Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Out and About in the East Village

In this weekly feature, East Village-based photographer James Maher provides us with a quick snapshot of someone who lives and/or works in the East Village. James is traveling this week. East Village photographer Stacie Joy compiled today's post.

By Stacie Joy
Name: Seth Tobocman
Occupation: Comic book artist
Location: ABC No Rio, 156 Rivington Street
Date: Oct. 7, 2:53 pm

I grew up in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. I was born in Texas but really only lived there until I was 2 and have very little memory of it. My family are basically Clevelanders. Several generations back they migrated there, Jews from Poland. My grandfather did not want to live in Brooklyn because he would be forced to be Orthodox. He said “I did not come to America to live in Poland.” So he went to Cleveland where he had no family and no one could tell him what to do.

I moved to NYC in 1976, year of the bicentennial. I was initially a student at NYU and stayed in the dorms. I had an apartment in Greenwich Village for a short period of time, got thrown out of there and moved to the East Village in 1979. I moved to my East 3rd Street (near Avenue A) apartment, which was $150 a month in rent. I dropped out of college, had no money. I knew I wanted to be an artist but I wasn’t sure what kind. I was interested in underground filmmakers like Kenneth Anger but not interested in mainstream comics. I was uncertain what I wanted to do and it was cheap to live here.

Someone got stabbed in front of the building the day I moved in. We had a slumlord who put a cheap lock on the front door. A lock that neighborhood 12 year olds could break. There were many drug addicts. They would wait next to the mailboxes and when elderly people would get their checks, they would rob them.

Once I was jumped — someone held a wire around my neck but a neighbor came to my aid. Said he was a cop and had a gun and badge in his pocket, which was a lie. He scared off the guy trying to rob me.

We were in court for several years as the landlord tried to raise the rent. We went on rent strikes, and had a great tenants' union. The outcome of the time spent in court was that we became rent stabilized, which was terrific. A lot of the tenants were older folks who had been part of the antiwar movement and they were happy to have meetings again. We would meet in the hallway of the building. We all wanted an affordable place to live.

Back then it was a place to buy drugs. There were visible lines of people waiting to buy heroin. Kids were getting shot. There were abandoned buildings and a sense of neglect. People came here for their vices. To buy drugs, prostitutes. The stereotypical Alphabet City.

There were also places like CHARAS, the Nuyorican Poets Café and the community gardens — where people were working to change the neighborhood. There were ethnic restaurants, different languages being spoken ... and no chain stores.

I am proud to be part of a group that has stood for community ideals since 1980the magazine World War 3 Illustrated. We were comic book artists who wanted to make a difference. It started in 1979 as a response to the Iran-hostage crisis. The magazine is an all-volunteer, self-published collective, a sweat-equity co-op that still runs today. We were the first to support the squatters movement, we covered events like the MOVE bombing in Philadelphia and the Mumia Abu-Jamal trial. Issues that we were involved in, and local issues. You can buy the magazine at MoRUS, Bluestockings, Revolution Books and St. Mark’s Bookshop.

Favorite moments in the neighborhood? The time the squatters retook the East 13th Street squats. It was on July 4, 1995, and squatters reentered the buildings and hung huge banners from the fire escapes. Lots of people were returning to the area from watching the fireworks — all viewing the events unfold. The police totally overacted and stormed the buildings, but all the squatters had escaped already and the police found only an empty buildings. Classic.

I love that the demolition of the Umbrella House [on Avenue C] was stopped. Oh, and the fact that ABC No Rio is still standing. It’s a real accomplishment. And, I also had great sex in the middle of the night once with a British ballet dancer by the East River!


Anonymous said...

Good people from Cleveland. Nice story.

Laura Goggin Photography said...

There is so much I love about this interview! Thanks for introducing us to another smart and interesting neighbor.

editrrix said...

Really enjoyed this one. So nice hearing about our neighbors' stories from way back. Aces.

Anonymous said...

Seth Tobocman's art was such a huge part of my formative political education and such a huge part of what drew me from a rust belt burg to the city and eventually to the East Village (uh, sorry if I'm gentrifying it a little, but thanks, Seth). You Don't Have to Fuck People Over to Survive is pretty much the bumper sticker slogan for my value system.

Marty Wombacher said...

Loved this one, great NY stories!

IzF said...

I think all future "Out and About" features should end with sexcapade anecdotes.
Just sayin.

mac mcgill said...

...a great artist....and friend!....

Unknown said...

I share similar if not the exact same sentiments as Anonymous....

Seth and his art was a huge part of my formative political anti-cap education. I was late to being radicalized not till late 90's, then in my forties....I couldn't have had better teachers, friends and lovers all integral in my growth as a spiritual Activist -showing me what community is all about.

I love you MUCH Seth and I too have always believed...."You Don't Have to Fuck People Over to Survive" it is the bumper sticker slogan - and I need one for my bike!