Review: Dan Chodorkoff's Loisaida


Education of a Radical

My favorite parts of Dan Chodorkoff’s debut novel are the scenes in the squat.  The young bohemians who find affordable housing there have no running water and draw electricity from an extension cord running from an outdoor lamppost. Plugged into it are the hot plate on which they cook and the space heater that takes the chill off the leak-spattered room.  Milk crates are their furniture, and they dumpster-dive for everything else.  When they get angry, they write graffiti with spray cans on walls, and circle letter A’s, while muttering “Die, yuppie scum.”  The Lower East Side of Manhattan has been home to radicals, immigrant and domestic, socialist and anarchist, for generations; these mid-1980s squatters are among the more recent.  Not that they really know what they mean by anarchism: “it was more a feeling than anything else,” the narrator tells us.

The rest of the neighborhood is mostly Spanish:  hence Loisaida, the gorgeous Spanglish rendition of “Lower East Side.”  In the 1970s the New York City government abandoned the neighborhood, steeped as it was in poverty and rebellious olive-skinned people; banks red-lined it—that is, they refused to make loans there.  Among the bodegas and botanicas a creative Puerto Rican community organization called CHARAS took matters into its own hands:  it used sweat equity to renovate abandoned, burnt-out buildings into community centers, cultural centers, recycling centers—it even experimented with alternative technology, and turned rubble-strewn vacant lots into community gardens.

Much as in real life CHARAS transformed Loisaida, in the novel an unnamed Puerto Rican group renovated an elementary school into a community and cultural center called La Cabana (based on real-life El Bohio).  Their principal figure is former gang member Chico Santiago (based on real-life former gang member Chino Garcia, of CHARAS).  Chico and his group are anarchist in practice if not in theory, self-managing the community without government “assistance.”   Eighteen years ago they transformed a vacant lot into El Jardín, now a pastorale with willow trees, cast-iron benches, an amphitheater, and local-artist-painted murals on the surrounding walls.

But by the mid-1980 Loisiada has become valuable real estate—and gentrification is under way.  The once-abandoned terrain is now coveted by developers.  The villain of Loisaida is José Rolón, who embodies most of the community’s plagues:  corrupt city government (he is its city councilor), gentrification (he is a developer), drugs (they are a source of wealth for him), and violence (he hires perpetrators as needed). He is determined to build a 500-unit high-rise apartment tower—exactly on the site of El Jardín.  Controlling all the major reins of power, his will will be done; to overcome pesky residents’ objections, he manipulates them to create doubt and division.  If deceit fails, threats will work: “I’d watch my back if I were you,” he tells a priest who objects to his plans.

In his earlier incarnation as an anthropologist in the 1970s, Dan Chodorkoff studied the real-life CHARAS and its creative response to the Lower East Side’s political and financial abandonment. As director of the Institute for Social Ecology for several decades, both in Vermont and in New York, he got to know young anarchists very well. (Full disclosure:  Dan is a friend of mine.) Now he has turned his decades of experience into a colorful political novel—and we have no doubt where his sympathies lie.
The polar opposite of the evil developer is Sonia, the anarchist revolutionary, now in her last months of life.  A Jewish immigrant from the Russian Pale, her Lower East Side featured kosher butchers, bagels, and pastrami; her anarchism extended to a cooperative agrarian community in Michigan.  We learn her story from an oral history and from the recollections she imparts to her great-granddaughter. She is a beloved zaide, for she preserved and embodied the anarchist dream:  “I always spoke my mind.  The bosses could never intimidate me.”  When she dies, her fellow anarchists celebrate her as a saint. In death as in life, she hovers over the younger people like the spirit of anarchism past.

Between the polar opposites of Rolón and Sonia are the more conflicted (or confused, or complicated) characters.  Seventeen-year-old Catherine is the novel’s heroine: she has rebelled against her parents in affluent suburbia (“such fucking liberals”) and fled to anarchist bohemia.  Purple-haired and nose-ringed, she doesn’t care who she offends and is ignorant of anarchism, indeed seems unaware of social issues, history, and ideas generally.  A denizen of the squat, she deftly makes breakfast for her boyfriend on the hotplate; she works as a waitress, writing in her spare time for the anarchist newspaper Avalanche.  Troubled and inchoate, driven by raw anger, she lacks the vocabulary to articulate critiques of the many injustices around her or to express high-minded thoughts.  Her sympathy is as visceral as her fury, almost matters of stimulus and response: the sight of poverty makes her cry, while personal setbacks fire her to lash out.

Setbacks are plentiful now. Above all she stands to lose El Jardín—a setback because it was “where she and Mike hooked up.” The fight to save the garden, and the squat, takes of most of the novel:  along the way she learns to channel her anger constructively, so that she becomes a political actor.  She lashes out at Rolón—and turns out to be both fearless and effective.  Instead of offending everyone, she learns to choose her allies properly.  Political affiliations can be deceptive: a self-proclaimed anarchist turns out to be a liability.  Raven, a forty-something loudmouth who controls the newspaper Avalanche, harbors fantasies of leading “The Shining Path of the Lower East Side,” which will be the vanguard of “people’s revenge.” “After the revolution,” he says, “we’ll line ‘m up against the wall and …”  He is a walking self-contradiction: the anarchist bully.  Catherine  organizes a rebellion against this delusional would-be dictator and learns to find stable, credible collaborators in Chico and his community.

As part of her coming of age, Catherine learns anarchist history from her dying great-grandmother Sonia.  And she meets Jack Hoffman, a nasty and dyspeptic elder with anger-management issues like hers: he dismisses her as a spray-can anarchist, and she returns the dislike. Why is he like that?  she asks someone.  The explanation: Hoffman is a disappointed man.  Here too a first impression is misleading: Hoffman turns out to be an esteemed author of books on social ecology and a radical of long political experience.  Based loosely on Chodorkoff’s longtime friend Murray Bookchin, Hoffman becomes her teacher.

By the end of this Bildungsroman, Catherine has acquired all she needs to be a anarchist revolutionary:  she is equipped with determination, allies, history, journalistic skills, organizing ability, and a program of theoretical study.  Most important, she is the new bearer of  the “dream,” the vision of anarchism, passed on from generation to generation.  What will she do next with her top-flight radical education?  How will she, at seventeen, avoid a life of disappointment like Hoffman’s?  Perhaps another novel will tell us.  Or perhaps Chodorkoff will simply let this one stand, to help young radicals orient and construct themselves for the arduous life of political struggle.

— Janet Biehl


Review of Dan Chodorkoff, Loisaida.
Burlington, Vt.: Fomite, 2011. 
338 pages, US$14.95

You can buy the book here on Amazon