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Comic Book Depicts Lower East Side's Gritty Past

An excerpt from the comic Lower East Side Story
An excerpt from the comic Lower East Side Story
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Roland "Pete" Friedrich

LOWER EAST SIDE — The gritty history of the Lower East Side has inspired books, movies and television shows — and now it's inspired a comic book series for adults.

"Lower East Side Story," a recently-released graphic novel series, takes readers back to a time when crack cocaine was rampant, burnt-out cars lined the streets and a trip home meant passing through a gauntlet of gunfire.

"It was pretty much a war zone," said author and illustrator Roland "Pete" Friedrich, who lived in the neighborhood during the 1970s and 1980s.

"There were many blocks of gutted out buildings, burnt out buildings,” said Friedrich, 50, who now lives in Westchester. “People would burn out the buildings to turn them into [shooting] galleries."

A cover from the comic Lower East Side Story
A cover from the comic Lower East Side Story
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Roland "Pete" Friedrich

Friedrich, who lived in the area while studying at School of Visual Arts and Parsons The New School of Design, called on his memories of the area as well as interviews with residents, photographs from that time period and academic research to create his narrative of the neighborhood. 

The characters in the comic are based on real people he knew at the time. One of them is Dwight — an addiction-battling resident who has just been released from prison. Another character is Tony, a fellow student of Friedrich's, who lived on Stanton Street between Bowery flophouses where homeless people would gather for the night.

"If you could survive it, you could get an apartment for almost nothing," said Friedrich.

Instead of using computer programs, each page was hand drawn with the pen, ink and brushes before it was scanned.

"I am actually what is considered an old school artist," said Friedrich.

So far three issues of the six-part series have been released and are for sale for $4.75 each at local comic shops as well as online through its publisher Look Mom, Comics!. Each book contains 28 pages of the story.

In the next six months Friedrich hopes to release the series for iPads and digital readers with added features of interviews with real life characters from the time and historical photographs.

This has been a ten-year personal project for Friedrich, who also runs the company Page Turner, a graphic novel packaging company. The story first developed as one segment in a collection of other comics before Friedrich realized it could become its own novel.

Lower East Side Story explores the issues of the neighborhoods of the time such as interracial relationships that were still forbidden along with the devastating emergence of crack cocaine.

"It really tore the fabric of the neighborhood apart," said Friedrich. Crack cocaine, a refined version of standard cocaine, produced instant addicts in the neighborhood, according to Friedrich, changing it in a profound way.

While the old neighborhood might be long gone, Friedrich is still in touch with what remains — the people who lived there during the time.

"We still know those people today. It sticks," he said.