Squatters’ Fights: Crackheads and Gentrification in the LES


Set in 1982 on the Lower East Side, where a motley band of squatters endeavor to convert their dilapidated tenement into a co-op, Kill the Poor is in every sense anti-Rent.

French stripper Annabelle (Clara Bellar) asks shy nebbish Joe (David Krumholtz) to marry her so she can get a green card. Joe’s sourpuss uncle (Cliff Gorman), who owns the newsstand where Joe works, hardly approves of this sham marriage, but Joe’s lone concern is whether he gets “to go on a honeymoon.” When love and pregnancy follow, the newlyweds search the classifieds for a nice place that they can afford. Even in 1982, affordable in Manhattan means a fledgling cooperative where the residents take turns sleeping in the basement to ward off crackheads.

The corporation’s biggest nuisance, though, is the oldest tenant, Puerto Rican boxer Carlos De- Jesus (played with searing dignity by Paul Calderon). Carlos refuses to pay a dime for his apartment, having spent years protecting the building from addicts and dealers. When Carlos permits his hostile teenage son to terrorize the neighbors, they demand that Joe, who they’ve elected board president, evict them both: “You build a home, you put someone out. That’s the American way.”

Adapted by Daniel Handler, a/k/a Lemony Snicket, from Joel Rose’s novel, Kill the Poor is a series of unfortunate events, in particular the arson around which the elliptical narrative revolves. Snickety touches (orphans, suspicious fires) and running gags abound, including one about stories that have no point. Which this one resoundingly does. Shot on a modest DV budget, Kill the Poor isn’t pretty, but it’s a balanced look at the dirty politics of gentrification. Joe’s gradual moral confusion over what to do about Carlos matches his subtle transformation from kindly nerd to wannabe hipster. After Joe takes to strutting around ironically in a ratty pimp coat, he worries aloud whether joining the bourgeoisie has corrupted him. “Does it make me look too . . . ?”