By the 1960s, the neighborhood took on its bohemian title: the East Village, home to Beats, hippies and no wave bands, to Allen Ginsberg, W.H. Auden, Abbie Hoffman, Fillmore East and the Poetry Project, to graffiti artists — and, in recent years, to droves of New York University students.
It used to be simply the northeast quadrant of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where, to repurpose a phrase by another former resident, William S. Burroughs, layers of history are “wrapped around each other like hibernating rattlesnakes.”
During the 17th century Lenape settlements gave way to Dutch plantations. By the 1830s, the Georgian-style St. Marks Church in-the-Bowery, which took on a Greek Revival spire and cast-iron portico, had risen on a piece of Peter Stuyvesant’s former estate. New York society moved into Federal rowhouses along streets like St. Marks Place. James Fenimore Cooper lived in the one that used to be No. 6. Then tenements joined mansions as waves of German, Jewish, Ukrainian and Polish immigrants arrived, followed, after World War II, by artists, drifters and dreamers.
This is the latest in a series of (edited, condensed) walks around town. The writer and artist Luc Sante is the author of “Low Life,” about the seamy underside of bygone New York, and “The Other Paris,” an alternative history of the French capital. He lived and worked for years in the East Village, although, as a matter of principle, he still calls it the Lower East Side. He writes about his experiences in a new collection, “Maybe the People Would Be the Times.”
“The past is always in flux,” Mr. Sante writes in the Paris book, “as a dynamic undercurrent — in the slope of hills, shape of streets, breadth of squares.” So, too, the past in the East Village, whose streets and architecture, like those throughout the rest of New York, are more than the outcome of blueprints, the arrangements of asphalt, bricks, steel and glass. They are products of collective imagination, containers of memory, moving objects.
Mr. Sante charted a kind of imaginary route for our walk, tracing ghosts in Astor Place, the Strand bookstore, what used to be CBGB, and Tompkins Square Park.
He suggested “meeting” at the corner of Third Avenue and St. Marks Place, the district’s de facto front door.
Michael Kimmelman When did you first come to the neighborhood?
Luc Sante September ’68. That’s when I started commuting from New Jersey to high school uptown. I would head down to St. Marks Place because it was the gravitational center of all that was groovy. These days I go to see friends and because, knock on wood, B & H is still around.
B & H Dairy, the East Village kosher dairy restaurant, 1940s lunch-counter culture.
I started eating there in the mid-70s when the counter was manned by a trio of insult comedians, true geniuses. B & H survives as a relic of the old Jewish Rialto, the Yiddish Theatre District, the world that was Second Avenue, generations before I arrived. That’s gone now but at least two theaters are still in existence, the Orpheum and the movie house on Second Avenue.
You’re talking about the Village East Cinema, at 12th Street, which used to be called the Yiddish, or Louis N. Jaffe Art Theatre, in Moorish Revival style, by Harrison Wiseman from the 1920s, with a Star of David in the lobby. The Orpheum is from the ’20s as well, I think.
There were also cafes like the Royal on 12th Street, and institutions like the Hebrew Actors’ Union. The theater district blossomed after the General Slocum disaster emptied out the neighborhood.
The city’s deadliest disaster until Sept. 11: General Slocum, a steamship, in 1904 caught fire and sank in the East River, killing more than 1,000 out of the nearly 1,400 passengers. Most were German-American women and children, congregants from the German Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. Mark on East Sixth Street, back when the area was Kleindeutschland.
The psychological toll was apparently so great that survivors packed up and moved to Yorkville on the Upper East Side. But there are still physical remains of the German neighborhood like the shooting society, the Free Library, the German Dispensary.
Now called the Ottendorfer Public Library and Stuyvesant Polyclinic Hospital, neighbors on Second Avenue, both designed by J. William Schickel during the 1880s. And the German-American Shooting Society at 12 St. Marks Place, from the same era, by William C. Frohne.
You arrived the year the Fillmore East opened in another former Yiddish theater, the Commodore, on Second Avenue.
For me, puberty was rock ’n’ roll and Ginsberg’s “Howl,” and the Lower East Side was the logical place to find that culture. When I arrived in the neighborhood, the contrast was palpable between newfangled hippie businesses, which had only been going on for five years at the most, and the older, working class businesses. You had hippie boutiques side by side with Ukrainian social clubs and Polish pork stores. Two streams of people intersected with one another’s reality but didn’t really interact.
Right. And so you had places like the Dom, the former Polish National Home, which became the Electric Circus.
On the north side of St. Marks Place, in what used to be called Arlington Hall before it turned into the Polish National Home, with a ballroom and community hall where a notorious shootout apparently took place between Jewish and Italian mobsters in the 1910s. Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey rented out the ballroom in the ’60s and turned it into the Electric Circus. The Velvet Underground was the house band.
Then it turned into a craft center where most of the neighborhood’s Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings took place.
I lived in an apartment between First Avenue and Avenue A, across the street from a Polish bar with a jukebox heavily laden with Bobby Vinton.
Because he was Polish-Lithuanian. This was around 1978. The neighborhood was pretty desolate then. I remember hanging out my window at night, hearing the jukebox and no other sound.
And it was dark. People don’t realize there were few cars or working streetlights in the neighborhood. I would sometimes linger at a bar on St. Marks where if you stayed late enough the owner would feed you Beefaroni. I remember sitting outside, drinking and eating my Beefaroni on a dark, empty street where the only streetlight was on the corner. It felt like a clandestine bar open after curfew.
Can I pull the camera back? I want to talk about Astor Place because Astor Place was psycho-geographically crucial in the old days. For people who only know what it’s like today, it was almost unrecognizable then, except for the subway entrance and the “Alamo.”
The spinning sculpture of a cube standing on point, by Tony Rosenthal, from the mid-60s. There was the Cooper Union’s great Foundation Building. That’s still there.
Right, but otherwise it can be hard to imagine the vast, howling emptiness of the place. Now you’ve got the Death Star at the top and that other glass tower at the bottom.
I think you mean 51 Astor Place, by Maki & Associates, an office building from 2016, sheathed in reflective black glass, and that bluish condo building called 26 Astor Place Tower by Charles Gwathmey, from a decade earlier. Incongruous is a polite word for its architecture. Maki’s building occupies what used to be the site of Bible House, which printed millions of bibles and, so I’ve always read, helped established the neighborhood as “Book Row.”
Bible House was long gone by the time I got there, when Astor Place felt like an open square, a zocalo. By the ’80s it became the site of an enormous wildcat 24/7 flea market. The cops claimed that everything on sale was stolen, but actually stolen goods were sold along Second Avenue after midnight. Astor Place had the impedimenta landlords left on the sidewalk after old tenants died. I found first editions, sensational photographs. A girlfriend wanted a medicine cabinet, preferably wooden and with a mirror, so I walked over to Astor Place and found 14 of them. I bought the best one for five bucks.
Sounds kind of wonderful.
The neighborhood was also reasonably dangerous. Some guy tried to rape my girlfriend one night in the hall of her building, but she got away. She lived on 10th Street near First Avenue next door to a little one-story theater run by a wild experimental actor/writer/director named Jeff Weiss. Every night you’d hear this racket coming from next door. Then at a certain hour — you could time it — Weiss would come barreling out the back door, which would mark the end of the play. Later the theater became the Fun Gallery — the first place to show Basquiat, Keith Haring, Fab 5 Freddy, Lady Pink. The gallery was started by Patti Astor.
The underground film star.
And there was Gem Spa —- may it rest in peace.
The beloved soda fountain/newsstand at the corner of Second Avenue and St. Marks.
I preferred the egg creams at Ray’s Candy Store on Avenue A, which is fortunately still around. I shopped at an Argentine grocery on Ninth Street and First Avenue that had baskets filled with fresh eggs. You would compose your own twelve-pack. My local video place was a dry cleaner’s called Kim’s, on Sixth Street, which kept rental videos in a corner, then became a famous video rental chain with a flagship store on St. Marks. The internet put Kim’s out of business. Somebody bought the inventory, which is now stored in a castle in Sicily.
It’s a cinder block warehouse on the edge of an obscure town called Salemi, but whatever.
And there was the St. Marks Cinema, which I think was still a first-run house when I moved down there but by the ’80s had become a dollar theater. You remember the dollar theaters? They had a gift for perverse double bills.
Fassbinder’s “The Marriage of Maria Braun” on a double bill with “Gremlins.” So you were earning enough to consume entertainment?
I worked at the Strand, which paid the rent. I was the paperback department all by myself. Effectively that meant not only did I deal with all the paperbacks, but when they’d buy a library they’d cull the hardcover books and leave me with whatever was left — photographs, postcards, playbills, business cards, ephemera that I use in my collages to this day. I also put out a magazine called Stranded, and most of the contributors were people who worked there.
What kind of magazine was it?
More visual than literary. It wasn’t edited, particularly.
I’m a little lost, time-wise. When were you publishing Stranded?
Late ’70s. I remember the years because I left copies of the magazine on consignment at the 8th Street Bookshop, which I think closed in 1979.
The 8th Street Bookshop gave me a substantial part of my education. But for me the original neighborhood joint was East Side Bookstore, truly of the Lower East Side, featuring underground comics, drug literature, chapbooks from the Poetry Project.
Run by James Rose and raided by cops from the Public Morals Squad in 1969. Apparently, the cops noticed R. Crumb’s Zap Comix No. 4 on sale, and a court found the store guilty of selling obscene literature.
East Side ran a weekly list of its best sellers in the Village Voice. About a third would be literature, a third would be left-wing politics, and a third would be occult woo-woo.
Mirroring neighborhood demographics?
Actually, on a demographic note: there were still quite a lot of old people around. They were the ones who refused to flee to the suburbs. I remember the St. Marks Bar & Grill, on the corner of First Avenue. It was all old men. I once described it in a letter to a friend: a third of the crowd was singing, a third was sleeping, and a third was fighting. Then the Rolling Stones staged a music video there, and it was curtains for the bar. It became a place I never entered again.
Is that the meta-story of the neighborhood?
No, but what was different back then is that we were a self-selected set of young people. We wanted to make things, and we grew tough hides. If your landlord decided not to pay the fuel bill, that was a passing hardship, but we were not living there to enjoy middle-class comforts. It was truly no sacrifice living in those conditions, because we had considered the possible alternatives.
You’re a nostalgist.
I’m just describing a moment that quickly passed. CBGB, for example. I started going in ’75 when the scene was still small and local. That lasted only a few years.
CBGB, on the Bowery, mecca of punk and no wave, home to Television, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, the Ramones.
And to people like Richard Hell and the Voidoids and the Contortions and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, conglomerations that included people I knew. At the beginning, standing on the sidewalk outside the club you’d feel like you were on an island or in a clearing in a forest at night — it was pitch-dark everywhere except for the cone of light coming from the club. But by ’79, ’80, it had already changed, like St. Marks Place, especially between Second and Third Avenues, which became a 24/7 fashion parade. The legend got around. Kids read about the neighborhood in magazines. The scene went from zero to 90 in an alarmingly short time.
You had wanted to walk to Tompkins Square Park, which brings us full circle, historically: gifted by the Stuyvesant family to the city, a military parade ground in the 19th century, site of various labor, antiwar protests and later a homeless riot, now Exhibit A for gentrification.
By the ’60s, when I arrived, it was contested terrain between hippies and the Young Lords, the Puerto Rican equivalent of the Black Panthers, who had their headquarters in Christodora House, facing the park where George Gershwin gave his first public recital.
Iconic brick Art Deco-style former settlement house by Henry C. Pelton, who also designed Riverside Church.
The hippies wanted to stage their loud guitar noodlings in Tompkins Square and the Young Lords wanted music that served their community, which meant salsa, and there were tussles. Of course the park was also a major center of drug activity. I remember walking through it and seeing rows of junkies nodding over bottles of orange soda. Then I was there for the riot in ’88.
Police clashed with squatters living in encampments.
I happened by, and stayed for hours. Homeless encampments have their historical roots in the park. The southeastern corner used to be famous on the hobo circuit. By ’88, the park had become a shantytown, which was not popular with local residents. But the cops overreacted wildly — they rioted. I remember police helicopters flying so low that the backwash from the rotors picked up garbage from the trash baskets, which spiraled up into the air.
Tornados of trash.
And just as I was starting to walk back home at 4 a.m., a cop grabbed my shirt and dragged me a dozen feet along the asphalt, shredding my clothes.
The riots were ultimately about gentrification.
Not everyone called it that then. Living in the neighborhood now is safer, shinier, duller. Back then it was like camping out amid the ruins of multiple pasts.