The Making of Loisaida
Long fascinated by New York's Lower East Side, when I was seventeen I rented a ramshackle apartment on East Second street with a group of friends, and spent the "Summer of Love", (1967) hanging around Tomkins Square Park immersed in the hippie/leftist milieu. Later I met and became friendly with some of the old Yiddish anarchists who still lived in the neighborhood and frequented meetings of the Libertarian Book Club. I became fascinated by their lives. When it was time for my Doctoral studies in cultural anthropology I chose to write my dissertation about alternative technology and grassroots community development efforts in Loisaida, the Hispanic section of the neighborhood. In the 70's, community groups there were involved in sweat equity urban homesteading in abandoned buildings, experimenting with solar energy and wind power, and creating community gardens by reclaiming garbage strewn vacant lots. I spent 11 years working with Puerto Rican grassroots community development groups and my organization, the Institute for Social Ecology, provided technical and program planning assistance to a number of their projects. I immersed myself in their culture and forged strong friendships that persist today.
As a lifelong activist I was involved in variety of anarchist and ecological causes that we organized around on the Lower East Side; anti-war and anti-nuke groups, a publishing collective, and the New York Greens, which we started before the Greens became a political party. We always strived to bring together a diversity of cultures and ethnicities in our organizing, admittedly with mixed results.
I did not set out to write a novel, initially my plan was to write a historical/anthropological study of 100 years of anarchism on the Lower East Side. But while doing the research for that study I realized that the stories I heard deserved a telling that could reach a broader audience than that commanded by a scholarly work. Thus my novel, Loisaida, was born. The narrative draws on, though is not limited to, that research, my personal experiences as an activist, and stories from my Russian immigrant family. The Loisaida my characters inhabit is a fantasy; a fiction; a place of dreams.
The fictional characters I created allowed me to explore topical themes, like gentrification and community development; philosophical ideas, like Ernst Bloch's "Principle of Hope", and the role of memory (by which I mean personal history) and imagination (by which I mean utopian speculation) in creating social change. The neighborhood itself, in all of its' dynamism and decay, also emerged as a major character. What resulted is a coming of age story that focuses on Catherine, a 17 year old squatter who works on an underground paper and struggles with her boyfriend ,Mike; a family saga that tells the story of her great grandmother Sonia, an immigrant from Russia who was part of the Yiddish anarchist movement that flourished on the Lower East Side at the turn of the century; and a tale of urban politics that explores the alliance Catherine builds with a Puerto Rican group struggling to save a community garden from a developer. Together they confront the confluence of money, politics, and real estate that rule Manhattan.
My goal was to write an engaging, plot driven novel populated by compelling characters who could draw others into their fascinating, relevant, little-known world, and to explore ideas that have been important to me throughout my life. The reader will have to decide if I succeeded.