low income housing. — Ferguson’s interview with David Boyle reveals the ways in which the homesteading, community garden and squatting movements evolved as the political climate turned chilly for tenants and warm for speculators. She describes the “corridor of squats” on East 8th Street, whose residents brought with them tactics and politics from the vast European urban squatting scene and openly defied the city government. Squatting on the Lower East Side became part of a comprehensive lifestyle of social activism, and, as rental prices spiked in the mid-1980s, the graffitied slogans and posted broadsides of the movement pointed the finger at the gentrifiers. — Her account of the riot is balanced, describing both the acts of provocation and the clear intent of the police to crack down on the boisterous cadre of radicals. She describes the relationship between older housing activists and the younger squatters, and details the consequences of the election of the neoconservative councilman Antonio Pagan. The militancy of the squatters was met by a full-scale militarization of police tactics.
Seth Farber, a psychologist, recalls his early years as a committed student on the Lower East Side. The mounting homeless crisis, he asserts, was rationalized by the corporate media as a flood of the deinstitutionalized mentally ill - in fact it was a housing crisis as the city abandoned the poor. Farber is committed to structural family therapy as a means of treating the mentally ill, not relying upon neuroleptic drugs and striving to free the mad from their “assigned role” as patients. Public mental health does not accept these methods, so Farber began to work with networks formed by activist patients themselves. He names well-known artists who were part of this movement, and describes how the squats of the Lower East Side helped people to successfully deinstitutionalize themselves. Farber concludes with a critique of the conservative ideologues who “medicalized” the homeless problem, calling it madness in the streets. This position strengthened medical institutions, another instance of psychiatry in service of the emerging urban status quo.
Joanne Edelman’s stories of her life in a squat on East 7th Street are a bizarre blend of normal domestic life and episodes of high drama involving machetes. JoAnn Wypijewski’s account of her legal victory over a shyster middleman selling fake leases reflects an earlier period when activist agencies and the city government worked together. She reminds us that the squatter rebellion and police confrontation belongs to a period of backlash against people’s power. Daniel Edelman recollects his legal work on behalf of an East 7th Street building, revealing the complexity of each building’s situation and the personal relationships that move city real estate cases.
Cooper Square is one of the oldest tenant action groups on the Lower East Side. Chris Brandt’s narrative begins with an anecdote about garbage which illustrates the practical politics of the group. Cooper Square, which included academics and city planners in its number, began in the 1950s to contest New York’s master planner Robert Moses and his plans to displace thousands of low-income tenants to build an expressway. The group used theatrical tactics to dispute state-driven urban renewal, dressing up as Indians and encamping along Houston Street in teepees. While market-driven redevelopment is more difficult to oppose since it less easy to personify and therefore may appear “natural,” the theatrical elements of resistance by activists remained a key part of the housing battles of later years.
Frank Morales was a leader of the squatter resistance in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and in Aaron Jaffe’s interview he discusses the theories of “spatial deconcentration,” the removal of the poor from urban areas, as it evolved in government reports and the writings of prominent conservatives. The squatting movement began simultaneously in the Lower East Side and the South Bronx. Activists perceived that HPD, the city’s housing agency, was allowing vacant buildings to deteriorate. They were “land banking.” Morales describes in detail the procedure for taking over a building in New York, and the network of mutual support that helped prevent evictions.
Like Mike Davis in his recent book Planet of Slums, Morales’ analysis of the housing crisis in New York is global. He regards the city homeless shelter system as “low intensity detention.” He differentiates the squatters’ position from that of other neighborhood housing activists, and describes both the political and legal work they undertook and the day-to-day struggles with police.
Fly, an artist and writer, tells of her life in the squats in a 1999 piece, and her involvement with the activist art and community center ABC No Rio on Rivington Street. This collectively managed building, a stalwart venue for the hardcore punk music, is closely identified with both the squatter and anarchist movements, and movements of resistance.
The crucial subject of zoning is addressed in Richard Kusack’s exhaustive text, which is essentially a brief in this area of law concerning one building. Legal and political contests over land use are paramount in what is to be done, as Roland Legiardi-Laura points out in his text “Soul War for the East Village.” His mission now is to preserve the “communal and creative qualities” of the district, the “poetry, politics, passion, proud poverty” and tradition of struggle that make it a place creative people want to live. Fights over zoning are crucial to stem the “attack of the giant towers,” that is, over-sized apartment buildings. Legiardi-Laura’s report on current issues facing local activists today includes the tasks of historical preservation and the protection of the many community gardens developed at the same time as the homesteads and squats.
The next section of the book deals with the backgrounds of the central event of the resistance to gentrification, the Tompkins Square Park riot of 1988. In fact, the confrontations between activists and police extended over a number of years, climaxing in the 1988 riot and continuing into the 1990s.
Anarchist activist A. Kronstadt writes under a nom de guerre, backgrounding what he calls the “Tompkins Square Rebellion.” What drove many of the activists in this battle, he writes, was not only ideology but their personal experience of some of the harsher tactics landlords used to empty buildings of low-rent tenants. — Kronstadt tells the story of the implementation of “quality of life” policing under Mayor Ed Koch, beginning with a crackdown on pot smoking in Washington Square Park. Here the curfew was first established, a practice police used later in Tompkins Square Park. Kronstadt describes the concerts and rallies anarchist squatters organized at the bandshell in the park as key organizing tools. (The bandshell was later demolished by the city.) The radicals - and Kronstadt details their differences and squabbles with liberal housing activists - were united by two main principles, opposition to gentrification and resistance to increasing police repression. — The heterodox movement was anchored by the Anarchist Switchboard and Sabotage Books. It was made up of many “kitchen table cabals,” cellular organization which organizers today might call “affinity groups.” Fire barrels around which the homeless congregated became important rallying places for activists, who plastered their propaganda messages regularly around the park. Kronstadt describes the defense of the squats against eviction, and the sensational reporting of television journalists which smeared the scruffy movement with the charge of satanism. — In his detailed blow-by-blow insider account of the park activists, Kronstadt marks a beginning to the large encampment of homeless in Tompkins Square Park, and describes every major encounter of the period. He differentiates between the different detachments of police who worked the park, some tolerant and others “mean,” and describes the struggle up to the point of the closure of the park.
The story of the Tent City in Tompkins Square Park is told by Ron Casanova, a lifelong Lower East Sider who became the spokesman for the homeless living in the park. His is a strong, colorful account of the texture of homeless life, and of the alliance with the black-clad chain smoking anarchists. His Tent City group, held themselves apart from many other drug-users in the park. Like Kronstadt, Casanova tells the sad story of the homeless Polish man Ed, who froze to death the night a policeman kicked over his fire barrel, and of many incidents in the epic struggle with police. This story is about the strong personal relationships that undergirded homeless activism, including the inspiring trip to Philadelphia to participate in the national homeless organizing campaign Survival Summit and the subsequent march on Washington, D.C..
Ellen Moynihan writes of the May Day Riot of 1990 which resulted when police peremptorily shut down a music concert organized by squatters in Tompkins Square Park. This riot resulted in numerous prosecutions targeting squatter leaders for inciting to riot, and represents the state’s success in criminalizing the resistance movement. The event was the fourth annual concert in the park on May Day, and Moynihan tells some of the local history of the date’s significance for the labor movement. May Day was also the time leases expired for tenement dwellers in the 19th century.
A perspective on the 1988 riot is provided in the essay by John Mellon, a police officer. Mellon reviews the events of the evening with attention to the question of leadership, concluding that the presiding commander was unprepared to lead police in the confrontation with protestors. In fact, Captain MacNamara “bit the onion” for the riot, in that he was blamed for the debacle and relieved of his command. But, Mellon observes, the police department as a whole was unfamiliar with the broader political issues behind the protests, and tactically impoverished.
Joshua Rothenberger discusses the famous three hour and thirty-three minute long videotape shot the night of the riot by the editor of this book, Clayton Patterson. Rothenberger brings the precepts of media theory to bear on Patterson’s work in the park, understanding it as grassroots alternative media. The stark, uncontestable document of police misconduct countered the consistently pejorative presentation of the East Village resistance movement in the mainstream media, both television and newspapers. In his close reading of the filmic “text,” Rothenberger discusses Patterson’s positioning, the verbal reactions to his presence by members of the crowd in the park that night, and the dialogues he had during the lulls in the action. — Rothenberger notes that “police brutality” stood in for the broader warfare on the poor mandated by shifts in late capitalist modes of production, that is, displacement of the working class from their historic district due to deindustrialization of the city. As the Lower East Side was transformed into the “bedroom of Wall Street,” police brutality became a stand-in for this process, both necessitated by it and representing it.
One of the more unusual pieces in this collection is the reflection by Michael Julian on his years commanding the 9th Precinct. The direct voices of police are rarely heard in histories of resistance. Julian offers disturbing testimony on the disorder of the Tompkins Square Park encampment of homeless, and sharp criticism of the squatters as self-serving and intimidating. He recounts the spike in thefts and drug sales that accompanied the encampment, and describes the regular open-air markets of stolen goods. — Julian is hard on his own troops as well, describing the entrepreneurial overtimers and bad arrests with which he had to contend. An intelligent and skillful policeman, he describes his methods of dealing with the “cop baiting” activists through restraint, communication, and small squadrons of police rather than the prevailing strategy of the top brass, “calling out the army.” The belligerent, planless resolve of city bureaucrats who did not have to do the dirty work of evictions often made his work difficult. Julian also says he was called in by one group of anarchists to protect them from another during the demise of the Anarchist Switchboard. — Finally, in an instance of intertextual drama, Julian’s account of the May Day Riot of 1990 directly contradicts Ellen Moynihan’s above. He appeals to the video evidence…
In his preface to a collection of his period articles contained in this section, journalist Bill Weinberg reflects that declamations of the “annoyingly apocalyptic” anarchists of the day seem to have proven correct - Tompkins Square was a “social laboratory of the new security state.” He also notes a resurgence of the activist spirit in the neighborhood in this new century, and the deep persistence of “deviationism” in human environments. — This is the topic of his first piece describing the legacy of rebellion. In a concise and colorful historical account, Weinberg traces the oppositional history of Tompkins Square Park and the Lower East Side neighborhood it serves since its establishment in 1834. — Next he dissects the May Day riot of 1990 discussed above by Moynihan and Julian in a thoughtful, interview-laced piece written a few weeks after the event. The police shut down the last moments of the four-day “Resist 2 Exist” festival. Was it a provocation? If so by whom? Weinberg talked to all the principals, including an arrested activist who had heard police in another precinct criticizing the commander of the 9th for being soft - “in South Korea they turned water cannons on ‘em.” The diversity of the movement becomes clear in his mention of the Revolutionary Communist Party, whose Maoist members staged a re-occupation of the evicted ABC squat. — Weinberg explicates the anarchist critique of the liberal housing activists’ settlement with the city, the “50-50” plan in which private market-rate development would fund low-income housing. He also discusses the Missing Foundation rock band, the group which provided a soundtrack to the riot by continuing the park concert after the electricity had been shut off by banging on metal. MF graffiti was ubiquitous in the neighborhood, promising class war in the police state, and threatening the bourgeoisie moving in. This was insurrectionary political culture intended to slow gentrification: “In the nihilist equation, more flying bottles translates into fewer homeless.” — A year later, Weinberg’s reporting has turned committed. In “Police State,” he pinpoints the looting of a small store as the pretext police needed to close the park, which would remain closed for two years. (The looting also moved anarchist activists toward a policy of nonviolence.) He reports the outrage of the local community board, the civic group Mayor David Dinkins did not consult in his plans to reconfigure Tompkins Square Park. He then penetrates the maze of housing politics on the Lower East Side, describing the conservative pro-development group (whose leader Antonio Pagan would soon win a seat on the city council) and the tension-wracked liberal housing coalition. Behind this antagonism is the larger reality of redistricting, redrawing electoral lines to link the low-income communities of the Lower East Side to adjacent wealthy areas. — As children accessed their playground through police barricades, this writing evokes the sense of a neighborhood under siege by arbitrary city authority. Weinberg reveals the extent to which mainstream community governance was entwined with the homeless and squatter resistance. He mentions the homeless encampments that sprang up on vacant lots near the park after the clearance, and quotes a citizen who fears what eventually happened - wholesale removal of the homeless to shelters on the city’s outskirts where they have been forgotten. — Weinberg describes the new shadow-and-arrest tactics that undercover police were using against activists, and an attempted push-in by cops on the St. Brigid’s church across from the park which was supporting the homeless and the demonstrations against the closure. At this point, during the first Gulf war which many in the community are protesting, the cautious Julian is relieved of command at the 9th precinct, and FEMA is consulting with local law enforcement on the heavily-surveilled closed park. Demolition of recently-built facilities is underway in the park because it is the kind of “renovation” that is impossible to stop.
In the next section of the book, “Politics,” Clayton Patterson speaks directly. In my profile of this book’s editor, Clayton discusses his longtime freelance documentary work in the context of mainstream television. As a photographer of demonstrations and police work, Clayton was always aware of the danger and ambivalence of his position absent press credentials as a pure observer, authorized only as citizen and artist. As an artist he is caustic on the 1980s East Village art scene participants who abandoned the neighborhood and in retrospect, were obviously (and casually) complict with gentrification. He well understands the consistent radical activists and the dynamics of the squatter movement, and is unsparing in his critique of the degenerated traditional Democratic political apparatus in the neighborhood. — Clayton discourses at length about the police, alleging their complicity with the long-running broad-based community drug trade. (Was this overt corruption, as in other precincts, or more largely the kind of “bureaucratic entrepreneurialism” Julian notes, in which cops learned how to milk the system with minimal exposure to hazard and a minimal effect on the trade?) Clayton’s central contention about the effect of the Tompkins Square movement on the police, however, is that fighting this resistance schooled the New York police in paramilitary methods, the kind they use today to contain and suppress demonstrations. These methods were in full effect during the 2004 Republican National Convention here.
For his part in this piece, Allan Antliff situates Clayton’s politics in the terms of classical anarchism. His reply: “I am an artist.” Rather than seeing this as an evasion of political allegiance, Clayton’s position accords better with the kind of arena art is. — Clayton has certainly paid the price many times for his insistence on videotaping police. In “Trial and Error,” Clayton’s partner Elsa Rensaa writes a close account of his legal action for damages after his assault by numerous police outside a city property auction. The photographer is well known to the force, since he had been present in the many trials of officers for police brutality growing out of his videotape of the 1988 Tompkins Square Park riot. Rensaa discusses the numerous fabrications by police during the failed civil suit, and the irregular behavior of the jury. — In his piece on Patterson’s video written not long after the riot, film historian and journalist Richard Porton contexts the tapes in relation to the traditions of documentary filmmaking. Patterson’s work is engaged, not encumbered by a pretense of neutrality. In his close reading of the tape, Porton reflects on various recorded statements in terms of revolutions past - the 1789 French, the Paris Commune and the 1874 Tompkins Square Riot. In an analysis of late 20th century anarchist political history, Porton pinpoints what he calls the “transclass” nature of contemporary urban movements based in the “anarcho-punk” alliance. These contemporary international developments contradict orthodox Marxist political analysis. — Porton further expands his view of anarchist history in a brief introduction to what Patterson had planned as the original version of this book - a collection of the Tompkins Square anarchist posters and flyers put up around the park. Porton discusses Emma Goldman, Hippolyte Havel and the anarcho-syndicalist Sam Dolgoff. Porton observes that anarchists on the Lower East Side, unlike the more doctrinaire Marxists committed to the pursuit of state power, “were often the primary mediators between political and artistic subcultures.” (This close connection in early 20th century New York has been recently explored in Allan Antliff’s book Anarchist Modernism, and for turn of the last century Paris in David Sweetman’s Explosive Acts.) The Tompkins Square Rebellion, as Kronstadt termed it, had support from anarchists worldwide.
Aaron Jaffe interviews Chris Flash, editor of the anarchist newspaper The Shadow. This voice of the anarchist squatter resistance was published by “activist-journalists,” a tabloid precursor of today’s international web-based Indymedia. The long-running paper is named for the radio drama character Lamont Cranston - (cue long, echoing maniacal laugh.) Chris Flash is versed in the history of underground press - in New York that includes The East Village Other, The Rat, and briefly The Village Voice - and its fate. Jaffe is a good foil to Flash, asking adversarial questions which lead Flash to clearly explain his position. — “The squatters are heroes,” Flash says. If so, among these must be counted Kenny Tolia, the only activist to serve time in prison for his role in the May Day Riot of 1990. Tolia tells a compelling story of his initiation into a squat on 5th Street as a young man, “wearing a bike lock for a necklace and homemade bloody shirt reading: EAT THE RICH.” He settled in well with his strange comrades, and soon “took to preaching the reformed gospel of the European squatters.” He defended the homesteader Adam Purple’s remarkable Garden of Eden (it was destroyed), handled press relations for his own building’s struggle to survive city eviction (successful), and opened a number of buildings to set up squats. While Tolia is proud of his role in Lower East Side history, he observes finally that all signs of that era have been erased from the streets today.
The next section of this book is Biography. In a sense, this has all been biography -- the story of activism of this era is intensely personal, and only the personal stories of a succession of individuals can tell it in its proper dimensions. — The Latino activist tradition on the Lower East Side and the latter-day gentrification resistance were closely connected at many points, although that relationship remains to be explicated. The interview with Alfredo Irizarry is one of too few Puerto Rican voices in this book. The road to Irizarry’s career in grass roots media production began as a child with his work with Paul Goodman, anarchist philosopher and educator. The interview sketches a subsequent career of ‘70s utopian community activism in the teeth of one of the district’s lowest periods. The “Loisaida movement” took over buildings as community centers, and Irizarry published periodicals and produced video covering the action.
Cheryl Guttman’s interview with Yippie activist Dana Beal sketches in the contentious background of the groups organizing the youth rebellion in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Beal, inspired by the Dutch Provos group, worked with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin on the Lower East Side, putting together absurdist theatrical demonstrations to drive home political messages. Beal and his friends produced the Yipster Times underground journal from their base on Bleecker Street. Beal speaks about the internal politics of the anti-Vietnam War movement. As it swelled, some factions turned to violence. While he was involved in organizing drives marked by violent incidents, Beal preferred “alternative cultural actions.” His concerns revolved around drugs, and his groups have sponsored the annual “Smoke-In” demonstrations. Beal agitates for medical marijuana use and promotes the African herb ibogaine as a cure for heroin addiction. — In her report of a meeting with Ben Eagle, formerly Ben Morea of Up Against the Wall Motherfucker, Eve Hinderer records the bare facts of his biography as Ben related them. A career Lower East Side radical during the 1960s, Ben's group the Motherfuckers did many spectacular actions on the Lower East Side, as well as basic relief work. As the '60s confrontations escalated, the Motherfuckers were the Black Bloc of their day, taking part in riots and specializing in "breakaways" -- gaining entry to protected buildings during demonstrations. — These precursors of the direct action squatters of the end of the century receive a good deal of overdue attention in this book. Historian John McMillian recounts his pursuit of the Motherfuckers story and what can only be called the legend of Ben Morea. Finally he meets Morea in a coffee shop, and writes a charming account of their conversation.
Osha Neumann's account of his time in the Motherfuckers group called "Taking the Plunge" is revealing about the times and the dynamics of the group. For Neumann, writing theory and making art in a Lower East Side apartment, the "plunge" begins with the Angry Arts week in 1967 to protest the war in Vietnam. This led to a banner action in St. Patrick's Cathedral, and afterwards Neumann helped form Motherfuckers. Under Ben Morea's leadership, group involvement became an identity, a family-like army of long-haired urban guerrillas.
Ben Morea was mentored into the Lower East Side scene by Judith Malina and Julian Beck of the Living Theatre. Hanon Reznikov writes of the period when, after living abroad for many years, after the death of Beck, the Living Theatre reopened in Lower East Side New York in 1989. For a few years, the group offered their brand of issue-oriented committed theatre to a neighborhood in the throes of transition.
John Beresford profiles Jerry the Peddler, the squatter "conductor." Beresford follows Jerry Holtzclaw’s life through his childhood in Texas, his stint in the Army (he was ultimately jailed then discharged for refusing to go to Vietnam), and his later experiences in ‘70s student groups. As one of the many who eked out a living selling stuff on the sidewalks of the neighborhood, Jerry began his organizing career on behalf of street peddlers. Later he became a regular stentorian street voice at housing demonstrations, helped open buildings and instructed neophytes in squatting techniques. As part of that struggle, Jerry also worked to try to save the neighborhood’s garden spaces from development, most notably Adam Purple’s lost Garden of Eden.
In a very different vein is the recollection by Michael Rosen of the job he had building the Red Square luxury housing complex, one of the first large constructions in the East Village at the end of the ‘80s. Rosen recalls a childhood visit to his Orthodox Jewish great-grandfather, part of his family roots on the Lower East Side. In building “Red Square,” even as he lived in a penthouse of the oft-attacked Christodora residential tower, Rosen was a developer with deep community roots and a clear consciousness He worked with local artists on the interior décor as well as famed designer Tibor Kalman on the exterior of the building. Rosen today is an engaged proponent of neighborhood cultural organizations and is active in landmarking buildings and maintaining zoning restrictions.
Mary McCarthy’s story of her initiation and involvement with the free magazine Quality of Life in Loisaida complements Irizarry’s story of his career in community media. As the rough conditions of life and frequent macho confrontations throughout this book necessarily become the focus of interest, McCarthy reminds us of the rich texture of positive striving, altruism and achievement that marks the poor denizens of the Lower East Side. She notes in passing that the now-defunct Cuando community center had the first passive solar energy array in the United States. There oughta be a plaque over the new apartments now under construction there.
In the suavely titled “Land Without Lords,” jazz bassist and organizer William Parker talks with friends about his life. Parker moved to the Lower East Side in the mid-1970s - “There were a lot of interesting people doing interesting things…. sculptors, poets, walking around, carrying things, going from here to there.” He describes the process of homesteading his building with his young family. As a jazz musician, he played in many living rooms, squats, community centers, clubs - the many varied places that make up an artistic neighborhood, mostly gone today.
The final section of the book is devoted to the crisis of AIDS. For the Lower East Side this will always be about those who are no longer with us. The plague decimated the boldest among a generation of artists and performers, and went a long way to make contemporary culture anemic and academic. What got stronger by far, though, during the years AIDS raged in downtown New York was the culture of resistance.
Jay Blotcher’s vivid account of the life and death struggle of the infected and their allies in the organization ACT UP recalls the urgency of the era. The “charismatic, good-looking bunch of young queers” who found themselves on the front lines of a brilliantly coordinated campaign against government and medical establishments learned to form alliances with the poor people among whom they lived, alliances that have become increasingly key as the fronts of the fight against this disease have turned global. Today, in talking to newcomers to the neighborhood, Blotcher feels nostalgia for the passion of that period of activism - “How do you explain to an arriviste that hopelessness is sometimes the only thing that engenders hope?”
Jim Feast’s consideration of AIDS on the Lower East Side ties together the “planned shrinkage” program of withdrawing government services (documented in Deborah and Roderick Wallace’s work) with the spreading epidemic. The destruction of social networks as the area was degraded made the district an incubator for disease. It is easy to forget the cruelty of this moment, when public voices argued that those dying of AIDS - the drug-addicted and homosexual - deserved their fate.) Feast offers a picture of the ACT UP movement’s contribution to the structure of protest movements - direct democracy, surgically targeted protests, and a deeply informed membership. Some of these were characteristic of the squatters’ movement as well: “This was the period of the radical street expert.” Feast argues that lower Manhattan gave the world a new mode of “radical street combat” - “streets” in the case of ACT UP including the television studios of the information superhighway. (The thesis that the methods and ethics of AIDS activism seeded the new period of protests against global capitalism is at the heart of Benjamin Shepard and Ronald Hayduk’s anthology From ACT UP to the WTO, 2002.) Feast describes the needle exchange program in which injecting addicts were given clean “works” in an effort to stem a nexus of AIDS transmission. Opposed and retarded by government, including President Bill Clinton, activists took the job to the streets. When they were arrested, their defense was “necessity” - actions uindertaken to save lives.
Clayton Patterson’s anthology is a full dress treatment of the kind of subject that usually remains obscure. But for this book, much of the Lower East Side of the late 20th century would remain such a shadowland, known primarily to historians, artists and outlaws curious about their heritage. It would be as lost to the general public, Kenny Tolia observes, as the recently excavated Five Points, down in contemporary Chinatown, the real life scene of the film and much of the book Gangs of New York.
This book talks from all sides, in discourse that is activist, artistic, writerly, academic, sharply focused, wobbly and meandering. Finally an extraordinary picture of a signal period in American activism emerges, a fight for place as urban space for ethnic and working class communities and with them artistic bohemias disappears. This Lower East Side which has been so productive of poetry, music and art, so thriving with hard-luck social schemes of utopian intent, with this book has begun the task of true telling about itself.
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Monday, April 23rd 2007, 7:00PM
Patterson’s “Resistance: A Radical Political History of the Lower East Side” documents the lives and struggles of the radicals, artists and immigrants that populated and politicized one of America 80-99s strangest and most beloved neighborhoods. Join us for regaling first-person tales of the battles, triumphs, failures, and lives of this neighborhood. — http://www.friendsofbradwill.org
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NEW YORK BOOK OF THE WEEK
May 31—June 6, 2007 | Resistance: A Radical Social and Political History of the Lower East Side. — Edited by Clayton Patterson. 7 Stories Press. — This fat and appropriately hodgepodge collection of essays will appeal to most people who long for the Lower East Side’s golden age of low rents and scrappy radicalism. Thankfully, most contributors here aren’t peddling nostalgia, choosing instead to approach the neighborhood’s heady activism and lurching real-estate trends with sociological clarity. And the book has plenty of reminders that the L.E.S.’s bristly spirit existed long before the Tompkins Square riots of the late ’80s: One essay points out that the anarchist duo Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman first met at a Suffolk Street café in 1889. — Michael Miller — http://www.timeout.com/newyork
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Tuesday, June 26, 2007 at 6:00-8:00PM
Tenement Museum Visitors Center, 108 Orchard Street at Delancey
The New York Book Club at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and the Gotham Center for New York City History at CUNY invite you to join us for Resistance: A Radical History of the Lower East Side, a panel discussion with Jay Blotcher, Al Orensanz, Michael Rosen, and moderator Clayton Patterson
The Lower East Side experienced massive changes during the 1980s and 90s. The stories of activists, writers, artists, and residents who lived through it are collected in this new volume of essays, Resistance: A Radical Social and Political History of the Lower East Side.
As Jeff Ferrell writes in the book’s forward, “Clayton Patterson and the many contributors to Resistance document the hodgepodge of incendiary politics and interpersonal engagement that defined decades of New York’s Lower East Side. More to the point, they show us that for the Lower East Side at its best the people were the politics. Resistance swarms with the movement and emotion of the Lower East Side’s people, revealing a politics invented out of their daily battles with police, landlords, developers - sometimes even with each other. Reading the book, you feel like a flaneur, lost to the rhythms of the neighborhood streets and learning something new at every turn.”
Clayton Patterson, the book’s editor and our moderator for the evening, is an ex-teacher, photojournalist, and documentarian. In addition to Resistance, he also edited Captured: A Film/Video History of the Lower East Side. Panelists include Jay Blotcher, who has lived multiple lives as a collage artist, documentary filmmaker, journalist, AIDS activist, and publicist; Al Orensanz, former professor of sociology at the New School and NYU and current director of the Angel Orensanz Foundation for the Arts on the Lower East Side; and Michael Rosen, who has also lived multiple lives as an anthropology professor, developer, community activist, and father to seven boys.
The New York Book Club has been created for those whose favorite subject is New York City. Every month it hosts free readings, discussions, and publication parties for books that explore New York’s history and its role in popular culture, the arts, and the world. Refreshments will be served. Please RSVP to bookclub(at) tenement.org
Kate Stober, book events manager, Lower East Side Tenement Museum, 108 Orchard Str., NYC 10002
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REVIEW by Sewell Chan | City Room Blogs, New York Times, June 27th, 2007
Once Upon a Radical Time on the Lower East Side.
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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