Message in a Bottle: Homesteaders Rock the Lower East Side

The Tompkins Square Riots

"There's a big difference between my generation and the '60s generation," Whalen said. "The '60s generation, regardless of how disillusioned they may have become, was raised with the idea that there was such a thing as leaders who acted on their behalf. That however many bad apples there might be, that the United States was an essentially good place, that government essentially served the interest of the people. My generation never believed those things. We grew up under Vietnam. We grew up under Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. I have lived my entire adult life under Ronald Reagan. He was elected the year I turned 19. So when I have a problem, I do not write my congressman. I call my lawyer. And if my lawyer can't do enough for me, if the court system doesn't defend me, I take it to the streets. And so do my neighbors, like we did Saturday night."

He struggles to render a Lower East Side uprising that crosses all barriers, but the Popular Front Raffle and Pierogi Sale he speaks of is only in his head. There weren't many blacks or Hispanics or Eastern Europeans organizing in the park.

If Whalen overestimates the punch of the current militance, there's suddenly a reminder that others, too, consider it significant. Whalen and I sat at 7A, at the southwest corner of Tompkins Square, when a beefy guy in his thirties, with a mustache, joins us. He asks if a permit has been secured for the action in the park last Saturday. He looks too much like a cop, hardly undercover in a T-shirt and McSorley's cap, to really be one. But then: who is he? "So does Rodriguez have the permit for Saturday?" Squatter activist Frank Morales was to line up one of the permits. After Whalen corrects his choice of surname, the guy asks if he can get in touch with Morales. A phone number, perhaps. Whalen takes a number instead and passes it on to Morales later in the afternoon. Even paranoids have enemies.

Like Whalen, Seth Tobocman is thin, and a tiny bit scary: he's maybe even more intense, his eyes veering off unexpectedly, it bugs you. Both collaborate on World War 3 Illustrated, a political graphic magazine. And both have no respect for Community Board 3, the official liaison between citizens and city. They seem to feel that there is no room on the Lower East Side for anything that's not low-income housing—everything else is the Christodora. "I used to be a defender of the community board. I used to say to the squatters, 'You've got to work with these people, they've got a base.' I was wrong. . . .Their job is to strike compromises with the city government on housing." Whalen and Tobocman's goal is a community board that's elected by the community.

The neighborhood is an open hydrant of conspiracy circuits, kitchen table cabals, art posses, and covert gangs doing things they don't want you to know about. Some of them have made their presence felt in the park. The Lower East Side Combat Artists and Performing Engineers is instructive here. It's a small group of mechanics, construction engineers, writers, plumbers, and bike messengers. To join, a member says, you need $1000 worth of tools and a black leather jacket. If your landlord padlocks the door because you haven't paid the rent, they might use an oxyacetylene torch to cut the lock off. When the city smashes the renovations a homesteading group has made on a building, they might enter and make repairs. The engineers recently resurfaced. A member told friends in the park to "wear black, and a black beret" last Saturday, "and bring a handkerchief soaked in vinegar, and vaseline—they're good to have if you get teargassed. And bring a catcher's mitt. In the '60s they used to catch tear-gas canisters and throw them back at the police."

A bigger role, maybe even a decisive one, was played by what the Post called "a shadowy organization," the band Missing Foundation. If you've been below 14th Street, you know Missing Foundation from their graffiti: "1988 = 1933"; "your home is mine"; "$1500 Rent." And, of course, the upside-down cocktail glass that outnumbers trees or crackhouses on the Lower East Side. The Graffiti started appearing a few years ago on buildings where punk rock luminaries lived, painted on sidewalks, scratched into windows. Missing Foundation members proudly describe it as "property devaluation."

But the band is about a whole lot more than that. Their January show at CBGB was an anomaly in one way: it was at an established venue. Far more often, MF just show up and play, in Tompkins Square Park, squat lofts, rubble lots, street corners. They tore CBGB apart, the band and many of its followers banging on scrap metal with lead bars, smashing tables and sound equipment. Behind us in the audience, firecrackers exploded, while the drummer set his kit on fire and tossed it into the audience. At a more recent gig in a Fourth Street storefront, singer Peter Missing came out wearing a motorcycle helmet and a wrestling mask. He rammed people back, all the way out the door, while the metal brigade smashed on every surface.

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