The third chapter in the A Contract With God Trilogy, Will Eisner’ Dropsie Avenue: The Neighborhood lacks the personal touch seen in the saga’s first two installments. Instead, the graphic novel is a series of events that occur over several decades in one neighborhood of New York City. The result is a meditation on changing demographics and race relations that remains relevant as the world becomes more and more politicized.
Dropsie Avenue begins at the start of the colonization of America, with farmland in what would become the South Bronx. From there, Eisner takes readers on a journey through the ages, with changing demographics and social statuses. Though it details the decline of the neighborhood over time, what is the most striking is that much of what occurs throughout the 160-plus pages is very cyclical in nature. What begins as a farming community becomes an alcove for the affluent, and then a working-class neighborhood, a slum, and eventually a vacant, burned-down section of the Bronx. Readers also experience changing racial demographics, an element of the novel which is especially relevant today.
It is nearly impossible to look at today’s news cycle and not see a headline related to immigration. No matter which end of the political spectrum you land, it is evident that the topic of immigration inevitably results in some form of fear-mongering. It’s easy for agenda-pushers to do. After all, it is human nature to fearful of the unknown and “others.” Those seeking refuge from Latino and Muslim-majority nations are easy to point at in fear because, for many (especially white people) they look different and have different customs. Eisner’s work highlights that this isn’t new for America. That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone with a middle-school education. But it may come as a surprise that the fear of others is as much a part of the country’s foundation as Betsy Ross’s flag.
Here is a brief summary of changing demographics found in Dropsie Avenue. Beginning with English and German settlers in New Amsterdam, Eisner shows us the origin for the neighborhood name. Eventually, Irish settlers move in, to the disdain of the current residents. Eventually, Italians immigrate, and the neighbors complain about the constant smell of garlic but come to admire their hospitality. A Jewish community springs forth, and shackles are broken with the community celebrating an inter-faith marriage. Eventually, Latinos and blacks move in too, resulting in a cultural melting pot that acts as a microcosm of New York City as a whole.
Throughout the book, Eisner does not shy away from the tension that each cultural addition to the neighborhood brings. Though he shows restraint in avoiding foul language, the cultural conflicts are full of vitriol. People are mugged, homes are broken into, and passersby are gunned down. Yes, history does repeat itself, especially if people are willfully blind to it. But those that open their eyes can see that peace is eventually found, and the hatred and animosity are not worthwhile in the end. That’s a lesson worth taking away from this.
Eisner does not shy away from the corrupting influence power can have either. While it is easy to point to the changing demographics as the cause for the neighborhood’s decline (and ultimately, demise), Eisner is quick to point out throughout the book that those in power are the true culprits. Masked by promises of job creation and scarcity of resources, the people of Dropsie Avenue are squeezed into slums, scraping by each day as wealthy accumulate more wealth. It is unsettling to see how much of this is relatable today, as the divide wealth inequality continues to grow.
The manner in which Eisner tells the history of Dropsie Avenue is what makes it such an effective and impactful work. It is a collection of vignettes, each only a few pages in length, which seamlessly transition from one into another. Even though readers aren’t afforded a chance to spend much time with each character, they all read as real people that may have existed at one point. There are no caricatures, big-chested heroes, or mustache-twirling villains to be found. Every person is their own piece of fabric, and as each new one is introduced they are woven into the fabric that is the history of the neighborhood. Dropsie Avenue might not have the name recognition of Eisner’s other works, but it is arguably his crowning achievement.