Volume 75, Number 48 | April 19 - 25 2006

A Salute To Volunteers

A special Villager supplement

Above and on opposite page, some of Seth Tobocman’s cartoon art from New Orleans.

Squatter cartoonist sees parallels with New Orleans

By Chad Smith

Seth Tobocman can’t ignore the problems that many people wish away.

When the East Village artist saw the images of disaster emerging from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, he traveled there a few months later to help.

“Why did I go? Because it was the right thing to do,” he said.

While there this January, Tobocman, who championed squatters’ rights in the East Village during the late 1980s and early ’90s, hooked up with Common Ground Collective, a grassroots relief group in New Orleans. The group offered medical attention or aid to anyone they could, especially to people in the ravaged, and already destitute, Ninth Ward.

“At first, I did basic labor, like bleaching and cutting wood, trying to help out any way I could,” said Tobocman, 46, a tall man with serious eyes and unruly, long, black hair. “Later on, though, about 30 Common Ground volunteers and I went down to the Ninth Ward to help rebuild people’s homes.”

As he had done years earlier, living as a squatter in the East Village, Tobocman found inspiration in devastation. (He documented his squatter experiences in a graphic novel called ‘’War in the Neighborhood,’’ published in 2000.)

In New Orleans, Tobocman drew up pages of comics with black and white images that tell a story that’s both stark and expressive. Captions accompany the images in the comics, attempting to depict the type of injustice and neglect suffered by many in New Orleans.

“The officials in New Orleans were going to let the bottom [economic class] fall. They’d wipe out a whole community that they found burdensome,” said Tobocman, referring to the state’s plans to bulldoze homes in New Orleans that were supposedly contaminated, an action that many thought was unethical. “After they cleared the rubble away, the land would be developed commercially and the city would call it ‘gentrification.’ ”

After returning to New York from his trip, Tobocman decided he wanted to do more. At the Sixth St. Community Center, he, along with some neighborhood friends, created the Loisaida-New Orleans Caravan, a group of about 20 individuals who travel down to New Orleans and volunteer in the rebuilding.

Born in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, Tobocman moved to the city at 17, where he said he developed politically. Among other projects, Tobocman has drawn and edited for an ongoing comic book called “World War III Illustrated,” which has dealt with issues such as the Tompkins Square Riot of 1988 and the destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11.

Still, many of the themes in Tobocman’s illustrations center on the relationships people have with their environments. People shouldn’t be uprooted because they’re underprivileged, he believes — it’s the common thread between the New York of the late ’80s and the New Orleans of today.

“In both cases you have injustice,” Tobocman said. “There was injustice on the Lower East Side, which was my environment and I felt I owed it something. I also felt that I owed New Orleans something, because, in a broader sense, it’s my environment, too.”

The relief caravan is accepting contributions, which can be sent to: Sixth St. Community Center, 638 E. Sixth St., N.Y., N.Y. 10009, Attn: Loisaida-New Orleans Caravan.

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