Two weeks ago I was in the East Village, walking along St. Marks between Avenue A and 1st. It was a part of town I haven't spent much time in in recent years. Ahead I saw a guy doing some sort of work at the base of a lamppost. He was a little more grizzled than I remembered, but I recognized him. It was Jim Power, now known
I thought, wow, old Jim, a man out of his time (not any more grizzled than me, but still...). In my mind, he was a representative of the '80s East Village, when the neighborhood was poor, run down, often politically radical, and in turmoil. He remembered me, of course. When I was doing my Real Life Funnies comic strips in the Village Voice, I created a two-part series on him and his mosaic dream. We talked for a few minutes and even had our picture taken.
The encounter got me thinking of those days. I'd been drawn to the squatter movement in the East Village, and as a Voice reporter/cartoonist, wanted to document the goings-on. Landlords were abandoning decaying buildings, the city was warehousing them, and squatters were illegally occupying them.
Here is my strip 'Change of Heart.' It's the story of a squatter—a homeless man with whom i'd become friendly, and his battle with crack addiction—and his attempt at suicide, followed by the very mixed reaction of his fellow squatters.
At the same time, more and more homeless were living in Tompkins Square Park. Together, the squatters, the homeless, artists and musicians, the drug-addled, and all manner of political radicals and local affordable housing activists were pushing back against the city's attempts to turn the neighborhood over to real estate interests. It was a combustible mix, full of humanity, greed, righteous anger, opportunism, politics, official blindness, and violence. Here's my strip on a clash that targeted the new and expensive Christodora condos, a symbol of gentrification just across Avenue B from the park.
I tried to be objective in my strips—an equal opportunity non-ideologue—but my sympathies were with those opposing the city's policies and strong-arm tactics.
In time, the gentrifiers won, as they usually do in New York, and the East Village has become a sanitized version of its former self: decay and grunge are fashion statements. Ethnic food shops advertise gluten-free-organic-locally-sourced ingredients. New Glass fronted apartment structures incongruously shoulder their way between ancient tenement buildings. Streams of NYU students and tourists flow this way and that, Tompkins Park has traded live-in refrigerator boxes for strollers and kids' playground equipment...and I remember my first drawing of a very different Tompkins Park. It was a birds-eye view showing where the various and many groups had staked their claims.
As I left him, Jim handed me a flyer and told me to check out his website. Somehow the idea of Jim with a website didn't compute, but, as it turned out, that was my problem, not his. He may look like an aging hippie whose day has passed, but apparently, like the East Village itself, he's simply moved with the times. Jim and his mosaic trail have been transformed into a touristy art experience in the new East Village. When i got home I went deep into the closet and found the two strips i'd done on him.