Seth Tobocman, Sept. 18-Oct. 31, 1998, at Exit Art/The First World, 548 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10012.
The Lower East Side has been one of the world's premiere bohemian districts since the Second World War. The excitement of the neighborhood arose from a rich compost of immigrant and working class presences, historical figures and movements of both political and cultural importance.
This long-time urban identity has now been mostly shed. Like Greenwich Village in the 1930s, the "East Village" (so named in the 1960s) has entered a new phase. Now it is a diverse, colorful district for shoppers, students, young families and professionals in creative industries. This urban transformation from a slum slated for clearance in the '60s to a highly desirable neighborhood in the '90s did not happen without a certain amount of pain on the part of those who originally lived there.
Seth Tobocman's installation of images from his forthcoming graphic novel War in the Neighborhood displays this pain from the point of view of the "bottoms" in a sadistic exercise of governmental power. Installed as over-sized wall paintings with accompanying works on paper, this is the story of the destruction of the squatter movement by the New York City police.
The installation in Exit Art's large front gallery is formally wise. Panels from Tobocman's book have been made into murals, an effort which evokes Diego Rivera. Painting a graphic novel onto the wall is done, not so that illiterate people can read it, but so people will pay attention to what has been done and what has been lost, extirpated from the city.
In telling the tale of the disparate groups of young people who lived in abandoned city-owned properties in the 1970s and '80s, Tobocman leans on a long tradition of propaganda art. In the graphic poster tradition of the left, his masterful black and white evokes the smell of moldering tenements, and people in the shadows of ruined hallways that I remember from visits on 13th Street. The emotional climate of interactions conditioned by extremes -- a stinky mix of paranoia and elation, stirred together with daily life -- is evoked through graphics of fierce contrast and savage caricature, followed by fully shaded panels inset with touching portraits.
These characters are not shown as revolutionary saints. War… tells of spies, traitors, drug addicts and the chronically enraged among the squatters. It is a richly human story, one which perhaps may only be told now that the "war" has been lost.
Tobocman's 300-page book (forthcoming from Autonomedia) covers 10 years of this struggle by the militant homeless. Incidents of police beatings and torture, and street fights between "Jersey goons" and "rads," are intercut with surreal apocalyptic visions of destructive transformation. Much of the action revolves around Tompkins Square Park and the squatted buildings nearby, as in the story of the park's "Tent City" encampment of homeless and the razing of the band shell built in the 1960s. Mayor Dinkins is harshly depicted as a turncoat, as are other local Democratic politicians like Miriam Friedlander and Bill Lynch.
These mainstream villains are counter-weighted by modern warriors and heroes. Among them is the elderly poet Jorge Brandon, "El Coco Que Habla," the bearded prophet of the Nuyorican movement in poetry and drama. The final years of this follower of Pedro Albizu Campos were spent among the homeless.
Tobocman grinds his axes well, but War… is far from humorless. A man gets a political lecture from his dog, and a heroic radical resister of police eviction speaks with a bomb-head, its fuse aflame. Most touching to me are the views from inside, sympathetic profiles of individuals, and meetings of squatters where "house rules" were determined. Tobocman pays close, intelligent attention to the process of "socialist construction," the emergence of a fleeting utopian order in New York City just as the lights go out on communist societies in Europe.
On the scale of magnificent brutalities this century has seen, this late-in-the-day struggle to evict people from their homes, this continuous pressure on the homeless in a wealthy city, is relatively trivial. Few deaths resulted. The people pushed aside were largely marginal, voiceless, people afflicted by crime and poverty. They will be easily forgotten.
But this is not just "human interest," or an instructive tale of the lower depths. Tobocman never fails to draw the larger implications from this struggle -- the war of the rich upon the poor, and the profoundly uncaring nature of the world's most prosperous society towards those who aren't sharing in the pie. War in the Neighborhood is his stirring bid to insert this story into the long annals of popular resistance to oppressive government.